|by Nicholson Baker ’79
A Box of Matches Random House, 2003
Emmett, the narrator of Nicholson Baker’s newest novel, A Box of Matches, wakes up every morning before dawn, makes coffee, starts a fire, and thinks. He thinks about the toe-hole in his sock that disturbed his sleep, the behavioral quirks of the family’s pet duck, his dissatisfaction with his beard, the sadness of the distant train whistle (“they are masters of pathos, those professional train-whistle-tuners”) and the proper way to wash a dish (“Let some water run into the bottom and then work the dish to create a rotating wave that sloshes centrifugally up to the upper edge of the dish”). He reflects on his first date with his wife Claire (a walk to the college ATM), a recent trip to get a haircut with his eight-year-old son Henry, driving his 14-year-old daughter Phoebe to school on frigid mornings, and his grandfather’s habit of singing Purcell songs and asking smokers, “Do you enjoy killing yourself?” He endures a brief bout with flu and ponders the humbling effect of the full moon. And he philosophizes: “A succession of days is like a box of new envelopes.”
Nicholson Baker has proven himself a master of life’s minutiae in books like The Mezzanine (1988), Room Temperature (1990) and The Everlasting Story of Nory (1998). A Box of Matches is no exception; readers are treated to every painstaking detail of Emmett’s memories, bathroom habits, and living room décor. Baker uses elegant language that highlights the often overlooked beauty of everyday objects and habits, such as lighting a fire in a fireplace: “Right now there is one flame near the front that has a purple underpainting but a strong opacity of yellows and oranges and whites: it is flapping like one of those pennants that used to be strung around used car lots.” Passages like these are sprinkled among moments like Emmett’s poignant awareness of his children getting older, sparked by son Henry’s ability to touch the end of the bathtub with his feet. “I remember how proud Phoebe was to be able to touch both ends of the tub, too—‘Nice growing!’ I said to her. And I even remember how proud I was myself to touch both ends of the tub.” Most vivid, in a manner both disturbing and fascinating, are Baker’s descriptions of the suicidal thoughts that once helped Emmett sleep: “I would lie in bed imagining that I was hammering a knitting needle into my ear, or swan-diving off a ledge into a black void at the bottom of which were a dozen sharp, slippery stalagmites.” At first glance, Emmett himself appears as familiar as the household objects about which he waxes poetic, but Baker adroitly peels his layers, revealing an extraordinary core.
There’s an odd comfort that comes with reading A Box of Matches, the sort that reminds you of hot soup or woolen blankets. You will recognize Emmett as a colleague, a next-door neighbor, a family member, or even yourself, sitting in the darkness of pre-dawn and finding peace in the silence of a sleeping world and exploring, along with Baker, the untapped splendor of the ordinary.
|by Tom Barbash ’83
On Top of the World HarperCollins 2003
A week into Howard Lutnick’s freshman year at Haverford, his father died. While he was still at home on Long Island, both the president and dean of Haverford called to offer the orphaned 18-year-old a full scholarship for his entire college education.
“I’d only been there a week,” Lutnick ’83 told author Tom Barbash ’83, “so it wasn’t about their liking me specifically. It was about how they treated people in general, which is why I care so much about Haverford. At a time in my life when there weren’t a lot of people looking out for me, they were there unconditionally.”
This passage on page 125 (which you can’t look up in the index because there isn’t one) in Barbash’s new book makes a Haverford grad swell with pride. But this book — On Top of the World: Cantor, Fitzgerald, Howard Lutnick, & 9/11: A Story of Loss & Renewal — is mostly an uncomfortable read (especially for a journalist).
The feisty bond-trading firm of Cantor Fitzgerald operated from five floors in Tower One of World Trade Center, a few floors above the spot where American Airlines 11 penetrated the building on Sept. 11. Of the firm’s 1,000 employees, 658 were lost. Among them were Howard Lutnick’s brother Gary and best friend, Doug Gardner ’83. Howard Lutnick survived because instead of going to the office, he had taken his son to the first day of kindergarten. “It was the last good moment of my life,” he has said.
A few days later, Barbash phoned to offer comfort. Lutnick asked him to come to New York to collaborate on a chronicle of what followed. Neither man could have known what the next several months would bring. The statistics are numbing: Nearly 700 funerals. But this one is heart-piercing: The Cantor Fitzgerald dead left 38 pregnant wives, 14 of them pregnant for the first time. The portraits Barbash paints of several of those who died and those they left behind are vivid. Among the most moving is LaChanze Gooding’s recalling (page 78) her first encounter with husband, Calvin Gooding ’84, and Barbash’s description of the widow at her husband’s funeral. “I’m not sure what a widow should look like,” he writes, “but somehow I suspect they shouldn’t look pregnant like LaChanze Gooding and still in the throes of love as Jennifer Gardner when she talks of Doug.”
At its core, this is a book about an ambitious, aggressive, rich, tough showman who is confronted with the horrible deaths of his brother, his best friend, and hundreds of employees. It’s the story of a man who, with barely a moment to grieve in private, began rebuilding his firm while appearing live — and sometimes crying live — on national television. It didn’t turn out to be the jointly written book that the two men initially conceived, but some of the most compelling passages are those set in italics that record Lutnick’s words verbatim.
Lutnick drew public attention shortly after Sept. 11 after a sympathetic TV interview with Connie Chung during which he broke down and cried while talking about the tragedy and burden of caring for 700 families. But that appearance contributed to an angry, ugly reaction when Lutnick discontinued paychecks to families of those who had died. As Barbash explains, Lutnick viewed this step as vital to resuscitating the business so he could make meaningful his promise to pay 25 percent of its profits to the families of the survivors for five years. But it was red meat to TV reporters and others who vilified Lutnick, provoking hate mail from those who didn’t know him and horrifying those close enough to witness his tireless efforts to comfort the bereaved. Barbash, a novelist and former newspaper reporter, tells all of this well. He acknowledges he is seeing the experience as Lutnick’s friend, but exposes his all-too-human failings as well. Along the way, he offers a devastating description of the press at work.
Barbash’s affection for Lutnick and his near constant access to the man at a time of extraordinary tragedy and stress gave him an unusual vantage point. He took advantage of it, combining compelling anecdotes with flashes of insight.
"These are people who pride themselves on their ability to make split-second decisions at work," he writes about Lutnick and an associate, "but here in their personal lives, they are less sure about what to do and what to feel"
-David Wessel '75
|by Juan Williams '76 and Quinton Dixie
This Far by Faith William Morrow, 2003
African American spirituality and social activism have always been intertwined. Most famously, the black church inspired and produced many of the most important leaders and institutions associated with the civil rights movement. But the entwinement dates back much farther—black religious leaders have played critical roles in shaping and defining life for African Americans since the late 1700s.
Even today the effects of this history of faith, spirituality, and religious involvement in social and political spheres still linger. Blacks are more likely than whites to favor the involvement of churches in politics and to believe that the strength of American society is based on religious faith, according to research conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. This Far by Faith seeks to explain why and how faith and religious tradition have become a “binding force for the black American experience.”
Authors Juan Williams ’76, a National Public Radio senior correspondent, and Quinton Dixie, a professor of religious studies at Indiana University, tell the history of black America through the stories of individual church leaders and religious movements. The book not only demonstrates how faith sustained African Americans through slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and the civil rights movement, but also how faith helped shape political and social responses to these and other injustices. “That deep well of faith from the darkest days of slavery sets the African American experience of religion apart… Religion in the African American tradition is still both a tool of survival and an inspiring ‘terrible swift sword’ of justice,” they write.
Black America has long turned to its pulpits for leadership and social organizing. (In fact, the Rev. Hiram R. Revels of Mississippi, elected in 1870, was the first African American to serve in the U.S. Senate.) Williams and Dixie chronicle stories of well-known figures such as Sojourner Truth, who escaped slavery to become a leading abolitionist, as well as lesser-known figures such as Howard Thurman, a 20th century minister and religious scholar.
As one might expect, a significant portion of the book addresses the role of church leaders in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Interestingly, the authors also incorporate the stories of pivotal religious figures who laid the intellectual foundation for change in the decades leading up to the civil rights struggle. Among the most memorable of these stories focused on Thurman, a Baptist minister and dean of the chapel at Howard University, who met Mahatma Gandhi in 1935. The summary of Thurman’s trip to India, exchanges with Gandhi on Christianity, Hinduism, and oppression, and his subsequent efforts to lecture and transform the church help provide readers with a more complete understanding of the way in which “King and other civil rights activists were inheritors of a grand tradition of non-violent direct action.”
In today’s increasingly secular society, some may wonder whether black religious life will continue to be a leading force for social change. Perhaps, this social history teaches us that today's religious leaders can determine their own degree of civic relevance and impact on the times.
-Garry Jenkins '92
|by Jeremy Braddock and Stephen Hock '96
Directed by Allen Smithee University of Minnesota Press, 2001
As the great film critic Robin Wood once asked rhetorically of Howard Hawks, who the hell is Allen Smithee? Virtually unknown by the general public despite his having signed off as the director of over 60 films, Smithee has worked peerlessly in a variety of genres – the western, the horror film, the melodrama, the comedy, the biopic – from the late 1960s to the present day. It was Smithee, after all, who saw the magic of Parker Stephenson in the med school comedy Stitches (Smithee, 1985); Smithee who tapped the genius of Sherman Hemsley in Ghost Fever (Smithee, 1987); and Smithee who knew enough to let Cheech Marin simply be Cheech Marin in The Shrimp on the Barbie (Smithee, 1990). It’s true that Smithee’s taste runs toward the tawdry, the cheap, and the exploitative, but the same could be said of Samuel Fuller or Larry Cohen. Is it Smithee’s fault that his skill lies not with ennobling themes but with such ripping, raw enterprises as Hellraiser: Bloodline (Smithee, 1996)?
Stephen Hock ’96 presents an intricate, intriguing case for studying Smithee’s oeuvre in a new anthology he co-edited with his fellow film scholar Jeremy Braddock. Directed by Allen Smithee begins with Hock and Braddock’s essay, “The Specter of Illegitimacy in an Age of Disillusion and Crisis,” which draws out in great detail the idea, central to Smithee’s existence let alone that of his films, that Smithee himself is more an ideational author than a real one—an absent figure, a genuine nonentity. Following deconstructive literary practice, Hock and Braddock begin by explaining that Allen Smithee doesn’t exist except as a signature. But in Smithee’s case, it’s literally true: “Allen Smithee” is the name the Director’s Guild assigns to fill in the blank when a film’s actual director, angry at the way his or her film has been mangled by others, demands that his or her name be removed from the credits.
Seen in a conventional critical light, Smithee (whose real names include Arthur Hiller, Dennis Hopper, Ivan Passer, Don Siegel, and John Frankenheimer) is a bad director. If his films always seem to have been relatively undirected, that’s because they actually were. (Meddling producers are often to blame when Smithee signs his name to a film; most directors don’t retain the right to edit their pictures the way they’d like, and sometimes they’re so upset by the results that they petition the Director’s Guild to have their names removed. Enter Allen Smithee.) But Hock, Braddock, and the other contributors to Directed by Allen Smithee set themselves on a highly unusual, deeply philosophical course. If there is any value to the politique des auteurs, the still-alive-and-kicking notion that the best films are made by people who actually have something worthwhile to express over the course of their careers, then Smithee, they argue, provides a neat case study – a perverse one, of course, but that’s what makes Hock and Braddock’s ideas novel.
Hock’s own contribution to the anthology, “This Is Too Big for One Old Name: Hitchcock and Smithee in the Signature Centrifuge,” is a study of The Birds (Hitchcock, 1963) and its sequel, The Birds II: Land’s End (Smithee, 1994). “The Smithee signature,” Hock writes, “poses a disruptive threat to the auteurist valorization of the director in general, and Hitchcock’s auteurist aura in particular.” The two films have much in common, he argues. Hock cites some of the negative reviews The Birds received when it was released, a fate that certainly befell Smithee’s ill-executed sequel. (An online survey, for example, named The Birds II as the 45th-worst film ever made.) But Hock analyzes both films through the refractive lens of the French literary critic Jacques Derrida, and in that fractured light, The Birds II turns out to be much more productive of ideas than one might imagine—a site not of coherent, auteurist meaning, but rather of centrifugally spinning, associative, subversive meanings that call into question the received wisdom of several decades’ worth of Hitchcock scholarship.
Much of Hock’s essay is instructive, and he writes enthusiastically
about difficult concepts. He offers a sharp critique of the way contemporary
culture treats the name Alfred Hitchcock as a sort of brand name, like
Kleenex, and he offers a disruptive reading of The Birds centering in
part on Hitchcock’s manipulative and cruel treatment of the film’s
star, Tippi Hedren. But one has to care a great deal not only about The
Birds II: Land’s End but also about the programmatic criticism of
Jacques Derrida – now much more conventional in academic discourse
than auteurism ever was - to see the relevance of Hock’s assertion
that a dog in the sequel is actually Alfred Hitchcock’s avatar.
Frankly, I don’t. Still, it’s nice to see that a new generation
of film scholars is keeping old movies alive by watching them carefully,
pressing them for unexpected meanings, and finding in them so many generative
and expansive ideas.