by Carl Djerassi '43
University of Georgia Press
Novelist Stephen Marx, the protagonist of Carl Djerassi's new novel Marx, Deceased, is having a mid-life, mid-career crisis. It's not that he hasn't been a success: he has produced thirteen novels, most of them critical and popular successes. He even has a Pulitzer Prize to his name. But, in the dinner conversation that opens the novel, we discover that he's obsessed with the opinions of others regarding his work, especially the opinion of book reviewer and critic Noah Berg, his bete noir.
What, Marx wonders aloud, would it be like to read his own obituaries and, more importantly, the critical appraisals and reappraisals that would follow upon the death of a novelist of his stature? And how would he accomplish such a feat?
The answer to the latter question is one Marx has already worked out. He will fake his death in a boating accident, with the help of his dinner companion, and he will establish a new identity for use until such time as his curiosity about the posthumous regard for his work has been satisfied.
Eavesdropping on the conversation from a neighboring table is a graduate journalism student, Sabine Diehlsdorf, who will come to play an important role in Marx's life. She's sufficiently intrigued to remember the conversation when Marx's obituary appears, with its description of just the sort of accident he had described to his friends. Diehlsdorf smells a great story, but where's her proof?
Then, a review--by Berg--of a first novel by a previously unknown writer invokes Marx's name by way of a stylistic comparison, and Diehlsdorf's suspicions are raised. She tracks down the mysterious author and, in an entertaining game of cat and mouse (with a number of role reversals), confirms her suspicions about him. Diehlsdorf determines to make her name and reputation as Marx's biographer. But how far will she go in revealing his story?
Neither Marx nor Diehlsdorf is a particularly admirable character, which is not to say they're uninteresting. In fact, that's far from the case. Marx is an egotist and a womanizer; both "qualities" are revealed in an early scene at a reading from one of his works-in-progress that may (but shouldn't) put off some readers. Diehlsdorf is callow and rather cold--and very much the young-woman-on-the-make professionally. Both of them can be a tad self-righteous.
Among the more likeable dramatis personae are Marx's wife, Miriam, and Berg. They become lovers--some time after Marx's supposed death--and then more in the course of the novel. (Kenyon readers will be amused to find that Berg is described as a graduate of the College who served as a student apprentice at The Kenyon Review.) Miriam Marx, a caterer, is writing, with Berg's encouragement, a cookbook called Can You Do It Backward?--a title with which all have great fun. Berg, who first meets Miriam when he sets out to settle a score with her supposedly dead husband, is a bit of a pedant, but he's an entertaining one.
(A reader familiar with Djerassi's previous work will be tempted to consider how much autobiography--and in which characters--is revealed in Marx, Deceased, which provides several delectable clues. One of Marx's books, for example, is titled Cohen's Dilemma, while one of Djerassi's earlier works is Cantor's Dilemma.)
It must be noted that Djerassi has a gift for writing dialogue. He uses it to allow his characters to reveal themselves to the reader, keeping exposition about their lives to a minimum. He is also adept at employing dialogue to convey a sense of foreboding or unease, most memorably in a cross-country skiing scene. Indeed, it's surprising that playwriting seems to be the one form of literary expression to which Djerassi--who has produced autobiography, essays, and poetry in addition to fiction--has not turned his hand.
If the reader can be allowed one complaint about Djerassi's novel, it is that Marx, Deceased contains perhaps too many ideas--about relationships between the sexes, about reputations (literary and otherwise), about the ways in which writers use their own lives and those of the people who inhabit them as the wellsprings of their fiction, even about such matters as the importance of names--for a work of only slightly more than two hundred pages.
The solution to Diehlsdorf's dilemma regarding Marx's biography will not be revealed here. Suffice it to say that it's ingenious--and very much in the spirit of the book. Djerassi has written a witty novel that provides thoughtful reflection on some very compelling issues--and provokes more of the same from its readers.
by Wade Newman '79
Somers Rock Press
One Sunday afternoon twenty-three years ago, in the living room of Mary and Professor of English Robert W. Daniel's house (they were on sabbatical, and we were renting their home), I was reading submissions for the freshman poetry prize when I came across a group of poems by someone who had adopted for the purposes of this contest the pen name "Zarathustra." The poems were so dazzling that I immediately called Robert Cantwell, who was then my colleague in the English department and also the other judge in the poetry contest. Together, we marveled over the breathtaking talent of this Zarathustra, and, after agreeing within seconds to award him the prize, we opened the envelope that contained his real name. We discovered that it was Wade Newman, who called himself "Woody" and had been sitting shyly in the back of my English 1-2 class all semester.
The Daniels' house has now been converted to a College building, and I often teach English 1-2 in that same living room, which has been transformed into a classroom. To this day, when we study poetry, I tell my first-year students that story, partially because Woody's "Baby Birds" is probably the best poem I've ever seen from a first-year student and partially by way of suggesting that the tradition of poetry at Kenyon is a living one. Woody later founded the College's Poetry Society, which under his careful guidance helped to foster a resurgence of interest in poetry at Kenyon, not unlike the resurgence we are experiencing today.
It was a great delight, then, to see that Woody's first book of poems has now been published: Testaments, a chapbook released by Somers Rock Press and available for purchase from Riptide Books Distributor, P.O. Box 279, Stuyvesant Station, New York, New York 10009 (212-598-9483).
Testaments is a carefully crafted and provocative series of meditations on ten Old and New Testament figures and events. Collectively, these poems recast some of the great Biblical stories in a context that is humanistic, to be sure, but also capable of flaring into radiance. Some of the poems, such as "Eve" and "Noah," are dramatic monologues, a difficult form that Newman handles skillfully, especially in light of the poems' brevity. "When I opened my eyes at the pond," says Eve,
"Something beautiful splashed back.
I bent above the ripples
To sip light shining from my face."
That last line is typical of Newman's ability to counterpoint complexities in a single simple line.
"So I built the boat anyway," Noah tells us, in a tone that is endearingly intimate and, in the following couplet, domestic:
"Downed the forest's first trees,
Smelted nails in the soup pot, . . ."
even when it rises to the surreal, as in the poem's ending:
"To the horizon
Like hysterical laughter."
Newman moves seamlessly from the majestic to the comic. The Serpent, for example, in the witty poem of that name, "drops all pretense like a flasher" when he confronts Eve. In the final poem of the book, Newman figures "The Last Supper" as a wild seder in which everything, even the silverware and dishes, is humming with energy, as "bowls whiz to the floor like discarded yarmulkahs."
Newman has published dozens of poems in literary magazines, including The Kenyon Review, and his poems have been included in anthologies compiled by, among others, Stanley Kunitz and May Swenson. His first book is an exciting event. Kenyon should be proud of him. I certainly am.
--Ronald A. Sharp, John Crowe Ransom Professor of English
The Gospel According to Us: On the Relationship Between Jesus and ChristianityLately Jesus has been appearing in some unlikely places: Time, Newsweek, Us, and online in various World Wide Web sites. The academic debates that have begotten many of these appearances are responsible for a kaleidoscope of images, some new and some old: Jesus as apocalyptic seer, itinerant Cynic peasant, Jewish prophet or marginal Jew, Galilean revolutionary, sapiential messiah, or polymorphous magician. Jaroslav Pelikan's 1985 book Jesus through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture has shown that this quest to assert some stereotypical identity for Jesus and the Christian gospels is not new to our age, however much we seem at both the academic and popular levels to produce a Jesus-du-jour (usually still with Anglo-Saxon facial features).
by Duncan Holcomb '80
Cross Roads Books
Duncan Holcomb's engaging, short work, The Gospel According to Us, insists that Jesus is too important to hand over to the "Jesus Seminar" or even to the fumbling misconceptions of publicly pious believers. His book explores in readable fashion why Jesus is so often disregarded, misunderstood, and distorted. Holcomb acknowledges that most recent, critical scholarship is off-putting but also that belief in God does not automatically translate into accurate understanding of Christian beliefs. One devoted Christian he mentions is "shocked" to learn Jesus was a Jew! Holcomb, in fact, seeks to expose the reader to the "shock of the new" in the gospel stories, in all their scandal and deep offense to the present age.
Recently, the wider American reading public has witnessed attempts to reclaim the Bible and biblical Christianity from the univocal interpretations of fundamentalists and those who seem to use the Bible as if it were a prooftext for the political agenda of the Religious Right. Peter J. Gomes's immensely popular The Good Book: Discovering the Bible's Place in Our Lives (1996) and Forrest Church's God and Other Famous Liberals: Recapturing the Bible, Flag, and Family From the Far Right (1996) are two examples of the idea that no one "owns" the Word of God in the Bible. The biblical Word "owns" the believer in ever-new ways. Without accepting the specific views of these authors, Holcomb, I think, would endorse the larger conclusion. It may also explain why the Christ of Faith must be (emphasis mine) reincarnate in the King James Version, the Revised Standard Version, New English Bible, New American Bible, the Lattimore translation, and so on. Rather than a final, fixed version, the Bible must be retranslated by each generation. Each new attempt is in some sense a "Gospel According to Us," and thus each one is urgently necessary and ultimately inadequate.
Holcomb finds public discourse about Jesus in the United States today to be either shrill or absent. What he proposes and then demonstrates in his own close reading of Scripture is an informed, careful, and respectful grappling with the texts and contexts of Jesus' message, basic tales of self and meaning, framed within Holcomb's own deeply rooted Southern Protestant religious experience. His task can be seen as the project of Christian Humanism, the ongoing Augustinian/Anselmian endeavor to read diverse texts without reducing them to the merely reasonable and comfortable. His solution to the lingering misunderstandings and misuses of those texts is "to find images powerful and evocative enough to speak to dull minds." This is the same project that has engaged creative "translators" such as William Blake, Flannery O'Connor, C.S. Lewis, Fred Buechner, and the "Joshua" series. To be faithful to the Bible means creating a new, living language to present it; merely repeating memorized biblical phrases turns it into an idol and cliche.
Indeed, Holcomb sees the Christian church itself as perhaps the most inert obstacle to that recovery of the challenging word, a church "obsessed with its standing in the world." He brings that insight of Soren Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, and Jacques Ellul to bear on the contemporary American scene. The current secular and ecclesiastical versions of the Bible increasingly focus on the quest for the "historical Jesus" or "Jesus as Santa" or a "human-potential Jesus." The ironically titled The Gospel According to Us pinpoints that process of recreating Jesus in "our image and likeness," rather than being transformed. Holcomb calls instead for a fateful return to the awe-inspiring Word that goes beyond all our imaginings.
--Royal W. Rhodes, professor of religion
The Quit: A Consideration of the Art of QuittingFrom the opening quote by W.C. Fields ("If at first you don't succeed, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it.") to the final sentence ("Quit because you can."), The Quit by Evan Harris '91 is an odd little book, but one worth completing. That's because it makes witty and convincing arguments that it's okay to throw in the towel. In fact, says the author, quitting can be downright euphoric, whether it's leaving a lousy job, blowing off an obnoxious person, getting out of a rotten town, severing a connection to some goofy idea or self-defeating emotional state, or dumping a bad habit.
by Evan Harris '91
Simon and Schuster
Coeditor of Quitter Quarterly, Harris has written essays on quitting that have been published in Harper's magazine and The New York Times. In her book, she turns quitting from a vice to a virtue, employing a systematic approach to prove her point. Each chapter addresses a different aspect of quitting. They include "Types, Technique, and Style, The Cornerstones of the Quit," "Quitting Euphoria and Postquitting Depression," "Retroactive Quitting: Myth or Reality?," "The Principled Quit," "The Requit," and "Quitting the Search for Happiness." The chapters include techniques on how to get the job done, whether it's quitting in the clutch, repudiating your ideas, or, of course, the time-honored act of quitting while you're ahead.
In support of her arguments, Harris describes the quitting techniques of some famous people. They include actress-turned-princess Grace Kelly, who excelled at changing horses in mid-stream; Ingrid Bergman, who brought "the eleventh-hour quit" to the screen in Casablanca; chess master Bobby Fischer and author J.D. Salinger, who perfected the "achieve and vanish quit"; and author Marcel Proust, who embraced the "take to your bed quit" and then wrote Remembrance of Things Past.
Harris's book makes readers rethink the bromide that "quitters never win," while they enjoy many chuckles in the process. Musician Herb Alpert may have said "the trumpet is my enemy" when he disbanded the Tijuana Brass and quit performing in 1969, but, in The Quit, the reader has a friend.
Improvising Shakespeare: Reading for the StageAnyone who misses the magic of the Kenyon classroom would do well to watch Professor of Drama Thomas Turgeon at work in Improvising Shakespeare: Reading for the Stage. This book distills a lifetime of theatrical experience and defines a systematic method for transforming page into stage, text into theater. It is organized as a series of master classes, with Turgeon taking the reader literally "behind the scenes" to illustrate "the special kind of reading that goes on in the rehearsal hall."
by Thomas S. Turgeon
For Turgeon's Shakespearean actor, the urge to dramaturgy propels speeches into staged behaviors: active verbs translate words into action. "Improvising" denotes the act of creativity that occurs as the actor invents, out of his or her imagination, a plausible motivation or specific objective, expressed by a verb, for each successive action onstage. Following Turgeon's method of reading, the actor forgoes literary interpretation for dramatic improvisation, cutting through the verbiage to find the verb. The play as a whole emerges from the accumulation of specific behaviors--active choices--made by actors line by line and scene by scene.
The theatrical illusion becomes credible, Turgeon argues, through the specificity, detail, and accuracy with which an actor imagines his or her role. What is the location, the time of year, the state of mind of the character, the specific intention(s) governing his or her actions, the response of others onstage? In a close analysis of eight of Shakespeare's greatest scenes, Turgeon continually raises specific questions: these mental calisthenics for the reader strengthen the theatrical imagination.
To guide the reader in the architectural process of building up theatrical illusion, Turgeon includes marvelous examples and advice from great Shakespearean actors and directors. The reader is invited to consider, for example, how to play Richard III wooing the woman whose husband he has just murdered: as Laurence Olivier envisioned the role, with "the utmost libertinage" and raw sexual power, or as Anthony Sher conceived the part, as a man made "pathetic and vulnerable" by physical deformity. When the lovesick Helena of A Midsummer Night's Dream begs Demetrius to "Use me but as your spaniel, / Spurn me, strike me . . . ," does Demetrius respond with the awkwardness of an embarrassed young man, as in Tyrone Guthrie's interpretation, or, in Peter Brook's phrase, with "insulting violence and brutality"? Anecdotes and insights from professionals such as John Barton, Peter Brook, John Gielgud, and Peter Hall enliven and inform, but do not dominate, Turgeon's book, which continually engages the reader in exercises designed to evoke personal and individual imaginative responses.
Throughout the scenes, Turgeon interrogates the verb "to act," examining physical, intentional, verbal, and other modes of action as the building blocks of the theatrical effect. The famous scene in King Lear where Edgar cures his father's despair by leading him through an imagined suicide provides an opportunity to examine, at a microscopic level, "spoken action": Turgeon shows how metrical stresses and pauses in individual lines provide insights into Edgar's motivation. Turgeon analyzes theatrical time, tempo, and pacing by examining the songs and rounds sung by a drunken Sir Toby Belch and crew in Twelfth Night, a play whose title alludes to both time and song: "O, the twelfth day of December. . . ." And Turgeon is at his best as he illustrates how scenes are structured around specific turning points, discoveries, and decisions made by individual characters--Lady Anne manipulated into marriage in Richard III, Othello manipulated into murder by Iago, or Maria driven to rebel against the priggish Malvolio in Twelfth Night.
Improvising Shakespeare offers a "how-to" manual, a clear and well-presented method of reading; the text is also animated with a celebration of creative possibilities. Each actor creates the play anew through his or her choices concerning character motivation and behavior. The palette of choices provides the paint that daubs the theatrical canvas. As these decisions accumulate, the play grows to an aesthetic whole, crafted through the medium of human behavior.
Throughout, Turgeon makes helpful comparisons between musical and dramatic performance. Like the musician, the actor must organize time aesthetically, sustain rhythm, pace, and tempo, orchestrate contrasting emotions and intentions, and work toward an overall effect. Turgeon's concern for dramatic rhythm unites an attention to short bursts of action--the equivalent of Stanislavskian "beats"--with Suzanne Langer's conceptions of organic form.
An introductory section on dramatic theory reveals the book's indebtedness to Langer, Coleridge, and Aristotle. Turgeon adopts as a fundamental premise the concept of an illusionist theater created through a Coleridgean "willing suspension of disbelief." One might wish the book to address those critics who argue that Shakespearean theater is pre-illusionistic--more allegorical and presentational than naturalistic and representational, that is, more concerned with language than with character per se. Also, what of the extra-dramatic moments when characters deliberately break the dramatic illusion? Still, Turgeon's theory is admirably consistent with his practice, and readers who have seen his performances will find Turgeon's theoretical justification succinctly stated here.
As a teacher, I can identify with Turgeon's concern for students who misspell "playwright" as "playwrite." The spelling itself matters (I recall my recent difficulty with a student's small lapse, in an otherwise excellent essay, of continually referring to Prince Hal as the "Prince of Whales") but, more importantly, this seemingly trivial misunderstanding goes to the heart of Turgeon's argument: "Plays are wrought, they are not, strictly speaking, written. That is, they are built. Plays are crafted by a team of people."
An artist's concern for craft and creative collaboration animates Improvising Shakespeare. Turgeon initiates the reader into the mysteries of impersonation and opens up imaginative and interpretive possibilities, not only for Shakespeare but also for theatrical performance generally. This book teaches: it combines aesthetic sensitivities with inquiry into motivation and behavior. Turgeon places creativity at the center of both reading and acting. His practical wisdom and clear exposition make Improvising Shakespeare suitable for the readers whom Shakespeare's fellow actors imagined for the First Folio in 1623: "From the most able, to him that can but spell."
--Adele S. Davidson '75, associate professor of English
Savannah Seasons: Food and Stories from Elizabeth on 37thNamed the Best American Chef of the Southeast by the James Beard Foundation in May 1995, Elizabeth Terry did not rest on a sprig of laurel. The next summer, she and daughter Alexis produced a cookbook, Savannah Seasons. This collection of recipes and anecdotes shares many of the secrets that have made the restaurant Elizabeth on 37th in Savannah, Georgia, and the eponymous chef/owner, such a success.
by Elizabeth Terry
Terry's restaurant, and the cookbook, actually began in 1978 when she opened a soup and sandwich shop in the back of a friend's wine shop in Atlanta, Georgia. She and her husband, Michael H. Terry '64, purchased their present building in 1981, and she found she was "owner and chef not of a sandwich shop or tea room but of a real restaurant. We tasted many bottles of wine. . . . We each lost twenty pounds . . . and we would fall asleep at one in the morning as soon as our heads hit the pillow, set the clock for six, bound out of bed, and laugh to each other."
This exuberance and perseverance led to an award as the 1993 Small Business of the Year in Savannah and to Food and Wine's selection of Elizabeth on 37th as one of the "Top 25 Restaurants in America" in 1992-93. Housed in a turn-of-the-century Southern mansion in Savannah, the restaurant offers a "subtle and stunning new regional cooking based on wonderful old Southern recipes," as suggested by the restaurant's very modern World Wide Web page (http://www.savannah-online.com/elizabeth/).
Although heirloom cookbooks and research in the Georgia Historical Society were part of Terry's self-administered culinary education, her recipes feature a contemporary interpretation of classic Southern dishes enhanced by the imported foods relished by those living in a seaport such as Savannah. Terry has created enticing blends of unexpected tastes in traditional dishes, such as adding fresh pears to a curried cream of squash soup or infusing cardamom in a glaze for delicate white fish. The most popular dish ever served in the restaurant, according to Terry, is a steamed melange of shrimp, scallops, mushrooms, and snow peas that is enlivened by a lime mustard glaze, a light citrus emulsion reminiscent of a "very flavorful homemade mayonnaise."
None of these recipes contain inappropriate yokings of disparate ingredients, nor are any of them complicated to produce. The instructions are precise and easy to follow; even the most unusual ingredients are not difficult to find.
As a reference book, Savannah Seasons thoughtfully provides addresses for mail-order products. It also lists the basic equipment deemed necessary for "The Southern Kitchen," all of which you probably already own. Despite the title, the cookbook is not organized by the seasons of the year; however, Terry does offer seasonal menus in the section entitled "Entertaining in the Southern Style," including multiple wine recommendations from her husband and wine steward, Michael. Scattered throughout the book are decorating and entertaining suggestions to enhance the presentation of the food and celebrate the hospitality of dining.
While Savannah Seasons specializes in regional fare, it offers hints for those whose larders or mail boxes are not stocked with fresh blue crabs, Vidalia onions, and stone-ground grits. For instance, Terry suggests that grilled chicken may be substituted for crab in many of the shellfish recipes.
Of her recipes and tips, my favorite instruction is that you should visit Savannah during the brief early June season so that Terry may saute the soft-shell crabs for you. As they say, "My favorite thing to make for dinner is reservations."
--Alice Cornwell Straus '75. A member of the Bulletin's Contributing Writers Group, Straus is director of donor relations at Lawrence University.
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