Posts Tagged ‘Andy Ross’

A night at the opera with Andy Ross – actually, four nights, because it’s Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

Sunday, June 17th, 2018
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“I’ll be at Das Rheingold tonight at the San Francisco Opera,” Andy Ross told us. He’s a literary agent and former proprietor of Cody’s Books in Berkeley. We’ve written about his face-off with a fatwa here, but now he’s facing another battle: the San Francisco’s Wagner fest, which continues into July (read about it here). Andy is a longtime fan of Richard Wagner’s corpus: “I discovered it in college. Most people liked the Beatles. I liked Wagner. People thought I was weird.” Now there’s no turning back.

“I’ve got my spear and horned helmet and I’m ready to go.” Let’s go with him. Here he is on the first night.

“Just got back from Das Rheingold. It was great.”

Night 2: At Die Walküre last night. My favorite Ring opera. Magnificent performances by the artists and the orchestra. It even managed to distract me from the weird post-modern staging. (Although I have to admit to a certain admiration in the third act with the Valkyries dropping onto the stage from parachutes looking like Amelia Earhart).

Walküre is the most human of all the Ring operas. The Ring is myth, and the characters sometimes become more symbolic of universal qualities than than flesh and blood human beings. Moreover, Wagner’s tendency to overlay the story with Schopenhauerian philosophical musings means that the opera doesn’t always find its way to the heart. But not so in Walküre. The first act is, in my mind, the greatest love scene in all of opera, from the glimmering recognition of Siegmund and Sieglinde to the climactic moment when Siegmund pulls Wotan’s sword from the tree as Sieglinde looks on in ecstasy. Its emotionality is amplified by the vulnerability of the characters and the knowledge of their impending doom. In the following acts, the immortals, Brunnhilde and Wotan, find their own humanity – literally for Brunnhilde, who, in the heartbreaking final scene of the opera, is banished from Valhalla, deprived of her immortality, and laid to rest by Wotan, who surrounds her with the magic fire that can only be penetrated by a hero who is without fear. Not a dry eye in the house.

Night 3: Last night, David Ross and I saw Siegfried, the third opera of Wagner’s Ring. Siegfried has always seemed to me the Ring’s problem child. I find the music and the drama in the first two acts disappointing. The biggest disappointment is the character, Siegfried. That’s a problem because he is on stage for most of the four hours of the opera. Wagner’s hero seems more like a cross between a boy scout and the lug who played JV guard in high school. Moreover, Wotan comes on stage very early on, always a sign that maybe it’s time to go out to the lobby and check your email. True to form, he goes on a long unmusical backstory exposition. The second act is just plain boring. The music is thin and unmemorable. The shimmering “forest murmurs” sound a little like mediocre Debussy. Even Fafner, the dragon, is something of a bore. I’ve always felt Wagner had simply run out of steam by Act 2 of Siegfried. He had lost his mojo.

Then the orchestra begins the prelude to Act 3, and something miraculous happens. To backtrack a little, Wagner put down the score to The Ring after composing Act 2 and didn’t go back to it for a decade. During that time, he composed his two great mature masterpieces, Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. When he returned to Siegfried, you see the transformation right away. The orchestra, always Wagner’s strong suit, is fuller, richer, deeper, more complex. The music is powerful and evocative. Even Wotan, who makes his final appearance in The Ring, has compelling music. And nothing quite prepares us for the electrifying and triumphant love duet that ends the opera. Wagner composed three great love scenes: the second act duet of Tristan, Siegmund and Sieglinde’s duet in Act 1 of Walküre, and this final scene of Siegfried’s awakening of Brunnhilde. This love duet lacks the eroticism of Tristan, and the heartbreaking tragic quality of Walküre. It isn’t even particularly romantic. But it puts forth a kind of heroic, triumphant message that love will change the world. It was a thrilling end that brought the entire house to its feet. There’s really only one other ending in opera packing that kind of titanic power. We’ll be hearing it on Sunday.

David Ross and I spent the last six hours seeing the final opera of Wagner’s Ring. Götterdämmerung isn’t the most popular opera in the Ring. That would be Die Walküre with its heartfelt humanity. Götterdämmerung‘s characters do not engage the listener in the same way. The music is relentlessly dark and foreboding. But this is the opera that best expresses Wagner’s musical vision of a completely integrated work of art. If you were able to ask Wagner what his most perfect work was, I have no doubt he would say it is Götterdämmerung. More than in any of the preceding operas, the orchestra dominates the story to the point where it becomes the most prominent voice. This is best seen in the incomparably glorious final scene, Brunnhilde’s immolation.

Wagner’s place in the pantheon of great composers is permanently established. But he stands apart, not because of his greatness, but because of his flaws. One would be hard-pressed to identify a flaw in any of Mozart‘s work. They are perfect. Wagner’s works are all flawed masterpieces. But he maintains his place because of the splendor of his greatest moments. The Ring, flawed though it is, is perhaps the most monumental work in Western Art. I suppose you could include Dante‘s Divine Comedy, and maybe Michelangelo‘s Sistine Chapel with that. And after seeing the complete Ring, one must admit that the music has done what was seemingly impossible, living up to the grandiosity of Wagner’s vision. Seeing it was special. We are glad we went.

And we’re glad we went with him. Read more about the San Francisco Opera’s Wagner festival, which continues into July, here.

“Everyone adored him.” Remembering legendary publisher Peter Mayer, a free-speech hero.

Tuesday, May 15th, 2018
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A charismatic enfant terrible: “As gracious as he was wise.”

Publisher Peter Mayer has died at 82. “Everyone adored him,” a friend wrote to me.

I interviewed him briefly, by phone in 2002, for an article in the Times Literary Supplement (republished by  The Los Angeles Times Book Review), at the time Ardis Publishers was acquired by Overlook Press, the independent publisher that he founded with his father, Alfred Mayer, and ran for nearly fifty years. He was a charming and intelligent interviewee, but I didn’t know then he was a legend.

From Publishers Weekly: “Once one of the most charismatic publishers, known for his penchant for smoking wherever he was, Mayer had suffered a number of injuries and illnesses in recent years.

“Born in London and raised in New York, Mayer began his publishing career as an editorial assistant at Orion Press in 1961, then quickly moved to Avon Books, where, over the course of 14 years, he rose to the position of publisher. After serving as publisher of Pocket Books from 1976 to 1978, Pearson chose Mayer to run its troubled Penguin Books division. When he left in 1996, the company had become one of the world’s largest, and most profitable, publishers.”

Praising a life “at full tilt”

Steve Wasserman now heads Berkeley’s Heyday Books, but back in 2002, he was my editor at The Los Angeles Times Book Review. He also knew the publisher well. Apparently everybody did. “Peter Mayer lived at full tilt,” he wrote. “I adored him. As generous with his smokes as he was with his advice, he always had time for me, was always encouraging, and was a deep well of marvelous stories. He was a bridge spanning the past and my own present. And somehow he was one of the most handsome men even into old age I ever met. As gracious as he was wise.”

Andy Ross, now a literary agent but then proprietor of Cody Books in Berkeley, has a special reason to remember Mayer. “I’m thinking good thoughts for Peter and his family,” he told me. “When I first became a bookseller in the 1970s, Peter was considered the enfant terrible of book publishing. It was a pretty stodgy business back then. Peter broke the mold when he became head of Pocket Books. He was young. He wore jeans. He was brilliant and charismatic. Every woman I knew had a crush on him.”

It survived the fatwa. (CreativeCommons)

When, in 1989, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini put a fatwa on author Salman Rushdie‘s head for his book, Satanic Verses, Peter Mayer’s heroism – and Andy’s – came to the fore.  Andy’s bookstore Cody’s, which refused to drop the book, was bombed in the middle of the night, two weeks after the fatwa was announced – I wrote about that here.

“Peter was the head of Viking Books, Rushdie’s publisher. At the time of the bombing, Satanic Verses had sold out and there were almost no stores that had copies left. Peter called me to express his support for us and told me the new printing was coming out the following Monday. He was going to air freight our copies so that we would be the first and only store in America with the book. Oy vey!”

Unlamented.

One of the women who had a crush, and admits it, is book editor and media journalista Maureen O’Brien. “They don’t make publishers like that no more. He was the coolest,” she said. “Peter Mayer. I always had a big crush on him. From NYC cab driver to the head of Viking/Penguin Books Worldwide, he pretty much invented the publishing of trade paperbacks and kept Salman Rushdie safe and mostly sound during his time in hiding after the release of his controversial novel, The Satanic Verses.

“I will always remember covering the American Booksellers Association in Washington, D.C. and interviewing Peter at the Penguin exhibit while bomb-sniffing German Shepherds roamed the aisles of the convention center in search of Islamic terrorists. To me, he was the best kind of great.”

Missed.

From The New York Times obituary:

“I was advised by many to live like a hunted man,” he said in an oral history for the online collection Web of Stories, “and to change my address, change my car, move into a hotel.”

The controversy put not only him in jeopardy but also anyone else who worked for Penguin, but Mr. Mayer said the principles involved were important.

“Once you say I won’t publish a book because someone doesn’t like it or someone threatens you, you’re finished,” he said. “Some other group will do the same thing, or the same group will do it more.”

Salman Rushdie: “We are living in the darkest time I have ever known.”

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015
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©Zygmunt_Malinowski_

Would people defend him today? He thinks not. With Timothy Garton Ash last year. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

Charlie Hebdo has announced that they will publish no more cartoons featuring Mohammed, although every other religion and public figure will continue to be fair game. In other words, the terrorists have won. “We have drawn Mohammed to defend the principle that one can draw whatever they want… We’ve done our job,” said Laurent “Riss” Sourisseau, Charlie Hebdo’s editor-in-chief.

It’s hard to be nostalgic about a fatwa, but Sir Salman Rushdie‘s recent comments in The Telegraph remind us that his Valentine’s Day card from the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 were the good old days. Leading figures from around the world linked arms to express solidarity with him, and to protest any encroachment on freedom of speech. Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Joseph Brodsky, Christopher Hitchens, Seamus Heaneyand others stood for Rushdie. There was no backing down. And today?

Said Rushdie, “We are living in the darkest time I have ever known.” The author of the condemned Satanic Verses, told France’s L’Express. “I’ve since had the feeling that, if the attacks against Satanic Verses had taken place today, these people would not have defended me, and would have used the same arguments against me, accusing me of insulting an ethnic and cultural minority.”

Everblooming friendship

Thank you, Christopher.

In particular, Rushdie said he was dismayed by the protests that followed a decision by the American branch of the PEN writers’ association to award a prize for courage to Charlie Hebdo after a dozen of its staff were massacred in January. More than 200 writers, including Michael Ondaatje, Teju Cole, Peter Carey, and Junot Díaz, signed a letter objecting to PEN rewarding the satirical magazine for publishing “material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.”

“It seems we have learnt the wrong lessons,” Rushdie told L’Express. “Instead of realizing that we need to oppose these attacks on freedom of expression, we thought that we need to placate them with compromise and renunciation.” Cole explained to him that his case was different – 1989 protesters defended Rushdie against charges of blasphemy; Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, he argued, were an expression of Islamophobia.

Rushdie thinks it’s a case of political correctness gone wild. “It’s exactly the same thing,” he said. “I’ve since had the feeling that, if the attacks against The Satanic Verses had taken place today, these people would not have defended me, and would have used the same arguments against me, accusing me of insulting an ethnic and cultural minority.” (To be clear, I find Charlie Hebdo cartoons tasteless and not very funny. That’s not the point.) 

Let’s remember Sontag, president of PEN, in that 1989 moment. Hitchens wrote: “Susan Sontag was absolutely superb. She stood up proudly where everyone could see her and denounced the hirelings of the Ayatollah. She nagged everybody on her mailing list and shamed them, if they needed to be shamed, into either signing or showing up. ‘A bit of civic fortitude,’ as she put it in that gravelly voice that she could summon so well, ‘is what is required here.’ Cowardice is horribly infectious, but in that abysmal week she showed that courage can be infectious, too. I loved her. This may sound sentimental, but when she got Rushdie on the phone—not an easy thing to do once he had vanished into the netherworld of ultraprotection—she chuckled: ‘Salman! It’s like being in love! I think of you night and day: all the time!’ Against the riot of hatred and cruelty and rage that had been conjured into existence by a verminous religious fanatic, this very manner of expression seemed an antidote: a humanist love plainly expressed against those whose love was only for death.”

sontag3

Thank you, Susan.

Sontag and Hitchens were famous people, of course, who lived in high-rise apartments and could go into hiding, as Rushdie did. But a lot of other people put their lives on the line. Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses, was stabbed to death on the campus where he taught, the Italian translator Ettore Capriolo was knifed in his Milan apartment, and in Oslo, William Nygaard, the novel’s Norwegian publisher, was shot three times in the back and left for dead.

Others at risk included bookstore owners, bookstore managers, and the people who worked for them. So let me take a few moments to recall the heroism of one of them, Andy Ross, owner of Cody’s Books in Berkeley, which was bombed in the middle of the night two weeks after the fatwa was announced. On his own blog (he is now a literary agent) he wrote:

I spoke of the fire bombing that occurred at 2 AM. More troubling was that as we were cleaning up in the morning, an undetonated pipe bomb was found rolling around the floor  near the poetry section. Apparently it had been thrown through the window at the same time as the fire bomb. Had the pipe bomb exploded, it would have killed everyone in the store. The building was quickly evacuated. … As I walked outside, I was met with a phalanx of newsmen. Literally hundreds. Normally I was a shameless panderer for media publicity. At this point I had no desire to speak. And I knew reflexively that public pronouncements under the circumstances were probably imprudent. …

Codys2006

Cody’s in 2006. (Photo: Creative Commons/Pretzelpaws)

One-time heroism wasn’t enough. How were they to react to the attack? Would they continue selling the book? Would they put it at the front of the store, or hide it somewhere towards the back? Or would it, like 1950s pornography, be offered by request only, in a brown paper bag?

I stood and told the staff that we had a hard decision to make. We needed to decide whether to keep carrying Satanic Verses and risk our lives for what we believed in. Or to take a more cautious approach and compromise our values.  So we took a vote. The staff voted unanimously to keep carrying the book. Tears still come to my eyes when I think of this. It was the defining moment in my 35 years of bookselling. It was the moment when I realized that bookselling was a dangerous and subversive vocation. Because ideas are powerful weapons. It was also the moment that I realized in a very concrete way that what I had told Susan Sontag was truer and more prophetic  than anything I could have then imagined. I felt just a tad anxious about carrying that book. I worried about the consequences. I didn’t particularly feel comfortable about being a hero and putting other people’s lives in danger. I didn’t know at that moment whether this was an act of courage or foolhardiness.

But from the clarity of hindsight, I would have to say it was the proudest day of my life.

The story wasn’t over. Rushdie visits the Bay Area regularly (I wrote about his visit to Kepler’s here). And even while in official hiding, he insisted on calling on Cody’s several years later (Berkeley rents finally did what bombs could not, and the valiant bookstore closed its doors in 2008). Ross recalls Rushdie’s appearance at Cody’s:

We were told that we could not announce the visit until 15 minutes before he arrived.  It was a very emotional meeting. Many tears were shed, and we were touched by his decision to visit us. We showed him the book case that had been charred by the fire bomb. We also showed him the hole in the sheetrock above the information desk that had been created when the pipe bomb was detonated. One of the Cody’s staff, with characteristic irreverence, had written with a marker next to the damaged sheet rock: “Salman Rushdie Memorial Hole”. Salman shrugged his shoulders and said with his wonderful self-deprecating humor, “well, you know some people get statues – and others get holes.”

Read the whole thing here.