Saturday, February 28, 2009
Friday, February 27, 2009
Wood on Drums
(Via Paper Cuts)
Some of this stuff looked too good to be true, especially after I noticed that the site also contains a selection of UFO videos.
(Via Andrew Sullivan)
I'm late to the party in saying this, but Bobby Jindal was awful on Tuesday night. A thankless job? Absolutely. A speech that was probably approved by a committee of Republican operatives? Sure. But the problem was one of tone, and of intelligence not used. In arguing for Obama's candidacy, and in continuing to appreciate him as president, I mostly note his affect. Among other things, he's someone who is comfortable being intelligent in front of us. Compare that to Jindal, who has a reputation as a detail wonk but chose to build his speech around the astoundingly tone-deaf (and vapidly delivered) theme of "Americans can do anything," which he repeated until I wanted to choke him.
Jindal chose to address us like Mister Rogers would, but the most stunning thing to me was when he brought up Hurricane Katrina. I understand the political need for even Republicans to distance themselves from an unpopular president, but Jindal spoke about the natural disaster in the context of questioning the ability of federal government to help out. As Jon Stewart said, "So, because the Republican administration screwed the pooch, a Democratic administration shouldn't even try?"
You don't have to be Kanye West to believe that the response to Katrina was subpar. The head of FEMA did lose his job over it. And even though Jindal has been, on principle, saying that he doesn't want federal money with strings attached, the federal government has agreed to give the cash-poor state of Louisiana nearly $4 billion dollars to help with recovery. I'm not a fan of government as the answer to everything. But there are things the federal government is uniquely qualified to do, like, oh, I don't know, give massive aid to an ailing region. The right's inability to muster a message more nuanced than "Government bad" is the reason it's in the woods.
As you were.
Thursday, February 26, 2009
"Not many girls can climb the pole."
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
A New Project
A Special Way of Being Afraid isn’t going anywhere. The Second Pass is a different, bigger venture -- I will be writing occasional reviews (and running the blog), but several distinguished writers have signed on to contribute. In short, it will be a bigger tent. Also, a talented friend of mine designed the site, and it looks terrific.
There will obviously be lots more about this in the days ahead, but I just wanted to plant the thought. If you’re hungry for fresh, frequently updated online books coverage, I hope you’ll visit often and send the link to all the book lovers in your life...
1. Poet: W. B. Yeats, Philip Larkin
2. Playwright: Bill Shakespeare
3. Novelist: Dostoyevsky
4. Composer: J. S. Bach, Mozart
5. Jazz musician: Miles Davis
6. Rock or pop star/group: The Beatles
7. Country music ditto: Hank Williams
8. Movie director: Alfred Hitchcock
9. Painter: Rembrandt, Picasso
Wednesday's Song, DIY
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
The Two Readers Project, Ch. 5
From The Early Stories, 1953-1975
(For an explanation of the series, see here)
I first read “Giving Blood” (though I don’t remember it, in particular) in college, as part of Too Far to Go, a collection of John Updike’s stories about the Maples, Richard and Joan, and their failing marriage. (It seems that Everyman’s Library is publishing a new edition of the book this August.)
It’s one of the few books that I’ve lost over the years, but I remember greatly appreciating it, perhaps because I was not-so-unconsciously dealing with my own parents’ divorce, though they’re quite different from the Maples. In “Giving Blood,” the couple is driving to a hospital in Boston to donate a pint each for a distant relative. Richard is exhausted and cranky; Joan is accusatory, chiding him for dancing with another woman during a recent party. We are immediately immersed in WASP disquietude.
Relative to some other stories about the Maples, which deal more thoroughly with their internal feelings or their impact on others, “Giving Blood” is slight. It combines the spousal carping of a sitcom with the somewhat detached suburban-emotional philology of the mid-century New Yorker short story that Updike, after Cheever, helped to patent.
My friend Tim -- the other reader in this “project” -- tends to cite the text more than I do, so I’ll try to make up for that by discussing Updike’s prose, which is famously meticulous. I’ve always been of the minority opinion that his prose (at least in fiction) is hit or miss -- not in its rhythm or craft, but in its intended effects. Just in the span of two sentences, we get “an elevator chuckled remotely,” which makes no sense to me, and “a middle-aged woman top-heavy with rouge and fur,” which is terrific. Then, as Richard and Joan lie on the tables, doing what the title of the story says, there is a wonderful moment when Richard, watching Joan get pierced first, focuses on the inner crook of his wife’s arm. He’s thinking of how he used to stroke that spot in their “courting days,” when suddenly, “without visible transition, the pale tendril planted here went dark red.” Richard was expecting some kind of gradual flow, but instead he’s shocked by “The instant readiness of her blood to leave her body...” That was my favorite moment in the story.
I’m picky about dialogue, and when Joan says, early on, “You honestly are hateful. It’s not just a pose,” I didn’t believe it. Likewise, in the opening page or two, Richard says a couple of things (one about his daily routine and another about his wife’s New England brand of smugness) that struck me as too planted. I found myself wishing that Updike had taken some of those things back from his characters and simply said them himself.
“Giving Blood” has a few lovely moments, and as I said, I would recommend reading the whole collection of Maple stories. But what struck me, at the very beginning and end of the story, was a shorthand for married malaise (similar to Don DeLillo’s shorthand for suburban malaise) that sounded lazy. I pushed to explore past that judgment -- because John Updike is John Updike, and I’m the guy with a blog -- and I think timing may have something to do with it. Perhaps in the ’60s and ’70s, the subject matter of superficially comfortable but emotionally disturbed postwar marriage was fresh enough. I’ve been reading knockoffs of this stuff my whole life, which might leach the original of some of its power.
In the beginning, we learn that the Maples have been married nine years, “which is almost too long.” And at the end, we get this, as Richard realizes he doesn’t have enough money on him to pay for a meal they just finished, and looks across at Joan:
Her hands dropped to the pocketbook beside her on the seat, but her gaze stayed with him, her face having retreated, or advanced, into that porcelain shell of uncanny composure. “We’ll both pay,” Joan said.That last line is so purposely cryptic and doubly intended that it rankled. Still, I was glad that Tim chose this story and pushed me to meet the Maples again.
Monday, February 23, 2009
Archive: "The game's true function was to provide material for the man who operated the screen."
The game that evening was between the Astros and the Mets, and it was obvious from the first pitch that most of the fans would not have bothered to sit through such a limp contest had it been taking place anywhere else. Even in the Dome, many of them might have left the game had it not been for the big electronic screen in centerfield. The game's true function was to provide material for the man who operated the screen. Whenever the Mets got a runner as far as second base the screen showed a foolhardy Met being smashed into the dust by a plummeting Astro, after which the word WHOA! appeared and the fans yelled WHOA! Usually this was sufficient to stop the Mets cold.
Later in the game, when the Astros unleashed the full fury of their normally inconspicuous attack, the screen assisted them on practically every pitch. When an Astro got on base there was a blast of heraldic trumpets and a little cavalryman (Teddy Roosevelt?) thundered across the screen, sabre raised. the word CHARGE! appeared, and the fans yelled CHARGE! Sometimes, instead of the cavalryman, a fierce little black bull came on and dashed about. When an Astro performed some particularly daring feat of base-running (like not getting picked off) the screen flashed OLE! and the fans yelled OLE! If the Astros push across two or three runs in one inning the trumpets and the charges and the bull and the cavalryman have the crowd in such a state of frenzy that the one thing they want to do is yell CHARGE! again.
It is fascinating to ponder the possible uses to which screen and scoreboard might be put. Billy Graham, for instance, finds the Dome a good place to crusade -- but would a conversion be the equivalent of a home run or a single? When would one yell CHARGE?
A Friend Talks Process
I think I can appreciate all of it as part of a larger learning process, because--economic realities aside--that's what novel-writing is. That doesn't mean I don't get frustrated, or worried, of course, but there is far more to learn from failure than success. Every book is perfect in my mind and a failure on the page; this one just happened to fail earlier and for more obvious reasons. I hope that every book is a slightly better failure than the last, but I can't see ever reaching a point where I bang something out and think I've hit all my marks.
Sunday, February 22, 2009
Random Oscar Thoughts
(Commercial break: That new movie with Robert Downey, Jr. and Jamie Foxx, The Soloist, looks like an early candidate for Worst Major Release of 2009.)
The medley of songs performed by Jackman and Beyonce was a disaster. As such, it came as absolutely no surprise that it was put together by Baz Luhrmann. . . . Hard not to choke up at the Ledgers accepting the award for their son and brother, though someone in the room I'm in says that the family isn't giving any of his money to his baby daughter. If so, that's pretty crummy. . . . Benjamin Button is winning a lot of technical awards. You'd still have to pay me a minimum of $100 to sit through it. . . . Man, Will Smith stocked up on the Soul Glo before showing up. . . . This mixture of John Legend and the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack, to succinctly quote someone in the room, "isn't working." . . . The Indian producer of the Slumdog Millionaire score said "God is great" during his acceptance speech. Bill Maher -- the truly insufferable Bill Maher -- earlier said that "our gods are silly," or something to that effect. I think the two should brawl.
The In Memoriam section is always heartbreaking pleasure. Paul Newman! Paul Newman! And Sydney Pollack and so many others, and Queen Latifah singing in person was a nice touch. . . . (Commercial break: Someone in the room approves of True North's campaign, which features people who run charitable businesses. To quote: "I'm liable to buy those nuts.") . . . Anne Hathaway, who was both a good sport and really impressive in the musical number at the top of the show, seems to be cherishing this introduction by Shirley MacLaine. Nice moment. . . . Halle Berry is smoking. Smo. King. . . . Sophia Loren is creepy. Cree. Py. . . . Kate Winslet is terrific. I can't remember a younger actor more deserving of a career-type award. This is her first Oscar, and I imagine she'll win more. . . . Pretty impressive lineup of former Best Actors here. I miss seeing the clips from movies, but it's cool to have things like Ben Kingsley talking about Mickey Rourke. I hope Rourke wins. . . . He doesn't. Wow. I like Sean Penn, but Rourke was just too good to ignore. That's a shame. Lovely closing note about Rourke by Penn, though.
This mashing of clips from Best Picture nominees with older winners is terrible, reaching its nadir with Milk and Braveheart. . . . Slumdog wins it. I'm not going to say it was as slight and TV-movie-ish as Crash, but it was damn close. The little kids were great, though, as a friend is pointing out, and like her, I'm happy for them.
That's a wrap. The show itself was pretty good this year. Too bad I saw barely any of the movies. Or maybe not too bad.
Saturday, February 21, 2009
Supreme Leader Would Like Some Gum
A friend of mine added this potential caption: "Hmmm, now which one of these is almond?"
The shot comes from a terrific blog on the Boston Globe's site called The Big Picture. I highly recommend it, including the series of "at work" shots where I got the photo above, and this series from above London.
(Via The Morning News)
Labels: Dictators and Candy
Friday, February 20, 2009
That's actually not the bad part for Bango. He then hammed it up, falling through the rim, in what one source called "a sickening twisting of limbs, hooves and antlers." (That same source includes a great photo of Bango with its coverage.)
Long story short, Bango tore his ACL and needs surgery. Watch the clip below, and tell me that mascots don't earn their keep. I wouldn't call it "sickening," more like "inappropriately hilarious," as Bango rolls around on the floor at the end, nobly picking himself up and hopping toward the locker room for emergency care.
Thursday, February 19, 2009
AP Headline(s) of the Day
Woman OK After Bullet Ends Up in Her Hair Weave
The Determined Biographer
Caro, of course, is even better known for his three-volumes-and-counting biography of Lyndon Johnson. He's 73 now, and hard at work on the fourth and final installment. I can't say LBJ interests me enough to make it through four lengthy books, but I do own the first one, which I may get to before too long. We'll see if it sends me along to the second, and so on. This Newsweek profile details, among other things, Caro's strict discipline, which manifests itself in his office and his apartment:
Even Caro's home is governed by a code he created to keep himself productive and sane. The Caros' Upper West Side apartment is filled with books, his collection and hers, but none sit in the dining or living rooms. "When he's at home, he doesn't want to think about his work," Ina explains. Indeed, though they have each devoted their lives to him for more than three decades, the Caros have a policy of not discussing Lyndon Johnson, at dinner or anywhere else. Ina presents her research to Bob in typed reports, which her husband then marks up. "I know what he's looking for without him telling me," she explains. She rarely reads his work until it is in manuscript form.(Via The Browser)
The Neglected West
After the success of his first book, Maclean was approached in 1981 by an editor at Knopf publishing, which had rejected the novel but was eager to take on his next project. Maclean wrote back in compacted fury.I really wish people wrote letters like that more often these days.
“If the situation ever arose when Alfred A. Knopf was the only publishing house remaining in the world and I were the sole surviving author,” Maclean wrote, “that would mark the end of the world of books.”
In the introduction to his 1968 book of essays about Texas, In a Narrow Grave, McMurtry, who's quite conflicted about the West himself, wrote:
Being a writer and a Texan is an amusing fate, and one that gets funnier as one's sense of humor darkens. In times like these it verges on the macabre. Apparently there was a time in the forties and fifties when people sort of enjoyed reading about Texas, if the reading was light enough. The state was thought to be different -- another country, almost. It had Nieman-Marcus and the Alamo and a lot of rather endearing millionaires. . . . Alas, all is changed. We aren't thought of as quaintly vulgar anymore. Some may find us dangerously vulgar, but the majority just find us boring.
As anyone who was reading this blog way back in March 2007 knows, I take the steroids issue seriously. But I’m having a really hard time getting worked up about this story. Of course, the New York press, whose steno pads and radio booths are always set to Stun, have no such problem.
The New York Times wrote: "the fact that (Rodriguez) is now admitting he took performance-enhancing substances for several seasons will damage his image and his legacy as a player."
True. But when do the era and the sport get equally damaged? Hundreds of players took these drugs. It isn’t like only the three best players in the game took them and that fully explains their dominance. The sport did an awful job of policing itself. And the players’ union, which has a record of successful bullying that makes the UAW look like the Washington Generals, continues to ignore the minority of players who wisely want to open up the books on cheaters.
But to keep acting shocked when it's discovered that players used in the past is ridiculous. Shock? The Mark McGwire scandal broke in 1998.
Besides, what exactly do steroids do? Hitting home runs takes strength, but in order to utilize that strength, you have to do a lot of complicated things right before the bat even hits the ball. I’m not defending Bonds, or any steroid users, but if just pumping yourself up with steroids was what it took to win seven MVP awards in baseball, we might see people like this winning them. (Apologies to the woman in that photo, who I’m not accusing of using. The only thing that would lead me to suspect she does is that she looks like the offspring of this and this.)
Hank Aaron himself, being a bit too gracious, still makes the point:
I don’t know if Barry would have hit as many home runs or hit them as far — if that’s the case that he did use steroids — but I still don’t think it has anything to do with him having the kind of baseball career that he had. . . . He could have had an excellent career, regardless of what he did. So it would be something that I don’t think the commissioner would like to get involved in, really.It’s something the fans like to get involved in, and have. If the sport won’t punish its cheaters, the fans will. (Has a great player ever been missed in his sport less than Bonds was last year?)
After the strike and the lost World Series of 1994, baseball was widely believed to have tampered with its balls (er...), making it easier to hit home runs. And stadiums got smaller over the past two decades. On the other hand, I’m sure many of the players on steroids were pitchers (hi, Roger), making it, presumably, correspondingly more difficult to hit home runs off of them. In short, when you add up all the variables it’s hardly clear what exact impact steroids have had on the game. And when steroids of a different kind are routinely used to help players get over injuries, etc., the picture becomes even more muddled. What is clear is that using certain drugs is cheating, and that Major League Baseball -- led by its uber-schmucks, Bud Selig and Donald Fehr -- has no idea how to crack down with any efficiency, effectiveness, or guts.
Given the sport’s history -- with its earlier institutionalized racism, its various recreational drugs, and the pitchers (some of them in the Hall of Fame) who brag about having scuffed the ball in all kinds of innovative ways -- it’s not like the steroid scandal has to be a uniquely terrible chapter. But that’s only if it’s contained. If baseball would stop protecting its cheaters, and implement a strong, sensible testing policy, maybe we could move past this nonsense.
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Joan for Wednesday
Labels: Joan Osborne
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Monday, February 16, 2009
Sharon Jones, Supernova
From my new exploration, the records sound great. But in person, that's something different. Jones is 53 going on 54, and she never stopped moving (and moving hard) for more than two hours. Funk, soul, gospel, she can sing them all. This clip below is a cover of Marva Whitney's "Things Got to Get Better" that the band played at a Brooklyn club four years ago. (The club is very small, and two blocks from where I live. I'm now very upset.) Anyway, she had a much bigger stage on which to run around Saturday night, and in this clip she seems absolutely sedate compared to when I saw her. Think about that. And go see this band.
Labels: Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings
Sunday, February 15, 2009
Maybe because of her hard childhood, it seems as if Case has created not only her music and her art and her sewing and her decor but also her very self out of patches and pieces. Somehow she managed to shore up her fragments against a meaningless life of drugs and poverty and oblivion. It could easily have gone the other way. After leaving her friend's parents' basement in Tacoma, she says: "I was pretty floaty. I didn't have any idea about mortality. My life was like the scene in 'Roger Rabbit,' where the guy goes into the cartoon world." Finally, and paradoxically, it was her very anger about neglect that appears to have driven her away from self-destruction and toward music. "I was a mad kid," she says. "I was sick of being poor. I was sick of being a girl. I felt completely unimportant, I didn't matter to the world, and I was just going to get love any way I could."
Thursday, February 12, 2009
Sasha on Sasha
I would also take Hornby, please, over current New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones, because Hornby eschews the common pop-crit practice of writing incomprehensible sentences, like this one:
The Knowles empire is delicately balanced on one of the thinnest-known edges in pop feminism: as unbiddable as Beyoncé gets, she never risks arrant aggression; and as much of hip-hop's confidence and sound as she borrows, she never drifts to the back of the classroom.That comes from Frere-Jones' most recent, a mystifying essay about Beyoncé. He writes that, "To underestimate Knowles and her rotating cast of backup singers is to find yourself on the business end of a No. 1 song." Who is this doing the underestimating? And in the current world of No. 1 songs, what does that accomplishment say about an artist's real worth? And how is focusing on chart position any different than White's critique of Hornby's "commodity fetishism"?
Frere-Jones goes on to call Beyoncé a "strange and brilliant musician," with no back-up in sight for either adjective. In fact, Frere-Jones himself seems mostly underwhelmed by the singer's work. He writes that her success must testify to something "deeply appealing about her," because:
. . . her first album, "Dangerously in Love" (2003), has three good songs, at best; her second, "B'Day" (2006), is completely enjoyable; and her new one, "I Am . . . Sasha Fierce" (featuring a supposedly new, wilder alter ego), is something of a mess.After more lukewarm response, he writes, "For all that, liking Beyoncé is still a wise bet."
What does that mean? A wise bet financially? (Who in their right mind would think otherwise?) A wise bet to like her at cocktail parties? Who cares? Near the end, there's this:
What Knowles fails to convey with Sasha Fierce she accomplishes in the movie "Cadillac Records," with her portrayal of someone who headlines in the Genius Lounge—Etta James. When Beyoncé rolls her body and her voice into James's music, the results are not safe. Her version of James is a worthy tribute to the sexuality and craft of the woman we know from her Chess recordings. Why Knowles could not make her own record as spontaneous and magnetic probably has something to do with the Knowles vision of Beyoncé's fans and how much actual fierceness they can take.Forget that the brief clips I saw of Beyoncé as James seem like Hollywood's usual over-emoting. The reason she doesn't make records like Etta James might have something to do with the fact that she's not that great, a notion that Frere-Jones never floats.
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
An Overrated "Classic"
I read Malcolm's book about a year ago, and detested it. I had recently finished Fatal Vision, Joe McGinniss' bestselling account of a murder trial. Malcolm's book concerns another trial -- between McGinniss and the subject of Fatal Vision, Jeffrey MacDonald, who thought McGinniss was his friend until the book came out (in it, McGinniss suggests MacDonald gruesomely killed his wife and children). Malcolm's book, widely hailed as a classic, is ostensibly a look at the complicated relationship between journalists and their subjects. But told in a voice maddeningly self-righteous, it's actually a thin, unconvincing meditation on the whole affair.
You can think McGinniss' actions were shady, and that his book is sometimes salacious (but it's also compulsively readable; it's 700+ pages and I finished it in about a week), but there were jurors who agreed with McGinniss, and not because they had read his book. Reading Malcolm, you wouldn't know that. In her effort, she seems to use McGinniss' questionable behavior to rehabilitate MacDonald's image, and like a few other readers, I was basically repulsed.
Thought for the Day
Delay is natural to a writer. He is like a surfer — he bides his time, waits for the perfect wave on which to ride in. Delay is instinctive for him. He waits for the surge (of emotion? of strength? of courage?) that will carry him along. I have no warm-up exercises, other than to take an occasional drink.(Via Maud Newton)
Love's a Crazy Game
Labels: Stevie Wonder
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Coupons for Hell
Indulgences, which, like many religious rituals, somehow come across as both inordinately complex and insultingly simple, are “a spiritual benefit that fell out of favor decades ago,” but are being brought back, in part, to remind Catholics of “the church’s clout in mitigating the wages of sin.”
Confused? I think that’s part of the point; unless you’re confused about the church’s clout, in which case, get thee to a pew, stat. Another attempt to explain this, from the article:
According to church teaching, even after sinners are absolved in the confessional and say their Our Fathers or Hail Marys as penance, they still face punishment after death, in Purgatory before they can enter heaven. In exchange for certain prayers, devotions or pilgrimages in special years, a Catholic can receive an indulgence, which reduces or erases that punishment instantly, with no formal ceremony or sacrament.Way to reduce God to a haggling bureaucrat. (“Well, you can get out of the Saturday shift if you stay late on Thursday and Friday. But that’s my best offer.”)
There are partial indulgences, which reduce purgatorial time by a certain number of days or years, and plenary indulgences, which eliminate all of it. You can get one for yourself, or for someone else, living or dead. You cannot buy one — the church outlawed the sale of indulgences in 1857 — but charitable contributions, combined with other acts, can help you earn one. There is a limit of one plenary indulgence per sinner per day.
One church “announced that any Catholic could receive an indulgence at any of six churches on any day, or at dozens more on specific days...” I believe the Charlotte Stone Crabs are offering a similar promotion this summer: A free indulgence for everyone in attendance anytime a Stone Crab steals a base in the fifth inning!
“Why are we bringing it back?” asked Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio of Brooklyn, who has embraced the move. “Because there is sin in the world.”Well, that, and because there aren’t many people in church. In short, business is bad:
“(Indulgence is) not that easy to explain to people who have never heard of it,” said the Rev. Gilbert Martinez, pastor of St. Paul the Apostle Church in Manhattan, the designated site in the New York archdiocese for obtaining indulgences. “But it was interesting: I had a number of people come in and say, ‘Father, I haven’t been to confession in 20 years, but this’ ” — the availability of an indulgence — “ ‘made me think maybe it wasn’t too late.’ ”You don’t say. I’m sure that many other businesses suffering through a downturn wish they could, say, knock a few hours off Purgatory every time you buy a lawnmower. Maybe they should just start saying they can. I expect to see signs going up in windows soon: "50% Off (Your Time Spent in Spiritual Prison!!!)"
Getting Catholics back into the confession booth, in fact, was one of the underlying motivations for reintroducing the indulgence.
I’ll give the last word to the eminently sensible Karen Nassauer, a 61-year-old retired hospital social worker who attends Mass nearly every day, and is quoted in the article:
“I mean, I’m not saying (that bringing back indulgences) is necessarily wrong,” she said. “But I had always figured they were going to let this fade into the background, to be honest. What does it mean to get ‘time off’ in Purgatory? What is ‘five years’ in terms of eternity?”
Monday, February 09, 2009
Italian Woman In Right-To-Die Debate Dies
Logic and the Champ
I recently finished reading The Book of Dead Philosophers by Simon Critchley. (I’m writing a longer review of it for a forthcoming project.) It’s a compendium of the ways in which 190 philosophers have died, and any profound (or absurd) words they may have uttered upon departing.
It includes this anecdote about A. J. Ayer, which is also included in a biography of the philosopher, and is related with no “allegedly” in sight -- meaning this is accepted as true, and therefore a strong contender for Best Thing Ever:
Stories about Ayer are legion. Many people know the incident when Ayer confronted Mike Tyson, at the time heavyweight boxing champion of the world. (ASWOBA note: Ayer was in his 70s at the time.) It took place in Manhattan at the party of Fernando Sanchez, a fashionable underwear designer (not many philosophers get invited to underwear designer parties). Ayer was talking to a group of models when a woman rushed in saying that a friend was being assaulted in the next room. Ayer went to the rescue and discovered Mike Tyson trying to force himself on a young British model called Naomi Campbell. Ayer warned Tyson to take his hands off her, to which Tyson replied, “Do you know who the f*** I am? I’m the heavyweight champion of the world.” Ayer replied, without missing a beat, “And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both eminent in our field; I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.” By which time, Naomi Campbell had escaped Tyson’s clutches.
The Two Readers Project, Ch. 4
From Munro’s Selected Stories
(For an explanation of the series, see here)
“Labor Day Dinner” is crowded. Munro gathers no less than eight people for her 25-page story, and it takes a few of those pages just to introduce everyone and understand their relationship to each other. To sum up without taking 25 pages myself: George and Roberta, a couple who have been seeing each other for a little more than a year, go to their friend Valerie’s house for dinner. With them are Roberta’s daughters, Angela, 17, and Eva, 13.
The size of the cast is not a frivolous complaint. Though the story focuses on the misgivings that George and Roberta have about their relationship, it also concerns itself with the distinct personalities of Angela and Eva, the role of Valerie in everyone’s lives, and even the Christianity of Valerie’s son’s girlfriend. Got it?
In fairness, the experience of reading the story isn’t confusing. But with so much going on -- emotionally, at least; almost nothing happens, plot-wise -- this felt more like the synopsis of an Anne Tyler novel than a fully satisfying short story. It was ending just as I felt like the table had been set. It also reminded me, as Munro often does, of William Trevor, but I think she overreaches in ways that he doesn’t. For instance, the dialogue and diary writings of Angela and Eva struck me as unrealistic, true to Munro's purposes rather than to actual characters.
This is not to deny the story’s pleasures. Early on, after George cruelly tells Roberta that a sleeveless dress reveals her “flabby” armpits and leaves the room, she “starts humming something, feeling the lightness, the freedom, the great tactical advantage of being the one to whom the wrong has been done...” That last phrase is perfect.
My favorite line in the story is a wonderful description of the early stages of love. It comes after we flash back to when Roberta is first spending time with George, and Valerie is criticizing him, unaware that the two have already started a romance: “Roberta listened to all this with great interest and a basic disregard, because what other people knew about George already seemed unessential to her.” That alone would have made this worth my time.
On the last page, the story briefly seems destined to end in a horrendous burst of bathos, but Munro swerves around the danger with a modicum of grace. The story does finish on a workshoppy note of multiply vague meaning, but it’s a hell of a lot better than how it might have wrapped up. I’m afraid I’m focusing too much on the negative. I like Munro, and I definitely think Selected Stories is a book worth owning.
On a more experiential level, I read the story sitting on the small front steps of the small house in which I occupy the top floor. It’s been unseasonably warm in Brooklyn the past couple of days, and that promises to continue through the week. Reading in the sun, I became even more confounded by those who trumpet the end of the book. Cradling a Kindle on my lap would have made for a poorer afternoon, I’m sure of it.
Sunday, February 08, 2009
Random Thoughts While Watching the Grammys
Saturday, February 07, 2009
Hundreds of Thousands of Sections
(Via Paper Cuts)
Labels: Gardening and War
Friday, February 06, 2009
The city buzz sounds just like a fridge(Other lyrics from the same song don't count.)
Labels: Bad Music
Terry, Upstanding Citizen
Yeah. I didn't mean to vouch for Phelps' intelligence in the matter. If I was one of the four or five most high-profile people in the country at any given moment, and had millions of dollars in endorsement money, I wouldn't make out with a bong in a crowded frat house.
But as members of the media continue to use the story for finger-wagging purposes (Pat Forde says it's a good time to tell your kids not to look up to people like Phelps, but to family and friends instead; how about telling them that everyone they look up to is fallible?), and as the authorities swagger, I'm reminded of the hilarious "Irony Of It All," a song by The Streets about alcohol and pot.
The song takes the form of alternating personal testaments by Terry, a heavy drinker, and Tim, a serious pothead. To a menacing beat, Terry sings about liking to get "fired up on beer" and about his right "to get paralytic and fight." "I'm likely to cause mischief," he chants, "good clean grief, you must believe, and I ain't no thief. Law-abiding and all, all legal. And who cares about my liver when it feels good?"
Then, to a light-footed piano, Tim tells his own story: "I don't see why I should be the criminal / How can something with no recorded fatalities be illegal? . . . I just completed Gran Turismo on the hardest setting / We pose no threat on my settee." The song gets funnier as their strands start to intertwine, culminating in Tim saying, "Now Terry, you're repeating yourself / But that's OK, drunk people can't help that."
You can watch the video here.
Thursday, February 05, 2009
Madonna wasn't the first Catholic schoolgirl to rebel, so I hesitate to say that Madonna had ideas, or even that she deserves credit for co-opting them, but when I see pictures of Britney padding about parking lots in Uggs, Madonna starts to seem like some malevolent, mantilla-wearing intercontinental sorceress out of Henry James. Britney is a hot dog—thick, pink, synthetic, inert.
Dreams of Galveston
Labels: Glen Campbell
Wednesday, February 04, 2009
Through the indispensable Animal Review, which recently added the bullet ant to its catalog, I learned of Justin O. Schmidt, a retired entomologist, and the author of the Schmidt Sting Pain Index. The title is self-explanatory, but I'll explain it anyway: the index measures the severity of pain caused by various insects, and like grade-point averages, it tops out at 4.0.
Near the bottom (1.2) is the fire ant, whose sting Schmidt describes as, "Sharp, sudden, mildly alarming. Like walking across a shag carpet & reaching for the light switch."
Then there's the bullhorn acacia ant (1.8): "A rare, piercing, elevated sort of pain. Someone has fired a staple into your cheek."
Someone has fired a staple into my cheek, and we're at 1.8?
At 3.0 is the red harvester ant, and Schmidt uses an analogy involving an ingrown toenail that I can't even bring myself to reprint. Go find it for yourself.
Then, at 4.0, the tarantula hawk: "Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath."
I know what you're thinking: Back up, did you just say tarantula hawk? I did, and unfortunately, I have now seen such a monstrosity. (Click here and brace yourself.) I wanted to be convinced that this was just a leftover prop from Pan's Labyrinth, but then I watched a two-part YouTube video of the tarantula hawk attacking and killing a tarantula. The good news is that, next to the tarantula, the hawk actually looks more like a normal wasp and less like a world-conquering wing-devil. The bad news is that the tarantula hawk paralyzes (doesn't kill) the spider and lays eggs on it, and everything that hatches will eventually finish off the job. Sweet, unmerciful god.
The bullet ant ranks a 4+ on the pain scale, meaning that when it walks into a bar, it shoves the tarantula hawk aside like a punk. One tribe in Brazil -- and this video truly is only for the non-creeped-out among you -- uses lots of the ants in a ritual that signals passage from boyhood to manhood, or at least passage from liking your membership in the tribe to really resenting it.
But back to Schmidt, please, who claims: "I never directly 'let myself be stung' by anything particularly painful. Those that are really painful are quite good at stinging one without help." But it seems he doesn't hold to his policy when it comes to his colleagues:
"I carry Benadryl whenever I go near him," said Dawn Gouge, an urban entomologist with the University of Arizona's Maricopa Agriculture Center. "He's loads of fun, but it hurts, generally. The first thing he ever said to me was, 'Put this bee on your arm and pull its head off.' "
Tuesday, February 03, 2009
NYC Loses a Cast Member
A Lit List to Like
The list doesn't include any nonfiction (or even collections of short stories; just novels). I've read 66, which seems weak.
Maybe it's just the way Brits have of describing things, but the non-obvious choices (both historically non-obvious and in terms of my normal tastes) are what make this project addictive for me. Here are three samples that I'd never heard of, but that I'll add to my wish list. (With summaries from the Guardian):
Ron Butlin: The Sound of My Voice (1987)
Is there a better novel about alcoholism than this? A perfectly ordinary man, executive at a biscuit firm, takes us through his days in the second-person singular: "You are 34 years old and already two-thirds destroyed." He gets by on nips of brandy and gin - a sharpener at breakfast, a reward at lunchtime, a necessity at dinner. His wife and children look on, bewildered and pitying, but he can hardly see them through the haze of pain. Irvine Welsh called this "one of the greatest pieces of fiction to come out of Britain in the 80s"; it deserves rediscovery.
Rose Macaulay: The Towers of Trebizond (1956)
"'Take my camel, dear,' said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass." The famous opening sentence sets the tone for the entertaining romp that follows, as Aunt Dot, her niece Laurie, and Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg journey from Istanbul to Trebizond on Turkey's Black Sea coast. A madcap first half gives way to a more serious second, which examines the meaning of faith. The potentially jarring combination of comedy, romance, history and theology shouldn't work, but miraculously does. This was Macaulay's final novel — she died two years after it was published — and is highly autobiographical.
Anthony Burgess: The End of the World News (1982)
In one of the first split-screen narratives, Burgess juxtaposes three key 20th-century themes: communism, psychoanalysis and the millennial fear of Armageddon. Trotsky's 1917 visit to New York is presented as a Broadway musical; a mournful Freud looks back on his life as he prepares to flee the Nazis; and in the year 2000, as a rogue asteroid barrels towards the Earth, humanity argues over who will survive and what kind of society they will take to the stars.
Monday, February 02, 2009
Bad Advice From Mr. Walken
CW: There was this story that I heard, something about me teaching you to put on makeup. It rings a bell, but . . .
MR: When I was really young and I got into the Actors Studio, I used to see [Robert] De Niro and [Al] Pacino and [Harvey] Keitel and you, and you were the one who was most available, believe it or not. You spent a lot of time with the other actors. I think you really liked it there. So I remember you and I had a conversation one time, and you said to me at the theater that you always did your own eyes. So after you told me that I went out and bought some f***ing makeup kit, and I did my eyes. Then, five years later, I finally got a job-I think I went out on 78 auditions before I ever got a f***ing job. I think the job was Diner , actually. And I insisted on doing my own eyes. The DP actually pulled me aside one day and said, "Listen, we're not doing Dracula."
CW: That's because I grew up in Broadway musicals, in the chorus, and in that world we did a lot of our own eyes. I carried that into movies, and it was a huge mistake. It took me decades to get over it.
MR: Yes, I often looked at your eyes in movies. You have very heavy-lidded eyes anyway.
CW: The eye advice was not good.
MR: Yeah. If you look closely at some scenes in Diner, my eyes look like Dracula's. But the DP got me to stop that, and I was a little pissed off because I'm thinking, My God, if Christopher Walken tells you to do your own eyes, then you'd better f***ing do your own eyes.
CW: This was my mistake. I'm sorry.
"I engaged in behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment," Phelps said. "I'm 23 years old and despite the successes I've had in the pool, I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in a manner people have come to expect from me. For this, I am sorry. I promise my fans and the public it will not happen again."I'm not mad at Phelps, just the culture that requires these pathetically staged mea maxima culpas for behavior that is flat-out ordinary. It's not that I would react similarly if Phelps had been photographed under the Manhattan Bridge taking a hit from a crack pipe. But pot at a party?
I was very substance-averse until fairly late in life, for various reasons. I barely drank in college (I'd say I had two beers over the course of four years). And while I've become a more comfortable drinker -- ahem -- as I've aged, I've never tried a hard drug and I'm not sure I've ever been in a room where people were doing hard drugs. (Unless certain concert halls count as "rooms.") I say all this only to establish that I run with a pretty clean crowd, and yet . . . I would say that a very small percentage of my friends and acquaintances have never smoked pot. I also have known several people whose behavior was far less affected by a joint than it was by, say, three cocktails. This forced "horror" in the face of marijuana use is juvenile and, like so many juvenile things, massively irritating.
Fourth and a Hair
I was rooting for the Arizona Cardinals yesterday, though I can't say they deserved to win. The last ten minutes of the game were really something, but both teams looked pretty awful to me throughout. Aside from some usual officiating mess, and a bit of dirty play, the thing that stood out most to me was the Steelers' initial drive. I don't mean to question coach Mike Tomlin, who seems like a pretty tough guy -- at least, tougher than me by something like 10 to the twenty-sixth power -- but how in the world did he decide to kick a field goal in that situation? The Steelers had just driven down the field with ease, and on third down they missed getting into the end zone by about a centimeter. So, it's fourth down. Pittsburgh's defense was the best in the league by just about every metric this year. If the offense had gone for it and failed, that defense would have had Arizona pinned on that one-centimeter line. I know it's the big game, and I know that many people subscribe to the "put the easier points on the board early" theory (at least one person I was watching with is on that subscription list). And if the ball had been on the five- or six-yard line, I might agree. But I thought it was completely gutless (and wrong-headed), and it put me even more strongly on Arizona's side, which led, of course, to feeling like I'd been punched in the stomach when Pitt rallied late to win it.
Bring on the baseball season.