Monday, October 31, 2005
Connolly on Sterne, Jarrell on Kitten, Updike on the Nobel
Within his limitations, however, his world is one of the most wayward and serene of all Utopias, and if the quality of his work is taken from the French, its material is as undoubtedly English, the England of peaceful fanatics, and gaunt unpersecuting bigots who have taken refuge from the fogs of the world in the most outrageous sanctuaries of their teeming minds, and who seem to spring up in the peaceful country as naturally as teazels and to live here as happily as rare animals in private parks.And here's another:
The intensity that Sterne lacked in emotion he retrieved in style, and there is hardly any diction in English so perverse and yet so adequately under control. The tempo of Tristram Shandy, for instance, must be the slowest of any book on record, and he reminds one at times of the youthful occupation of seeing how slowly one can ride a bicycle without falling off; yet such is Sterne's mastery, his ease and grace, that one is always upheld by a verbal expectancy; slow though the action moves, he will always keep his balance and soon there will follow a perfect flow of words that may end with a phrase that rings like a pebble on a frozen pond.What a killer! I am, incidentally, completing a novel of my own, with what I fear is an even slower narrative tempo than Sterne's--and thanks to Connolly, I now see myself puttering along on a battered Schwinn Varsity, crashing to the ground every five feet or so. Not a pretty picture.
This morning, while I was drinking coffee--I've reverted to the Bodum, or as I now call it, the Freedom Press--I started flipping through William Pritchard's Randall Jarrell: A Literary Life. I reviewed this book approximately 100 years ago in the VLS. I've always been struck by its strangely diffident tone. The author plainly admires Jarrell, yet he spends a good deal of time backpedaling, qualifying, putting things in context (which is often code for special pleading.) In any case, I enjoyed the part about Jarrell and his cat:
One entanglement he thoroughly and joyously capitulated to was his beloved cat, Kitten. It is easy, perhaps too easy, to say that he, Kitten, was all the child Jarrell ever needed; having said it, one feels slightly embarrassed, and partly on Jarrell's account. Yet the intensity of his feeling for this black Persian cat was revealed so often and so unabashedly (Kitten is one of the principal characters in the index to Jarrell's letters) that to be simply embarrassed in the face of it is to be unimaginative. When, during his army service, Mackie sent him some pictures she had taken, Jarrell wrote back, saying he was delighted, had looked at them over and over, and that "I want some more of Kitten and some more of you." The order of request is perhaps insignificant, but a later letter, after further pictures had arrived, suggests that Kitten was stiff competition for any mere wife.Here Pritchard's tone is just right: tolerant, bemused, etc. I'm no one to talk, by the way. The cat in this household (his name is Allen) does exactly what he wants and is almost as spoiled as Kitten was.
"Your pictures of Kitten," writes Jarrell, "are wonderful. The best one, one of the best photographs I've ever seen, is the one of Kitten walking in the alley across the street. The dark glowing look he shares with the trees makes it look as if it ought to be called Kitten in Fairyland[...] The one of Kitten eating alone on the front porch has such a patterned texture (to Kitten's fur, I mean) that it's hard to believe it's not a painting."
Finally, Updike is interviewed by Bill Zwecker in the Chicago Sun-Times. He holds forth on a number of topics, including his own decreasing itch to write: "There's a danger of overstaying your welcome in the arts. We all have a kind of moment of bloom--when we're really fresh in what we're saying, things that stick in people's minds. It tends to occur, alas, before you're 30." Fascinating, in that the famously precocious Updike got better--deeper, funnier, less flashy--as he moved into his middle-aged prime. The latter two Rabbit novels make the first two look callow. The Bech franchise, featuring the author's Jewish-American döppelganger, also improved with each installment. So did the big fat critical books. Anyway, Updike also puts in his two cents on the Nobel sweepstakes:
It would be wonderful to win [the Nobel Prize], the odds are pretty slim. I'm getting too old for it at 73. Usually it goes to people in their 60s, though I was happy to see Pinter win, given he's two years older than I am. So hope springs eternal.
Friday, October 28, 2005
Google wars, Karadzic, missing podium, PhRMA fiction, Mingus
Recently at a library, these old ethnographic books fell apart in my hands. In our high-country desert clime, they'd become crisp as cracker. Pages literally shattered as I turned them. Librarians said there was no money for climate control, that the books were past saving. Thence comes Google, saying it will save public-domain books--to me, a researcher of 40 years standing, a priceless treasure.What Estés doesn't like is Google's opt-out policy, which she compares to a shotgun marriage: "I would like to have my work digitized, and I would like to choose my own suitor to do that." But according to Joanna Glasner's new piece in Wired, a good many authors are eager to step up to the altar. Even Ashton Applewhite--author of Cutting Loose: Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well and a skeptic, one supposes, about the whole matrimonial enterprise--is eager to be Google's blushing bride. She insists that authors lost effective control of their copyrights a long time ago: "The dike was breached when they invented the Xerox machine and put it in libraries. People who want to steal will always find a way, but I think this is going to tap into a much larger audience."
Yet Applewhite overlooks the presence of multiple suitors. Microsoft, for example, has just joined the Open Content Alliance (as reported in the New York Times). The OCA "is working to digitize the contents of millions of books and put them on the Internet, with full text accessible to anyone, while respecting the rights of copyright holders." Note the anti-Google dig in that second clause. And note Microsoft's transformation from marketplace-dominating ogre to plucky rebel.
Speaking of ogres, here's W.H. Auden:
The Ogre does what ogres can,Auden wrote "August 1968" to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, suggesting that human monsters were essentially incapable of speech. But where does that leave fugitive war criminal Radovan Karadzic, who's just published a book of poetry? According to the Guardian, the former psychiatrist and Bosnian Serb demagogue has collected 47 poems in Under the Left Breast of the Century. Despite the enigmatic title--I assume Slobodan Milosevic is under the right breast--the book has a distinct pastoral flavor. Alas, the detailed descriptions of mountains, lakes, and forests probably won't lead the UN war crimes tribunal to the dapper dictator's door. Too bad.
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach:
The Ogre cannot master speech.
About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.
Next, a story I missed the first time around: the president's podium is missing! Yes, the very podium from which George W. Bush addressed the nation on September 11, 2001, at Barksdale Air Force Base in Shreveport, Louisiana. After the president delivered his less-than-stirring speech, this modest piece of office furniture vanished into the maw of history--or more precisely, it passed into the capable hands of the Federal Surplus Property Agency, which donated it to an Arkansas school district. (There was, I should note, a $75 handling fee.) Then the folks at Barksdale AFB decided they wanted the podium back for a historical display. After some sleuthing, it was traced to the Arkansas City School District 470. Officials did allow the school to keep the podium until after graduation day. Read all about it at the Arkansas Federal Surplus Property site (scroll down for story) and in this old BBC News piece. If anybody has an update on this--did the podium ever make it to Barksdale?--I'd love to hear it.
Here's a keeper: according to Michael Hiltzik's hilarious column in the Los Angeles Times, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America tried to burnish its image by commissioning a suspense novel. The book, to be published by Michael Viner's Phoenix imprint, would trot out a new villain to rival Doctor No himself: the Canadian drug industry.
According to the proposal, PhRMA would pay Phoenix a six-figure sum for the marketing and production of a written-to-order fictional thriller. The plotline was what Hollywood would term high-concept--a group of shadowy terrorists conspires to murder thousands of Americans by poisoning the medicine they're importing from Canada to beat U.S. drug prices. (Think "True Lies" meets the Physicians Desk Reference.)Eventually PhRMA pulled out of the project, citing (more or less) creative differences and offering the authors $100,000 "if they would agree never to speak ill of PhRMA or the drug industry for the rest of their lives." I'm not making this up! And I can't fit all the delicious details into this post. Please, please read the entire column--you'll thank me later.
If this scenario sounds familiar, it's because PhRMA has tried to scare state legislatures and Congress out of giving Americans access to cheap Canadian drugs by warning that terrorists might poison the imports.
Finally, a balm for the soul: via the Bad Plus blog, I came across this link to the official Charles Mingus website. Click on the home page and you get a video of Mingus whipping through two fantastic choruses of "I Can't Get Started." A perfect way to start your day--or mine, anyway. And don't miss the many additional goodies on the site, including altoist John Handy dancing atop some of the gigantic ensemble passages in Epitaph.
Wednesday, October 26, 2005
Gone to New York
Just below Canal is a network of narrow streets centuries older than the bridge roaring above them. It is Chinatown, but not the part where conventioneers come to eat Chinese food. Some of the side streets are so narrow they barely have curbs, much less sidewalks. Flatiron buildings almost small enough to put your arms around occupy tiny wedge-shaped lots. Gentrification has left this place untouched; rents are probably about the same as they were in Carthage, or Nineveh, or Peking under the Tangs. Shoes have worn shallow depressions in the stone of apartment-house steps; hands have polished the paint off railings. Ancient paint on door lintels is cracked and ridged like alligator hide. This is the basic city that people have always lived in, of which the rest of New York is only the twentieth century's approximation.
Monday, October 24, 2005
Straight Outta Weequahic
Well, Leslie Street is no more. Yesterday, Newark Mayor Sharpe James unveiled a plaque on the novelist's boyhood home and renamed the street Philip Roth Plaza. (The ironies are piling up here pretty fast, but we may have to wait for Zuckerman to deliver an expert dissection.) And the author proved that you can go home again, joining a busload of 75 fans for a tour of Philip Roth's Weequahic. "Today, Newark is my Stockholm," Roth told a crowd at the Weequahic Branch Library, "and that plaque is my prize."
Double trouble: The Successor, Maimonides
The new novel by Ismail Kadare, who won the 2005 Man Booker International Prize, begins with a time-honored narrative device: a corpse. And not just any corpse. On a cold December morning in 1981, the anointed successor to Albania's current dictator is found in his bedroom with a bullet in his brain. The official verdict is suicide. The public, which already has seen the regime take a chainsaw to its political deadwood on numerous occasions, suspects murder. And the reader of The Successor awaits the entrance of a detective--a Balkan-style Sherlock Holmes in a white tarboosh--to finger the guilty party.You can read the whole thing here. Meanwhile, over at Newsday, I reviewed Sherwin Nuland's Maimonides:
The reader will wait in vain. Because in Albania, as in every totalitarian society, guilt and innocence have brokered a new, symbiotic relationship. Nobody is quite free of corruption. Everybody spies on his neighbor, and is spied upon in return: "The only way you can get a grip on a place overcome by paranoia," Kadare writes, "is by becoming a little paranoid yourself." This is not an atmosphere conducive to neat solutions.
The tradition of the doctor as literary man (or woman) has a long, honorable pedigree, and it's easy to see why. For the physician, the broken heart and corruptible flesh are no mere abstractions but everyday realities—and death, staved off by pills and high-tech palliatives, is quite literally a fact of life. In our time, Sherwin B. Nuland (How We Die) is probably the foremost exponent of this tradition. Who better, then, to write a short life of its founding father, the great Maimonides?You can read the entire piece here. Nuland seems less interested in biographical minutiae than in the spiritual progress of his subject, who supposedly had the best bedside manner since Hippocrates. In any case, it's a lucid little book about a fascinating figure, whose Guide for the Perplexed still leaves most of its readers, well, perplexed.
Moses ben Maimon was born in Cordoba, Spain, in 1138, the product of seven generations of rabbinical stock. At the time, Cordoba was the epicenter of Islamic civilization in Europe--the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I called it "the ornament of the world"--and Jews were given at least a lukewarm welcome. In 1148, however, the fundamentalist Almohads gained control of the Iberian peninsula. In short order the city's non-Muslims were imprisoned, tortured or (if they were lucky) shown the door.
Thursday, October 20, 2005
Wednesday, October 19, 2005
Happy St. Frideswide's Day!
The shrine had been despoiled in 1538, but her purported bones were reburied on the site. Close by, in 1553, was buried Catherine Dammartin, the first wife of the Protestant reformer and Regius Professor of Divinity Peter Martyr or Pietro Martire Vermigli; under Mary, St. Frideswide's remains were exhumed and placed in silk bags, Catherine's also exhumed but cast out on a dunghill. In 1561, at the north-east end of the cathedral, Canon James Calfhill solemnly reburied the two sets of relics so commingled as nevermore to be told apart: "Here lies true religion with superstition."
At St. Margaret's church in Binsey, near Oxford, there is a well that legend associated with Frideswide; it is said that, pursued by her suitor Aelfgar, she prayed for deliverance to St. Margaret of Antioch, who blinded him with a flash of lightning and cured him of his lust; when Frideswide prayed again that he should be healed, a spring burst forth, in which she bathed his eyes. It is said to be the origin of Lewis Carroll's treacle well.
Tuesday, October 18, 2005
Ukrainian ringers, best covers, Wu on Google Print
Its title, The First Merovingian, referring to a Dark Ages European dynasty that according to myth descended from Jesus, hinted of a classic [Dan] Brown story line. The book was written in response to a request that Pope John Paul II had made just before his death, a blurb on the jacket said. On the back of the attractively bound 511-page volume was a photo of Brown.Most of these literary ringers originate in the Ukraine, where any distinction between "honest" and "crooked" pirate editions has broken down completely. AST, by the way, happens to be the Russian publisher of Amazonia. I'm assuming the Russian version won't simply consist of some old Forbes articles about the Internet bubble and a public-domain history of the steam engine.
But when readers opened the hardcover book, they were sorely disappointed. A crude cut-and-paste job, it contained lengthy excerpts from histories of Christianity and the Inquisition interspersed with selections from a 14th-century anthology of short stories.
"This wasn't an 'honest' pirate edition," said Nikolai Naumenko, editor in chief at Brown's Russian publisher, AST, which also publishes such American authors as John Grisham and Michael Connolly. "I cannot even describe it as a book. It's trash."
As reported in the New York Times, a panel of 50 editors and art directors has chosen the best magazine covers ever. Number One: the famous Rolling Stone photo of a fetal, naked John Lennon curled around his wife's waist. Number Two: the famous Vanity Fair photo of a naked, pregnant Demi Moore. Do we see a pattern here? Is the essential ingredient a celebrity who has shed his or her clothing? Coincidentally, I've always been put off by these very images. The Rolling Stone cover, a study in infantile regression, mainly reminded me of the steep decline in Lennon's post-Beatle output. (If he chose the perfection of life over the perfection of art, that's fine. But the records were pretty bad.) As for Demi Moore--if I need to study a narcissist in the nude, I'll go look in the mirror. Number Three, FYI, was an Esquire cover of Muhammad Ali being peppered with arrows, but I believe he kept his pants on.
Finally, Timothy Wu addresses the GooglePrint uproar in Slate. Like most GooglePrint enthusiasts--and Wu unquestionably falls into that camp--he views recalcitrant authors as control freaks, who want to retain an iron grip on their copyrights even at the cost of making their work invisible to the great world. He also seems to take Google's vaunted corporate motto (Don't be evil) at its word. I'm sure the company's fabulously rich proprietors uttered it in earnest--but a corporation with a market cap of almost $86 billion tends to play by its own rules. Who knows what use Google will ultimately make of its titantic textual database? That's the question that strikes terror (or at least unease) into the hearts of authors. Wu responds: "In the end, it is just a search, not a replacement product. We readers need help finding what exists, and we authors also need help being found. There is here, as anywhere, such a thing as too much control." Despite my caveats, the article is a notably intelligent take on a complicated issue: go read it, is my advice.
Monday, October 17, 2005
Last night's fun, Time 100
Now all is well. But I was so thrown by this potential disaster that I grabbed the nearest books and took to my bed. What did I grab? First, Elizabeth Alexander's Antebellum Dream Book, a 2001 collection from Graywolf. Problem: as the title suggests, many of the poems take the form of recounted dreams. But as Freud pointed out more than a century ago, dreams--with their slippery logic and metaphoric fluency--share a common language with poetry, so there's a kind of clanging redundancy to Alexander's procedure. She might as well begin each poem with: I wrote a poem that said.... Still, there are some strong, strange pieces ("Race," "Opiate," "Orange") and the libidinous oddity of "Nat King Cole on the Amalfi Drive":
He sings after making the beast with two backs,In a companion piece earlier in the book, she has an assignation with Michael Jordan (really). Go figure. Meanwhile, I moved on to The Education of Henry Adams, that freeze-dried masterpiece of American autobiography. Flipping back and forth, I found myself savoring this freaky passage near the beginning: the six-year-old Adams is behaving like a brat, refusing to go to school. His mother is, one assumes, tearing her hair out. Enter the ancient John Quincy Adams, who happens to be the brat's grandfather:
something low-down and dirty, fried liver and onions,
put your hands on your hips and let your diction slip.
We do it real quick. I am "that kind of girl."
He shakes out his marcel, calls Yes!
to the Lord, caretaker of bliss, maker of figs,
the good Lord of smothered chicken and biscuits
who gave us five senses, said, Go forth and taste
for your time on this earth is not long.
We keep our pleasure secret, dahlias
underneath my skirt as I watch from the studio audience.
The Negro crooner sings of "Eskeemos."
Wild applause from the flush-cheeked fans.
My dahlias rustle, brush. A wink for me,
a smile for me, for me in black and white.
[The boy] was in a fair way to win, and was holding his own, with sufficient energy, at the bottom of the long staircase which led up to the door of the President's library, when the door opened, and the old man slowly came down. Putting on his hat, he took the boy's hand without a word, and walked with him paralysed by awe, up the road to the town. Afer the first moments of consternation at this interference in a domestic dispute, the boy reflected that an old gentleman close on eighty would never trouble himself to walk near a mile on a hot summer morning over a shadeless road to take a boy to school, and that it would be strange if a lad imbued with the passion of freedom could not find a corner to dodge around, somewhere before reaching the school-door. Then and always, the boy insisted that this reasoning justified his apparent submission; but the old man did not stop, and the boy saw all his strategic points turned, one after another, until he found himself seated inside the school, and obviously the centre of curious if not malevolent criticism. Not till then did the President release his hand and depart.Funny, that's exactly what always happened when I tried to play hooky: Dwight D. Eisenhower emerged from a little room in the attic and walked me over to Edgewood School. But he wasn't my grandpa.
Moving right along: Time has just posted its 100 Best Novels Written in English Since 1923. Lists like this are created precisely so people can bitch about them. My gripes, in a nutshell: Gravity's Rainbow belongs, but not The Crying of Lot 49. Portnoy's Complaint belongs, but not American Pastoral. The Rabbit books got stronger and stronger as Updike went along, and Rabbit At Rest is incontestably a better book than Rabbit, Run. The omission of Samuel Beckett is criminal, and the same thing goes for Penelope Fitzgerald. And what about William Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow? And J.F. Powers's Morte d'Urban? And Richard Stern's Other Men's Daughters? Having said all this, I'll add that it's a very decent list, and that the Web version includes links to the some of the original reviews.
Friday, October 14, 2005
Pinter, Almond v. Sarvas, Akenfield
Here they go againYes, it's by Nobel laureate Harold Pinter, from his 2003 collection War, which not only found a publisher but won the Wilfred Owen Award for Poetry. Complete dreck, of course. You might argue that the Swedish Academy is honoring him for his pathbreaking work as a dramatist. As they noted in their citation: "Pinter restored theatre to its basic elements: an enclosed space and unpredictable dialogue, where people are at the mercy of each other and pretence crumbles. With a minimum of plot, drama emerges from the power struggle and hide-and-seek of interlocution." Okay, okay. But despite his ironclad accomplishment in the theater, I can't help but suspect that Pinter's virulent anti-Americanism ultimately put him over the top. And if that's the case, I'm already placing my bet for next year's Nobel Prize in Literature: Saddam Hussein. He writes novels, you know.
The Yanks in their armoured parade
Chanting their ballads of joy
As they gallop across the big world
Praising America's God.
The gutters are clogged with the dead.
Next: Steve Almond unloads on Mark Sarvas at Salon (non-subscribers will have to sit through a short advertisement) and just about every blogger from here to Timbuktu weighs in. I will say that these two guys seem to have a reciprocal (and unhealthy) fixation going on. The only thing I have to add is a footnote. Sarvas and I got off to a slightly rocky start when he began potshotting at my First Fiction columns in the Los Angeles Times. I sent him a civil email, he replied with his rationale--pretty lame, I have to say--and after a couple of additional communications, we left it at that. Cut to the BEA in June, where we were introduced just before a panel got rolling. Did we spit on each other or exchange kidney punches? Nope. Just a friendly nod, before he fired up the laptop and began another round of live blogging. We've traded a few amiable emails since then. The moral of the story is that there's no point in getting your jodhpurs in a twist over this crap.
Now, a palate-cleanser from Ronald Blythe's Akenfield, which I started on the subway last night:
The East Anglian wind does far more than move the barley; it is doctrinal. Probably no other agent except, perhaps, the great forests which once covered this plain, has done more to shape the character of the people who have dwelt on it. It is a quite unmysterious wind, dispelling the fuzziness of things. On a clear day--and they are mostly clear days in this part of the world--you can see as far as you can bear to see, and sometimes farther. It is a suitable climate for a little arable kingdom where flints are the jewels and where existence is sharp-edged.Don't you feel better now?
Wednesday, October 12, 2005
Yawn, Ben Webster
On a more inspirational note, I spent an enchanted hour yesterday listening to Ben Webster Meets Gerry Mulligan, a 1959 summit meeting at which all the stars and planets aligned to perfection. Webster's breathy, emotive tenor is a treat in any context. But he found an ideal jousting partner in Mulligan, with a taste for gorgeous counterpoint and a ruddy tone to match his own. The first cut, "Chelsea Bridge," may be the most beautiful of Webster's many recordings of the Billy Strayhorn classic. But the other ballads are on par, while the midtempo pieces bounce along very nicely, courtesy of the blue-ribbon rhythm section (Jimmy Rowles, Leroy Vinnegar, Mel Lewis). If you don't own this CD, your life has a yawning hole in it, easily patched for a piddling $10.99. Don't delay!
Tuesday, October 11, 2005
More eyes on the prize, Piazza, the Genizah
In the wake of an excellent reading up at Columbia, the itinerant Tom Piazza passed on some interesting news: he's writing a short book called Why New Orleans Matters for ReganBooks/HarperCollins, which sounds like a pained and elegiac valentine to his adopted city. The manuscript is not yet complete. Still, the publication date is set for November 23 (!), which should make for some relaxing afternoons in the production department.
Finally, something else I didn't know, from Sherwin Nuland's Maimonides:
Mention has just been made of the Genizah, which is a story in itself. The word means "depository," but it is a depository of a special sort, one in which is stored materials that are inscribed with any reference to God. Because Jewish law forbids the discarding of such artifacts, it was the custom for centuries to bury them or stow them away in the structure or attics of synagogues. Returning from one of several journeys to the Middle East in 1896, two widowed sisters, Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Gibson, familiar with classical languages--Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic--brought back to England a fragment of manuscript they had obtained in Cairo. The origian was the Genizah, a room in the women's gallery of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Fustat, built in 882. They showed it to their friend Dr. Solomon Schechter, Reader in Rabbinics at Cambridge University, who identified it as a tenth-century copy of the original Hebrew manuscript of the book of the Apocrypha called Ecclesiasticus. Schechter traveled to Cairo, consulted with its Jewish community, and obtained their permission to bring almost all of the Genizah's contents, more than 100,000 manuscript fragments of paper, cloth, vellum, and papyrus, back to Cambridge as a gift from them.
Monday, October 10, 2005
Peter Guralnick's last project was a two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, whose hip-swiveling passage through American life he recorded with supreme tact and the sort of investigatory zeal we expect from, say, Robert Caro. Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love won extravagant praise and popular acclaim. But what would the author do for an encore? How could Guralnick possibly find another figure of comparable interest?You can read the rest here. Interested parties should also check out Robert Christgau's more skeptical piece in The Nation. He points out some of same squishy spots as I did--including Guralnick's rather gentle take on uber-manager Allen Klein--and also faults the book for its lack of critical stringency about the music itself. Fair enough. But it's also clear that the Dean of Rock and Roll Critics doesn't think much of Cooke's voice to begin with. "It's about on a par with that of the young Dionne Warwick," he allows. With all due respect to Warwick, that judgment strikes me as completely nuts. Still, the Dean is always worth reading: smart, feisty, opinionated to the hilt.
Well, he found one. Sam Cooke--gospel wunderkind and the Thomas Edison of soul music--was born in Clarksdale, Miss., in 1931. He grew up in the Bronzeville section of Chicago with eight siblings and a fire-and-brimstone preacher for a father. But as Guralnick recounts in Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, he was always the household favorite, a charmer noted for "the infectiousness of his grin, or his unquenchable enthusiasm."
How George begat Jon
In fact, though it could not survive John Kennedy's death, George endured for six years, longer than the vast majority of start-up magazines, with a circulation averaging 450,000. Reaching such a broad audience had always been the goal of Kennedy and cofounder Michael Berman, who lamented the fact that, while most Americans cared about politics, they shunned the wonky, inside-the-Beltway punditry published in The New Republic or National Review. And even though George never won over the kingmakers of political journalism, it's clear in retrospect that the magazine profoundly influenced how the American media covers politics.It's that first sentence that gives away the whole game. George was entirely dependent on Kennedy's charisma and connections. When those disappeared, so did the magazine, and quickly. I have no interest in speaking ill of the magazine or its creator. But Bradley, who violated a non-disclosure agreement to write a hagiographic portrait of his boss after Kennedy died, is really reaching here. Did George invent The Daily Show? Only in the sense that Al Gore invented the Internet. (Please note: I didn't make single comical pun on Bradley's old name. For that, you'll have to read this old Gawker dispatch.)
Sunday, October 09, 2005
Friday, October 07, 2005
Over the centuries, Charlie hasn't had brilliant press: Think Aesop. Then again, neither have his nemeses, who are mocked as braying, bloodthirsty anachronisms vying for the Darwin award. Forget the fox's welfare--confronted by hunting's traditions and heavenly accessories (those hacking jackets, those horses!), the outsider feels, er, left out. No wonder some of us reach for Wilde's put-down of the entire enterprise: "The Unspeakable in pursuit of the Uneatable."You can read the whole thing here. In the meantime, Kerry confessed this morning to having had her "first John Roberts dream." She and the Chief Justice were at a picnic, where he was expressing some doubts about his low-key performance on the bench. When she has her first Harriet Miers dream, HOM visitors will be the first to know.
Tetra-Pak tycoon buys Granta
Thursday, October 06, 2005
Tales from the analog age
They had finally gotten a take that everybody was satisfied with, recalls Spooner Oldham. Everybody was standing around the control room waiting to hear the playback when "somehow the hub wasn't fastened on the reel of tape and it jumped off, and the whole reel of tape jumped off, and splinters of tape went flying, and Wilson's kicking and screaming, 'Goddamn master,' and 'I hate you,' and [Tom] Dowd just sits there a minute and then directs everybody to move the machines and pick up the pieces and put them together--there must have been about forty or fifty one-inch pieces of tape. He said, 'Give me about thirty minutes, y'all, go get some coffee and come back.' So we all left, sat around, got depressed--all that work. We come back, and he played it for us. And Wex says, 'You know, you guys were looking at one nervous Jew!'"
Terms of endearment
In Chekhov's letters to his beloved wife Olga "cockroach" becomes a tender word of love:
"My treasure, little cockroach..."
"I embrace my little cockroach and kiss it a million times..."
Nor does he stop at "little cockroach":
"I kiss my little bug."
"I embrace my little turkey."
"My little mosquito."
"My dear pony..."
"My little sperm whale, treasure..."
But the animal that Chekhov referred to most often on these occasions was the dog.
"My dear little dog."
"My little bitch."
"I embrace my dear, my lovely dachshund."
Less comprehensible is the word "dog" pure and simple.
"My soul, angel, dog, little dove..."
"My little treasure, dog, my Olyusha..."
Olga survived the author of the letters by many years. She died at Yalta, on the Black Sea, "city of Tartars and hairdressers," scene of the story "The Lady with the Little Dog." With Chekhov's sister, she lived in the house where Chekhov had resided for some years: the modest house of a great writer where there are no books--a thing less strange than it appears at first sight. In the medicine chest Chekhov kept a revolver.
Good, better, best
Andrea Levy's Small Island was chosen by a panel comprising the ten chairs of judges from the ten years of the Orange Prize for Fiction as the best Orange Prize for Fiction winner over the 10 years that the Prize has been running.Am I the only one to find this procedure completely silly and superfluous? This is no knock at Levy's novel, which I'd like to read. But the idea of a 10-year-old prize ponderously reconvening its judges for such a chore--were they each alloted 10 cups of coffee and 10 Cadbury Chocolate Biscuits during the deliberations?--strikes me as intrinsically goofy. Kate Mosse, co-founder of the Orange Prize, did address the issue in The Independent: "Mosse admitted the prize seemed quite young to be celebrating in such a fashion. But she said the idea for marking the anniversary had come from libraries and booksellers." Whatever. Congratulations to Ms. Levy in any case. The good news: my cantankerous moment for today is over. Normal broadcasting will now resume.
Wednesday, October 05, 2005
Brief Encounter: Peter Guralnick
James Marcus: When did you first conceive the idea of writing Dream Boogie? Did you start work while you were still finishing Careless Love?
Peter Guralnick: I first knew I wanted to write a biography of Sam Cooke when I met Sam’s friend and business partner, J.W. Alexander, in 1982. I was working on Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, and I saw Sam and Ray Charles as the linchpins of the gospel-based Southern soul sound. I certainly knew Sam's music, the gospel sides were what really sold me on him, but the picture that J.W. painted of Sam was so complex, so intriguing, and so intricate in its portrait not just of Sam’s musical gifts but of his vision, his sense both of himself and of the social, political, and common weal, that I knew I wanted to write a book about him.
Marcus: And when did you actually get rolling?
Guralnick: It took me fifteen years to establish the conditions for that book--basically free, unimpeded, and unconditional access to all the music, business records, papers, and people (particularly the members of his family, who had been largely unvailable, and his wife, Barbara, who had never spoken to anyone up till that time) that would allow me to write the kind of book I wanted to write. Still, I continued to interview people over the years in hopes that it would work out, and basically I began on the interviews that would become the cornerstone of the book in 1991--even though as yet there was still no book in sight.
Marcus: Clearly you had no interest in whitewashing Sam Cooke: as you eloquently put it, "if we deny human nature we deny the only truth to which we have access." That said, what was the biggest surprise for you during the process of researching and writing this book? Which discoveries really transformed your image of Cooke (in a negative or positive sense)?
Guralnick: I'm not sure I look at in quite that way. I tried to go into the book, just as I did with Elvis, without preconceptions, and in that sense everything was a discovery--everything was a revelation. What I wanted to do was to write the story without foreshadowing, allowing events to unfold (as they do in real life) without any more knowledge of the outcome than Sam or J.W. or anyone else had at the time. What I was looking for was a deepening of perspective, and in that sense Sam became more and more real to me (and I hope to the reader) through the revelations and perspectives of those who knew him best: his family, his wife, friends like Lou Rawls and fellow Soul Stirrer LeRoy Crume, J.W., and Bobby Womack.
I went back to them again and again, and I felt that we never ran out of things to talk about, whether the focus was on Sam or the world they all knew and shared. Each had his or her own insights; it was invaluable to get their perspectives and points of view, whether it was Barbara Cooke's almost brutally honest view of a relationship that began when she was barely thirteen and Sam eighteen or Sam’s 98-year-old father Rev. Charles Cook's unique perspective on his son's remarkable sense of himself from an early age. What struck me most of all was the consistency of the picture and the unvarnished honesty of their observations. Often people seek to build up themselves and their roles in interviews. In these cases, I felt the people who knew Sam best were almost unsparing in their honesty, and the portrait that they drew, while from undeniably different perspectives, cohered to form the portrait of a highly complex, highly ambitious, and self-aware man.
Marcus: While I was reading Dream Boogie, I took another look at Robert Christgau's essay "Black Elvis," which I'm sure you're familiar with. Comparing Cooke and Presley, he argues that "the two shared something new--a vocal transparency that came across naive and unpremeditated. Their songs, especially the slower ones, were so simple-minded, melodically as well as lyrically, that pop connoisseurs still dismiss them as witless and banal. Sometimes I do too--but not without recognizing the aesthetic audacity their witlessness required." Now, I've got my doubts about Christgau's thesis: "witless" is not a word that comes to my mind for even a single moment in connection with Sam Cooke. Still, I did wonder how you would compare these two extraordinary figures.
Guralnick: I've been drawn to every subject I’ve ever written about by my admiration for their work, whether it's Bobby "Blue" Bland or Merle Haggard. The same, obviously, holds true for Sam and Elvis, each of whom is in his own way an incomparable artist. The chief point of comparison that I can see between them artistically is the way in which they both mine their musical material, whether self-written (as in Sam's case) or instinctively chosen (as in Elvis's). Unlike artists like Howlin' Wolf or Jerry Lee Lewis, say, for whom every take was the occasion for a new start or a fresh interpretation, both Sam and Elvis could go through 38 takes of a song seeking not so much to alter structure or approach as to find the deeper (the deepest) emotional meaning.
As people, they were very different. Elvis was far more instinctive, nowhere near as self-confident as Sam. Sam was a deeply analytic person who saw every new situation as a challenge to broaden his knowledge and perspective. Both were highly intelligent, complex, and ambitious but Sam's brilliance, his intellectual discipline and almost visionary reach seem to me as unique as Sam Phillips's or Walt Whitman's or James Baldwin's both in the territory he sought to encompass and in his boundless confidence in his ability to get there.
Marcus: Did the existence of a relatively recent, substantial biography (Daniel Wolff's You Send Me) complicate your task in any way?
Guralnick: No. Because every writer's perspective is necessarily different. Writing a biography is like painting a portrait: you bring to it all your knowledge, all your insight, all your influences, experiences, and perspective. There were lots of books on Elvis when I started mine. There have been lots of books on W.B. Yeats. To me Sam Cooke is a great creative artist and a great subject. His life offers a broad landscape and a window into a world filled with larger-than-life characters and events. There could be a dozen more books about Sam Cooke, and each of them would be different.
Marcus: Finally: what are you working on now?
Guralnick: I've been working, off and on, on a short story cycle inspired in some obscure way by Dawn Powell's wonderful My Home is Far Away, which I read for the first time while I was on the road a few years ago. It (the Dawn Powell novel) is kind of like Fanny and Alexander Go to Ohio. My short stories aren't anything like that--but their inspiration definitely stems from the book. So I'm hoping to see where that goes.
Tuesday, October 04, 2005
Reader's Digest gets its groove back
Meanwhile over at Reader’s Digest, the monthly recently began carrying younger-skewing brands, such as Fruity Pebbles cereal. And its December issue will feature 24-year-old pop star Alicia Keys on the cover.Full disclosure: Reader's Digest was the first place I ever submitted anything for publication. I was 10, and sent in what I thought were some excellent contenders for "Laughter, the Best Medicine." No dice. Still, I wish them well with their youth-skewing efforts. Twinkle twinkle, baby!
When President Richard Nixon, no fan of the Supreme Court, nominated the forgettable G. Harrold Carswell 35 years ago, Nebraska Sen. Roman Hruska defended the nomination with an unforgettable bit of wisdom: "Even if he is mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers," Hruska declared. "They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they, and a little chance? We can't have all Brandeises and Cardozos and Frankfurters and stuff like that there."
Monday, October 03, 2005
Listen to my story about a man named Jed
Writing criticism for a magazine or newspaper is akin to running the 50-yard dash: a short, intense burst of effort, with a final scramble toward the finish line. Nobody knows this better than Jed Perl, who has spent more than a decade covering art for The New Republic. Yet Perl, a tall man with a thatch of gray hair and a deep, quizzical voice, is equally adept at the marathon. Proof positive would be the publication of New Art City: Manhattan at Mid-Century, a dense and dizzying panorama of the New York art world in the years after World War II.You can read the rest here. And for a somewhat more sweet-and-sour evaluation of Perl's book, check out Arthur Danto's review in Bookforum. He calls New Art City a "delicious Baedeker," but faults the author for shortchanging all things Duchampian, including the Pop explosion that supplanted Perl's beloved Silver Age: "The age of Pop has no Hesiodic counterpart for Perl: Metallurgy knows no metal base enough to emblematize the degradation of art that took place under its auspices in the '60s." Whether you find this hyberbole amusing (I did) or accurate (not quite) will depend on your enthusiasm for Duchamp and his artistic progeny, who turned W.C. Williams's credo on its head--no things but in ideas.