June 2007 Archives
... I'll be heading out Friday to visit some water-logged in-laws in the Texas Hill Country. Marble Falls -- along the way to Fredericksburg where we're going -- got 19 inches of rain the other night, the most on record.
So whatever happens -- we make it, we disappear in a flash flood, we get damper than we already are -- book/daddy won't be posting for a few days. Just to give you an idea of how this goes: The trip sounds dicey right now, but hey, parts of Dallas are preparing evacuation and the Irving sewage plant has backed up, so staying home isn't going to be a piece of (dry) cake, either.
It's the second time for book/daddy's Best Tongue-in-Cheek Generic Novel Title contest. And the winner is Design Flaws of the Human Condition by Paul Schmidtberger, due out July 17.
Of course I have. You know, over at Quick Study? Well, he and I have been corresponding about the great, lost Texas pscychedelic guitarist, Roky Erickson, ever since Scott posted a tremendous, re-worked clip of Roky and the 13th Floor Elevators playing "You're Going to Miss Me". If you don't know what I'm talking about, you need to play that clip. The guy could sing like Mitch Ryder and play like Jeff Beck on fire.
But Roky became one of the great, brain-fried rockers, the American Syd Barrett: the heroin and LSD binges, the trips in and out of an asylum. I saw him play in Houston in the early '80s, and he was a fragile figure. He still could play, but there was little of the hellbent energy that made him special. He seemed frightened just to be onstage.
But I told Scott the good news: There's a group biogaphy of Roky coming out in October: Eye Mind: The Saga of The 13th Floor Elevators, The Pioneers of Psychedelic Sound. I saw a promo for it at BookExpo, and the press rep told me Roky was out, taking his meds, might even tour.
When I saw Roky in the '80s, I basically worked for the pop music critic at the Houston Post, a sardonic, Falstaffian figure named Bob Claypool who'd been there forever and had interviewed everybody (Jerry Lee Lewis once pulled a gun on him, cocked it and threatened to shoot him -- which, come to think of it, probably has happened to thousands of people, maybe everybody but me).
Bob told me of the time he interviewed Roky in his heyday. Roky showed up with a rubber band around his head, right across his forehead (when I told this to the press rep in New York, he said, "Hey, we've all been there, right?"). During the entire interview, Roky kept fiddling with it, pulling it, snapping it back. Claypool finally couldn't take it anymore and asked him, what's the deal with the rubber band?
Roky: "People keep trying to poke me in my third eye."
But hey, we've all been there, right?
Well, no, we haven't. Because now comes word from Scott about this: a heartbreaking film documentary about Roky, opening in Chicago in late July. Take a look.
If you go to www.rokymovie.com, you'll find background on Roky, info on the film and even Roky's current American and European tour.
Got a crash deadline this week: read and review a 600-page novel by Friday.
In fewer than 300 words. At that level of compression, book reviewing is a form of haiku. It's also a different kind of media frenzy. Try it sometime; it'll keep your mind off what's-her-face going to jail.
Scott McLemee, next door at Quick Study, has just posted an item about another stand-alone book review section in a big-city daily newspaper going down. According to blogger Emilymnk, the San Diego Union-Tribune has folded its separate book section into two pages in the Sunday "Entertainment" section, cutting the number of book reviews in half.
Over at Critical Mass, John Freeman has already posted the National Book Critics Circle's call to arms.
And here's a handy compilation of my own thoughts about the ongoing crisis.
There are two scholarly books on South Park:Blame Canada! South Park and Contemporary Culture, which at least has a good title, and South Park and Philosophy: You Know, I learned Something Today, which does not. Not surprisingly, perhaps, both books, at least according to Eric Griffiths in the New Statesman, are ripe for precisely the kind of happy, foul-mouthed mockery at which South Park excels: "Philosophy, even when taught as badly as this, is a recognisable discipline; we know more or less what to complain about when it doesn't do what it says on the label. Media and cultural studies, on the other hand, is a mindless agglomerate, like the Portuguese man-o'-war, with tentacles spiralling off in all directions, propelled by the action of wind on the bag of inert gas at its centre."
... and the daughter's 17th birthday today (she's leaving us soon -- ack!), book/daddy has been extremely tardy in posting things the past two weeks, really ever since the depressing BookExpo in New York. He just hasn't felt in the swing of bookish things -- having to go out in the jungle humidity every day to clear fallen tree limbs, kill the hordes of tent caterpillars swarming over everything and race out when inspired to buy another gift for the Comic Book Queen.
So, before memory fades, book/daddy highly recommends Sarah Boxer's marvelous essay on George Herriman and Krazy Kat in the NYRB -- it has a lovely, light touch, a spirit like Herriman's own but unfortunately, it's an essay that requires a subscription to read in full -- as well as Ian Buruma's review of Steven Bach's Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl in the same NYRB. Much has been written about the book, but Buruma doesn't take the usual way out that has been film-school fodder for years ("Yes, she was a horrible person, a Nazi, but a genius filmmaker"). In something of an extension of Susan Sontag's famous "frozen eroticism" demolition of Riefenstahl, he argues that she was a bad artist, that Triumph of the Will for all of its supposedly seductive gloss and brilliance is mostly a technical achievement, ultimately a product of a lifeless and inhuman aestheticism, just as with the rest of her work.
There once was a saying scrawled on a wall in a downtown Austin bar, perhaps it's still there, and not in the bathroom, either. It was part of a droll collection of variations on Murphy's Law written over the bar, if memory serves. This one declared, simply, that 90 percent of everything is crud.
Not "crap", mind you, but crud. Nor did it say "everything is crud." Either remark would suggest the author was particularly bitter or disillusioned about his not particularly unusual discovery. Crud, on the other hand, suggests he put some consideration and sad experience into this; it's a thoughtful assaying of content.
Over the years, while reviewing pop music, movies, theater and books, book/daddy has found the unnamed author's estimation holds up fairly well. As would you, if you'd ever seen the sheer numbers of CDs that pile up in a newspaper office, CDs that are never reviewed, never aired on any radio station, never listened to by anyone other than the musicians' friends. And probably not even them.
Case in point: this spring's crop of novels. book/daddy confesses that he's read a slew of them and failed to review most. Time after time, the book turned out to be just a leetle disappointing. Or majorly so. But always just enough to dissipate the critic's verve. Despite the cliche about how it's easier to write a pan than a rave, the flat-out hardest reviews to write are for books that don't truly excite one way or the other. The critic has to gin up some energy and insight for a book that's OK, fair, not much, decent, pretty good, but nothing to get excited about.
Which, of course, is most books, and most everything in life.
90 percent of everything, or so book/daddy has heard.
The best of the bunch, so far, has been Don DeLillo's Falling Man, which book/daddy had some reservations about, although DeLillo is rarely less than chilling. The other fine novel -- novella, really -- is Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach (see my recommended books on the right). And then there's Peter Temple's The Broken Shore, which also quite happily appears in the "recommended" column.
Most of these novels, book/daddy should make clear, are definitely not crud. But he still had a hard time getting up the right spirit to review them. Collectively, though, they amounted to Something This Blog Needed to Take Care Of.
So now that spring has only three more days, here goes the round-up.
... but this is his essay on "The The Impotence of Proofeeding." Any professional editor, writer or teacher will understand what he's saying. That includes Billy Collins over on the right, trying not to crack up.
book/daddy has five Katie Awards, the prizes presented by the Dallas Press Club for the best journalism in the Southwest. (For the record, book/daddy's have been in arts criticism, specialty column, arts criticism, feature Q&A and arts criticism -- notice a trend?). In case you haven't been paying attention, the chair of the Katies turns out to have been a fraud who never had the entries judged last year. When book/daddy saw Elizabeth Albanese at that ceremony (the only one he's ever bothered to attend), he was struck by how she was queening it up too much. But book/daddy just shrugged it off as the slightly ridiculous performance of another would-be grande dame at a Dallas charity ball.
Now it seems her dereliction of duty (and even common sense) extends further into the Press Club's past, involving wholesale misuse of the Club's credit cards, fabrications of her own journalism and college credentials and, apparently, even physically absconding with the finished entries before they were mailed to judges.
All of this may sound provincial and inside-the-industry, but the Dallas Observer story by Matt Pulle and Jesse Hyde looks at who brought her down and how a particular con works: Ms. Albanese deluded herself with belle-of-the-ball fantasies so thoroughly, she was able to delude others.
It's actually a fascinating tale -- if you can ignore the Observer's typical moralizing. For a supposedly liberal alternative weekly, it sure climbs on its winded high horse a lot.
The BBC has developed a new version of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Louise Welsh has written an interesting, insightful essay on the story's continuing allure. Partly it has to do with the way Stevenson suggests Hyde's "unspeakable practices, unnatural acts" without ever actually, well, speaking about them. Not directly.
Stevenson was acutely aware of Victorian hypocrisy -- considering his own rejection of his Scottish Calvinist upbringing for bohemianism (and ultimately, the South Pacific). An early poem of his sardonically mocks "fine, religious, decent folk," prefering instead "the publican and the harlot." Inevitably, though, Ms. Welsh writes, "critics mused on what vice inspired Jekyll to create Hyde to sin for him in proxy. A queer reading of the text is tempting" -- particularly when, despite Hollywood and Broadway's love of putting harlots in the story (along with a threatened damsel -- usually Dr. Jekyll's fiancee), Stevenson included no women in it other than an untempting housekeeper. And one of Hyde's more brutal crimes occurs when an elderly gentleman whispers in his ear late at night by the river "with a very pretty manner of politeness." Hyde clubs him to death.
Such a gay reading, however, has been neatly, and I think, rewardingly anticipated by Graham Robb in his brilliant 2003 book, Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century:
"Sexuality is not a skeleton key to the work of Andersen, Melville or Kafka. The sense of shame and strange excitement comes from the process of concealment rather than from the object that is being concealed. This is one of the problems faced by any sexually partisan form of criticism. Some writers, like Henry James, avoided the subject so completely that gay readings of their work have to operate on such deep or abstract levels that they could be applied to almost any writer. Others, like Robert Louis Stevenson in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), used homosexual references to create an atmosphere of unspeakable and mysterious depravity, but without intending the character to be seen as homosexual."
Twenty-five years ago, book/daddy did a little research on some marginalia that Gerard Manley Hopkins penned on a manuscript copy of one of his poems. The single piece of paper is in the Humanities Resource Center, the great archive at the University of Texas at Austin, and book/daddy wrote an article about what the musical notations (Hopkins was helping his sister set the poem to music) revealed about Hopkins' idiosyncratic poetic techniques.
The article was accepted by an academic journal -- a nifty little coup for a grad student. But then book/daddy's troubles with the HRC began. The journal wanted to run an image of the manuscript, and the HRC did a fine job throwing up roadblocks. Eventually, the journal gave up. The frustrations involved were one of several last straws in Austin that led book/daddy to exit graduate studies entirely -- "and twitch his mantle blue, tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new."
That's all an intro for D. T. Max's fascinating backstage look at the HRC's increrdible holdings and its wheeling-and-dealing with authors. The HRC had so much money when it came to literary manuscript auctions that, it was said in the '70s, the Texans had single-handedly doubled the asking price for an author's attic garbage. As Mr. Max also mentions in his New Yorker story, the place was once a secretive outfit, which explains my running up against that particular no-publication wall. But the place has changed, although it's mostly a return to its cattle-rustling glory days, thanks to director Tom Staley, who exemplifies the kind of aggressive horsetrading Texans love.
The article's extra-added fascination, though, seems to come out of left field: Mr. Max gives the most detailed account anyone has set down of Don DeLillo's writing process (judging from multiple manuscripts and letters to fellow writers like David Foster Wallace that the HRC owns). It's the most detailed account we're likely to have until someone writes a post-mortem DeLillo bio.
Thanks to Ernie for the heads up.
... not the easiest thing to endure, but this clip made her cry. And then she shipped it to as many other teachers as she could.
When book/daddy covered slam poetry, Taylor Mali repeatedly impressed me as one of the funniest, smartest performers. On the national scene, he had been a leading team builder, a perennial powerhouse tactician. But he could always cook it solo.
Here he is on "What a Teacher Makes," prompted by a question from a smug lawyer at a dinner party:
book/daddy is still recovering from his trip to NYC and DC; hence, the dearth of new postings. You can read about one of his public appearances here.
The trip was wearying not just for the obvious reasons: the Sodom-and-Gomorrah-ish punishment of heat and humidity that was visited upon New York the entire time; the clamor and buzz at BookExpo that, publicists witttingly and unwittingly make clear, has little to do with you, you marginal insect; the several panels about book reviewing all of which were irksome or sad, notably for the assumption by many panelists, publicists and conventioners that books, book reviewing and newspapers are all doomed because of the internet, rampant illiteracy, the Republican party or reality TV but especially the internet.
Eh, so waddaya gonna do? We're in that bothersome gap, that hump, people repeatedly opined, between what we have now and how we'll undoubtedly do business in the future. We're just waiting for these mastodons to die so we can jump aboard the web. There was much talk of generational or cultural changes and large forces beyond our control.
But conveniently -- or actually, highly inconveniently -- this trip exemplified this sense of fatalism through the current degeneration of airline travel. The dreary ordeals need not be detailed. You know the drill. Suffice it to say, air travel is now akin to fighting for a seat on a dilapidated, Chapter 11 busline. All four of my connecting flights were delayed. On two overbooked flights, passengers were asked to leap overboard for the good of others (and for a voucher for future airline excruciations).
It's not as though all this (in smaller portions) hasn't happened on previous trips; what was striking was the prevailing acceptance of it as The Grim State of Air Travel Today. I can't help but believe that this dilapidated system can't last. But as my four-hour zip to New York turned into a 12-hour, all-day epic of exasperation, the airline industry appeared to me as a metaphor for our many industries-in-flux, industries that while business-as-usual falls apart (or they muck it up) they are stumbling toward some (necessary) new incarnation which they have no settled idea on how to achieve: energy, the auto industry, the education system, public elections and primaries, health care and, of course, print journalism.
What was irksome about the panel members who saw the decline of book reviewing and print journalism as simply the result of "large forces" was the denial (or lack of awareness) that many cutbacks are caused by particular business decisions, made by business managers and editors to chuck literate readers. As I wrote last month to Romenesko:
"The truth is that book pages themselves, even the few, freestanding book sections, have never or rarely paid for themselves. In a March 6 Wall Street Journal article, the book editors of the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Diego Union-Tribune spoke about the "rarity" of ANY ad support. 'You constantly have to justify your existence,' says Oscar Villalon, who edits the Chronicle's book section. 'Why? We don't bring in ads' ....
[So why are those sections getting gutted now? For that matter, can anyone] demonstrate that any sports section is supported by the NFL? Does the weather map earn ad revenue? The opinion columnists? Of course not. Either other advertisers want to reach those readers (as with the sports section) or management is committed to running these services at cost because they feel, to be useful as a newspaper, to be taken seriously, they must. In contrast, they have abandoned their literate readers, whether through cuts in space or staff or the increased use of wire copy, figuring such readers are a small number and they're on the web already anyway.
Or that such readers will just take what they can get."