Sunday, February 28, 2010

Adventures at QT (4)

Today I was at the soda fountain (I've fallen off the wagon), and this guy was scanning the various drink offerings, obviously frustrated and hurried. He had a full 32-oz. cup of cola in one hand and an empty one in the other.

"What are you looking for?" I asked him.

"Some kind of fruit juice, something that's not soda," he said.

I looked with him for a moment. "Here's peach tea," I said. "But I guess that's not really juice. Strawberry Fanta?"

"Yeah, I guess he'll like that," he said and started to fill the empty cup.

"Who are you getting it for?" I asked.

"My son," he said. "He's four, and if he gets too much sugar, you know, he gets kind of hyper."

"Yeah," I said.

"And we're on our way to church, so we don't want him to get too wound up." He finished filling the 32-oz. cup for his four-year-old.

"Well, good luck," I said, as he went to put lids on his drinks.

"Thanks. We'll need it," he said, laughing.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Knowledge We Don't Know What to Do With

This passage, from Larissa MacFarquhar's profile of Paul Krugman, seems very suggestive, even profoundly so, about how we sometimes dismiss obvious and fundamental ideas because they're not couched as we want or expect them to be:

Later on, Krugman became interested in economic geography, in the related question of why there were regional specialties—why, in the United States, for instance, were cars produced in Detroit, carpets in Dalton, Georgia, jewelry in Providence, and chips in Silicon Valley? Again, the answer turned out to be history and accident. Once an industry started up in one place, for whatever reason (the carpet industry in Dalton appears to have its origin in a local teen-ager who in 1895 made a tufted bedspread as a wedding present), local workers became trained in its methods, skilled workers from elsewhere moved there, and related businesses sprang up close by. Then, as more skilled labor became available, the industry could grow and benefit from economies of scale. Soon, as long as it didn’t cost too much to transport the industry’s products, the advantages of the place would be such that it would be impractical for someone to open up a similar business anywhere else. Many economists found the idea that economic geography could be so arbitrary “deeply disturbing and troubling,” Krugman wrote, but he found it exciting.

Again, as in his trade theory, it was not so much his idea that was significant as the translation of the idea into mathematical language. “I explained this basic idea”—of economic geography—“to a non-economist friend,” Krugman wrote, “who replied in some dismay, ‘Isn’t that pretty obvious?’ And of course it is.” Yet, because it had not been well modelled, the idea had been disregarded by economists for years. Krugman began to realize that in the previous few decades economic knowledge that had not been translated into models had been effectively lost, because economists didn’t know what to do with it. His friend Craig Murphy, a political scientist at Wellesley, had a collection of antique maps of Africa, and he told Krugman that a similar thing had happened in cartography. Sixteenth-century maps of Africa were misleading in all kinds of ways, but they contained quite a bit of information about the continent’s interior—the River Niger, Timbuktu. Two centuries later, mapmaking had become much more accurate, but the interior of Africa had become a blank. As standards for what counted as a mappable fact rose, knowledge that didn’t meet those standards—secondhand travellers’ reports, guesses hazarded without compasses or sextants—was discarded and lost. Eventually, the higher standards paid off—by the nineteenth century the maps were filled in again—but for a while the sharpening of technique caused loss as well as gain.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Quick Fling

At Larry Dark's Story Prize blog, an interview with Wells Tower, whose fine collection of stories is one of the finalists for this year's prize. An interesting excerpt:

What do you like about the short story form? Is it the form that comes most naturally to you as a writer?

I respect the form for cutting us so little slack. Readers often approach a short story suspiciously.They know they're being asked to embark on a brief relationship, one that won't give them days or weeks of enagement, as a novel does. A "Why should I care about you? This is just a quick fling" sort of deal, which leaves us with the challenge of devising stories that matter much, and quickly, without contrivances or bad emotional syrups. You can't waste time or language in a short story. I like that rigor. Keeps you honest.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Before the Arch

Michael Allen's post about a new exhibit at the Old Courthouse features a sobering reminder of the architectural cost of St. Louis' trademark Arch and its grounds:

The nation's only urban national park, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial with the stunning Gateway Arch by Eero Saarinen, has long been haunted by a shadow architectural history. To make way for one of the world's most full-realized modernist landscapes, St. Louis wrecked forty blocks of historic riverfront buildings. The significance of these buildings in American architectural history was such that in 1939, eminent architectural critic and historian Siegfried Gideon came to St. Louis to deliver a lecture on the doomed buildings. Gideon not only spoke about the unparalleled mass of cast-iron facades and storefronts found on the riverfront, he implored the city to change course and preserve the riverfront's commercial buildings.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Sins of the Fathers

From Arnold Rampersad's biography of Ralph Ellison, a couple disturbing snippets about American literary giants:

William Faulkner, quoted in Life, asserted that he was ready to shoot blacks in the street, if necessary, to save the Old South. (324)

Ernest [Hemingway] never cared much for American Negroes. When the integrated Brooklyn Dodgers visited Cuba, he invited the white players to his home, Finca Vigia, but quietly barred their black teammates. (410)

Thursday, February 11, 2010


From an interesting post about James Baldwin:

A journalist once asked James Baldwin if being poor, black, and gay had made him feel disadvantaged as a young writer. “No,” Baldwin replied, “I thought I had hit the jackpot. It was so outrageous, you had to find a way to use it.”

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Rebels Without a Clue

From a brilliant James Surowiecki piece about the incoherence of the current populist wave:

The failure of free markets during the financial crisis might have led people to think that the government should be more involved in the economy. Instead, the percentage of Americans who think government is trying to do too much is higher than it’s been since the late nineties. Health-care reform offers a case study in this. The bills passed by Congress, whatever their flaws, would do things that voters overwhelmingly say they support: extend coverage to the uninsured, ban the worst practices of insurers, and guarantee insurance for people who lose their jobs. Yet more voters now oppose the bills than support them, with many saying that the government is overreaching. And, while voters routinely say that the rising cost of health care is a problem, it is the bills’ cost-control provisions—including a tax on expensive insurance plans and rules to restrain Medicare spending—that have proved especially unpopular. On top of this, many people are just annoyed with the whole process: a survey of voters who supported Obama in 2008 but voted for Scott Brown in the recent Massachusetts Senate race found that forty-one per cent of those who opposed health-care reform weren’t sure whether reform went too far or not far enough. In short, they don’t know why they’re against reform; they just are.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Fundamentally Tragic

I'm currently reading Arnold Rampersad's 2007 biography of Ralph Ellison, and enjoying it quite a bit. So I was interested to read this Stanley Crouch piece about the recently published manuscript, over 1100 pages long, of Ellison's unfinished second novel.

Here's a particularly scintillating passage from Crouch:

Ellison’s trouble is obvious in what we have before us now. He knew much too much and was much too conscious of what he wanted his novel to do and achieve. He could neither bunt nor swing for a base hit. Only a grand slam would do, bases loaded and the ball leaving the enclosed field on the way to a landing in the parking lot, where it would be lost under the uncountable cars covering almost every inch of the asphalt. Whenever that did not happen to his satisfaction, Ellison sullenly returned to the bench and brooded until his inspiration brought him back to the plate. That seems to have been his tragedy.

Ellison appears to have wanted his piece of the crown worn only by two novelists before him, Melville and Faulkner....

Ralph Ellison may well have been up to the challenge that Faulkner threw down because his experience was broad enough to create a reasonable distrust of the academy, although he became, as an inarguably splendid intellectual, a symbol of the academy at its best. He knew how to put historical facts together with lasting ideas and the new conceptions of modern life that were continually changing while adhering to deathless, classical concerns.

Ellison was suspicious of the right and the left, the capitalists and the Marxists, the corporations and the workers, the whites and the non-whites, the rich and the poor, the religious and the atheists, and every other human variation. He was aware of how often those of any persuasion had been wrong as long as the day goes on. This meant that the Ellison vision was fundamentally tragic.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Restoring Carver's Voice

I'm about 90 percent through with Raymond Carver's Collected Stories now, and I've found that the most enjoyable part of reading the volume has been comparing Beginners, Carver's original manuscript version of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, with the published version as heavily edited by Gordon Lish.

In this post, I wrote some early thoughts on the differences between these two versions. Here at The Millions you can read my comparisons after having finished both collections.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Hills That He Called Home

I like this, from an article about Cornish, N.H., the town where J. D. Salinger moved when he was 34 years old:

Here Mr. Salinger was just Jerry, a quiet man who arrived early to church suppers, nodded hello while buying a newspaper at the general store and wrote a thank-you note to the fire department after it extinguished a blaze and helped save his papers and writings.

Despite his reputation, Mr. Salinger “was not a recluse,” said Nancy Norwalk, a librarian at the Philip Read Memorial Library in Plainfield, which Mr. Salinger would frequent. “He was a towns- person.”

And last week, after his death, his neighbors would not talk about him, reflecting what one called “the code of the hills.”