Monthly Archives: May 2007

Walking with giants

A couple of months ago, writer Elatia Harris introduced us to Royal de Luxe, the extraordinary French street theater group that tells simple, childlike stories with immense marionettes. This week she describes what she saw in Iceland, where the troupe touched down with a story tailor-made for a place that is always being remade by molten lava, and where the ancient sagas are as much a part of the landscape as geysers and hot springs. The story comes with gorgeous photos of the gorgeous place, adding yet another dimension to a remarkable pair of essays.

Don’t ask me why

The other day, somebody found his way to this blog by using the search term “Susanne Benton naked.” As the sage Billy Joel once said, don’t ask me why. Whoever and wherever you are, dude, I hope you found your goal.

Lloyd Alexander

Lloyd Alexander, author of the six-book Chronicles of Prydain series (from which Disney drew The Black Cauldron) died last week at the age of 83. This quote offers one of the keys to the quality that made his work superior:

I used the imaginary kingdom not as a sentimentalized fairyland, but as an opening wedge to express what I hoped would be some very hard truths. I never saw fairy tales as an escape or a cop-out. . . . On the contrary, speaking for myself, it is the way to understand reality.

I read the Prydain books at a fairly early age, and they make for a very interesting contrast with Evangeline Walton’s takes on the same source material — the Welsh folk tales collected as The Mabinogion. Like Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea novels, the Prydain books are the natural next step for young readers looking for somewhere else to go after Harry Potter.

Passages: Clive James

From Cultural Amnesia, a collection of biographical essays by Clive James:

Mechanisms of influence are hard to trace. Writers tend to think that the way they write was influenced by literature, and of course scholars make a living by following that same assumption. But a writer’s ideal of a properly built sentence might just as well have been formed when he was still in short pants and watched someone make an unusually neat sandcastle. He might have got his ideals of composition, colour and clean finish from a bigger boy who made a better model aeroplane. To the extent that I can examine my own case of such inadvertently assimilated education, I learned a lot about writing from watching an older friend sanding down the freshly dried paint on his motorbike so that he could give it another coat: he was after the deep, rich, pure glow. But for the way I thought prose should move I learned a lot from jazz. From the moment I learned to hear them in music, syncopation and rhythm were what I wanted to get into my writing. And to stave off the double threat of brittle chatter and chesty verve, I also wanted the measured, disconsolate tread of the blue reverie. Jazz was a brimming reservoir of these contending qualities. Eventually I was listening to so much classical music that I left jazz aside, but I never for a moment thought that I had left it behind.

If I ever need a quotation on how writing can be influenced and affected by the unlikeliest things, that passage will be my first choice. James has a real gift for aphorism, and Cultural Amnesia is full of little gems of summation and description. The trouble is, getting to them is like digging through a huge box full of styrofoam peanuts.

The passage quoted above is emblematic of the book’s strengths and weaknesses. It comes from an essay that is ostensibly about Louis Armstrong, but mostly about whether Bix Beiderbecke and Benny Goodman were as good at playing jazz as black musicians, and whether Fred Astaire’s dancing was as compelling as the footwork of Bojangles Robinson. (The short answer, to end the suspense, is yes all around.) Satchmo can barely get his foot in the door while James charts the rise and fall of his own listening habits, and muses on the terrible ways that racism distorted the careers of black artists. All true, and yet once the curtain comes down, we are left with the feeling that Armstrong has been kept offstage by the man who stood up to introduce him.

I’m all for loose, discursive essays with room for interesting asides, but far too often James loses the thread of his own writing as he goes frisking off after pet peeves and fond remembrances. His essay on Marcel Proust, for example, is really about Jean-Francois Revel and the supposedly shrewd things Revel said in his book about Proust, which I will certainly want to read one of these days but which I suspect appeals to James mostly because Revel’s politics do as well.

Similarly, the essay on Rainer Maria Rilke barely gets going before James, spurred by Rilke’s shrewd observations on the nature of fame, starts blatting about how Marion Davies should be remembered for her talent rather than her role as the inspiration for Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane, and how Bertolt Brecht was a dreadful man and an inferior poet. Again, while everything I’ve read about Brecht makes him sound like a mutt — I think it was Ezra Pound who said that not only was Brecht the only man who deserved capital punishment, he was also the only man Pound himself would like to carry out the sentence upon — we end up hearing less about Rilke than we would have liked.

James’s long-windedness amusingly undercuts itself in the essay about Albert Camus, which approvingly quotes a line from The Rebel — “Tyrants conduct monologues above a million solitudes” — and then goes on at tedious length about the tedious speeches given by Hitler, Stalin and Mao. Having finished James’s drone about droning, we are left to muse on the fact that Camus needed only seven words to convey what James needs to pound at for seven pages.

Part of the problem with Cultural Amnesia — a big part of the problem, actually — is that it comes freighted with ambitions that cannot be supported by collection of short pieces and knock-offs. Each of these essays is supposed to use the subject as an object lesson in the defense of liberal humanism against totalitarian ideologies. This works well when James is evoking the cafe intelligentsia of Austria in the years before the Anschluss, but it becomes hilarious when James throws in celebrity appreciations of Tony Curtis and W.C. Fields, and groaningly tedious when James derails a salute to Beatrix Potter in order to denounce Soviet children’s books.

The rest of the problems lies in the fact that Clive James, while formidably well-traveled and well-versed in languages and literature, is at bottom a middlebrow snob — often an amusingly fatuous one. No madeleine crumb falls from Proust’s table without exciting his wonder and awe, but he groans like a bored high school student over Herman Melville’s philosophical musings in Moby-Dick. James is also howlingly ignorant of science and all too ready to convict it of complicity in the mass murders that defined the 20th century:

The future of science, Renan’s cherished avenir de la science, can be assessed from our past, in which it flattened cities and gassed innocent children: whatever we don’t yet know about it, one thing we already know is that it is not necessarily benevolent. But somewhere within the total field of human knowledge, humanism still beckons to us as our best reason for having minds at all.

Spoken like a true creative writing student who just flunked his physics exam! Here’s another ripe piece of intellectual cheese:

Science lives in a perpetual present, and must always discard its own past as it advances. (If a contemporary thermodynamicist refers to the literature on phlogiston, he will do so as a humanist, not as a scientist. Nor did Edwin Hubble need to know about Ptolemy, though he did.) The humanities do not advance in that sense: they accumulate, and the past is always retained. The two forms of knowledge thus have fundamentally different kinds of history. A scientist can revisit scientific history at his choice. A humanist has no choice: he must revisit the history of the humanities all the time, because it is always alive, and can’t be superseded.

A pity that James, who includes Tacitus among his list of notables, did not cook up a profile of Isaac Newton, who wrote in a letter to another scientist that “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Scientists carry their history wherever they go, simply because they want to avoid repeating its mistakes; writers and artists are forever reinventing the wheel — it’s part of their charm. No scientist would talk about phlogiston as anything but an antique theory, tested and discredited by other scientists. Clive James, on the other hand, is exactly the sort of humanist who might still be impressed by it.

Plenty of mushy thinkers blame science for the horrors of Hitler and Stalin, as though anti-Semitism had not existed before there were trains, as though the czars had not been equally careless and vicious with the lives of their subjects, as though the decay of the old European monarchies had not set loose poisons in the political and cultural bloodstream of the world. Worldwide cataclysm was launched from Germany, the land of Goethe and Beethoven, and Italy, the wellspring of classical civilization.

I recommend that Clive James read Jacob Bronowski and learn that the gap between the two cultures is not as vast and unbridgeable as he thinks.

Blue Monday

Harmonica master Charlie Musselwhite did very well for himself at the recent Blues Music Awards, so here he is playing “Black Water” and “Blues for Yesterday.” They might seem a little sedate, though I do like the menacing undertone to “Black Water,” which is Musselwhite’s response to the devastation of New Orleans. So if you’re in the mood for something a little harder, check out the playing on this blues harmonica blowout from a couple of months ago. If anybody has a YouTube link for “Christo Redemptor,” Musselwhite’s recasting of a Duke Pearson track, please send it on.

Say it ain’t so!

Mis Snark, the literary agent whose blog has been one of my regular stops for the past two years, is hanging up her clue gun and riding off into the digital sunset. Talk about harshing out the weekend. She says she’s leaving the blog up so people can explore the archives. If you’re a writer, published or unpublished, looking for sound advice on how to do things in a professional way that will conduce to your work getting noticed and published, you should make it your business to poke around in there.

There’ll always be an England

I know English cooking is supposed to have gotten better, now that the former subjects of the empire have reverse- conquered it with their local cuisines. I can attest that the near-universal availability of decent curry and similar items allows one to travel England’s green and pleasant lands without having to order toad in the hole, grease-slathered spuds or any of the other menu items that made Brit cooking famous.

But this thing looks like a perfect horror to me, and I’m not even a vegetarian. If simply looking at a picture could ever plug your arteries, this should do the trick.

One landmark to another

Studs Terkel’s birthday inspired a lot of commentary. This piece by Roger Ebert, another Chicago-based journalistic institution, is one of the best I’ve seen. 

You? Meme? Us?

Marydell at Bookblog snuck up and slapped The Eight Things Meme on my back when I wasn’t looking. Now I must share eight random facts about myself before spreading the meme to eight other unwary targets.

1. My first child was born to the sound of Ella Fitzgerald singing “Easy to Love.” We had a boombox set up on a chair near the bed during delivery. The song’s title proved prophetic.

2. I’m allergic to cats and many species of dogs. While interviewing a woman in Liberty Corners for a New York Times story about people who live in historic houses, I met a woman who kept a West Highland White Terrier. Until then I never knew there were dogs that were potentially acceptable for people with allergies. So now I have a couple of Westies to warn me whenever there are squirrels and other dogs in the neighborhood.

3. I only watch broadcast TV shows when they turn up on DVD. I’ll make an exception once in a while, but as a general rule I only use the TV for movies and programs on DVD or videocassette. Dropping television freed up an amazing amount of time for other things.

4. The first time I visited Los Angeles, I wanted to see the Watts Towers right away. Jacob Bronowski talked about them on his show The Ascent of Man, and that led to the obsession.

5. I’m a fearful snob about Bob Dylan bootleg recordings. Really — I’m completely insufferable on the subject. Catch me in the right frame of mind and I can be God’s own bore on the relative merits of the original version of Blood on the Tracks.

6. I think “Je Ne Regrette Rien” is a good song but nonsense as a philosophy. If you’ve had any kiind of life at all, you have regrets.

7. I’ve been to Kazakhstan and it’s nothing like Borat. But you knew that already. About the movie, I mean.

8. The first time I visited England, as soon as I had some time on my own, I made a beeline for Samuel Johnson’s house on Gough Square. I even had lunch next to the statue of Hodge. If that makes me a lit snob, cool.   

9. I like to think outside the box.

Now then! Who shall wear the meme next?

1. Hey Joe, where you going with that CD in your hand?

2. Ron, here’s a subject you can get really animated about.

3. Don’t look now, Tami, but this is the price you pay for that shiny new link on The Opinion Mill.

4. Geoff, now that you’re rid of that ghost, here’s something new to haunt you.

5. You can run, Mark, but you can’t hide from this meme.

6. Goddess, dahlink, you knew I wouldn’t forget you.

7. We already know you’re a poet, Hank, so you still have to come up with the full eight.

8. Sorry about the Blogger’s Choice thing, Schad, but I did my part.

Studs speaks!

Studs Terkel turned 95 today. They’re throwing a party for him in Chicago, and everybody’s invited:

CHICAGO — When he talks about outlasting pretty much everybody, Studs Terkel likes to turn a phrase about death on its ear.

“Curiosity did not kill this cat,” he said Tuesday.

On Wednesday, the Chicago icon who turned his own curiosity about the famous and infamous — but mostly the anonymous — into a career unlike any other in the history of journalism turns 95.

The longtime publisher of Terkel’s books, The New Press, will mark the day with a party in Chicago, and is inviting book stores around the country to host their own events.

“At this point he is like a historical monument as far as America is concerned,” said Andre Schiffrin, founder of The New Press, who has been editing Terkel’s books for more than 40 years. Terkel’s memoir, Touch and Go , will be released in November.

Schiffrin’s company also has set up a Web site devoted to Terkel,, where visitors can see a playlist of his favorite music, favorite martini recipe and even buy a pair of red socks like the ones he famously wears.

For his part, Terkel sounds a bit embarrassed by all the hoopla, which includes a plan for a skywriter to wish him a happy birthday over Chicago.

“I can’t avoid it, of course,” said Terkel, when asked about the celebration.

For Terkel’s friends and admirers, though, this birthday is an opportunity to celebrate the life of someone who is much more than the feisty old white-haired man in the red checkered shirt and red socks.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and oral historian became famous for allowing thousands of ordinary people to tell their own stories about how they got through the Great Depression, World War II and even their own work day and what they thought about everything from race to dying.

“Studs shined a light on the kinds of people that most people look right through: the waitress, the truck driver,” said Rick Kogan, a Chicago Tribune writer and longtime friend.

Terkel said he simply wanted to satisfy his own curiosity and find an answer to one simple question: Who are these other people we never read about?

“My discovery was people needed to be needed by others, need to count; that’s the word,” he said.

Here’s Studs Terkel on oral history. Studs Terkel on afternoon ballgames. Studs Terkel on Carl Sandburg. This land is Studs’ land. The Studs Terkel Media Awards.