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Monday, January 14, 2019

With Friends like These

From the Bookshelf Dept.: Thomas Berger’s penultimate novel, Best Friends, again visited the realm of domestic treachery previously limned in such titles as Sneaky People, Neighbors, Meeting Evil, and The Feud. You should have no trouble finding a copy – Berger’s books remain in print, as they should. Here’s my review.


ROY AND SAM ARE SUCH CLOSE FRIENDS that each has learned to live with the peccadillos of the other, although Roy is beginning to question his tolerance. With a bond that stretches back to childhood, the title characters of Best Friends exemplify the kind of pairing characteristic of Thomas Berger’s fiction – and deftly analyzed in a recent Voice Literary Supplement essay by Jonathan Lethem.

This duality was found in single characters like Little Big Man’s Jack Crabb, shuttling between his upbringings as a white man and as an Indian, and the psychotic Joe Detweiler in Killing Time; in the identity swap of Earl Keese with his new neighbors Harry and Ramona (Neighbors), and in the protagonist’s permutations in Being Invisible and Changing the Past, in which each re-imagining is sparked by a wish to change as much as a need to bridge that gap to an existing ideal.

Given Berger’s fiendish sense of humor – a quality that too often prompts the unwary reader to label him a comic author – it was inevitable that he should present the most awful aspects of a man’s other side as a murderous but charming fellow in the dark-as-night novel Meeting Evil. Best Friends is another meditation on that theme, but here it becomes a mystery story as Roy struggles to understand the nature of his friendship with Sam when the latter is suddenly hospitalized.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Haute Rustique

From the Food Vault Dept.: The Lake Placid Lodge I visited in 1996 is not the place you’ll visit now. The property has continued to develop and improve, but it remains one of the very finest destinations in the Adirondacks. Here’s a 32-year-old glimpse of the place.


STEVEN GILES IS YOUNG AND AMBITIOUS. The London-born chef looks like Charlie Sheen, although Giles probably considers that it’s he whom Sheen resembles. Which is exactly the right attitude to have when you’re professionally engaged in high-profile cookery.

Giles has been executive chef at the Lake Placid Lodge for four months, brought from the San Ysidro Ranch in Santa Barbara. As a Relais & Chateaux property, the Ranch adheres to extremely high standards; the Lake Placid Lodge takes its place among that rarefied company next year, and Giles’ work deserves all the recognition it can get as a vital component of the Lodge’s success.

My wife and I spent a couple of days there recently in order to meet the chef and sample his wares. Mild thunder and an attractive lightning show played over the mountains across the lake as we arrived, and we had an even better show of it during dinner on the open-air porch. It was an unexpectedly romantic accompaniment to our first night’s dinner--not to mention a farewell to the spring menu.

Monday, January 07, 2019

Sound of the Silenced

From the Vault Dept.: How loyal are you to your country? That was the nasty little question essentially asked of balladeer Richard Dyer-Bennet in 1953 when he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He had been named as a putative Communist by Burl Ives when Ives sang like a canary before HUAC, but Dyer-Bennet agreed to testify only if Telford Taylor, who was an attorney at the Nuremberg Trials (and a friend of Dyer-Bennet), could represent him. HUAC declined. Dyer-Bennet was blacklisted. He’d had a successful performing career up until then, and was able to continue at a very few sympathetic venues like the Village Vanguard. But he also took the opportunity to start his own record label, issuing discs he recorded in his own living room. They were meant to promote his concert appearances; they were haphazardly distributed; yet the initial volume sold like crazy. Twenty years ago, Smithsonian-Folkways issued that album on compact disc, and has since made all of the Dyer-Bennet recordings available. Here’s my long-ago take on the first volume.


RICHARD DYER-BENNET’S APPROACH TO FOLKSONGS is about as far as you can get from the cragginess of field recordings without sounding like a slumming opera star. He was a unique and very stylistic singer who stuck to his guns in the way he arranged and performed the songs he enjoyed, so it was only natural that he should found his own record label to preserve the integrity of his performances.

It was a timely move. Dyer-Bennet resisted the House Un-American Activities Committee’s attempt to railroad him into naming names, thus ending his access to most commercial outlets as the 1950s got underway..

The 15 recordings that appeared under his name were released by arrangement with Folkways beginning in 1955. They’re now available through Smithsonian Folkways, and the first volume absolutely vindicates Dyer-Bennet’s approach to traditional songs. Unique as he sounds, the songs are about the songs, not the voice, but only because the voice is so well used that it’s practically transparent.

Friday, January 04, 2019

The Root of the Meal

From the Food Vault Dept.: It’s the time of year to celebrate the tubers and such, so I dug up this piece I wrote nearly fifteen years ago for the long-gone Metroland magazine.


ALL THAT GLITTERS does not grow above ground. It’s funny, in a way, that they’re called root vegetables, because they form so much of the foundation of a holiday meal. In some cases, it’s the only time you see some manner of rutabaga and turnip and beet on the table—but don’t forget that onions and garlic, carrots and potatoes are part of this family as well.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
They’re the character actors of the dinner table. You may marvel at the flashy antics of the short-season stars, the lettuce and beans and even those first mustardy broccoli florets, but those wan, tough tubers are there for you meal after meal and never let you down.

This year’s Thanksgiving dinner at my house will feature a roasted beet salad with tarragon and chives, a tri-color casserole that alternates carrot and parsnip purées with a green column of peas for contrast, sweet potato pie and some manner of rutabaga because I feel obliged every year to figure out some way to make it toothsome.

Most of the veggies in question respond nicely to a preparation you already know well: boil chunks of them until tender, then mash them with butter, salt and pepper.

Monday, December 31, 2018

How to Sell Goods

Guest Blogger Dept.: I was delighted to spend time recently with Nat Benchley, grandson of the humorist whose work I revere, and to discover that (among his many varied talents and interests) Nat strives to keep his grandfather’s legacy alive, and abetted that cause by issuing two CDs that collect nearly two dozen stories in Nat’s very effective readings. So as not to compete, the story below is not among them.


THE RETAIL MERCHANTS’ ASSOCIATION ought to buy up all the copies of “Elements of Retail Salesmanship,” by Paul Westley Ivey (Macmillan), and not let a single one get into the hands of a customer, for once the buying public reads what is written there the game is up. It tells all about how to sell goods to people, how to appeal to their weaknesses, how to exert subtle influences which will win them over in spite of themselves. Houdini might as well issue a pamphlet giving in detail his methods of escape as for the merchants of this country to let this book remain in circulation.

"They intimate that I had better take my
few pennies and run 'round the corner
to some little haberdashery."
Drawing by Gluyas Williams
The art of salesmanship is founded, according to Mr. Ivey, on, first, a thorough knowledge of the goods which are to be sold, and second, a knowledge of the customer. By knowing the customer you know what line of argument will most appeal to him. There are several lines in popular use. First is the appeal to the instinct of self-preservation—i.e., social self-preservation. The customer is made to feel that in order to preserve her social standing she must buy the article in question. “She must be made to feel what a disparaged social self would mean to her mental comfort.”

It is reassuring to know that it is a recognized ruse on the part of the salesman to intimate that unless you buy a particular article you will have to totter through life branded as the arch-piker. I have always taken this attitude of the clerks perfectly seriously. In fact, I have worried quite a bit about it.

In the store where I am allowed to buy my clothes it is quite the thing among the salesmen to see which one of them can degrade me most. They intimate that, while they have no legal means of refusing to sell their goods to me, it really would be much more in keeping with things if I were to take the few pennies that I have at my disposal and run around the corner to some little haberdashery for my shirts and ties. Every time I come out from that store I feel like Ethel Barrymore in “Déclassée.” Much worse, in fact, for I haven’t any good looks to fall back upon.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Diva Farewell

From the Classical Vault Dept.: Eleven years ago, soprano Kiri Te Kanawa bid farewell to the performing stage with a tour that stopped in Schenectady, and which I was pleased to report on in the piece below.


FIRST SHE COMPLETELY DISARMED US. Regally striding onto the stage, looking gorgeous in a full-length black sequined dress, soprano Kiri Te Kanawa spoke to the Proctor’s audience before her first number. In a friendly, intimate voice that nevertheless filled the hall, she spoke briefly about this stop on her farewell tour—“My first and last visit to Schenectady”—and her desire to make this concert the best of them all.

Kiri Te Kanawa
And then, just as serenely, she blew us away with a recital of well-chosen songs, a repertory of lesser-heard numbers that suited her voice magnificently.

A curiosity by Mozart opened the program. One of his final works, it’s a brief cantata written for the Masons, which he had recently joined. And it was a pleasant enough trifle, an ecumenical celebration of life, giving the singer and pianist Warren Jones plenty to do in seven or so minutes.

But it really served as a gateway to the masterworks that followed: five songs by Richard Strauss, showing a more introspective side of the composer best known for his orchestral bombast. From the first one, “Ständchen,” which gave the vocal line pleasant melodic leaps over a rippling piano arpeggio, Te Kanawa showed her intense dynamic control, which was even more effective in the next song, “Nacht,” a lullaby-like number.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Christmas Eve

An appropriate-for-the-day song I co-wrote with Tom Savoy for our musical adaptation of Booth Tarkington's "Beasley's Christmas Party."