Ben Donnelly


For over twenty years, I’ve also been writing about culture, primarily popular music (not that popular, really) but also literature.

Various Artists — There’s A Dream I’ve Been Saving: Lee Hazlewood Industries 1966 - 1971 (Light in the Attic)

From Dusted Magazine

The general public has a good bullshit detector, and American popular music has never had a bigger bullshitter than Lee Hazlewood. He didn’t ingratiate himself with the mainstream for long, but it was not for lack of trying. There’s a Dream I’ve Been Saving is an engrossing 107 song compilation of weird artistry that panders to all the trends of its era, that being 1966-1971.

You get outlaw diaries, as closely drawn as Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” There are Greenwich Village sing-alongs, honky-tonk puns, Memphis soul with backing from the Wrecking Crew and biker flick fuzz rock. Gorgeous country-politan ballads sport lite-classical flourishes. Hazlewood ventures ironic observation worthy of Nilsson or Newman. The general public ignored almost all of it. They could tell there was something off about each and every attempt at a pop showcase here. Hazlewood was preternatural as a song creator, in both senses; he was excellent and abnormal.

Hazlewood’s ride to the top was gradual. He first appeared on the charts in 1958 when he placed Duane Eddy’s guitar in what must have seemed like a godawful abundance of echo, during the instro-rock fad. He peaked briefly in the heart of the mainstream, setting up Nancy Sinatra with a splash of fame that’s similar to what Miley Cyrus is experiencing now, i.e., pure showbiz with the veneer of street talk. Emerging at the tail of the first wave of rock ‘n’ roll and reappearing as a hired henchman for the Sinatras didn’t make him seem like one of the more trustworthy guys over 30, not in an era where the mantra was to trust no one over the line.

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Javier Marias. A Heart So White. trans. Margaret Jull Costa.

This celebrated European best-seller opens with an unexplained suicide in Madrid forty years before the narrator is born, when the aunt he’ll never meet leaves the lunch table and shoots herself in the chest. The next chapter jumps to his honeymoon, as he overhears lovers plotting murder, perhaps, in the next room of a Havana hotel. His father is a curator who regularly defrauds major museums. This seems like material for a thriller, but A Heart So White is a reflective book. It is narrated by Juan, a United Nations interpreter, acutely aware of gesture and the ambiguity of language. So while he uncovers the facts behind some of these intrigues, the understanding he longs for remains elusive.

On assignment in New York, he spends time with an old flame. She is searching for romance by sending out anonymous videos of herself. Her strange hunt for affection is an amplification of the isolation of all the characters in this book. Dark secrets remain dark even when they are shared, because they are an internal experience, part of the loneliness of individuality. Translating for two heads of state, Juan misinterprets what they say, just to see what happens. There are no consequences. Marias’s novel mixes philosophy and kinkiness, suspense and contemplation. As in the works of Martin Amis and Paul Auster, the elements of mystery writing are used as a catalyst for existential observation. Everyday events coalesce into tragedy. Connections are made, symmetry forms, but discovering truth has a way of making life more complicated. Even when people speak plainly, it seems, it is hard to know whether they have learned anything about their true selves.

Ben Donnelly, “A Heart So White.” The Review of Contemporary Fiction, vol. 21, no. 1, spring 2001, p. 191.