Monthly Archives: October 2009

Cold print

This time of year I usually re-read Ray Bradbury’s The October Country because . . .  well, do I really need to explain why? But Jonathan Lethem is looking ahead to winter with a list of his favorite icy books.

Can’t argue with any of his choices: the four I know are all stellar reads and the one I don’t know — Vladimir Sorokin’s Ice — sounds worthwhile. Cat’s Cradle remains my favorite Kurt Vonnegut novel, though not until Lethem pointed it out did I realize that Vonnegut preceded his novel about the Dresden firestorm, Slaughterhouse-Five, with an apocalyptic tale that shows life snuffed out by a jacket of ice. Interesting. Ice-Nine, a substance so dangerous that its mere existence threatens the world, remains one of the most powerful metaphors of the nuclear age.

A Simple Plan has been overshadowed by Sam Raimi’s film adaptation, but that opening chapter remains a model of how to set the stage for a moody thriller. And as much as I admire Deliverance, To the White Sea is the James Dickey novel that deserves to be better known.

If I were going to expand Lethem’s list, I might add Peter Hoeg’s novel Smilla’s Sense of Snow, which I’ve blogged about before, and Anna Kavan’s novel Ice, a surrealistic work in which civil war and an encroaching ice age serve as the background (and, sometimes, a terrifying foreground) to an three-way relationship in which the players — a nameless woman, her obsessive pursuer, and her abusive husband — play out appropriately frozen roles.

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Listen up

A podcast on the pitfalls of publishing yourself.

Don’t believe in writer’s block? Don’t tell that to Nicholson Baker.

Discussing (and, one hopes, dispelling) myths about Nietzsche.

A talk on the difference between plot-driven and character-driven fiction.

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Blue Monday

David Hajdu’s profile of jazz eminence Wynton Marsalis — collected in Hajdu’s  new book, Heroes and Villains: Essays on Music, Movies, Comics, and Culture — has this wonderful description of a you-had-to-be-there moment when Marsalis was playing with saxophonist Charles McPherson at the Village Vanguard:

The fourth song was a solo showcase for the trumpeter . . . a ballad, “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You,” unaccompanied. Written by Victor Young, a film-score composer, for a 1930s romance, the piece can bring out the sadness in any scene, and Marsalis appeared deeply attuned to its melancholy. He performed the song in murmurs and sighs, at points nearly talking the words in notes. It was a wrenching act of creative expression. When he reached the climax, Marsalis played the final phrase, the title statement, in declarative tones, allowing each successive note to linger in the air a bit longer: “I don’t stand . . . a ghost . . . of . . . a . . . chance . . .” The room was silent until, at the most dramatic point, someone’s cell phone went off, blaring a rapid sing-song melody in electronic bleeps. People started giggling and picking up their drinks. The moment — the whole performance — unraveled.

Marsalis paused for a beat, motionless, and his eyebrows arched. I scrawled on a sheet of notepaper, MAGIC, RUINED. The cell-phone offender scooted into the hallway as the chatter in the room grew louder. Still frozen at the microphone, Marsalis replayed the silly cell-phone melody note-for-note. Then he repeated it, and began improvising variations on the tune. The audience slowly came back to him. In a few minutes he resolved the improvisation, which had changed keys once or twice and throttled down to a ballad tempo, and ended up exactly where he had left off: “. . . with . . . you . . .” The ovation was tremendous.

I’ll bet it was. “I Don”t Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You” was written in 1932, and it’s been irresistible to instrumentalists and vocalists alike. The clip above is from trumpeter Clifford Brown, and here’s Frank Sinatra wringing a few tears from the words:

And now here’s Illinois Jacquet:


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The Bob Dylan-Perry Como Christmas special

Apologies to anyone who has nightmares tonight because of that headline, but I think that’s the organizing principle behind Bob Dylan’s new one, Christmas in the Heart. It’s been almost forty years since His Bobness released an album as conceptually brilliant, artistically confident, and virtually unlistenable as Self Portrait, and now that Dylan has done the trick — and I’ve done my bit for charity by buying it — I want to mark the occasion with a few words before shelving the thing.

Greil Marcus, the eminence grise of deep-dish Dylanology, pre-empted any thoughts of doing a one-liner review of Christmas in the Heart by by opening his review of Self Portrait with “What is this shit?” But the concept behind Self Portrait was very astute: if we build our identities from the things we like, then why shouldn’t Bob Dylan reveal himself through the songs he liked?

And if Christmas is the most nostalgic of holidays, a time for family get-togethers and the observance of traditions, then why shouldn’t Dylan style the musical settings for his Christmas album after the crooners of his childhood, and those Yuletide television specials featuring blanded-out whitebread singers on overlit sets, dazzling the TV camera with wide, preternaturally bright smiles? In other words, why shouldn’t Bob Dylan put out a Perry Como holiday record?

I realize you can instantly think of a thousand reasons why you wouldn’t want to hear Dylan wheezing along with King Family-style backup singers,  but that’s the kind of stuff television sets beamed into households during Dylan’s youth, and Christmas brings out the child in all of us, right? The title alone revives the memories of all those Hallmark Hall of Fame TV specials that time and post-traumatic stress disorder had buried somewhere back behind my medulla oblongata. As one whose childhood occurred on the tail end of that era, I could recognize all the nostalgia zones Dylan was working in, and I acknowledge the intent even as I shake my head at the result.

Though by no stretch of the imagination is Christmas in the Heart a good album, portions are weirdly listenable in a Christmas-with-Dr.-Demento kind of way. Future generations who want to know how Dylan pronounced Latin will be thrilled to have “O Come All Ye Faithful,” or the first verse of it, anyway. The uptempo numbers tend to work best. When things slow down, Dylan sounds like a man trying to compete in a shot-put match by flinging his own larynx.

From all accounts, Dylan’s real Christmas gift to the world has been rehiring guitarist Charlie Sexton for his touring band. The recent shows are supposed to be vastly better than anything Dylan’s given the world of late. I’ll want to hear one of those sometime soon. I can’t imagine ever wanting to hear Christmas in the Heart again.

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Friday finds

Weimar book

Journey Round My Skull takes us on a journey round the book covers of Weimar Germany.

Devin Johnston and the compulsion for stillness.

Now that Asbury Park is showing signs of life once again, it’s sort of appropriate in a skewed way that this kind of thing would happen.

Another view of that maybe-might film version of John D. MacDonald’s first Travis McGee novel.

Do you know about Kate Adie? Maybe you should.

Tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1989!

Scorekeeper loves the stereo remasters of the Beatles album catalogue.

A trip into the mind of Ted Nugent.

Typo from hell, big-ticket book cover edition. Not that the contents — or much else the guy has written — warrant serious attention.

Interspecies affirmative action, or: A link for those readers who think I run too many dog pictures.

“At times in this movie, I felt like it was making me regress to being a little kid, remembering the simple joy of throwing things, breaking things, building Wild Thing moviethings, making up stories, and also the feeling of being hurt by small things like mom or big sister won’t pay attention to you exactly when you want, so you go hide in your room and feel sorry for yourself. Max has those feelings and then Carol, a wild thing portrayed brilliantly by the voice of James Gandolfini, amplifies them to giant size. He represents the needy side of a kid, the one that feels sorry for himself and gets angry too easily . . . a monster who’s only scary because he’s so emotionally fragile you gotta walk on egg shells around him.  They should try that in a Godzilla movie sometime.”

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The Wednesday Westie

Goofy Jan 2006 003

Unceasing-vigilance-against-squirrels edition.

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Making time

Not since my teen years and early twenties, when high school and college left plenty of time for reading, have I been able to knock off a book a day. This NYT profile of Nina Sankovitch, who has undertaken to read a book for every day of the year, makes it clear she enjoys certain advantages that might not be shared by others in a different income bracket or socioeconomic stratum. And there’s no question that with only 24 hours in each day, and certain obligations that cannot be put aside, reading a book a day may be a goal out of reach for many people (though this here feller is making a pretty good go of it).

But the article serves as a necessary reminder that a great deal of time gets sucked away through laziness and inertia, and if Sankovitch’s example leads people to reassess their priorities for the day, more power to her.

What’s true for reading is true for writing as well. My personal coming-to-Gesthemane realization came while watching a 60 Minutes profile of P.D. James, who said she finally got on track as a writer when she realized that her life’s circumstances weren’t going to give her time for writing unless she made some conscious changes — get up an hour earlier, for example, or cut back on television viewing. When your life flashes before your eyes, you want to see you did something a little more real with your time than keep up with every episode of Everybody Loves Raymond.

As a survey of her reading blog makes clear, Sankovitch isn’t just coasting through single genres or fast-food books. She’s seeking out an interesting mix with some pretty demanding items. And the blog posts show she is thinking as she reads. All of which makes her blog a happy discovery.

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Blue Monday

Like a lot of people, I first heard about the Chapman stick when Tony Levin started waving one around with Peter Gabriel and King Crimson in the Eighties. Last week I bought the December issue of Guitar Player in order to read the tributes to the late Les Paul, and found a profile of Stick creator Emmett Chapman that showed he may yet earn himself a place in the pantheon alongside the great player and inventor.

Does the Log lead inevitably to the Stick? Here’s Bob Culbertson playing “Little Wing” on an acoustic Stick:

How about something bluesy on an electric Stick?

Taking it back to the beginning (for me, anyway) here’s Levin leading his solo band through “Elephant Talk,” which helped launch the reconfigured Eighties edition of King Crimson into the stratosphere.

Adrian Belew sounded a bit like David Byrne when he sang the original version. To my ears, Levin occasionally veers toward Sacha Baron Cohen doing King Julien. But the man does make his fingers sing.

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Writing, listening, etc.

John Brown talks about emotion in writing, and depression in writers.

Susan Johnston asks: When do you do your best writing work? I’m a morning man, myself.

C.M. Mayo and Pam Jenoff talk about writing historical fiction.

Lawrence Wechsler talks about the future of literary journalism.

Two poets, Jack Hirschman and Neeli Cherkovski, talk about life with Charles Bukowski.

Terence Taylor says: If you really want to write, you’ll find a way to make it happen.

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