Monthly Archives: July 2013

For Old-School Kvetch Comics, A Catskills Cradle


Jackie Mason is one of a host of comedians interviewed in When Comedy Went to School, a documentary about a generation of Jewish comics and the Catskills resorts that nurtured them.


International Film Circuit

Jackie Mason is one of a host of comedians interviewed in When Comedy Went to School, a documentary about a generation of Jewish comics and the Catskills resorts that nurtured them.

Jackie Mason is one of a host of comedians interviewed in When Comedy Went to School, a documentary about a generation of Jewish comics and the Catskills resorts that nurtured them.

International Film Circuit

For the charming but skin-deep documentary When Comedy Went to School, filmmakers Mevlut Akkaya and Ron Frank gained enviable access to pioneer stars of Borscht Belt standup.

Understandable impulse: It’s tough to make a film about showbiz without celebrities to face the camera — though now that I think of it, someone just did with the terrific 20 Feet From Stardom, about shafted backup singers. But this one spreads itself so talking-head thin that it tells us less about Jewish comedians themselves — from Jackie Mason, Jerry Lewis and Henny Youngman, through Woody Allen, Joan Rivers and Lenny Bruce, all the way to Jerry Seinfeld and Marc Maron and way too many more — than about the Catskills resorts that lifted a generation of comic geniuses out of the teeming miseries of New York’s Lower East Side.

It was at the Catskills’ Avon Lodge in 1942 that comic and actor Sid Caesar would meet Florence Levy, a kids’ counselor, niece of the owner and later Caesar’s much-adored wife of nearly seven decades. “I thought he would be just a nice boyfriend for the summer,” she told a California newspaper not long before her death in 2010.


International Film Circuit

It was at the Catskills' Avon Lodge in 1942 that comic and actor Sid Caesar would meet Florence Levy, a kids' counselor, niece of the owner and later Caesar's much-adored wife of nearly seven decades. "I thought he would be just a nice boyfriend for the summer," she told a California newspaper not long before her death in 2010.

It was at the Catskills’ Avon Lodge in 1942 that comic and actor Sid Caesar would meet Florence Levy, a kids’ counselor, niece of the owner and later Caesar’s much-adored wife of nearly seven decades. “I thought he would be just a nice boyfriend for the summer,” she told a California newspaper not long before her death in 2010.

International Film Circuit

Hosted by an unusually muted Robert Klein, When Comedy Went to School tells a familiar story of showbiz as avenue of upward mobility for the children of immigrants. Between 1930 and 1960, the Borscht Belt resorts set in the breathtaking Catskill Mountains of New York state offered a certain set of itchy young men (and some women, notably Molly Picon and Fanny Brice) a leg up into the middle class — and a chance to reinvent themselves without abandoning their roots in vaudeville and Yiddish theater.

Some, like Lewis, came from entertainment families who lived and breathed showbiz. Others crept in as tummlers (basically warm-up guys), or as busboys, bellboys or social directors, some of them providing sexual services to (who knew?) “bungalow bunnies,” the young and not-so-young, single and not-so-single matrons who flocked to the resorts for adventure.

Whether by way of judicious editing or because they’re older now, the comedians come across as circumspect and philosophical. Watching clips of their old routines, you get the impression that Jewish standup was all about self-loathing (“I was so ugly, my mother used to diaper my face”) or put-downs about nagging wives. As one wag puts it, performing at the resorts presented “a fabulous new field for complaint.”

But then comedy is almost always kvetching and aggression; great comedy is the art of resistance and subversion, tailor-made to cross all manner of boundaries under cover of a laugh. We see little of that in the movie, which mostly avoids the X-rated (the scabrous Lenny Bruce gets only a passing mention, and Joan Rivers appears in relatively polite form). Ditto the political, beyond a quick visit with Mort Sahl, who was up there with the greats as a political satirist.

Explaining the prominence of Jews in Western culture and the arts, the critic George Steiner wrote of “the long confinement of the ghetto, the sharpening of wit and nervous insight against the whetstone of persecution.”

Yet for the most part, Jewish comedians, it seems, were readier to do Hitler on Ice than they were to take on American anti-Semitism. The film doesn’t go into depth on why, but perhaps for American Jews, there wasn’t the same need for aggression, for pushback against an oppressor that we see in, say, black standup.

Relatively speaking, and notwithstanding the usual prejudices faced by first-generation refugees, Jews acclimated quickly and painlessly into American society. I grew up Jewish in England, where Jews tended to Anglicize their names and (not without reason) to keep their bags mentally packed for decades after World War II, so I was amazed at the prominence and casual visibility of Jews in American life.

As the film shows, American Jewish standup, and to some extent the resorts so beautifully photographed here, died when television came in, with Danny Kaye leading the way into TV and movies. But it almost certainly also died of acceptance and assimilation.

Today, there isn’t much of a specifically Jewish presence in the comedy clubs. At the movies, North American Jewish comedians — Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen, even Woody Allen these days — tend to be Jewish in name only. They neither deny nor flaunt their Jewishness; it’s just there, fading discreetly. So perhaps it’s significant that the closest we get to an in-your-face Jew in comedy today is Sacha Baron Cohen. And he’s British.

On The Road To Rock Excess: Why The ’60s Really Ended In 1973


British rockers Led Zeppelin pose in front of their private plane, dubbed “The Starship,” in 1973.


Hulton Archive/Getty Images

British rockers Led Zeppelin pose in front of their private plane, dubbed "The Starship," in 1973.

British rockers Led Zeppelin pose in front of their private plane, dubbed “The Starship,” in 1973.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Author Michael Walker says that by the end of the 1960s, you could fairly say there were two generations of baby boomers: Those who had experienced that decade’s peace-and-love era of music firsthand, and those who learned about it from their older brothers and sisters.

“So when the early ’70s got there,” Walker says, “this half of the baby boom decided to have their own party, and they wanted their own bands. And they brought to prominence bands like Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, The Who — sort of from both generations. The late-born baby boomers, that was their moment.”

What You Want Is in the Limo

That moment is the subject of Walker’s new book, What You Want Is in the Limo: On the Road with Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, and the Who in 1973, the Year the Sixties Died and the Modern Rock Star Was Born. In it, he argues for that year as a tipping point, when big tours — and bigger money — became a defining ethos in rock music. He speaks about it here with All Things Considered host Audie Cornish.

There are so many bands that hit the road on big tours or have seminal albums in 1973. You list some of them: Rod Stewart, Bob Marley; Pink Floyd has Dark Side of the Moon; Elton John has Goodbye Yellow Brick Road; there are debut albums from Queen and Aerosmith. Why do you choose — out of this massive list and range of music — these three bands? What do they represent?

It’s partially arbitrary, because I had great affection for all three bands and those albums. But there’s a very specific reason I did choose them: because 1973, unbeknownst to any of them, was going to be their peak year. Alice Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies was the culmination of the band’s march towards superstardom. It finally hit No. 1 in 1973; they have a sold-out tour of North America and they break up in 1974. I mean, they barely made it out of the year before they broke up. For The Who, Pete Townshend was obsessed in the early ’70s about The Who shedding their ’60s past, really kind of wrapping it up in a neat bow so that they can move on into the ’70s and progress as a cultural influence. And there’s a song called “[The] Punk and the Godfather” from Quadrophenia, and it’s basically this kid in the audience sneering up at the performers just saying, “Look, I made you.” Quadrophenia turned out to be the last great Who album and Pete Townshend pretty much admitted it over the years.

Led Zeppelin, unbeknownst to Led Zeppelin as well, was reaching their peak with Houses of the Holy, which was a really great, eclectic and fun album. But after [that album] and the subsequent tours, they went off the road for 18 months. They spent the ’70s in a long decline and they never really got back out of it.

You argue that these are major shifts from the ’60s in how these bands handle stardom, one of which is a change in the relationship between the audience and the rock star. What’s going on there that’s so different?

Well, it happened in the ’60s. There really was no barrier between audience and performer. That was part of the ego deflection that was going on in the ’60s, this collective-ness.

There was generational solidarity?

Yes, generational solidarity is happening; Woodstock happened. And the record companies got a look at 300,000 people showing up in a meadow. And Peter Rudge, The Who’s road manager and co-manager in 1973, said that the minute they got a look at that, the record business — which had, up until then, been kind of a cottage industry — suddenly realized there was lots and lots of money to be made here. And so, the concerts started getting upscaled from ballrooms and old theaters like The Fillmores East and West in New York and San Francisco into essentially sports arenas that held 14- or 15,000 people. At the same time, when these tours are morphing into these big tours in big arenas, the backstage pass becomes a necessity. This whole hierarchy of backstage and front of house started to reveal itself. And the audience began to be less in tune with the performer and more sort of a supplicant to the performer.

Another shift is self-indulgence in the music itself.

Yes, the indulgence really started to reveal itself in concert. Led Zeppelin was famous for this. John Bonham, the drummer, who was one of the great rock drummers of all time, nevertheless would sometimes take a solo that would go for 40 or 45 minutes. And Jimmy Page’s guitar solos would go on, and on, and on, and on.

Author Michael Walker has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and Rolling Stone.


Art Elkon/Courtesy Random House, Inc.

Author Michael Walker has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and Rolling Stone.

Author Michael Walker has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and Rolling Stone.

Art Elkon/Courtesy Random House, Inc.

This distancing you’re talking about is also the introduction of the kind of, “Here’s us posing in front of our jet” image, right? Here’s us, you know, getting in and out of the limo. It sounds like you’re saying that in the previous generation, that wouldn’t have been so cool to do.

The previous generation definitely rode around in limousines — I mean, on the very first Crosby, Stills & Nash album, there’s a picture of them standing in the snow in Big Bear, Calif. Well, they had all ridden up in a limo that day from L.A. So the limos were there, but you didn’t flaunt it. On the tours in ’73, Bob Gruen took this iconic photograph of Led Zeppelin in front of their, plane which was called The Starship. And The Starship was a converted [Boeing] 707/720 which had transcontinental range. It could haul about 180 people normally. It had been completely renovated into this strange flying pleasure-dome with shag carpeting and this huge, long bar and an electric organ and a bedroom with a circular waterbed. And my favorite touch was this sort of gothic fake fireplace room where the English musicians could pretend they were still in their manors back home. So there was a lot of flaunting of wealth, as opposed to trying to hide it.

In the end, is there a particular moment or song for you that really puts a nail in the coffin of the ’60s?

The Alice Cooper band, from the beginning, they were all about trying to explode the hippie myth. You know, we were into switchblades and girls and limousines and guns and we didn’t apologize for it; we liked it. So there’s an Alice Cooper song called “Elected” and it was actually issued a little bit ahead of the Billion Dollar Babies album of 1973, to coincide with the 1972 election. And the opening lyric to the song is, “I’m your top prime cut of meat, I’m your choice / I wanna be elected / I’m Yankee Doodle Dandy in a gold Rolls Royce / I wanna be elected.” This is as far away from peace, love and understanding as you can possibly get in a single song.

‘Life Goes On’ For Author Benjamin Alire Saenz


Copyright © 2013 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now it’s time for the occasional feature we call “In Your Ear,” that’s where some of our guests tell us about the songs that keep them going. Writer Benjamin Alire Saenz’s novel “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” was a big winner at this year’s American Library Association awards. When he spoke to us about the honor earlier this year, we also asked him about the music that inspires him in his career and his life.

ALIRE SAENZ: My name is Benjamin Alire Saenz and this is what’s playing in my ear. Joni Mitchell’s latest version of “A Case of You.”

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “A CASE OF YOU”)

JONI MITCHELL: (Singing) Just before our love got lost you said, I am as constant as a northern star. And I said, constantly in the darkness. Where’s that at? If you want me I’ll be in the bar…

SAENZ: And I am always singing that to myself. Oh, I could drink a case of you. And still be on my feet. I’d still be on my feet. I love Joni Mitchell.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “A CASE OF YOU”)

MITCHELL: (Singing) …Oh, you’re in my blood like holy wine. You taste so bitter but you taste so sweet. I could drink a case of you. Still I’d be on my feet. Still I’d be on my feet. I’d still be on my feet.

SAENZ: Another song that’s playing in my head is Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain.”

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “SET FIRE TO THE RAIN”)

ADELE: (Singing) I let it fall, my heart, and as it fell, you rose to claim it. It was dark and I was over until you kissed my lips and you saved me…

SAENZ: And it’s just such an odd phrasing and I don’t really, sometimes, get the song. But I really – I really love it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “SET FIRE TO THE RAIN”)

ADELE: (Singing) …But there’s a side to you that I never knew, never knew. All the things that you’d say, they were never true, never true. And the games that you’d play, you would always win, always win. But I set fire to the rain, watched it pour as I touched your face. Well, it burned while I cried ’cause I heard it screaming out your name, your name…

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “OB-LA-DI, OB-LA-DA”)

SAENZ: Another song that’s playing in my head is “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” by the Beatles. The weirdest song I’ve ever heard and I’m walking down the street sometimes and I’m just singing that kind of nonsensical, wonderful song from their “The White Album,” which is, I think, they’re most interesting album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “OB-LA-DI, OB-LA-DA”)

THE BEATLES: (Singing) …Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da life goes on brah. La la how the life goes on…

SAENZ: And I just sing, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da life goes on.” And it’s a happy song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “OB-LA-DI, OB-LA-DA”)

BEATLES: (Singing) …La la how the life goes on…

MARTIN: That was author Benjamin Alire Saenz telling us what’s playing in his ear. To hear our previous conversation, you can go to NPR.org, click on the programs tab and then Tell Me More. And that’s our program for today. I’m Michel Martin and you’ve been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let’s talk more tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “OB-LA-DI, OB-LA-DA”)

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Pioneering ‘Masters Of Sex’ Brought Science To The Bedroom


William Masters originally hired Virginia Johnson, then a divorced mother of two, to help him conduct research interviews. They married in 1971.


Cook/AP

William Masters originally hired Virginia Johnson, then a divorced mother of two, to help him conduct research interviews. They married in 1971.

William Masters originally hired Virginia Johnson, then a divorced mother of two, to help him conduct research interviews. They married in 1971.

Cook/AP

William Masters and Virginia Johnson became famous in the 1960s for their groundbreaking and controversial research into the physiology of human sexuality. Instead of just asking people about their sex lives, Masters and Johnson actually observed volunteers engaging in self-stimulation and sexual intercourse. Changes throughout their bodies during arousal were measured with medical equipment.

A new Showtime series premiering in September tells their story. It’s called Masters of Sex, and it’s based on the book by Thomas Maier, who is also a consultant for the series. Until Maier’s book, Masters and Johnson’s research techniques remained shrouded in secrecy. Maier was able to uncover information through interviews with their friends, family and former colleagues, as well as extensive interviews with Johnson, who died on July 24 at the age of 88.

Masters of Sex was first published in 2009, but a new paperback edition of the book has just come out. Maier is also the author of books about the Kennedys and the famous pediatrician Benjamin Spock. He joins Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross to discuss Masters and Johnson’s discovery of multiple and fake orgasms, as well as Masters’ use of prostitutes and sex surrogates.

Interview Highlights

On how Masters and Johnson medicalized sex

“Before Masters and Johnson came along, the realm of sex — the subject of sex — was usually something you talked to your priest, your rabbi or your minister [about], or you found yourself lying on a couch, talking about your feelings, about your mother, to a Freudian-trained analyst. Bear in mind, when [Masters and Johnson] came along in the mid ’50s, it was the height of Freud’s impact on America. … They thought the … questions that people were posing and the answers that people were looking for were best addressed to a doctor who was well-trained in the subject of sex.

“Masters wanted to understand exactly how the body worked so that they could come up with therapies to fix the various different problems that married couples would have in the bedroom. So they used a variety of different instruments. One of the instruments that they used was to trace the breathing and the heart rates and such. It was also used to internally observe sexual response by women, and that had a nickname called ‘Ulysses.’ But it was something that was all part of their clinical observation of how both males and females responded during sex.”

On the mystery of how humans respond during sex

“It was kind of the OB-GYN’s holy grail in a sense. In other words, they were all aware that there had never been a study of human beings. They had studied rabbits; they had studied apes. And in fact, that’s kind of how Bill Masters, studying anatomy both in Rochester and later at Johns Hopkins, became aware that this was something that had never been done. He traveled in the circle of doctors that were looking to win the Nobel Prize for … identifying estrogen and progesterone. And he felt, though, that this … was the grand prize, that this was something that would win a Nobel Prize if he could fully document over a long period of time exactly how the human responded during the central act of procreation.”

On discovering women’s capacity for multiple orgasms

Masters of Sex

“Their major, first book dealt with the power of female sexuality. Masters and Johnson really underlined the power of female sexuality, and in their long-term study what they showed was that women had the capacity for multiple orgasms in a way that men would go into what they called ‘a refractory period’ after having the initial sexual orgasm. Women were capable of multiple orgasms, and the second and the third was more intense than the first, and … they didn’t necessarily need to have a man to have an orgasm. And this was something that was done with about 380 women, almost an equal number of men, and they recorded something like 10,000 orgasms over a decade-long study that formulated their major book, Human Sexual Response, that came out in 1966.”

On using prostitutes for early research

“[They were] really the only female subjects that he could get to study. [Masters] was going at it alone, initially. Masters had an OB-GYN practice in St. Louis, where he was in many ways the best doctor in St. Louis. He had a lot of rich clients. He was very aware that the experience[s] of prostitutes were different than everyday women.”

On how he avoided legal trouble when studying prostitutes in brothels

“How in the world … was he not arrested? One of the things that I found in doing research was I found the police commissioner in St. Louis, a guy named Sam Priest. [Masters] had been the OB-GYN for Mrs. Priest when she delivered her babies. So Sam Priest, the top cop in St. Louis, he loved Dr. Masters, he thought he was the greatest, the way that … we all venerate doctors who are terrific. So whatever Masters wanted to do in that regard, [Priest] was more than willing to accommodate. … [He] acted almost as the accomplice with Masters in going to various different brothels in the city and observing prostitutes all in the name of science.”

On Masters discovering the fake orgasm

“What happened with Masters was that he was using a number of different prostitutes — and one of the prostitutes was actually a graduate student, I believe — and he would debrief them after observing this, and kind of talk about it. He asked about orgasm, and she said that she often faked orgasm. And he said, ‘What do you mean “faking orgasm?” ‘ And she said … something to the effect of, ‘Buddy, you’ve got to be kidding.’ And she explained that virtually most women at some point in their life, if not every night, will fake orgasm, that it was a common thing. And he seemed like he was struck by lightning, that the light bulb went off on his head. And it was the student … that said that he should get a female partner, and it was something that he really took to heart, and he realized that he was not going to go anywhere unless he had a female partner.”

On the researchers’ use of sex surrogates, who are intimate with patients in order to achieve a therapeutic goal

“They always wanted to study how the body worked so that they could fix it. Medicine could deal with the various problems that couples had, individuals had. One of the problems was impotence for men, and they found that sex surrogates could be quite effective with men who were having problems performing. Bill Masters had a certain … all-American utilitarianism to his view: If it works, it was the job of the doctor to make it happen for the patient. So he believed in sex surrogates. But what happened was that there were some legal consequences that came across there, and I think that Masters and Virginia [Johnson] … became aware that he could have his medical license even taken away. So the lawsuit was quietly taken care of by their lawyers and they kind of vowed that … they wouldn’t do it again.”

On their struggle for acceptance in the medical community

“In terms of Masters and Johnson, I think they felt that as long as it was within the realm of medicine and that people were following things here, and keeping an eye on it and it was effective for patients, that it was the appropriate course to pursue. Ultimately, it was too difficult; it was too hot to handle, frankly, politically. It was always [a] problem for them that the subject of sex was something that medicine, they felt, should get involved in, but medicine wasn’t really willing to do so.”

On the circumstances surrounding Masters and Johnson’s marriage

“They got married at the very height of their fame. They were on the cover of Time magazine, this was about 1970. By that point they had become quite world famous. Virginia Johnson made more money, frankly, somewhat of a surprise to her, than she ever imagined.

“She had met a man who had … provided money for their study about the impact of scents and smell on sexuality. This is the guy who provided the lemon in lemon Pledge and all these various scents. And somehow they found the link between scents and sexuality, that this was well worth funding. It turned out, as much as Masters liked that idea, he didn’t like the fact that this fellow — Hank Walter was his name — wound up having an affair with Virginia Johnson, and that eventually Virginia wanted to get married to Walter. When Masters found that out, he finally decided that he was going to end his [first] marriage. The thing that was most important to him was not his family, not even necessarily his relationship with Virginia — it was that work that they were doing, that brand name of Masters and Johnson. And so Masters ended his long marriage, told his kids that he was divorcing their mother, and got married to Virginia.”

With ‘Arrangements’ And ‘The Rest,’ Two Debut Novelists Arrive


Seating Arrangements

The novel I’ve been recommending this summer to anyone, female or male, who’s looking for the trifecta — a good story that’s beautifully written and both hilarious and humane — is Seating Arrangements, Maggie Shipstead’s debut novel from last summer. I was about to go all old-school and excitedly add that Seating Arrangements is now out in paperback, except since more and more readers are instantly downloading new books at a discount, paperbacks are becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Maggie Shipstead is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford.


Alisha & Brook Photographers/Courtesy of Vintage Books

Maggie Shipstead is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford.

Maggie Shipstead is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford.

Alisha & Brook Photographers/Courtesy of Vintage Books

The main character in Seating Arrangements is concerned that he and his pedigreed kind are becoming irrelevant too. Winn Van Meter is a WASP: He approves of discretion, shorts with little whales on them and Bloody Marys — lots and lots of “Bloodys,” as they’re called. Seating Arrangements takes place on a Nantucket-like island where the Van Meter family is hosting a wedding for their daughter, Daphne, who’s hugely pregnant (this is the 21st century, after all). Winn, the father of the bride, shambles around in a polite funk because he’s been quietly shunned by the island’s exclusive golf club, and because his house has been invaded by the bridal party, who deposit makeup and bikini tops everywhere. One of the more flirtatious bridesmaids is making Winn cranky in a sexual way. She has a name that only a fellow WASP could find arousing: She’s called Agatha.

Author Maggie Shipstead mocks the pretensions of this tightly enclosed world even as she thoroughly — and compassionately — inhabits it. She’s Edith Wharton with a millennial generation edge. And while the society of Seating Arrangements may be select, Shipstead’s range as a writer is democratic: She roams from a slapstick subplot starring an escaped lobster to sublime reflections on marriage and death. Here’s Winn’s sister-in-law meditating on the middle-aged consolations of her current relationship with a live-in lover named Cooper:

The Rest of Us

“Quiet dinners out, long weeks apart when he was off sailing, compatible taste in TV and movies, mutual tolerance of each other’s friends, agreement that they would never marry. … Even if things fell apart, she would draft another companion from the bush leagues of washed-up lovers and they would wait out the violet hour together.”

Jessica Lott’s previous work includes the 2007 novella, Osin.


Graham Lott/Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Jessica Lott's previous work includes the 2007 novella, Osin.

Jessica Lott’s previous work includes the 2007 novella, Osin.

Graham Lott/Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

I honestly may reread Seating Arrangements this summer to savor Shipstead’s droll language anew. Seating Arrangements won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for best first fiction, and the good news is that Shipstead has a second novel coming out in 2014.

I confess, when I first saw the title, Seating Arrangements, I assumed it was a chick-lit bauble. The title of Jessica Lott’s debut novel doesn’t serve it well either: It’s called The Rest of Us. But if Lott’s title is unmemorable, her opening chapter is etched in acid. Terry is a photographer’s assistant in her late 30s who’s been stranded for years in that no-man’s land between college and the next stage of adult life. When she was a college undergrad, Terry had an affair with a famous visiting poet named Rudolf Rhinehart, and he remains the love of her life. On the very first page of The Rest of Us, Terry has just stumbled upon Rhinehart’s New York Times obituary. In that imagined obituary, Lott demonstrates a wicked gift for mimicking the meaningless pronouncements of hoity-toity culture criticism. The obit reads, in part, “A profile on Mr. Rhinehart for The New York Times Magazine in 1999 attributed … the bestseller status [of his acclaimed poetry collection, Midnight, Spring] to its ‘finding portals of transcendence in the unceasing repetition of our daily lives.'”

That’s just the beginning of the fun because on page seven of the first chapter, a depressed Terry is wandering around Bloomingdale’s when she spots none other than Rhinehart standing in front of the Estée Lauder counter buying a gift for his wife! It turns out the Times obit was a mistake; it also turns out that Rhinehart’s current marriage is something of a mistake, too.

In the character of Terry, Lott nails that sense of being stalled, of being an adjunct in life when everybody else seems to be a fully inducted player. The Rest of Us itself stalls a bit toward the end, although Lott executes some unexpected riffs on the student-professor relationship plot.

Both Shipstead and Lott, first-time novelists though they may be, have arrived.

With ‘Arrangements’ And ‘The Rest,’ Two Debut Novelists Arrive


Seating Arrangements

The novel I’ve been recommending this summer to anyone, female or male, who’s looking for the trifecta — a good story that’s beautifully written and both hilarious and humane — is Seating Arrangements, Maggie Shipstead’s debut novel from last summer. I was about to go all old-school and excitedly add that Seating Arrangements is now out in paperback, except since more and more readers are instantly downloading new books at a discount, paperbacks are becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Maggie Shipstead is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford.


Alisha & Brook Photographers/Courtesy of Vintage Books

Maggie Shipstead is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford.

Maggie Shipstead is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford.

Alisha & Brook Photographers/Courtesy of Vintage Books

The main character in Seating Arrangements is concerned that he and his pedigreed kind are becoming irrelevant too. Winn Van Meter is a WASP: He approves of discretion, shorts with little whales on them and Bloody Marys — lots and lots of “Bloodys,” as they’re called. Seating Arrangements takes place on a Nantucket-like island where the Van Meter family is hosting a wedding for their daughter, Daphne, who’s hugely pregnant (this is the 21st century, after all). Winn, the father of the bride, shambles around in a polite funk because he’s been quietly shunned by the island’s exclusive golf club, and because his house has been invaded by the bridal party, who deposit makeup and bikini tops everywhere. One of the more flirtatious bridesmaids is making Winn cranky in a sexual way. She has a name that only a fellow WASP could find arousing: She’s called Agatha.

Author Maggie Shipstead mocks the pretensions of this tightly enclosed world even as she thoroughly — and compassionately — inhabits it. She’s Edith Wharton with a millennial generation edge. And while the society of Seating Arrangements may be select, Shipstead’s range as a writer is democratic: She roams from a slapstick subplot starring an escaped lobster to sublime reflections on marriage and death. Here’s Winn’s sister-in-law meditating on the middle-aged consolations of her current relationship with a live-in lover named Cooper:

The Rest of Us

“Quiet dinners out, long weeks apart when he was off sailing, compatible taste in TV and movies, mutual tolerance of each other’s friends, agreement that they would never marry. … Even if things fell apart, she would draft another companion from the bush leagues of washed-up lovers and they would wait out the violet hour together.”

Jessica Lott’s previous work includes the 2007 novella, Osin.


Graham Lott/Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Jessica Lott's previous work includes the 2007 novella, Osin.

Jessica Lott’s previous work includes the 2007 novella, Osin.

Graham Lott/Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

I honestly may reread Seating Arrangements this summer to savor Shipstead’s droll language anew. Seating Arrangements won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for best first fiction, and the good news is that Shipstead has a second novel coming out in 2014.

I confess, when I first saw the title, Seating Arrangements, I assumed it was a chick-lit bauble. The title of Jessica Lott’s debut novel doesn’t serve it well either: It’s called The Rest of Us. But if Lott’s title is unmemorable, her opening chapter is etched in acid. Terry is a photographer’s assistant in her late 30s who’s been stranded for years in that no-man’s land between college and the next stage of adult life. When she was a college undergrad, Terry had an affair with a famous visiting poet named Rudolf Rhinehart, and he remains the love of her life. On the very first page of The Rest of Us, Terry has just stumbled upon Rhinehart’s New York Times obituary. In that imagined obituary, Lott demonstrates a wicked gift for mimicking the meaningless pronouncements of hoity-toity culture criticism. The obit reads, in part, “A profile on Mr. Rhinehart for The New York Times Magazine in 1999 attributed … the bestseller status [of his acclaimed poetry collection, Midnight, Spring] to its ‘finding portals of transcendence in the unceasing repetition of our daily lives.'”

That’s just the beginning of the fun because on page seven of the first chapter, a depressed Terry is wandering around Bloomingdale’s when she spots none other than Rhinehart standing in front of the Estée Lauder counter buying a gift for his wife! It turns out the Times obit was a mistake; it also turns out that Rhinehart’s current marriage is something of a mistake, too.

In the character of Terry, Lott nails that sense of being stalled, of being an adjunct in life when everybody else seems to be a fully inducted player. The Rest of Us itself stalls a bit toward the end, although Lott executes some unexpected riffs on the student-professor relationship plot.

Both Shipstead and Lott, first-time novelists though they may be, have arrived.

The Never-Ending Story: Why They’re Not Getting Out From Under That Dome


Dean Norris, still under that dome. And there for a while.


Kharen Hill/CBS

Dean Norris, still under that dome. And there for a while.

Dean Norris, still under that dome. And there for a while.

Kharen Hill/CBS

Bad news for the fictional characters trapped under the dome in the CBS summer series Under The Dome: Your show was renewed. The dome isn’t going to lift. And no less than Les Moonves, the president and CEO of the CBS corporation, says that’s just fine.

“Why can’t they be under the dome for a long period of time? This is television!”

[Incidentally, this is an important distinction between the marketing approaches of broadcast and cable – premium cable, at least. People in premium cable typically do not jovially say “This is television!” when asked about things that seem silly. That doesn’t mean they don’t think it, and it doesn’t mean they don’t do it, but they don’t say it. Moonves is a guy who proudly calls Under The Dome a “soap opera,” compares it to classic Dallas, and sees all of that as positive.]

Call it The Killing curse, the Lost burn, call it what you will – critics at this year’s press tour are again asking a lot of questions about shows that begin with a big, high-concept premise, but threaten to never resolve it. Consider this: one of the shows with the best buzz of this tour is Broadchurch, an eight-part drama that’s already aired (to great acclaim) in the UK and comes to BBC America on August 7. It is many things, but it is in part a murder mystery, and that part of the question is answered within those eight (marvelous) episodes. They intend to do another series – though even the actors told us they’re not sure how or what form it will take – but those eight episodes, rich as they are with other stories, begin with a question and conclude with an answer.

British television is more at peace with this sort of thing. Things don’t go on forever; the idea is not necessarily to get to a 100th episode. They often do things in bunches of six or eight episodes, not 22. American cable has long been using a 13-episode season, and sometimes broadcast does, too – that’s part of what “limited series” means. The Brits have their soaps, of course, and Doctor Who has been on for 50 years. But we have a higher level of confidence that if they give you a murder mystery with eight episodes, you’ll get resolution.

The producers of the CBS drama Hostages faced this question, too. In the pilot – and this is nothing that isn’t in the promotional material – Toni Collette plays a doctor whose family is taken hostage by Dylan McDermott and his band of bad guys, who tell her that she must kill the president while performing scheduled surgery on him, or else he will kill the family. Although it bears a resemblance to the setup of The Mob Doctor, which didn’t last on Fox last year (that was also about a doctor prevailed upon to kill or suffer consequences), Hostages has an added element of emergency, since the family is literally seen on a couch with guns pointed at them.

The producers clarified that ultimately, they’ll be metaphorical hostages. “It’s about how these people are held hostage to who they are, to the decisions they’ve made, to the situation they are in.”

Of course, it must be so. Of course, they cannot be hostages in their house for the entire run of a network television show. Of course. The pragmatic critic and analyst understands that this is how it has to be, and yet, the viewer’s eyes roll a bit: “Oh. Metaphorical hostages.”

There is an elegance in a premise like this, just as there’s an elegance in a premise like, “They’re trapped on a bus, and if the bus goes below 50, it explodes.” What that elegance requires is a certain fidelity. It can’t turn out that the bomb isn’t real. It can’t turn out that the bomb doesn’t work. It can’t turn out that Dennis Hopper just wants a hug. It has to be a real conflict, a real problem to solve.

What they suggested about Hostages is that it will grow into a show about an ordinary family intersecting with some kind of government/criminal conspiracy. But it opens with this premise: she kills the president, or they kill her family. And unfortunately, if you watch network television, you feel confident from the beginning that neither of those things will happen. It will be Option C. And indeed, producer Jeffrey Nachmanoff told us of the Collette character that she is presented with this dilemma, but “we take her down a path, and she discovers, really, her inner hero and her ability to rise to that challenge.”

If this were an HBO series, she might actually kill the president. Then you have a show, because she’s in the soup at that point. But here, she’s going to discover her inner hero and find a way to wriggle out of it, and that seems built into the show’s DNA. Nachmanoff compared Collette’s character and McDermott’s to two trains set to collide, and “what’s kind of fun and surprising is when you put a switcher in right before they collide, and now, we have a new problem.”

Sure. Switchers like that can be fun – unexpected, complicating, “fun and surprising.” But if you know there will always be a switcher, in part so that the show can go on forever, the trains no longer seem set to collide at all. For a while, people can be entertained by what switcher you choose and what it looks like. But at some point, they conclude you’re working with either faulty tracks or Nerf trains, and nothing’s ever going to happen.

The dome is the same. Being stuck under a dome, as a story of limited length, has a certain simple appeal. Stephen King’s book is consumed with the breakdown of the social structure inside the dome, and with the very unsustainability of it. Dome life is a state of emergency, and the pressure constantly increases to get out, or to get help. To turn that around and say it can be like Northern Exposure, with continuing stories that happen to be inside a giant glass dome instead of in Alaska, makes for a very different kind of show. And that’s fine – perhaps they can sell it, as Moonves says, like a soap. Like Dallas.

But when you start with an emergency as your premise, whether it’s being held hostage or being under a dome, every time you slacken the tension, you risk making audiences feel cheated. It’s one of the most basic ways that the business side of television, in which everything must be drained of all its blood and then often forced to stumble along, zombie-like, for a few more seasons after that, is in conflict with the creative side of television, in which every story has a baked-in pace at which it should progress.

Just know this: Broadchurch plays fair. Questions get answers. August 7. BBC America.

City Slickers: 5 Books About The Urban Experience



Andrew Bannecker

Illustration: Books As Cities

At the NPR Cities Project, we’ve spent much of the summer reading, breathing, reporting on urban innovation. From smartphone apps such as NextBus and StreetBump, to citywide surveillance camera networks, to 9-1-1 texting and NASA-style command and control centers for city agencies, we’ve been exploring how cities are using technology in the 21st Century. It’s a hot topic among urbanists everywhere.

There is no doubt that information technology is changing how we get around, how our governments work and how we relate to the people in our neighborhoods. By 2050, the United Nations projects, almost 70% of people around the world will live in metropolitan areas. So, lots of technologists are looking for solutions to urban puzzles with the hope that bigger, denser population centers of the future can also be more efficient and more pleasant places to live.

With these trends in mind, here is some of the year’s big thinking about the intersection our increasingly digitized and citified lives.

Book News: Campaigner For Jane Austen Banknote Deluged With Threats


Parliament member Stella Creasy (second from right) and activist Caroline Criado-Perez (right) pose with a mock-up of the new 10-pound banknote featuring Jane Austen.


Getty Images

Parliament member Stella Creasy (second from right) and activist Caroline Criado-Perez (right) pose with a mock-up of the new 10-pound banknote featuring Jane Austen.

Parliament member Stella Creasy (second from right) and activist Caroline Criado-Perez (right) pose with a mock-up of the new 10-pound banknote featuring Jane Austen.

Getty Images

The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

  • Caroline Criado-Perez, the feminist activist who successfully campaigned to make Jane Austen the new face of Britain’s 10-pound note, has been inundated with hundreds of death and rape threats on Twitter after the banknote news broke last week. Criado-Perez responded by retweeting the threats to her followers. Some of the more printable examples include: “I will find you and you don’t want to know what I will do when I do, you’re pathetic, kill yourself before i do.” and “Hey sweetheart, give me a call when you’re ready to be put in your place.” British police arrested a man over the weekend “on suspicion of harassment offences,” but the threats didn’t stop. When British Parliament member Stella Creasy spoke out in support of Criado-Perez, she also received rape threats, which she in turn retweeted. This has sparked debate in the U.K. about whether Twitter is responsible for regulating such threats. CNN reports: “Twitter UK’s General Manager Tony Wang said the social-networking company takes online abuse very seriously, offering to suspend accounts, and called on people to report any ‘violation of Twitter rules.‘ ” Separately, one of the world’s most eminent classicists, Mary Beard, promised Monday to publicly shame those who send her misogynistic messages on Twitter, tweeting, “I’m not going to be terrorised.” A man who purportedly sent the Cambridge professor crude messages Monday swiftly begged her forgiveness after another Twitter user threatened to tell his mother what he had written.
  • The Four Way Review published three new poems from Craig Morgan Teicher. The second, “Drunkenness,” reads, “Sip by sip, life becomes tolerable, then pleasant, then milky — as soft and gregarious as a lamb. … Not even happiness feels this good.”
  • Mary Karr tells The New York Times about the unique experience of finding out your literary idols are jerks: “If we didn’t read people who were bastards, we’d never read anything. Even the best of us are at least part-time bastards.”
  • The novelist Gary Shteyngart writes about wearing a Google Glass around New York: “Wearing Glass takes its toll. ‘You look like you have a lazy eye,’ I’m told at a barbecue, my right eye instinctively scanning upward for more info. ‘You look like you have a nervous tic,’ when I tap at the touch pad. ‘You have that faraway look again,’ whenever there’s something more interesting happening on my screen.”
  • The London Fire Brigade says a recent rise in the number of calls involving people trapped in handcuffs may be tied to Fifty Shades of Grey. A spokesman comments, “I don’t know whether it’s the Fifty Shades effect, but the number of incidents involving items like handcuffs seems to have gone up.” Either way, the fire brigade has some practical advice: “If you use handcuffs, always keep the keys handy.”