Summer Of Love
1. How delightful to learn that James Joyce may have invented the word 'blog' during a typical conversational ramble in Finnegans Wake! Here it is in context:
Now from Gunner Shotland to Guinness Scenography. Come to the ballay at the Tailors' Hall. We mean to be mellay on the Mailers' Mall. And leap, rink and make follay till the Gaelers' Gall. Awake ! Come, a wake ! Every old skin in the leather world, infect the whole stock company of the old house of the Leaking Barrel, was thomistically drunk, two by two, lairking o' tootlers with tombours a'beggars, the blog and turfs and the brandywine bankrompers, trou Normend fashion, I have been told down to the bank lean clorks? Some nasty blunt clubs were being operated after the tradition of a wellesleyan bottle riot act and a few plates were being shied about and tumblers bearing traces of fresh porter rolling around, independent of that, for the ehren of Fyn's Insul, and then followed that wapping breakfast at the Heaven and Covenant, with Rodey O'echolowing how his breadcost on the voters would be a comeback for e'er a one, like the depredations of Scandalknivery, in and on usedtowobble sloops off cloasts, eh? Would that be a talltale too? This was the grandsire Orther. This was his innwhite horse. Sip?
Enough puns for you there? I assume that "blog" is a play on "bog" (and in fact the word "blog" has always seemed to carry an appealing sort of Joycean phlegmatic physicality). Pictured above: an Irish peat bog.
Love As Always, Kurt Vonnegut As I Knew Him by Loree Rackstraw
The then-clean-shaven novelist was struggling at this moment to break through a memory block and write a book about the firebombing of Dresden during World War II. Rackstraw became his lover and close friend, and her new memoir chronicles how Vonnegut's life changed when he finished his Dresden book, originally titled Goodbye Blue Monday but eventually called Slaughterhouse-Five, and rocketed to wealth and fame.
Rackstraw remained his sympathetic sometime-lover after his divorce and remarraige, and the stories she tells are refreshingly modest -- she doesn't claim to have been Kurt's greatest muse, though she may have been an important part of his support system.
Fittingly, this is a kind book. Rackstraw remained a writing teacher at Iowa and an editor of the North American Review, and her book offers appealing cameos of Andre Dubus, Richard Yates, Geraldo Rivera (who, I'm surprised to learn, briefly married Kurt Vonnegut's daughter), John Irving and even, in a late chapter, Jon Fishman of Phish, a dedicated Vonnegut fan. My only complaint, and a surprising one regarding a memoirist who spent her life writing and editing fiction, is with the prose itself. Many sentences are stiff and clumsy. One characteristic paragraph confusingly begins:
That 'Slapstick' was not a rave, critical success was a disappointment -- and also one that Kurt himself severely awarded only a grade of "D".
This from a lifelong writing teacher? Such stylistic blunders are strange to see, but it doesn't mar the value of this book for anyone wishing to learn more about the gentle soul of Kurt Vonnegut. He earns here a rare honor among celebrity writers: a romantic literary tell-all that only upholds his adoring popular image.
The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl
Like The Dante Club, still my favorite Matthew Pearl book, The Last Dickens is filled with appealing scenes of soon-to-be-legendary early American publishing personalities hard at work. James R. Osgood of Fiends and Osgood is the hero, and the unscrupulous Harper Brothers are the heavies (today, Ticknor and Fields has been lost inside the wayward Houghton-Mifflin firm, while HarperCollins is owned by Rupert Murdoch). We also meet Frederick Leypoldt, editor of a new journal called Trade Circular and Publishers' Bulletin, which would eventually become our familiar Publisher's Weekly, along with an array of literary waterfront pirates known as bookaneers.
The historical material is delightful, and I hope Matthew Pearl will keep exploring the early publising scene in future works. But his novelistic formula -- wrap a great author in a fictional mystery and aim for the bestseller list -- may be wearing thin, and I found The Last Dickens less satisfying than his books on Dante or Poe. This may be due to my lack of particular interest in Charles Dickens -- sure, I loved Great Expectations, but Dickens was never in my personal pantheon -- and is surely due to the fact that I've never read The Mystery of Edwin Drood. I'll always be interested in any book Matthew Pearl writes, but I hope his next novel will move beyond what has now become too limiting a formula for an author of such wide talent and knowledge.
Curses and Sermons by Nic Saunders
Here, the male and female characters are simply called "The Cowboy" and "The Stranger" respectively, but the basic setup remains. Not every experimental play needs to be enhanced with cinematic visuals, but they work well here. The characters dig deep holes in the ground, perhaps as symbolic preludes to making love, and travel through psychedelic filters until they finally, as Billy the Kid and Jean Harlow eventually must, make love. The film ends happily, a satisfying exploration of an enigmatic work.
1. According to Rolling Stone, Gus Van Sant's film version of Tom Wolfe's 60s-culture classic The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test will start shooting soon, and may feature Jack Black (bad idea) or Woody Harrelson (slightly better) as novelist and psychological adventurer Ken Kesey. Woody Harrelson might actually make more sense in the role of Beat legend Neal Cassady, who drove the bus called Further during the real-life cross-country journey chronicled in Wolfe's book. He seems too old to play then-young Ken Kesey in this story, while Jack Black would have to severely rein in his comic instincts to avoid overpowering the role. I hope Gus Van Sant knows what he's doing here.
2. Meanwhile, George Murray of BookNinja gives a hopeful nod to Steve Jacobs' soon-to-be-released film version of J. M. Coetzee's powerful Disgrace, starring John Malkovich.
3. A Bertrand Russell comic? Okay, though Russell was mostly bested by his star student Ludwig Wittgenstein.
4. The story of William Warder Norton, founder of the influential book publishing firm that bears his name.
5. Philip K. Dick and Jack Spicer.
6. Denis Johnson's newest novel is called Nobody Move.
7. The earlist known dust jacket for a book has been found.
8. New Directions has a blog.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet, global activist and indie publisher extraordinaire, turns 90 years old today. Here's his Litkicks biography page, and here's the poem we've been running on this site for many years:
The pennycandystore beyond the El is where I first fell in love with unreality Jellybeans glowed in the semi-gloom of that september afternoon A cat upon the counter moved among the licorice sticks and tootsie rolls and Oh Boy Gum Outside the leaves were falling as they died A wind had blown away the sun A girl ran in Her hair was rainy Her breasts were breathless in the little room Outside the leaves were falling and they cried Too soon! too soon!
The great folksinger Pete Seeger will also turn 90 on May 3, and New York City will celebrate him in big style on this date at Madison Square Garden featuring performers like Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Vedder, Arlo Guthrie, Dave Matthews and John Cougar Mellencamp. That's going to be some hootenanny birthday party. Pete Seeger and Lawrence Ferlinghetti are two American sages, feisty, stubborn and deeply politically engaged. What blacklisted Communist Pete Seeger and embattled Howl publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti had in common is that they both loved to fight for their causes. They both wore out their competition.
Legendary underground cartoonist S. Clay Wilson was found lying unconscious on a San Francisco street, possibly the victim of a hit-and-run or a mugging. He is in serious condition (but improving) at San Francisco General Hospital, but will not be able to pay his medical bills. Jeff Weinberg of Water Row Books (which has supported his work for decades) sends this note:
"I have started to ask my customers to help S. Clay Wilson by donating whatever small amount they can to help him out this holiday season. As a self-employed artist, he's screwed. Every little bit can help. All gifts will be designated on a card I'll send Wilson with every angel's name and address.
Please make check out to 'S. Clay Wilson' and mail it to Water Row Books, PO Box 438 Sudbury MA 01776"
(More from Comics Reporter)
1. If you grew up ordering slim paperbacks in school from Scholastic Book Services, you'll enjoy this Flickr set as much as I do (via).
2. Neil Young has written an article for the Huffington Post about how the Detroit auto industry can radically alter its corporate culture by embracing green innovation. Young is clearly a transportation freak -- aside from his work with Lionel Trains and Linc Volt, he also once wrote "Long May You Run", a sweet love song about a favorite car. But I get the biggest kick out of the simple fact that Neil Young has written an article for the Huffington Post.
3. Judith Fitzgerald of Books Inq., responding to an apt appreciation by Billy Collins of a new Dylan publication, says that Leonard Cohen is a better poet than Bob Dylan. Levi Asher says Judith Fitzgerald has got to be kidding. Leonard Cohen wrote "Bird on a Wire" and maybe two other good songs. The album Blood on the Tracks alone outdoes Cohen's entire career. A midget can't play basketball with a giant.
4. "Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons found that doctors interacting with literature were more willing to adopt another person’s perspective, sometimes after just four one-hour workshops." I believe it. More here.
5. A 4th Century Greek joke book anticipates Monty Python's dead parrot sketch. But what about the cheese shop?
6. OUP Blog presents William Irvine on desire, a topic of infinite mystery.
7. The Millions remembers Liar's Poker.
8. Neil Young is writing about cars, and Lexus is sponsoring original fiction. Participants include Curtis Sittenfeld and Jane Smiley. The collaborative novel's visual layout is a little too "Lexus" for my tastes, but the experiment is worth a look.
9. Joan Didion is writing a film for HBO about Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, who will forever be remembered as the subject of a Watergate-era John Mitchell prediction that didn't come true.
10. I caught PBS's broadcast of Filth, about 1960s British decency advocate Mary Whitehouse, last night. Very well done, and quite even-handed. (Note: the fact that I am praising the show has nothing to do with PBS buying a Filth blog ad on LitKicks, and the fact that I watched the show has everything to do with the fact that Roger Waters sang about Mary Whitehouse on Pink Floyd's Animals).
11. Wonkette is a good political website, but they clearly know nothing about The Godfather. Nobody told Tessio (Abe Vigoda) that he was going to Las Vegas before killing him on the way to the airport -- that was Carlo Rizzo. Jeez.
Among other things, he proposes to increase military aid to friendly regimes. This, he says, can create a kind of golden leash that makes governments more compliant to American wishes.
But surely, one can't help gasping, the last thing more guns will bring is political reform. And surely, those Arabs are not so dumb that they don’t read this stuff.
Rodenbeck points out the many ways that Kenneth Pollack's blatantly pro-military political ideology fails to convince (and Pollack still calls himself a liberal? Well, hell, Napoleon Bonaparte was a liberal too). A concern for the security of Israel seems to be at the core of Pollack's entire vision, but I begin to yearn for a third path once Rodenbeck begins tearing Pollack apart on this point:
Can't we just admit that American support for Israel is strategically burdensome and is driven by the passion of several domestic constituencies rather than cold cost-benefit geopolitics?
This is a popular belief, but bears examination. If "several domestic constituencies" refers to American Jews, it's worth pointing out that American Jews were unable to budge the Roosevelt Administration a bloody inch on Jewish immigration from Nazi-occupied Europe during the horrific decade leading to the formation of Israel. Rodenbeck may also be referring to evangelical Christians who support Israel, but the influence there is more vocal and demonstrative than actual. At this point, any reasonable person who does not wish to see a new war ignited in the Levant can support Israel simply because the 7.2 million people who live there are not welcome anywhere else in the world, and the terrible stalemate that exists in the region now is less harmful to all of humanity than any imaginable alternative would be.
Rodenbeck's article is powerful, despite the lack of clarity on this point. The Middle East shows up again in Michael Goldfarb's review of Invisible Nation: How the Kurds' Quest for Statehood Is Shaping Iraq and the Middle East by Quil Lawrence, though Goldfarb's performance is much less impressive. He generally ignores Lawrence's book, instead taking the opportunity to write his own article about the Kurds in Iraq (he finally gives the book under review a polite nod in the last paragraph). This misdirection might be forgiveable if Goldfarb had something new to say, but instead he writes a conventional encyclopedia entry, complete with dull phraseology:
For any author, writing a history of the Kurds presents a challenge, because the Kurdish story has more switchbacks than a shepherd’s trail into the mountains.
Barf. I guess any old metaphor will do? The dullness continues:
Then, in a region where Western reporters are not liked very much, Kurds are exceptionally friendly.
Let's give them candy! Better yet, let's step away from the depressing world of global ethnic strife for the happier realms of experimental fiction and enjoy Charles Taylor's consideration of The Unfortunates by B. S. Johnson, which was apparently originally published in 1969 as an unbound collection of 27 chapters designed to be read in random order, and has now been republished with an enthusiastic introduction by Jonathan Coe.
Taylor satisfies here, as does Paul Berman with a deep and passionate dissection of another new edition of a work from the 1960s, Norman Mailer's Miami and the Siege of Chicago, which Berman says "gives him the willies" (this is meant as a compliment, I think).
As is so often the case, the most satisfying articles in this New York Times Book Review are the ones that dive deep into classic literature. Brenda Wineapple's White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an inquiry into the mysterious poet's correspondence with a robust abolitionist who wrote for the Atlantic Monthly and adored her poems, sounds like a real corker. It was only last month that I rudely scoffed at a book about a quaint English estate written by Miranda Seymour; I still don't want to read that book, but Seymour quickly closes the sale for me on this one.
Steve Coates doesn't quite rise to the occasion in reviewing Edith Hall's The Return of Ulysses: A Cultural History of Homer's Odyssey -- I don't think the NYTBR should ever publish a phrase as generic as:
Hall ... fills her pages with sharp and often surprising observations about the "Odyssey"
Sharp and surprising -- is that the best Coates can do? Also, his long list of works influenced by Homer's epic could be more original (for instance, I would certainly have included the Who's first rock opera, "A Quick One", an early prototype for "Tommy", which was based on The Odyssey and has aged better than some of the dusty titles cited here).
Still, this book and Brenda Wineapple's are the kinds of books I love to read about on a Sunday morning, and I bet many others feel the same way.
1. I wish I could see the new free production of Hair in New York City's Central Park, but it's pretty much impossible unless I'm willing to get on the ticket line at 9 pm the night before and stay there till the following afternoon. The last time I did that was for the much-hyped Seagull starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, and I literally fell asleep once the play started.
Oh well. The New York Times gives this Hair a great write-up, but Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal calls it a "poorly crafted revue" and claims that James Rado and Gerome Ragni "don't know the first thing about how to write a musical". I think Teachout misses this by a mile. He's right that Galt MacDermot's bouyant music is the show's best saving grace (and it's a fact that more people listen to the album than ever see the show) but I have seen the show -- an amateur college performance, many years ago -- and I remember how it lit up the room from start to finish. If Rado and Ragni didn't know how to write a musical, at least they sure knew how to create a musical that lets everybody else -- the performers, the composer, the director -- look great, and that makes an audience very happy. What more can we want? Teachout probably doesn't love Godspell either.
Gerome Ragni died in 1991, but James Rado can still be spotted in the East Village, and I've had the privilege of hanging out with this pleasant and friendly writer and performer (I asked him whether he or Ragni were responsible for combining Allen Ginsberg and Shakespeare verses in the big second-act Vietnam War number, but he smiled and wouldn't say). Rado also keeps the fires burning at the official Hair website, which features photos from countless international productions of the classic hippie-era show.
2. Herman Melville with Nathaniel Hawthorne on a mountain, thinking about a whale.
3. An intense sampling of comic artists flagellating themselves (via Maud).
4. Sparrow, a wistful New York poet and activist, is running for President. I doubt he'll win but it's worth a link.
5. A Charles Bukowski side story.
6. The poetry slam in 2008.
7. Jeff VanderMeer on recent political fiction at the Huff.
There's also word that director Gus Van Sant is making progress on his film version of the Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a classic non-fiction text that describes the mid-1960s cosmic collision between Neal Cassady, Ken Kesey, Robert Stone, Larry McMurty, the Grateful Dead and a big bus. I think this ought to be an outrageously good movie, but I hope Gus Van Sant will do a better job with it than he did with Tom Robbins' hippie-era classic novel Even Cowgirls Get The Blues. That movie had it's moments (Uma Thurman dancing with her thumbs), but the ultra-stylized visual treatment and wooden acting made it boring to watch. My two favorite Gus Van Sant films were two of his quietest and most naturalistic: the haunting Elephant and the bleak, blank Last Days. I think an overly stylized or stagy treatment (a la Cowgirls) would hurt Tom Wolfe's classic narrative, a narrative about a moment when truth was truly stranger than fiction. I think this film is in good hands, but I hope Van Sant will let the great story speak for itself.
2. Last week I praised the new HBO series John Adams, and I still feel that way, though in this week's episode I really wasn't trying to see John Adams getting busy in a Braintree bedroom. I wasn't trying to see Paul Giamatti getting busy in a Braintree bedroom either.
3. Mike Palacek is another patriot.
4. Happy birthday The Millions!
5. Regarding another Penguin project, what does the technology add?
6. I love a writer who'll speak up for himself. Novelist James Morrow doesn't agree with New York Times Book Review critic Siddhartha Deb's comments about his the Philosopher's Apprentice, and invites you to sample the novel on his website. I urge you to do so.
Shouldn't a person editing a blog anthology be gung-ho from the get-go? Shouldn't this person be downright besotted with blogs and bloggers, ready to plunge in, get dirty and exult in the form in all its messiness and ephemerality -- non-linkiness and timelessness be damned?
This hits home with me, since I and my then co-editor Christian Crumlish fit this description exactly when we published this book eleven -- yes, eleven -- years ago:
And we were gung-ho from the get-go up the wazoo, but the book sold about a thousand copies and then died a painful death (and, by the way, it got nice little reviews in Washington Post Book World and the Los Angeles Times but nothing in the New York Times Book Review). So: Kamp is right, but it's not like we didn't try.
(And, no, by the way, I'm not interested in trying again. Some things you do only once per life).
There's much to praise in this issue of the Book Review. Colm Toibin takes Nicholson Baker's controversial World War II history book Human Smoke on its own terms as an intensely curious book by an author who "wishes to stir up an argument as much as settle one". Toibin also helpfully emphasizes this book's focus on the misguided popularity of aerial bombing of cities as a global problem-solver.
History, politics and ethics dominate today. Walter A. McDougall's Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era, 1829-1877 appears to be as iconoclastic as Human Smoke, according to Michael Kazin's respectful review. But Anthony Pagden's Worlds at War: The 2,500 Year Struggle Between East and West seems to be filled with paranoid nonsense about Islamic extremism and "the struggle against the 'Infidel' for the ultimate Muslim conquest of the entire world". And, according to critic Amy Chua:
Pagden quotes Osama bin Laden at length for the view that the greatest crime of the United States -- for which 9/11 was punishment -- was that "you separate religion from your politics, contradicting the pure nature which affirms Absolute Authority to the Lord your Creator".
This is pure pablum, since anybody who doesn't get their news solely from Bill O'Reilly must know by now that Al Qaeda attacked America to further its political objectives against the pro-American governments in nations like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and that they really don't care very much about America at all except as far as America affects the Middle East. The myth that Islamic extremists are starry-eyed religious dreamers obsessed with fighting America (when they are actually pragmatic political radicals wishing to overthrow the governments of the nations they were born in) is beyond stale. Amy Chua views Pagden's book with some skepticism but nowhere near enough. It's the New York Times job to state clearly when a book is filled with popular distortions of simple fact, and Chua does not state it clearly enough here.
Maybe we'll have to look for fiction for ethical insight, and I'm intrigued by The Philosopher's Apprentice, a novel about morality and philosophy by James Morrow in which a teacher and student construct a hypothetical "social justice project". Critic Siddhartha Deb wants to like this book, and captures my attention with notions like "clones called immaculoids, created from aborted fetuses by a right-wing group and sent out to stalk their parents". But she also hates the writer's overwrought prose style, and the sample she presents here effectively makes her case that the author's style renders his book unreadable.
Louisa Thomas praises The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt, which I'm looking forward to checking out. Ron Powers, reviewing The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America by David Hajdu, proves himself once again to be a terrible, terrible writer. Here's his intro:
My first hallucinatory experience had nothing to do with drugs, unless you consider comic books to be a form of drug. On a spring morning in 1953, I strolled into Mrs. Shelburne's sixth-grade classroom at the Mark Twain School and spotted a classmate covertly flipping through a Superman comic. Only it wasn't quite Superman. Not the Man of Steel I idolized, but a grinning thug-imposter in red cape and blue tights, gut-punching a helpless geezer on crutches as his false teeth flew out and a mob of citizens cheered, and a babe far leggier and bustier than Lois Lane leered her approval. The monster’s name bulged in thick red letters atop the panel: Superduperman. My good-guy stomach rolled. Everything stretched and went slantwise; a parallel universe yawed open, like jaws, and threatened to suck me inside. Then Mrs. Shelburne waddled into class; the kid stowed the comic; the jaws evaporated. Too soon, I realized dizzily. Wait! I wanted in!
Right, so David Hajdu wrote a book about comic books in the 1950's, but somehow it's all about Ron Powers.
An unusual endpaper by Polly Morrice about the legacy of J. D. Salinger in literature about children since Nine Stories lands many good points, though it overreaches in a few parts (the Glass siblings are "possibly the first gifted-and-talented children in literature"? No.) A good piece nonetheless.
Finally, I don't usually read the Times' Travel section (why should I? As you've probably noticed, I never travel -- I'm always here) and I almost missed a surprising and worthy cover article on Ken Kesey's Mexico by Lawrence Downes.