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Stuff I’ve Been Reading: June/July 2020

Ebooks read:

  • Life Isn’t Everything: Mike Nichols, as Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends—Ash Carter and Sam Kashner
  • Olive, Again—Elizabeth Strout
  • Sounds Like Titanic: A Memoir—Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman
  • Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee—Casey Cep


  • Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest—Hanif Abdurraqib
  • Girl, Woman, Other—Bernardine Evaristo
  • What Blest Genius? The Jubilee That Made Shakespeare—Andrew McConnell Stott
  • Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women—Harriet Reisen
  • Time Is Tight: My Life, Note by Note—Booker T. Jones
  • Sounds Like Titanic—Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman
  • Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee—Casey Cep
  • Life Isn’t Everything: Mike Nichols, as Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends—Ash Carter and Sam Kashner

People who work in the arts have a habit of comparing themselves to other people. How old was she when she wrote her first book? How many prizes has he won? They paid her how much? Why did they ask him to do that? In many ways, it’s the whole point of doing something creative. We feel bad—needy and damaged and hopeless—before we start a project, which is why we start it. And then, if we are lucky enough to turn our talents into some kind of job, we need to find ways of staying unhappy, jealous, and bitter. Well, do I have something for you. The new oral history of Mike Nichols, Life Isn’t Everything, will destroy you, if the capacity for destruction is what you’re looking for in a book.

Nichols—Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky—escaped from Germany and arrived in the USA with his brother, Robert, in May 1939; Robert was three, Mike was seven, and they traveled alone by boat. Nichols had alopecia totalis universalis, which, as Robert points out, meant he had no hair anywhere on his body, and his father didn’t want him to own a hairpiece. He didn’t get one until 1944, after his father died, leaving his family penniless. When Nichols was older, eyebrows and hairpieces had to be carefully pasted on, with a glue that by all accounts stank to high heaven. Only people of a certain disposition would, with those disadvantages, then decide to try their hand at improv, but Nichols was of that disposition, and he tried his hand and, with Elaine May, eventually created an act that was both beloved and influential. So he should have stopped there, right? I’m not saying he should have given up work. I’m not denying he had the right to feed himself. I’m saying he should have settled on a career in improv, or comedy. But no. A Broadway producer decided that Nichols could probably direct plays, so he offered him Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park, and Nichols cast Robert Redford—who had never done comedy, hadn’t done much of anything, really—in 1963, and the play was an enormous success. And then Neil Simon wanted him to direct The Odd Couple on Broadway, and that was an enormous success too. So he should have stopped there! He should have been a theater director who used to do improv and maybe would again someday!

But after his shows with Elaine May, Nichols used to go out to the back alley behind the theater for a drink and a smoke, and playing next door at the Majestic was Camelot, staring Richard Burton and Julie Andrews. So Nichols was drinking in the alley with Burton, and one thing led to another, and he directed the movie version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It was nominated in every single category at the Oscars, one of only two films to have been recognized in that way. All four members of the cast got nominations, and the two actresses won awards. After that came The Graduate, which won him an Oscar. He had already won, with May, a Grammy for Best Comedy Album, so, together with his four Emmys and eight Tonys, Nichols is one of only fifteen people in history to have won all four, the all-but-impossible EGOT.

There comes a point in any career when the white heat cools a little, and Nichols’s career was no exception. His sleepy second half produced only Spamalot, Angels in America, Working Girl, Primary Colors, and a production of Death of a Salesman starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Andrew Garfield. (Tonys galore, of course.) If someone wanted to argue that nobody in the history of the entertainment industry has a better résumé, I wouldn’t know whom to put up against him. The people whose voices are heard in this book tell their own story: Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, Cynthia Nixon, Tom Stoppard, Marsha Mason, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Steve Martin, Bob Newhart, Robin Williams, Arthur Penn, Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Emma Thompson… And the book is a joy, as you probably could have predicted: full of sharp insights and funny stories, and with a firm grasp of narrative, not easy to accomplish in the oral biography form. I spoke to Mike Nichols twice, both times on the phone, both times about projects that either collapsed or ended up with a different director. I am telling you this not to show off, but because these phone calls were proper career highlights for me: I just spoke to Mike Nichols on the phone! They don’t come up in this book, needless to say. Ash Carter and Sam Kashner had other people to talk to—people who actually worked with him, and knew him—about movies that actually happened.

Another person you should probably avoid reading is Elizabeth Strout, if you’re of the comparative disposition. Strout has won a Pulitzer, and her books sell well, but what makes her uniquely enviable is that she has achieved a lot of this success by writing about a frequently unlikable character in a series of interlinked short stories. To say that agents and publishers advise against attempting this is like saying that, on balance, parents would prefer their children not to smoke crack. Short stories don’t sell. Nobody wants to read about an unlikable character. But, kids, listen: the crack-smoking analogy falls apart at this point. There isn’t an Olive Kitteridge version of crack smoking, one where the crack smoker triumphs against all odds. Yes, crack smokers can triumph against all odds, but they invariably have to do it by giving up the crack. Elizabeth Strout wrote Olive Kitteridge, a collection of stories with a grumpy old woman mostly at their centers but occasionally right on the edge of the frame. She won the Pulitzer, the book was adapted into a really terrific miniseries (prime-time Emmys galore), and then she went back to the pipe. Olive, Again is the result, and is every bit as smart, tender, and unblinking as its predecessor.

While reading Olive, Again, I found myself reminded more than once of Francis Spufford’s book Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, in which a very, very brainy man (Spufford) tells us why he believes in God. I have no idea whether Elizabeth Strout is a Christian, and certainly there is very little religion, if any, in her Olive books. But the author’s gaze, full of wisdom, pity, and understanding, is not unlike the gaze of God as described in Unapologetic. Here’s Spufford on human frailty, a.k.a. sin:

Taking the things people do wrong seriously is part of taking them seriously. It’s part of letting their actions have weight. It’s part of letting their actions be actions rather than just indifferent shopping choices; of letting their lives tell a life-story, with consequences, and losses, and gains, rather than just be a flurry of events. It’s part of letting them be real enough to be worth loving, rather than just attractive or glamorous or pretty or charismatic or cool.

That, I think, is what Strout does: she takes the things that people do wrong seriously, and loves her characters anyway, and the losses and gains—especially the losses—in Olive Kitteridge’s life are properly consequential. Some of these losses are inevitable and unavoidable: people die. Others, however, are a result of carelessness, or incapacity, or stubbornness, faults of character that, Strout suggests, are every bit as ungovernable as the awful stuff we have no power over. In one of the most piercing stories, “Motherless Child,” Strout takes the simplest of narrative ideas—a semi-estranged son visiting his family—and turns it into something so richly imagined and emotionally devastating that when the last line comes, you feel like you’ve seen King Lear at a matinee and decided to stay for the evening performance. People are always arguing about what literature is, without ever coming up with a definitive answer. But Strout’s ability to find complexity and deep, deep meaning in lives that many writers wouldn’t even notice surely puts her right in the middle of the debate.

It is a relief to turn to a life in the arts that is not so enviable. Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman’s Sounds Like Titanic is a memoir, the story of her career as a violinist—but before you jump to the conclusion that Hindman’s life was unenviable because she had to practice a lot and she got sore fingers and the conductor shouted at her and blah, blah, I should tell you that she was what can be described only as a fake violinist. (And she got sore fingers and sore arms anyway.) You probably had no idea (nor did I) that there was a living to be made by pretending to play the violin, and Hindman was taken by surprise too. She applied for a job that she saw advertised on the internet—“Seeking violinists and flute players to perform in award-winning ensemble”—and got it, no questions asked, no auditions demanded, either. It turned out that the job involved touring the country and acting as though she and her new colleagues were performing the works of someone she only ever refers to as “The Composer,” a man who writes the kind of easy-listening mock-classical music you can buy from a shopping channel late at night. Hindman set up a stall in a mall, turned on the CD player, and made all the right moves and even the right sounds on her violin, while a curious and charmed public handed over money for the recordings. Every single piece of music sounded like the score for that DiCaprio–Kate Winslet movie, hence the book’s title; every track features a penny whistle. (You can find the identity of The Composer very quickly by Googling. For the purposes of research, I spent nearly forty seconds listening to a two-hour YouTube video of his work.)

Hindman recognizes the metaphorical value of her experience, and Sounds Like Titanic turns out to be a book about all sorts of things: class and taste, for example, in another approach to the territory Carl Wilson covered in his brilliant little meditation on Celine Dion, Let’s Talk about Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste (perhaps an appropriate chime, given Celine Dion’s contribution to the soundtrack of Titanic); the artist’s insane hunger for recognition and validation; post-9/11 America and the country’s need for consolation and ersatz normality. Hindman teaches writing now. It’s hard to imagine a wiser, wryer guide to lead aspirants through the vicissitudes and cruelties of the life they may choose for themselves.

I suppose Harper Lee did what Mike Nichols might have done if he hadn’t been so foolishly ambitious: she quit while she was ahead. Furious Hours is in part about a book she never wrote, a nonfiction account (very much in the style of In Cold Blood, by her friend Truman Capote) of a multiple-murder mystery in Alabama, Lee’s home state. The Reverend Willie Maxwell was an extraordinarily fortunate man: he kept taking out life insurance on people, some of whom he was only tangentially related to, and every time he did so, that person happened to die. His first wife was found in her car on a stretch of road near her home, apparently beaten to death; his second wife was also found in her car, apparently the victim of a fatal accident. His brother was also found by the side of the road, perhaps because of a heart attack. His nephew James Hicks was found dead in a car on the road, although there were no signs of injury. Like every doting uncle, Maxwell had taken out life insurance on Hicks too. Shirley Ann, the daughter adopted during his third marriage, was found, refreshingly, under—rather than in—a car that had apparently fallen on her while she was attempting to change a wheel. Willie Maxwell just went on claiming the life insurance, despite the law’s best efforts to prosecute him; there was never any evidence of wrongdoing. He stopped collecting money only when a distant relative of Shirley Ann’s shot and killed him at Shirley Ann’s funeral. Tom Radney was the lawyer who had represented Willie Maxwell during his many legal battles against the insurance companies (the insurance companies were a little unsettled by the frequency of their payouts and had begun to wonder whether anything fishy was going on). Radney got Maxwell his money; once Maxwell was dead, he got Maxwell’s murderer off on an insanity plea.

You can see why this case might have appealed to Harper Lee. She studied it and the thousands of documents and transcriptions it had thrown up, perhaps for several years, and befriended Radney, but she was never able to find the book that surely lay inside the story somewhere. Casey Cep’s book is gripping, blackly comic, and thoughtful, and you come away from it knowing more things than you could possibly know what to do with about the history of voodoo, the American insurance industry, and the strange, sad career of Harper Lee. Furious Hours is a gem.

I don’t want anyone to stop, really. I want Casey Cep and Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman, neither of whom has written books before, to take the Mike Nichols path through life rather than the Lee route. I hope they write tons more books, and that these books become brilliant Oscar-winning films, with fantastic soundtracks (none of which feature a penny whistle). We need as much good stuff as people can make. I never want to stop consuming it, that’s for sure.

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