Monthly Archives: October 2007

Sticking point

Henry Petroski, author of the magnificent Engineers of Dreams and recent blurber of this fine book, has a new volume out called The Toothpick: Technology and Culture. T.S. Eliot showed us fear in a handful of dust; Henry Petroski gives us history in a splinter of wood.

Growing up PKD

Most of us have been in a Philip K. Dick frame of mind at one time or another. His daughter, Isa, talks about what it was like to have PKD as a father:

My mother, Nancy Hackett, and he divorced when I was only three and half years old. Nonetheless, I continued to see him until his death. I remember especially his sense of humor. He had a unique way to distance himself. He made me laugh my heart out. And that will remain always there, at the bottom of my heart. All my childhood, I was aware that my father was a writer. However, every time I entered a bookstore, and that I looked for his books, I could not find any. Soon, I had the strange feeling that if one day I ended up seeing one of them, I would also become real.

Like father, like daughter. Here’s the entire interview.

Location, location, location

Shopping for a bosky little getaway in the United Kingdom? You might want to get in touch with Vivian Rees in Chichester, West Sussex:

Rees and her husband now live in a grade II-listed, three-bedroomed thatched cottage built in the 1700s on the remains of a 12th-century leprosy hospital, which later became an alms house for the poor. The cottage, now for sale, incorporates some of the original hospital structure.‘When the lepers died, they buried them in the grounds around what was then the hospital. When the cottage was rebuilt, they did find bodies,’ Rees says.

More than 300 lepers were buried in the grounds at 115 Swanfield Drive – but Mrs Rees says there are no ghosts. Nor is she scared of the large tombstone laid flat in the back garden by the pond. ‘We’ve never tried digging it up,’ she says. ‘We’ve got a big well in the garden as well, but as far as we know, there aren’t any bodies down there either. The history adds to the charm of it. There are definitely no ghosts here – or if there are, they are only friendly ones.’


I’m sure. Still, when the property is listing for the equivalent of about 700 grand in Bushbucks, you might want to keep looking.

Hey, how about this place?

Orchardton House, a massive 50-room mansion in Dumfries, west Scotland, was a hospital for wounded soldiers during the Second World War. And rumour has it that there’s one of them still wandering around.

‘As I understand there was, or is, a ghost that stems back to when it was a military convalescent hospital, although we’re not sure if it was a nurse or a soldier,’ says Nick Wright, from Buccleuch John Sale, the agent selling the property. Wright says he has not seen the ghost, but that there is a room in one of the five spiral turrets which is ‘considerably colder than all the other rooms, no matter what time of year it is. There’s no real explanation for why that is.’

The property, which was built in 1881, is set in five and a half acres of gardens and includes 18 bedrooms and two self-contained flats over four floors. It also has its own cinema. ‘It’s quite austere as a property,’ says Wright. ‘It’s not exactly pretty but very gothicky, which has its own attraction.’

That one’s a bit over a million in Bushbucks, but any house with spiral turrets and its own cinema, along with a chilly haunted room, has something to recommend it.

This has been your Halloween real estate report.

Blue Monday

Lately I’ve been playing a lot of my two favorite Duke Ellington discs: And His Mother Called Him Bill and The Far East Suite. The latter is an unjustly neglected item in the Ellington catalogue, the product of a 1963 goodwill tour of the Middle East that was cut short by the assassination of JFK. Ellington and his right-hand man Billy Strayhorn went home with a new array of tones and colors, which they applied with great subtlety to their jazz orchestra compositions. Here’s a great clip of the suite’s greatest tune: “Isfahan,” a showcase for saxophonist Johnny Hodges.

And His Mother Called Him Bill is the Ellington orchestra’s farewell to Strayhorn, recorded only a few months after his death and filled with the defiant joy of playing the music he helped create. It’s a wonderful, rich record devoted exclusively to Strayhorn tunes, one of which — “Blue Cloud” — was retitled “Blood Count” by Ellington to reflect the medical woes that dogged Strayhorn’s last days. I couldn’t find any good clips, but there is one of “Blue Cloud” performed by the Stan Getz Quartet that should give you an idea of the sound.

The Ted offensive

This review of an upcoming collection of letters by the great poet Ted Hughes confirms something for me: that his unyielding silence about the suicide of Sylvia Plath, broken only by the publication of Birthday Letters just before his death, and his combative stance against ax-grinding scholars eager to go trolling through her journals for evidence of martyrdom, were acts of heroism that should weigh heavily in Hughes’s favor in any accounting of his personal life.

I don’t dismiss feminist scholars, but I’m not the only one who found something rather creepy in the victimization fantasy that swirled around Plath during the 1970s and 1980s, and the way it inflated Plath’s reputation to a degree that her own work did not support. Ariel remains a powerful collection of poems, but The Bell Jar is all but unreadable. Plath was certainly an artist with the potential for greatness, but that potential was cut short by her own hand as she succumbed to her personal demons. Hughes knew that whatever role he played or failed to play in that struggle would be analyzed in great detail after his death; his first and last concern was that his children, already wounded by a horrible loss, would not be further damaged by the literary equivalent of the Kennedy assassination-theory cult:

For Hughes, poetry was a matter of archetypes and of dreams transcribed — the account here, years later, of the dream which inspired ‘The Thought-Fox’ is mesmerising. A powerful spirit, he confidently engaged with the ouija-board which has destroyed less committed minds, and took professional advice from his spirit guide, called Pan. (Apparently, Pan gave him the numbers for the pools draw, one number out from top to bottom). He thought, as these letters and Birthday Letters clearly imply, that poetry, once written, creates as much as inspires a situation, and he may have been right. Crow, that terrifying statement of nihilistic madness, was not, as we all thought, driven by the terrible suicide of his lover Assia Wevill and her murder of their daughter, Shura; it was finished on the day before Assia’s final act.

That belief in immutable dark forces which weren’t, especially, worth trying to understand, just to accept, had good and bad effects on Hughes as a person. At his worst, and silliest, he wrote a long letter to Philip Larkin, a month or two before his death from cancer, telling him all about an Okehampton faith-healer who could cure him: ‘It isn’t absolutely necessary to meet him. All he seems to need is name, details of place — but best of all contact over the phone.’ It is all too easy to imagine what Larkin thought of this suggestion.

But he is seen at his best and most instinctive when dealing with the fall-out from Plath’s suicide. If, in retrospect, the letters written to friends immediately before her suicide seem self-deluding — ‘Sylvia and I are great friends’ — the letters subsequently are utterly clear-sighted. He takes on, even writing to Plath’s mother, what blame is due to him. What concerns him above everything else, especially as the Plath industry over the years takes on a sort of madness, is not that he should not be blamed, but that their children should not be affected. Every literary biographer ought to be required to read his excoriating letter to A. L. Alvarez on the publication of his suicide-enchanted study The Savage God, making Alvarez understand for what petty reasons he was dabbling in the stuff of other people’s souls.

I want to read more about that dream, since “The Thought-Fox” is one of my all-time favorite poems, but I’m not all that sure I want to know more about Hughes’s passion for the ouija board. I think the best time to start poking into information about a writer’s life is after his art stops speaking to you, and The Hawk in the Rain and the black rainbow of Crow still have plenty to say whenever I open them.

Your morning Zappa

It’s a rainy day, there’s a book proposal to finish and paying work beckons. For your dancing and dining pleasure, may I present Frank Zappa and his 1976 performance of “I’m the Slime” on Saturday Night Live, with assistance from Don Pardo? Yes, sprouts, there was a time when SNL was worth staying up for. Zappa enjoyed it so much, he even invited Pardo to join him for a performance of “The Illinois Enema Bandit,” a cross-cultural milestone immortalized on this record.

Science tattoos

Science writer Carl Zimmer has collected some pretty cool ones. This one here would be the ultimate crib sheet for any chemistry student. 

Thompson, again

Jann S. Wenner’s name on an “oral biography” of the late Hunter S. Thompson isn’t the kind of thing that inspires confidence in the quality of the book. Sure enough, this WaPo review doesn’t make me want to run out and buy the book. But then, I’ve never been much of a Thompson fan, and this will tell you why.

Put a cork in it, the nice way

In my never-ending quest for the perfect ten-dollar bottle of red wine — I can’t even imagine what a hundred-dollar bottle would taste like, though I’d be happy to find out on somebody else’s dime — I found, a few years ago, a pretty good cabernet sauvignon from South Africa called Excelsior, which actually cost less than ten bucks a bottle and less still if you bought it by the case at Glendale Liquors, God’s gift to Kendall Park and the rest of central New Jersey.  My imbibulation consultant told me Excelsior was so good that it would have cost twice as much if it hailed from a known wine-producing country, and when I tried it I had to agree.

Oddly enough — to me, anyway — each bottle of Excelsior had a plastic cork, which I could live with. Sometimes the seal was so tight that opening the bottle with a corkscrew entailed more grunting and groaning than an Olympic weight-lifting match, but hey, sometimes you gotta work for the things you love.

After a while, however, the plastic plug was replaced by a screw-on cap. Suddenly, I lost my taste for the wine. Screw-tops brought back too many collegiate memories of New Brunswick derelicts toting their bottles of Night Train and Mad Dog 20/20. I try to avoid the more obvious forms of snobbery, and wine snobbery is about as obvious as you can get, but the screw-top business turned me right off.

Since I don’t read grapezines like Wine Spectator, little did I know that I had unknowingly taken sides in an ongoing war, but I learned better after reading To Cork or Not To Cork, a new book by George M. Taber, a former Time magazine reporter who managed to wring an interesting narrative from the debate over whether traditional corks are preferable to the plastic plugs and screw-tops that make for a more perfect seal. So the screw-cap wasn’t Excelsior being chintzy, it was an attempt to protect the wine. My bad.

Long story short: Taber finds that a more perfect seal doesn’t necessarily benefit the wine, and since the uncorking is for many people a big part of the fun of an evening’s guzzling, sensory pleasure ought to trump other considerations.

Aside from my love for red wine, I was interested in the book because Taber also founded a Garden State business news magazine called NJBiz, sold it a few years ago for a nice piece of change and headed off to New England to age alongside his vintages. While still running NJBiz, Taber was  a regular commentator on New Jersey’s wingnut radio station, where he drew attention with his goofy, whooping sign-off: “New Jersey . . . One-Oh-One . . . POINT . . . FIIIIVE!” I think this new line of his is a lot more palatable than the old one. His subject is certainly a lot easier to swallow than anything put out by WingOhWingPointJive. 

How the other half writes

Assuming a publisher buys my next book proposal, I think I might just want a book party with a fan dancer, or loads of hotties waiting for cameras to be aimed at them, or at least a nice wine tasting session. Until then, however, I console myself with the knowledge that The Last Three Miles is now in its second printing and the publisher is most pleased. So thank you, everyone who bought the book.