Friday, August 29, 2008

The Informal End of Summer

Enjoy the holiday weekend, everybody. I'll be back Tuesday.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Mischievous Muriel

I’ve been on a Muriel Spark kick, and it’s easy to be on a Muriel Spark kick, because her books are reliably slim. Thus far, I’ve read her debut, The Comforters (204 pages), The Girls of Slender Means (142), and The Driver’s Seat (107). Up next is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (137). (I saw my very talented sister in a stage production of Brodie a few years ago, and I’m looking forward to revisiting the characters in a different format.)

Why I started down Spark’s path -- with The Comforters -- is a story best left for a future post, in which she will only play a tangential role. Now that I’m making my way, I’m surprised at her diminished reputation. I don’t think it’s only me who associates her with Brodie and little else, but she wrote 22 novels and several collections of stories. Three books in, I feel that I appreciate her in the way I’m supposed to appreciate (but haven’t quite managed to appreciate yet) Penelope Fitzgerald. Her novels are, as James Wood wrote, “fiercely composed and devoutly starved.” As sinewy as their length would suggest, there’s barely an ounce of fat on them. If they were a person, they’d be Lance Armstrong.

Much more than I used to, I enjoy novels whittled to their fundamentals. In The Comforters, Caroline Rose, who has recently converted to Catholicism, begins hearing typewriters and voices, and believes she is a character in a novel. In other words, Spark’s estate deserves some cut of Stranger Than Fiction’s box office, and maybe some of Charlie Kaufman’s scratch, too. (The novel was inspired by Spark’s real-life experience.) It’s presented in two parts, and the first -- ending on page 106 -- is the more compelling and enjoyable, and maybe Spark learned from the experience that surpassing even 150 pages didn’t play to her strengths.

But aside from the pacing, the novel is remarkably mature. Spark was nearly 40 when it was published, and her careful prose and considerable sense of humor are already firmly in place, as in this passage:
When Laurence was quite little he had informed his mother,

‘Uncle Ernest is a queer.’

‘So he is, pet,’ she answered happily, and repeated the child’s words to several people before she learned from her husband the difference between being a queer and just being queer. After this, it became a family duty to pray for Uncle Ernest; it was understood that no occasion for prayers should pass without a mention of this uncle. And with some success apparently, because in his fortieth year, when his relations with men were becoming increasingly violent, he gave them up for comfort’s sake; not that he ever took to women as a substitute. Laurence had remarked to Caroline one day,

‘I’ve gradually had to overcome an early disrespect for my Uncle Ernest.’

‘Because he was a homosexual?’

‘No. Because we were always praying specially for him.’
The Girls of Slender Means is set at an English ladies’ hostel in the immediate wake of World War II. Like the other two Spark novels I’ve read, it foreshadows a dire event and then works its way toward it. There are sharp portraits of several characters, and the novel culminates in an unlikely, strange, but convincing scene.

Strangest -- eeriest -- of all, though, is The Driver’s Seat, and I’m sure it will retain that status even if I read all 22 of her novels. We learn early on that its main character, Lise, is going to die within 24 hours. She is not a sympathetic character, with her lips “pressed together like the ruled line of a balance sheet, marked straight with her old-fashioned lipstick, a final and judging mouth.” At first, she inspires contempt, then horror, then pity. Wait. Maybe pity, then horror, then pity again. In any case, the book, with a wicked twist or two, is flawed but also unlike anything else I’ve read. And in it, there’s plenty of room for humor, as in a rant about men by Mrs Fiedke, a widow with whom Lise spends a few of her final hours. It’s a speech that manages to satirize the character and the subject she’s talking about simultaneously:
‘They are demanding equal rights with us,’ says Mrs Fiedke. ‘That’s why I never vote with the Liberals. Perfume, jewellery, hair down to their shoulders, and I’m not talking about the ones who were born like that. I mean, the ones who can’t help it should be put on an island. It’s the others I’m talking about. There was a time when they would stand up and open the door for you. They would take their hat off. But they want their equality today. All I say is that if God had intended them to be as good as us he wouldn’t have made them different from us to the naked eye. They don’t want to be all dressed alike any more. Which is only a move against us. You couldn’t run an army like that, let alone the male sex. With all due respect to Mr Fiedke, may he rest in peace, the male sex is getting out of hand. Of course, Mr Fiedke knew his place as a man, give him his due.’ . . . ‘Fur coats and flowered poplin shirts on their backs. . . . If we don’t look lively,’ she says, ‘they will be taking over the homes and the children, and sitting about having chats while we go and fight to defend them and work to keep them. They won’t be content with equal rights only. Next thing they’ll want the upper hand, mark my words. Diamond earrings, I’ve read in the paper.’
So with all this humor and talent, why isn’t Spark mentioned more often with other greats? One hint may appear in her New York Times obituary (she died in 2006):
Some accused her of coolness and even cruelty toward the characters she invented and then sent — sometimes quite merrily — to terrible deaths.

"People say my novels are cruel because cruel things happen and I keep this even tone," she said in an interview in The New Yorker. “I’m often very deadpan, but there’s a moral statement too, and what it’s saying is that there’s a life beyond this, and these events are not the most important things. They’re not important in the long run.”
Seeing even tragic events as “not important” can be a religious impulse, and Spark was Catholic herself. But it’s also the impulse of an absurdist, and her lighthearted treatment of terrible circumstances signals, to me, a mischievous spirit as much as an uncaring eye cast toward the afterlife. In fact, from her tone in fiction, I think Spark found us far more comical than blessed.


I'm as surprised as you are, but after a slow start, I thought John Kerry's speech last night was very strong. (More on the DNC soon.) . . . Marilynne Robinson's Home is due out next week. I expect it to be one of the year's best books. One blogger has already posted an underwhelmed reaction, but reading between the lines it seems that his expectations may have just been too high, which is understandable after the brilliant Gilead. . . . The strong work at one of my favorite new sites continues with a look -- and a sniff -- at skunks.

Some Boy

I briefly mentioned my grandfather in a post yesterday, which reminded me of a Fordham yearbook page of his that I recently found in a stash of family photos. (That's the yearbook photo, at right.) His name was Francis, but his nickname was "Babe," and the yearbook -- which dates from the early 1920s -- winningly describes him in the patter of the time. Some excerpts:
A fine, all-around good fellow, whose countenance is always graced with a broad and cheerful smile. “Babe” is what we call “some boy” scholastically, athletically and socially. . . . He has been a member of the baseball squad for the past two years and when in the game has cut some spectacular capers. . . . “Babe’s” generous, open nature has made him a favorite with all, and it is with something more than a passing regret that we clasp his hand and say “take keer yerself.”

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


I've been having some trouble with YouTube the past couple of days. I hope you're not. For Wednesday, here's an excerpt of Glenn Gould performing Bach's Concerto No. 1 in D minor (which I find is the saddest of all keys) with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic:

Dad in the Kitchen, After the Game

Most of the time, when people ask me to trace the history of my being a Yankees fan -- and they ask constantly -- I go back to my paternal grandfather, who was born in the Bronx. I took it for granted that he passed the team on to my dad.

Not so. Turns out, my grandfather was a Giants fan. The team played at the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan, near to the Bronx. My father, at about seven, simply liked the way the word "Yankees" looked in the newspaper. From such an innocent seed, a fierce loyalty quickly bloomed. In Saratoga last week, he told me the story of how he threw a chair through the kitchen wall when he was nine years old.

It was 1947, and he was listening to Game 4 of the World Series, between the Dodgers and Yankees, on the radio. The Yankees had won the first two games at home. Brooklyn had won the third game, which my dad and grandfather attended at Ebbets Field, 9-8. In Game 4, the Dodgers scored two runs in the bottom of the ninth to win, 3-2. The game-winning hit broke up a no-hitter, no less. It is just after this hit, with his mother and grandmother sitting peaceably in the next room, that we pick up Dad in action. I'll let him explain the rest. I transcribed this as he told it:
I’m screaming these four- and ten-letter words. I didn’t know what they meant, but I’d heard them from the older kids, because I played with them on the playground. I picked up a chair and just hurled it. It was a cheap, lousy kitchen with a plaster wall, and the leg just happened to hit it at the right angle. I was so nuts that my mother didn’t even know to yell at me. It was like The Exorcist.”

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The List Returns From a Coffee Break: 65-61

I don't bunch these records together for any reason, but this week happens to feature five that are driven by distinct, powerful voices.

65. Iris DeMent -- My Life (1994)

Only listen to this record in the company of people around whom you would feel comfortable weeping. DeMent uses her acquired-taste warble on songs like “You’ve Done Nothing Wrong,” in which she consoles a lover who has left her (“just because I’m hurting / that don’t mean that you’ve done something wrong”). And that’s not the saddest song. Neither is the saddest song “Calling For You,” where she sings, “we fixed it, we thought, just by leaving / but the heart is too wise for deceiving / it’s calling for you.” And no, the saddest song is not “My Life,” which I posted here a few months ago. (That probably is the prettiest song, though.)

The champion tear-jerker is “No Time to Cry,” which clocks in at nearly seven minutes of strummed misery. “My father died a year ago today,” she begins . . .


The song is a lament for the way adult responsibilities can eclipse emotions. “I’ve got no time to look back / I’ve got no time to see / the pieces of my heart that have been ripped away from me / and if the feeling starts to coming / I’ve learned to stop it fast . . . there’s bills to pay and songs to play / and a house to make a home / I guess I’m older now / and I’ve got no time to cry.” There’s something undeniably maudlin about the lyrics, but with her voice and the arrangements backing her up, DeMent clearly works in a tradition that embraces the maudlin. Her songs are the musical equivalent of Old Yeller. And when you need a cathartic moment to yourself, I don’t know what else you could ask for.

64. Everything But the Girl -- Walking Wounded (1996)

OK, shake off the catharsis and get on the dance floor. Well, not quite. Walking Wounded was the duo’s first step away from gentle pop and toward club-influenced music, a step foreshadowed by the wildly popular remix of “Missing” off the prior album. But even though Ben Watt’s beats changed the sonic foundation of the band’s aesthetic, the continued presence of Tracey Thorn’s silky voice and grown-up lyrics guaranteed that the songs would appeal to a much broader audience than just ravers. Over the trippy backdrop of “Single,” she sings, “I'm sleeping later and waking later / I'm eating less and thinking more / and how am I without you? / am I more myself or less myself? / I feel younger, louder / like I don't always connect.” On “The Heart Remains a Child,” she finds herself wondering why she doesn’t “outgrow this kind of thing,” and concludes, “the mind may grow wise, but the heart just sulks and it whines and remains a child.” Even more directly, in “Big Deal,” she addresses someone who’s going through romantic distress and snidely says, “big deal / that’s the way we all feel.”

The album after this, Temperamental, is even dancier, and also terrific. It seems to me that Watt and Thorn, who are married, are done releasing albums as Everything But the Girl, which is a real shame. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for new material.

63. Van Morrison -- It’s Too Late to Stop Now (1974)

This double live album captures the legendarily moody Van in a good moment, kicking off with his cover of the cheeky-but-soulful “Ain’t Nothin’ You Can Do,” in which he sings, “when you got a headache / headache powder soothe the pain . . . when you got a backache / a little rubbin’ will see you through / when you got a heartache / there ain’t nothin’ you can do.” The horns-soaked record also features a raucous version of “Domino,” and a take on “These Dreams of You” that blows the original (on Moondance) out of the water. “Into the Mystic” is a beauty, and a perfect example of Morrison’s blend of beauty and flakiness. (Since I razzed Journey for the use of its music in films, it’s only fair to note that “Into the Mystic” has appeared in a trio that’s tough to beat for execrableness: Patch Adams, the Feldman-Haim vehicle Dream a Little Dream, and the TV show “Nash Bridges.”) The only song sorely missing on It’s Too Late from that period of his career is “And It Stoned Me.” It’s made up for by other great covers, like “I Believe to My Soul” and “Bring It On Home to Me.”

62. Ray LaMontagne -- Trouble (2004)

It’s hard to tell where this one will move. For now, this seems like a safe spot for it. When it first came out, I must have listened to it every day for several months on end. I probably would have put it in the top 15 in those days, just because I fall in loyal love like that. But now, after a somewhat less inspiring (but still good) follow-up, I’m eager to hear how his next album, out in October, sounds. I’m somewhere in between with him at the moment, so the album is somewhere in between on the list.

On this debut, LaMontagne proved he could write -- “Jolene” is a character study of a drifter, and “Narrow Escape” is a story-song complete with a tragic plot twist. It’s the more numerous and simpler sentiments, though, that work best, because LaMontagne’s voice is a raspy, rich gift that allows him to sing lines like, “I still don’t know what love means,” and not just get away with it but transport you. He takes fairly skeletal songs -- “Shelter,” “Burn,” “Forever My Friend” -- and makes them verge on profound through the passion and honesty in his voice. In this, he has something in common with the next singer on the list.

61. Aretha Franklin -- Lady Soul (1968)

There are massive hits here, like “Chain of Fools” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” spirited covers (of James Brown’s “Money Won’t Change You” and Ray Charles’ “Come Back Baby”), and a guest spot by Eric Clapton (“Good to Me As I Am to You”). But it’s two songs in particular that stand out for me -- “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone” and the album-closing “Ain’t No Way.” The former made an appearance around here not too long ago. The latter is a slow burner that reduces me to a puddle just about every time. Sure, Aretha has sounded lovelorn on some of the previous nine songs, but mostly her tone is of the jubilant-and-tough, I will love you, but don’t make me step on your scrawny neck variety. Then, in “Ain’t No Way,” she belts out, “I know that a woman’s duty / is to have and love a man.” Coming from the woman who sang “Respect” and “Think” with conviction to spare, and following the lyrics “ain’t no way to love you / if you won’t let me,” this “duty” sounds less like some pre-feminism relic than a desperate challenge -- you hold up your end, I’ll hold up mine.

Bonus: While searching for an image of the record cover, I came across this photo, which is both disturbing and transfixing:



Juan Williams reacts emotionally, “as a human being,” to Michelle Obama’s speech last night. . . . I know what it’s like to have so many books that moving is particularly difficult. And I have little mini-collections in my library -- 15 books by or about William James, etc. -- but I can’t quite fathom what it means to own 25,000 books about cricket. . . . If you want to know why giraffes are “Nature’s concept car,” and why the earthworm “has spent millions of years evolving in the dirt and detritus, yet peculiarly enough didn’t put in the little extra effort required to become a snake,” then you need to be reading Animal Review. . . . Since I wrote about his first installment last week, here's Anthony Lane's second dispatch from the Olympics. Sample: "Tennis carries with it such a halo of big money, and the players are so starkly defined by their individual gifts, that it’s hard to rethink it, for eight days, as an Olympic team game, ablaze with amateur good will. Hero worship, for all but a handful of Olympians, is the fleeting exception, whereas for tennis stars it’s the rule. Nadal, to his credit, looked delighted when he won the gold medal, but, as he tossed his wristbands to his fans, you could see, in their outstretched hands, a craving that no Olympics could ever sate: bring me the sweat of Rafael Nadal."

Monday, August 25, 2008

Weighing Newsworthiness

I saw this headline on the New York Times' site yesterday:
Henri Cartan, French Mathematician, Is Dead at 104
It made me think the paper could have just as easily run this headline the day prior:
Henri Cartan, French Mathematician, Is Alive at 104

Week's Preview

A final post about the track is immediately below, for the few of you who could possibly care. I'm back in Brooklyn tomorrow afternoon, and the rest of the week should be busy and decidedly non-equine in nature. It will include the next entry in my albums list, along with posts about Muriel Spark, termites, the Democratic convention, giraffes, a word that I like, and my father angrily reacting to a baseball game when he was nine years old. Also, at the request of one of my most loyal readers, and one of my favorites (OK, no fair; she's my sister), I'll be trying to put up a new ellipses post each day as an experiment.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Making Withdrawals, Finally

After three days of winning just enough each day to avoid comprehensive failure, I finally broke through at the track on Sunday. The last day is always the best time to do it, so that the NYRA doesn't have a chance to get it back from me. Yet.

I'll get to the winning details in a minute, but a quick(ish) story first:

One of the most charming aspects of Saratoga is the paddock, a beautiful area where the horses are saddled and the jockeys meet up with them before each race. One of my father's friends is a part owner of horses himself, and each year he's nice enough to use his pass to bring me into the paddock, where I can get photos like this without zooming or aiming over people's heads:

I go to the paddock several other times each year to take a pre-race peek at a horse's size or condition, because it's easy to get almost as close to the animals while standing outside the fence. (The people past the horse in the picture above are "outside" the paddock.) On Sunday, I went with two of our friends before the sixth race. (It was the first race for several of the entrants, and viewing them can be particularly useful when they don't have prior results.) The number-six horse, Cheering, went wild. I've seen horses act up in the paddock, but this was different. When the jockeys go up, the horses walk a path right along the fence, near lots of spectators. Cheering reared back, stayed in the air for several seconds, and when she came down she cracked a part of the fence into splinters. Her handler lost control of her, and it appeared that she was basically going to run free through the crowd. (She was maybe 30 yards from me at this point.) I took off like a shot. Soon after turning tail (along with scores of other people, like we were in a Godzilla movie), I heard someone say, "It's OK, it's OK." I was not going to take this person's word for it.

It turned out that the horse had changed direction and done her running free around the paddock. When I got back, one of our friends, someone about my age, said, "Man, you bolted. I hid behind that." He pointed to a fairly small structure that looked like the freestanding air-conditioning units you see outside homes in Texas, just a few feet away from us, which Cheering would have had to run around if she had made it that far. (Then again, her treatment of the fence just seconds before had made clear that she was fine running through things.)

I have an increased respect for the strength of a horse, and for the weakness of me.

Now, to the tickets: I started with a winner in the first, Anita Rosita, who led going into the stretch, looked beat, and then fought back to win by a hair on its nose. In the fifth, I won with my most confident pick of the day, It's Not For Love, who also barely won. I had the exacta there, too, with Upper Gulch in second. If the photo finish had gone the other way, which it would have if the finish line were about an eight of an inch further along, it would have just been another loss.

I not-so-slowly gave back my winnings -- and then some -- but the last two races sent me home a solid winner. In the feature race -- the Ballerina Stakes, which for some reason tends to be lucky for me each year -- I had the trifecta of Intangaroo, Miraculous Miss, and Sugar Swirl. In the finale, I had $10 on the exacta of Exonerated and Can She Dance.

The week would have earned an A even without the last-minute success at the track. The days were clear and sunny, the nights were cool and breezy, the food and drink were plentiful, and the ponies were thrilling. I came up here several summers as a kid, but it's hard to believe that next year will be my 10th visit since moving to New York as an adult. As always, I can't wait.
(Ed. Note: I've revised this post to reflect the fact that Cheering is, in fact, a filly. Cheering, if you're reading this, I apologize for confusing your gender. Please do not find me and stomp on me.)

"Just putting on the costume, walking around and waving, isn’t enough."

I think you'll find this instructional video very helpful. With the declining economy, one never knows when one will be forced into the mascot industry, an industry that, as John Maynard Keynes emphasized time and again, never slumps. This guide, produced, I'm guessing, in 1983 or so, was sent to me by a friend -- another JW -- who always keeps his eye out for solid mascot material for me. It includes quotes like, "Some kids are a little hesitant about letting Chuck E. touch them."

Smart kids.


Friday, August 22, 2008

When Playing Horses Like Lotto Pays Off

Like I said, I skipped the track today, and so I'm glad I don't have lucky numbers, and I'm even gladder that my lucky numbers aren't 5, 6, and 9. I do have numbers I like playing on hunches from time to time, but those aren't them.

Let's say you were born in May of 1969, or September of 1956, or let's say you're a very young degenerate who was born in June of 1995. Or maybe you've let yourself go and weigh 569 pounds. Whatever. Now let's say you were in Saratoga for just this weekend with a few friends, and you know nothing about the track, so you just bet a 5-6-9 trifecta box in every race. Those three horses can finish one-two-three in any order and you win. Well, in today's seventh race, you would have won $23,323. That's if you had bet two dollars ($12 total for the box, since there are six possible combinations). If you had made a one-dollar bet ($6 total), you would have gotten half that payoff. Of course, if you kept boxing those three numbers in every race, then over time -- a long time, granted -- you'd likely give it all back to the track.

The Harness Game

I’m taking today off from the track, saving up energy for the long card tomorrow, anchored by the Travers Stakes. Yesterday, I had another lackluster day salvaged (almost) by a late winner. The winner was Trouble Maker in the seventh race. She paid $13.60, but I had $5 on her, so that was $34 for me. Unluckily, the seventh was also the race in which I had the most opinions -- always a bad thing -- so I spent more on it than any other.

At night, my dad and I went to the Saratoga Gaming and Raceway facility, which used to be simply the harness racing track. But as times are, er, tough for harness racing, four years ago a slot-machine casino was added to the structure to maintain its heartbeat. Thursday night each year, Dad goes to the harness track to pay his respects. He used to visit more often in, say, the 1960s, when he says the track frequently attracted eight or nine thousand fans. These days, not so much:

There are more people inside the building, betting other tracks on simulcast TVs and playing slots, but most of them do not look like the happy, young, presumably employed folks on this promotional page.

This is only the second time I’ve accompanied Dad on his Thursday trip. I usually spend that night walking around town a bit. The harness game is an odd one, with terminology and strategy all its own. It’s normally dominated by favorites, so it was shocking that we didn’t see one of them win in the seven live races we caught. Of course, we also didn’t take advantage and cash in on any longer shots. My luck from the flats followed us over.

The horses themselves, with all of their bizarre, antiquated equipment, look like something out of a Matthew Barney film:


If Radiohead and The Hold Steady really do get into a feud, and it comes down to an alley brawl, I'm bettin' on the Yanks in that one. . . . A friend who blogs is reading Eve's Hollywood by Eve Babitz, and has funny thoughts to share here and here. . . . Obama says he's picked his VP, but won't reveal him or her yet. There's increasing chatter that it should (and will) be Hillary Clinton. I still don't believe he'd do that, but I am (obviously) curious about the pick.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

$4.70 Beats $0.00

The first day at the track was not a stunning success, but it didn't leave me flattened, either. I skipped a couple of races and bet modestly throughout the day. I failed to collect until the last race I bet, the Albany Stakes. Tin Cup Chalice entered the race undefeated in six starts, but as a New York-bred based at Finger Lakes, he wasn't considered as classy as two opponents who had run in Triple Crown races, even though they didn't tear them up. (Big Truck finished 18th in the Kentucky Derby; Icabad Crane took third in the Preakness but finished a distant eighth in the Belmont Stakes.) The trio all went off at essentially 2-1. I put two bucks on Chalice, who ran a great race. There was a lack of front-running speed, so he went out front, slowed down the pace, and held off a couple of rushes by rivals to win it by a head. I collected a whole $6.70. That's a net of $4.70 for those keeping the books, probably not enough to cover today's lunch. But cashing a ticket beats ripping it up, so I head out there this afternoon with a sense -- however small -- of momentum.


Is anyone familiar with the singer Candi Staton? For the past couple of decades, I think, she's been mostly known as a gospel singer. She was recently inducted into the Christian Music Hall of Fame. (Best fact I've learned in a while: The "hall" began life as the Christian Drummers Hall of Fame. Quite an exclusive group.) In 1975, Staton was making pop music, and I know this because I was listening to New York's very own Hot 97 FM the other day while showering -- not a regular habit; the Hot 97 listening, I mean -- and they played "Victim," which made my day. Click here and you can listen to it while gazing at the same Glamour Shot of Staton for eight minutes. There's a backbone of '70s cheese to the song, but the vocal is fantastic. And now, as always happens when you're made aware of someone, I see her name popping up in other places, like this playlist by writer Maud Casey.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Long Live Mr. Lane

Anthony Lane has several gems in his report from the first week of the Olympics. You should read the whole thing, but if you simply refuse, here are three excerpts. First, a thought on the opening ceremonies:
Nobody will ever surpass the mathematical majesty of that night in Beijing, and, in retrospect, that may be a good thing. It will be scant consolation, however, to Lord Coe. Formerly Sebastian Coe, part of the shining generation of British middle-distance runners in the nineteen-eighties, he now heads the team that will bring the Olympics to London in 2012. I tried to pick him out among the V.I.P.s on that first Friday, but without success. He may have been hiding in the men’s room, calling home to order more light bulbs. You can imagine the rising panic in his voice: “They had two thousand and eight drummers, all lit up. Yes, two thousand and eight. And what have we got so far? Elton John on a trampoline.”
Then, he champions The Complete Book of the Olympics by David Wallechinsky, which includes a great deal of entertaining trivia:
As for Eva Klobukowska, the Polish sprinter who won two medals at Tokyo, in 1964, and became the first athlete to fail a sex test, I wouldn’t have believed it were it not for the photograph supplied by Wallechinsky, which confirms that the lady in question resembled Harry Dean Stanton after an evening of rye and Lucky Strikes.
Lastly, some thoughts about water polo:
Wallechinsky’s guide was with me as I arrived for the water polo. Thanks to him, I was primed to note the fine distinctions between the three kinds of foul that can be committed in the course of a game; after a minute, I laid the book aside, having realized that all three were being committed all the time by everybody. The rules and infringements of this ancient sport are of a solemn complexity, but all are founded on the fundamental desire of one person to treat another as a tea bag. You find your opposite number, grab him (or her), and dunk, regardless of whether the ball is anywhere in the vicinity; neck-holding is especially popular, involving, as it does, much frantic splashing on the part of the drowner, and the whole exercise looks weirdly like a lifesaving class, except that the motive is reversed.

I Got the Horse Right Here

As I head off to the track for the first time this week, Wednesday's song is about a horse -- "Chips Ahoy!" by The Hold Steady:

(For an amateur video, but with a better sense of crowd freak-out, click here.)

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Archive of the Day

I head up to Saratoga in a couple of hours, and I'll be posting a lot from up there, some about horses, some not. For now, this from famous racing writer Joe Palmer, written when the Saratoga racing season was four weeks. It's now six.
For four wonderful sleepy weeks -- a small voice, calling itself experience, here says, "You mean sleepless weeks" -- racing makes at least a partial return to the unhurried, graceful and leisurely atmosphere in which it was born. This flavor lingers in but a few places and is consequently the more precious.

Saratoga has its critics, of course, but it is customarily shelled from long range. Let a man hang around the place for a while and drink his breakfast from the clubhouse porch and you have no more trouble with him. Saratoga is slightly contagious, though you can't catch it at Jamaica.

There is a story that Lily Langtry once upset Saratoga's slow decorum by appearing publicly in red slippers. She would have to go a little deeper than that now, for I suppose a man can see more curious things going up and down Saratoga's Broadway in the morning than he could see in the same time at the Bronx Zoo. But a man has no business on Broadway in the morning. He ought to be either at the race track or sensibly in bed.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Over at Pajiba, I review Woody Allen's latest:
There’s a great scene in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, a flashback that shows a young Annie talking to a spacey actor at a party. “Acting is like an exploration of the soul,” he opines. “It’s very religious, like a kind of liberating consciousness. It’s like a visual poem.” He then slumps toward the floor and says, “Touch my heart … with your foot.” Allen’s latest, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, is a closer examination of a guy like that and the women who love him.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Formidable Opponent (or Two)

A good week coming up around here. For me, at least. I hope you'll enjoy it, too.

In the meantime, here's a terrific post from Paper Cuts. The author of it, Gregory Cowles, participated in a game of Dictionary with Ammon Shea. Dictionary is a game in which players write fake definitions for words, hoping to fool other contestants into believing them. And -- oh, yeah -- Shea has recently read all 21,730 pages of the O.E.D. Among other winning qualities, the post features Shea's girlfriend, a former lexicographer who ends up stealing the scene. If you didn't see this when it went up last week, I strongly suggest starting this week with it. Enjoy.

Friday, August 15, 2008

An Interview With Darren Jessee

Darren Jessee was the drummer for Ben Folds Five, and he's now the leader of Hotel Lights, a band I've championed around here more than once. (That's Jessee at right. Photo credit: Debora Francis.) Spin has written, “with his new project, Hotel Lights, Jessee reveals a more aching, hushed side to his craft that owes as much to Sparklehorse (which, coincidentally, shares a member in guitarist Alan Weatherhead) as it does the lonely landscapes of Being There-era Wilco. And even in Jessee's most introspective moments, the sparkling folk-pop arrangements of Hotel Lights conjure a breezy autumn whimsy.” So, given that breezy autumn is mercifully approaching, it's only appropriate that Hotel Lights' sophomore full-length, Firecracker People, is coming out next Tuesday. I've heard it, and it's terrific. Jessee was kind enough to answer several questions by e-mail:

ASWOBA: What's the biggest difference for you, in terms of the creative process or otherwise, between being part of a band and being the leader of a band?

DARREN JESSEE: Well, writing songs would be the biggest creative difference. But I feel like I approach each project with the goal of making a great recording.

SW: What's your favorite place in the U.S. -- anywhere from a small town to a big city -- that you've visited while touring and might not have discovered otherwise?

DJ: Hmm...I first came to New York City on tour in 1994 and now it’s my home. I also love the midwest and northwest.

SW: A friend and I once played a parlor game: If you had to play a full night of songs from another songwriter's catalog, which songwriter would you choose and why? (This is a much more relevant question for you, since my friend and I aren't musicians. For the record, though, we both chose Paul Simon.)

DJ: Kool Keith! I dunno. I would just want to have fun with something like that. Maybe the Vasolines!

SW: Pardon the potentially sappy/silly tone of this, which is not how I mean it, but in listening to Hotel Lights songs -- both the instrumentation and the way it blends with your voice -- it seems that you're interested in sonic beauty in ways that not many current-day musicians are. Could you talk a little about whether I'm crazy, or if you think that's true.

DJ: I love atmosphere in music, and Hotel Lights is my vehicle to create it. I don’t really concern myself too much with what other artists are doing except to enjoy their music. I try to follow my gut and write some truth into a song if I can. I love good melodies with unexpected moves.

SW: If someone reading this hasn't heard Hotel Lights yet, and wants to download three songs to give you guys a test run (let's assume they're a cheap person), which three would you recommend? No reasons necessary.

DJ: Maybe . . . “You Come and I Go,” “Amelia Bright,” and “Small Town Shit.”

SW: What are three or four of your favorite songs from the Ben Folds Five years? (I think I read somewhere that you co-wrote "Wandering," which appeared on a solo e.p. of his. That's a favorite of mine.)

DJ: Oh, cool, glad you like “Wandering.” I’d pick “Julianne,” “Alice Childress,” “Brick,” and “Narcolepsy.”

SW: Heard anything good lately that you'd recommend? And how do you find out about most of the new music you listen to -- other musicians, magazines, online?

DJ: Yeah, I find out in all those ways, and mostly from my friends. I’d recommend James Yorkston if you like good mellow songwriters. I also love Richard Hawley.

SW: What's your favorite Beatles song?

DJ: Are you serious? Sorry, John, that’s an impossible question.

SW: What's the longest you've ever gone between first coming up with an idea for a song and recording it?

DJ: Eight years.

SW: Let's avoid the traditional "desert island discs" question. Instead, let's say for whatever ridiculous reason that you can only save three records -- one that reminds you of when you were 16, one that reminds you of when you were 23, and a third that you've been listening to a lot this year. What three records are we looking at?

DJ: At 16: The Replacements or The Cure. 23: Grandaddy or Richard Buckner. This year: Dylan -- the bootleg series.

SW: Lastly, the new Hotel Lights record, Firecracker People, which is out in a few days. How are you feeling now that it's almost out in the world?

DJ: I’ve always admired bands that make different sounding albums each time. I didn’t want to make the same sounding backdrop. I tried to keep moving sonically on the new album, and we had fun using Chamberlin keyboard samples and string samples to build arrangements behind my acoustic guitar. I hope that it’s all grounded by my singing and songwriting.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

AP Headline of the Day

Scientists Closer to Developing Invisibility Cloak

(Hat tip to PF and reader R.)

L.M. on D.Q.

I recently visited Booked Up, Larry McMurtry's mammoth used-book store (four separate buildings) in the tiny town of Archer City, Texas. It was a wonderful experience that I'll be writing about at greater length for someone else soon.

McMurtry's newest work is called Books, and it details his long, busy life as a collector. (Michael Dirda wrote a good piece about it in the New York Review of Books.) I'll read it eventually, but it's gotten mixed notices. In the meantime, I bought a copy of Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections at Sixty and Beyond, an earlier memoir by McMurtry that received more praise and also includes thoughts on bibliophilia. Its first sentence is a doozy, and seems out of character for someone who could so tersely name his latest:
In the summer of 1980, in the Archer City Dairy Queen, while nursing a lime Dr Pepper (a delicacy strictly local, unheard of even in the next Dairy Queen down the road -- Olney’s, eighteen miles south -- but easily obtainable by anyone willing to buy a lime and a Dr Pepper), I opened a book called Illuminations and read Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Storyteller,” nominally a study of or reflection on the stories of Nikolay Leskov, but really (I came to feel, after several rereadings), an examination, and a profound one, of the growing obsolescence of what might be called practical memory and the consequent diminution of the power of oral narrative in our twentieth-century lives.
In the next paragraph, he describes Dairy Queens as “taverns without alcohol.” I’m looking forward to this book.

The Way We Were

Vintage shots of U.S. cities from the middle of the 20th century. (Via Andrew Sullivan)

Dallas, 1953 (click to enlarge):

Balloons in the Movies

This is a great idea, remarkably beautiful in its execution:

(Via Very Short List)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Tick Tock, the List Don't Stop: 70-66

This week's batch is stuffed with guilty pleasures, arena riffs, and unearned teardrops, guaranteed to offend everyone in some way or other. Enjoy:

70. Journey -- Greatest Hits (1988)

There aren’t many hits compilations on this list, but for me, Journey exists as a compilation of hits. The idea that they even put out individual albums seems strange to me, despite the fact that I once owned the LP of Frontiers. Though the band formed in the early 1970s, and continues to this day with some kind of Steve Perry vocal doppelgänger they found online, they will always be associated with the 1980s, and how could they not be? For God's sake, the band’s music appeared in Caddyshack, The Last American Virgin, Vision Quest, and . . . TRON. Beat that superfecta.

Some might define Journey as a guilty pleasure, but those people have too strong a sense of shame. There’s nothing guilty about loving Steve Perry’s histrionics -- the man is a power ballad with legs. He even strikes stadium poses while barbecuing zucchini:

I’m not crazy about “Wheel in the Sky,” and I could do without the endless fadeout on “Lights,” but otherwise this collection is gold. “Don’t Stop Believin’” and “Separate Ways” are two of the great radio singles of all time (and if you’re not entertained by the video for the latter -- if you don’t like air keyboards -- then I don’t want to know you). Plus, “Faithfully” and “Open Arms” are jackhammer ballads. They will not be denied. Another of my favorites is the under-appreciated “Be Good to Yourself,” which closes the collection with Perry belting out the earnest plea of the title. I think I’ll go listen to it now...

69. Indigo Girls -- Indigo Girls (1989)

If you’re not an admirer, and you think I should be embarrassed to have this duo on my list, then please know that there were two additional albums of theirs in competition for a spot. I know, I know. From a fairly young age, I was a fan of (not exclusively) female singers, folk-influenced rock, and earnestness. So even though I’m less earnest now (I think), and even though I don’t have the love for this band that I did when I was 18, I do believe they get a bum rap. Sure, the worst of their songs (this is in the earlier years; I’m not familiar with their stuff after 1994) veer toward melodramatic confession or simplified social conscience. But the best of them benefit from smart guitar playing, the simultaneously gruff and plaintive harmonies, and the kind of mawkish (but sometimes pleasurable) passion that kids nowadays get from Fall Out Boy. I’ll make that trade.

And they get points for longevity. They met when they were in elementary school, they’re still making music together, and in between they lost to Milli Vanilli for the Best New Artist Grammy. This may not be their best record, but it gets the nod because it was the first I knew, and because R.E.M. provides energetic support on two songs.

68. Built to Spill -- There's Nothing Wrong with Love (1994)

More garage-y sounding and less epically structured than some of the band’s later work, this record is full of peppy guitar and funny lyrics like, “he thought he’d have a beer / he thought he was alone / he thought an Albertson’s stir-fry dinner would make his apartment a home.”

But the band’s sense of humor, also apparent in an album-closing track of song-parody snippets, isn’t its only strength. The slower stuff works, too, as it usually does for them. “Fling” is a beautiful, cello-accompanied song that reads, in its entirety, “since my fling with you / time went from popping off three times a day / to popping off three times a week / and it takes me a long time to come to the memory of us / one week later there’s melody / doing what I always waited for / and I didn’t stop her / but I didn’t lead her on.” Nothing Wrong has competition for my second-favorite record of theirs, but their best is a masterpiece that will appear much higher on the list.

67. Pearl Jam - Vs. (1993)

The only record Pearl Jam released before this one was Ten, which you can deny you loved at the time, but there’s a 90% chance you’re lying if you’re 35 or younger. Listening to it now, it still has a few strong songs, but the ones that were played a billion times -- “Alive,” “Even Flow,” “Black,” “Jeremy” -- ain’t them. After Vs., the band released the alternately very good and bratty/difficult Vitalogy, and after that they purposefully took themselves off the fast track and reduced their fan base to just the hardcore believers. There’s something admirable about the way they’ve managed their career, but Vs. seems to be the music’s peak. Tighter than the debut, and less self-conscious than everything that followed it, it shows off the band’s best sides: Fierce, brief workouts (“Go,” “Animal”), strummier radio hits (“Daughter”), pseudo-power-balladry (“Dissident”) and what I can only call Pearl Jam Songs (“Rearview Mirror”), which must mean something about the band’s singularity. And love or hate him, Eddie Vedder has rock n’ roll pipes, plain and simple, and he uses them to great effect throughout this record.

66. Bob Dylan -- Blonde on Blonde (1966)

My friend Brad coined a term many years ago: Nolan Ryan Syndrome. Ryan was pitching for the Texas Rangers at the time, and the area fans loved him beyond measure. So NRS refers to any athlete/musician/writer who is observably, even Hall-of-Fame-level great, but who still receives an irrational amount of love and respect. We’ve had many a discussion about whether or not someone qualifies. We’re nerds.

I don’t know if Brad would agree, but I think Dylan qualifies. He can be absurd (not in a good way), faux-deep, and when he’s those things, it suddenly matters that he can’t sing. But he’s also written a lot of great songs, and he was a compelling shape-shifter in the way that people wrongly applaud Madonna for (wearing and playing whatever’s fashionable at a given time, over and over, is not shape-shifting; it’s conformism). Blonde on Blonde is mostly Dylan at his best. My favorites here are “Visions of Johanna,” “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” and “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again.”


Appraising a New Blog

The latest addition to the blogroll is The Appraisal, an ongoing look at the art world by Sarah Douglas, one of the smartest people around. There are many proofs of her intelligence, but the most recent is her decision to post something about mascots. She's also written on the young blog (it's not yet three weeks old) about her recent trip to Beijing and an ongoing debate about a cartoon.

(Previously around here, Sarah recommended six books about art.)

Well, Is You?

For this Wednesday, a musical performance of a different sort. Enjoy:

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Man on Wire

Man on Wire, a documentary about French tightrope walker Philippe Petit, is not for acrophobics. But if you can bear to watch as Petit traverses the open air between cathedral domes and bridge supports and -- in the dramatic climax of the movie and Petit’s life -- the towers of the World Trade Center in New York, you should.

The film keeps a tight focus as it dramatizes the time leading up to the Twin Towers walk, which occurred in 1974, when Petit was 24 years old. There are wonderful home movies of an even younger Petit and friends frolicking in French fields and practicing on a wire, but the narrative doesn’t treat him as a full biographical subject. I had to go back to a 1999 profile of Petit in The New Yorker to learn that he was “an absurdly rebellious middle child in a bourgeois family,” whose father, a French Army pilot, was not thrilled to have a son interested in, to name a few, “magic, juggling, classical equitation, fencing, theatre, drawing, bullfighting.”

But while there isn’t a lot of background in the movie, there’s a lot of Petit, in the current day, describing his exploits in a charming, gesticulating manner. And there’s the gripping story of how someone, even in less security-obsessed times, could have pulled off such a spectacle. To its credit, the documentary never mentions the eventual fate of the towers (though there is a cheesy cartoon graphic of an airplane that pops up to show when Petit had traveled from Europe to America and back, which is unnerving and unnecessary), but of course the story is haunted by it. And I couldn’t help but feel that Petit’s conquest was the perfect contrast to what happened almost seven years ago. Here was someone from another culture, with his sights set on a particular symbol of grandeur, hellbent on committing a crime, obsessively questing to accomplish something that represented his life’s purpose. But what he did was brave and beautiful and disciplined, meant to inspire and bring joy. His sudden appearance in the sky that morning was an opposite argument for how to unleash human desire, a rebuke 27 years early.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Make-Believe Games

Norm Geras recently mentioned that sports are rarely treated “head-on” in fiction -- that athletics can provide some flavor to novels but aren’t often served as the main course. Geras believes this is partly due to fiction’s inability to capture the uncertainty of sports. And Mark Lawson, whose own post prompted Geras, argued that the best novels “aspire to universality” and there aren’t any truly universal sports.

These explanations probably have something to do with it, but I’d put forth another. Lawson writes, “At the most basic level, there is a perceived separation between sport and literature.” As someone who’s a dedicated (often obsessive) fan of both sports and literature, I would say the separation between the physical and intellectual realms is one that is exceedingly difficult to capture well in language. It’s not that this separation is hard to understand. It’s that we understand it on an intuitive level that makes trying to convey it in print awkward and unproductive. This may be the reason why even the best writers can embarrass themselves when they attempt sex scenes.

About a week ago, Mark Levine published an article in Play, the New York Times’ sports magazine, about Michael Phelps. I think this passage near the end of the piece perfectly captures the point:
I met Phelps, out of his element, in a lounge at the United States Olympic Training Center, following swim practice. He was not an eager conversationalist. He fidgeted, resisted eye contact and responded to my questions briefly and with little enthusiasm. After 20 minutes, there was a pronounced silence between us. I'd like to think I understood the discomfort of the meeting. Yes, he was probably tired after practice; no doubt he was run down by endless obligations to the media. Above all, though, it seemed that Phelps was signaling the basic difference between his world and mine, between swimming and talking about it. In his medium, language is secondary; self-reflection can cost hundredths or tenths of a second. "My job is to be in the water and swim," he told me. "That's about it." I asked him what went through his mind during a race. "Nothing. I just get in the water and race." Phelps was telling it like it was, without any land-based need for elaboration, analysis or metaphor.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Stunning Comeback

Oh, wow. If Michael Phelps gets his eight golds -- which would be an Olympic record -- he'll have Jason Lezak to thank. In the last leg of tonight's 4x100 relay, Lezak overcame a deficit to the French that you just don't see swimmers overcome. With maybe ten strokes left, it looked impossible that he would make up the distance. With three strokes left, it still looked improbable. Amazing.

There will be plenty of time to trash the Olympics -- because it's still a bloated, network-driven, human-"interest"-stuffed bore most of the time, hosted by China to boot. But that was the most thrilling athletic moment that I've seen in a while. Phelps' face when he looked to the scoreboard to see who had won -- the margin of victory was eight hundredths of a second -- could be the defining image of the games, though his face after winning an eighth race might have something to say about that. Here's hoping.

Friday, August 08, 2008

AP Headline of the Day

10-Year-Old Bullfighter Sparks Debate in France

Thursday, August 07, 2008

You Think Basements Are Scary

At Intelligent Life, J. M. Ledgard writes about the deep black sea:
In many respects, the ocean is more hostile than space. Even with a futurist exoskeleton, the human body is too liquescent to contemplate stepping onto an ocean floor. There will never be a Neil Armstrong moment. Space flight is about weightlessness, speed, and the pressure inside the capsule against the airless void outside. Ocean descent is about weight, slowness, tonnes of sea water bearing down, and the discomfiting realisation that humans are alien to most of our own planet. Space offers a sighted journey towards infinity, the ocean a blind journey towards finitude.
If you're not completely fascinated by the ocean floor, then, among other things, you haven't seen the BBC series The Blue Planet, and particularly the episode called "The Deep." (I briefly mentioned the documentary in a post about giant squid.) Part one of "The Deep" is below. You can get the rest online as well:

Raymond Talks to Ian

This is the best thing I've tripped over in quite a while.

In 1958, Ian Fleming had a conversation with Raymond Chandler on the BBC. It's said to be the only existing record of Chandler's voice. When Fleming picked him up to go to the studio, Chandler's voice was "slurred with whiskey," but in the interview both men sound like they're at the end of a long night.

According to the BBC reporter who introduces the segment, Chandler lived in London as a youth and "never lost a rather dreamy love of England." Once he became a writer (relatively late in life), there was a more practical side to the love, too. Chandler didn't suffer from crippling humility -- "I may be the best writer in (the U.S.)," he once noted -- and he appreciated that he was taken more seriously in the UK, where his chosen genre didn't keep critics from favorably reviewing his work alongside Literature.

The conversation between the two -- which you can hear in its entirety here -- is fantastic. It can be hard to make out their words at times, but it's worth the effort. I've listened twice through now, and I imagine I'll listen a few more times in the coming days, just to feel like I'm in the company of these . . . well, these crazy old men.

I'll share two of my favorite exchanges here, but both are greatly enhanced by the tone of their voices. Chandler does sound a little "relaxed" throughout, and Fleming has that terrific British way of responding to stories of graft and murder with interstitial murmurs of "Hmm, yes," and "Quite." In this first bit, Fleming has noted that someone was recently murdered in New York, and asks how something like that might go down. Chandler explained that a syndicate in New York might, say, hire a few guys to come in from Minneapolis, case the target, do the deed, and get out of town. I pick up the conversation there:
Ian Fleming: How much do they get paid for that, each?

Raymond Chandler: 10,000.

IF: 10,000 each?

RC: Mm-hm. If it’s an important man. That’s small money for a syndicate.

IF: Yes. And then they go back to their jobs in the hardware stores in, uh, Minneapolis.

RC: Yes. Oh, it ain’t personal.

IF: Yeah, they don’t mind one way or the other.

RC: They don’t care anything about the man, they don’t care whether he’s dead or alive. It’s just a job to them. Of course, they have to be a certain sort of people, or they wouldn’t do it. I mean, they’re not like us. We wouldn’t do it.

IF: No. (pause) Difficult thing to imagine doing.

RC: Well, I’ve known people I’d like to shoot.

IF: For instance. Anybody in England?

RC: No, not in England.

IF: What do you want to shoot them for?

RC: I just thought they were better dead.
In this second excerpt, Fleming has noted that he's just finished a new James Bond novel:
RC: What’s it called?

IF: It’s called Goldfinger.

RC: Which?

IF: Goldfinger.

RC: How can you write so many books with all the other things you do?

IF: Well, I sit down and...I have two months off in Jamaica every year, in my contract with the Sunday Times, and I sit down and I write a book every year during those two months. And then I bring it back...

RC: I can’t write a book in two months.

IF: Well, but then you write better books than I do.

RC: Well, that may be or may be not. But I still can’t write a book in two months. The fastest book I ever wrote, I wrote in three months.
(Via Detectives Beyond Borders)

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

17th-Century Maxims for Today

The latest entry in Norm Geras' "Writer's choice" series is from Alain de Botton, who writes about his appreciation for La Rochefoucauld's Maxims. An early (and still one of the best) aphorist, La Rochefoucauld was withering. He wrote, "How comes it that our memories are good enough to retain even the minutest details of what has befallen us, but not to recollect how many times we have recounted them to the same person?"

It is this droll cynicism that de Botton loves most about Maxims. He writes:
La Rochefoucauld was writing in order to hold up a mirror to his own age, but unwittingly, he speaks for others down the centuries, and perhaps never more clearly than to our own time, because what La Rochefoucauld hates above all is sentimentality, and there are perhaps few more sentimental periods than our own. That's why the maxim of his that is most quoted concerns romantic love. It seems almost designed to shock us away from our taste in emotional melodrama, Hollywood films and saccharine pop music: 'Il y a des gens qui n'auraient jamais été amoureux s'ils n'avaient jamais entendu parler de l'amour' ('There are those who would never have fallen in love had they never heard love being talked about').
It's true that La Rochefoucauld is at his best when deconstructing us, but like most people who openly disdain sentimentality, he was capable of it himself. After all, another of his maxims goes, "The accent of one's birthplace persists in the mind and heart as much as in speech."

(Not too long ago, I started an Aphorism of the Week feature around here, which was short-lived. But I do hope to post them from time to time. I'll just have to rename the feature Aphorism of Time to Time.)

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

"What do you mean somethin' funky is goin' down, man?"

Since I haven't had time for other posts today, I'll save them for tomorrow and give you the Wednesday song a day ahead of time instead. Deal?

This is Marvin Gaye doing "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1980. This version is most notable for the dramatic reenactment that precedes the song. Oh, and try to catch the brief sighting of the tambourine player starting around the 2:57 mark; he's pretty great, too. Enjoy:

Monday, August 04, 2008

A Superhero From Scratch

I'm reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and I thought this bit of dialogue early in the book was appropriate to share, given the current box office king. The discussion is between the titular characters, who are trying to create a protagonist for a comic book:
"Who is he," Joe said.

"Who is he, and what does he do?"

"He flies."

Sammy shook his head. "Superman flies."

"So ours does not?"

"I just think I'd..."

"To be original."

"If we can. Try to do it without flying, at least. No flying, no strength of a hundred men, no bulletproof skin."

"Okay," Joe said. The humming seemed to recede a little. "And some others, they do what?"

"Well, Batman--"

"He flies, like a bat."

"No, he doesn't fly."

"But he is blind."

"No, he only dresses like a bat. He has no batlike qualities at all. He uses his fists."

"That sounds dull."

"Actually, it's spooky. You'd like it."