Tuesday, March 31, 2009

33 1/3: The Shortlist

I'm currently reading and enjoying David Smay's book about Tom Waits's 1983 album Swordfishtrombones. It's part of Continuum's 33 1/3 series, each book in which discusses an individual album.

Continuum has released the shortlist for the next crop of books they'll publish. Here's a little piece about the list and some of the reaction to it.

Sunday, March 29, 2009


After reading The Road, The Border Trilogy, and Blood Meridian (and seeing the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men) in the past twelve months, I found myself hungry for even more Cormac McCarthy. This book offered up a bountiful feast, 470 leisurely pages of McCarthy’s richest language.

The detailed (and often slyly comical) chapter headings from
Blood Meridian are absent here, replaced by unnumbered and untitled chapter breaks. The story seems to move without form, episodically, like the improvised lives it chronicles. I read somewhere that McCarthy worked on this book for twenty years, and that feels right. He abandons storylines, characters, conflicts—but in the same fashion as Melville does in Moby-Dick: you don’t mind, because it’s all so damn good.

The novel opens with a difficult but brief italicized passage, but after that there’s lots of dialogue, one of McCarthy’s great strengths, and these sections read quickly. This is a novel full of the talk of men: wry, filthy, often hilarious. Here’s two men talking about a curious melonpatch intruder:
You ain’t goin to believe this.
Knowin you for a born liar I most probably wont.
Somebody has been fuckin my watermelons.
I said somebody has been…
No. No. Hell no. Damn you if you aint got a warped mind.
I’m tellin you…
Looky here.
And here.
He shows him a few of the victims.
It does look like it, dont it?
I’m tellin you I seen him. I didnt know what the hell was goin on when he dropped his drawers. Then when I seen what he was up to I still didnt believe it. But yonder they lay.
What do you aim to do?
Hell, I dont know. It’s about too late to do anything. He’s damn near screwed the whole patch. I dont see why he couldnt of stuck to just one. Or a few.
Well, I guess he takes himself for a lover. Sort of like a sailor in a whorehouse.
I reckon what it was he didnt take to the idea of gettin bit on the head of his pecker by one of them waspers. I suppose he showed good judgment there.
What was he, just a young feller?
I dont know how young he was but he was as active a feller as I’ve seen in a good while.
By the way, the so-called “moonlight melon-mounter” ends up becoming one of the main characters in the novel, and one of the most sympathetic, a kind of precursor to All the Pretty Horses' Jimmy Blevins: a lovable sonofabitch, innocently corrupt.

The novel is like a 470-page Tom Waits song—blood and whiskey and men with names like J-Bone and Cabbage and Daddy Watson and Ab Jones and Hoghead and Boneyard. Living under bridges when it’s ten below and falling, watching lazy old tomcats on a midnight spree, nobody up except the moon and thee. There are echoes of Bob Dylan, too—one of Suttree’s destitute friends is a ragman, like the one who draws circles up and down the block in “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again.”

Suttree and his fellows are stuck inside of Knoxville, though, in a decaying or ruined world that is nevertheless densely inhabited. From the italicized introduction, here’s a terrific description of the novel’s milieu:
We are come to a world within a world. In these alien reaches, these maugre sinks and interstitial wastes that the righteous see from carriage and car another life dreams. Illshapen or black or deranged, fugitive of all order, strangers in everyland.
I thought of Suttree’s world the other day as I drove across the Poplar Street bridge and looked down at the industrial wastes along the riverfront.

The Tennessee River and its shores are, in McCarthy’s wonderfully obscure parlance (the novel is full of words that you’ve got to look up, and when look some of them up on Google, Google takes you only to sites about Cormac McCarthy; does anyone know what anthroparians are? What androleptic means? How about grimoire?), a cloaca maxima. A cloaca, in case you didn’t know, is the common chamber into which the intestinal, urinary, and generative canals discharge in birds, reptiles, fish, etc. Suttree’s people live in the bowels of Knoxville. Indeed, one character ends up covered in the city’s shit while exploring the caves under the town and accidentally breaching a sewer main.

One of the pleasures of the novel is that it takes us into this world, a world the novel’s readers would indeed probably see only from car or carriage. McCarthy even takes us to the border between this world and “the world beyond the world” while narrating Suttree’s brush with death, ten pages of typhoid-fevered hallucinations.

And McCarthy introduces us to the type of people we’d probably never get to know. In his fever dream, a shrewish nun accuses Suttree, a college-educated son of a wealthy man, of keeping bad, bad company:
Mr. Suttree it is our understanding that at curfew rightly decreed by law and in that hour wherein night draws to its proper close and the new day commences and contrary to conduct befitting a person of your station you betook yourself to various low places within the shire of McAnally and there did squander several ensuing years in the company of thieves, derelicts, miscreants, pariahs, poltroons, spalpeens, curmudgeons, clotpolls, murderers, gamblers, bawds, whores, trulls, brigands, topers, tosspots, sots and archsots, lobcocks, smellsmocks, runagates, rakes, and other assorted and felonious debauchees.
I was drunk, cried Suttree.
The subtitle for this book might be The Seven(ty) Habits of Highly Unsuccessful People. And yet the novel values compassion, understanding, and respect, and shows over and over again these values reflected in the lives of these people. Suttree, “sharing his pain with those who lay in their blood by the highwayside or in the floors of glass strewn taverns or manacled in jail,” reflects that “even the damned in hell have the community of their suffering.”

Above all, the novel values life, even in the midst of pain and pollution. In this novel, flowers are forever poking their way out of glass shards and cinders, and in the midst of filth “life pulses obscenely fecund.” The novel begins with a suicide but ends with an urgent command: to fly from the huntsman “whose hounds tire not…. slaverous and wild and their eyes crazed with ravening for souls in this world.”

Suttree is a Hamlet figure, a nimble mind searching, grappling with the biggest questions; angry with his father, his mother, and his uncle; accused of ruining his woman’s life; breaking down in a grave in front of some fatalistic gravediggers. Near the end of the novel’s introduction, the narrator (who may be Suttree himself) alludes to 
Hamlet: “The rest indeed is silence.” And yet, for Suttree, it’s not. In the end of the novel, like Huck, he lights out for the territory, leaving a Knoxville where his friends have died, their neighborhood razed for an interstate. Looking back at the ending now, I’m reminded of the final lines of another Bob Dylan song:
Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you.

Forget the dead you've left, they will not follow you.

The vagabond who's rapping at your door

Is standing in the clothes that you once wore.

Strike another match, go start anew

And it's all over now, Baby Blue.
Having waded through 470 more pages of McCarthy, I feel compelled to strike another match and go start anew myself, with another of his books.

CFK, Sr., 1925-2009

Here’s what I know about my grandpa.

He was a twin. His twin sister, Mary, died before I ever knew her.

He grew up in South St. Louis, Resurrection of Our Lord Parish. It seemed to me that whenever he had to drive downtown, to a ballgame, for instance, that he would always take Gravois, perhaps as a way of seeing the old neighborhood.

He served in World War II, in Okinawa, but he never talked about it much.

He and Grandma were married at St. Pius V, on South Grand, nearly sixty years ago.

Grandpa ran a grocery store on Marmaduke Avenue, near the Clifton Heights area of the city. He lived above the store with Grandma and my dad, when my dad was a baby. One night somebody broke into the store and Grandpa came down with his shotgun and warned the burglar off with a blast that shot out the transom window above the door.

When the store and part of the neighborhood it was in were demolished to make way for Interstate 44, Grandpa moved his family to Affton and learned the meatcutter’s trade. He bought a set of knives and a chain mail apron and cut meat for the rest of his working life. In his later years, he worked at Straub’s markets around the area, and he could talk about the different cuts of meat that were popular at each location.

He raised seven children with Grandma. For years, in the corner of their front room, hung seven First Communion photos, and above the TV hung seven pictures of adults. They were a fixed lineup in my head as a kid, like the seven days of the week.

Grandpa and Grandma endured the deaths of two of these children. I remember Grandpa standing before Uncle Chris’s casket, saying to somebody, “I just wish I could see him one more time.”

Grandpa and Grandma had 20 grandchildren, thirteen girls and seven boys, and three great-granddaughters. As far as I know, they never missed a baptism, birthday party, grandparents’ day, First Communion, or graduation.

Grandpa liked to watch things being built—the Arch, Busch Stadium, and then Busch Stadium again. He used to drive downtown to watch them go up.

Grandpa liked to buy scratch-off lottery tickets, and one time he won a huge big-screen TV from a scratch-off. He put the TV in the living room of his modest Affton home. He moved his recliner, where he sat every day, to the other side of the room so he could watch it. He didn’t need or want cable, so this huge TV had a little antenna on top of it. If the Cardinals were on when you were over there, Grandpa would have the TV on, and he’d get up to fix the reception.

Grandpa would drink a beer if he came over to your house, but mainly he liked to drink soda. He pronounced it “sodie.” In my earliest memories, he drank Pepsi out of glass bottles that he saved for the deposit. He taught me how to drink out of a bottle—how you put your upper lip inside the bottle, not around the outside. In his later years, I guess because of his diabetes, he switched to Diet Pepsi, in cans.

Grandpa loved to shoot squirrels. He loved to tell stories about shooting squirrels. One season he shot over 100 squirrels. One late night Grandma was doing dishes in the kitchen, and she saw two red eyes watching her from the back fence. Grandpa went out with a baseball bat and took a swing at whatever it was. The next morning he found a possum lying next to the fence, still stunned from the blow. Grandpa went in and got his BB gun and finished the job.

I like to think that, when Grandpa died, squirrels all over St. Louis paused for a moment of silence, a moment of respect for a formidable enemy, and then had a party like you’ve never seen.

Grandpa planted trees in his backyard—fruit trees in the years before I was around, pecan trees later. He would harvest brown paper grocery bags full of them. He pronounced it “ba-cawns.” It was these pecans that attracted the squirrels, and these pecans that Grandpa patrolled his backyard to protect.

Grandpa not only cut meat, but he loved to eat it, too. You’d come in to their house on a Sunday and smell the delicious bacon he and Grandma had eaten for breakfast. Grandpa made the best ham I’ve ever eaten, and if you hung around long enough on Easter or Christmas, he’d wrap some up for you when you left. He’d wrap in first in wax paper, then in foil. Grandpa and my dad used to make pork sausage from a family recipe, feeding cuts of meat through a grinder and mixing in the spices—nutmeg, allspice, cloves. They’d weigh handfuls of meat on a little scale then press them into patties and wrap them up in white butcher paper.

On holidays, when we’d all be sitting around the table at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, Grandpa would pray, “Bless us O Lord and these thy gifts,” in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

One time I went on an overnight float trip with my dad, my Uncle Dan, and Grandpa. Sleeping next to Grandpa, half-conscious, I felt something spiderwebby with my fingers and pulled at it. I couldn’t figure out what it was. Later, in the morning, I realized it was Grandpa’s head I was feeling. He wondered why I had been pulling his hair in the middle of the night.

Floating that day, my dad and I came to a concrete drop-off in the river, two or three feet. We got out and walked the canoe over it, but when Uncle Dan and Grandpa came to it they just kept going. We couldn’t believe it. The front of their canoe dipped into the water and it seemed like they might get swamped, but they didn’t. Later, explaining why they hadn’t slowed down or gotten out, they laughed and said, “We were committed.”

Looking back at what I know about my grandpa, I think that that about sums it up. He was committed. He was committed to his wife. To his children. To his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. To his work. To his faith and his church. To his pecans and his tomatoes and the food he and Grandma prepared for all the holidays when his family came to his modest house in Affton to be with him and Grandma and eat together and exchange gifts and tell stories and laugh.

He was committed.

Here’s what I know about my grandpa: I’ll miss him.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

"She's the One," by Tessa Hadley

Tessa Hadley, a British writer who has published nine stories in the New Yorker since January of 2003 (more than anyone except Alice Munro and William Trevor), has an interesting one in last week's issue.

The main character, grieving and confused after her brother's suicide, takes refuge in reading: 

Ally read novels, wrapped up in her duvet beside the central-heating radiator in her bedroom, borrowing them from the center and the public library, sometimes finishing one and starting another without even changing her position or getting up to make coffee, like an addict. She knew that this wasn’t the right kind of reading. Studying for her literature degree, she had learned how to analyze the words and the themes; she had worked dutifully on her essay style, imitating academic articles. She imagined the reading she did now as like climbing inside one of those deep old beds she’d seen in a museum, with a sliding door to close behind you: even as she was suffering with a book and could hardly bear it, felt as if her heart would crack with emotion or with outrage at injustice, the act of reading it enclosed and saved her. Sometimes when she moved back out of the book and into her own life, just for a moment she could see her circumstances with a new interest and clarity, as if they were happening to someone else.

Fiction allows her to achieve, however briefly, a new perspective on her life. Interestingly, in the story, Ally works at a center where aspiring writers come to take classes and hone their craft. One of their assignments is to go outside and observe, to see the world in new ways. Though Ally finds that she loves to read but has no interest in how stories are constructed, over the course of this story, Ally has various experiences which allow her to see her own circumstances afresh, culminating in this one, when her brother's ex-girlfriend throws a ring he gave her into the river and then regrets having done so. Ally wades out into the freezing water to retrieve it:

She didn’t care about the ring: she had stepped into the water only to make a point against the hysterical performance on the riverbank, to show it up in some way that was deliberate and disdainful. When she turned to look back at Yvonne, she was surprised at how far she had come: Yvonne on the path seemed distant, hugging her elbows, shouting directions that Ally couldn’t hear over the water rushing past. It seemed a different universe out here in the river. The whole scene, the sad story that had brought them together, was framed for her for a moment as if from some far-off future perspective, and her rage against Yvonne washed out of her. Wanting only to be kind, she began hunting for the ring in all seriousness, peering at the riverbed, fishing for gleams in the water, her hands aching from the cold as if the flesh were being dragged off her bones. She realized that Yvonne was shouting from the bank for her to come back, please come back. It didn’t matter, Yvonne shouted. It was only a ring.

At that moment, Ally saw it, caught just underwater in a crevice in a jagged chunk of shale, its gold picked out where a beam of the late light slanted at an angle from the water’s surface. She reached out her hand to take it.

It's a beautiful moment, I think, mysterious and resonant, suggestive of the transformative power of changes in perception and perspective. Fiction, the story suggests, helps Ally practice such epiphanies, but it's life itself—taking action, encountering other human beings—that provides them for real.

St. Louis, Via Chicago

I spent a few days in Chicago earlier this week with my family. Last night my wife came across this interesting Paul Goldberger piece from a few weeks ago, about Daniel Burnham, the architect who was instrumental in planning out the city: 

Burnham wanted to remake the city along the lines of Paris—the plan gained the nickname Paris on the Prairie—and, to a large extent, he succeeded, prescribing a series of projects that kept the city busy through the nineteen-twenties. Some things, such as a gargantuan civic center that would have made Les Invalides, in Paris, seem modest, were never built. But the campus of museums on the lakefront—including the Field Museum of Natural History, the Shedd Aquarium, and the Museum of Science and Industry—and the network of parks, boulevards, piers, and lagoons that have kept the area in public hands for a century is the plan’s enduring legacy. It forms a startling contrast to the elevated highways and industrial buildings that have come to obstruct the waterfronts of most other American cities.

Elevated highways? Industrial buildings? Obstructed waterfront? Sounds familiar, yes, but I think St. Louis beats itself up a bit too much. We had fun in Chicago, but a family like mine could put together a great vacation in St. Louis as well, and for a lot less money. A day at Forest Park, hitting the zoo, the art museum, and the science center, with a jaunt over to the Hill for lunch or dinner. A day out in the county, at Grant's Farm and Laumeier and the Magic House, with a pit stop at Ted Drewes on the way home. A day in the Botanical Garden, then over to the playground at Tower Grove Park, then to South Grand or Hartford Coffee Company for some refreshments. Downtown you could do the Arch, then pop over to the brewery tour and Gus' for a pretzel, then a baseball game followed by some music at BB's or the Beale on Broadway or the Broadway Oyster Bar (OK, that part wouldn't work with kids). Throw in a visit to Crown Candy or Soulard or the Loop or one of the other art galleries if you have time. 

It's not all centrally located, like all the museums and Navy Pier in Chicago. You'd have to know where to go, and you'd have to have a car to get around, but it'd be a lot easier and cheaper than parking in Chicago. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Mystery, Manners, and Comics

A response to Brad Gooch's new biography of Flannery O'Connor.

(Via Bookslut.)

Saturday, March 21, 2009

DFW and Depression

Max also answers a question about Wallace's depression:

I think of Wallace’s depression as so intense that living, let alone writing, would have been impossible without treatment. As he described it, it had no component of sadness or wistfulness or affectlessness. It was more like an excruciating physical pain, a buzz saw cutting through his body again and again. Who could write under these conditions? In another era I think he would have been called “possessed.” All the same his condition was diagnosed—and I never entirely understood the diagnosis—as depression. And the drugs he took ameliorated but did not completely remove the symptoms, and they added problems of their own. So will he now be classed as one of those writers, like Virginia Woolf, who battled depression and whose work can be partially understood with reference to it? Perhaps, though I think the novelist Jonathan Franzen made a good comment at the memorial service at N.Y.U. when he said that people who thought Wallace died of a chemical imbalance didn’t need the sorts of stories Wallace wrote.

I think Max is right about Wallace's characterization of his depression. It reminds me of the brilliant and harrowing passage in
Infinite Jest about Kate Gompert and her definition of clinical depression (pages 692-98). I've used this passage in class while teaching Kathleen Finneran's The Tender Land, as a way of understanding what suicidal depression might look like, and of encouraging students to sympathize with those who suffer from it. The part I most remember from it is the comparison it suggests to understand suicide: the depressed person who kills herself has not lost the fear of death. It's just that the pain of depression is even greater than the fear of death—as someone trapped in a burning building is more afraid of burning to death than of leaping to death.

And yet I find Franzen's remark unhelpfully judgmental. What does he mean, really? 

To see Wallace's death as a result of a chemical imbalance is, in a sense, a compassionate view, isn't it? And also, in a sense, accurate? In the Kate Gompert passage, one man suffers from clinical depression after he slips on his basement floor and conks his head. Clearly there's some kind of physiological component of depression. And understanding it as a disease that is significantly independent of the will seems like a way of avoiding blaming the depressed person for her suffering, doesn't it?

DFW: A Traditional Composer in the Twelve-Tone Era?

D. T. Max answers readers' questions about his piece on David Foster Wallace. As part of his response to a question about whether DFW's work will be studied in classrooms in the future, Max throws out this remarkable speculation: 

the vast shift of creative effort from paper to the Web may render the fact that some good novels were written during our time irrelevant. Wallace and others like him may be the equivalent of traditional classical composers in the twelve-tone era.

This seems extreme to me. Has there really been that vast a shift? Aren't books still being published at an incredible rate? Granted, a lot of great stuff is available on the web, but most of the best stuff is still tied to paper publications. And how much of the work that is online only is of comparable quality to stuff published in the traditional manner?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Alex Ross on Bob Dylan

Alex Ross takes an advance listen to Bob Dylan's new record, and also links to a nice brief note he had in the New Yorker a few years back, reflecting on "Ain't Talkin," the final song (and my favorite) on Dylan's Modern Times

“As I walked out tonight in the mystic garden / The wounded flowers were dangling from the vine.” As usual, it is the words that seize your attention first. “Ain’t Talkin’,” the last song on Bob Dylan’s deceptively mellow-sounding new album, “Modern Times,” places the listener in a landscape of sweet decay, as handsomely ruined as Dylan’s sixtysomething voice, populated by sick mules, blind horses, a missing gardener, nameless foes, some woman, and the walking, weeping, brooding, ironically smiling singer. The vocal line is threadbare: it consists of just five notes, the ancient pentatonic scale. But it is the unswerving sureness of the musical choices—guitars twisting like vines around plain chord changes, an intermittently keening cello, a steady pulse like dripping water—that holds you mesmerized. The protagonist seems to be searching for some sign of hope in the apocalyptic garden, and, at the last moment, he finds it: after eight minutes in the minor mode, and a sighing reference to the “world’s end,” a moonbeam falls in the form of a glowing major chord.

You can listen to "Ain't Talkin" and, amazingly, any other Dylan song you're in the mood for, here.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


I was watching some Disney clips with my daughters the other night, and this one from Pocahontas came up:

Pretty schlocky, huh? The moment when she stops him from shooting the bear puts me in mind of a chapter in Alan Weisman's The World Without Us, which cites the work of zoologist Paul Martin, who argues that the first arrival of human beings in North America led to the hunting to extinction of North America's terrestrial megafauna (woolly mammoths, giant sloths, etc.). Weisman also points out that "the existence of much of the Great Plains themselves is due to fires set by their descendants, the American Indians, both to concentrate game that browse, such as deer, in forest patches, and to create grassland for grazers like buffalo." 

And it's a little creepy how Pocahontas's anti-colonial eco-topian anthem becomes a seduction dance, isn't it? By the end of it, she and her European conquistador are about to make out, and in the final moments it appears he's reaching up to grab her breasts.

I much prefer this "Pocahontas," a Neil Young cover by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings:

Monday, March 16, 2009

Bird by Bird

I saw Andrew Bird at the Pageant last night (here's my buddy's review of the show). The man is a genius—singing his mind-boggling lyrics, whistling perfectly melodic accompaniment, playing violin and guitar in the same songs, along with the glockenspiel (whose notes he often tweaked with a warbly little whistled trill), setting up devilish loops with foot pedals (he played the show shoeless, after removing them during the first song), and coordinating tightly with his band. What a great show.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Amy Hungerford on Blood Meridian

Here are both parts of a two-part lecture on Blood Meridian from Yale Professor Amy Hungerford. (These are the transcripts, but the video is available as well.) She focuses her lectures on the topic of allusion, and actually begins with the same McCarthy interview quotation that I used in my post on Blood Meridian. She draws some very nice parallels with Moby-Dick and Paradise Lost and makes interesting comments about the historical source of the novel as well.

As I read through these lectures, though, I'm struck by some of the differences between college and high school teaching:

1) This lecture is basically an essay, albeit a rather loose one. Having prepared this two-day take on Blood Meridian, Hungerford (if she's lazy, or busy working on her own research and writing) can now teach it year after year without even re-reading the novel. If she doesn't want to, she has no need to test and refine her interpretation by re-reading and having to account for the many parts of the novel that she more or less ignores. (This is what Nabokov did before embarking on his teaching career in America—wrote a series of lectures on literature, later collected as a book, that he delivered verbatim for the rest of his time as an instructor.)

2) She also won't have her reading tested by students' questions. The class discussion here is quite shallow. She asks her students if they liked the book; then she asks why. That's it. After that, it's all pre-packaged lecture. I suppose students, if they have more specific questions, can go talk to her during her office hours, but that probably won't happen much, and it's also much easier to handle (or deflect) a tough question one-on-one in private than it is to do so on the spot in front of a whole class of students. 

3) It's only in the day-to-day reading and discussion—the type that tends to go on in high school classrooms—that the teacher is really forced to make sense of an entire book, and to be prepared for the type of close questioning that makes for a satisfying close reading. As a student, having worked my way through Blood Meridian for this class, I think I would feel pretty dissatisfied by these two class sessions. A high school teacher would probably spend twenty classes on a book like this.

4) I'm also willing to bet that a healthy percentage of the students in this class didn't even read Blood Meridian. There were no quizzes to hold them accountable for doing so, no class discussion to prepare for. And they can probably write their papers on one of the other books assigned for the class if they want to.

5) The lecture doesn't seem to have a lot to do with what Blood Meridian might tell us about being human, about living life. Hungerford's topic is pretty rarified: what this book has to do with other literary works. Hungerford's ultimate point seems to be that the book is about itself and about how novels are just as important and valid a source of truth as history. Okay, but that's a kind of self-enclosed meaning that leaves aside most of the interesting implications and questions raised by this novel. In the end, listening to Hungerford's lecture, I start to wonder, why is literature a field of study? Why does it deserve to be an academic department if it's just a bunch of people tracking down allusions in a bunch of texts that just refer to themselves?

6) I suppose I sound like a bitter high school teacher here, resentful of the college professor with her cushy job. But that's only half of it. The other half is why I decided not to pursue my Ph.D. and become a college teacher myself. The fact is, I like going in day after day and really working up close with a text. I like re-reading a book year after year and refining my interpretation. I like spending four weeks on Huck Finn, or six weeks on Invisible Man, or a semester on The Odyssey. I like designing classes that engage discussion as a key part of the interpretive process. I like holding students accountable for the reading, giving them a reason to do the work. I like talking with students about the implications books and poems and stories and plays have for our lives. 

Even when it's exhausting, high school teaching feels honest and important to me in a way that college teaching does not.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Colbert on Ayn Rand

This is Colbert at his best:

Richard Ford on Characters, Novels

At Bookforum, Richard Ford reflects on his Frank Bascombe novels. I particularly like this passage from his essay:

In nearly forty years of writing stories of varying lengths and shapes and, in the process, making up quite a large number of characters, I’ve always tried to abide by E. M. Forster’s famous dictum from Aspects of the Novel that says fictional characters should possess “the incalculability of life.” To me, this means that characters in novels (the ones we read and the ones we write) should be as variegated and vivid of detail and as hard to predict and to make generalizations about as the people we actually meet every day. This incalculability would seem to have the effect of drawing us curiously nearer to characters in order to get a better, more discerning look at them, inasmuch as characters are usually the principal formal features by which fiction gets its many points across. These vivid, surprising details—themselves well rendered in language—will, indeed, be their own source of illuminating pleasure. And the whole complex process will eventuate in our ability to be more interested in the characters, as well as in those real people we meet outside the book’s covers. In my view, this is why almost all novels— even the darkest ones—are fundamentally optimistic in nature: because they confirm that complex human life is a fit subject for our interest; and they presume a future where they’ll be read, their virtues savored, their lessons put into practice.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Case of You

Middle cyclone Pictures, Images and Photos

Sasha Frere-Jones's review of Neko Case's great new album finds parallels between Case's songcraft and books by Cormac McCarthy and Marilynne Robinson.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Ain't I Pretty?

I just finished David Remnick's fine book on Muhammad Ali, King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero. In his introduction, Remnick lays out his thesis:

In the early sixties, Floyd Patterson cast himself as the Good Negro, an approachable and strangely fearful man, a deferential champion of civil rights, integration, and Christian decency. Sonny Liston, a veteran of the penitentiary before he came to the ring, accepted the role of the Bad Negro as his lot after he discovered that he would not be permitted any other.... Each man, in his own way, represented the world that Muhammad Ali would encounter and then transcend. 

The following passage sent me off to YouTube to watch Clay (before he became Ali) in action (to hear him talk, that is):

Clay, in fact, was the latest showman in the great American tradition of narcissistic self-promotion, a descendant of Davy Crockett and Buffalo Bill by way of the dozens. Clay gave credit to his predecessors when he was aware of them, but he was insistent on his originality—and rightly so.

Here are some videos of Clay that made me laugh with amazement and appreciation.

A two-part TV interview before the Liston fight, with some very funny responses to audience members' questions:

And here's Clay after defeating Sonny Liston:

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Tom Waits: The Early Years, Vol. 3

A friend of mine found this interesting Tom Waits radio appearance from 1974. You can download the whole thing for free. 

Waits's second album, The Heart of Saturday Night, has been recorded but not yet released at this point. Waits is 24 years old but sounds even younger than that. He's still working out his persona here, trying out differing vocal registers as he talks and sings. He plays acoustic guitar at the beginning of the show then switches over to piano. He says he's read everything by Jack Kerouac, and that Charles Bukowski is in the vanguard of American literature in his opinion. He mentions Randy Newman and Mose Allison as songwriters he admires, along with Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. 

There's a very rough version of "Better Off Without a Wife" here, with guitar, and a performance of "Diamonds on My Windshield" without any musical accompaniment. Waits describes "On a Foggy Night" as a soundtrack for a movie that came out 25 years earlier, which come to think of it is a good description for much of his early work.

If you have the two "Early Years" volumes and this radio show, you could just about cobble together a complete alternate version of The Heart of Saturday Night, a version stripped of the strings that make that album one of my least favorite in Waits's catalog.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Pale King

There's an interesting article in the LA Times about The Pale King, David Foster Wallace's unfinished novel. It's reportedly hundreds of thousands of words long (by way of comparison, Ian McEwan's short novel On Chesil Beach is 39,000 words long) but:

"It's not clear what the intended structure was," [Wallace's editor Michael] Pietsch admits, although Wallace left copious outlines and notes about "The Pale King" that he will use as guides.

Pietsch edited Wallace's gargantuan, fragmented novel Infinite Jest, so I suppose he's as qualified as anyone to put this thing together.

Infinite Jest is a huge assemblage of set pieces (some hypnotic in their virtuosity, some rather tedious). So on that level maybe The Pale King's structure will feel familiar.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Epstein and What It Takes to Be a Writer

For a while, Joseph Epstein was the darling of the Best American Essays Series. I read a number of his essays in those collections and came to like him a lot. I even went to see him read at Wash. U. once. Though I've come to recognize that his political beliefs don't necessarily correspond to mine (I was particularly irritated by his coy little jab at Obama in the third paragraph of this book review in the Wall Street Journal), I still like his prose style and find his voice compelling. This reflection on turning 70 that he wrote a while back is worth reading.

Epstein has reviewed Malcolm Gladwell's new book for the Weekly Standard. It's a pretty interesting review, mostly critical. But I found this passage particularly noteworthy:

For three decades I taught courses in prose style to students who, by taking the course, had in effect announced their interest in becoming writers. Some were immensely impressive in their talent--much more talented than I at their age. Yet many of the most talented among them washed out, drifting off, perhaps happily enough, into other kinds of work, settling for the consolations of security, marriage, family life, for all I know excessive venery. Why? Not, I think, for want of practicing--for failing to put in Malcolm Gladwell's requisite 10,000 hours--but for want of desire. They didn't want to be writers strongly enough. Whence does desire derive? I don't know, and neither, I venture to say, does Gladwell. Nor would a full battalion of scientists or social scientists in white coats armed with plush research grants be likely to find out. In the realm of desire, we are in the presence of a mystery and have no choice but to live with it.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

I Wanna Bite The Hand That Feeds Me

For no particular reason, here's the infamous clip of Elvis Costello and the Attractions unexpectedly playing "Radio, Radio" on Saturday Night Live in 1977, a kerfuffle (doesn't it seem like that word is getting used a lot these days?) that got him banned from the show for twelve years. I love EC's facial expressions and demeanor in this clip. He looks like he wants to bite your head off, not just the hand that feeds him. 

Monday, March 2, 2009

Yglesias on Tax Cut Logic

A trenchant bit of analysis from Matthew Yglesias:

Recent years have seen an enormous blossoming of arguments about why rich people should pay less in taxes.

There’s a certain beginner’s level of this. Here, when progressive tax policy has been in place during a period of growth, and that growth has led to a budget surplus, you argue not that it’s smart to balance the budget over the course of the business cycle, but rather that the surplus reflects the government “overcharging” in taxes that should be returned to those who pay the most taxes; which is to say to those who have the most money; which is to say to the rich. That’s a 1999 argument. Then if the economy falls into recession wiping out the surpluses, you argue that a tax cut for the rich is needed as economic stimulus. That’s a 2001 argument. And if the economy is growing during a period of conservative tax policy, you argue that the low taxes produced the growth so need to be kept in place forever. That’s a 2005 argument. And then if the economy falls into recession again, you argue that additional permanent tax cuts for the wealthy are the only solution.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

DFW's Gifts

Just read the excerpt from David Foster Wallace's unfinished novel in the New Yorker. It reminds me of one of DFW's signature gifts: his ability to slow down one's sense of time with his prose, to suck the reader in to what feels like moment-by-moment, real-time narration. Typically, writers can do this only through dialogue, which naturally takes as long to read as it does to occur. But Wallace's gift was to follow thought with a kind of exhilarating exactitude that makes it feel as if he is actually transcribing each and every step of cognition. He isn't, of course; like all fictional realism, it was an illusion, as the narrator of Wallace's story "Good Old Neon" reminds us:

This is another paradox, that many of the most important impressions and thoughts in a person's life are ones that flash through your head so fast that fast isn't even the right word, they seem totally different from or outside of the regular sequential clock time we all live by, and they have so little relation to the sort of linear, one-word-after-another-word English we communicate with each other with that it could easily take a whole lifetime just to spell out the contents of one split-second's flash of thoughts and connections, etc.--and yet we all seem to go around trying to use English (or whatever language our native country happens to us, it goes without saying) to try to convey to other people what we're thinking and to find out what they're thinking, when in fact deep down everybody knows it's a charade and they're just going through the motions. What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one little tiny part of it at any given instant.

Nevertheless, in reading Wallace's fiction, I am constantly amazed at his ability to maintain a train of thought, through incredibly long sentences and paragraphs and footnotes (and footnotes to footnotes). Part of the thrill comes from the sense that this writer is trying to use language to do something impossible, to render in prose what it feels like to be a thinking human being. Of course, that's what all writers try to do: capture the ineffable in language. But it seems to me that Wallace is more or less unique in attempting to capture this part of reality in this particular way. Nicholson Baker and George Saunders seem closest in method to DFW, but their works tend toward the miniature, whereas Wallace's extend the project maximally.

And just when you think Wallace is too much in his character's head, he busts out a perfectly observed detail, like when Lane Dean moves his son’s photo "in its rattly little frame where the front glass slid a bit if you shook it."

What a loss that he's dead. But I'm looking forward to reading this final work, even if it is unfinished.

DFW's Footnoted Flesh

There's lots of fascinating stuff in this excellent D.T. Max article about David Foster Wallace, including the news that Wallace left behind an unfinished manuscript, which according to The Howling Fantods will be published by Little, Brown next year. It's apparently a heavily researched novel he'd been working on for more than ten years, about boredom and the IRS. "Good People" was evidently an excerpt from it.

But here's one touching detail about Wallace and his wife that I hadn't seen anywhere else, fitting for a writer who used footnotes so exuberantly to evoke the multilayered quality of human thought:

Wallace put a strikeout through Mary [Karr]’s name on his tattoo and an asterisk under the heart; farther down he added another asterisk and Karen [Green]’s name, turning his arm into a living footnote.