Piazzolla, Before & After

Astor Piazzolla

Astor Piazzolla

In Argentine tango, there is “Before Piazzolla” and “After Piazzolla.”

Astor Piazzolla (a master of the bandoneón, the concertina-like instrument that many consider the soul of tango) revolutionized tango in ways that either electrified his numberless fans (most of them outside of Buenos Aires, Argentina, which is the home of tango) or infuriated his many detractors (most of them inside Buenos Aires). He once remarked how dismaying it was to him to be able to fill every seat at the huge Olympia Theater in Paris, while barely thirty people — and many of them loudly hostile — would come to see him in a club in Buenos Aires.

Astor brought into tango many elements of sophisticated classical music that it had never heard before. Fugue, counterpoint, extraordinary poly-rhythms and dissonances that few of the usual tango musicians in Buenos Aires — as fine as surely they were — could even comprehend. Indeed Astor spoke of his own compositions as “music based on tango”, rather than as tango itself, and this is a fair judgment.

But woe betide the tango fan who does not understand the importance of traditional tango to Astor’s work. Astor was, after all, the principal arranger for several years for the renowned Buenos Aires orchestra of Anibal Troilo, himself a truly innovative composer.

The noted tango composer and pianist Osvaldo Pugliese was a great fan of Astor, and vice versa, although their styles of tango were markedly dissimilar. In his book Astor Piazzolla: A Memoir (compiled from interviews by Natalio Gorin), Astor writes “I wrote a special arrangement of my ‘Adiós Nonino,’ and Osvaldo looked clueless — he couldn’t play a note. Later I tried to play [Osvaldo’s] ‘La Yumba’ his way and I couldn’t. I felt bad, as if I’d dirtied his music…”

Carlos Gardel

Carlos Gardel


There was a further quite special moment earlier in Astor’s life, when he met another tango revolutionary, Carlos Gardel. Generally regarded as the greatest singer of tango ever, “Charley”, as Astor called him, was an international recording and film star when he met the thirteen year-old Astor Piazzolla in New York City, where Astor and his parents Vicente and Asunta were living. Vicente had taken his family from Argentina to New York in 1924 (when Astor was three) in order to find work, and they lived on the Lower East Side (ironically, near Astor Place) for many years.

Astor was a scruffy kid with a limp caused by an accident of birth in one foot, which required surgeries throughout his childhood. He walked funny, he was little, and he talked funny with an Argentine accent. He got into a lot of fights.

Astor began playing the bandoneón in New York at his father Vicente’s insistence, and as a thirteen year-old in 1934, ever alert to job possibilities, he got work as an errand boy on the set of El día que me quieras. This was one of Carlos Gardel’s several musical comedies that were filmed at Paramount’s Astoria, New York studios. Within a few days, Astor and the great Charley became pals.

Astor told Charley that he played bandoneón. As a result, the singer and his musicians tutored Astor on his instrument, and indeed Astor accompanied Charley on a couple of occasions at the Campoamor Theater on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Charley thought so well of Astor that he gave the boy a bit part in El día que me quieras. Gratefully, Vicente Piazzolla, an amateur wood carver, made a small carving of an Argentine gaucho with a guitar, which Astor delivered to Charley.

Charley was killed in a fiery airplane accident in Colombia on June 24, 1935. Many years later, Astor received a message from his very first bandoneón teacher, Andrés D’Aquila, who still lived in New York. Andrés had been passing by a pawnshop in Manhattan and had spotted a small wood carving of a gaucho with a guitar in the window. Curious, he looked at it more carefully and saw the name “Vicente Piazzolla” carved into its base. The carving itself was charred in many places, the evidence that it had been in a fire. Next to the figure was a hand-lettered sign that read “This belonged to an Argentine tango singer.”

Andrés went into the shop, to buy the gaucho for Astor. But the price was $20.00, money that Andrés did not have on him that day. The shop owner agreed to hold the carving overnight. But when Andrés came back the next day, the gaucho was gone, sold.

In his memoir, Astor writes, “I never lost hope that I would find [the carving] and that whoever has it some day would call me.” That never happened, and among the gifts offered by a fan to a performer, that gaucho carving, wherever it is, surely conveys a far more personal artistic affection — equally to the young prodigy who delivered it and his mentor the immortal star who died with it — than almost any such gift ever could provide.

Terence Clarke’s recently completed screenplay Astor & Charley is based on these events. This piece appeared originally in Huffington Post.

Alan Rinzler, On Publishing Past, Present and Future

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When you are reading the Acknowledgments page of a newly purchased book, and you come across effusive thanks from the writer to his/her editor, you can reasonably ask, “Just what does an editor do?” Is such a person merely a handy helpmate who corrects grammatical errors? Is the editor the person who keeps the writer’s creative rampages in check, so that eventually an actual book with a beginning, a middle and an end will arrive at the book store (or, in these times, on your iPad)? Is the editor a soul mate to the writer, without whom the poor sot may never finish the sanity-threatening project on which he/she has embarked?

All of these will do, and many others. If you are a writer yourself, you know the intellectual and emotional intimacy that can result between you and your editor. It can be a sanguine conversation or a grittily difficult one, and every shade of talk in between. A very good primer on what the relationship can be like is A. Scott Berg’s Max Perkins: Editor of Genius. Among others, Perkins was the editor for much of the work of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe.

Alan Rinzler

Alan Rinzler

There are few editors today who can claim to have edited such a list of major writers (either in terms of the quality or of the sales of their books). But one who can is Alan Rinzler. Having edited several of the books by Hunter S. Thompson, Clive Cussler, Toni Morrison, Tom Robbins and many, many others (including – full disclosure – two of mine) Rinzler occupies an almost unique place in contemporary publishing.

And he has much to say about the current state of that publishing.

For one, things look very good indeed, for a very real reason. “I don’t think people will ever stop writing or reading,” Rinzler says. “Human beings are hardwired to tell stories, compelled to write them…and to read stories for pleasure, information, inspiration – all the vital knowledge that we need to survive.” Every editor knows that the essential quality needed for a successful book is that it be written well. It’s the writer’s most important task, and has always been. What is new in successful books these days is the way they get published and sold, and Rinzler is very upbeat about current and future prospects in that realm, too.

“I was lucky to start out in publishing in the early 1960s when youth culture was a very important factor in book acquisition, production and marketing. Since I was young myself, I was able to make a connection with what was happening and that actually sold books.”

Rinzler’s rise was meteoric, starting with the mentorship from the legendary Robert Gottlieb at Simon and Schuster.

“After S&S, I went to Macmillan, and then Holt, which was owned by CBS at the time. So right away I had the kinds of resources that allowed me to sign up and develop books for the so-called youth market. A book about Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in their folk-music phase. A book on civil rights called The Movement, because I had been a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. And most importantly the first book written by a street kid growing up in Harlem, Manchild in the Promised Land ,which turned out to be a big NY Times best-seller.”

This youthful rise also included Rinzler’s editing and publishing Custer Died for Your Sins by Lakota Sioux Native American Vine Deloria Jr, and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of The American West by Dee Brown. Published in 1970, it remains the best-selling book that Rinzler has ever worked on, and has been translated into more than 20 languages. It is still in print.

“Meanwhile, I had always loved rock ‘n roll as well. I had done a book on Woodstock by the rock ‘n roll photographer Baron Wolman, who told his friend Jann Wenner about me. Jann was in the process of founding a little newsprint four-fold publication in San Francisco named Rolling Stone, and we met.”

Agreeing to come on board, Rinzler moved his family from New York City to the west coast, and Rolling Stone became world famous. “Jann and I both wanted to start a book division, which we did, and I was in charge.” The publishing arm was called Straight Arrow Books. “Ultimately we published about 50 titles, most of which are still in print.” Among the most iconic titles published by Straight Arrow are Hunter S. Thompson’s legendary Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, as well as Kerouac, the first biography of Jack Kerouac by Ann Charters.

When Wenner decided to move Rolling Stone’s operations to New York City, Rinzler demurred, having decided that the San Francisco Bay Area was where he and his young family wanted to stay. He went to work for Barney Rosset at Grove Press and Evergreen Review. “Rosset was another great American publisher,” Rinzler says, “who paved the way for a lot of things that were actually, in those days, against the law to publish, like Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer.”

Rinzler has continued on from there, to edit books for innumerable writers. He was for some years the west coast editor for Bantam Books, for whom he edited work by Tom Robbins, Jerzy Kosinski and Shirley MacLaine, among others, and until recently, Rinzler was an executive editor for Jossey Bass, the west coast imprint of John Wiley & Sons in San Francisco.

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Much has changed in the way that writing gets published…and read. Two things, however, remain unchanged: the creative talent of the writer and the intellectual curiosity of the reader.

“The book business,” Alan Rinzler says, “ has always only been marginally profitable.

“Even in the halcyon days of publishing, when I was fresh out of college, when Richard Simon was in one office and Max Schuster in another…when Alfred Knopf was down the street and Bennett Cerf was running Random House, most of the books being published by those titanic icons lost money.”

A business model, if there was one, was based on “the publisher’s passion,” Rinzler says.

“In those days, an editor would acquire a book because he loved it. He believed in it. But only a few books made enough to compensate for all those that failed. It was the old 20/80 rule.”

Book publishing has forever been an industry with very slim margins. “A profit of 5 to 6 percent meant that you were doing well,” Rinzler points out. This was largely due to the up-front expenses that traditional book publishing incurred: typesetting, and then printing and binding a book in long press runs; warehousing the books and having to distribute them to innumerable book stores around the country; marketing and publicity. All these caused out-of-pocket expenses that were incurred before a single book was ever sold. And then, as the unruly frosting on the cake, unsold books could be returned by the stores to the publishers for refunds…further expenses.

“Of course, this in no way affected the impact of the publishing industry on the general scene,” Rinzler says. “It had a very high visibility because it influenced ideas and social change. It reflected what was happening in politics, the arts and the culture.”

When the first shopping mall store chains (B. Dalton, Walden Books, et.al.) came along, there was much worry on the part of the traditional publishers about what this could mean to their sales and profits. “Those stores were originally considered low-brow warehouses,” Rinzler says. “Paperback reprints for a dollar each. A lot of people in the business predicted the end of traditional publishing and independent bookstores.” In fact, however, sales increased and profits soared for the top best-sellers because of far greater volume over so many new outlets.

And now, electronic digital publishing and distribution, and self-publishing are changing the scene in ways that are even more dramatic. “Gradually, although kicking and screaming,” Rinzler notes, “traditional book publishers and sellers are being dragged into the 21st century.”

“And one of the biggest factors in this has been the rise of Amazon. Their brilliant new idea was to sell books on line and through the mail directly to buyers, in ways that traditional publishers had never before done. Also the idea of discounting certain titles, or offering chapters of a book for free, the result often being that readers buy the books in much greater volume…because they know what they’re getting.”

There’s an authentic revolution in book publishing that has greatly impacted the author’s potential to receive a greater share of the profits. In traditional publishing, the author’s royalty has always been 10-12-15% for a hard-cover; 7-1/2 to 10% percent for trade paperback; even lower for certain kinds of mass publishing. Now, with the advent of the Kindle, the iPad, and many quite legitimate digital and print-on-demand self-publishing programs, an author can receive as much as 70% of the retail price as royalties.

The growth of electronic publishing has brightened the future for individual writers in ways that provide new incentive for true writing talent, and new enthusiasm among readers of good books. With electronic publishing, more books that are well written are finding the light of day, and delivered much more quickly into the hands of avid readers. Traditional publishing is, to be sure, still doing fine. The printed book will not soon disappear, if ever, but the market share of ebook to print has grown from 5% to 30% over the past few years and is projected to surpass 50% of all book sales within two or three more.

“Yes, I think this is the best time ever for an author,” Rinzler says.

“The balance of power has shifted from the gatekeepers to the artists. Now the author is in a position to take control of the means of production, which has almost never been the case in the history of publishing. They can control the content, the design, the appearance, the production itself…and also, by the way, receive a much larger share of the profits from all that.”

Rinzler breaks into a grin.

“I understand that an author may want to do things in the traditional way, having the imprimatur of that important publisher’s brand name on the spine of his or her book. But to me, that’s like having a spot on the roster of the 1947 Yankees. Now I always ask my writers, ‘How much time have you got? How much patience? How much tolerance for frustration? Rejection? Or for just plain being ignored?’”

Rinzler’s questions reveal the reality, for most writers, of dealing with traditional publishing. And that’s why, he continues, self-publishing has now become such a viable alternative. What once was the worst thing for a serious writer to do, now offers very great potential value to that writer. No longer is self-publishing an embarrassing admission of defeat by authors whose work does not attract a traditional publisher. Now writers can hire their own developmental editors and jacket designers and skip over the big wait.

“If you’ve gone for a year or two with no positive response from traditional publishers, self-publishing begins to look pretty good,” Rinzler says. “And of course, there’s the precedent of self-published books becoming best sellers. Miracles do happen!”

Alev Lytle Croutier’s Harem: The World Behind the Veil…25th anniversary edition

Had I not read Alev Lytle Croutier’s Harem: The World Behind the Veil when it was first published 25 years ago, I would have continued thinking that a harem in Turkey was basically a gathering of women sequestered–imprisoned–for the deviant sexual pleasure of the pasha, sultan or whomever else was in charge. Like that of most other people in the west, my understanding of the harem was a salacious one, and very inaccurate.

Croutier’s book was therefore a revelation, and in its re-publication in a new edition this year, it remains one.

Alev Lytle Croutier

Alev Lytle Croutier

I learned once more in the preface that Croutier’s paternal grandmother and that woman’s sisters had actually been members of a harem: “Which really means a separate part of a house where women lived in isolation, having no contact with men other than their blood relatives. The term does not necessarily imply the practice of polygamy.” Those sentences begin Croutier’s sophisticated and fascinating education of the reader about what a harem actually was for her grandmother as well as for countless other women, at various levels of Turkish society, over the previous centuries.

We learn about the Grand Harem of the sultan, and what activities the women could engage in…the poetry of the harem, the shadow puppets plays they mounted, the secrets of flowers and birds, the riddles they shared, the stories they told, their outings, games, and many other activities.

“Women of the harem were renowned for their luminous complexions and satin skin,” Croutier writes, and therewith begins a tour of the grand harem baths.

“To wash and purify oneself was a religious obligation. This may perhaps explain the existence of so many baths in the Seraglio. The sultan, the Valide, and the wives all had private baths, while the other women of the harem shared a large bathhouse, which sometimes welcomed the sultan as well–the stuff of Orientalist fantasy…For harem women, deprived of so many freedoms, the hamam (i.e. Turkish bath) became an all-consuming passion and a most luxurious pastime.”

We learn every detail about the baths: the water used, the henna floral designs for special occasions, perspiration preventatives, the powders, the brushes, the spices, the depilatory called ada, which was a paste made of sugar and lemon (for which Croutier provides the recipe and the method for using the concoction)…everything.

We also learn who the sultanas were, the princesses and the relationships between them all, the organization of the harem, the social relationships between the various levels of harem hierarchy, pregnancy and accouchement within the harem, and the handling of childbirth.

The Grand Harem in the Topkapi Palace was one thing, in which many, many women lived in luxurious surroundings. These were the kinds of harems so much written about by western commentators, whose descriptions Croutier uses very often and quite colorfully. But one of the most interesting chapters in the book for me (because it was the least expected) is titled “Ordinary Harems”. A Turkish Muslim man of modest means could still marry four women legally, and they were his harem. The situation for these women was far more workaday and closely familial than for those in the royal seraglio, and Croutier’s description of the customs involved are very special…and even personal.

“Romance or not, families decided who married whom. My grandmother was promised to her father’s best friend when she was merely a child. When they eventually got married, she was fourteen and my grandfather was forty.

In this chapter, we see how a proper husband should treat his wives (for example, “Good husbands were diplomatic. They abided by the Qur’an and gave the impression of treating all their women equally…The husband alternated nights in the bedrooms, spending Friday nights exclusively with their first wives.”). She describes what the relationships among the wives could be like, what was required for household upkeep, the treatment of odalisques (i.e. house servants), and even the various preparations of the bodies of deceased wives for burial.

This chapter on ordinary harems was unusual for me because I had not realized that a harem was a reality in almost every level of the society that Croutier describes, and not intended solely for the sultan and others of the upper-class. The chapter is a view of everyday life in this society that may have gone unnoticed by western readers had it not been for Croutier’s study of it.

John Singer Sargent: Fumée d'Ambre Gris, 1880, oil on canvas. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts. Used with permission.

John Singer Sargent: Fumée d’Ambre Gris, 1880, oil on canvas. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts. Used with permission.

Harem is quite lavishly illustrated with photos of various harem women (including some from Croutier’s own family in Turkey). Many of the illustrations come from Turkish artists of the historical period being covered, and there is as well a number of breath-taking paintings done by such Europeans as Eugéne Delacrox, Leon Bakst, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and others, all influenced by the popular European Orientalist movements of the period. I first saw one of my very favorite paintings in this book: John Singer Sargent’s Fumée d’Ambre Gris, in which an extraordinary woman, in contemplation of the essential perfume of amber coming up to her from a harem censer, is lost in lush, joyful contemplation. The setting–an alcove in some corner of a harem chamber–is severe, of bone-like white, while the carpets, the glorious censer, the woman’s clothing and jewelry and, especially, her hands and face, exude the sensitivity of private, sensuous dreaming.

In the 25 years since the first publication of Harem, the situation for women in Muslim societies has changed profoundly. Croutier has studied this, and writes in this new edition:

“The Internet has created a dynamic exchange in which a Moslem woman can be a traditionalist or an iconoclast, a housewife or an entrepreneur. The neutral ground of cyberspace allows women to learn about their rights within the religion, without the usual cultural or traditional barriers.”

This is all to the good, of course, and turning back is not an option. But Croutier herself misses one aspect of the old way.

“It never ceases to amaze me that all my research for this book was done without the Internet. Those old fashioned forms of research–long hours in the library, the manuscripts, the dust and bookish enjoyment of the search for knowledge–certainly had more of a romantic edge for me.”

The idea of a harem has always been of interest to the west, although the truth of the harem is often sacrificed to over-wrought sensualist fantasy. The reality of the harem, as presented in this fine book, brings the idea to lovely–and accurate–fruition.

Terence Clarke is the director of publishing of Astor & Lenox. His new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro will be published in early 2015. This piece appeared originally in Huffington Post.

Gabo Returns!

Gabriel García Márquez

Gabriel García Márquez


Under the headline “Gabo Returns to Colombia”, the Colombian magazine Revista Arcadia published the following today:

Penguin Random House, owner of the world rights to the works of Gabriel García Márquez, will publish the complete works of the Nobel Prize winner in Colombia on December 12, 2014.

The absurd situation regarding García Márquez’s novels in Colombia seems to be coming to an end. After a number of years during which only paperback editions could be obtained in commercial bookstores here, due to the very low sales commission rates offered to independent book stores by Editorial Norma—the previous owner of the rights—luxury hard-cover editions will finally now be available everywhere in the country.

In recent years, the circumstances have taken on laughable dimensions. When García Márquez passed away, the majority of his books were re-issued in Argentina and Mexico, but not in Colombia.

Given that, some booksellers had to resort to selling English-language editions or to purchasing the books from Amazon for re-sale. Now, thanks to the publisher Penguin Random House, the complete works of the Nobel Prize winner will be re-issued in Colombia.

To celebrate, here following is my translation of a little story by Gabo that was published originally in 1978…
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Light’s like Water
Gabriel García Márquez

At Christmas, the boys once again asked for a rowboat.

“All right,” their daddy said. “We’ll buy it when we get back to Cartagena.”

Totó, who was nine, and Joel, seven, were far more decided about this than their parents could even believe.

“No,” they chorused. “We want it now and here.”

“To start with,” the mother said, “there aren’t any navigable waters here other than what comes out of the shower.”

She was just as right about this as her husband was. In their house in Cartagena de Indias, there was a patio with a pier on the bay, and a boat shelter for two large yachts. By comparison, here in Madrid they all lived jammed together on the fifth floor of 47 Paseo de la Castellana. But in the end, nether daddy nor mommy could say no because they had promised the boys a rowboat, along with a sextant and a compass, if they were to win the third grade prize, and they had won it.

So it was that the daddy bought the boat without saying a word to his wife, who was the more reluctant of the two to pay off any sort of gambling debt. It was a cute aluminum boat with a line of golden rope along the waterline.

“The boat’s in the garage,” the daddy revealed at lunch. “The problem is, there’s no way to bring it up either in the elevator or on the stairs, and there’s no more available space anywhere.”

That Saturday afternoon, however, the boys invited their classmates over, to bring the boat up by the stairs, and they succeeded in getting it into the utility room.

“Congratulations,” the daddy said to them. “And now what?”

“Nothing now,” the boys said. “The only thing we wanted was to get the boat into the room, and now it’s there.”

The next Wednesday night, as on all Wednesday nights, the parents went to the movies. The boys, now owners and masters of the house, closed the doors and windows, and broke the lit-up light bulb of a living room lamp. A spray of golden light, fresh as water, began to come out of the broken bulb, and they let it run up, until the level of it reached that of four open handprints. Then they cut off the current, brought out the boat, and navigated at their pleasure through the islands of the house.

This fabulous adventure was the result of a bit of flippancy on my part when I participated in a seminar on the poetry of domestic utensils.

Totó asked me how it was that light came on simply from the pressing of a switch, and I didn’t have the nerve to think about it even more than just once.

“Light’s like water,” I responded to him. “You open the tap, and out it comes.”

Thus did they continue navigating every Wednesday in the evening, learning how to handle the sextant and the compass, until their parents would come back from the movies to find them sleeping like angels on terra firma.

Months later, eager to go even further, they asked for fishing equipment. Everything: masks, flippers, oxygen tanks and compressed-air spear guns.

“It’s bad enough that you’ve got a rowboat in the utility room that doesn’t do anything,” the father said. “But it’s worse that you also want diving equipment.”

“And if we win the first semester Golden Gardenia?” Joel said.

“No,” said the mother, frightened. “No more!”

The father reproached her for her intransigence.

“Look, these kids don’t get a penny even for doing their homework,” she said, “but with some little caprice like this, they’re able to take over for the teacher himself.”

The parents didn’t say either yes or no finally. But Totó and Joel, who the previous two years had come in last, won the two Golden Gardenias in July, and the public recognition of the school rector. That same afternoon, without having had to ask again, they found in their bedroom the diving gear in its original packaging. So that, the following Wednesday, while the parents saw Last Tango in Paris, the boys filled the apartment up to two fathoms deep, dived like peaceful sharks under the furniture and beds, and rescued from the very bottom of the light those things that for years had been lost in darkness.

At the final awards ceremony, the brothers were acclaimed as an example to the school, and were given diplomas of excellence. This time, they didn’t have to ask for anything, because their parents asked them what they wanted. The boys were very reasonable, asking only for a party at home to honor their schoolmates.

The father, left alone with their mother, was radiant.

“It’s proof of their maturity,” he said.

“God is listening,” said the mother.

The following Wednesday, while their parents went to see The Battle of Algiers, the people passing up la Castellana saw a cascade of light from an old building hidden among the trees. It came down from the balconies, spilling in gushes down the front of the building, and made a channel up the great avenue in a golden torrent that lit up the city all the way to the Guadarrama.

Called out urgently, firemen forced open the door on the fifth floor, and found the house covered in light up to the ceiling. The sofa and armchairs, covered in leopard skin, floated around the room at different levels, between bottles from the bar and the baby grand piano and its manila-colored cover, which flapped around half-submerged like a golden manta ray. The domestic utensils, in the fullness of their poetry, flew with their own wings across the heaven of the kitchen. The military band instruments, to the music from which the boys danced, floated in a circle around the drain among the fishes liberated from mommy’s fishbowl, which were the only ones that floated alive and happy in the vast illuminated swamp. In the bathroom, everyone’s toothbrush floated about, with daddy’s condoms, mommy’s jars of cream and her extra set of dentures, the television from the principal bedroom floating on its side, still turned on to the last scene of a late-night film prohibited to kids.

At the end of the corridor, floating and perplexed, Totó was seated in the rowboat’s stern, hanging on to the oars with a set face, looking for the port lighthouse from which he could refill the air tanks, and Joel floated in the prow still searching the height of the polar star with the sextant, and their 37 classmates floated through the entire house as though forever in the very moment of going pee-pee in the pot of geraniums, of singing the school hymn changed with lyrics mocking the rector, and secretly drinking glassfuls of brandy from daddy’s bottle. They had turned on so many lights at the same time that the house had spilled over with it, and the entire first-year room of the San Julián el Hospitalario School had been drowned on the fifth floor of number 47 Paseo de la Castellana. In Madrid, Spain, a remote city of burning summers and icy winds, without a sea or a river, whose terra firma aborigines had never mastered the science of navigating the light.

Where the Peacocks Sing, by Alison Singh Gee

It comes as quite a surprise to Alison Singh Gee to learn that her first visit to her new husband’s family home will take her to a 100-room palace… that her husband’s family owns.

Raised in a Los Angeles suburb by her housewife mom (the daughter of a Sacramento poultry farmer of Chinese descent) and her very mercurial dad (a member of a successful Los Angeles Chinatown import-export business family), she has been a columnist and features writer for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. Alison has a very fast-paced, glamorous life. Parties, fashion-designer clothing, drinks at The Peninsula Hotel and internationalist sophistication are her daily fare, and from the outside, it looks to everyone that Alison Gee definitely has it made.

Used courtesy of Alison Singh Gee

Used courtesy of Alison Singh Gee

But as she writes in her fine new book Where The Peacocks Sing: A Palace, A Prince and The Search for Home, “On the rare occasion when I sat still for longer than a minute, my heart would tell me something was truly not right. Something was missing from my all too spectacular life. Something profound. Something I could not figure out.”

She goes to work for Time Inc.’s Asiaweek, and the nature of her writing deepens. She is assigned to stories about the imminent flooding of the Three Gorges in China, strange and exorbitantly expensive beauty rituals in Japan, and the rampant kidnapping of upper-class housewives in The Philippines, among others. While at Asiaweek, Alison wins an Amnesty International Magazine Feature Writing Award for a cover story she does on child prostitution in Southeast Asia. “I knew my life was moving along a new path.”

One bright feature of that path comes to light on the day that she meets a New Delhi-based Asiaweek reporter, an expert in Indian politics and culture, named Ajay Singh. Six feet tall, described by Alison as “film-star handsome… with chai-colored skin, almond shaped brown eyes and impeccable manners,” Ajay causes her head to turn. “I remember trying to put on graceful airs — ‘Be swanlike!’ my head commanded.”

Eventually they become engaged, and one day, while visiting Alison’s family in Los Angeles, Ajay tells her about the palace. Built at the turn of the 20th century, it was the favorite haunt of his childhood years. “‘We have mango groves, a family temple, fields where the villagers grow sugarcane, wheat and papaya. There are wild peacocks by the dozen and orchards full of other birds too. I still know all their whistles by heart.'”

Once they are married, Ajay and Alison travel to Mokimpur (the name of the palace) to visit his family, and the bulk of Alison’s book tells of this adventurous and very heartfelt journey.

Used courtesy of Alison Singh Gee

Used courtesy of Alison Singh Gee

While Alison may have had something like a rajah’s palace in mind, the real thing proves to be less so. The building is ramshackle and very run down, stained by years of rain and mold, its old furniture rickety, everything clearly suffering from a lack of funds. Alison, however, attempts to make the best of it, because the other residents of the house, after all, are Ajay’s parents and other family members. She writes very well about the different personalities in her husband’s family, and how they are not initially as pleased with Alison herself as she would hope they would be.

In one hilarious sequence, she describes her attempt to cook an American Christmas feast for the family, even though she admits to herself and to the reader that she is a virtual stranger to any kitchen. Since no turkey can be found in the local market, Alison buys a duck. This despite the fact, as Alison admits, that as a chef she’s lost. “Who am I fooling? I don’t know how to cook a duck.”

The preparation for the meal includes the setting afire of a kitchen towel, the potential loss of cooked yams in a knocked over bowl, and other disastrous screw-ups, including the fact that the duck comes out completely underdone. “I caught sight of a photo of Gandhi in the living room. ‘I shall detach myself,’ I murmured.”

With all these missteps and difficulties, it nonetheless becomes clear that everyone involved wants this visit to succeed. Alison loves Ajay and his family, and it is clear that, despite some initial reservations, they come to love her as well.

Used courtesy of Alison Singh Gee

Used courtesy of Alison Singh Gee

One of the joys of this book lies in Ajay’s very patient advice to Alison when she has encountered a difference between her expectations as a Chinese-American and the realties of Indian experience and culture.

Upon their arrival at Mokimpur, for example, Alison hears faint laughter and voices emanating from the walls of the building. She asks Ajay whether there are ghosts here, and he offers the following: “‘If you’re hearing voices, well, I have heard them, too. Everyone in my family has. It wouldn’t surprise me if a few souls decided to stay on.'” His reply is filled with loving regard. But it doesn’t end there, and Alison and the reader learn something from him of real emotional substance. “‘We don’t think about ghosts as those stereotypical spooks in white sheets… We believe that we co-exist with many, many spirits… The body withers away, but the essence of the person remains, watching over us.'”

Many such exchanges take place in this wonderful book. All are charming and above all filled with sometimes difficult but always truthful teachings. I admire Alison’s forthright descriptions of her frequent confusion in Mokimpur, and her ability to open her heart to what Ajay and his family do to resolve that confusion.

This is a travel book with a center of kindness, good humor and excellent writing that exhibits, as Alison writes, “the preternatural glow over the Indian night sky.”

Terence Clarke’s new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro will be published early next year. This piece first appeared in Huffington Post.

A Year in Champagne

Champagne is magically joyful. Yet few understand the struggle involved in creating it.

Documentary filmmaker David Kennard is making a trilogy of films about three distinctive wines (burgundy, champagne and port), and Samuel Goldwyn Films recently bought the North American rights to the second of these, A Year in Champagne. It is scheduled for a spring 2015 release.

Like his earlier and much noted A Year in Burgundy, the champagne film is a vibrant, openhearted look at some of the people who make this very special wine. It takes us on a tour of the Champagne landscape and introduces us to the extremely complex undertaking of producing the most famous libation ever.

Used courtesy of InCA Productions

Used courtesy of InCA Productions


Champagne is north and east of Paris, the most northerly wine-growing region in France. Unlike in Burgundy, where the weather in wine season is generally sunny and warm, in Champagne it is almost always more inclement than not, year round. So a good portion of this film seems to have been made under an umbrella. It features a lot of mud, cold and foul-weather gear. That the wine so noted for sprightly bubbles and light-hearted festivity comes from this often difficult setting is the first of many surprises in the film.

Used courtesy of InCA Productions

Used courtesy of InCA Productions


Champagne, of course, is also the site of some of the most terrifying events in the history of war. There were two battles fought along the Marne River during World War I. The first, in September 1914, resulted in half a million casualties. The second, four years later, resulted in 300,000 more. It was butchery on an astounding scale. But such war has been fought in this part of France for millennia, between Gauls, Ostrogoths, Romans and many others. As one of the champenois interviewed for this film says, “History haunts the champagne region.”

In an interview, Kennard himself recounted how he has often heard such utterances as “We are a people scarred by war” and “We have been involved time and time again.”

Given these two deleterious elements, it is almost an astonishment that the wine called champagne exists at all. But when they talk about the wine they make, the vintners in the film constantly use language filled with expressions of joy. One advises us, “The important thing is to make sure that your glass is never empty.” Another suggests, “Drinking champagne is all about pleasure.” A third even offers the thought that “Champagne makes women more lovely and men more witty.”

Used courtesy of InCA Productions

Used courtesy of InCA Productions


A Year in Champagne gives the viewer an inside look at how this place besieged by conflict and cold rain produces the wine that is synonymous with celebration. From the buds on the vines in spring, through the summer growing season and the harvest itself, we learn from the vintners about the almost numbing complexity of the process. In a long and quite amusing sequence, the film spells out the forest of rules that each champagne vintner must follow every year in the preparation of the fields and vines. There seem to be hundreds of specific ways in which the vines must be secured, treated and harvested, and in which the wine — to be called champagne — must be made.

Despite all this — or perhaps because of it — the final product is the most famous wine in the world. One of the great virtues of this film is that it shows in detail the wine-making process, rules and all, and gives the answer to the question that everyone who enjoys champagne has: how do they make the bubbles? It is a much more difficult undertaking than you might have imagined.

The film explains a few other phenomena of which the viewer may not have been aware. At first champagne was an exclusively sweet wine. The English (most particularly the English royal family) wanted a drier version of it. Of course, when someone like Edward VII asks a vendor to do something, that vendor springs to action. Also, the bubbles in part require fermentation of the wine in the bottle rather than in the barrel and, early on, English glass was always the one most able to withstand the pressure that the bubbles produced. So England had a lot to do with making champagne as we know it now.

Early in the 19th century, champagne was a village industry, its product enjoyed by just a few connoisseurs. But with the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and 1871, Germans too learned about champagne. Over time, large German corporations stepped in and began buying up small vineyards, and it was the Germans who first industrialized the champagne-making process. Thus was champagne made available to the world. A look at some of the big names in champagne — Bollinger, Krug, Roederer and so on — reflects the German influence.

To be successful, a growing industry requires good marketing, and champagne was one of the first wine products to take advantage of the new branding ideas of the early 20th century. Several of the vintners in A Year in Champagne tell that, while other French wines emphasize the importance of terroir (the very makeup of the soil in which certain grapes are grown), the excellence of a champagne brand rests upon the abilities of the maker. So the marketing of those makers’ names is central to the product’s fame.

Used courtesy of InCA Productions

Used courtesy of InCA Productions


Champagne lifts the soul in a glorious way that one would not expect from the location, weather and history of the place where it is made. But as one of the vintners in this lovely film declares, “Once you open the bottle, the magic is there.”

This piece first appeared in Huffington Post. Terence Clarke’s new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro will be published this year.

Wilfredo’s Debussy

Thelonious Monk

Thelonious Monk

“Excuse me.” The black man wore a puffy double-breasted brown suit that was too large for his enormous frame. The tie seemed to have been tied just once, then loosened, removed and put back on, over and over again for years. His black shoes had quite thick soles and heels, the kind of footwear worn by security guards, so that what they give to the wearer in comfort, they lose in style. This man also carried a large Trader Joe’s paper bag that contained a number of sheet music manuscripts, the covers of which, Monk could see, had faded badly or were scuffed along the edges. “May I ask you a question?”

Monk Samuels had been looking at an old Bechstein B grand piano that he frequently came to admire, jealous that such a fine instrument could be sitting alone – music itself, as it were, waiting to be played – on the showroom floor. His jealousy was restrained, though, because he was also very glad that the piano store, called Debussy, on West 58th Street, had the good sense to display this instrument. It had been sold back to the store recently, and rebuilt. The refined beauty of its finishing, its general appearance so dignified and perfectly lacquered ebony, were matched – overwhelmed actually – by its somber tone. This piano played intimately, yet with a heartfelt resonance that made the delicacy of feel in its keyboard seem a miracle. Monk was thrilled to be able to come into the store and, watched always by the salesman Sergei, play one or two little things.

They had become friends. One of Sergei’s duties was to protect the pianos from amateurs, unless of course some amateur had just bought one of them and the bank had transferred the funds. He had learned though that Monk knew what he was doing, even though he was not doing, say, Mozart. More often Monk did Bill Evans or Duke Ellington. But that was OK with Sergei because Monk understood those fellows so well.

Monk looked up from the piano bench. “A question?”

He had seen this man in the store on several occasions. He too appeared to savor the pianos. He walked around studying them, always with the bag of sheet music hanging from one hand. Monk had never seen him play, and had even asked Sergei about him.

“I’ve asked him if he wanted to try any of the instruments.” Sergei’s Hungarian accent remained slightly noticeable in his otherwise American English. He had come to New York as an infant, after the 1956 uprising in Hungary. He had, he often said, difficulty selling an instrument to anyone who resembled Nikita Krushchev. Sergei played piano well enough, but his real talent lay in understanding the workings inside the instrument. He had perfect pitch, and could fix almost anything that had been broken for whatever reason. His angular frame was all bony and slow moving. He thrived on hearing and then repairing the least noticeable of problems in a piano. Indeed, he seemed to rage within himself in search of such things.

“But he never has wanted to. I know he understands the music, the way he talks about the piano. And all that sheet music. He finds it in second-hand shops. He even has a copy of a Mozart sonata signed by Rubinstein.” Sergei placed a hand in the pocket of his suit coat and brought out a pipe, which he tapped against the palm of his left hand. “But, play? No.”

“Yes.” The man dropped the shopping bag to the floor, and then ran his right index finger along the lacquered surface of the Bechstein. “It’s just that I think you are not American.” His accent was Hispanic, Monk guessed.

“How so?”

A large grin appeared. “For one, you say things like ‘Good morning’ and ‘How are you?’”

Monk extended his hand. “Aren’t you talking more about someone who isn’t from New York?”

“Maybe that’s it.”

“Because I’m not from New York.” Monk took the man’s hand into his. “I’m Monk Samuels.”

“Thank you. And I am Rodney Echeverría.”

“Puerto Rico?”

Rodney’s left shoulder dropped, a bit of despondency. “No. Cuba.”

“I’m from California.”

“Ah, that explains it.”

“Explains what?”

“Your seeming so foreign.”

***

Rodney invited Monk to join him for coffee at a place on 57th, across the street from Carnegie Hall. It was there that Monk explained to him why he was named Monk.

“Thelonious.”

“The great one, who played so out of tune.”

“Yes. My father was a fan.”

“He was a musician?”

“No, he helped fund companies. Apple Computer and so on. Cisco Systems. He was very successful.”

“Unlike my father…” Rodney made a circle with his right index finger on the tabletop. “Who taught piano for an hourly fee.”

“Mine loved Thelonious Monk because he played so many bad notes. He knew it was intentional on Thelonious’s part. He loved the comedy of it.”

“Just the comedy?”

“No. He also felt that Thelonious played with more delicacy and understanding than almost any of the other guys.” Monk wrapped the fingers of both hands around the warm mug of coffee. “The sorrow in all that discord.” His eyes blinked as he thought of his father, who had been a far better venture capitalist than musician, but who had known, somehow, who played well and who didn’t. “Thelonious Monk was a very great man.”

“He’s gone, your father.”

“A few years ago, yes.”

“And he enjoyed your playing.”

“I think it amazed him. He always asked from where, in his or my mother’s DNA…”

“Where did it come from?”

“That’s right.”

“And so, you are named after Thelonious, bad notes and…”

“Yes, bad notes and all.” Monk nodded toward the paper bag. “But why do you go to Debussy?”

“It’s that Bechstein, Monk. My father brought it with us from Cuba. We had lost everything except for that piano. Imagine trying to get an instrument like that out of danger when danger is everywhere. Our escape took all his money. But then he had to give up the piano itself because eventually we still had no money.”

“He sold it.”

“Yes. To Debussy. I was just a little kid when it happened. Like Sergei when he came to this country.” Rodney hid a smile behind his right hand. “There are a few differences between us, of course. I’m a black caribeño, and he’s…he’s…” Rodney looked over his shoulder. “He’s a northern European white boy. The Communists put down the rebels in his country.”

“And in yours, the Communists won.”

Rodney’s lips tightened as his shoulders sagged. “Yes, sadly.”

“How long have you been coming to Debussy, Rodney?”

“This year, it’s fifty years.”

“And the piano’s been there…”

“It’s been in the store, off and on, since that first time that my father brought me.” Rodney stirred some sugar into his coffee. “They would sell it and it would be gone for a while. But then it would come back…the most recent owner had died or had bet wrong on the market or something. And then my father would come back.”

“Why haven’t you ever played it?”

Rodney gave Monk a look of hurt and even, very briefly, dismay. “You would ask me to betray him?”

“No. Rodney, I…”

“The piano’s been in prison, don’t you see?”

Monk searched Rodney’s eyes, a petition for forgiveness. “What was your father’s name?”

“Wilfredo Echeverría Bourbón.”

“What did he do that first day he brought you to the store?”

Rodney remained silent for a long moment. “He too was heavy, like me. He breathed with difficulty, a raspy sound that he had to quell when he was playing. He often said to me that he was afraid the children he taught would think him a ghost, a ‘fantasma’, as we say.” He spoke haltingly, as if a wound had seeped open. “With chains running around his lungs. That day, he stared at the piano a long while.”

“That’s all?”

The wound flowed. “No. He placed his right hand on the keyboard and played a few chords.”

“Do you remember which ones?”

“Schubert.”

“Anything else?”

“Brahms. And Beethoven, of course.” Rodney lowered his voice, almost to a whisper. “Before Fidel and the revolution, my father had been considering a concert career. Even though he was black, he was arranging for his first appearances in Europe, but…” Rodney took in a breath. “Fidel and Che, they didn’t think much of that idea.” Rodney sipped from his coffee, replaced the cup on the table, and fingered a small macaroon – his favorite cookie, he had told Monk – as he considered what next to say. “A career extinguished before it could even get started.” He brought the macaroon to his lips, savoring the coconut. “My father loved Brahms. But he often told me that he could barely speak of Brahms in the same breath with Beethoven.”

“And he couldn’t afford to buy the piano back.”

“Never. He played on all kinds of other instruments. Friends’ pianos. Pianos in the public schools where he taught. Tinny, elderly pianos. Out of tune, exhausted pianos. His students’ pianos when their mothers would allow a black man like him to come into their apartments. But that Bechstein…he called it ‘my Debussy’. The loss of that piano broke my father, Monk, almost as much as the revolution did.”

Rodney exhaled, a bit of gravel in his own breathing.

“It broke his heart.”

***

They did not see each other for several weeks. Mid-summer blazed, and Sergei told Monk that Rodney suffered from the heat, and that he had been staying at home. “It’s his weight, I think. I worry about him.”

Monk had floated the loan finally, cleared the space in his apartment on Riverside Drive, and the moving men delivered the Bechstein on a Friday afternoon. He asked Sergei to come to the apartment the next day and check the instrument’s tuning. In the early evening, after Sergei had completed his work, he asked Monk to play.

Monk poured out two glasses of sauvignon blanc and sat down at the piano to play a version of “I Got It Bad, And That Ain’t Good”. The lilt and frivolity of the tune made both men smile, especially when Monk played it in a few different styles…Art Tatum’s, Oscar Peterson’s and, of course, Thelonious Monk’s. Like Thelonious, Monk intentionally missed notes, came up short on the chords or played chords that were heavily discordant. He did not know whether Sergei could imagine the fruitlessness of such a task, since Monk’s playful clumsiness was so much less accomplished than Thelonious’s would have been. Monk knew that he had talent as a pianist, but not talent like that.

Nonetheless, as the lowering sun approached the gilt-tinged river, Monk also knew that this was the piano that he had been searching for all his life. The many recordings he had made, the critical acclaim he had garnered, and his ongoing career as a Grammy-winning jazz pianist…all had been aiming at a piano like this one, and now, finally, the piano was his.

“Bravo.” Sergei raised the glass in a toast to Monk’s superb playing.

***

Marta insisted on making coffee.

“My wife makes the very best coffee in the world.” Rodney sat in an armchair smoking a cigar. “She is Cuban, after all, and so you would expect such excellence.”

A small woman in a burgundy colored dress, her very black hair detailed with a white gardenia, Marta went into the small kitchen in Monk’s apartment, exclaimed about Monk’s good taste to have a proper Bialetti 6800 Moka Express 6-cup stovetop espresso maker “ready to roll”, as she put it, laughing, the “R’s” burbling from the end of her tongue with correct Cuban gusto, and set to work. She also found the package of coconut macaroons on the sink, which Monk had bought earlier from Zabar’s, and went about arranging them on the plate he had left for her.

“Well, Rodney?” Monk sat in a second armchair. He had taken great care with his appearance on this afternoon, making sure that the double-breasted gray suit he wore fit him well, was properly pressed and formed a formal, modest witness, with the deep blue silk tie and paisley green kerchief, to what it was about to hear.

Rodney stood, placed the cigar in an ashtray on the coffee table before him, and warmly examined Wilfredo’s Debussy. “Thank you, Monk.” He walked toward the piano, and then ran a hand across the ebony lacquer, lightly strummed the strings inside the instrument and listened to the buzz-like response that resulted, a sound that had always reminded Monk of some sort of laughing threnody. He loved the sound, the shimmering anguish of it.

Rodney sat on the lacquered bench and began playing. It was a small Mozart piece. “Köchel 311, Monk. Second movement.” Marta stood silently in the doorway to the kitchen, her right hand resting against her right cheek, as she watched her husband. He played the piece with unsettling slowness. His head hung over the keyboard, almost motionlessly. Tenderness riffled from the instrument, Rodney’s very large fingers making the lightest of impressions on the keys. The music formed a small stream of sound hurrying through smooth caressing stones, beneath a dawn filled with slowly warming light. It was a sad memory brightly recalled, played so lightly that the lightness itself became an elegy, an expression of true mourning.

(This story is one of 16, a collection titled New York, which will be published next year.)

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