Monthly Archives: November 2009

Blue Monday (Monk’s Words)

I’m reading Robin D.G. Kelley’s new biography of Thelonious Monk, and while I might wish Kelley were a more graceful writer, there’s no question that Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of An American Original is the best and most thorough book on the bebop master we are ever likely to see. Kelley was given unprecedented access to Monk’s relatives as well as private recordings that captured the man in his most unguarded moments, and he made the most of that access. This will be the go-to book on Monk for the foreseeable future.

Though he reveals that Monk was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and often dosed with Thorazine to control his mood swings, Kelley also does a great deal to demolish Monk’s wild-man-of-jazz image and allow us to see the disciplined, technically adroit, and thoroughly schooled musician who earned the respect of the most accomplished players in jazz. I particularly appreciate the attention Kelley plays to Monk’s penchant for wordplay in his song titles. “Crepuscule with Nellie,” which Monk performs in the clip above, uses the French word for “twilight” to evoke some quiet time with his wife, Nellie. And then there’s “Epistrophy,” one of Monk’s best-known tunes:

Back when I started listening to Monk, still credulous about all the space-cadet stories built around his eccentric performing style, I assumed “epistrophy” and “crepuscule” were portmanteau words cooked up by the whacky genius who wore funny hats onstage and danced around his piano during solos. Then came an expository writing class in which I learned that epistrophy involved a word or expression repeated at the end of a series of phrases or verses. In music, it also signifies a phrase repeated during a cyclic composition. The literary and the musical, all wrapped up in one catchy tune. It was the first thing I learned from listening to Monk, but not the last. Reading Kelley’s book, I learned a lot else besides.

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Podcast alert

Hart CraneMaybe you have yet to read the great Jazz Age poet Hart Crane, put off by his reputation for writing “difficult” poetry, or maybe you read him a while back and think there’s nothing left to say on the subject. Whatever may be the case, this terrific conversation about Crane’s work with the magisterial critic and educator Harold Bloom will send you running to find a copy of The Bridge, Crane’s long poem about the Brooklyn Bridge.

Chris Jordan talks about visiting and photographing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Blake Eskin talks about the science of nightmares, and using imagery-rehearsal therapy to make bad dreams less scary.

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Friday finds

A geological team looking for oil in the western desert of Egypt may have discovered the remains of some Mass grave50,000 Persian soldiers swallowed up by a sandstorm in the sixth century BCE. The “lost army,” mentioned by Herodotus in the fifth century BCE, has long been considered a myth, though that hasn’t prevented generations of adventurers from looking for evidence of the soldiers, sent by King Cambyses and (according to Herodotus) last seen at the oasis of Siwa. Maybe George Lucas should take note of this: Indiana Jones and the Lost Army could be a dynamite title for a movie. And, if memory serves, didn’t Robert E. Howard write a poem about Cambyses?        

Continuing in this mythological vein, Owen Sheers talks about White Ravens, his retelling of a story from the Welsh myth cycle The Mabinogion. The book sounds pretty good, but I still swear by Evangeline Walton’s retelling of the same story in The Children of Llyr

Get out your best gray flannel suit and work your way through “Books to Read Mad Men By,” listed by The Neglected Books Page in two installments here and here.  

Here’s the perfect stocking-stuffer for the Hayao Miyazaki fan in your family.

Robert Stone, author of Dog Soldiers, A Flag for Sunrise and Bay of Souls, is coming to Princeton University for a reading.  I am so there.

Everything’s turning up hobbits.

Bruce Lee or Jet Li? All I can tell you is that when I was a kid and The Green Hornet was on the tube, nobody ever pretended to be Britt Reid. Everybody wanted to be Kato. Pretending to use the Hornet’s Sting was a distant second.  

“This video is fantastic and highly educational. It teaches you how to whittle your own 19th Century dictionary, using only string, a turnip, and a clamp. But first you have to make your own Linotype machine.”

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The Wednesday Westie


I’m ready-for-my-closeup-Mister-DeMille edition.

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Fair warning

As I warned a couple of days ago, tomorrow I’m going to begin posting a novel, We All Fall Down, a chapter at a time here on my blog. E-mailed reactions will be welcomed. The regularly scheduled cute dog picture will appear as well.

Roguetry in motion

Carl Hiaasen, eminent muckraker and novelist, reveals to the world a secret communication between Sarah Palin and the publisher of her soon-to-be excreted “memoir,” Going Rogue:  

2. The mainland of Russia is indeed visible from parts of western Alaska during favorable weather conditions in the Bering Straits. Considering the ridicule you endured over this issue during the campaign, your desire to set the record straight is understandable.

Still, 78 pages is a big chunk of the book. Perhaps it’s possible to deal with the I-can-see-Russia controversy a bit more succinctly.

3. Our researchers can find no evidence that Tina Fey belongs to the Taliban. Could you send us the sourcing for that reference?

4. John McCain’s campaign staff is vehemently denying the incident you describe in Chapter 13. Perhaps you could provide our legal department with the names of persons who actually witnessed the senator placing the duct tape over your mouth.

5. Even though you quit with 18 months remaining in your term, your achievements as Alaska’s governor will be of great interest to your readers and political supporters.

How about expanding that section of the book to a full chapter?

Looks like they’ll be editing this turkey right up to the last minute.

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Blue Monday

Not many guitarists could say they schooled Jimi Hendrix — say it without being laughed out of the room, at any rate — but Johnny Jones was a member of that extremely small circle of musicians. Jones (who died last month at the age of 73) was a leading light of the Nashville blues scene, and he showed the young Hendrix a thing or two, as he recalls in the clip above. Jones’ first band, the Imperial Seven, had a bass player named Billy Cox, who had met Hendrix in the Army and invited his friend to sit in with the group. Cox later recorded with Hendrix on Band of Gypsys.    

Jones was far better known in Europe than in the U.S. Ironically, it was a soul-styled cover version of “Purple Haze”  that gave Jones his overseas calling card: 

Late in life, Jones played out a good deal with his friend Doc Blakey:

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Do the Scalzi

I celebrated the fall of 2008 by sending my agent a nonfiction book proposal and the completed, polished manuscript of a crime novel. Shortly after La Agent fired off some submissions to various interested editors, the publishing industry began rending itself with layoffs, budget cuts, and severe restrictions on the purchasing power of the editors who survived the staff reductions.

What’s that you say? Great timing, Steve? Tell me about it. The editors who didn’t get the ax got the workloads of those who did. The nonfiction proposal is finally getting some atttention, but a year after the novel manuscript went out, its fate is still an open question. Things are tough out there. 

Maybe you’ve heard about John Scalzi, a very good SF writer who posted an entire novel online, chapter by chapter, via his blog. He did it because he wanted people to read his work. He ended up getting a book deal and went on to become a successful novelist, but all that was after the fact. The chief thing is, he wanted his work to be read.  

I like my crime novel, a lot, and I want it to be read. So on Wednesday, with my agent’s full blessing, I’m going to start posting it a chapter at a time. It should be complete by late December, at which point I’ll post a short essay describing how I came to write the novel, and the sources of inspiration for the (rather unusual) main character. I’d be delighted to get comments from readers, but they should come as e-mails to moi. Comments will be switched off for the individual posts. If you want to send me a few bucks in exchange for the posts, that would be nice, but mainly I want to get some daylight on the novel.

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Friday finds

Cuba gives a cache of Ernest Hemingway’s papers to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, which is certainly ironic when you consider the historical relationship between JFK and Cuba. The papers reportedly include a different ending for For Whom the Bell Tolls, corrected proofs of The Old Man and the Sea, and thousands of letters.

Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles, in words and photographs.

Lynn Viehl shares the latest numbers from her bestselling novel.

The new issue of The Biographer’s Craft is up.

A few words in praise of Ayn Rand.

Jon Stewart does Glenn Beck. He has to call it imitation, but you don’t have to.

Neil Young, who has already released more good music this year than Bob Dylan, has a new disc coming out next month.

Getting to know Lester and Judy-Lynn del Rey.

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