Book Club
©2021 tuppenceforthebirds


Year in Review: Obituaries


Norm MacDonald (1959 – 2021)
David Marchese, The New York Times

Norm Macdonald was a complicated, often inscrutable guy, one who (mostly) adhered to now quaintly old-fashioned codes of privacy and propriety, a rascally self-mythologizer and a levels-deep ironist. Those obfuscating qualities mean it’s probably easiest to define his comedy by defining what it wasn’t. And that can be summed up in a single word: confessional.

Like everyone else who failed to notice Norm MacDonald between his SNL departure until his death, I spent a more than a few hours streaming YouTube clips of his suspended build-ups, larky asides, and airless punchlines. There is something to be said, and I’m not sure what it is, about someone that shit-grins through precious minutes of Late Night airtime only to deliver “useful porpoise” as a punchline. My favorite, and the one that I will make me think about Norm MacDonald more than I ever thought about him in the past, is his Germany bit during the wrap up of the Letterman’s tenure. Laced with his elevated provincialism, it lands on an obvious, if late, conclusion: “Listen, Germany, here’s the deal, you don’t get to be a country no more on account that you keep attacking... the world.” It’s smart, it loony, and you can’t help but giggle.

Renay Mandel Corren (1937 – 2021) 
Andy Corren, The Fayetteville Observer

December 15, 2021

May we all be roasted by our successors:

A plus-sized Jewish lady redneck died in El Paso on Saturday... Of itself hardly news, or good news if you're the type that subscribes to the notion that anybody not named you dying in El Paso, Texas is good news. In which case have I got news for you: the bawdy, fertile, redheaded matriarch of a sprawling Jewish-Mexican-Redneck American family has kicked it. 

We thought Renay could not be killed. God knows, people tried. A lot. Renay has been toying with death for a decades, but always beating it and running off in her silver Chevy Nova. Covid couldn't kill Renay. Neither could pneumonia twice, infections, blood clots, bad feet, breast cancer twice, two mastectomies, two recessions, multiple bankruptcies, marriage to a philandering Sergeant Major, divorce in the 70's, six kids, one cesarean, a few abortions from the Quietly Famous Abortionist of Spring Lake, NC or an affair with Larry King in the 60's. Renay was preceded in death by her ex-boyfriend, Larry King.

What We Get Wrong About Joan Didion
Nathan Heller, The New Yorker

January 27, 2022

 On style:

There’s the entwining of sensuous and ominous images. And there’s the fine, tight verbal detail work: the vowel suspensions (“ways an alien place”), the ricocheting consonants (“harsher... haunted... Mojave”), the softly anagrammatic games of sound (“subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies”). Didion worked hard at her sentences, and no magazine journalist has done better than her best. But style is just the baseline of good writing. Didion’s innovation was something else.

I’ve Spent 25 Years as a Joan Didion Thief

Jay Caspian Kang, The New York Times
December 27, 2021

I feel comfortable telling you this because I certainly am not alone. Modern American essayists are usually trying to emulate a set of foundational texts: Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son,” Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” or “Reflections on Gandhi,” or Didion’s “The White Album” or “Goodbye to All That.”

[Early Didion] presents herself in that early work as a largely unimpressed outsider who witnesses the grubby strivings of everyone from the Black Panthers to the Doors but admits not really understanding why they do what they do. She meets young people who have been edged out of society and can only really tell you about the drugs they do, the cringey rituals they perform and the oblique way they prove “the center was not holding,” whatever that means. She is always telling her readers, as she did in the first paragraph of “Bethlehem,” “I did not know what I wanted to find out.”

I once thought that all good writing should be rooted in such daring confessions of what the author did not know, but I have begun to suspect that was because for all those years that I was imitating early Didion, I mostly saw writing as a performance in which I was the primary audience... and yet, while I admire the later Didion who mostly dropped the affectations of her earlier work without compromising the steely, crafted prose or the allure of Joan Didion, its central character, I do not find myself revisiting it in the same way I compulsively reread “John Wayne: A Love Song” or “The White Album.”

A headline for this holiday season
Tara Bahrampour, The Washington Post



You don’t need to have grown up in, let alone escaped The Troubles in Northern Ireland to embrace the rose-colored sentiment of Belfast, Kenneth Branaugh’s pseudo-autobiographical feature. To get a bit wistful you only need to have been raised, as I was, in a household committed to Van Morrison. That as a tenet of parental responsibility, a generation of fathers encoded Morrison’s whiskey-soaked, folk-jazz grovel onto their children’s memories is subtext for a certain set of Millennials — one that is reaching full nostalgic expression as the succesor generation ascends into middle age.

“VanMo could really rock,” my father once told me as the singer spoken-worded harmonic throat syrup over “Have I Told You Lately.” My disgust was visceral. The sentiment was almost as off-putting as the nickname, “Van the Man.” No one rocked in the late-90s, if they ever did, and anyway he had said the same thing about Elton John when I’d pantomimed gagging in response to the ubiquity of “Candle in the Wind.” That song had carried the radio waves for almost year after Lady Di’s death. Upon hearing my father defend that saccharine posh, I’d silently prayed for Diana’s fate.

I was still getting acquainted with my early-teens, and in no state to abandon the sanctuary of punk-grunge realness. That was an angry safe space, mostly for kids whose parentally supplied comforts afforded them discontent as a hobby. We’d inherited the voice of our elder siblings era, an off-standish snark who screeched lines like “hey, wait, I’ve got a new complaint.” We’d nodded ours heads, sometimes violently, to indulgent pop angst. And then, once we’d mined that aggressive diffidence for all its rebellious currency, we cut our hair and postured about excesses of money and problems, of which we had neither. It was an appropriate response to suburban ennui; Boredom and trees were our generational strife, our martyrs all handed down.

Which is to say that Van Morrisons’s “Jackie Wilson Said,” predates any cultural awakening I can claim to remember. It was force-fed like whole milk at the dinner table, or quiche, or any other inscrutinable existence that fades into memory with consciousness. It was there from the start, along with my father’s bad dancing, which can only be described as a mustachioed flamingo doing The Twist. It holds all the familiarity of a childhood basement—an evolving, musty constant with occasional surprises. In Belfast, Branaugh deploys “Jackie Wilson Said,” along with most of the Morrison catalog, liberally.

JWS appears midway through the film, hoisting aloft the soon-to-be reciprocated pinings of Buddy, the film’s boy protagonist (and Branaugh stand-in). The “da-da-da dah…” intro crescendos out of a scene change, part-rallying cry, part-palette cleanser, its mutable non-wordness simultaneously nostalgic and optimistic. On first listen, you only hear the intonnations of Morrison’s voice, the “blabbity-blab” that seems more child banter than coherent speech. To that end, “Jackie Wilson Said” is about meaningless phonetic contrivances as much as any words Jackie Wilson purportedly spoke. The whole thing spins on the precipice of unspooling, the saxophone riffs propelling it off a course that Morrison recharts with indecipherable proclamations. He drops the bottom out of hea-von and passes through the pearly gates. He sings “smile” in definance of any combination of letters. He dances through strings of syllabic detritus that cohere into affective meaning. His heart goes “boom boom boom,” and he let’s it all hang out.

Throughout the song, licentious horns blare overtop lyrics. As a child it was hard to discern the words from sounds, and I certainly wasn’t reading the liner notes. As an adult, I’ve extracted meaning from the Morrisonian babel, with some disappointment. The words are not necessarily cloying, just disambiguated. They hint at fresh love, but not first love. They’re giddy for a “brand new smile.” Yet, they’re also ladden with the presumption that the audience is familiar enough with early stage love to know that it may not be their last. The lyrics aren’t jaded. Morrison’s voice, and his audience, are. 

In the retroactive assessment of Branaugh’s childhood, The Troubles are a matter of historical and biograpahical convenience as much as they are a plot device. The backward gaze isn’t set in the sepia tones, or the quant Irish streetlife. Its the soundtrack — much of it comprised of songs a half-century old. Van Morrison is the context.