Monday, October 31, 2005


Connolly on Sterne, Jarrell on Kitten, Updike on the Nobel

When I posted an item about the new Tristram Shandy movie the other day, I had a sudden urge to read an old, half-remembered essay on Sterne by Cyril Connolly. Needless to say I couldn't find the book amidst the shambles of my personal library. But yesterday the familiar, beige-and-red spine of The Selected Essays of Cyril Connolly materialized on the top shelf, and I grabbed it. The piece is notable for two reasons. First, it captures to perfection the queer (in the older sense of the word), whimsical, lollygagging flavor of the book. Also: Connolly was only 23 when he wrote it. At twice his age I'm only half as articulate--if even that--and if I thought about this for too long it would drive me to despair. Instead, here's a superb bit:
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.

"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."
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.

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

First, an update on the Google controversy, which continues to rage even as the search-engine behemoth prepares to start scanning books again on November 1. In the San Francisco Chronicle, Clarissa Pinkola Estés initially makes nice to Google's Print Library Project. It would be, she argues, a godsend to ethnographic researchers like herself, dependent on the "green volumes of the U.S. Anthropological Survey" and other archival materials:
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,
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.
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.

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.)

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.
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.

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

I'm nearly finished with Ian Frazier's delightful Gone to New York, which collects most of his writing about the city (or the metropolitan area, technically, since there's an excellent article about Route 3 in New Jersey.) The earliest stuff here dates from 1975, when the author began contributing Talk of the Town pieces to The New Yorker. But he really gets up to speed with "Canal Street" (1990), whose mixture of history, pinpoint observation, and personal reportage is a version-in-miniature of what he accomplished the year before in Great Plains. Here's a typically delectable sample, about the dodgier eastern edge of Canal Street:
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

In his earlier fiction, Philip Roth's Newark neighborhood functioned as a kind of sociological straitjacket, from which the wily novelist had to engineer a Houdini-like escape. Weequahic was primarily a place to get away from. Over the years, though, Roth's view of his old stomping grounds has mellowed. As early as 1988, when he published his memoir The Facts, he began to see the neighborhood in a more flattering light. (Being Roth, he also introduced Nathan Zuckerman for a tailgunning critique: "At fifty-five, with your mother dead and your father heading for ninety, you are evidently in a mood to idealize the confining society that long ago ceased impinging on your spirit and to sentimentalize people who by now inhabit either New Jersey cemeteries or Florida retirement communities and are hardly a source of disappointment to you...") And by the time we get to The Plot Against America, Leslie Street has been transformed completely, into a kinder, gentler, Yiddish-accented locus of urban life.

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

On Sunday, I reviewed Ismail Kadare's The Successor in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. It's a devious, dreamy, sometimes frustrating read--the author has stocked it with an entire school of red herrings--but very much worth the trouble:
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.

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.
You can read the whole thing here. Meanwhile, over at Newsday, I reviewed Sherwin Nuland's Maimonides:
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?

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.
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.

Thursday, October 20, 2005


Dynamic duo

I won't be posting anything substantial (whatever that means) until later this afternoon, but couldn't resist this action-figure photo of the Poverty Busters: George W. Bush and Bono. Oh, to be a fly on the wall at the Oval Office, while these two mixed it up on monetary policy and Third World debt! The mind boggles. If only they had switched costumes for the photo op.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005


Happy St. Frideswide's Day!

I promise not to make a habit of this. But while I was huffily searching the shelves for my copy of Tristram Shandy, I came across The Oxford Companion to the Year. I flipped to today's entry and learned some fascinating info about Frideswide, the patron saint of the city and University of Oxford. She died in 727. The postmortem details were what really gripped me:
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.


Shandying it

As reported in the Guardian, there is now a film version of Tristram Shandy. Director Michael Winterbottom (a name right out of Sterne's novel) has opted for a racier title--Cock and Bull Story--and resorted to various postmodern shenanigans to capture the book's antic, endlessly digressive texture. He's also been generous with the slapstick. The famous scene where the hot chestnut falls into the vicar's pants is rumored to be a highlight, and a reminder that we're not watching the umpteenth adaptation of Jane Austen.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005


Ukrainian ringers, best covers, Wu on Google Print

Just a few odds and ends. It appears (according to the St. Petersburg Times) that Russia is beset with an epidemic of fake books--not pirated editions, but slapdash productions attributed to famous authors. My favorite example, evidently a hot item in Kiev's street-market bookstalls:
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.

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."
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.

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

Last night while I was gabbing on the phone, Nina was nice enough to bring me a glass of beer. At once I knocked over the glass, soaking everything on my desk, and my computer, which must have sucked up some fizzling liquid through the intake vents on the bottom, blacked out. I ran to the kitchen and grabbed some paper towels. My friend, who was holding the line, got to hear some audio-verité cursing as I mopped up the mess. For about thirty minutes, I couldn't revive the computer. Very distressing. Nina and I deployed my precious No. 0 screwdriver and removed the base plate: the innards were dry as a bone. Finally the machine began to show some signs of life. There was some disorientation: the hungover computer thought it was December 1969 (really). I reset the clock.

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,
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.
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:
[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

First, some poetry:
Here they go again
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.
Yes, 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.

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


NBA finalists

At Rowan Oak, William Faulkner's home in Oxford, Mississippi, John Grisham announced the 2005 National Book Award finalists. In fiction, E.L. Doctorow is likely to be leader of the pack: his Civil War novel, The March, put him back on the bestseller lists and restored his luster after the mixed response accorded to his story collection, Sweet Land Stories, last year. Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking won a nomination in nonfiction, along with Alan Burdick's Out of Eden, Leo Damrosch's Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jim Dwyer's and Kevin Flynn's 102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers, and Adam Hochschild's Bury the Chains. (The Didion is tremendous and deserving, but not having read the other contenders, I can't exactly handicap this one.) In poetry, two hardy survivors will go toe-to-toe: the 78-year-old John Ashbery (Where Shall I Wander) and the 78-year-old W.S. Merwin (Migration), with Frank Bidart, Brendan Galvin, and Verdan Rutsala bringing up the rear. For a less scattershot report, try this piece by Hillel Italie, as well as the official NBA site.


Yawn, Ben Webster

The Quills--yes, the least suspenseful awards in recorded history--were dutifully handed out yesterday in a four-hour-plus ceremony. Dark horse winners included J.K. Rowling, Jon Stewart, and Stephen King. So much for populism. Meanwhile, we have the Nobel Prize announcement to anticipate tomorrow afternoon, but I may not offer the most punctual coverage: I'll be busy atoning.

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

After a spine-tingling deadlock, John Banville has won the Booker Prize for The Sea. Meanwhile, the Swedes will be announcing the Nobel Prize for Literature on Thursday. Traditionally the cloistered deliberations of the Swedish Academy have been kept out of the news, but now The Globe and Mail reports that one academician, 82-year-old Knut Ahnlund, has resigned in protest against last year's award to Elfriede Jelinek. "Last year's Nobel prize has not only done irreparable damage to all progressive forces," argues Ahnlund, "it has also confused the general view of literature as an art." The academy's permanent secretary, Horace Engdahl, shrugged off his former colleague's spitballs, noting that Ahnlund had put in only handful of appearances at the office (or whatever it is) since 1996. Stay tuned for further developments.

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


Sam's club

In yesterday's Newsday, I reviewed Peter Guralnick's Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke. You can read my Brief Encounter with the author below. As for the review:
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?

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."
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.


How George begat Jon

In an orgiastic burst of self-promotion, Richard Bradley--the artist formerly known as Richard Blow--describes the epochal effect of George magazine in this Boston Globe Ideas piece. The occasion? Harvard's Kennedy School is sponsoring a forum to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s magazine (where Bradley worked as executive editor). In the alternate universe where Bradley dwells, it was his former employer--not Gore Vidal or Ronald Reagan or, what the hell, the average American watching Bill Clinton play tenor sax on the Arsenio Hall show--who first noted the convergence of politics and pop culture in this country. Bradley writes:
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


Piazza tales

On Monday, October 10--that's right, this very night--Tom Piazza will be reading up at Columbia University at Dodge Hall, Room 413, at 7:30 PM. He's the author of a superb novel, My Cold War, whose praises I've previously sung on this blog. He's also produced a collection of short stories, Blues and Trouble, and a clutch of fiendishly intelligent books about jazz and popular music, the most recent being Understanding Jazz: Ways to Listen. Hearing him read should be a treat. In addition, he's a New Orleans resident who's recently been flooded out of house and home--you can show your support and become smarter at the same time. Come one, come all!

Friday, October 07, 2005


Foxy lady

In Newsday, Kerry Fried reviews Jane Shilling's The Fox in the Cupboard, which she calls a "provocative, moving, and hugely funny memoir" of (believe it or not) fox-hunting. Surely the fox might view it differently. But Charlie, as he is called by the hunters, does get his due:
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

According to this Reuters piece by Jeffrey Goldfarb, Swedish-born philanthropist Sigrid Rausing has purchased Granta from American-born philanthropist Rea Hederman. Rausing, whose enterprises include a human-rights trust based in the UK and a new publishing house, Portobello, should have no difficulty bankrolling the magazine through the next millenium: her family fortune, derived from the Tetra-Pak beverage carton, is estimated at five billion pounds. Footnote: this isn't the first time such a humble item has done its bit for literature. Jeffrey Kittay, founder of the late and lamented Lingua Franca, propped up his publication with a legacy from his father, underwear mogul Sol Kittay.

Thursday, October 06, 2005


Tales from the analog age

From Peter Guralnick's Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom. In this passage, the author is describing a 1966 session at Muscle Shoals, where the volatile Wilson Pickett was recording "Mustang Sally." "Wex" is, of course, the R&B guru Jerry Wexler, who was overseeing the date:
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

From Aldo Buzzi's "Chekhov in Sondrio," reprinted in Journey to the Land of the Flies and Other Travels:
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

Say it ten times fast:
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

Peter Guralnick has been writing about American music--blues, country, soul, R&B, gospel, and the kitchen-sink repository of rock-and-roll--for nearly forty years. His mastery of the facts, and his deep feeling for the ache and ebullience at the heart of so much popular music, is probably unsurpassed. So is his gift for portraiture, whether he's producing snapshots (in Feel Like Going Home and Lost Highway) or taking a more panoramic approach (in Sweet Soul Music). His double-decker life of Elvis--Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love--extricated the man from the mythological wreckage, an act of imaginative sympathy that would stump many a gifted novelist. And now Guralnick has pulled off a similar coup with the magnificent Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke. I began our conversation by asking about the book's genesis.

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

According to Mediaweek, big happenings are afoot in Pleasantville. Yes, the venerable Reader's Digest, whose average reader is just over 50, will now set its sites on a younger, hipper audience. Part of this strategy involves diversification: RDA is launching a new magazine, Every Day With Rachel Ray, on October 25, built around the popular Food Network personality. But there are also plans to jazz up the flagship, which may not ring a bell with the Metamucil generation:
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!


Supreme beings

From a piece ("Cronyism and the Court") in today's Chicago Tribune by Geoffrey R. Stone, a professor of law at the University of Chicago and an editor of the Supreme Court Review for more than ten years:
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

In yesterday's Newsday, I spoke with Jed Perl about the Hegelian dialectic, the "unspeakably awful" machinery of the contemporary art scene, and the genesis of New Art City:
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.


"A Pit Bull in Size 6 Shoes"

Thus did George W. Bush characterize Harriet Miers, his current nominee for the Supreme Court, as reported in this June 2005 Washington Post profile. Miers, age 60, has had a long career as a commercial litigator at Locke Liddell & Sapp, served one term on the Dallas City Council in the late 1980s, and chaired the Texas State Lottery Commission from 1995 to 2000. The latter gig put her smack dab in the middle of a rather fragrant scandal, which you can piece together from this summary (on Will Bunch's Attytood blog) and this 2001 Guardian piece by Greg Palast. Not surprisingly, her ties to W. go back more than a decade. In 1994 she worked for Bush's gubernatorial campaign, where she vetted his moth-eaten National Guard record and the potentially troublesome recollections of former Texas House Speaker Ben Barnes. A year later, Miers represented the governor in a legal dispute over an East Texas fishing house. And in 2000, after Bush became president, he brought his personal attorney to Washington, first as staff secretary, then deputy chief of staff, and ultimately as White House counsel. In all of these capacities, Miers has earned a reputation as a detail-oriented, close-mouthed loyalist. Whether any of this makes her Supreme Court fodder is (to put it gently) debatable. But one thing is clear. Having just weathered a firestorm over a previous bit of cronyism--his appointment of Michael Brown to run FEMA--Bush is determined to, you know, stay the course.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?