Monthly Archives: January 2009

John Martyn

John Martyn performs “May You Never” with Kathy Mattea, Jerry Douglas on dobro,  Danny Thompson on bass. Here’s another great one: “Couldn’t Love You More,” from 1977:

Martyn died Thursday of double pneumonia atthe age of 60 — far  too young an age, though probably older than his hard-drinking ways would have led one to expect. Michael Gray notes his passing, as does Will Hodgkinson.

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Oration ovation

Nordette, a real-live poet, goes to bat for Elizabeth Alexander and her poem “Praise Song for the Day.”

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Rabbit review

A few days ago I noted that while I admired a handful of John  Updike’s novels, I much preferred his nonfiction — especially his book reviews. This excerpt from his collection Picked-up Pieces, suggesting ground rules for book reviewers, is a good example of why:

My rules, shaped intaglio-fashion by youthful traumas at the receiving end of critical opinion, were and are:

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

2. Give enough direct quotation—at least one extended passage—of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy précis.

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.…

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s oeuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in any ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never…try to put the author “in his place,” making of him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys of reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

It’s been a long while since I write criticism on a regular basis — a period in which I broke some of these rules, more than once, and often with great gusto — and while I drop opinions on books in this space from time to time, I find that nowadays I’m more inclined to shrug off a bad book rather than waste any more energy on it. 

As the craft of book reviewing continues to retreat from the realm of newspapers — after all, why would newspapers want to court the interest of people who read? — and reconstitutes itself in the blog realm, I suspect the “praise and share” philosophy will grow. I reserve the right to stomp on a book that’s wasted my time, but as I did with the Approved Authors series, I’d much rather tell people about the books that enriched my time.

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Friday finds


This beautiful thing, partly inspired by this, played a major role in this, and in this, and especially in this. Perhaps you’d like to go on a walking tour

Moscow’s new Metro station will feature Florentine-style mosaics depicting scenes from the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky — including, one presumes, Notes from Underground.

Two great tastes that taste great together: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and flesh-eating zombies. And look, the subject of zombies takes us from Austen to Austin.

The spirit of Monty Python lives on.

The Columbia Journalism Review has launched Page Views, an online book review site that supplements its already hefty dead tree section.

The big guy probably never slept here, but does that stop real estate agents? I ask you.

Benjamin Moser is the successor to the late John Leonard as the “New Books” columnist at Harper’s. Who is Benjamin Moser? The answer is here.

From art-rocker Robert Fripp to hip-hopper Flavor Flav — how many degrees of separation?

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From Flannery to jihadi

Thanks to this David Hajdu piece, I now know about the charming link between writer Flannery O’Connor and songwriter Lucinda Williams:

If you’re going to run around with peacocks, which is what people generally do in the pop-music business, you could have no better training than Lucinda Williams had at the age of five. Her father, the poet Miller Williams, taught college in Macon, Georgia during the late 1950s, and every two or three weeks he would take his daughter on a short drive to visit Flannery O’Connor, who loved peacocks — she had a small flock of them in her backyard and another flock in her writing. O’Connor let the girl chase the magnificent, noisy birds, and Lucinda Williams would for the rest of her life carry a child’s memory of the writer lady and her bizarre pets. After all, to have played with the peacocks in O’Connor’s yard is kind of like having swatted butterflies at Nabokov’s house. 

Continuing our theme of connections: Flannery O’Connor was hostess to the young Lucinda Williams. The older Lucinda Williams recorded a duet with Steve Earle. Steve Earle recorded a song about John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban.” The Taliban are allies and co-religionists of Osama bin Laden. So there’s your path linking Flannery O’Connor, author of Wise Blood and “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” with the author of 9/11.

Come to think of it, Hazel Motes from Wise Blood has more than a bit of Taliban in him, even if he is a Christianist obsessive instead of an Islamist.

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Updike at rest

I can’t say I have much of a strong response to news of the passing of John Updike. To me, his most admirable quality was his relentless productivity, but even that had its flip side. For quite some time, my reaction to any new Updike title was not “Gee, better make time for that one” but, “Huh, a new Updike, has it been a year already?”  

The last time he wowed me was in 1986 with Roger’s Version, a novel about the conflict between faith and science — and, of course, adultery — that gave each side its due, and showcased some impressive authorial knowledge (and research) along the way.

His 1996 novel In the Beauty of the Lilies was hailed as some kind of masterpiece, but I found it practically unreadable — thoroughly grounded research studded with vaguely imagined characters in what was supposed to be a grand historical epic. Many of his later books, such as Brazil or Terrorist, came across as resume-fluffers — novels intended to show off Updike’s continued relevance and artistic vitality, yet proving the opposite.  

I much preferred Updike’s nonfiction essays and reviews, where his affinity for research meshed perfectly with his graceful writing. Updike wore his erudition most lightly when he was reviewing other novels, rather than writing his own. But the “Rabbit” novels and the scandalous early successes like Couples never did much for me, and I’d have to say that of all the big-time 20th century American novelists, Updike had the least impact on me, either emotional or literary.

ADDENDUM: Lance Mannion has more to say on this.

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Dionysian at the Apollo


The noise, building from the back rows of the Apollo Theater, was something like a cross between the rumble of an approaching tsunami and the massed growl of a pack of hungry carnivores. It was the sound fallen gladiators must have heard from the back rows of the Colosseum, just before they got the thumbs-down. It was, in short, the sound of the audience at the weekly Amateur Night competition, booing a performer who had just slipped up.

It didn’t take much to get the people booing. The Amateur Night audience was and is legendary for its high standards, and even the slightest falter in a singer’s voice or a misfired joke from a comedian could bring on a wave of derision. On the night I was there, most of the performers fled at the first rumble of displeasure, clutching the shreds of their self-esteem as they vanished in a cloud of atomized ego. Some doughty souls kept at it, however, convinced they could rally and bring the mob to heel. After a few moments a police siren would sound in the wings and Sandman Sims, dressed as a hobo clown — sometimes toting a toy shotgun, other times an umbrella — would shoo them from the stage.      

Word that tonight’s competition will mark Amateur Night’s 75th birthday stirred a lot of pleasurable memories — for a pretty measly ticket price, I got something like four hours of entertainment, most of it at a level that would have passed for professional anywhere else. I went there in the mid-Eighties, and I had a whale of a time from my front-row seat. The theater might have been named for Apollo, but the riotous audience and cornucopia of talent made for a pretty Dionysian atmosphere.

Some of the acts were clearly thrown in as red meat to appease the crowd. For example, the guy in the business suit and tie, looking like he’d stopped in on his way home from the office, who proceeded to regale the theater with some of the worst scat-singing anyone had ever heard, anywhere. I mean, Pat Buchanan could have done better. David Duke could have done better. Only sheer disbelief delayed the audience’s reaction; once they’d recovered, they hooted with gusto, and the scatter headed offstage grinning like the Cheshire Cat. He’d probably just won an office bet. Ralph Cooper, who at that time still presided over the festivities, strolled out and, after a suitable pause, said, “Man, sometimes it’s hard to tell what some people were thinking.” 

Later that evening I witnessed what could only be described as a heroic, come-from-behind victory plucked from the jaws of disgrace. One singer was an extremely thin, awkward looking man in a gray suit and Malcolm X specs; the other was a rather hefty woman in a beige skirt and blouse who stood about a foot taller. They faced each other and began crooning “Come to Me,” starting off a little stiffly. The man flatted out a bit and the booing started, making him grimace in visible pain. Straining for an emotive note, he bent over and extended a hand, inadvertently coming close to gathering in a fistful of his partner’s ample behind. Sheer terror seemed to improve their performance, however, and they ended up holding the stage and even making it to the first round of culling.

I sat near a late-middle-aged woman (I think her name was Eva) who had attended most if not all of the Wednesday talent contests, and when she liked a performer she would get up and dance against the stage. Midway through Amateur Night, an R&B group called Cameo dropped by to pay their respects to the Apollo and show the crowd they hadn’t forgotten where they’d come from. The group sang “Purple Rain,” and the singer laid down across the lip of the stage so he could sing while looking directly into Eva’s face as she danced.  

I haven’t been back to any other Amateur Nights, though from time to time I would watch a bit of It’s Showtime at the Apollo on TV, which was not even a weak approximation of how much fun a real Amateur Night could be. One used to hear stories of isolated cultures thatrefused to allow pictures to be taken, believing that the cameras stole part of the subject’s soul. Comparing my memories to what I could see on the tube, I had to think those people might have been on to something.

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Ode to a Haggis

So tell me, fellow litterateurs, did you mark the 250th birthday of Scotland’s own Robert Burns by loading a sheep stomach with oats, minced organs, blood and savory herbs and cooking it until the whole mess came bursting out of the stomach lining like an exploding sausage alongside a platter of neeps and tatties?

I’ll take that as a no.

Neither did I, to be honest. Instead I watched this recital of Burns’ “Ode to a Haggis.”

I also contemplated this article about drinking possibilities. I’m sure Burns would have approved.

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Speaking of drinking . . .

This Book Bench columnist and mixologist, deputized to connect literary characters with cocktails, apparently believes that a Sparkling Sunrise would be a good tipple for Holden Caulfield. This passage had me wondering if the mixologist hadn’t been taste-tasting his suggestions before hitting the computer:

How could a tequila sunrise, topped with champagne, possibly find its way to Holden Caufield’s lips? Why would he ever order it in the first place? Unbeknownst to Holden, he has set course for the mythical land of authenticity, a state of presence that has underpinnings in Heidegger, and uber-underpinnings in the Buddha. This well-made cocktail, with its painstakingly assembled ingredients, is the perfect first step on his journey.


My sources tell me that future mixology columns will connect Conan the Barbarian with a Pink Squirrel, Anna Karenina with a Slow Comfortable Screw and Tarzan with a Fuzzy Navel. I’ll keep you posted.

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