An Clarice Lispector
von Friedrich Ani
In der letzten Nacht
des Jahres nüchtern
lesen bis nach
Mitternacht und weit,
so weit darüber
hinaus, bis zur
allerletzten Zeile, der
allerersten des nächsten
wird’s, die allzu
großen Wunden trocknen
niemals. Die Schöne aber,
Hand in Hand mit
dem Biest, lacht dem seit
Neujahrstag ins schiefe
Gesicht, und ihr
Lachen, trunken von
Leben, mundet uns
wie Himbeertorte, wie
Von Friedrich Ani erscheinen in 2024: am 7. Februar der Gedichtband »Stift« und am 11. März der Kriminalroman »Lichtjahre im Dunkel« (beides bei Suhrkamp). Außerdem ein neuer (bereits der dritte) Hörspiel-Dreiteiler mit den Figuren Fariza Nasri und Jakob Franck: »Geisterstadt« (BR).
** ** **
Thomas Adcock: These Are a Few of My Favorite Things: 2023
Good Stuff to Read & View
By Thomas Adcock
Humility requires that I heed the scornful counsel of Brendan Behan (1923-1964), literary legend of Dublin. “Critics are like eunuchs in a harem,” he explained. “They know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it themselves.”
At the risk of skating close to Mr. Behan’s low regard for judgment on high, I submit for your approval a list of my own favorites from reading and viewing many of last year’s offerings. (I favor vintage war stories, as you shall certainly see in my tastes for movies and television offerings.) Onward—
“Madame Restell: The Life, Death, and Resurrection of Old New York’s Most Fabulous, Fearless, and Infamous Abortionist”
(Hachette Books, non-fiction)
— by Jennifer Wright
The current “pro-life” campaign to criminalize abortion in the United States is rooted in the zealous work of a 19th century über-Christian crank by the name Anthony Comstock (1844-1915). As self-appointed head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, Mr. Comstock knew many victorious battles in his feverish war against such debaucheries as erotic literature, onanism, contraception—and abortion, of course, which he saw as the greatest of all offenses to God.
As irony would have it, Mr. Comstock lived in the time of Ann Trow (1811-1878), an English emigrant to New York who fled cruelty accorded scullery maids such as herself, in service to upper class British households rife with lordly rapists and their lustful sons—against whom resistance was futile, save for finding some hush-hush way of ridding one’s uterus of unwanted outcome. In New York, young Ann would struggle through initially hard times to eventually prosper upon assuming the persona of “Madame Restell,” attendant to personal medical needs of Victorian-era women of Manhattan, upper and lower crust alike. Needs that men insisted on controlling, then as regrettably now.
Madame Restell, not one to remain quiet, was dubbed by the sensationalist press as “the wickedest woman in New York.” She lived in a mansion cheekily situated across Fifth Avenue from St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church, a mecca for anti-abortionists—then and now. The Restell mansion was “built upon the skulls of dead babies,” as newspapers put it. Madame was rather more humble in rhetorical style, yet arguably more persuasive: “Why,” she once wrote, “should women have no say over if and when they might become mothers?”
The promotional flap copy for this book delivers as promised (and how!): “Thought-provoking, character-driven, boldly written, and feminist as hell…required reading for anyone and everyone who believes that when it comes to women’s rights, women’s bodies, and women’s history, women should have the last word.”
“The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store”
(Penguin Random House, historical fiction)
— by James McBride
With this new one, James McBride demonstrates why he is Barack Obama’s favorite mystery novelist. “The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store” is a purely American story of inter-ethnic affections that bloom from tough streets full of people suffering the ancient fears of one another, yet striving to overcome such tribalism. In ecumenical spirit, the neighborhood’s African American and immigrant Jewish, Italian, Bulgarian, Polish, and Hungarian residents unite in the cause of justice for one of the least of those among them.
The author’s story begins in 1972 in the gentrifying “Chicken Hill” neighborhood of Pottstown, Pennsylvania. Construction workers, busy clearing a lot for a snazzy new townhouse development, discover a skeleton at the bottom of an old well on the property—along with a mezuzah, the small case affixed to the doorframes of Jewish homes. Police launch an investigation by questioning an elderly Jewish man still living at the site of a crumbling synagogue. But before detectives pass first base, as it were, a monster hurricane hits the northeastern U.S., washing away the crime scene.
Flash backward to 1925, and the namesake grocery market where Moshe and Chona Ludlow live above the store. Downstairs, grocery is much more than a place to buy food: It is the social nexus for a diverse community whose working-class members are learning to trust one another, and of their power in unity. When the state of Pennsylvania attempts to institutionalize a twelve-year-old black boy who can neither hear nor speak—“Dodo,” as he is derisively known—the Ludlows lead a cast of homeboys and homegirls who violate class and color lines and the law as they try to save the lad.
…I shall not comment further of this wonderful book, except to say that James McBride is hardly the syrupy kind of storyteller. Throughout “Heaven & Earth” there are crackling bits of hard-boiled truth, such as the scene where Moshe’s sourpuss cousin Isaac asks a fellow immigrant if he pines for the old country. The immigrant replies: “I like it here. The politicians try to cut your throat with one hand while saluting the flag with the other. Then they tax you. Saves ‘em the trouble of calling you a dirty Jew.”
“Love Letter from Pig: My Brother’s Story of Freedom Summer”
(University Press of Mississippi, history)
— by Julie Kabat
This is the endearing and historically relevant account of a sister’s admiration for her late big brother: He, a tender-hearted young man of persistent courage during America’s 1960s struggle against white racism; she with a girlhood nickname that stuck. “Pig” was the mispronounced adjective that author Julie Kabat, today an accomplished singer and teaching artist, proudly ascribed to herself as a toddler who declared herself “Big Julie.”
Forever after, Ms. Kabat’s brother Luke, short for Lucien, used his sister’s nickname with great affection in his journals and letters home to the North from the Deep South state of Mississippi during the time of “Freedom Summer.”
In that season of 1964, a coalition of national voter rights organizations flooded Mississippi with volunteers in aid of African Americans long intimidated by local government officials, and/or physically attacked by bigots and brutes (often on the payroll of local police departments). Through it all, including a spot of jail time, Luke Kabat kept his poise and his principles in seeing to it that black men and women, only a handful of generations from slavery, could safely become registered voters.
In telling Luke’s story, his sister necessarily credits the admirable Kabat family: Her maternal grandfather Ber-Leib fought in the 1905 anti-czarist Russian revolution; her maternal Uncle Sam, a labor organizer, fought on the anti-fascist side of the Spanish Civil War; her father, a distinguished physician who lost his job in standing up for democratic ideals during the anti-communist hysteria that shamed America in the 1950s.
The ideals of the author’s big brother echo the honor of his family elders, and speak to his own sense of moral resistance to injustice, and of moral poetry. Julie Kabat writes of Luke telling her of an incident in Hitler-era Germany that held a life-long effect on him:
“…Luke had heard about a woman in one of the concentration camps. They say she began to dance when she was in line going to the gas chamber. She was naked like everyone else, and her head was shaved, but they couldn’t stop her from beginning to dance on her own as if she really heard music. She was shot by a guard. ’She was a hero,’ Luke said, ‘because she didn’t follow orders like the others…’”
As the English proverb has it, Only the good die young. So it was that Lucien Kabat died, of lung cancer, in May of 1966—two years after Freedom Summer, two weeks after his twenty-seventh birthday.
The author writes of a day shortly before her brother’s death; of a frail Luke Kabat as he lay in a garden behind his home, by then in California. The sun was shining overhead. Mother Kabat had come to attend to him. She asked her son, “Lucien, what can I do for you?”
Luke’s answer, as he squinted up to the sun: “I’d like it if you’d read to me… Zorba the Greek. The dancing, my favorite…”
“Jordan: Andrew Jackson’s Unsung Hero of the Battle of New Orleans”
(Historic Tremé Collection, history)
— by Alvin (Al) Jackson
Somehow, the amiable scholar Alvin Jackson, a contemporary New Orleanian somewhere into his government pension years, inhabits the skin and the soulful voice of a boy two centuries in the past for this, his first and hopefully not last book.
Born in the earliest years of the nineteenth century, the namesake young hero of “Jordan” recounts his perilous journey through a number of America’s wars, beginning with the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 under the command of General Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson, and onward through the second Seminole war in Florida (1835-42), the Mexican-American War of 1845-46, and finally the American Civil War of 1861-65. Jordan speaks in a manner that is plainspoken, often innocent, and yet always perceptive.
The author begins his book with the portrayal of a boy and his mother having only each other, as two good people against an unjust world. He ends with Jordan’s passage into manhood despite slavery and war and the humiliations of white racism, a spiritual triumph thanks to his mother’s counsel and that of a wartime comrade called L’il Johnny, who in the light of battleground campfires where soldiers were separated by race taught his friend about a certain glow in the sky that would lead slaves to freedom—“Just follow the North Star, boy,” advised L’il Johnny.
With the very first nine sentences of this book, I was hooked on the important story about a truly unsung hero of war who ultimately became an accomplished musician by the name Jordan Bankston Nobels, born in the state of Georgia in 1796. Voicing the boy Jordan in 1804, the author writes—
“I only had one name at that time. My mother said it was a name from the Bible. That name is Jordan. I am eight years old and I am a slave. Jordan was a name from the Bible. My mother called me that because it was a river in the Bible. But the river Jordan was not just any river, it was the river where Jesus was baptized. So as a river, it was deemed sacred.
“Mr. John Brandt, a small slave trader, owned us and he might be my father.”
Jordan has us see and feel the physical cruelties suffered by General Andrew Jackson’s slave recruits, conscripted from plantations to fight under Old Hickory’s command against British military incursions into American territory in and around the city of New Orleans.
Ultimately, General Jackson betrays his men by reneging on the bargain he struck: Black soldiers would be freed from bondage once the battle was won. But it would be decades—and more bloody war—before Jackson’s slave soldiers were free, if they lived. Following his betrayal, the liar Andrew Jackson would become president of the United States.
It should be noted that Jordan was a military drummer boy, no small rank. In the unholy noise of combat, it was impossible for soldiers to hear one another over the cacophony of rifles and cannons and the screams of terrified fighters on both sides of battle. Leaders’ commands fell on deafened ears. Only the staccato of drumsticks could be recognized over the tumult. It fell to drummer boys to stick close to generals and their lieutenants, to interpret their directives in percussive code for soldiers to follow; the drummer boys were not usually provided guns, even as enemy soldiers fired their way.
The roots of Jordan’s later professional music career lay in his entertainments, as a slave, at plantation mansions. The author writes of Jordan’s experience in performing for a certain miserly Master White and his guests:
“Master and Mrs. White entertained often. Many times, the slaves were called upon to entertain, either with hands of singing or dancing. The guests sometimes threw pennies at us, but we were trained not to pick them up. One of the butlers went out and picked up the coins while Master White smiled and counted the number of times the Negro bent down.”
“Old Jordan,” as he was eventually known by everyone in New Orleans, died in 1890 at the home of his son Valery. The author writes of Old Jordan’s interment in Saint Louis Cemetery number 2:
“As Valery looks out at the city, he hears the St. James AME Church bells begin to chime. He glances up to find the North Star…In the distance is the sharp roll of a military drum. Soon, the drum is joined by other instruments, and a New Orleans marching band plays the familiar dirge.”
(based on the book “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” by Kai Bird & Martin J. Sherwin)
• Cast: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr.
• Director & Screenwriter: Christopher Nolan
In adapting for the motion picture screen a book that should be on the shelves of every library in every nation of the world, there is but one filmmaker capable of doing justice to the story of a complicated man who raced against time in fathering the atom bomb, thereby ending World War 2 with the horrific strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The filmmaker’s name: Christopher Nolan, whose œvre includes capital-B blockbusters, tinged in the moody style of film noir. Mr. Nolan’s focus this time, in this true tale of war and politics and romance and deceptions and heroism and genius: theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-19670, subject of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography “American Prometheus,” by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin.
At three hours plus, the film “Oppenheimer” is as sprawling and as engaging as a fine thick book full of wisdom and action, flawed and fascinating characters. You hate to turn the last page, as it were.
Indeed, “Oppenheimer” is a movie you long to join, physically.
You wish to rise from your seat in a darkened cinema and somehow walk into the story projected before you, to take your place among a splendid cast—headed by the Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer himself, and Robert Downey Jr. as snake-in-the-grass Lewis Strauss (1896-1974), the high-level government official who engineered Oppenheimer’s downfall.
How many movies about theoretical physicists are balls-out exciting? To say that this singular film is memorable is felony understatement.
Even now as I write, a full month after seeing “Oppenheimer,” three lines of dialogue play in my mind:
“Hiroshima isn’t about you” —President Harry S Truman
“Power stays in the shadows” —Lewis Strauss
“Now I am become Death,
the destroyer of worlds” — J. Robert Oppenheimer
“All the Light We Cannot See” (4-part limited Netflix series)
(based on the namesake novel by American author Anthony Doerr)
• Cast: Aria Mia Loberti, Lars Eidinger, Mark Ruffalo, Louis Hofmann
• Creator: Steven Knight
In the coastal hamlet of Saint-Malo in Nazi-occupied France at the beginning of the end of World War 2, townspeople await liberation with the promise of American forces soon to invade. In one house lives a young blind woman named Marie-Laure LeBlanc (portrayed by Aria Mia Loberti)—along with her father, an uncle traumatized by the first world war, and a seemingly silly old auntie who conceals her wily talents in aid of home front resistance to German authorities.
Marie sends out illicit short-wave broadcasts from a radio hidden in the attic of the house, using stories as codes to the Americans. As a girl, Marie became fascinated by radio as she listened by night to enlightening programs for children, broadcast by a mysterious personage calling himself “the professor.”
Listening to Marie’s grown-up programs from Saint-Malo is a young German soldier name Werner (Lars Eidinger), conscripted into army, which he loathes, because of his facility with electronics. As a boy, Werner was brutalized as in an orphanage; his only moments of lightness coming by night as he, too, listened to “the professor.” As a soldier in the despised Nazi cause, Werner is assigned to track down the Saint-Malo broadcast location by zeroing in on radio frequency.
There are subplots galore in this heartwarming series, one that draws all parties, across all lines, into a unity of hope. (I find myself hoping for such equally powerful personal stories of war to arise from the Russian-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas conflicts.)
“A Small Light” (8-part Netflix series)
• Cast: Bel Powley, Joe Cole, Liev Schreiber, Billie Boullet
• Creators: Joan Rater, Tony Phelan
As we know from history, the young Jewish diarist Anna Frank spent more than two years of her short life hiding from Nazis in the annex of an obscure commercial building in wartime Amsterdam of the 1940s. Close quarters were cramped with family and friends, smuggled into hiding with her one by one, and existential fear.
But how did Anna find refuge, desperate as it was? How did she and her family sustain themselves?
Enter a young Dutch woman into a largely untold story. Her name is Miep Gies (portrayed by Bel Powley), a twenty-something trying her best to avoid a dreary marriage of convenience; trying her best to making something purposeful of herself. That she is unemployed makes the situation all the more dreary.
Using her charm and gumption—so very evident in actress Bel Powley’s luminous eyes—Miep lands a job as secretary to Anna’s father Otto, a commodities trader who becomes her own father figure.
By and by, Miep takes on the gentle courage modeled for her in the person of Otto Frank. She finds purpose in taking risk after risk in caring for the humanity of others, and therefore safeguarding her own humanity.
Copyright © 2023 – Thomas Adcock
Thomas Adcock is America correspondent for CulturMag. His essays here.