Sunday, June 16, 2013

Movie Review: "In Bed with Ulysses"



At once maddening and fascinating, Alan Adelson and Kate Taverna's documentary In Bed With Ulysses (2012) takes on the task of presenting James Joyce's landmark masterpiece Ulysses as a comic romp that one might take along to the shore as summer reading. Toward that end, he includes extensive footage of a dramatic reading of the novel staged under the title “Bloom” at the Center for Jewish History in New York City, with imported Irish actors giving vivid voice to the multitude of Dublin denizens that Joyce immortalized in his pages.

Ulysses, however, might prove more daunting to the beach-blanket reader than the filmmakers seem to suggest, and this is but one of a number of serious flaws in what could have been a first-rate introduction to “the great novel no one has read.” Adelson and Laverna, in fact, open their film with a sequence of interview snippets in which an array of average sorts admit that they've never read it, or that they have never heard of it, or the slender, half-blind genius who wrote it.

Where In Bed With Ulysses succeeds is in the marvelous evocation of Dublin in 1904, and the maelstrom of Joyce's untidy life surrounding the book's creation. Ulysses takes place within the span of a single day, June 16, 1904, a date which Joyce fetishists celebrate as “Bloomsday.” Through rare film footage, still photographs, historical documents and contemporary interviews, Adelson and Laverna create a palpable tableau that conveys the visual and experiential sense of what Joyce dubbed (in the “Aeolus” chapter of Ulysses) “the heart of Hibernian metropolis,” just after the turn of the century.

Adelson has chosen to narrate his own script, which may not have been the most felicitous decision. His speech is curiously slow, his voice adenoidal, and his statements often leadenly obvious. Filming on top of the Martello tower, for instance, wherein the novel opens (and where Joyce himself bunked for a few brief but significant days), all Adelson can think to say is, “What a place to feel the gift and wonder of literature!”

Adelson also appears as a character from time to time, directing the half-dozen Irish actors as they rehearse their reading of Joyce's lively, allusive text, and paying a visit to the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia to view the bound volumes of what appears to be the fair copy, in Joyce's own hand, from which the first typescripts of Ulysses were prepared. (“I was in awe!... You can almost see he loves what he's writing.”)

Very welcome is a bit from a filmed interview with Sylvia Beach, proprietess of the legendary Paris bookstore Shakespeare and Company, who dared publish Joyce's book in its entirety in the face of international disapprobation and censorship (copies of The Little Review that printed excerpts from Ulysses were famously seized and burned wholesale). Recalling those heady days in old age, Miss Beach is lively, intelligent and wry.

Likewise, a visit to the Irish Jewish Center in Dublin proves enlightening, as its curator Raphael Siev discusses the tiny Jewish population of Ireland, and the climate of anti-Semitism active especially at the time of the novel, noting the notorious sermons preached in 1903 by Redemptorist Catholic priest Father John Creagh of Limerick, who accused the Jews of shedding Christian blood. His venomous words resulted in a boycott, often violent, of Jewish merchants, resulting in an exodus of Jews from Ireland. The novel's central figure, Leopold Bloom (whose interior monologue forms most of the book), is a hereditary Jew who has converted to Christianity (prudently being baptized in both the Protestant and Catholic faiths), but he still experiences the slights and offenses of that bigotry.

The “Cyclops” chapter of Ulysses is where that anti-Semitism moves to center stage, and it is there that the staged reading, mostly hammy and one-dimensional, comes to life, as the actors inhabit the various Dublin denizens in Barney Kiernan's tavern, including a rancid bigot known only as The Citizen, whose rambling tirade about nationalism and race purity veers around to Bloom's Jewish background. (“'What is your nation, if I may ask,' says the citizen”...'Are you talking about the new Jerusalem?'”)

One wishes that more of the focus achieved here infused the rest of the documentary. Various Joyce scholars and biographers offer not much that is new or deeply insightful; sometimes they're just wrong-headed. One expert expresses surprise that Joyce's wife Nora, for instance, would stay with him in the face of his fantasies about (and unsuccessful encouragements toward) cuckoldry and masochism, overlooking the presence on Joyce's bookshelves a number of volumes by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, including Venus in Furs, which plays a large role in Ulysses' most freewheeling section, the famous “Circe” chapter, set in Dublin's red-light district.

Nevertheless, In Bed With Ulysses manages to redeem itself through its brilliant visual record, for which co-director and editor Kate Taverna must be given the most credit. She has edited 23 documentaries since 1981, including The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer and Alan Adelson's only other documentary, Lodz Ghetto (1989), and her sure hand helps In Bed With Ulysses succeed where it might otherwise have floundered.
 

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Hark, I Hear the Cannons Roar

Franz Welser-Most Swings for the Fence
by Mark Satola

The gargantuan and the intimate crossed paths Thursday night in Severance Hall when music director Franz Welser-Möst led the Cleveland Orchestra’s first concerts of 2009.

Shostakovich’s supersized Symphony No. 7, “Leningrad,” nearly bulldozed the delicate "Wesendonck Songs" by Richard Wagner into oblivion. But for an outstanding performance by soprano Measha Brueggergosman, they might have been forgotten in the onslaught of Shostakovich’s wartime juggernaut.

The Canadian soprano has been a regular with the Cleveland Orchestra since 2006, and her performance of Wagner’s songs underscored why. Her voice is light and clear, without the heft one usually associates with Wagnerian sopranos, yet it has a steely fibre that allows her to ride the tide of Wagner’s music without being submerged in it.

Brueggergosman’s artistry and dramatic understanding gave Mathilde Wesendonck’s overwrought poems a credibility they might not have in lesser hands. Welser-Möst chose to lead the Felix Mottl orchestrations, which are sensitive and unobtrusive. On Thursday night, there was a slight roughness to the orchestral sound; hopefully it will be smoothed over in subsequent performances in Severance Hall and in Miami.

It would be difficult not to knock it out of the ballpark with Dmitri Shostakovich’s seventh symphony, the “Leningrad.” Once ubiquitous in concert halls — in 1943, it received 62 performances in the United States alone — it’s now heard rarely enough to constitute an event when it’s played.

The scoring is for a massive orchestra, and the story behind the symphony is a corker: the physically slight but brave composer refusing to be evacuated from Nazi-besieged Leningrad, composing a huge symphony that described the German onslaught and commemorated the suffering and heroism of the Soviet people. Microfilms of the score were smuggled to the west via Tehran, Egypt, London and New York.

But with Shostakovich, things are never what they seem. Latter-day history suggests the composer had other things in mind when he wrote the “Leningrad.” The controversial Solomon Volkov is not alone in suggesting that the Seventh Symphony is a coded message of defiance against the Stalin regime. It’s a matter that most likely cannot be settled.

Perhaps the best way to approach it is as pure music, a universal drama of oppression and endurance. Welser-Möst brought out the visceral impact of the score to such an extent that it was hardly necessary to hear it as program music.

Welser-Möst seems most at home when conducting works of great architectural scope, and the Shostakovich symphony allowed him to shape and balance the music with an operatic sense of drama. The famous Lehar crescendo in the first movement was allowed to proceed with a fine rhythmic swing — it can easily be driven far too hard — but intimate moments were not neglected, and Welser-Möst brought a Mahlerian delicacy to the many uneasy idylls that punctuate the symphony.

Any ragged playing from the orchestra — and there was more than a little — can be chalked up to forgivable enthusiasm. By the time the final volleys of brass were unleashed, it was clear that Welser-Möst and his musicians had indeed hit a shattering home run.

Originally written for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.



Thursday, December 25, 2008

Versatile Virtuoso

Pianist Stephen Hough Explores the Unusual
by Mark Satola


STEPHEN HOUGH is an artist who possesses, in the best sense, a restless mind. A quick look at the wide range of his repertoire more than suggests an interest in music from all eras and genres: from sonatas and concertos by the early 19th-century composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel to arrangements of popular tunes by Richard Rodgers, with stops in between for readings of works by Xaver Scharwenka, Federico Mompou, Emil von Sauer, and an endless cast of forgotten but charming composers of character and genre pieces -- the amount of music Hough has in his fingers is nothing short of astounding. Yet it seems that his encyclopedic repertoire happened more or less organically.

“I don't have a plan when I choose what music to learn and play,” he says. “I tend to go by instinct. I like to find things that are surprising, but I also like to come to the standard repertoire and find a new freshness in the music.”

New freshness is just what can be expected when Hough joins the Cleveland Orchestra this weekend, with guest conductor Iván Fischer, to take on one of the shaggiest of concert-hall warhorses, the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor by Sergei Rachmaninov, the one whose finale was transformed into the schmaltz-laden 1940s jukebox hit “Full Moon and Empty Arms.”

April (and a couple of weeks into May, as well) is shaking out as a sort of Rachmaninov month for Hough. In addition to his performances in Severance Hall, he's playing various combinations of the dour Russian's four concertos in Sarasota, Florida, Santa Ana, California (from where he spoke with this writer by telephone), and Dallas, where he'll play all four concertos with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Litton over a period of three weeks.

Hough is known for his explorations of unusual corners of the piano solo and concerto repertoire, and his recordings of so much obscure but worthy music. That eclecticism is exemplified in one of his latest releases, Stephen Hough's New Piano Album, a follow-up on Hyperion to two well-received discs on Virgin of small encore and salon pieces of unexpected charm, by such erstwhile household names as Cecile Chaminade, Moritz Moszkowski, Ignacy Paderewski and Leopold Godowsky.

“I like things that have a melodic or harmonic attractiveness that I can latch onto,” he says when asked how he chooses his pianistic souvenirs oubliée, “or something that has a real rhythmic interest. If it has all three, that's great. The key is to be un-self-conscious about it, to find something new and fresh.

“It can veer into self-consciousness, though,” he notes. “I do dislike it when I can sense someone is doing it just for the sake of being different.”

Lest it be thought, however, that Hough is merely a purveyor of lightweight trifles, one must not forget that he is a musical heavyweight (as well as something of a polymath, with composition and writing as adjuncts to his keyboard virtuosity). A native of Manchester who came from a not particularly musical family, Hough came to international attention in 1983 when he won first prize in the Naumburg International Piano Competition. More recently, he was the recipient of a 2001 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.

As a writer, Hough has penned some lively prose, providing detailed but highly entertaining notes for many of his recordings, as well as appreciations of such piano virtuosi as Vlado Perlemuter, Shura Cherkassky and Joseph Villa. Perhaps the most entertaining of his longer essays is his “Berceuse for Bechstein,” a wistful eclogue for a piano that was possessed of great beauty of tone and supple responsiveness, but which was supplanted by the growing hegemony of the brilliant and steely Steinway pianos that began their ascendancy in the second half of the 19th century. The dove-voiced Bechstein lasted a few decades into the 20th century, but the prevalence of Steinways, favored by such clangorous artists as Horowitz, and the replacement of home music making by television, sounded the knell.

“It was so much more appealing than Aunt Maud's arthritic fingers struggling with Chaminade's Automne, or Uncle Harry's repeated attempts to find The Lost Chord," Hough writes with, one imagines, a sad smile. “So the pianos went to the antique shops, Maud and Harry went to the nursing home, and suddenly a chapter of European life was finished.”

As a composer, Hough is known best as an arranger and a writer of works in smaller forms -- his Richard Rodgers arrangements are particularly ingenious -- but there are larger pieces on the horizon. “I'm hoping to release a viola sonata I wrote when I was at Juilliard in 1981 and '82,” he says. “I'd been put off composing by another student, who was very critical of what I'd written. Then [American composer] John Corigliano heard my arrangement of ‘My Favorite Things’ and encouraged me to continue.” As for a career as pianist-composer in the Rachmaninov mold, however, Hough says, “I'm not going to be a composer; I just enjoy the creative process.”

He is, however, co-initiating the creation of some new music. “I have two concertos being written for me, one by George Tsontakis -- the Dallas Symphony commissioned that -- and a concerto by James MacMillan, commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra.” He acknowledges his responsibility as a creative artist in helping to bring these new works to life. “It's quite a daunting task to do a piece you haven't seen,” he says. “I can't imagine what it will be like being presented with a piece that has never been heard before.”

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times, April 14, 2004.

Against the Current

Henri Dutilleux is Still On a Quest for Perfect Expression
by Mark Satola

THE 88-YEAR-OLD FRENCH COMPOSER Henri Dutilleux will not be in attendance this weekend when Franz Welser-Möst conducts the Cleveland Orchestra in a program that includes Dutilleux's exquisite Symphony No. 2, “Le Double.” His absence is not due to any sort of retirement on the part of the octogenarian artist, but rather because he is “overbusy,” as his secretary put it, with, among other things, work on a piece commissioned by Seiji Ozawa and the Festival Saito Kinen of Matsumoto in Japan. Written for and dedicated to soprano Renée Fleming, it will be performed at the 2006 festival, in time for Dutilleux's 90th birthday.

The presence of Dutilleux's music in Severance Hall is always a welcome occurrence, one that has happened from time to time over the last 40 years, most prominently in 1965, when George Szell conducted the Cleveland Orchestra in the world premiere of Dutilleux's Métaboles, which was commissioned by the Musical Arts Association. It's not surprising that Szell, who frankly was not well-disposed toward contemporary music, was nevertheless a champion of Dutilleux, whose works are imbued with an all-too-rare combination of profound imagination and breathtaking technique; the legendarily conservative conductor knew the real thing when he saw it, his distaste for the Second Viennese School notwithstanding.

The Symphony No. 2 was written for the 75th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and was first played there in 1959, with the BSO led by Charles Münch. Its sound-world must have appeared quite advanced to American audiences of the day, though Dutilleux indicated that there were those who considered its tonal liberality something of a heresy in the postwar years when twelve-tone, or serial, procedures ruled the musical earth.

“ ‘Le Double,' composed between 1955 and 1959, in a fully ‘serial' period, went against the current,” Dutilleux said in a recent e-mail interview (in French, translated by Francoise-Pierre Costes), “and was considered something of a provocation.

“But that was not my intention, for, if the language is still very often tonal or modal, you can also find, when analyzing it, borrowings from dodecaphonic techniques.”

Dutilleux's second symphony takes its name from its concerto grosso-like arrangement of forces, in which a 12-instrument ensemble occupies a place in front of the larger orchestra. Any similarity to baroque practice, however, disappears from the first sinuous notes of the clarinet, a questioning theme that functions almost as an unvarying motto throughout the first movement, and which returns at the symphony's quiet conclusion, an extended “unanswered question” that nevertheless perfectly resolves the complex turbulence that has preceded it.

Dutilleux acknowledges that the symphony was not his most characteristic expression of form. “If, after some time has elapsed, I were to criticize myself,” he said, “I should say that the [symphony's] sonorous substance, its instrumental language seem more interesting, more attractive than the form of the work, which still refers strictly to the three or four movements of the traditional symphony.”

The composer's quest for perfect expression through organic perfection has continued apace over the years. After the milestone of developmental organization achieved in Métaboles, Dutilleux went on to create a small but impressive catalogue of works, each marked by highly concentrated technique and unbridled imaginative flight. He indicated, however, that there was still much that he hoped to achieve.

“I did not cultivate the field of the human voice enough, in spite of my Correspondances, which I recently wrote for the Berlin Philharmonic and [American soprano] Dawn Upshaw,” he said. “In the same way, I hope I'll have enough time -- and enough strength! -- to write some new preludes for piano, and, if possible, a second string quartet.”

But there are limits, he suggested, to what can be accomplished. “I cannot have the ambition to imitate my great colleague Elliott Carter who, at his age [96 on December 11, 2004], dared to take on the adventure of the opera and won his bet!"

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times, November 24, 2004.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Ghosts of a City Past: More Cleveland Stories About Buildings and Food

by Mark Satola

I WANT TO RIDE PAST the Euclid Avenue mansions, stopping at the most fantastic of them to marvel at their outlandish fancy. I want spend a week in a suite at the old Hollenden Hotel on Superior Avenue. I want to see Hanlon's New Fantasm, Max Fehrman in Uncle Isaac, Imre Kiraley's Barnum Circus production, “The Destruction of Rome,” and Inside Track at the Star Theatre. I want to hear Art Tatum play stride piano down on East 105th Street and have ice cream in the arabesque dining room of Boukair's.

Well, wouldn't you?

If, of a dreary winter Friday night in Cleveland, when your cultural choices are a mass-market movie, another losing sporting event, an overpriced “fine dining” experience, or this town's favorite default funfest, pounding them back at one of the taverns that are legion in the region -- if the thought creeps up the back of your neck, as the cold wind rushes in off the inaccessible lakefront, that Cleveland was a more interesting city half a century ago and more, you're not far wrong.

Nowhere is this point more plainly or poignantly made than in Cleveland Then and Now (Thunder Bay Press, $17.95) by John J. Grabowski and Diane Ewart Grabowski, who are, respectively, a professor of applied history at Case Western Reserve University and director of research at the Western Reserve Historical Society, and a freelance researcher, writer and editor. Working mostly with photographer Simon Clay (three of the “now” photographs were taken by Richard Palmer), the Grabowskis place, side-by-side, historical photographs of Cleveland and modern images taken from roughly the same vantage point.

More often than not, old Cleveland easily beats new Cleveland. To compare, for instance, Samuel Andrews' 100-room Victorian Gothic castle (locally derided as “Andrews's Folly” for its sheer unmanageability as a home) with the building now occupying the property, the brick cube housing WEWS-TV, is hardly fair on aesthetic or commercial grounds.
But seeing the turrets and bays and spires of Andrews's elegant pile does make you wonder why our civic forebears saw so little value in so unique and irreplaceable an edifice that in 1923 they would demolish it straightaway.

Rummaging around in the past is more than an exercise in rueful nostalgia for those Clevelanders interested in researching their family history. Vicki Blum Vigil, who has previously written about northeast Ohioans' final resting places, explores the catacombs of data available to amateur and professional genealogists, in Finding Your Family History in Northeast Ohio (Gray & Company, $17.95). Vigil peppers her detailed guide to area archives, libraries and civil record depositories with hundreds of entertaining and informative anecdotes from area ancestor-hunters, as well as articles about famous families of northeast Ohio. Her knowledge of the ins and outs of unearthing information about long-departed forebears makes this a particularly valuable resource, and her friendly style fosters an easy readability.

Recent observations that Clevelanders have achieved a measure of renown in the girth sweepstakes might or might not be entirely on the mark, but it cannot be denied that residents of our city are more than a little fond of eating. When not eating, they like to reminisce about legendary meals enjoyed in long-gone dining rooms. That's why Gail Ghetia Bellamy's Cleveland Food Memories (Gray & Company, $17.95) will probably enjoy the same sort of success as last year's volumes about Higbee's old Silver Grille restaurant.

Bellamy has done a wonderful job assembling photographs sure to throw readers' nostalgia glands into overdrive: The Penguin frozen custard drive-in in Fairview Park, the exotic Superior Avenue entrance to the Kon-Tiki restaurant, the predecessor to Bearden's in Rocky River, a drive-in called Jackson's Steak Sandwiches, the old Theatrical on Short Vincent, with its curving glass block front, and Chef Hector Restaurant, a sinister-looking doorway into what appears to be an abandoned warehouse, but which led to the basement dining room of Hector Boiardi, who became famous when his name was respelled phonetically on cans of Beef-a-roni.

Bellamy's accompanying text is liberally seasoned with reminiscences by Clevelanders of their favorite restaurant, bakery (it's Hough, natch) or corner store. There will be future editions of this book, it's safe to predict, and for those, Bellamy might want to consider adding a little more historical data to her text: addresses, dates and other factoids are not always in evidence, and photo captions are sometimes less than informative. Chances are, however, that you'll be too busy reminiscing about choking down a phosphorous-colored Big Ghoulardi shake at Manners to notice.

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times, December 17, 2003.

Preview: A Rare Look Behind the Scenes of "The Night of the Hunter"

by Mark Satola

TOWARD THE END of production, the cast and crew of the remarkable 1955 film The Night of the Hunter gathered for a group portrait. Director Charles Laughton stands at the center of the crowd of actors and technicians, an expression of pure happiness lighting up his large, fleshy visage (“I have a face like the behind of an elephant,” he is reported to once have said). His colleagues are no less beatific in their demeanor. Even Robert Mitchum, already a certified bad boy in Hollywood, looks like a gleeful kid, grinning as he stands next to the venerable Lillian Gish, who seems to be whooping with laughter.

Years later, Laughton recalled the days spent working on his only directorial feature as the happiest experience of his life. The Night of the Hunter certainly is the product of one of the happiest confluences of perfect circumstances to occur in Hollywood, which all too often is the capital city of compromised intentions.

The felicity that surrounded the movie shimmered into view again in July 1974, when a youngish fellow named Robert Gitt, then technical officer at the American Film Institute, visited Laughton’s widow, Elsa Lanchester, to retrieve still photos, letters and other objets de production relating to The Night of the Hunter, and carry them back to Washington, D.C., where they would become part of AFI’s collection, then housed on the top floor of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Gitt had been enthralled with Laughton’s strange and frightening fairy tale since his late teens, when he first saw it on television in his hometown of Baltimore.

“I was quite taken with it from the start,” Gitt says of the first time he saw Hunter. “My parents were both fans of Lillian Gish from her silent film days, and when they saw a TV Guide listing that The Night of the Hunter was going to be shown on local TV, they were very interested in seeing it. It turned out to be a very gripping and very exciting movie with an unusual technique. I’ve liked it ever since.”

While at Lanchester’s home, Gitt was amazed to learn that she was also in possession of the film’s actual rushes — “eighteen cardboard boxes, filled with many metal cans of film,” he recalls — and that she was eager to donate them to the AFI film school in Los Angeles, where they might be studied by young filmmakers.

The product of one of the most unusual on-set procedures ever, the rushes of The Night of the Hunter proved to be a unique treasure. In bringing to the screen Davis Grubb’s lyrical novel about two children pursued by a psychopathic preacher (Mitchum) in search of hidden money, Laughton sought to create a working environment in which cast and crew could inhabit Grubb’s dreamlike world. Toward that end, Laughton sought to minimize the mechanics of filmmaking: he rarely called “cut,” and between takes kept the cameras rolling. This meant, of course, that he was caught on sound film, shaping his cast’s performances and guiding the film to the place he always saw it going.

The boxes traveled between the east and west coasts for the next 20 years. At one point, while they were at the AFI school in Los Angeles, Gitt was “horrified” to learn that, so far from studying the footage, “students were starting to cut them up and use them as leader.” Eventually, both the rushes and Gitt came to rest at the UCLA Film and Television Archive (where Gitt is currently preservation officer), and he began the arduous task of bringing the 80,000 feet of takes into sensible form. About five hours of the original safety stock was copied onto new acetate, and then distilled to about two-and-a-half hours.

The resulting document, “Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter,” presents the crafting of the scenes in the order in which they would ultimately appear in the film, creating a sort of meta-film that exists behind Laughton’s finished product.

The Night of the Hunter was the most unusual and experimental film made in Hollywood in the 1950s,” Gitt says. “Laughton and [the movie’s screenwriter James] Agee are known to have screened a number of silent films at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in preparation for this project. You can see the influence of D.W. Griffith in some of the countryside scenes. They must have also screened The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the work of F. W. Murnau; the influence of German expressionism is so strong here.”

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times, October 15, 2003.

The Parent Trap:James Lileks' Satiric Jab at Vintage Child-Rearing Lore

by Mark Satola

IT IS AN IMPOLITE and inadvisable thing to make sport of the ignorance of our forebears, unless that ignorance is so spectacular that you just can’t help but point, laugh and make rude but funny remarks.

James Lileks has made himself into a cottage industry of ridicule as the Daedalus of a sprawling, labyrinthine humor Web site (www.lileks.com) and the author of two humor books previous to the new one now under consideration.

His initial outing, The Gallery of Regrettable Food, was an achingly funny reconsideration of the plainly unappetizing vittles that someone thought Americans might like to eat, as culled from the pages of cookbooks and food brochures from the golden age of Commie-hunting. Can I ever thank him enough for “pressed shank braised with smoker’s phlegm?” (“It may take a few tries to get Uncle Hank to hack up enough Lucky sauce, so be patient.”)

His next up at the plate, Interior Desecrations, might have been subtitled “Swing and a Miss.” This time Lileks took on execrable 1970s interior design, but the nightmares in avocado and harvest gold were a little too easy to target; and some of the Naugahyde fantasies he attempted to skewer were interesting enough to resist his barbs.

With Mommy Knows Worst, however, Lileks is back in form. He works best when his source material is so outre as to defy belief, and the advertisements for potty chairs, laxatives, hair-raisingly unsafe car seats and diapers for ten-year-olds who wet the bed certainly fit the bill, as do the bizarre sermons that tout the benefits of sunbathing for newborns, the imperative to boil diapers, the role of the irrelevant dad, and why you probably shouldn’t dose baby with narcotic cough syrup.

Lileks’ technique is to discern the often inadvertent subtexts of the ads and articles he presents, and to riff on them at length. A photo accompanying an anonymous women’s magazine article called “How Good a Family Man is Your Husband?” shows a 1950s fellow in shirtsleeves, slacks and a smallish fedora sitting on the ground, grilling a steak over an open fire while his perma-perfect wife looks on with what seems to be pleasure and admiration.

“Look at this poor bastard,” Lileks writes. “[...]The hat is an afterthought, jammed on his head as some sort of brain-dampening device — good Lord, you can see it in his dead eyes, his slack and soon-to-drool mouth. He’s probably barely able to put two words together, but somewhere in the back of his brain a thought stirs and struggles to be heard: I used to fish, once. I had a life of my own.

“But then she stares extra hard and smiles, and his head is full of that sound you hear when you tune the radio to the place where there ain’t no station....”

It’s a technique that works beautifully in a variety of contexts. The ad for “Babytron, The chair that science built” depicts a modernistic high chair that conspicuously lacks a seat belt. “Too bad science wasn’t around when the kid did a header out of this thing,” Lileks drily notes. “Yes, the patented Babytron technology permits children to slide down the modern, scientific way and clip their chins on the sheet-metal tray the scientific, modern way....”

If it seems a little too easy to find the products and pitches risible (the Doo-Tee Nursery Seat, Zymenol laxative, cans of Kingan’s Reliable ox tongue “packed in agar agar jelly”), Mommy Knows Worst has the advantage of James Lileks’ well-honed comic voice, the skeptical cut-up with the wide, slangy vocabulary that always hits just the right note (“Remember: severed ruminant tongue. Kids ask for it by name.”).

As in Lilek’s previous volumes, the book’s retro, “googie” design goes a long way toward putting his wisenheimer point across. It would have been nice to see art director Kay Schuckhart credited on the title page, rather than down at the bottom of the copyright information.

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times, October 26, 2005.