Monthly Archives: July 2008

A dime at a time

Ray Bradbury has always been a pretty poor interview subject, even more so as age advances. This talk with Bradbury at Truthdig has some interesting tidbits, assuming you have the patience to sift through all the random crankery. It certainly pointed me to areas I hadn’t known about: e.g., the story of how he wrote Fahrenheit 451 on a rental typewriter in the basement of UCLA’s Lawrence Clark Powell Library, pumping in dimes at regular intervals for nine days. And I never realized how big a debt Arnold Schwarzenegger owes to Bradbury.

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Foreclosing on the Shire

Even hobbits have to keep up the payments on their bank loans.

I’m not sure the idea of a Tolkien-themed housing development would have flown even when the real estate market was at peak froth. I mean . . . thatched roofs in Oregon? Doesn’t sound all that practical to me.

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Bouncing Burke

I don’t know what’s more appealing about this vintage video clip: the coolness of zero gravity, or the utter giggling delight James Burke takes in the experience. I’ve been re-watching portions of my two favorite nonfiction television programs — Burke’s masterful Connections and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man — and found them as exciting and inspiring as ever. I specify “nonfiction” because I extravagantly admire The Wire as a fiction series with some of the best writing ever seen on the tube, about which more anon.

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Blue Monday

I believe it was Gary Giddins who called Johnny Griffin “the last of the Chicago speedballs,” and as the above clip of him performing “56” demonstrates, Griffin could leave most other saxophonists in the dust. But Griffin — who died last week at the age of 80 — had other cards up his sleeze. His 1961 tribute to Thelonious Monk, Lookin’ at Monk with Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, showed everyone a new way to appreciate monk’s artistry, and in later years Griffin’s sound mellowed like an old meerschaum. Tyros should start with Way Out, a 1958 quartet recording that showcases every angle of Griffin’s artistry, and then start exploring.

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Vapor lock

Roger Ebert talks about the time he and Gene Siskel vapor-locked just before an appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, early in their dual career as television’s feudin’ film critics:

We were scared out of our minds. We’d been briefed on likely questions by one of the show’s writers, but moments before airtime he popped his head into the dressing room and said, “Johnny may ask you for some of your favorite movies this year.”

Gene and I stared at each other in horror. “What was one of your favorite movies this year?” he asked me. “Gone With the Wind,” I said. The Doc Severinsen orchestra had started playing the famous “Tonight Show” theme. Neither one of us could think of a single movie. Gene called our office in Chicago. “Tell me some movies we liked this year,” he said. This is a true story.   

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Gotta get me one

Maybe this tres gorgeous Chuck Sperry poster for next week’s Central Park Summerstage reading by Richard Price and Charles Bock is just the kind of thing I ought to be thinking about for my next round of book appearances. I mean . . . god damn.

I don’t know Bock’s work, but I’ve got a complete set of Price first editions on the shelf behind me — legacy of an eager one-sided reading relationship that began when Price’s debut novel, The Wanderers, came out while I was in high school. He floundered around a bit after that attention-getting book, but even at his most unfocused he was a hugely entertaining writer. Then Price reinvented himself as a screenwriter on good, overlooked flicks like the Al Pacino flick Sea of Love, and used the money and cred to head to Jersey City and do the street-level research that inspired Clockers, the novel that put him back on the map.

When David Simon started working on The Wire for HBO, he had the enormous good sense to bring in a triumvirate of top notch novelists for script work: first George Pelecanos, then Dennis Lehane and finally Price, who also did some screen time in the third season as a creative writing teacher giving classes to prisoners. Price’s latest novel, Lush Life, is a marvel, and if I can manage it I’ll be in Central Park for his reading.

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The stuff of legend

Art has no purpose but it has an infinite number of uses, and when politics and nationalism come into the picture, some of those uses are less benign than others. 

On the benign side, we see Elias Lonnrot and his colleagues gathering Finnish legends and folk tales, which Lonnrot then combined into a massive epic, the Kalevala, the publication of which in 1835 fueled the nationalist sentiment that led to Finland’s independence from Russia in 1917.

On the spookier side, we see Richard Wagner invoking “holy German art” at the conclusion of Parsifal in a way that makes it clear the holiness comes not from the art, but from the fact that it is German.

Scholar and historian Jeff Sypeck talks about the capture of Radovan Karadzic and the uses to which Balkan epic poetry have been put by Serb nationalists, and the result is a short essay you really ought to read.

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Gray study

Michael Gray’s Bob Dylan Encyclopedia is now out in paperback, with updates. Everything I said about the hardcover edition still holds.

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TR at work

In Roosevelt: The Story of a Friendship, Owen Wister describes Theodore Roosevelt in 1881, at work on a book:

He finished his Naval History of the War of 1812 mostly standing on one leg at the bookcases in his New York house, the other leg crossed behind, toe touching the floor, heedless of dinner engagements and the flight of time. A slide drew out from the bookcase. On this he had open the leading authorities on navigation, of which he knew nothing. He knew that when a ship’s course was one way, with the wind another, the ship had to sail at angles, and this was called tacking or beating. By exhaustive study and drawing of models, he pertinaciously got it all right, whatever of it came into the naval engagements he was writing about.

His wife used to look in at his oblivious back, and exclaim in a plaintive drawl: “We’re dining out in twenty minutes, and Teedy’s drawing little ships!”

Doing research and writing while standing sounds pretty tough, but I guess that’s what made TR the man he was.

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