Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Book Review Fortnight #1: "The Writer's Desk"

Hamburger stand in New Haven, Connecticut 
     The middle of August. Ugh. I don't know about you, but this whole working thing is starting to get on my nerves. What better than to put put out a big "Gone Fishin'" sign and leaving this space blank for a couple weeks. 
    Not my style, alas. Besides, not working isn't really on the plate. I've got a big project I've got to crank out for the paper by week's end that won't write itself.  
    So to make life easier all around, I've dubbed the next two weeks Book Review Fortnight, and disinterred book reviews I wrote for the Cleveland Plain Dealer in the late 1990s. I imagine you haven't read any of them, don't remember them if you did, and never heard of the books they discussed. As an added bonus, about half are pans, and criticism is far more fun to read than praise. I'm impressed that even with writers I admire—John McPhee—I manage to find fault; I guess I was sort of a hard-ass at the time.

     The coy approach to "The Writer's Desk" would be to begin by rhapsodizing about the top of my own sturdy cherry computer table. There is a fierce Indonesian carving and a baseball signed by Hank Aaron and a photograph of my son and a little blue "Don't Give Up the Ship" flag purchased at Put-in-Bay for $2 one fine summer day.
     But you don't know who I am, so you probably don't care what my desk looks like. Such indifference is part of the problem with Jill Krementz's book of photographs of authors at work.
     Not that Krementz's authors are unknown. Quite the contrary. Most are among the biggest names in literature: John Cheever and Toni Morrison and Tennessee Williams and John Updike, who wrote the introduction. Thrown in is a seasoning of newcomers, such as Veronica Chambers, and obscure poets (are there any other kind?) such as Nikki Giovanni.
   But while you might recognize many of Krementz's 55 subjects, at least by name, odds are you won't care about more than a handful. And little in the photographs themselves, or the accompanying text, is well-wrought enough to spark interest.
     The fault is not with the authors, of course, but with the photographs. You don't need to like Bette Midler to appreciate Annie Leibovitz's photo of her covered in rosebuds. But you have to be fan of Jean Piaget to enjoy the sight of him lighting his pipe.

      That said, three of the pictures are outstanding: E.B. White, in a dim cabin whose window reveals a bright Maine bay. John Cheever, his right hand completely displaced by a glass of booze. The glass looks attached to the wrist, and supposedly was.
     And Pablo Neruda, busying himself at a Napoleonic desk with a floor-standing flag beside. He seems every inch the South American bureaucrat—undersecretary for metaphor in the Ministry of Poetry, perhaps.
     Closer examination reveals—God, could it be?—his Nobel prize, its display box open, set facing the visitor's chair, screaming to be admired.
Majority not rewarding
     Krementz is an experienced photojournalist with a number of books to her credit. Yet the majority of the photos here do not reward careful examination. Bernard Malamud dials a phone at a desk in a room. Terrence McNally types. Archibald MacLeish uses a pencil.
     Several of the photos struck me as jokes, to be charitable, or lies, to be not.
     George Plimpton rolls a piece of paper under the platen of his typewriter, oblivious to two babies on the floor behind him. Terry Southern wears sunglasses in a darkened room, drinking a big whiskey, with three different editions of "Candy" scattered about, perhaps for inspiration.
     Does this reflect reality? Does Susan Sontag actually sit upon a narrow backless bench and write? Does William F. Buckley weave his magic while talking on a telephone in the back of a limousine? Did Eugene Ionesco really write with a huge, comical, ostrich feather pen, ignoring the typewriter at his elbow?
     The brief accompanying paragraphs, cribbed from the Paris Review and other literary interviews, provide scant insight.
     "I have no work routine," says John Irving. "I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark—it must be dark—and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come," says Toni Morrison, whose photo is typical. She is seen on a couch, writing in a spiral notebook. In the background, dark forms: a chair and, perhaps, a table. Morrison is right-handed.
     I do give Krementz credit for eventually clearing up the mystery of how this book came to be. In the acknowledgements, she personally thanks Random House boss Harold Evans, and drops the fact that Kurt Vonnegut is her husband and John Updike her dear friend, whom she loves and has photographed on 39 occasions.
     A vanity publication. Now it makes sense.
     Had Krementz told the circumstances surrounding the taking of these photos, that might have provided worthwhile insight, or at least some interesting stories. As it stands, the book is more of an in-joke. Hubby Vonnegut is shown in his bathrobe, doing the crossword puzzle, which I'm sure got a big laugh among the gang at Martha's Vineyard.

     —Originally published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, March 2, 1997


  1. Thanks for keeping your loyal post readers in mind. And thanks for the trip back in time. I really enjoyed this.
    I may be in the minority but i look forward to these little escapes from today's reality show politics.

  2. Krementz was portrayed in an unflattering light in the most recent biography of Vonnegut.

  3. Despite the critical, I might even say dismissive, tone of the article, I bet it sold some books for Jill Krementz.


  4. Escaping politics, an excellent idea. Maybe a journey up the Atchafalaya in a birch bark canoe.

  5. I have the picture of Vonnegut in his bathrobe, framed together with a cover from a paperback version of “Slaughterhouse Five,” and the supposed signature of the author, a gift from a former girlfriend who knew that I had enjoyed reading several of Vonnegut’s works. I still feel bad, 20-some years later, that she spent money on this. Framed together, the collage at least looks nice hanging on the wall in my office, but it’s basically pointless, much like a coffee table book of pictures of authors and their writing areas would seem to be.

  6. I'm pleased to note that, although most are dead and some out of print, they are all authors I recognize and some I might revisit.



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