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Writing Worth Reading

Secrets Of The Magus

I’ll continue to throw in recommendations for classic New Yorker articles as long as the online archive remains open. This profile of magician Ricky Jay, “the most gifted sleight-of-hand artist alive” is a joy throughout — for the glimpses of his performing skills, the portraits of the great magicians who inspired him, and the excursions into magical history and scholarship which are Jay’s ruling passion (14,800 words)

The Demented Kingdom Of William T. Vollmann Pick of the day

Vollmann’s latest book, Last Stories and Other Stories, his twenty-second since 1987, is a “680-page short-story collection about death, putrefaction, ghosts, and cancer”. He works 16 hours a day with no internet, and inhabits the persona of Dolores, a transgender woman. He could probably use an editor. At 55 he has “mellowed as a man”, but “his subject matter has, if anything, grown even more confrontational” (7,440 words)

Steven Soderbergh: Why I Quit Movies

Soderbergh explains why he’s giving up film directing in favour of television, and starting a liquor business. “There’s no Yoko. The reason is: It stopped being fun. That’s a big deal to me. The ratio of bullshit to the fun part of doing the work was really starting to get out of whack”. Also, he’s worried about America: “This country is too f-ing big. This could turn into Mad Max, like tomorrow. The fabric is so thin” (3,580 words)

Obituary: Leee Black Childers

Protegé of Andy Warhol; personal photographer to David Bowie. “He added an extra e to his first name to draw attention to himself”. Briefly manager of Iggy Pop and the Stooges. Tour manager for Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers. “Although a frail figure in his later years, Childers remained a striking presence in his fake leopard-skin jackets and glitter shirts, his face adorned with mascara” (Metered) (918 words)

Bertrand Russell’s Lofty Pacifism

Rather lovely portrait of Bertrand Russell; his birth into the highest reaches of wealth and privilege; his collisions with Wittgenstein and D.H. Lawrence; his transitions between philosophy and political activism; his not unwelcome stays in jail. In Brixton in 1918 he was allowed to “wear his own clothes, rent a private room equipped with his own books and furniture, eat his own food and employ other prisoners as servants” (3,200 words)

The Lost World Of Stefan Zweig

Renewed enthusiasm for Zweig’s writing, stirred in part by Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, is carrying his reputation to greater heights than it reached in his lifetime. He was complacent about Nazism until it was too late, while easily panicked by smaller dangers. Contemporaries found something “contorted and unresolved” in his character. But we can empathise now with his circumstances and his sensibility (2,530 words)

Silicon Valley’s Most Feared And Well-Liked Journalist

Profile of Kara Swisher, “the Valley’s Walter Lippmann”, a “short, defiantly unstylish reporter who asks blunt questions” and runs Re/code with Walt Mossberg. “Because of the fear she instills, or because she’s just not going away, or because of what her admirers would say is her fairness, Swisher has managed to keep professional relationships and even friendships with people she’s annihilated in print” (4,980 words)

The Man Who Groomed A Nation

Jimmy Savile “does not belong among the amoral heroes of Patricia Highsmith, disposing of people without remorse in a meaningless universe. Rather, he inhabits the driven world of Graham Greene, where the protagonist is in a lurid and sweaty argument with his maker, trying to pile up credit points to balance the final ledger against what he knows full well to be his sins”. Review of Dan Davies’s biography, In Plain Sight (2,000 words)

Constant Lambert

Review of Stephen Lloyd’s “majestic and moving” biography, Constant Lambert. Ninette de Valois called Lambert “the English Diaghilev”. With de Valois and Frederick Ashton he founded the Sadler’s Wells Ballet. Anthony Powell portrayed him as Hugh Moreland in Dance To The Music Of Time. His music was “tense, spiky, often melancholy, always essentially urban”. He died of exhaustion and drink at 45 (1,550 words)

Jeff Koons Is Back

Sympathetic portrait of America’s emblematic modern artist. His reputation boomed in the 1980s, crashed in the 1990s, and has surged back to a new high in the past decade. His Balloon Dog sold for $58.4m, the highest price paid for a work by a living artist. He sees himself as the new Picasso. But probably he is more like Warhol; he nails the Zeitgeist. And he understands selling; he used to trade commodities (4,950 words)

Inside The Strange World Of Rolf Harris

Parental guidance advised. It was strange world indeed. Dysfunctional childhood in Australia, ebullient youth, long career in music and television — and a triumphant old age during which Harris achieved “near-priestly status” in Britain. He advised the Church of England. He painted the Queen. But behind the wobble-board was a darker side: “A child’s request for an autograph allegedly led almost immediately to molestation” (5,300 words)

The Sheer Unlikeliness Of CB Fry

Fry was one of the greatest cricketers ever. But cricket was “a sidebar to the rest of his life”. He equalled the world long jump record; played soccer in the 1902 FA Cup Final; played rugby for the Barbarians; stood as an MP; and was probably offered the throne of Albania. He was considered the handsomest man in England. “His party trick was to jump backwards on to a mantelpiece from a standing position” (720 words)

Tony Blair, Dread Creature Of The Forbidden Swamp

“Every time Tony Blair re-emerges there’s a shock. The shock of seeing a former lover going through your bins at night, a long-forgotten childhood toy waiting for you on your bed. He represents something that’s been repressed, and though the repressed always returns, it’s always a surprise. Who is this hideous figure? Why is he still alive? Why won’t he just leave us alone? Tony Blair was never alive. He’ll never leave us alone.” (1,460 words)

Obituary: Felix Dennis

“A former jail bird, crack fiend, serial womaniser and sometime poet and arboriculturalist, he built a publishing empire worth hundreds of millions of pounds”. His titles included The Week and Maxim. He began his career as business manager of Oz, the counter-cultural magazine of the 1960. He survived Legionnaire’s disease, but crack almost killed him. His chauffeur brought it home “by the bucket load” (Metered) (1,845 words)

The Madness Of Queen Jane

Jane Bowles. “Hard drinking, hard living, and neurotic, the outlines of Jane’s exhaustingly dramatic persona very often overshadowed her art. At forty, while living in Tangier, she suffered a debilitating stroke that would send her into premature convalescence. She died sixteen years later, alone, in a Spanish convent. And yet her literary output, small but perfect, puts her on a stylistic planet all her own” (3,300 words)

Rem Koolhaas: “I Hate Being An Architect” Pick of the day

Unusual profile of architect Rem Koolhaas, addressing primarily the question of whether he is “a very unpleasant man”. The answer: not intentionally, but he may be too cool for this world. “His body language wreaks immediate confusion. Will he turn left? No he goes right, then stays put. Alpha males acknowledge the super alpha male: the man next to whom Rem finally comes to a halt beams as if he has just won the lottery” (5,690 words)

How A Funny-Looking Man Conquered Hollywood

Benedict Cumberbatch may be the biggest star in the world just now. Which is a good thing: It means that “our culture is maturing, and no longer considers classical good looks to be paramount. Immanuel Kant drew distinctions between things that are evidently beautiful because we can see they’re beautiful, and things that are sublime because they demand an intellectual response. The sublime is finally triumphant” (1,130 words)

Thumbing Things Up

Review of “Carsick”, John Waters’s book about hitch-hiking from Baltimore to San Francisco. It’s not much good as a book; but John Waters is a hero; so cut him some slack. “The first 192 pages consist of two fictional accounts: first his best-case scenario, followed by his worst-case one. These are unimpeachably lewd and Watersian (and, of course, far more entertaining than the actual dreary hitchhiking odyssey)” (835 words)

Churchill’s Last Surviving Daughter

Evelyn Waugh called Winston Churchill “a most unsuccessful father”, which was largely correct. “All three of the elder children went wrong, all of them had failed marriages, all of them were undone by drink”. One died of drink; another committed suicide. The exception was the youngest, Mary, who died in May aged 92 — “the only one who had grown up safe and sound, to live a long and fulfilled life” ( words)

Jimmy Iovine: The Man With The Magic Ears

From the archives. Retrospective interview with Jimmy Iovine, legendary record producer, label boss, Beats founder. He started out engineering for John Lennon, with Phil Spector producing. Things went quiet. Then they livened up again: “Roy calls me: ‘There’s a guy at the Hit Factory. They just threw him out. His name is Bruce Springsteen, and he wants to come to our studio’. I’m 21 and I have my second client” (h/t Longreads) (6,500 words)

Hello, Beethoven

John Suchet’s “highly entertaining” biography, “Beethoven, The Man Revealed”, delivers what the title promises. The music scarcely gets a mention. “Beethoven’s erratic behavior and fiery temperament are front and center”. His gastrointestinal problems get pages to themselves. It works. “Rigorous Beethoven scholarship this is not. Yet, somehow, we forgive Suchet, for if he is shameless, he is also sincere” (2,400 words)

Maya Angelou: A Hymn To Human Endurance

Obituary. “When Maya Angelou was 16 she became not only the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco but the first woman conductor. By the time she was 40 she had also been, in no particular order, a cook, a waitress, a madam, a prostitute, a dancer, an actress, a playwright, an editor at an English-language newspaper in Egypt, and a Calypso singer. It wasn’t until 1970, when she was 41, that she became an author” (938 words)

Inheritance: Edward St. Aubyn Pick of the day

Profile of the novelist as “monster of snobbery”, recovering drug addict, “sorrowful egomaniac” and survivor of an extraordinary life combining inheritance, abuse, hedonism, eventual literary success. Koestler and Ayer were family friends; the Duc de Talleyrand a step-grandparent. St Aubyn has “the unhurried accent of English privilege that is part of his inheritance from a father who tortured him” (12,500 words)

Rosemary Tonks – A Mystery Solved

The “strange and brilliant” writer Rosemary Tonks disappeared in the 1970s after publishing several novels and two slim volumes of poetry, “Notes on Cafes and Bedrooms” (1963) and “Iliad of Broken Sentences” (1967). She was “the finest poet of London life since Eliot”. Following her death last month, more is being learned about her later life. She went blind, found religion, and moved to Bournemouth (2,730 words)

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