More stories

  • in

    Ama Ata Aidoo, Groundbreaking Ghanaian Writer, Dies at 81

    A playwright, novelist and poet, she was a leading African writer who explored the complexities faced by modern women living in the shadow of colonialism.Ama Ata Aidoo, a Ghanaian playwright, author and activist who was hailed as one of Africa’s leading literary lights as well as one of its most influential feminists, died on Wednesday. She was 81.Her family said in a statement that she died after a brief illness. The statement did not specify the cause or where she died.In a wide-ranging career that included writing plays, novels and short stories, stints on multiple university faculties and, briefly, a position as a cabinet minister in Ghana, Ms. Aidoo established herself as a major voice of post-colonial Africa.Her breakthrough play, “The Dilemma of a Ghost,” published in 1965, explored the cultural dislocations experienced by a Ghanaian student who returns home after studying abroad and by those of his Black American wife, who must confront the legacies of colonialism and slavery. It was one of several of Ms. Aidoo’s works that became staples in West African schools.Throughout her literary career, Ms. Aidoo sought to illuminate the paradoxes faced by modern African women, still burdened by the legacies of colonialism. She rejected what she described as the “Western perception that the African female is a downtrodden wretch.”Her novel “Changes: A Love Story,” which won the 1992 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best book, Africa, portrays the psychic and cultural dilemmas faced by Esi, an educated, career-focused woman in Accra, Ghana’s capital, who leaves her husband after he rapes her and lands in a polygamous relationship with a wealthy man.In this work and many others, Ms. Aidoo chronicled the fight by African women for recognition and equality, a fight, she contended, that was inextricable from the long shadow of colonialism.“Our Sister Killjoy” was Ms. Aidoo’s debut novel.Her landmark debut novel, “Our Sister Killjoy, or Reflections From a Black-Eyed Squint” (1977), recounted the experiences of Sissie, a young Ghanaian woman who travels to Europe on a scholarship to better herself, as such a move was traditionally described, with a Western education. In Germany and England, she comes face to face with the dominance of white values, including Western notions of success, among fellow African expatriates.As a Fulbright scholar who spent years as an expatriate herself, including stints as a writer in residence at the University of Richmond in Virginia and as a visiting professor in the Africana studies department at Brown University, Ms. Aidoo too experienced feelings of cultural dislocation.“I have always felt uncomfortable living abroad: racism, the cold, the weather, the food, the people,” she said in a 2003 interview published by the University of Alicante in Spain. “I also felt some kind of patriotic sense of guilt. Something like, Oh, my dear! Look at all the problems we have at home. What am I doing here?”Whatever her feelings about life abroad, she was welcomed in Western literary circles. A 1997 article in The New York Times recounted how her appearance at a New York University conference for female writers of African descent “was greeted with the kind of reverence reserved for heads of state.”Although she never rose to hold that title, she had been Ghana’s minister of education, an appointment she accepted in 1982 with the goal of making education free for all. She resigned after 18 months when she realized the many barriers she would have to overcome to achieve that goal.Ms. Aidoo’s novel “Changes: A Love Story” won the 1992 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best book, Africa.After moving to Zimbabwe in 1983, Ms. Aidoo developed curriculums for the country’s Ministry of Education. She also made her mark in the nonprofit sphere, founding the Mbaasem Foundation in 2000 to support African women writers.She was a major Pan-Africanist voice, arguing for unity among African countries and for their continued liberation. She spoke with fury about the centuries of exploitation of the continent’s natural resources and people.“Since we met you people 500 years ago, now look at us,” she said in an interview with a French journalist in 1987, later sampled in the 2020 song “Monsters You Made” by the Nigerian Afrobeats star Burna Boy. “We’ve given everything, you are still taking. I mean where will the whole Western world be without us Africans? Our cocoa, timber, gold, diamond, platinum.”“Everything you have is us,” she continued. “I am not saying it. It’s a fact. And in return for all these, what have we got? Nothing.”Christina Ama Ata Aidoo and her twin brother, Kwame Ata, were born on March 23, 1942, in the Fanti village of Abeadzi Kyiakor, in a central region of Ghana then known by its colonial name, the Gold Coast.Her father, Nana Yaw Fama, was a chief of the village who built its first school, and her mother was Maame Abba Abasema. Information about Ms. Aidoo’s survivors was not immediately available.Her grandfather had been imprisoned and tortured by the British, a fact she later invoked when describing herself as “coming from a long line of fighters.”She said she had felt a literary calling from an early age. “At the age of 15,” she said, “a teacher had asked me what I wanted to do for a career, and without knowing why or even how, I replied that I wanted to be a poet.”Four years later, she won a short story contest. On seeing her story published by the newspaper that sponsored the competition, she said, “I had articulated a dream.” More

  • in

    Book Review: ‘Farrell Covington and the Limits of Style,’ by Paul Rudnick

    Following a neurotic writer and a wealthy aesthete over four bumpy decades, “Farrell Covington and the Limits of Style” is a gay rom-com that tugs at the heart.FARRELL COVINGTON AND THE LIMITS OF STYLE, by Paul RudnickNate Reminger, a New Jersey-born, gay, Jewish and unabashedly horny virgin, shows up at Yale University in 1973 and instantly sets his sights on the one man he’ll be gazing at for the next four decades.As a budding writer with a knack for shrewd description, Nate spends the length of Paul Rudnick’s life-filled rom-com trying to find ways to describe that man, Farrell Covington: He is a “blinding sun god,” a “blank check,” an “unhinged cipher” and more. In so doing, Nate also reaches for a new way of seeing himself and what he believes to be possible for two men in love.To Nate’s surprise, Farrell returns his gaze with an even stronger intensity. It supersedes the look of a crush — it’s an appraisal, a reverie.And of the pair, Farrell is the one with an eye for beauty. A devastatingly handsome, unimaginably wealthy aesthete, Farrell considers style his armor — “a form of protest, against gross inhumanity or inclement weather.” As the scion of an ultraconservative family, he is not so much the black sheep as the gilded one. He speaks in a mid-Atlantic accent that sounds “as if a person had been raised by a bottle of good whiskey and a crystal chandelier.” He is, as the kids would later say, everything.He and Nate quickly become everything to each other, and though Farrell has the kind of charmed life that allows him to avoid such inconveniences as Yale’s housing rules — he has a townhouse, with an original Hockney and a butler — it will not shield him from bigoted parents hellbent on keeping their son on the straight and narrow. Nate and Farrell are separated against their will, sending Nate spiraling downward and beginning a pattern of estrangement and reunion that recurs throughout the novel.The irony of Farrell’s charmed life is that it serves as the complicating factor in the couple’s relationship, as they move from college to New York to Hollywood and beyond, all while navigating the AIDS epidemic, crises of faith and a family that rivals the Ewings of “Dallas” for wealthy wickedness.While the endeavor is quite epic in scope, it’s made deliciously bite-size by Rudnick’s densely funny writing style and the gimlet eye he has given Nate, a clear avatar for the author in this semiautobiographical tome. “I had vague theatrical ambitions,” he tells us, “as an actor or playwright or simply someone who’d call other people ‘darling.’”Though Rudnick delivers the multiple-laughs-per-paragraph pace that fans of his sendups in The New Yorker might expect, the aim of “Farrell Covington and the Limits of Style” is closer to heart-tugging than to rib-jabbing. This does create tonal whiplash in spots, as when an emotional hospital sequence is capped by the sudden arrival of a sari-wearing acolyte from Mother Teresa’s order. Rudnick’s worldview is so effortlessly, gleefully campy that even when he plays it straight — please allow the world’s largest quotation marks here — it can feel like a setup to a punchline.This tendency also directs one’s gaze to the smallest of quibbles. Farrell is a glittering bauble of a man, an architecture-loving manic-pixie dreamboat, a walking interrobang, but he’ll never be more captivating than his creator and, by extension, his creator’s stand-in. We’re in Nate’s point of view, and we spend long stretches separated from Farrell altogether. And even without Farrell’s privilege, Nate’s path from college to Broadway to a successful screenwriting career is relatively frictionless, which gives some sections the desultory feeling of a light memoir rather than a novel.Another way of considering it, however, frames the central question around neither Nate’s nor Farrell’s individual obstacles but rather their shared destiny. If we encounter the true subject in those first pages — that mutual gaze — then this novel is more about their ways of seeing each other and the world’s way of seeing their possibility.Consider what Rudnick offers almost without comment: the comparatively rare opportunity to spend decades watching two men navigate love. Like so much of the author’s work in other media — the play “Jeffrey,” the film “In and Out” — “Farrell Covington and the Limits of Style” seems less interested in serving as a gay museum piece than as a filigreed statement.Turn your gaze, it beckons, and you’ll see we were more than simply here; we made this place beautiful.R. Eric Thomas’s latest book of essays, “Congratulations, the Best Is Over!,” will be published in August.FARRELL COVINGTON AND THE LIMITS OF STYLE | By Paul Rudnick | 368 pp. | Atria Books | $28.99 More

  • in

    Henry Threadgill’s Musical Spring Is Varied and Extreme. Like He Is.

    The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer has released a memoir, “Easily Slip Into Another World,” and a new album, “The Other One.”Even as a child, Henry Threadgill liked to experiment.In this Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and saxophonist’s new memoir, “Easily Slip Into Another World,” he recounts a youthful attempt to fly from a window using a “contraption” of his own devising.He managed to escape the ensuing, predictable crash without breaking any bones, but the young Threadgill did earn a reputation for daring in his Chicago neighborhood. His mother’s response — “Henry, why do you have to be so extreme?” — became, as he writes, “the refrain of my childhood.”That same question may have occurred to a few listeners. But Threadgill, 79, has done plenty of soaring, on stages, over the years: composing music intended for social dancing, and pieces for orchestra and string quartet in which players are encouraged to improvise. He has also led some of the most widely acclaimed ensembles in the past half-century of American jazz.

    kronosquartet · Henry Threadgill – SixfivetwoAppropriately, he has an interdisciplinary spirit. In addition to his book — written with Brent Hayes Edwards and published by Knopf earlier this month — Threadgill is engaged in a flurry of additional artistic activity, including a new album, “The Other One,” out on Pi Recordings.Scored for a 12-piece ensemble and recorded live at Roulette last year, Threadgill’s chamber music on this release impressed me immediately, as I wrote when it was performed. Those concerts also featured multimedia elements, which Threadgill incorporated into a documentary film that provides a fuller look at the material. That movie, which he produced and edited with D. Carlton Bright, screened at the Museum of Modern Art in late May.Both the show and the film helped Threadgill scratch a long-held creative itch. In a recent interview, he recalled having been impressed by Alban Berg’s opera “Lulu,” which, in an unusual touch for its period, makes dramatic use of a short film at its midpoint. (“That’s one of my favorite operas,” he said. “Love ‘Lulu!’”)Threadgill said that when he produced the staged version of “The Other One,” he realized: “Now is my chance to integrate art, poetry, photographs — everything — into one piece.”This can be a lot to keep up with. But as in his childhood, Threadgill comes by his extreme approach to artistic production honestly.That much was clear earlier this spring when I met him at one of his favorite spots: a combination coffee shop and plant store in the East Village. At one point, as I was peppering him with questions about his mutability, he gestured to consumers throughout the store.Threadgill writes in his new book, “I find that the less I say about my music, the better.”Rahim Fortune for The New York Times“It has to do with cognition,” he replied. “What do we really see or observe? All these people are different sizes, but it’s the same bone structure.”Put another way, all his work is connected, even if he’s not going to get into the DNA of it all with you at the drop of a hat. As he writes in his book, “I find that the less I say about my music, the better.” (And at another point: “Music is about listening. Nothing I say can mean anything once you start to listen.”)Still, a question or two may linger. For example, doesn’t the piano music that kicks off “The Other One” flirt in a surprising way with noirish harmony? And doesn’t that represent something of a break with much of his output this century, which has been conceived outside major/minor composition?

    The Other One by Henry ThreadgillWhen I brought that up, Threadgill said, with a touch of good-natured evasion: “These tonal centers, they don’t really mean anything. I love harmony and stuff. But it’s kinda like looking at those flowers over there. You keep scanning; you never really stop.”Fair enough. This piano music — laced as it is with those recognizable tonalities — doesn’t simply resolve there. At the end of that opening section, two saxophones enter with staggered lines that hustle into a more frenetic state of mind. That’s the more recognizable, recent sound world of Threadgill’s music, driven by a quasi-serialized use of intervals, that has most often been performed by his core ensemble, Zooid.Subsequent sections in “The Other One,” like the track titled “Mvt I, Sections 6A-7A,” sound more like the Zooid recording of “In for a Penny, In for a Pound,” which won Threadgill his Pulitzer.

    The Other One by Henry ThreadgillStill, there’s a sense of that language being developed on the new album, particularly in the music for strings, which is featured during much of “Movement II.” “I’ve been able to expand the language,” Threadgill said. “I have a whole ’nother freedom now, where I’m moving.”

    The Other One by Henry ThreadgillHe then leaped from his seat, seeking a piece of paper from the shop’s employees. On the scrap, he began to diagram some of the modernist composer Edgard Varèse’s ideas about flipping musical intervals — an approach he also describes toward the end of “Easily Slip” — and showed how he was building on Varèse’s example in “The Other One.”After Threadgill filled up the paper with sequences of intervals and melodic phrases — the latter built from a pattern, like Morse Code, of long and short phrases — he moved to toss his notes in the trash.I stopped him. Preserving Threadgill’s working methods is no small matter. Throughout “Easily Slip,” there are tantalizing references to recordings of vintage orchestral performances that have yet to be made available to the public. Some important collaborations, such as concerts with Cecil Taylor, ‌have not been preserved on fixed media at all.Threadgill is thinking about fixing some of these problems. One orchestral recording in his possession may eventually see the light of day on a website, currently under construction, called Baker’s Dozen, a portal that he also plans to offer to other artists who have valuable unreleased tapes in their possession. (He mentioned the pioneering Minimalist Terry Riley as someone who might wind up providing material for the site.)“The Other One” is a majestic addition to Threadgill’s discography, but its film version deserves a wider airing, too. It captures his sense of humor, which tended to emerge during this show whenever he was discussing photographs that he took of possessions abandoned in New York City streets early in the pandemic. He is currently sending the documentary to various festivals, he said, “to see what kind of credits we can pick up.”Other projects in the works, as ever, seem bound to have an unconventional slant. Threadgill said that he has been impressed by the strides that collaborators and acquaintances like Anthony Davis and Terence Blanchard have had in mainstream opera, a world he says isn’t really for him.Instead, Threadgill is planning what he called a “corrupted oratorio,” featuring two choirs: “a traditional choir and a gospel choir,” plus piano and organ, and other instruments as it develops. “I don’t like preconceived forms, you know?” he said. “I like to create new forms.” More

  • in

    ‘Brokeback Mountain’ Is Now a Play in London’s West End

    Much has changed for L.G.B.T.Q. people since Annie Proulx’s short story was published in 1997. But a new theatrical version is a reminder that homophobia is far from over.In 2016, when the theater director Jonathan Butterell was considering a proposal to adapt Annie Proulx’s 1997 short story “Brokeback Mountain” for the stage, he wondered how to translate the prose’s vast landscape and insular emotions into a play.Last month, in a central London rehearsal studio, Butterell and Ashley Robinson, who wrote the play, tried to answer that question. To help the cast connect with Proulx’s story of a cowboy and a ranch hand falling in love against the wide-stretching landscapes of 1960s Wyoming, black-and-white photographs of American plains and mountain ranges were tacked to the walls during rehearsals.“The vastness has been there from the very beginning,” Butterell said in a recent interview. When it came to evoking the story’s emotional landscape, the director had stuck one sepia-toned photograph, of a lone cowboy in a snow-covered Wyoming, behind a pillar. The image “speaks to the bit of us that feels alone in the world,” Butterell said. “Maybe he’s at peace with this, maybe it’s the source of his agony.”Butterell’s “Brokeback Mountain” opened in previews May 10 at @sohoplace in London’s West End. It’s the first time the story has been adapted for theater — an opera by Charles Wuorinen premiered in Madrid in 2014 — and each version now follows in the footsteps of Proulx’s text and the film that popularized it: Ang Lee’s 2005 Academy Award-winning adaptation, which is often cited as one of the best L.G.B.T.Q. films of all time.Faist, left, and Hedges at @sohoplace. During rehearsals, black-and-white photographs of American plains and mountain ranges were tacked to the walls.Suzie Howell for The New York TimesButterell said he was aware of his audience having expectations based on the film. “They’re inevitable,” he said, “but I don’t mind that.”This theatrical version also has some Hollywood clout. Its lead characters, Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar, are played by the BAFTA-nominated actor Mike Faist and the Oscar-nominated actor Lucas Hedges.In late 2016, Robinson first wrote a treatment for what he called a “memory play” based on the short story, after speaking with the composer Dan Gillespie Sells and Butterell. Robinson’s script stated that the Wyoming setting should not be conveyed “in a purely literal sense,” and his story is set in 2013, with an older version of del Mar reflecting on the years he spent with Twist between 1963 and 1983.Proulx approved of Robinson’s vision. She has “high hopes for the play,” she said in a recent email interview. “When I read Ashley’s script several years ago, I thought he had done a fine job.”In Proulx’s story, del Mar and Twist’s interior worlds are conveyed by an omniscient narrator. In the stage adaptation, music does much of that work.“These two men can’t sing,” Gillespie Sells said, because “they don’t have an emotional dialogue.” Instead, a character called The Balladeer — played by the Scottish singer-songwriter Eddi Reader — sings with an onstage country and western band. “She takes us through time,” Butterell said. “Sometimes it’s from night to day. Sometimes it’s 10 years.”“Brokeback Mountain” will be the first time its two lead actors have appeared onstage in five years. Faist, who plays Twist, originated the role of Connor Murphy in “Dear Evan Hansen” on Broadway, and has had more recent success in film, including Steven Spielberg’s 2021 remake of “West Side Story.”Hedges “hadn’t acted in a while” when he was sent the script, he said, having been focusing on writing instead. The “Brokeback” offer and playing del Mar changed that. “There wasn’t an angle I didn’t love about this,” he said.“As terrifying and frustrating as it is, I really am having the time of my life,” Faist, left, said of the production.Shona LouiseAs the project entered its final week of rehearsals, both actors were grappling with the process in different ways. Hedges said he was experiencing “tragic and triumphant ups and downs” about his own work. “I have a day where I think I’ve figured it all out, and then a day when it all disappears,” he said. The “collective experience” of theater was daunting compared to working in film, he said, adding that onstage, “I can’t use tricks to make it through.”Faist concurred: “It’s a challenge, and it’s terrifying,” mainly because of the expectations of having to match the source material and 2005 film, he said. “But as terrifying and frustrating as it is, I really am having the time of my life,” he added.Butterell said that Faist and Hedges were “as men, as actors, very different creatures.” Faist, he said, had “a sense of life and vivacity,” while Hedges “has this deeply complex interior landscape that’s very much of Ennis.”Neither Hedges, Faist nor Butterell had revisited Lee’s film since they were approached for the project. “The truth of the matter is, no matter what, he’s not Heath Ledger and I’m not Jake Gyllenhaal,” Faist said of the film’s two lead stars, who both earned Oscar nominations for their performances. He and Hedges, Faist added, would both bring their “own weird things” to the roles.The production has forced Faist to confront his “traumas,” he said. “We can take those traumas, turn them around,” he added, and, he hopes, make the audience “think deeply about their own lives.”Following the success of the “Brokeback Mountain” film, Proulx said fans of her text sent her fan fiction that rewrote the ending of her short story, claiming the original was too sad. She told the The Paris Review that those fans had “misunderstood” the story and stated that it was, most importantly, about “homophobia.”Jonathan Butterell, the play’s director, said his two lead actors had different strengths: Faist, left, has “a sense of life and vivacity,” while Lucas, right, “has this deeply complex interior landscape that’s very much of Ennis.”Suzie Howell for The New York TimesThis is the first adaptation of “Brokeback” to be released since the Supreme Court made gay marriage legal in all 50 U.S. states. Robinson — who lives in Brooklyn but was raised in the tiny town of Lockhart, S.C. — said he wrote it to remind audiences that gay trauma still exists.“These stories aren’t necessarily being told anymore because of a trend to put onstage what we want the world to be,” he said, referring to the theater community. “That’s a wonderful thing to do, but we shouldn’t cancel out all of the opportunities to talk about what’s going on underneath it.”Butterell added that the fight against homophobia was “not over” in Britain either, citing a recent spike in the number of attacks on L.G.B.T.Q. people.“This is a tragedy,” Butterell said of the play. “Of course love exists — I don’t want it to be solemn — but the tragedy of this piece is that fear wins.” More

  • in

    K-Pop Stars BTS Will Release a Book Telling Their Own Story in July

    The announcement by their U.S. publisher, Flatiron Books, came after days of frantic speculation by their fervent fans.The K-pop juggernaut BTS will release an oral history of the group in South Korea and the United States on July 9, its U.S. publisher, Flatiron Books, said on Thursday.The book, “Beyond The Story: 10-Year Record of BTS,” was written by the journalist Myeongseok Kang and members of the group, and it will be published in South Korea by Big Hit Music.The news confirms intense fan speculation over several days that Flatiron would publish a nonfiction title about a pop culture phenomenon this summer. The rumor spread once booksellers in the United States noticed last weekend that a mystery title with a July 9 release date was coming. It had an initial print run of one million copies and required booksellers to sign an affidavit to stock copies on publication day.Fans searched for clues of who the mystery author might be, zeroing in at first on Taylor Swift and citing her frequent use of the number 13 as evidence. (The book’s original announcement was slated for June 13.) Swift had also highlighted the date July 9 in her most recent album announcement.But June 13 and July 9 are also significant dates in the BTS community. The group debuted on the first date, and BTS’s passionate fan base, Army — which stands for Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth — was founded on the second. The book’s release will coincide with the fan group’s 10th anniversary.As speculations mounted, preorders drove the still-untitled book up best-seller lists at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.The English translation of the book was led by Anton Hur, in collaboration with Clare Richards and Slin Jung. The U.S. edition will be 544 pages and contain exclusive photographs, according to Flatiron, and will have a first printing of one million copies.The group’s powerful, very online fandom has become famous worldwide, known for supporting the group by buying multiple versions of each physical release and running intricately coordinated social media campaigns. Devotees also assist each other by translating BTS content into English and other languages and providing robust fan communities.It is difficult to overstate BTS’s influence, in music and beyond. Last year, the seven members of the group — RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V and Jungkook — visited the White House to speak against anti-Asian American hate crimes.Since 2013, BTS has released nine albums and six EPs and helped K-pop become a dominant global force. In 2018, the group became the first K-pop act to hit No. 1 on Billboard’s album chart with “Love Yourself: Tear,” a feat it repeated twice in 2019 with “Love Yourself: Answer” and “Map of the Soul: Persona” — matching a record set by the Beatles.In June 2022, after yet another No. 1 album — the three-disc compilation “Proof” — BTS released a video on social media announcing it was going on hiatus so its members could focus on solo creative projects. “I should be writing about what I’m feeling and the stories I want to tell,” Suga said, “but I’m just forcefully squeezing out words because I need to satisfy someone.” The clip drew more than 16 million views in two days. In October of last year, the group’s label confirmed that its members would enlist in South Korea’s military as required by law. Some of them already have.The hiatus was devastating news not only for BTS’s fervent fan base, but also for the entertainment business. The day after the news broke, the stock price for Hybe, the South Korean entertainment company behind the group, dropped 28 percent, which shaved $1.7 billion off its market value. As the group’s popularity has grown, it has become a pillar of South Korea’s economy, contributing $3.5 billion annually by 2020, according to the Hyundai Research Institute.Many fans say that while they are drawn to BTS’s music and performances, they are also inspired by its messages of love and acceptance, which have led some to become more politically active. “They’re really, really passionate people who just fight for what they love,” Nicole Santero, a fan who ran a data-focused BTS Twitter account, told The Times in 2020. “Those characteristics translate well when you look at social issues.”Caryn Ganz More

  • in

    Book Review: ‘The Making of Another Modern Motion Picture Masterpiece,’ by Tom Hanks

    Whimsically chronicling the creation of a Marvel-style movie, “The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece” sags under a deluge of detail.THE MAKING OF ANOTHER MAJOR MOTION PICTURE MASTERPIECE, by Tom Hanks. Illustrated by R. Sikoryak.Sidelined by the pandemic, some actors fired up ceramics or sang fragments of “Imagine.” Tom Hanks, one of the most prominent to contract an early case of Covid, bounced back by making a run at the Great American Novel. Alas, it is more Forrest Gump trotting from coast to coast than Sully landing on the Hudson.Titled “The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece,” the book arrives at a crossroads for Hollywood. The Writers Guild of America went on strike this past week, seeking pay increases in an age of streaming and protections from that thundering Godzilla, artificial intelligence. The consequent halt of film and TV production deprives not only audiences, but also the vast number of workers required to get stories onscreen: extras, editors, costume and lighting designers, makeup artists, caterers, drivers, gofers, key grips.“Masterpiece” is a loving homage to those workers, a true insiderly ensemble piece in the vein of “The Player” (written by Michael Tolkin in 1988, directed by Robert Altman in 1992), or Quentin Tarantino’s eventually self-novelized “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.”Minus the murder and gore, of course — this is Tom Hanks.The novel also acknowledges a fading time when leading actors, even avatars of Everyman decency like the author, were royalty: their work shown not in living rooms but red-velvet-swagged “palaces.”It’s framed by one of the outlying courtiers of the industry: a fictional former freelance journalist and reviewer named Joe Shaw. Now teaching creative writing at a minor Montana college, he has been granted access to the set of “Knightshade: The Lathe of Firefall” — a movie based on a comic from a Marvel-like company — along with the Gay Talese-like superpower of narrative omniscience. He recedes after a foreword, like John Ray Jr. from “Lolita.”“Masterpiece” then pans very slowly — with lots of emphatic italics, arch ellipses and a few footnotes — over the full arc of the fake movie’s development. So we begin with the back story of the comic’s writer, Robby Andersen (pen-name TREV-VORR), who had been inspired by an uncle, Bob Falls, a Marine in World War II, and follow a very long yellow brick road through the seemingly triumphant release of “Knightshade” at a fancifully imagined 1,114-seat theater, the Grand Cinema Center in Times Square, where “a fellow in a tuxedo” plays “New York, New York” on a house organ.Charm abounds — again, this is Tom Hanks — but “Masterpiece” is too often a maddeningly excursive endeavor that made me think, more than once, of a Richard Scarry book without the drawings. Alternate titles: “Hollywood: Busy, Busy Town” or “What Do Movie People Do All Day?” (Actually, it does have drawings, by R. Sikoryak: an old-timey comic the boy Robby reads at the corner drugstore, then another he created while working at Kool Katz Komix as TREV-VORR, and then a movie tie-in for “Knightshade,” all fine places to rest one’s detail-wearied eyes.)The novel’s multitude of characters includes Bill Johnson, the writer-director of “Knightshade” (a film more “Iron Man” than “Avengers”); an obnoxious leading man named O.K. Bailey (OKB for short), who’s cast as Firefall; and Wren Lane, who wins the part of Eve Knight, the alter ego of Knightshade, a heroine who like many modern women has trouble sleeping.“Sure, she wants to make her bed with a decent chap when the time is right, but the time is never right!” Lane tells Johnson’s assistant, Allicia Mac-Teer, anachronistically (Hanksishly). “Nor is the chap.”Advised to go by “Al” because of sexism, the assistant gets hired after mastering a time management system at community college, “L.I.S.T.eN.,” short for “Let It Settle, Then eNact,” and using it to order Johnson his favorite frozen yogurt. (Pomodoro technique, move over.) Then there is Ynez Gonzalez-Cruz, driver for a Lyft competitor, PONY, whose ingratiation into the “Knightshade” base camp will eventually get her an office of her own and, after years of struggling in the gig economy, a salary that’s “a joke of abundance.”Moviemaking, Hanks would remind us, can be a rising tide, not in the depressing new climate change way, but the old optimistic American lift-all-boats way.He also conveys successfully that this “Business of Show” in the “City of Angles,” as Johnson nicknames it, is thoroughly exhausting, a realm where everyone is Wren Lane, waiting for the golden hour shot, showing up to get fake blood applied at 2 a.m. The word “coffee” appears, by my count, on 85 pages: triple espressos from a Di Orso Negro machine with frothed half-and-half for Mac-Teer; HaKiDo with oat milk for OKB; Pirate drip for a Teamster named Ace Acevido. Highly specific smoothies are fetched; catering tables are lovingly inventoried.“The offerings are both substantial, healthy snacks and stuff that is horrible for you but so very, very much appreciated,” our omniscient narrator shares. Sometimes “Masterpiece” reads like the thank-you speech Hanks, consummate nice guy, would give if granted unlimited time at the Oscars. You might admire its rah-rah spirit, yet still want to press fast-forward.A note on the type: Hanks has spoken and written extensively before, including in The New York Times, about his obsession with typewriters. A different antique model was featured in each of the 17 stories contained in his last book, a collection called “Uncommon Type.” Encountering a vintage Smith-Corona Sterling, Johnson’s chosen instrument, on Page 96 of “Masterpiece,” I rolled my eyes tolerantly.After turning 50 pages more and finding a minor character selling “Royals, Underwoods, Remingtons, Hermes, Olivettis, all in working order,”as if in an Etsy shop, I had to fight a strong urge to close the book, fire up a triple espresso and see if anything was happening in the tiny palace of my iPhone.THE MAKING OF ANOTHER MAJOR MOTION PICTURE MASTERPIECE | By Tom Hanks | Illustrated by R. Sikoryak | 499 pp. | Alfred A. Knopf | $32.50 More

  • in

    Bebe Buell, Rock ’n’ Roll Muse, Sings Her Own Song

    Decades after those wild nights at Max’s Kansas City and her many rock-star romances, she is making the case for herself.Bebe Buell was back in town.On a recent evening, about 75 people gathered at the National Arts Club, a private club in a landmark building on East 20th Street in Manhattan, to see her read from her new memoir, “Rebel Soul: Musings, Music, & Magic,” and sing some of her songs.The neighborhood was familiar to Ms. Buell. Soon after she arrived in New York from Camp Lejeune, N.C., in 1972, she became a regular at Max’s Kansas City, the famed night spot just a few blocks away. At the time she was an 18-year-old model signed to the Eileen Ford Agency who lived at the St. Mary’s Residence on the Upper East Side. The place had a curfew enforced by nuns, but one night Ms. Buell slipped out and made her way to Max’s, where she would end up partying with Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and David Johansen and Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls.She went from It Girl of Manhattan to Miss November in Playboy magazine. She had relationships with Todd Rundgren, Elvis Costello, Steven Tyler, Jimmy Page, Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart in the years when they did some of their best work, but she writes in her book that she was more than a muse and was unfairly labeled a groupie by the press.The people who went to see her at the National Arts Club seemed to feel the same way. One of them, Dick Wingate, a former music executive, said that, back in 1980, he had tried to get his colleagues at Epic Records to release Ms. Buell’s four-song EP, “Covers Girl,” but ran into resistance. “I really think she was a trailblazer in many ways,” Mr. Wingate said. “She just said, ‘I’m going to do what I’m going to do and I don’t care what people think,’ and it wasn’t easy at that point in time.”From left to right, Stevie Nicks, Rod Stewart and Bebe Buell at Regine’s in New York City, circa. 1977.GThese days, Ms. Buell, 69, lives near Nashville with her husband, James Wallerstein (stage name: Jimmy Walls), 56, a soft-spoken guitarist and director of concierge services at a luxury residential building. The couple said they had made the long drive to Manhattan in a rented S.U.V. with their two dogs, Chicken Burger, 15, and Lola, 11, in the back seat. Late Wednesday afternoon, in the high-ceiling suite where they were staying on the seventh floor of the National Arts Club, Ms. Buell was getting ready for the party.At 6 p.m. the early arrivals trickled into the brightly lit East Gallery on the ground floor. David Croland, a photographer and fashion illustrator, said he had met Ms. Buell in 1972, when he was hired to body-paint her for a Ziegfeld Follies-inspired benefit. “She was never a groupie,” he said. “She had her own groupies. She would just appear and people would line up.”He saw someone across the room: “Danny! Danny!” It was Danny Fields, a pivotal rock music figure who had managed or worked closely with Jim Morrison, the Stooges, the Velvet Underground and the Ramones. “She was a champion of discovering and allying herself with beautiful and talented and wonderful people,” Mr. Fields said of Ms. Buell. “She was smart, sexy and beautiful, with elegant taste. I never wondered why everyone was in love with her.”The guest of honor stepped into the room dressed in black: a Calvin Klein jacket, fringed opera gloves that she had made herself, and a vintage Norma Kamali skirt.“I’m nervous,” Ms. Buell said.Ms. Buell performs her songs accompanied by Gyasi Heus, left, and her husband, James Wallerstein.Leor Miller for The New York TimesShe planted herself at Mr. Wingate’s side. Long after the fact, she still appreciated his efforts on behalf of “Covers Girl,” which came out in 1981 on Rhino Records, then an independent label known for novelty releases.“When everybody in the business was wondering if that rock-star girlfriend, that Playboy girl, can be a rock person, or whatever, Dick Wingate had vision,” Ms. Buell said. “He was smart.”“Oh, Bebe,” he said, “you’re so sweet to say that.”“How am I going to make you proud tonight?” she said. “I’ve worked hard for this moment. I know that we can’t do records together anymore.”“You know, you’re a real inspiration to a lot of people.”“Don’t make me cry before I go on,” she said.The guests took their seats as Ms. Buell climbed onto a small stage.“I feel like I’m getting married here,” she said. “I’ve already cried twice. So I probably look like a wreck.”Someone in the crowd said, “Noooo!”“I’ve always been a ‘rebel, rebel,’ right?” Ms. Buell said, alluding to the David Bowie song. “My face is a mess.”Liv Tyler at the 1996 premiere of “Stealing Beauty,” flanked by her parents, Steven Tyler and Ms. Buell.GShe was joined onstage by a longtime friend, the publicist Liz Derringer, the ex-wife of the rock guitarist Rick Derringer. Decades ago she introduced Ms. Buell to a high school friend, Mr. Tyler, the lead singer of Aerosmith, who became the father of Ms. Buell’s daughter, the actress Liv Tyler.Ms. Derringer led Ms. Buell through some highlights of “Rebel Soul,” which covers her nights with various rockers as it charts her progress toward finding her own voice. The book also goes into what Ms. Buell describes as her “many experiences with extraterrestrial entities.” For the National Arts Club crowd, she mixed in claims of her U.F.O. encounters with stories about Mr. Rundgren and other exes.“I’ve been painted as this wild filly that was running around with the rock stars,” Ms. Buell said. “People don’t realize that wasn’t the reality of what was going on. I was a young girl that would talk her head off. I wanted Todd to be a boyfriend that didn’t go out with other women but that was impossible in those times.”“We were so young,” Ms. Derringer said, “and it was the early ’70s.”“I was 18, he was 23, and we were all gorgeous,” Ms. Buell said. “The hormones were raging. There was so much beauty in New York. When Johnny Thunders walked across the room when he was 19, it caused you to take a breath. The Italian stallion, just something about him. And he had on pink satin pants and my girlfriend’s boots!”“I also had a lot of platonic relationships,” she continued. “Friendships with Bowie and others that were deep.”Ms. Buell read a chapter on her friendship with Prince, whom she said she had met backstage in the mid-70s when Mr. Rundgren’s band Utopia was playing in Minneapolis. Prince was shy, not yet famous, and he told Ms. Buell that she would one day see his name in lights. Before they parted, according to her book, he whispered that he thought the pictures of her in Playboy were very pretty.Ms. Buell teared up as she finished the chapter: “I still cry about him and Bowie,” she said.Ms. Buell signs copies of her book after her performance.Leor Miller for The New York TimesMr. Wallerstein, carrying a Gibson acoustic guitar, stepped close to her, as did another guitarist, Gyasi Heus, who, with his flowing locks and red pants, looked as if he would have been at home in the Max’s Kansas City of yore. They played as Ms. Buell sang songs she had written with her husband and others in Nashville — “By a Woman,” “Cross My Legs” and “Can You Forgive,” among others.Toward the end of her set, she turned to her accompanists, saying, “All right, guys, I’m doing this a cappella.” After asking them not to leave the stage, she told the crowd: “I just think they should stay there, because they look so gorgeous. Gorgeous rock boys. There’s nothing like gorgeous rock boys!”The final song was “Superstar,” a 1971 hit for the Carpenters about a lonesome groupie pining away for a rock star. Ms. Buell encouraged everyone to join her for the chorus:Don’t you remember you told me you loved me, babyYou said you’d be coming back this way again, babyBaby, baby, baby, baby, oh, baby, I love you, I really do.Big applause.Ms. Buell’s last song was “Superstar,” a hit for the Carpenters in 1971.Leor Miller for The New York TimesBeverly Keel, a friend of Ms. Buell’s who is a dean at Middle Tennessee State University, said: “To me, her whole life has been defined by her relationships with other people. She’s Liv’s mom, Todd Rundgren’s girlfriend, Steven Tyler, mother of his child. And now she’s finally being recognized for who she’s been all along.”After signing copies of her book, Ms. Buell seemed ready to call it a night. “I’m done,” she said. “I got a 15-year-old dog upstairs. I’ve got to check on Chicken Burger and I’ve got to change clothes.”The entertainment journalist Roger Friedman, a longtime champion of Ms. Buell, had a suggestion: “You know what you need? You need an electric violin.”“Yeah, I could get that,” she said.“You need an electric violin,” he repeated. “That would be perfect.”“Well, you can’t overuse those suckers,” Ms. Buell said. “You only bring them in when you need to cry.” More

  • in

    Book Review: ‘Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You,’ by Lucinda Williams

    In “Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You,” the raw-voiced singer looks back on a contentious artistic life.DON’T TELL ANYBODY THE SECRETS I TOLD YOU: A Memoir, by Lucinda WilliamsLucinda Williams, the Grammy-winning 70-year-old songwriter, was born in Lake Charles, La. Her grandfathers were both preachers; one was a civil rights advocate. Her father, Miller Williams, was an award-winning poet. Her mother loved music and played the piano. Williams grew up in Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, Utah, Chile and Mexico. On paper, it was an ideal upbringing for the artist she became: a nomadic touring musician whose songs draw on deep Southern roots, using matter-of-fact imagery to conjure tempestuous emotions.But her pedigree didn’t make her life fall neatly into place, as Williams recalls in her memoir, “Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You.” “I’ve held back from talking about my childhood over the decades of my life,” she notes. “I’ve written songs about it instead.” Williams’s mother was sexually abused as a child, she writes, and lived with schizophrenia and alcoholism. Her poet-professor father was a mentor and protector, but he also had a temper. Williams’s parents divorced after her father took up with one of his teenage students.In the title song of her best-selling album, “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” Williams sings about being a “Child in the back seat ’bout four or five years/Lookin’ out the window, little bit of dirt mixed with tears.” When her father first heard it, he told Williams that she was that crying little girl; until then, Williams hadn’t realized she was writing about herself. Williams’s memoir is as flinty, earthy and plain-spoken as her songs. She reveals the autobiographical underpinnings of some of her darkest lyrics, but she also tells a larger tale: of artistic determination battling personal insecurity; of misjudging and being misjudged by men and by the music business; and of steadfastly holding her own.She doesn’t give in: not on a trendy remix, not on her album cover photos, not on her instincts. She can handle being called difficult or “insane” even though, she admits, “There are times when I can bring an extra layer of unpredictable emotion to a situation that is already tough to begin with.” The lasting results are in her songs.Williams envisioned life as a musician soon after she picked up a guitar. She started performing folk songs in her teens. But even as she honed her own songwriting and built local reputations — in Texas and then in Los Angeles — she worked day jobs well into her 30s. Major labels rejected her, again and again, as being “too country for rock” but “too rock for country.”From the beginning — two low-budget Folkways albums she made in 1979 and 1980 — Williams sang about elemental subjects: desire, sorrow, love, traveling, survival, death. Some of her songs are kiss-offs; some offer regrets; some are elegies; some are takedowns. They’re always grounded in homely details. In “Hot Blood,” a bluesy outpouring of female lust, she sings about feeling “a cold chill” as she watches a guy just “fixin’ your flat with a tire iron.”It took an English punk label, Rough Trade, to release “Lucinda Williams,” her 1988 breakthrough album. A decade later, “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” marked her commercial peak. But recording that album, she recalls in the memoir, was lengthy and fraught. Making records, she writes, “can test the limits and boundaries of everyone involved. I now understand that is normal.” Getting the sound Williams wanted on “Car Wheels” led to the breakup of her longtime band and clashes with two producers. Then contractual tangles delayed the release of the finished album for two years. Williams also nixed a video concept from the director Paul Schrader, deciding, “He was just another guy trying to impose his vision on a female artist. ‘Car Wheels’ did fine without a video.”Throughout her book, Williams recognizes her own appetites and mistakes. She writes about suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder and bouts of depression, and she recognizes her weakness for the kind of boyfriend she calls “a poet on a motorcycle,” guys who often turned out to be cheaters, addicts or worse.She came through anyway. “That relationship was done, but I got a good song out of it,” she writes about one romantic debacle. Williams has been married since 2009 to her manager, producer and songwriting collaborator, Tom Overby.Although Williams finished her book in 2022, it doesn’t mention her 2020 stroke; she can no longer play guitar. But she returned to touring in 2021 and persists in writing songs; she’s releasing a new album in June. Her memoir shows how deep that grit runs.DON’T TELL ANYBODY THE SECRETS I TOLD YOU: A Memoir | By Lucinda Williams | 272 pp. | Illustrated | Crown | $28 More