Monthly Archives: September 2006

A land of language

Of all the places in the world I have yet to visit, the place I want to see the most is Iceland. My fascination with the place has its roots way back in childhood, when the world chess match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky — a big deal in my household at that time — was held at Reykjavik. The New York Times published its coverage in a slim paperback that included a glowing description of the island nation. Even at the time, I was impressed by the fact that the Icelanders seemed to have achieved near-total literacy for the population. (Even then, you see, I was thinking in terms of the reading audience.)

Later on, I visited the place vicariously through the Icelandic sagas and William Morris’ journals of his trips to visit the sites of the various sagas. (Personally, I’d like to see the Lax River valley, where the Laxdale Saga takes place, and imagine the woods where Unn the Deep-Minded built her ship.) I have a picture of a country that might be called the Ireland of Scandinavia, where the tradition of tale-telling and narrative is so strong that even in the Middle Ages, Icelandic skalds or court poets were considered a breed apart.

Maybe my fantasy Iceland won’t survive contact with reality. On the other hand, a story like this is very encouraging:

The lights are going out in Iceland this week so people can gaze at the night sky.

Authorities in the capital Reykjavik will turn off street lights on Thursday evening and people are also being encouraged to sit in their houses in the dark, writer Andri Snaer Magnason said on Wednesday.

While the lights are out, an astronomer will describe the night sky over national radio.

“We have a very beautiful sky as soon as we turn off the lights,” Magnason, who came up with the idea, told Reuters.

The event is part of a film festival taking place on the small north Atlantic island, which gets most of its electricity from abundant thermal energy.

The lights are due to go off at 10 p.m. (11 p.m. British time), about two hours after nightfall, for half an hour.

Magnason said the capital’s population of around 250,000 might be able to see the Northern Lights, a flickering curtain of light often seen in northern climes which is caused by solar particles being caught in the Earth’s magnetic field.

Two other Icelandic towns will also turn off their lights.

Imagine a whole country ready to turn off the lights and listen to word-pictures of the night sky. When I go there, I may not find the Iceland of my imagination, but I suspect I’ll find the real thing is just as good — if not better.

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Gods, graves and Gibson

Mel Gibson may have said and done some pretty inexcusable things in the last few years, but good art needs no excuse, and if this advance report on his upcoming movie is even half true, I’m sure I’ll want to see it in a nice big theater as soon as possible.

When I saw that Gibson’s next directorial project was called Apocalypto, I assumed it was going to be a continuation of the anti-Semitic theo-sado-masochistic gore fest that was The Passion of the Christ. Instead, it turns out to be an epic about the great lost civilization of the Mayans. Moreover, it promises to be a visceral, bluntly violent story that takes the culture on its own terms, made with an emphasis on authenticity all the way down to the soundtrack. (Although the music on the trailer sounds like standard issue Hollywood huffing and puffing to me.)

This I want to see. Chalk it up to an early encounter with Gods, Graves and Scholars, C.W. Ceram’s great popular history of modern archaeology, which turned me into something of an archeology geek — particularly for the the Mesoamerican civilizations of the Mayans, the Aztecs and the Olmecs. (With its parade of inspired madmen and heroic tomb-robbers, Gods, Graves and Scholars reads like all three Indiana Jones movies rolled into one — it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that George Lucas was also a fan.) Ceram’s book led me to W.H. Prescott, who is to the Spanish conquest of the New World what Edward Gibbons is to the Roman Empire. And when Gary Jennings set out to evoke the blood-drenched flavor of Aztec civilization in three captivating novels, I was happy to wallow in each one. (By the way, another of Ceram’s books, The First American, led me to John Upton Terrell’s popular account of Cabeza de Vaca and his astonishing journey through the interior of North America. Another great subject for a movie, even though this 1991 production wouldn’t make you think so.)

It could turn out to be tripe — it’s not as though Gibson’s other films (Braveheart, The Man Without a Face) have rocked my world. But I’m a sucker for historical fiction, and if Gibson pulls this one off, it might just shave a few centuries off his time in Purgatory. You never know.

Passages: Robert Bolt

From Robert Bolt’s 1960 play A Man for All Seasons:

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

I trust the contemporary relevance of this passage needs no explanation. Principles exist to guide us when times are tough. That members of Congress should be “negotiating” with the President over what kinds of torture are permissible — and that the “negotiations” should prove to be sham posturing on the part of all participants — is disgusting and demeaning to us all.

Passages: Karle Wilson Baker

From The Garden of the Plynck, a 1920 novel by Karle Wilson Baker:

Has any mortal but Sara ever seen Avrillia? Certainly there never was another fairy so wan and wild and beautiful. When Sara caught sight of her she was leaning over the marble balustrade, looking down into Nothing, and one hand was still stretched out as if it had just let something fall. She seemed to be still watching its descent. Her body, as she leaned, was like a reed, and her hair was pale-gold and cloudy. But all that was nothing beside Avrillia’s eyes.

For she turned around after a while and saw Sara, and smiled at her without surprise, though she looked absent-minded and wistful.

“It didn’t stick,” she said.

“What didn’t?” asked Sara. Her words may not sound very polite; but if you could have heard the awe and wonder in her little voice you would have pardoned her.

“The poem,” Avrillia said. What was it her voice was like? Sheep-bells? Sheep-bells, that was it. Sheep-bells across an English down — at twilight! Sara had never seen more than three sheep in her life; and those three didn’t wear bells; and she had never heard of a down. And yet, Avrillia’s voice sounded to Sara exactly as I have said.

Moreover, it drew Sara softly to her side. Her dress smelled like isthagaria, and it was very soft to touch. For Sara touched it as confidingly as she would her own mother’s. At that Avrillia seemed to remember her. Sara saw at once that Avrillia never remembered anybody very long at a time. She was kind, and her smile was entrancingly sweet; but her mind always seemed to be on something else. Probably on her poetry, Sara decided.

Now, however, she remembered Sara, and asked, “Would you like to look over?”

“What’s down there?” Sara could not help asking.

“Nothing. Would you like to see it?”

Sara drew nearer the balustrade, full of awe, and uncertain whether she wished to look or not. But presently curiosity got the better of her, and she leaned over the balustrade and looked down into Nothing. It was very gray.

Do you throw your poems down there?” she asked of Avrillia, in inexpressible wonder.

“Of course,” said Avrillia. “I write them on rose-leaves, you know –”

“Oh, yes!” breathed Sara. She still thought that she had never heard of anything that sounded lovelier than poems writen on rose-leaves.

“Petals, I mean, of course,” continued Avrillia, “all colors, but especially blue. And then I drop them over, and some day one of them may stick on the bottom –”

“But there isn’t any bottom,” said Sara, lifting eyes like black pansies for wonder.

“No, there’s no real bottom,” conceded Avrillia patiently, “but there’s an imaginary bottom. One might stick on that, you know. And then, with that to build to, if I drop them in very fast, I may be able to fill it up –”

“But there aren’t any sides to it, either!” objected Sara, even more wonderingly.

Avrillia betrayed a faint exasperation (it showed a little around the edges, like a green petticoat under a black dress). “Oh, these literal people!” she said, half to herself. Then she continued, still more patiently, “Isn’t it just as easy to imagine sides as a bottom? Well, as I was saying, if I write them fast enought to fill it up — I mean if one should stick, of course — somebody a hundred years from now may come along and notice one of my poems; and then I shall be Immortal.” And at that a lovely smile crossed Avrillia’s face.

Karle Wilson Baker spent just about all of her adult life in Texas, writing poetry, essays and novels, and I wonder if she didn’t occasionally feel like Avrillia, dropped her writing into the big Nothing and wondering if any of it would ever be noticed. Of course, some of her rose-petals landed in places like The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s and Yale Review, and her 1925 children’s book on Texas history was adopted as a school text, so her writing life did not lack for recognition and reward. She died in 1960 after a career that earned her the title “First Lady of Texas Letters.”

I don’t recall how old I was when I first walked into the Plynck’s garden, but the experience stayed with me in a half-remembered way until a friend told me about Theodore Sturgeon, a writer who also remembered the book from his childhood and constantly lamented that it was out of print. He devoted at least two articles to his search for the book, and while he didn’t remember the author’s name very well (he had it as Karl Baker) he did have a great memory for some of the better passages, including the one above. Now that the book has lapsed into the public domain, you can download it for free through Project Gutenberg or buy a copy that includes Florence Minard’s illustrations, which really do belong with the story.

Shortly after college I found a very good copy of the 1920 Yale University Press hardcover, which may be the oldest book I own. I was happy to see the story held up very well, though I had forgotten about one of the characters — a chocolate man named Yassuh who rolls his eyes and opens a mouth colored “the lovely violent red of certain jelly-beans.” Baker was a woman ahead of her time in many ways, but when it came to minstrel comedy she was very much in steo with the white herd. Like the spear-shaking African who mars the splendor of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, Yassuh doesn’t spoil the story for me, but he does root Sara’s journey to meet the Plynck, unlike Alice’s encounters in Wonderland, in a very specific period.

It’s a charming book, as whimsical and formal as Lewis Carroll and as pun-crazy as Norman Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, a better-known icon of my childhood. There are two kinds of people in this world: those who groan and mime shooting off guns whenever they hear a good pun, and those who laugh and whack the ball back over the net with a pun of their own. Karle Baker was a member of the first camp in good standing, I’m happy to say.

There is a surprising toughness underlying the charm: The first chapter has a startling moment in which the heroine Sara, briefly enraged by a condescending remark from her mother, imagines doing something that Alice never would have dreamed even of considering. But the moment passes, and Sara — who has been complaining about her lack of a playmate — decides to go inside her own head. There she finds the Plynck, a sort of peacock with a woman’s face, who sites in the branches of a tree and gazes down into a decorative pond where her reflection, called Echo, carries on a pretty active life of her own. There is Schlorge the Dimple-Smith, the poetic fairy Avrillia, and the Strained Relations, who pass back and forth through a picket fence, getting fainter each time.

A recent post from Joe inspired me to take the book down for a look, and while I wouldn’t put Sara in the same class as Alice as a literary heroine, she rules a patch of literature that’s worth visiting. Now that I’ve printed out the Gutenberg version, I’ll try it out on Dances With Mermaids and she if she, like her dad, learns to stop and read the rose-petals wherever they might fall.

A: It tells us not to judge a book by its cover

Q: What does this review of a book called Prisoner of Trebekistan tell us?

This is a terrific book. It looks like it’s about Jeopardy and it says it’s about Jeopardy and it’s called Prisoner of Trebekistan but guess what? It’s actually about finding out how to do something really hard that you really don’t know how to do. And how that changes your life forever.

You learn how to study for Jeopardy — or anything, really — so for that alone, it’s worth having. I taught college English for ten years, which is why I think all college freshmen ought to have this book. It teaches you how to learn and it shows you that the point of learning is the way that new knowledge enlarges your world and changes you, not the knowledge itself. Don’t you wish you’d known that when you were eighteen? I wish I’d known that this clearly last week.

It’s a very funny memoir with a plot, or several, and high stakes: the author’s entire life. It’s a story about figuring things out. It’s about failure. Repeated, abject, public failure. It’s about how new knowledge changes the things you see every day. It makes you burst out laughing and frighten the cat. It’s a page-turner you can’t put down, especially if, like me, you have never followed Jeopardy and you don’t know what happens in the end. Even if you do know how it comes out, you’ll be completely fascinated by this look behind the scenes of the show.

And, in the course of the book, the author outlines the Eightfold Path to Enlightened Jeopardy, which turns out accidentally to be a wise and funny guide to a happier and weirder and far more interesting life.

That’s pretty impressive.

My favorite part is how the author learned more and more and more arcane and far-flung facts to play Jeopardy and how that completely changed the world for him. I’ve never seen a more convincing argument for learning everything you possibly can. You get out of your own skull, outside your limited experience, and discover how much more interesting and complex and wonderful the world is.

You get to the end of the book so excited that you want to jump out of your chair, call all your friends, hug everyone, quit wasting time, and go see the whole world–you want to do every important thing right now!

What a terrific book!

I saw this thing on a bookstore table, registered the fact that it was about Jeopardy! and automatically assumed it was some tawdry inside-dope kind of book — some axe-grinding revenge memoir or something. Instead, it sounds like a book I’d seriously want to read.

I tried to get on Jeopardy! as a contestant about eight years ago and the experience was fun in a mildly surrealistic way.

Even though Merv Griffin had already sold his interest in the show to King World, the audition was held in one of the conference rooms of what was then Griffin’s casino in Atlantic City. I stood with about fifty other people in a hallway lined with blown-up photos of Merv hobnobbing on his old talk show with the likes of Dinah Shore and Joey Bishop — names that would probably have tested the memory-capacity of even the most case-hardened Jeopardy buffs.

The first round was a written test — pretty straightforward questions on a variety of topics. We were then told to go down to the casino floor and wait for the list of names to be read off for the second round. I guess we were supposed to generate a little extra cash for the operation, but I hate gambling and casinos in general so I stood around sipping an overpriced Coca-Cola until I heard my name called off on the list.

The next round came a week later, in an even bigger conference room with a TV set. The voice of Alex Trebek filled the room, reading off answers as they flashed on the screen. The idea was to test our speed at working within the show’s answers-first-then-questions format.

I didn’t make the second cut, and since they didn’t reveal which answers I got wrong I don’t know if I blew it on the Famous Volcanos category or Foods That Start With Q. The next stage, I understand, would have been a dry-run version of the show designed to weed out people who might freeze up when required to think under bright lights and show-biz conditions.

Jeopardy! is the only TV game show I’d want to appear on, and I thought I had a decent shot at it. Whenever I watch it at the gym or the doctors office, I usually win a bundle of imaginary dollars.

Ah well. Maybe another time. Until then, it sounds like reading Prisoner of Trebekistan will be a good substitute.

Heresy time

Wait here while I pull down the shades, turn out the lights and turn up the stereo a bit, just in case anybody’s listening. I wouldn’t want this to get around. Okay, you ready?

Here goes. I really don’t think Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow is all that. If Woody Allen’s Academy of the Overrated ever does get built, Gravity’s Rainbow will get a wing all to itself. In fact, the book itself could serve as the cornerstone to the freakin’ building. I like V and The Crying of Lot 49 just fine, but Gravity’s Rainbow inspires much the same respectful indifference I reserve for Peter Greenaway, whose films similarly demand an appreciation for elaborate games and historical arcana all out of proportion to the meager rewards they offer.

In fact, Greenaway’s films and Pynchon’s post-Gravity’s Rainbow novels share another quality: the reactions they generate are usually far more interesting than the works themselves. Certainly I have read and heard some truly dazzling arguments for why Gravity’s Rainbow is a landmark of twentieth century fiction — so dazzling that when I return to the book for another go-round, Pynchon’s writing seems dim by comparison.

And in that company, this illustrated summary of Gravity’s Rainbow is one of the most dazzling yet.

Passages: Oriana Fallaci

From the introduction to Interview With History, Oriana Fallaci’s 1976 collection of (sometimes belligerent) interviews with notable figures of the time:

Those who determine our destiny are not really better than ourselves; they are neither more intelligent nor stronger nor more enlightened than ourselves. If anything, they are more enterprising, more ambitious. Only in the rarest cases did I have the certainty of finding myself face to face with a person born to lead us or to make us take one road instead of another. But these cases involved men who were not themselves in power; in fact, they had fought it, and fought it at the risk of their own lives. As for those whom I liked or who charmed me in some way, the moment has come to confess that my mind remained reserved and my heart dissatisfied. Deep down I was sorry that they were sitting at the top of the pyramid. Since I was unable to believe them as I would have liked, I could not judge them innocent. So much the less as traveling companions.

Perhaps it is because I do not understand power, the mechanism by which men or women feel themselves invested or become invested with the right to rule over others and punish them if they do not obey. Whether it comes from a despotic sovereign or an elected president, from a murderous general or a beloved leader, I see power as an inhuman and hateful phenomenon. I may be mistaken but the earthly paradise did not end on the day that Adam and Eve were told by God that from now on they would work by the sweat of their brows and bring forth children in sorrow. It ended on the day that they realized that they had a master who tried to keep them from eating an apple, and, driven out over an apple, placed themselves at the head of a tribe where it was even forbidden to eat pork. Of course, to live in a group requires a governing authority; otherwise there is chaos. But the most tragic side of the human condition seems to me precisely that of needing an authority to govern, a chief. One can never know where a chief’s power begins and ends; the only sure thing is that you cannot control him and that he kills your freedom. Worse: he is the bitterest demonstration that absolute freedom does not exist, has never existed, cannot exist. Even if it is necessary to behave as though it existed and to look for it. Whatever the price.

I feel I should warn the reader how much I am convinced of this, and also that apples are born to be picked, that meat can even be eaten on Friday. Still more to remind him or her that to the same degree that I do not understand power, I do understand those who oppose power, who criticize power, who contest power, especially those who rebel against power imposed by brutality. I have always looked on disobedience toward the oppressive as the only way to use the miracle of having been born. I have always looked on the silence of those who do not react or who indeed applaud as the real death of a woman or a man. And listen: for me the most beautiful monument to human dignity is the one I saw on a hill in the Peloponnesus. It was not a statue, it was not a flag, but three letters that in Greek signify No: oxi. Men thirsting for freedom had written them among the trees during the Nazi-Fascist occupation, and for thirty years that No had remained there, unfaded by the sun or rain. Then the colonels had eliminated it with a stroke of whitewash. But immediately, almost magically, the sun and rain had dissolved the whitewash . So that day by day the three letters reappeared on the surface, stubborn, desperate, indelible.

There has been a great swell of tributes to Fallaci since her death. Ironically, the Internet is glutted with praise from conservatives who, a few decades earlier, would have been pronouncing anathema on her for being so skeptical and combative in her talks with leaders like Henry Kissinger. But because she became a militant and rather bigoted critic of Islam in her later years, Fallaci was praised by the likes of David Horowitz, who would otherwise have denounced her as a leftist firebrand.

Reading Interview With History as a teenager, I was electrified by Fallaci’s fearlessness, her utter refusal to bend the knee to the powerful.

While prospecting for links to Fallaci’s books, I noticed that used copies of Interview With History are now going for over thirty bucks apiece on Amazon. No doubt the price will keep rising. A lot of people who never heard of Fallaci are realizing they missed something important. Fortunately, they can now catch up.

Oriana Fallaci

Oriana Fallaci, the great Italian journalist and writer, just died after a years-long fight with cancer. Here is my appreciation of her work.

Listening around

All you poetry-lovers in the New Jersey area should clear your schedules for the Delaware Valley Poetry Festival, conceived by my buddy Nick DiGiovanni and now in its ninth year. Each year, Nick lands a marquee-value poet to headline the event, and this year’s heavy-hitter is Diane Wakoski. The event takes place October 6 in Kingwood Township, near Frenchtown on the banks of the mighty Delaware River. Among the other notable poets will be another buddy, Charles Johnson, whose book Tunnel Vision is a marvel. (He has another book of poetry, Sam’s Place, due out soon.

Buddy Nick’s daughter Emily DiGiovanni, also a fine poet, is the featured writer at Identity Theory, a literary webzine that deserves your clickage.

Bad agents

Via Miss Snark, a list of the 20 worst literary agents as compiled by Writer Beware. I’m happy to say my agent and her agency are not on the list, but then again neither are a couple of my past agents.

Most tyro writers think that landing a literary agent will solve all their problems, that it will magically open all doors and that it will guarantee them sales. Wrong, wrong and wrong again.

Getting an agent does not solve your problems, it merely introduces you to new problems at a higher level, the chief one being: Is this agent the right one for my work? An agent who’s lazy or disorganized, or one who simply doesn’t Get What You Do is worse than no agent at all.

Getting an agent doesn’t magically open all doors, though it does give you a shot at grabbing some doorknobs. One of the crazy-making things about Life On Digital Grub Street is that all the things that would get you through the door in other fields — talent, perserverance, hard work — don’t get you far here. They merely get you a place on line. But you want a place on that line, so you cultivate the talent, you keep plugging at it and you do the hard work. You also do everything you can to get an agent, because anyone who tells you an agent isn’t necessary is pulling your leg. There are isolated incidences of somebody getting a book contract by throwing a manuscript over an editor’s garden wall, or hiring a hooker to wear his book proposal as edible body paint, or by befriending a publisher’s albino snaggle-tooth son, or signing on as an au pair and casually leaving a manuscript under the baby’s nebulizer. If you want to go that route, then vaya con dios, good luck and don’t forget to write, cause we sure ain’t gonna be seeing much of you.

That said, you should also be ready to part ways with an agent if things aren’t working out. It’s a business relationship, after all, and if your agent is a guy who spends his time going to parties while leaving the reading of manuscripts to his subordinates (Do I know such an agent? Oy, I could write a book!) then how is he going to be an advocate for your work?

So don’t be afraid to say goodbye. In fact, just don’t be afraid. But if you were a fearful person, you probably wouldn’t be in this line of work.