Weschler, Lawrence 1952-
WESCHLER, Lawrence 1952-
PERSONAL: Born February 13, 1952, in Van Nuys, CA; son of Irving R. (a professor and industrial psychologist) and Franzi (a homemaker; maiden name, Toch) Weschler; married Joanna Wegrzynowicz (a human rights activist), December, 1984; children: Sara Alice. Education: University of California—Santa Cruz, B.A., 1974. Politics: "Democratic socialist." Religion: Jewish.
CAREER: University of California—Los Angeles, editor and interviewer in oral history program, 1974–78; freelance writer, 1978–80; New Yorker, New York, NY, staff writer, 1981–. University of California—Santa Cruz, Regents Lecturer, 1989, fellow of Board Center, 1992; University of California—Los Angeles, director of Ernst Toch Archive; New York Institute for the Humanities, 1990–, became director, 2001; teacher at Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence College.
MEMBER: International PEN, Authors Guild, National Writers Union.
AWARDS, HONORS: Mary Hemingway Prize for magazine reporting from abroad, 1981, for coverage of the Polish Solidarity movement; Poynter fellowship, Yale University, 1983; Guggenheim fellowship, 1986; Sidney Hillman Foundation award, 1988; George Polk Awards, 1988, 1992; Pulitzer Prize finalist and National Book Critics Circle award finalist, both for Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonders: A Natural History of Amazement.
Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1982.
Solidarity: Poland in the Season of Passion, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1982.
The Passion of Poland, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1984.
(Editor) David Hockney, Camera Works: True to Life, Knopf (New York, NY), 1984.
(Translator, with Hanna Krall) Shielding the Flame: An Intimate Conversation with Marek Edelmen, the Last Surviving Leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 1986.
Shapinsky's Karma, Boggs's Bills, and Other True Life Tales, North Point Press (Berkeley, CA), 1988.
A Miracle, a Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1990.
Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder: A Natural History of Amazement, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1995.
Calamities of Exile: Three Nonfiction Novellas, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1998, revised edition, 1999.
A Wanderer in the Perfect City: Selected Passion Pieces, Hungry Mind Press (St. Paul, MN), 1998.
Boggs: A Comedy of Values, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1999.
(With Francoise Mouly) Covering the New Yorker: Cutting-Edge Covers from a Literary Institution, Abbeville Press (New York, NY), 2000.
Robert Irwin Getty Garden, photography by Becky Cohen, J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles, CA), 2001.
Vermeer in Bosnia: Cultural Comedies and Political Tragedies, Pantheon (New York, NY), 2004.
Also author of the epilogue to Breaking the Habit of a Lifetime: Poland's First Steps toward the Market: Field Studies, written by Charlotte Barford and others, edited by Jesse Norman, Ipswich Press (Ipswich, MA), 1993; contributor to periodicals.
SIDELIGHTS: Lawrence Weschler, who was born, raised, and educated in California, was hired by New Yorker editor William Shawn after some of his work had been purchased by that publication in the early 1980s. In addition to being a staff writer for the New Yorker, Weschler is also the author of numerous volumes, including a study of artist Robert Irwin, and two studies of the Polish Solidarity movement that grew from reports Weschler wrote for the New Yorker.
Among Weschler's volumes is Shapinsky's Karma, Boggs's Bills, and Other True Life Tales, which a Kirkus Reviews contributor commented focuses on "characters on the periphery of the arts community." This collection contains six profiles, several of which first appeared in the New Yorker. The characters include an English teacher from rural India who unexpectedly managed to resurrect the career of an obscure Manhattan artist and an artist whose masterpieces bear an uncanny likeness to paper currency. "Bizarre twists of fate and the mysterious workings of grace" are characteristics of all these "sensitive portraits," noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer. They are linked, according to the Kirkus Reviews writer, by "a common obsessiveness" that enables ordinary people to transcend the mundane and change their lives in unpredictable ways.
With A Miracle, a Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers, Weschler examines the role of torture in the military dictatorships of Brazil and Uruguay and, perhaps more universally, how the victims of torture survive in its aftermath. "Central to Weschler's search for answers," Isabel Fonseca reported in the Times Literary Supplement, "is the notion that men are unable to forgive those whom they cannot punish." She asked, "What do the armed forces do when it's time to hang up the cattle prods?… How can a devastated society recreate itself … if it is unable to make the devastators accountable for their crimes?"
In Weschler's account, Brazilian human rights activists managed to steal copies of a million pages of official documentation, recorded in macabre detail by the torturers themselves, and publish a startling expose that appeared in English as the book Torture in Brazil. In Uruguay, where a military dictatorship failed and an army of torturers was offered amnesty by a new administration, angry citizens succeeded, against daunting odds, in forcing a referendum (to abolish the amnesty) to be placed before the voting public. Neither campaign was an unqualified success. In Brazil, no one was brought to trial. In Uruguay, the voters eventually rejected the referendum. Nevertheless, Fonseca wrote that "the importance of their efforts was more than psychological: a form of acknowledgment had occurred" and was publicly witnessed by an entire country.
Stephen Schlesinger wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Weschler has produced "a disturbing and often enthralling account," adding that "his research is provocative and thorough." Fonseca recognized that the "details" lend the account "the pace of a thriller without diminishing its weight of testimony." She concluded that Weschler "renders the unspoken and the unspeakable with a sensitivity that will make these stories vital, or, if necessary, relevant, outside their immediate provenance."
Michiko Kakutani noted in the New York Times that Weschler's "sympathetic radar for human idiosyncrasy and obsession" also led to Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder: A Natural History of Amazement, a book that enchanted critics. Mr. Wilson is the filmmaker-turned-curator of the Museum of Jurassic Technology, located in Los Angeles, California. It is a place where, according to Kakutani, "reality and fantasy melt into something wonderful and new." The museum holds a bizarre assortment of biological and technical oddities that remind critics of the "wonder-cabinets" of Renaissance Europe—a collection of exhibits so strange that they challenge credulity. In fact, commented Wendy Lesser in the New York Times Book Review, "the point of David Wilson's museum is that you can't tell which parts are true and which invented."
Weschler "approaches these exhibits," Kakutani explained, "with a bemused mixture of amazement, skepticism, and befuddlement, emotions he's able to communicate to the reader with perfect pitch." Jim Krusoe stated in the Los Angeles Times that "as we read this book, our amazement evaporates and is replaced by a knowledge which itself becomes the generator of new amazement.—He allows the reader to accompany him on his exploration of the subject, rather than force his interpretations onto us." Krusoe commended Weschler for creating a "tension between knowledge and mystery" that is "even more pleasurable than wonder." Similarly, Lesser wrote that "the tone of this book induces in its readers a deliciously vertiginous inability to be certain about anything." Actually, as a Kirkus Reviews contributor concluded, "although some facts have been rearranged, the basic information is often historically true." Kakutani suggested that some of the most "fantastical 'facts' of the museum do, in fact, demonstrate that 'truth is stranger than fiction.'"
Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder's entertaining presentation of amusing and amazing facts is accompanied by a philosophical inquiry of a more serious nature. Kakutani refers to this when she calls the book "a thoughtful meditation on the role of museums (and the place of wonder) in our society today." As Krusoe noted, the book's title "echoes the language of both magic and early museums of natural curiosities" and its subtitle "introduces the book's broader theme, the changing definition of the unusual, and how we choose to treat it."
Calamities of Exile: Three Nonfiction Novellas contains the true stories of three men whose decisions put them at risk. Iraqi Kaknan Makiya, using an alias, wrote Republic of Fear, a condemnation of Saddam Hussein, while living abroad, and ultimately couldn't go home again. South African poet and artist Breyten Breytenbach was accused of being a revolutionary. Czechoslovakian activist Jan Kavan passed between his home and London many times using fake passports as he smuggled documents for the underground, but when he tried to return home under his real name, he was accused of being a Communist collaborator. Washington Monthly reviewer John Martin wrote that "Weschler's gift as a reporter is to pull out of each episode the doubts and contradictions each exile faced. He helps us understand the quandary in a totalitarian or oppressive society: 'The decent, if somewhat weak man [is] faced with the terrible dilemma of whether to risk his livelihood and his family's well-being by finally taking a principled stand in opposition to … state travesty.'"
One of the subjects of Shapinsky's Karma, Boggs's Bills, and Other True Life Tales, gets a book of his own with Boggs: A Comedy of Values. Weschler goes into greater detail about the life and art of J.S.G. Boggs, whose drawings of currency have gotten him in trouble with the authorities of several countries. Boggs is clear that his drawings of currencies are just that, art, and it would be hard to mistake them for real dollars or pounds, since he reproduces just one side of a note and adds comic touches, but he does trade them, offering them at face value as art, for his regular expenses. The process resembles a game in which Boggs "spends" his art and collects a receipt and change, which he then sells to collectors for hundreds of dollars. They, in turn, use the receipt to track down the drawing, if they can, and buy it, also if they can. Many people who have accepted the currencies in payment hang on to them, and Boggs's art is generally more accepted in Europe than in the United States. Boggs has conducted thousands of transactions using his currencies, and, over time, his art has appreciated far beyond the value noted on the paper. Collectors have paid small fortunes for his paper, up to nearly a half million dollars, and samples of his work have been collected by the Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Modern Art, Smithsonian, and British Museum. Weschler follows through with a history of the origins of money back to the barter system and forward from precious metals to credit cards to electronic transfers.
Paul Lukas wrote in Fortune that Boggs raises questions "about our monetary system and, by extension, about the very nature of valuation. After all, if accepting a Boggs bill as payment seems a leap of faith, the same might be said of accepting a real bill, which is no longer backed by gold or silver, and is ultimately just another slip of paper. Indeed, when viewed dispassionately, the use of paper currency hinges on a mass suspension of disbelief that rivals religious faith—which perhaps is why we have 'In God We Trust' printed on our money."
Robert Irwin Getty Garden consists of Becky Cohen's photographs of Robert Irwin's gardens at the Getty Center in Los Angeles and an essay by Weschler about walks taken by the two men through the gardens that were begun in 1992, and which had been expanded to 134,000 square feet by the time the museum opened in 1997. Library Journal reviewer Edward J. Valauskas wrote that "the text is physically interspersed in the book among and around Cohen's images, giving the reader a nice visual context."
In Vermeer in Bosnia: Cultural Comedies and Political Tragedies, Weschler explores the serenity of Vermeer's paintings, created in a time of war, and studies the lives of other artists, writers, photographers, activists, and filmmakers who have created within the influence, or under the shadow, of violence or emotional tumult. A group of essays called "Three Polish Survivor Stories" opens with a profile of Roman Polanski in which Weschler studies the filmmaker's life and Holocaust experiences. The other two essays have as their subjects Polish-Jewish journalist Jerzy Urban and cartoonist Art Spiegelman, whose Maus relives his parents' lives during the Holocaust. Other pieces focus on living through the Northridge earthquake, the quality of light in Los Angeles, the photographic collages of David Hockney, and the musical compositions of Weschler's grandfather. A Kirkus Reviews contributor noted that the individual essays "don't add up to anything approaching a coherent whole (things postmodern seldom do), and themes come and go, but Weschler's indefatigable literariness and pleasantly unpretentious style help make these fugitive pieces a pleasure to read."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Book Review, July 12, 1994, pp. 19-20.
American Prospect, December 6, 1999, James K. Galbraith, review of Boggs: A Comedy of Values, p. 60.
Atlantic Monthly, July, 1999, Toby Lester, review of Boggs, pp. 94-97.
Booklist, February 15, 1998, Kevin Grandfield, review of Calamities of Exile: Three Nonfiction Novellas, p. 956; July, 2004, Vanessa Bush, review of Vermeer in Bosnia, p. 1809.
Books in Canada, September, 2004, Gordon Phinn, review of Vermeer in Bosnia: Cultural Comedies and Political Tragedies, p. 16.
Book World, September 19, 2004, review of Vermeer in Bosnia, p. 11.
Boston Globe, December 11, 1995, p. 36.
Commonweal, September 28, 1990, p. 550.
Economist, September 1, 1990, review of A Miracle, a Universe: Settling Account with Torturers, p. 79.
Entertainment Weekly, July 9, 2004, Lisa Schwarzbaum, review of Vermeer in Bosnia, p. 95.
Fortune, September 6, 1999, Paul Lukas, review of Boggs, p. 60.
Human Rights Quarterly, November, 1992, Peter Ulrich Weiss, review of A Miracle, a Universe, pp. 577-584.
Kirkus Review, April 1, 1988, review of Shapinsky's Karma, Boggs's Bills, and Other True Life Tales, p. 530; February 15, 1990, pp. 253-254; August 1, 1995, p. 1101; May 1, 2004, review of Vermeer in Bosnia, p. 436.
Library Journal, July, 1999, Morris Hounion, review of Boggs, p. 88; December, 2002, Edward J. Valauskas, review of Robert Irwin Getty Garden, p. 121.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 1, 1990, p. 10; November 5, 1995, Jim Krusoe, review of Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder: A Natural History of Amazement.
Nation, December 21, 1992, p. 775.
New Republic, September 10, 1984, Abraham Brumberg, review of The Passion of Poland: From Solidarity through the State of War, p. 35.
New Yorker, December 25, 1995, p. 140; January 8, 1996, p. 81.
New York Times, November 10, 1995, Michiko Kakutani, review of Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder, p. C33.
New York Times Book Review, April 15, 1990, Stephen Schlesinger, review of A Miracle, a Universe, p. 10; November 24, 1991, p. 31; May 1, 1994, p. 18; October 29, 1995, pp. 13-14; December 3, 1995, p. 83.
Print, November, 1999, Steven Heller, review of Boggs, p. 38.
Publishers Weekly, April 29, 1988, review of Shapinsky's Karma, Boggs's Bills, and Other True Life Tales, p. 59; February 9, 1990; p. 54; September 7, 1992, p. 91; August 21, 1995, review of Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder, p. 55; March 9, 1998, review of Calamities of Exile, p. 54; May 24, 1999, review of Boggs, p. 57; October 21, 2002, review of Robert Irwin Getty Garden, p. 67; May 17, 2004, review of Vermeer in Bosnia, p. 41, Ron Hogan, "An Omnivore in Bosnia … and Elsewhere" (interview), p. 42.
Times Literary Supplement, September 28, 1990, Isabel Fonseca, review of A Miracle, a Universe, p. 1027.
Washington Monthly, July-August, 1998, John Martin, review of Calamities of Exile, p. 51.
Washington Post, October 24, 1995, p. B3.