book/daddy: December 2007 Archives
This bloody year would end on a Monday, wouldn't it?
In light of our lengthy and admiring entry on the "demon barber" (see below), it seemed only fitting to discover that Algernon is a French Norman name derived from au gernon -- "to have a mustache." And that a "faceshelf" is the continuous link of sideburn to mustache to sideburn one occasionally sees on the more hirsute heads in daguerreotypes ("An advanced form of mustachery that should only be attempted by an adept of the art. Also known as The Chester A. Arthur after the 21st President of these United States.")
Other fine facial hair information with the occasional literary/artistic sideline --and all of it absolutely sprouting with illustrations! -- can be found at Mustaches of the Nineteenth Century. We love the suggestion -- untrue, alas -- that there's a sister site, Van Dykes of the Seventeenth Century.
Thanks to Anne at KERA.
The postings are dwindling down, as is the readership. Everyone is madly wrapping gifts or sleeping fitfully in airports while planes never arrive. As he begins to take a few days off himself, book/daddy strongly urges his loyal reader (ship) to take the time to see the Tim Burton adaptation of Sweeney Todd -- it really is what the film critics have declared: bloody marvelous.
"Edward Scissorhands grows up," said Mrs. Daddy when the film was over. "And decides to murder everyone in Bleak House," I added.
Few critics have noticed, however, what makes Sweeney so unusual as a musical comedy, except in the most general terms (the NYTimes' A. O. Scott came closest): It's the only musical comedy that is genuinely terrifying. Terror was not in the musical's vocabulary until Stephen Sondheim came along. Sweeney is not terrifying in a cheap, horrorshow manner with the boogie man playing "gotcha!" and leaping out at you, although there is, of course, plenty of Grand Guignol, splatterific bloodshed in Sweeney.
No, it's terrifying because it's an appalling world: One of the bits left out of the film version is a brief scene in which Anthony, the young sailor, learns why the birds sold by a street vendor are always singing. (Joanna, the young woman he loves, has already been linked to singing birds, so the revelation has a particular weight.) They're blind, he's told. The vendor takes a hot needle and blinds them -- ensuring that they'll always sing because they don't know where they are, so they always are sending out the only signal they can. This is a world, as A. O. Scott writes, without justice. It's also a world, as he didn't write, without mercy. Sweeney tries to build an order, assert a form of justice -- and only heaps on more tragedy, more bloodshed. Todd, after all, is the German word for "dead."
Sweeney Todd is Sondheim's masterpiece, and although I have quibbles about the film version (where is the shrieking, workshop steam whistle?), my only serious criticism is that Johnny Depp plays Sweeney as batshit from the moment he lands back in London. There's really nowhere for his Sweeney to go -- except with darker scowls and crazier, razor-swordplay. The great pivot point when Sweeney is foiled in his revenge and leaps at murdering anyone out of raging frustration ("There, sir! You sir! Come and have a shave!") doesn't have nearly the boiling fury and terror it should: Sweeney slips from skulking revenger to insane nihilist, to a hack-and-slash serial killer.
If you haven't seen it, book/daddy cannot recommend highly enough the DVD of the George Hearn-Angela Lansbury stage version. It's not that the stage version is better; in fact, an appealing aspect of the Burton film is that it's so strikingly different, one can easily enjoy both.
But on this point, in this scene, Hearn is truly awesome -- pathetic and dangerous and physically scary. I saw the stage production, and you actuallly wondered if he might, in a fit of unwilling audience participation, wade into the seats, killing theatergoers. He could have -- he was that dominating with that big bellowing voice.
The scene still brings book/daddy a chill whenever I watch the DVD. One sign of Sondheim's genius: No other musical has anything even approaching such a moment of fear.
So that's where Thor and his hammer and Loki and the rest come from: a single manuscript of Eddic poetry that was nearly lost (subscription required to read the full article).
Phighting Philosophers: The bitter contest between Ted Honderich and Colin McGinn can't help but recall the great Donald Barthelme short story, "Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel." Especially the fact that McGinn and Honderich may be quarrelling "not over intellectual matters at all, but about something one of them said more than a quarter of a century ago about the other's ex-girlfriend."
Caleb Crain's fascinating, disturbing New Yorker piece on the decine of reading and how it affects our brains: If you can read, which you must, obviously, you can read it here
Not what I expected. Valerie Martin's Trespass begins with such ominous tension and barely controlled violence it seems it will be a coolly-controlled literary thriller, something akin to Patricia Highsmith. The college son of an American couple -- the dad's a historian, the mom's a book illustrator working on a new edition of Wuthering Heights -- brings home his chillly new girlfriend, a beautiful Croatian. Mom vehemently disapproves, and her suspicions rocket into hatred when the young woman becomes pregnant and the two get married. Then there's the armed poacher wandering around shooting rabbits, a poacher the mother has angrily ordered off their land. Behind all this is Bush's duplicitous run-up to the Iraq War, and you can see the many ways the title plays out. But Trespass pivots in unexpected, perhaps too convenient ways. If the ending is too peaceful for what preceded it, Martin is nonetheless such a sharp, gripping writer, the novel captivated me.
What, then, of a history of histories?
But some people still seem to think Zoroaster and the Knights Templar were behind everything.
Over his many years as a critic, book/daddy has repeatedly heard two criticisms against him -- and against just about any practicing critic: You show off by using too many fancy words and you're a snob. Oh yes, and a third: You critics are always giving away the endings.
The latter charge is maddening and a hopeless one to respond to. My mother-in-law will ask me about a movie I've seen, and I'll start to describe it -- "It's about this guy, the world has ended and he's the only one left alive, or so he thinks and" -- just about then is when she's starts frantically waving her hands telling me I've already told her too much, while my wife is loudly shushing me, too. All that such people really want to hear is the answer to: "Should I see it (or read it)?" I had a friend who wouldn't even read the jacket copy of books before he finished them. How he ever decided to read anything was a mystery to me.
Yes, I've occasionally come across a review that irritated me by giving away too much, but in my experience, it's a relatively rare crime. Perhaps there are repeat offenders out there who seem to be pissing off the entire population, judging from the near-religious wrath this felony generates.
The second charge (snobbery) is levelled at just about anyone who passes judgment on works of art, so I simply shrug it off -- mostly, it means, we don't have the same taste.
But the first charge always puzzled me because at The Dallas Morning News, the editors and copy editors worked diligently to plane down our prose. The habit dies hard: In all that I've written in this post so far, "diligently" is about as difficult as it gets. When book/daddy did throw in a word that I suspected the editors would yelp about, a word I really felt was necessary, I would argue: Don't we want our readers to be better readers? To learn something? To fucking get up and look up the damned thing? I always did as a kid -- and often still do.
So for four years, that's what James Meek, author of the terrific novelThe People's Act of Love, did: looked up every word he came across that he didn't know.
In his Sunday sermon this week in the op-ed section of The Dallas Morning News, conservative columnist Rod Dreher makes a familiar argument about religion and politics-- one that I've heard made, for instance, by Marvin Olasky, the brains behind President Bush's "compassionate conservative" program, the one that continues to fund Christian organizations with federal tax money.
The argument is this: Liberals can't celebrate the civil rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King on the one hand but attack the intrusion of conservative evangelicals into politics on the other. Both movements are inspired by and are putting into action their Christian faith. Religion either belongs in politics or it doesn't, you can't have it both ways and still cite 'separation of church and state."
Not surprisingly, this is simple-minded nonsense -- the kind of black/white, either-or, with-us-or-against-us thinking that is one of the more pernicious hallmarks of, well, ahem, much conservative religious writing. There's no logical, legal or ideological problem with Americans picking out those aspects of any faith that contribute to American democracy. As a people, as a system of government, why should we do otherwise? It is to our benefit to do so, especially in those instances, as in the civil rights movement, when people risked their lives to make America fulfill its stated ideals.
Similarly, there is no problem with rejecting those aspects of any religion that would drag Americans into inhumane, less-than-democratic evils. In arguing against this, Msgr. Dreher would seem to be suggesting that we must accept any idiotic or dangerous, religious idea put forward by an elected official or movement because of our expressed belief in freedom of religion. But of course -- thank goodness! -- he doesn't believe such idiocy: The good monsignor promptly rejects Islam -- which he has done before, repeatedly -- as it is morally and politically reprehensible, unfit for any civilized American.
If the above argument about picking and choosing among religious ideas and practices is not true, then perhaps the good monsignor will explain whether he still holds to those passages in the Bible that justify slavery? (See, for example, Exodus 21:20-21) These passages were vehemently employed for more than two centuries by the Christian defenders of Southern slavery and segregation -- so much so that a number of abolitionists and civil rights workers over the years came to hate Christianity outright and became atheists. See, for example, Bayard Rustin, the gay, Communist pacifist who was at least as responsible as Dr. King was for the success of the March on Washington.
And if religious conservatives like Msgr. Dreher keep claiming Dr. King for their own arguments, then I await that holy day when I will say hallelujah as they declare that they also embrace Dr. King's socialist politics and his pacifism, derived not only from Jesus but that other great source of his inspiration: Mohandas K. Gandhi.
But alas, book/daddy is not holding his breath.
In expectation of that holy day, however, I ask the congregation to join me in singing the fine old hymn, hymn #47:
"Let us praise God. Oh Lord, oooh you are so big. So absolutely huge. Gosh, we're all really impressed down here I can tell you. Forgive us, O Lord, for this dreadful toadying and barefaced flattery. But you are so strong and, well, just so super. Fantastic. Amen."
(Michael Palin as the chaplain in The Meaning of Life)
Two years ago, when Neil Strauss' The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists set the lonely, nightclub-crawling guy world ablaze with his "you wimp, you, too, can bed chicks if you treat them like idiots" wisdom, book/daddy wrote a snarky review which you can read if you follow the jump. But what does book/daddy know of the art of seduction? On Amazon, The Game has garnered 515 reader "reviews," 344 of which give it 5 stars.
Now Strauss has a follow-up, called, predictably, Rules of the Game (one feels Jean Renoir will survive this insult, too). And you can read novelist Jim Crace's hilarious "digested read" for the Guardian here:
"Day 8: Now that you've had a shower, bought some clothes that hide your excessive sweating and practised talking to shop mannequins without staring at their breasts, it's time to try out your skills on a real live woman. Your goal today is to say "hello" to five different women without getting arrested."
The Iowa caucus is here, and Friederich Nietzche gets his ugly on.
Via Crooked Timber.
Over at Again with the Comics, Brian Hughes has been enthusing about a little-known, late-'50s/early-'60s comic-book character named Herbie, later known as the Fat Fury, created by Richard E. Hughes (no relation to Brian, it appears). The humor makes Herbie a little like Plasticman with a weight problem and an abusive home situation.
The sample Mr. Hughes provides is a fairly whacked-out story -- from "giant menacing flowers, to strap-on bee butts, to tiny micro-world duplicates," and all in nine pages.
But more importantly, doesn't Herbie remind you of a young John Hodgman, the humorist who plays the pudgy PC guy in the Apple commercials? As much as it's the glasses, the bad haircut and the rotund shape, it's the deadpan humor and the lack of respect that clinches the similarity.
So it seems we've uncovered an early Hodgman incarnation. A pre-Hodgman Hodgman. An alternative-universe Hodgman.
A John Hodgman with superpowers.
Makes you think.
Mark Lawson on Gordon Burn's Born Yesterday: the news as novel
This sense of events feeling invented is not entirely new. For several decades, writers have toyed with the idea that, whether or not truth is stranger than fiction, it is sometimes indistinguishable from it.
Norman Mailer alluded to this blurring in a 1960s phrase about "the novel as history, history as a novel", while the French thinker Jean Baudrillard, with his theory of "hyper-reality", argued that humans, unable to make sense of the complexities of the modern world, experienced real events as if they were fantasy. Yet such ideas - as the concept of Burn's novel acknowledges - have now truly found their time.
For years outside the Dallas Museum of Art there's been a large-scale, super-poster size image of Watch (1925) by Gerald Murphy, one of my favorite pieces in the museum's entire collection. To borrow a line from Peter Schjeldahl's Aug. 6 review in the New Yorker of the show of Murphy's works, "Making It New" at Williams College, "Usually, I'm unbeguiled by the rich and glamorous, and I attended "Making It New" in a resisting mood. Then I looked. Gerald's paintings are a gold standard that backs, with creative integrity, the paper money of the couple's legend."
Watch manages to be elegantly cubist, to anticipate Pop Art (as did Murphy's earlier Razor at the DMA), to make the abstracted everyday object into a talisman of shining power and fascination. It is also, simply, a gorgeous piece of work.
The DMA was instrumental in rekindling the Murphys' fame with a 1960 show of the handful of his works that remain. The Murphy legend -- wealth, fame, physical beauty, sexual dalliances, artistic patronage and a brief, glittering foray into creative genius -- the Murphy legend, after all, ends in loss: the death of both sons, the end of the Lost Generation, an unwanted return to the family business and an almost careless loss of many of Gerald's works. In this regard, critics, for all their praise of Watch, have never seemed to notice its theme: the measurement and passing of time. Golden lads and girls all must, as chimney sweepers, come to dust.
Every so often, I will duck into the DMA's gift shop and ask whether there are any plans to sell the Watch as a poster. That thing outside certainly looks like a giant poster. The shop clerks are always befuddled by my question. No, they don't have one, haven't heard anything about one.
Too bad. It'd probably sell. Perhaps someone at the DMA might reconsider -- now that the museum's literary series, Arts & Letters Live, will be presenting "Blithe Spirits: Songs, art, poetry and letters celebrating the legacy of Sara and Gerald Murphy" on June 14.
I'd buy a copy.
In the race to replicate the long-gone Spy magazine and update it to our new, more celebrity-ific times -- the race, that is, between Radar and Gawker -- Radar has seemed the slavish copycat (it's an actual print publication!). It still lacks, however, the literary polish that Spy often had. Despite the historic pigeonhole into which Spy has been wedged (the mag that let loose the Snark, the mag that permitted the bemused tabloidification of media gossip), Spy provided a lot more amusement than just celebrity/politician skewerings. After all, it was once known as the New Yorker with wit.
Or, yes, the nasty New Yorker. But still ... at its best, it had some style.
Gawker, on the other hand, quickly morphed into something rather different and new. At times, it became almost incomprehensible to anyone not a cynical, status-obsessed, in-the-know Manhattanite. Despite the millions of hits the website gets per month, book/daddy often suspected that only the denizens of a select number of city blocks in Manhattan could actually decipher all the names and references and backstories -- or would care. The only knowledgeable readers were the denizens, that is, plus their disgruntled employees eager to get some dirt on the boss.
Gawker humor is often campy-vicious and dismissive (many of its targets hardly qualify as fat cats) and the level of on-the-ground, target observation is unnerving because the gaze is so obsessive, sneery yet fascinated.
The past several days have seen talk about Gawker shoot up because of staff departures, reports of the absolutely miserable pay scale and this historical overview by Carla Blumenkranz run by n+1. It's a more succinct, more thoughtful (less self-obsessed) take on the phenomenon than Vanessa Grigoriadis' New York magazine feature from October (although book/daddy loved her title: Everybody Sucks: Gawker and the Rage of the Creative Underclass).
The one point Blumenkranz missed: Despite its appalling faults -- or rather, because of them -- Gawker is probably the Spy we deserve, it's Spy post-Monica impeachment, Spy post-stolen presidency, Spy in the age of Britney, partisan blog rage and cell-phone photojournalism. The best thing about the n+1 story: Once you've read it, you probably won't need to read anything else about, by or for Gawker.
"The Gawker editors have always been forthright about the fact that what they wanted was to leave Gawker--its low pay and marginal status--and work for the people they maligned. This stance was supposed to give them more credibility; it was also a form of flattery. Furthermore, it was the truth. But in fact they already were working for a media corporation that functioned more effectively but in the same way as the ones they criticized, and as media players the Gawker editors had become more powerful than many of their targets. Gawker retained the stance of a scrappy start-up and an attitude of populist resentment toward celebrities and insiders, even as it became the flagship publication of an online media empire. The status of Gawker rose as the overall status of its subjects declined, and it was this that made Gawker appear at times a reprehensible bully."
Looking for quirky, smart, deep-thinking stuff from artsy-intellectual-political-digital-academic bloggers? Of course you are. In the words of Scott McLemee, you, too, aspire "to be under-informed on a really encyclopedic scale." So for his regular Insider Higher Ed column, Scott polled a pack of librarians, academics, a theological student and other big brains for their favorite, under-appreciated blogs. You can get recommendations for anything from the musicological group blog Dial "M" for Musicology to "the best barometer of job-market induced hysteria."
In the New Republic, James Wolcott weighs in on Gail Pool's Faint Praise and the parlous state of book reviewing and -- as is characteristic of Mr. Wolcott -- complains that the book really needs to sound a lot more like Mr. Wolcott. Make yourself at home, dear, insult somebody.
Nonetheless, much of what he says has a great deal of merit, although he mostly echoes and expands on Ms. Pool's observations with his usual talent for sharp wordplay. On this point, however, he misses a big factor:
"The blog form, that miscellany of observations, opinions, and links, is not well-suited to writing about literature, and it is no coincidence that there is no literary blogger with the audience and influence of the top political bloggers. For one thing, literature is not news the way politics is news--it doesn't offer multiple events every day for the blogger to comment on."
And for another thing, many political blogs are essentially fronts, bankrolled by partisan forces. In short, politics is news because big money and influence are involved. As a result, as much as Mr. Wolcott dismisses literary blogging as a "fraggy clusterfuck of hidden agendas, free-floating animosity, and arbitrary verdicts," it's a sleepy kindergarten playroom compared to what passes for discourse on political blogs.
But then, that's what Mr. Wolcott wants from Faint Praise, isn't it? More fraggy clusterfucking and free-floating animosity.
Or rather, not so much "free-floating." Mr. Wolcott always likes to keep the animosity personal.
... and is stuck getting that special gift for that special oddball, book/daddy's list of holiday gift book suggestions is online at NPR.org.
In typically learned fashion, novelist A. S. Byatt (author of Possession) takes the opportunity of an exhibition on the "art of enchantment" to write about the English tradition of faeries and elves and other wild woodfolk. Behind all of those great Edwardian fantasies (Peter Pan, The Wind in the Willows), there's often something chilling.
The contemporary essay is in seriously snoozy shape. At last, someone (in this case, Cristina Nehring) has taken on those "best of" essay anthologies:
"In our own day the essay is an apologetic imitation of the short story. Like the short story, it tells a tale. Unlike the short story, it usually does not tell a very interesting tale--after all, this is nonfiction, so the bar for excitement is set lower. But speaking historically, the essay is not just a duller and tamer form of short fiction. It is in a different business altogether--and it should be."