Monthly Archives: June 2007

Help from Harry

I think snobbery is its own best punishment, because it walls the afflicted snob off from the very things that could improve his life by curing his affliction. Instant karma.

For that reason, I merely chuckle when the likes of Harold Bloom and A.S. Byatt look down from Parnassus and heave lightning bolts at the Harry Potter novels because — well, why exactly do they want to get all Voldemort on Harry? When Byatt sniffs that J.K. Rowling’s sprawling creation “has no room for the numinous,” I think she’s speaking from a viewpoint so personal and idiosyncratic that it leaves room only for snobs with exactly the same preoccupations as A.S. Byatt — a very small room indeed.It doesn’t qualify as criticism because Byatt certainly hasn’t bothered to come to grips with the shrewdness of J.K. Rowling’s method, which is to treat the education of young witches and wizards in prosaic terms — Tom Brown’s School Days with magic wands. The effect, paradoxically, is to reinforce the fantasy element. That’s why the Harry Potter movies, even the better ones, run so far behind the books — the oh-the-wonder-of-it-all music and the big money effects shots undermine the core strengths of Rowling’s storytelling.

When the Blooms of the world sneer that there are so many other better books for all those children to be reading, I can’t help thinking that it’s utterly pointless to argue that reading Five Children and It is somehow more improving for kids than poring over Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. My world is big enough for both E. Nesbit and J.K. Rowling, and if that’s not the case for Bloom, it’s his problem.

We all start somewhere. We fixate on certain books and stories because they give us something we didn’t know we needed until we encountered them — something we often can’t articulate even to ourselves. I knew Henry Huggins and Pippi Longstocking before I met Alice or Milo, but the meeting did come about. If my kids follow that path, great. If they don’t, then the larger concerns underlying Rolwing’s hocus pocus — friendship, loyalty, morality, the nature of power, kindness — are still solid enough to make me happy they’re spending time with Harry.

Michael Berube, whose world appears at least a bit roomier than Bloom’s, talks about some of these things in his (PDF!) essay “Harry Potter and the Power of Narrative,” and his insights are given that much more oomph by the fact that he’s raising a boy with Down syndrome, a boy whose own world has been made considerably larger by immersing himself in the doings at Hogwarts. It’s a charming and touching article that will repay your attention.

Of course, if you’re interested enough in the subject to have read this far through my rambling blog post, then Berube’s lessons may seem old hat. I just hope that Berube’s academic credentials will lead some of his colleagues to read the piece — they’re in need of the instruction.

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Beaucoups of Beowulfs

One of these days, when I finish and post the last two installments of “The Greatest Swordfight Movies of All Time,” I’ll get around to the long awaited “Beowulf Translation Cage-Match Smackdown,” in which various translations will square off against Seamus Heaney’s award-winning rendition. Boy, that’ll get my Site Meter whirring, you just wait and see.

All I can say in my defense is that the ancient poem Beowulf has fascinated me for decades (along with the Icelandic sagas) and the fixation extends to the movies based on the story. The most recent,Sturla Gunnarsson’s Beowulf and Grendel, was a pretty worthwhile revisionist take on the story. I have no idea what the CGI-intensive adaptation coming in November from Robert Zemeckis is going to be like — nothing like 300, please God — but this collection of advance posters is, shall we say, intriguing. Scroll down to the bottom for an image of what I presume is Grendel’s gnarly back. And Angelina Jolie is playing Grendel’s mother? I look forward to hearing the explanation for that.

Unknown legend

Carrie Stetler at the Star-Ledger does an outstanding job of bringing to light the work of John A. Williams, whose novels should have earned him a place alongside Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright in the pantheon of African-American writers. Instead, he’s living in obscurity in Teaneck, N.J., with a severely ill wife and the prospect of Alzheimer’s disease whittling away at his mind. It’s an exceptionally thorough story, with descriptions of key novels such as The Man Who Cried I Am and Clifford’s Blues, and praise from the likes of Ishmael Reed. It’s a sad story, but also an illuminating one, and it may just inspire you to do the one best thing anyone can do for a writer — read him, and remember him.

Blue Monday

To salute the imminent publication of Michael Gray’s Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes: In Search of Blind Willie McTell, here are some clips of Bob Dylan performing “Blind Willie McTell,” the buried 1980s masterpiece that could have helped rescue Dylan’s Infidels album from the also-ran category that applies to just about all of his 1980s releases. The tune finally surfaced with the release of the first installment of The Bootleg Series, and a still-unreleased electric version can be found on Rough Cuts, the bootlegged outtakes from the sessions that produced Infidels.   

I’ve already sung Gray’s praises on a number of occasions, and many Dylan fans found their way into McTell’s towering blues legacy through Gray’s great essay in Song and Dance Man. I’m sorry to say that none of the Dylan performances available on YouTube — this 2000 rendition from Cardiff, this 2003 version from London or this 2006 performance from Roskilde — can hold a candle to Dylan’s original recorded performance in The Bootleg Series. Mick Taylor, one of the two hired guitar guns on Infidels, actually cuts his former boss dead with this 2006 concert version

There doesn’t seem to be any film available of McTell himself in performance, so here’s a clip of the Allman Brothers doing their signature cover of McTell’s “Statesboro Blues,” which has probably introduced a couple of generations to the work of the great Georgia bluesman. Here’s a link to an annual festival in McTell’s honor, and a good biography of McTell on BluesNet. 

Listeners’ choice

Columbia Records is doing a Dylan compilation album in which the tunes will be selected by Dylan fans. Cast your vote for a song here.

All things Filboid


How many times have I seen Baseball Bugs, the 1946 Bugs Bunny cartoon in which Bugs squares off against a baseball team called the Gas-House Gorillas? And how many times have I taken in the joke advertisements lining the walls of the baseball stadium?

So why did it take me this long to notice that one of the ads is for something called Filboid Studge? I knew the Warner Brothers animators at Termite Terrace were a smart bunch, but extra kudos are in order for the gag writer who managed to work in a nod to Saki, aka Hector Hugh Munro.

“Filboid Studge” isn’t as well known as “Sredni Vashtar” and “Mrs. Packletide’s Tiger,” but it’s easily as blackheartedly amusing as either of those Saki classics. The situation is simple: a commercial artist asks for permission to marry his employer’s daughter. The employer agrees, for his company is about to go bankrupt trying to market a foul-tasting breakfast cereal called Pipenta, and he wants to get his daughter married off before the family finances collapse. To show his gratitude, the artist drafts a top to bottom rebranding of Pipenta as a health product called Filboid Studge:

No one would have eaten Filboid Studge as a pleasure, but the grim austerity of its advertisement drove housewives in shoals to the grocers’ shops to clamour for an immediate supply. In small kitchens solemn pig-tailed daughters helped depressed mothers to perform the primitive ritual of its preparation. On the breakfast-tables of cheerless parlours it was partaken of in silence. Once the womenfolk discovered that it was thoroughly unpalatable, their zeal in forcing it on their households knew no bounds. “You haven’t eaten your Filboid Studge!” would be screamed at the appetiteless clerk as he turned weariedly from the breakfast-table, and his evening meal would be prefaced by a warmed-up mess which would be explained as “your Filboid Studge that you didn’t eat this morning.” Those strange fanatics who ostentatiously mortify themselves, inwardly and outwardly, with health biscuits and health garments, battened aggressively on the new food. Earnest spectacled young men devoured it on the steps of the National Liberal Club. A bishop who did not believe in a future state preached against the poster, and a peer’s daughter died from eating too much of the compound. A further advertisement was obtained when an infantry regiment mutinied and shot its officers rather than eat the nauseous mess; fortunately, Lord Birrell of Blatherstone, who was War Minister at the moment, saved the situation by his happy epigram, that “Discipline to be effective must be optional.”

I’m not the only one with Filboid on the brain: here’s a Los Angeles animation artist’s site that boasts some eye-catching graphics.

Book people

So the initial round of book publicity for The Last Three Miles ended on a high note tonight with a very satisfactory reading at The Raconteur, a great used bookstore on Main Street in Metuchen. (I’ll be doing more events all summer, including an early July appearance on the Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC, about which more anon.)

I’ve been trying to balance independent bookstores with chain bookstores, and The Raconteur was one of the independent places I most wanted to visit. Alex Dawson and John McKelvey have been working hard to make their joint the center of a local literary scene, and their efforts are starting to pay off. Tonight’s event drew about fourteen people who sipped wine and chatted before Yours Truly took the podium (a music stand and a stool, to be precise) to regale them with stories of murder, mayhem and traffic engineering.

I spoke with Alex afterward and he talked about his ambitions for the store, and how he’s networking with other independent bookstores around the world, such as Atlantis Books, a labor-of-love on the Greek island of Santorini. If you check out The Raconteur site, you’ll find all kinds of events for the bookish and the adventurous. It’s a nice place to visit, and you might even want to live there.

Today’s Quote

Andrew O’Hagan, speaking at the opening night of the Sydney Writers’ Festival in Australia:

Literature is not Lifestyle – it is Life. It is the news that stays news. For his demonstration of man’s intricate lust for power and war, Homer’s Iliad is the news that stays news. For his wild jokes at the expense of man’s seriousness, Rabelais is the news that stays news. For his insight into vanity, history and the state, Shakespeare is the news that stays news. For her intuition about the threat of industry and science, Mary’s Shelley’s Frankenstein is the news that stays news. For his knowledge of character and his love of the human heart, James Boswell’s great biography is the news that stays news.  For the scope of evolution and the nature of our genes, Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species is the news that stays news. For his sense that each man is more than one person, Robert Louis Stevenson is the news that stays news. For his feeling that illusion is a sad and romantic and persistent force in our lives, F. Scott Fitzgerald is the news that stays news. For the struggle of man in the face of the unknowable pressure of totalitarianism, the novels of Franz Kafka are the news that stays news. For her beautiful and expensive evocation of the fragility of the human mind and its imaginings, the writings of Virginia Woolf are the news that stays news. For their sense of modern man in the face of the absurd, Samuel Beckett and Albert Camus are the news that stays news. For their bids for sexual freedom, Oscar Wilde and Tennessee Williams and Janet Frame are the news that stays news. For their love of argument and their vivid passion for the soul, Saul Bellow and Joseph Brodsky and Gunter Grass and David Malouf and Seamus Heaney are the news that stays news. The hundreds of writers here in Sydney this week are busy each with the news that stays news. In their company we have what we need, for they help us to live our lives. That is what literature does – it not only makes experience survive, but it makes life itself surviveable and most beautiful. 

There’s plenty more — it’s quite a speech. The description of life in a bookless house is pretty funny, too. And everything he says about tragedy and terrible deeds being rooted in the failure of imagination strikes a deep chord.

Blue Monday

When it comes to footage of the harmonica master Little Walter, there is indeed Very Little Walter. This performance, which appears to have been taken from an American Folk Blues Festival tour from the early 1960s, shows Little Walter playing sideman to Hound Dog Taylor on “Wild About You Baby.” It’s a perfectly good performance (Hound Dog Taylor himself is a topic for further study) but what one wouldn’t give for Little Walter performing “Juke” or one of his other hits.

Father knows best

So Sean Connery won’t be taking up the tweeds once again to play Henry Jones Sr. in the next Indiana Jones movie. He says “retirement is too damned much fun” and will limit his involvement to seeing the movie when it opens next summer.

I’m not so sure I’ll be joining him. I was flat on my back sick for most of the week; one night I fell asleep watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and dreamt that I was trapped inside one of the big drums during an orchestral performance of the 1812 Overture. Can John Williams write any music that isn’t scored for marching bands, jackhammers and drill presses? Like the Bond series it supplanted during the 1980s, the Indiana Jones series lost its fizz in a hurry and tried to compensate by amping up the noise. If I want good Bond, I rent out Goldfinger, and when I wanted to give my oldest a taste of Indiana Jones, I went for the first one, when all the huggermugger seemed fresher and getting trapped in an Egyptian tomb with Karen Allen sounded like the start of a great weekend.

Having said that, I’ll add that Connery’s mid-movie arrival in The Last Crusade was a much-needed jolt of oxygen, if only because the idea of Indiana Jones being treated like a backward kid was pretty funny in itself. We may also give thanks to Connery for demanding that his role be rewritten away from the original script’s standard-issue Yoda/Obi-Wan gasbag that stands in for wisdom in movies associated with George Lucas and Steve Spielberg. Connery saw Henry Jones Sr. as standing tall in the tradition of eccentric British expeditioners, and forcing that idea into the script rescued a movie that would have been just another rattling collection of Big Action Scenes.

Anyway, the next Indiana Jones flicks is supposed to have a young stud playing Indiana Jr. Jr., and Connery has already played the grandfather in a multi-generational picture: Family Business. That’s the flick in which we were supposed to believe that Dustin Hoffman was Sean Connery’s boy, and Matthew Broderick was Dustin Hoffman’s kid. Not quite as plausible as having Yul Brynner play Cedric Hardwicke’s lad in The Ten Commandments. I’ve heard about thinning gene pools, but getting from Sean Connery to Ferris Bueller in only two generations is pretty scary.