This Living Hand

This Living Hand

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When the multitalented biographer Edmund Morris (who writes with equal virtuosity about Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Beethoven, and Thomas Edison) was a schoolboy in colonial Kenya, one of his teachers told him, a€œYou have the most precious gift of alla€”originality.a€ That quality is abundantly evident in this selection of essays. They cover forty years in the life of a maverick intellectual who can be, at whim, astonishingly provocative, self-mockingly funny, and richly anecdotal. (The title essay, a tribute to Reagan in cognitive decline, is poignant in the extreme.) Whether Morris is analyzing images of Barack Obama or the prose style of President Clinton, or exploring the riches of the New York Public Library Dance Collection, or interviewing the novelist Nadine Gordimer, or proposing a hilarious a€œDiet for the Musically Obese, a€ a continuous cross-fertilization is going on in his mind. It mixes the cultural pollens of Africa, Britain, and the United States, and propogates hybrid flowersa€”some fragrant, some strange, some a shock to conventional sensibilities. Repeatedly in This Living Hand, Morris celebrates the physicality of artistic labor, and laments the glass screen that todaya€™s e-devices interpose between inspiration and execution. No presidential biographer has ever had so literary a a€œtakea€ on his subjects: he discerns powers of poetic perception even in the obsessively scientific Edison. Nor do most writers on music have the verbal facility to articulate, as Morris does, what it is about certain sounds that soothe the savage breast. His essay on the pathology of Beethovena€™s deafness breaks new ground in suggesting that tinnitus may explain some of the weird aural effects in that composera€™s works. Masterly monographs on the art of biography, South Africa in the last days of apartheid, the romance of the piano, and the role of imagination in nonfiction are juxtaposed with enchanting, almost unclassifiable pieces such as a€œThe Bumstitch: Lament for a Forgotten Fruita€ (Morris suspects it may have grown in the Garden of Eden); a€œThe Anticapitalist Conspiracy: A Warninga€ (an assault on The Chicago Manual of Style); a€œNuages Gris: Colors in Music, Literature, and Arta€; and the uproarious a€œWhich Way Does Sir Dress?a€, about ordering a suit from the most expensive tailor in London. Uniquely illustrated with images that the author describes as indispensable to his creative process, This Living Hand is packed with biographical insights into such famous personalities as Daniel Defoe, Henry Adams, Mark Twain, Evelyn Waugh, Truman Capote, Glenn Gould, Jasper Johns, W. G. Sebald, and Winnie the Pooha€”not to mention a gallery of forgotten figures whom Morris lovingly restores to a€œlife.a€ Among these are the pianist Ferruccio Busoni, the poet Edwin Arlington Robinson, the novelist James Gould Cozzens, and sixteen so-called a€œUndistinguished Americans, a€ contributors to an anthology of anonymous memoirs published in 1902. Reviewing that book for The New Yorker, Morris notes that even the most unlettered persons have, on occasion, a€œpower to send forth surprise flashes, illuminating not only the dark around them but also more sophisticated shadowsa€”for example, those cast by public figures who will not admit to private failings, or by philosophers too cerebral to state a plain truth.a€ The author of This Living Hand is not an ordinary person, but he too sends forth surprise flashes, never more dazzlingly than in his final essay, a€œThe Ivo Pogorelich of Presidential Biography.a€John Cameron Audrieu Bingham Michael Morton, popularly known as a€œ Beachcombera€ to readers of the London Daily Mail ... He returns next day wearing a beret, and reminisces over Pernod about his youth in Paris, when eggs kept dropping ... Refreshed, he dictates knitting instructions for a pair of dog braces: a€œCast on eight.

Title:This Living Hand
Author:Edmund Morris
Publisher:Random House - 2012-10-23


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