Monthly Archives: May 2009

Dave Eggers cares

I’m not being sarcastic. He’s really offering support:

“I actually have established an e-mail address, — if you want to take it down — if you are ever feeling down, if you are ever despairing, if you ever think publishing is dying or print is dying or books are dying or newspapers are dying (the next issue of McSweeney’s will be a newspaper — we’re going to prove that it can make it. It comes out in September). If you ever have any doubt, e-mail me, and I will buck you up and prove to you that you’re wrong.”

Read all about it.

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Friday finds

Berlin WallEven if you’re too young to remember the thrill that ran along the world’s spine when the obscenity of the Berlin Wall was finally erased, you’ll get a lump in your throat reading this piece about the wall, and this reaction to the piece. The picture above, which shows East German soldier Conrad Schumann vaulting over the barbed wire barrier that was the first phase of the wall’s construction in 1961, is one of the most enduring images of the Cold War, but you may be surprised to learn of Schumann’s life after that glorious moment.

Agatha Christie fans who need to develop their upper-body strength can go for the burn with this one-volume edition of the complete tales of Miss Marple, which gathers 12 novels and 22 short stories into a mere 4,032 pages. At a thousand pounds — that’s its price, not its weight — this limited-edition tome will make the mystery fan in your life into a championship arm wrestler. 

W.H. Auden — documentary filmmaker? To say nothing of department store Father Christmas? 

How a forgotten mystery novel by science fiction writer Roger Zelazny came to light.

A trip to Concord. You know — where the grapes come from.

My favorite Manny’s moment of all time was the day I cut school in the middle of the week and walked in and, to my disbelief, saw my HERO, Pete Townshend standing at the back counter talking to Henry. It was the first time I’d ever seen him anywhere other than onstage . . . It’s unimaginative cliché, but, I felt like I was in a dream as I walked up to Pete and Henry . . . just in time to hear, with my own ears, Pete ordering (and this IS verbatim . . . my brain RECORDED it!) . . . ’10 Telecasters, 15 Stratocasters, 5 Jazzmasters, 5 Jaguars, 5 of those Corals, 3 Gibson Stereo 355s . . . ‘ Henry is scribbling furiously, looks up and says, ‘You really ought to try the Gibson SG Special, Pete. It’s the best buy out there.’ Pete chuckled ruefully. . .’ Okay, Henry…spend MORE of my money, three of them too then . . .’ (About two and a half years later, Pete would throw me an SG Special from the stage of The Metropolitan Opera House).”

The foreign language you haven’t learned may in fact be your own

Feeling a little burned by that new Bob Dylan disc? How about downloading some Basement Tapes instead? And while Dylan authority Michael Gray has not yet held forth on the new disc, the auspices aren’t very good

So, one of the key intellectual influences on the development of modern conservatism was . . . a comic strip. Why am I not surprised?

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said is the next Philip K. Dick novel up for a film adaptation. I’m already on record as having been underwhelmed by Richard Linklater’s version of A Scanner Darkly, so let’s see how this one comes out.

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Human writes

The moving finger writes and, having writ, gets a link:

Joe Nassise lists 10 reasons why literary agents are vital. He just broke off with one he’d worked with for seven years. I second everything he says. By breaking off with an unsatisfactory (to him) agent, he also illustrates an important codicil: You have to have an agent, but a bad or unsuitable agent is worse than no agent at all. I’m on my fifth agent. Of the first three, two were good and diligent while the middle one was a lazy hack without a clue. The fourth agent was unenthusiastic about a nonfiction proposal I’d worked up. The fifth agent, my current one, loved the proposal and helped it become my first published book. So be bold.

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The Wednesday Westie


Playfully-preparing-to-pounce-on-another-dog edition.

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Wise Blood

Though I appreciate Criterion DVDs almost as much as I love Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, I’m in no hurry to get the new Criterion edition of Wise Blood, John Huston’s long unavailable 1979 adaptation of O’Connor’s first novel. Forty bucks is a pretty steep price for a single disc package, and while obscurity and Huston’s auteur status have worked to inflate the film’s reputation, the sad fact is that Wise Blood isn’t all that good a movie. 

I’m tempted, though, because Criterion has assembled a better than usual array of extras, chief among them an audiotape recording of Flannery herself reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” a story that still packs a devastating punch. If I succumb, that’ll be the reason, though I’ll probably also get a kick out of the filmed chat with Huston, as reliably entertaining an interview subject as ever sat down before a camera.      

Peripherals and extras are pretty much the only reason to watch Wise Blood.  Huston’s omnivorous taste for fiction led him to adapt a formidable range of novels, and while everyone correctly reveres smashing successes like The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra MadreWise Blood was too slippery and singular a creation for him to grasp. The tale of Hazel Motes, the preacher’s son who sets himself up as the head of the Church Without Christ (“Where the blind don’t see, the lame don’t walk, and what’s dead stays that way”), requires O’Connor’s narrative voice, which is as bone-dry and harshly funny as one would expect from a devout Catholic taking in the South’s cavalcade of exotic Protestant sects. Without that voice, the outward grotesquerie overwhelms the interior subtlety, the humor becomes too broad and cruel. When the story takes its abrupt turn toward Gothic horror, Huston seems to have reconceived Wise Blood as a singularly weird episode of Green Acres in which Eddie Arnold accepts Jesus by burning his own eyes out with lime.       

The curious thing about the film is that while the direction and tone are all wrong, the acting is never less than excellent and sometimes superb, particularly in the case of Brad Dourif’s striking turn as Hazel Motes, which came on the heels of his touching performance as Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. (Regrettably, the sheer weirdness of the Hazel Motes character probably helped typecast Dourif into serial killer and freako roles.) There are also memorable appearances by Harry Dean Stanton, Ned Beatty and Bill Hickey. Amy Wright’s performance as Sabbath Lily is fine enough to make you regret that the screen was less accommodating to her talent than the stage.

But if Hazel Motes preaches the Church Without Christ, John Huston makes Wise Blood the film without Flannery. He found his groove again a few years later, with Prizzi’s Honor and The Dead, but Flannery O’Connor tripped him up. That’s okay: she does it to all of us. That’s what makes her worth reading, even now.

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Golly gee, Mr. B

I’ve already explained the concept of a Bernstein moment. Maybe what occurred to me the other day on the train home should be called a Bradbury moment.

It’s all because I recently re-read Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s novel about a future society in which books and reading are strictly forbidden, but the noisier forms of mass media are all but required. Bradbury’s chief target was television, then still becoming a household fixture when the novel was published in 1953, but his wrath also encompassed transistor radios, which he saw as creating a wall of noise to keep out the real world. Early in the book, the protagnist comes home and anticipates an empty evening with his vapid wife:

Without turning on the light he imagined how this room would look. His wife stretched on the bed, uncovered and cold, like a body displayed on the lid of a tomb, her eyes fixed to the ceiling by invisible threads of steel, immovable. And in her ears the little Seashells, the thimble radios tamped tight, and an electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk and music and talk coming in, coming in on the shore of her unsleeping mind. The room was indeed empty. Every night the waves came in and bore her off on their great tides of sound, floating her, wide-eyed, toward morning. There had been no night in the last two years that Mildred had not swum that sea, had not gladly gone down in it for the third time.  

Trouble is, I was listening to my iPod when this scene occurred to me. I wasn’t wearing Seashells, but imagine the sport Bradbury could have had with the spectacle of people marching down the street with earbuds trailing wires like tendrils from potatoes left too long in the bag.

Does this make me one of the bad guys, Mr. B? Do I get any credit for listening to Melvyn Bragg on my iPod?

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Lucas Davenport for Obama!

Wicked Prey, the nineteenth entry in John Sandford’s broad-shouldered series of thrillers starring Minnesota detective Lucas Davenport, is set in and around the 2008 Republican National Convention. Ingeniously designed and characterized villains are a hallmark of the series, and here Sandford strikes gold by making the villains a murderous gang who arrive in the Twin Cities to rob the various party bagmen attending the convention with payoff money in hand. And while it has no bearing on the plot or the pace of the action, which remain accessible and captivating to all points on the political spectrum, I am relieved to report that at one point we learn that Davenport is sorely put off by John McCain’s choice of a running mate and expects to vote Democratic in the upcoming election.

I say “relieved” because the early titles in the Davenport series played off the sense that the hero was only slightly less crazy than the serial killers he was chasing, but Sandford gradually calmed him down enough to make him plausible as a sane husband and family man. Had Davenport considered Sarah Palin a plausible vice president, we would have had to worry that his hard-won equilibrium might once again be slipping.

Since John Sandford is in real life John Camp, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, I snatched up Wicked Prey hoping for some juicy inside stuff, maybe even some thinly veiled political satire. But that’s not what the Prey books are all about. Sandford isn’t going to turn into Tom Wolfe this late in the game, and Wicked Prey stays true to the series template: fast-moving police procedurals with dialogue as hard-edged as the frequent bursts of violence. Even so, I appreciated the details about the disbursement of street money by political operatives, and the bit of color that has developers allowing GOP aparatchiks to occupy their unsold condos in hopes of winning future business.

The book’s Achilles heel is the subplot involving Letty West, the young girl Davenport brought into his life in Naked Prey. Now a preternaturally brave and resourceful 14-year-old, Letty learns she is being stalked by a pimp with a vendetta against Davenport, and spends the novel turning the tables on him. The trouble is that the pimp never seems remotely credible as a threat, and the girl is more than a match not only for him but his woozy associates as well. It’s not a crippling weakness, but for me it does set Wicked Prey firmly in the second tier novels of the series. It’s a step up from the previous few entries, but it won’t join Secret Prey and Shadow Prey as the books I recomend to people looking to pick up on the Davenport novels.  

As it turns out, you can get more color on the GOP convention from Sandford’s Web site, which showcases some articles Camp wrote for the local print. The heading Gray-Haired Protesters had me fearing the worst, but Camp did the protestors the courtesy of actually speaking with them, and the piece is mercifully free of the usual nostalgic-hippie stereotypes. There is also a handy primer on how to cover a riot and keep from getting trashed by either the police or the rioters, and a just-the-facts chronicle of how a protest march was deliberately led on an exhausting snipe-hunt by the police. Because Camp is still a pro, he leaves the reader to contemplate the balancing act between maintaining order and allowing democracy to function.

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Blue Monday

In honor of Pete Seeger’s recent 90th birthday celebration, here he is as a young (well, youngish) sprout playing “In the Evening” with veteran bluesmen Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, whose country blues repertoire overlapped considerably with Seeger’s folk music. Below, Seeger plays “Down By the Riverside” and “Fighting a Losing Battle” with a considerable boost from Sonny Terry’s harp. The performances are from Rainbow Quest, a mid-Sixties television show Seeger hosted.

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Movie critic cage match!

Roger (Ebert) and John (Simon) and Gene (Siskel) and Ted (Koppel) talk about Return of the Jedi in this 1983 broadcast of Nightline. What I found most amusing about this clash of the titans (aside from the realization that Ted Koppel was getting his hair styled by Betty Crocker even back then) was the spectacle of two critics praising a movie for the wrong reasons while the third panned it for the wrong reasons. And as much as I appreciate Simon’s saber-toothed acerbity, I hooted when he suggested that Tender Mercies would have been a better movie to show your children.

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Friday finds

Time for a Tobias Wolff mini-festival, for no reason other than that he’s one of the all-time champion short story writers and I once had the pleasure of hearing him read his story “Smorgasbord” in Princeton, on a double bill with Robert Stone. Up top he reads an excerpt from his story “The Benefit of the Doubt,” here he sings along with John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats and here he reads Denis Johnson’s story “Emergency” and talks about its qualities with Deborah Treisman, fiction editor of The New Yorker. Wolff’s 1997 book The Night in Question is a perfect, gem-studded introduction to his work; his memoir This Boy’s Life (which was made into a pretty good movie) is also a great read.  

C.M. Mayo’s new novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, gets a great review from Bookslut

How Nineteen Eighty-four killed George Orwell.

Rescuing the work of Hubert Harrison, a pioneering Harlem cultural journalist, from obscurity. 

“Final Shtick,” the opener in Harlan Ellison’s 1961 story collection Gentleman Junkie, is about a Jewish stand-up comedian who returns to Gentleman Junkiehis hometown to accept an award, then punks out on his plan to lacerate the crowd with his memories of the anti-Semitism and cruelty he endured as a child there. Apparently Ellison, an Ohio native, was not tempted to reenact that story. Before anyone tries to paint Ellison as an ogre for turning down the Cleveland Arts Prize, it should be pointed out that the award’s organizers don’t come across as terribly well informed — or even very bright, for that matter. Most of the jury hadn’t heard of Ellison, they asked him for help in selling advertising space, expected him to travel from L.A. to Cleveland on his own dime, and then restrict his remarks to a three-minute window. In short, they came across like a bunch of pishers — a word I know from reading Ellison — so it’s hardly surprising the guy told them to get lost.  

How an academic journal can piss away its hard-won reputation, almost overnight. Perhaps some repercussions are in order.

The journey that I’m speaking of starts with the slave days, when slaves had to dig a hole in an inconspicuous place in the cabin, just to keep the food cool. That’s where they would hide the food. The analogy for me is that this album is my potato hole, it’s where I put my goodies, where I have my stuff stored to keep it cool. But you might use your own imagination and go through the changes from then to now. Now there’s an African-American President of the United States, and we’ve come so far so fast. And it’s a good journey. It’s a good direction for a country to be going in.

An Artist’s Guide to Human Typesaverage physical attributes for people around the world, for sketch artists in need of a quick tutorial.

Having seen Jerry Hall in person, I can attest that she’s even better looking in real life than in her pictures. Turns out we won’t be getting a chance to read her reminiscences about Mick Jagger, Bryan Ferry and others.

I’m not worried about the robot apocalypse, à la or The Matrix. I’m rather more worried about the WALL-E scenario, in which robots do all the work — happily — and people become pudgy balls of flesh lolling about all day without the slightest idea of what to do other than eat pureed food because it’s just too much trouble to chew. This is totally realistic. Hell, I spend more than eight hours a day in front of a computer screen as it is, sucking down Coke Zero and being glad there’s only one flight of stairs between me and my fridge. If I had C3PO to get me my Cokes, I might have already fused into my desk chair by now.”

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