Monday, June 30, 2008

The Start of a List: 100-96

At the prompting of my friend Dezmond -- with whom I spent way too many hours in the college dining hall talking about the top 10 this and the top 20 that -- I’m posting my favorite 100 albums, five at a time. There will likely be one installment per week. It fills space. And lists are fun.

First rule is the simplest: No jazz or classical. You won’t see Miles Davis, Bill Evans, or Oscar Peterson here. You won’t see Bach, Mozart, or Chopin, either. This is for a reason that I hope is obvious. If it’s not, open your idiom dictionary to “apples and oranges.”

Second rule: Thorough quality was a priority. Mazzy Star’s So Tonight That I Might See has three songs that are spellbinding. Tom Waits’ The Heart of Saturday Night includes one of my all-time favorite songs. Young MC’s Stone Cold Rhymin’ features “Bust a Move,” which I know by heart, backwards and forwards, but the rest of it is . . . the rest of Young MC’s Stone Cold Rhymin’. To state the obvious, this is an albums list, not a songs list. (“Bust a Move” is nothing compared to some of the songs that would be high enough on a songs list to cause me and my family great embarrassment.)

Third rule: No limit to number of albums per artist. This worked itself out more naturally than I thought it would. Only one artist has more than two -- guess who? -- and even there I reasonably narrowed things down.

Fourth rule: A loose definition of album when it suits me. There’s a soundtrack on the list. I also include a handful of greatest-hits compilations. The reasons for including them are not arbitrary. For starters, they all feature hits I like. Elton John’s hits, for example, are missing four or five of my very favorite songs of his, so it didn’t make the cut. Hot Rocks doesn’t include “Beast of Burden,” which might be my favorite Rolling Stones song.

Fifth and final rule: The only (highly inexact) science in making this list involved combining my love and respect (separate indices) for records. If I were just plotting the love graph, showcasing music in a This Is Your Life kind of way, based on how much pleasure certain records gave me at certain times, Slippery When Wet would be in the top 10. I’m not proud to say that, but there it is. I was 12 years old, living on Long Island; it was part of the program.

And if I were just plotting the respect graph, trying to tease out my personal feelings -- which I think is a masochistic, to say nothing of quixotic thing to do when approaching art -- I imagine Paul Simon, to name one, would be ranked even higher than he is, and that a couple of guilty-ish pleasures would either drop a few slots or plummet away altogether.

So, that’s my long, unnecessary intro, but I had fun writing it. (I really should have gone to law school.) Now, on to the first batch of records:

100. Joni Mitchell -- Blue (1971)

No jazz or classical, but Canadians are allowed. Mitchell was never more consistent than on this record, and it features some of my favorite songs of hers, including “River,” “Carey,” and “Little Green.”

This one might be cheating, because I’m sure there are albums I like more than this one that got left off. But I happened to be in the mood to represent Mitchell on the list, and since #100 felt particularly arbitrary, it’s a good place to get all cheating impulses out of the way. (Weezer’s “blue album” was a contender, but Joni seemed worthier of mention. Wilco’s Summerteeth was a contender, but Wilco already appears in various forms on the list, and it would’ve been a fluke to over-represent them; I like them a lot, but also think they’re overrated. Slobberbone’s Barrel Chested was a contender, but then I would have had a band named Slobberbone on my list. Just kidding, guys in Slobberbone -- much love.)

99. Explosions in the Sky -- All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone (2007)

From the quirky vocals of Joni Mitchell to no vocals at all. This is the only instrumental record on my list. Out of Texas, this band’s profile has been raised by its work on the soundtrack of the movie and TV show “Friday Night Lights." (Proof that being attached to a TV show continually on the verge of cancellation is still exponentially better than not being attached to a TV show.) Its songs tend to start with a foreboding sound -- for good reason, because there’s usually a racket around the corner. Built on guitar work that moves from restrained to exultant and back, the band’s music is meant to sound both humble and epic, and it succeeds wildly. (Bill Simmons once had a funny exchange with a reader about this very fact, and I shared it here.)

This record has only six songs, but “The Birth and Death of the Day” and “It’s Natural to Be Afraid” clock in at 7:50 and 13:27, respectively. It’s a much shorter track, though, that made me choose this one over others by them. “So Long, Lonesome” (3:40) closes the album. It begins with the same shimmering guitar lines that open many of their songs, directionless as wind chimes, but soon a piano shyly emerges. Over the relatively short running time, the piano leads the guitars through different levels of intensity, first slightly more aggressive, then dipping back into something more ethereal, and finally joined by drums in an even more stately version of the band’s usual stately crescendos. In creating an indelible mood with simple means, it’s a perfect example of the band's work.

98. Belly -- King (1995)

I think this is one of the most underrated records of the 1990s. Tanya Donelly was coming off her stint in Throwing Muses, and “alternative rock” was having its “moment,” so Belly’s debut, Star, got more attention when it was “released.” (Sorry, the quotation marks became a thing.) And Star had a handful of very good, very radio-friendly songs. But King is stranger and more mature without becoming inaccessible.

A few of the better songs here -- like “Silverfish” and “Super-connected” -- move from unassuming verses to rousing choruses. And then there’s “The Bees,” the album’s centerpiece, five atmospheric minutes that only manage to eventually rouse into a quiet, martial beat. Given that the song is about personal relationships, not public ones, and given how Donelly lets the words out with more regret than invective, the killer line is: “I tell you stories / that doesn’t mean you know me.”

And it’s not on the record, but “Thief” was a good B-side to a single off King, just proving that the band was doing strong work at the time. (Donelly’s had a spotty solo career since, in my opinion, but check out the song “Every Devil,” a slow-burning stunner.)

97. Johnny Cash -- At Folsom Prison (1968)

This album offers a fine selection of Cash’s songs, spirited performances, and all that. But the most interesting thing about it is that it was recorded at a prison, in front of prisoners. Care to picture any singers doing that today? Yeah. (Rascal Flatts at San Quentin.)

The setting is especially additive for the songs “25 Minutes to Go” and “I Got Stripes.” On “25 Minutes,” Cash counts down to the gallows, the imminent hanging reflected in an increasing, insane giddiness in his voice. "Now here comes the preacher for to save my soul with 13 minutes to go / and he's talkin' 'bout burnin', but I'm so cooold . . . 12 more minutes to go." It’s one of the most memorable performances of any song I’ve ever heard.

Upon the record's release, The Village Voice wrote, "Cash’s voice is as thick and gritty as ever, but filled with the kind of emotionalism you seldom find in rock . . . His songs are simple and sentimental, his message clear . . . The feeling of hopelessness—even amid the cheers and whistles—is overwhelming. You come away drained, as the record fades out to the sound of men booing their warden, and a guard’s gentle, but deadly warning, 'Easy now.' Talk about magical mystery tours."

96. Matthew Sweet -- 100% Fun (1995)

By my count, this 12-song record has three very good songs and four really good songs, and let’s face it, that sounds like a pretty good definition of a #96 favorite record. Sweet traffics in “power pop,” one of those silly but somewhat useful terms that rock fans throw around, and he’s one of the very best in the world at it. Take the song “Wait” (which isn’t on this record, but on a record he oddly released in Japan called Kimi Ga Suki). It’s a two-minute-and-38-second cocoon of ringing guitars and candy-coated harmonies. It’s like the soundtrack inside a giggling baby’s head, if self-doubt and romantic uncertainty made babies giggle.

But back to 100% Fun. If there were a subset of my favorite records labeled something like Records For Sunny, Happy Days When You Still Reserve the Right to Be Suddenly Sad, this would be top 10 on that list. At least.


Work Spaces

The Guardian asked dozens of writers to share thoughts about their work rooms (with photographs). For those few writers featured who couldn't speak for themselves, there are some heavyweight substitutes. Biographer Hermione Lee says of Virginia Woolf's space (pictured above):
Virginia and Leonard Woolf bought their house in Sussex, Monk's House in Rodmell, in 1919, for £700. Two years later, she had a small writing room in the garden constructed out of a wooden toolshed below a loft. It had big windows and a view of the Downs across to Mount Caburn. She wrote there in the summers, and liked it very much, though it was not ideal for concentration. She was always being distracted - by Leonard sorting the apples over her head in the loft, or the church bells at the bottom of the garden, or the noise of the children in the school next door, or the dog sitting next to her and scratching itself and leaving paw marks on her manuscript pages. In winter it was often so bitterly cold and damp that she couldn't hold her pen and had to retreat indoors. In 1924 they put in an oil store. Ten years later, the "writing lodge", as she called it, was moved down to the far end of the garden, under the chestnut tree next to the flint churchyard wall. She wrote there with a board on her lap (as her father, Leslie Stephen, used to do). They built a little brick patio in front of the lodge, and on summer evenings, visitors would come and sit and watch the extremely competitive games of bowls being played on the lawn.

In this writer's lodge, Woolf wrote parts of all her major novels from Mrs Dalloway to Between the Acts, many essays and reviews, and many letters. This was where Leonard came out in July 1931 to tell her that The Waves, which he had just finished reading, was a masterpiece. This was where she struggled for months on end with The Years, trying to cut down on her smoking (from six or seven to one a morning in 1934). This was where, on Friday March 28, 1941, on a cold spring morning, she wrote a farewell letter to Leonard before walking down to the River Ouse, leaving her papers in disarray, with several revisions of her last essay on Mrs Thrale in the waste-paper basket and immense numbers of typewritten sheets lying about the room. It looks much tidier now.
(Via Books, Inq.)

Friday, June 27, 2008

A Story

OK, here's your treat/punishment for the weekend, depending on how you feel about long blog posts. This is the story I read the other night at Literary Death Match. (Details about the night -- and posts about lots of other things -- can be found by scrolling, and scrolling, and scrolling past this story.) This is called "William Brunson Attempts to End His Friendship With Frank McDermott."


I know young writers, kids a half or even a third my age, who are disappointed in their peers. They wish they were more excitable -- more prone to fist fights at cocktail parties. They feel they missed a golden era, the way some men wish they had been born to see action at Guadalcanal. Of course, they would feel differently if their wish were granted. If they had ever witnessed a writer fight, they may have had to accompany one of the frustrated pugilists home in a cab, and there’s no avoiding the bathos then, let me tell you. If you’ve heard a writer complain about an imagined slight, just imagine a real fat lip. They’re drunk when it happens, too, which makes them more sentimental or more angry . . . more of whatever it is you don’t like about them when they’re sober. Plus, the panting. The act of throwing one good punch leaves a writer out of breath for days.

I’ve cleaned up the blood of both William Brunson and Frank McDermott, each spilled by the other, and I’m here to testify there is nothing golden about it. I was Frank’s agent in 1978, when he won the National Book Award for Birmingham Hours, a novel about a lonely northerner stuck in Alabama over a long weekend. The New Yorker compared it favorably to the work of Walker Percy. The New York Times said that McDermott -- and here I quote -- “limns the differences of regional American character with an eye as precise as his heart is forgiving.” I thought it was the worst of his three novels, but it’s proven to be the only one anyone remembers, and it still sells a thousand or so copies a year.

After my stint as an agent I worked as an editor. I became the caretaker of Brunson’s only book -- a modest collection of stories -- when his editor left the house to have a sex change and moved to Florida to train dolphins. So I’ve been a corner man for both sides, often simultaneously, with all the awkwardness that entails -- running from one side of the ring to the other, offering advice, stanching gashes, trying to keep them upright for one or two more rounds so we can all go home with some dignity intact.

They had provided better entertainment over the years when they refrained from belting each other and focused their creativity on more abstract theaters of battle. When Frank’s follow-up to Birmingham received disapproval from the Times in 1983, he and Brunson were staying at summer homes on Fire Island, less than two blocks from each other. At noon on a clear day, Brunson hired a skywriter to decorate the horizon with the two toughest words in the review: “strained . . . derivative.” And a couple of years later, when Brunson drunkenly confided in Frank that his marriage was feeling strained -- perhaps derivative, too -- Frank mailed a series of letters in a flowery hand to Brunson’s home, making his wife think that Brunson was having an affair.

You might be wondering why these two have maintained contact over the decades. I wonder that myself. Writers often make room for ego, jealousy, and out-and-out bloodlust in a way most people don’t. But even given that, the enmity between Brunson and Frank stands out.

These two are on my mind because Frank is making a rare public appearance tonight, reading from his first new novel in 22 years. I’m on my way to meet Brunson beforehand at a cafe. He has beaten me here. He’s sitting with his back to the door and I see that he’s worrying a piece of paper. When I sit down, he holds it protectively against his chest.

“Brunson,” I nod, trying to appear unthreatening. Something has him spooked.

He reminds me that a month ago he had sent Frank a new collection of stories for consideration. Frank has become an editor himself, a rather high-powered one. Brunson ominously notes that I had approved this course of action. I believe him, but I also have no idea why I would have done such a thing.

He hands me the sheet, marked with the letterhead of Frank’s imprint.
Dear Bill:

It’s so rare that a gatekeeper has a pleasant experience. As you know, it’s a dispiriting business. We spend most of our time playing assassin to sad little hopes that are barely worth a slap, much less a bullet. Some days it feels that the war has broken me and I’m not even at my post; I’m marauding into the surrounding hills, picking off villagers who don’t even know the gate exists.

But there are times when my role feels indispensable, my duty sacred. Reading your latest collection of stories is one of those times. In rejecting it for publication, I feel as Churchill must have, keeping the Germans out of London. Remember that publication pivots on the “public,” and I can’t inflict these pallid stories on them.

You may find a willing publisher elsewhere, but I doubt it. I don’t blame you for thinking you might have found a sympathetic audience on my desk. I am sympathetic. But I’m not blind. So not this time, I’m afraid. Thanks for giving me a look.

I swallow gravely to signal I’ve finished. His pale face fixes mine. “Can you believe it?” he asks.

I can, but I struggle to compose an expression that says I can’t.

“And I thought we were friends,” he says.

Friends. I think back to the heated exchanges, the baroque plots, the broken noses.

He drops below the table and wrestles into his bag while I marvel again at how stupid smart people can be. He’s just figuring out now that Frank might genuinely dislike him.

He reappears holding a hand grenade. I quickly scan the cafe. The customers around us continue to talk, or nap, or feed their hand-held devices. The employees chat behind the counter.

Brunson cups the grenade, gently hefts it three times to test its weight, like he just picked it out of the produce section. He smiles at me. I imagine it’s impossible for a smile to look anything but creepy, when it’s flashed by someone holding a grenade.

“I suppose I should ask what you’re doing with that,” I say, my throat suddenly dry.

“I’m on a mission,” he says. “To rescue grenade-lobbing from the land of metaphor.”

“That’s for tonight?”

“It is indeed,” he beams.

All I can picture is Frank exploding into a thousand pieces. I can’t help it. And I don’t want to laugh at the image, but it’s hard to suppress. Readings are normally so dull.

“What about the people near the podium?” I ask.

“They must be devoted fans to have gotten there early for such good seats,” he says. “They’ll deserve it.”

My friendship with these men has always exposed a weakness of mine: I’m congenitally unable to choose sides. Their other friends have all been brutally divvied up into opposing squadrons. I’m the only friend they share. As such, I find it hard to believe that I’ll be able to stand by and watch as one of them becomes a murderer -- to say nothing of watching while one of them becomes a murderee. But Brunson looks energized by the plan, so much happier and more confident than when I first walked in. I’d hate to disabuse him of his fantasy. Besides, pushing him to give up the grenade now might only strengthen his resolve. I decide to save my persuading for the store.

There must be 200 people on hand for the event. This is why writers want to live in New York. It provides the illusion that writers are popular. Three-fourths of the fans hold copies of Birmingham Hours. A few of the elderly have their mitts on the original hardcover, designed with all the grace and flair of a grocery bag -- dark brown title on a lighter brown background, Frank’s name at the bottom in dull orange. The rest have the most recent paperback edition. Scattered throughout the room are a few generous souls holding a copy of the new book.

We find seats, near the back, and Frank takes the stage. He opens the book to a page he has marked, and then the situation worsens. He looks across the room and sees Brunson sitting next to me. With a gleam in his eye he asks the crowd for patience while he finds a new passage to read. The scene he settles on features a character luckless with money, marriage, and publishing. No one else in the room recognizes the buffoon Frank describes, but the man to my right certainly does. Brunson steams and I consider the gravity of Frank’s error. He’s gone out of his way to insult someone who had already decided to show up with a grenade.

“Liar!” Brunson screams, rising to his feet. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out the grenade. “Liar!”

New Yorkers are used to interruptions from crazies, but this feels different. There’s a charge in the air even before people look to his hand. I tug at his sleeve and try to divert his maniacal gaze.

“Maybe this isn’t the time,” I gently suggest. “You could lob it later. Through his apartment window, maybe.”

This is the persuasion I saved up? With his left hand he holds me at bay.

“It’s the last lie you’ll ever tell!” he shouts.

Seeing him pull the pin with his teeth, the crowd begins to flee. Several people head straight back toward the bathrooms, rushing past me in a wave. Others lunge for shelter among the shelves of the travel section. Brunson pitches the grenade toward the podium. Frank stands frozen in panic, tracing its arc with his eyes wide. The grenade lands to his left, hits the wall and rebounds back toward him, spinning to a stop.

Several seconds pass in silence. The few people left in their seats count down with me, trying to remember our childhood war movies. Is it five seconds, or just three?

It’s a new variety of silence for me, this silence of people waiting for a grenade to explode. When I turn to look at Brunson, he wears a smile that shows no disappointment. It’s clear that the grenade is not defective. It’s a fake. The spectacle was all he wanted. The wide eyes. In all their destructive math, the two of them had always held death out of the equation. I wonder why it took so long.

As some people continue on their escape routes, others now return to the scene in an undertow, confident there won’t be a blast but curious to see what there will be.

Brunson turns to me, as casually as if we were picking up our coats to leave a movie theater during the closing credits. I ask him, “Was it from a toy store?”

“Ha! A toy!”

“Did you have it custom made? It looked so real.”

As I’m posing these questions, distracted by logistics, Frank looms behind Brunson. He picks up an art survey book off a display table. It’s fifteen hundred pages if it’s a page. He slams it into Brunson’s lower back.

Brunson hits the floor and Frank leaps on him. Like hockey referees, two booksellers attempt to break up the action while the men are entangled, but from my view of the pile it appears that Brunson scratches one of them on the arm. The peacemakers back away.

Two minutes later -- time that passes awfully slowly when two grown men are cinched on the floor -- they’re half-heartedly pawing at each other. What started as a battle has devolved into a play date scheduled too close to nap time. Nearly all the grown-ups have left the scene. This might not even make the gossip pages tomorrow.

I look down to the table on my left and see an array of history books -- a tale of Arctic exploration, a biography of Hirohito, a book about the treatment of African-Americans between the Civil War and World War II. I run my hand along a few of the dust jackets, feeling the raised letters, and turn for the escalator. I descend to the northern border of Union Square and start heading west toward a favorite bar. I leave them to clean up their own blood.

Subterranean Thrills

The other night, I watched The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, a 1974 movie about the hijacking of a New York subway car. It starred Robert Shaw as the lead hijacker and Walter Matthau as the cop in charge of the negotiations. It featured many great shots of old city signage, what the person I watched it with called "subway porn."

Shaw and his crew go by color-coded aliases (Mr. Blue, etc.), which Quentin Tarantino borrowed for Reservoir Dogs. I was expecting a lost gem, but Pelham is a little too cheesy for that. Still, it doesn't deserve to be lost. Sure, most of the people who work for the subway talk like cartoons of working-class New Yorkers. (The person I was watching with: "The lumpenprole leave something to be desired.") But once you roll with the cheesiness, instead of fighting it, there are many rewards. First off, there's the great of-its-time music over the opening credits. There's the comically inept, bed-ridden mayor (for a hilarious, two-second dose of him, watch the original trailer and wait until the 1:09 mark). There's a runaway train sequence, during which it's fun to scream, "Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!" (The person I was watching with: "Stop doing that.") There's Matthau and Shaw, who are always terrific. And the closing shot is an absolute classic.

The movie wears its '70s-ness not so lightly. I laughed out loud during the closing credits, when the hostages in the train were credited as: The WASP, The Hippie, The Hooker, The Pimp, The Salesman, The Secretary, and The Homosexual.


Now the bad news. It's being remade for a 2009 release, with Denzel Washington reprising Matthau's role. (IMDB lists his character with the same name as Matthau's: Zachary Garber. Hmmm.) I like Washington, but he and Matthau are obviously typecast very differently (Matthau all crusty schlubbiness and Washington all sharp intensity). Meaning, the new movie -- directed by Tony Scott -- will likely be a taut thriller with a big gun battle at the end, whereas the original was shaggy but ultimately lovable.

From what I can tell, the new hijacking crew will be led by -- gulp -- John Travolta. They tried to make up for that by also casting Luis Guzmán and Gbenga Akinnagbe (brilliant as Chris Partlow on The Wire), but too late.

A Luuurve Story

Pajiba is wrapping up another Classics Week -- this time focused on the 1970s -- and I chose to write about one of my very favorite movies: Annie Hall.

Thursday, June 26, 2008


A good friend of mine writes at normblog about Pauline Kael's For Keeps. . . . The trailer for the new Coen brothers movie makes it seem, um, Coen-esque. Can't wait. . . . BLDG BLOG links to some very cool/creepy photos. . . . I like collecting anti-blurbs, and this is a good one: "In short, I absolutely hated this book. If it had a face, I would punch it in it."

Last Man Sliding

Last night, I took part in Literary Death Match -- a reading series -- at Sara Roosevelt Park on the Lower East Side. (That's me, at right.) The other readers were Gabrielle Mitchell-Marell, Debbie Kuan, and Amy Shearn. We were judged by Jeff Gordinier, Ben Greenman, and Julie Klausner.

The "death match" is actually a challenge half literary/half physical. In the first round, there are two reading matches. My opponent was Amy Shearn, who couldn't have been nicer, and who read two brief but related stories. She has a novel coming out next month called How Far is the Ocean From Here, and it's already been called an "accomplished and sophisticated debut" by Publishers Weekly. I managed to advance, and faced Debbie Kuan in the finals. The finals entailed walking over to a kids' playground at the park, sack racing (with kitchen garbage bags), and trying to get down a slide before your opponent. I take little pride in saying I won, given that not only am I several inches taller than Debbie (good for hopping), but I was wearing Converse sneakers and she had on lovely (but not good for hopping) flats.

Thanks to the series hosts, Todd Zuniga and Terry Selucky, for having me on board. And special thanks to Odile and Lina, who asked me to represent Titlepage at the event. I'm going to post the story that I read on the blog sometime this weekend. It's long, so I don't want it to clog up a week of posting. I'll give it Saturday and Sunday to itself, and then start bumping it down...

Phair at "15"

In honor of the 15th anniversary of Exile in Guyville, someone near and dear to this blog interviewed Liz Phair for Elle magazine. A taste:
ELLE: Do you have any advice to give to the Liz Phair who made that record?
LP: I wish I could pour compassion and perspective into the person who made that record, because she was so clearly in pain. If I could just tell myself, “It’s gonna be okay, and you need to stop running away from the stuff that you’re scared of.”

ELLE: Is there any advice that she could give you now?
LP: [Laughs] Uh, yeah! It would be: Wake up! What Guyville teaches me right now, what I’m trying to take into new record, is that the biggest gift you can give the world is to share what truly happens to you, what really hurts, what’s really embarrassing. That’s the thing that Guyville had in spades that I got away from.
Read the whole thing.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


The Times (UK) recently asked critics to write about their "most-loathed books." I tend to like features like this, because anger is often funny. For instance, even if I loved The Awkward Age by Henry James (I haven't read it yet, but this won't keep me from dipping in some day), I would laugh at this take on it by Bryan Appleyard:
This late (1899) book marks the beginning of the end for James, and persuaded me that he was never that good. FR Leavis called it "one of James's major achievements." Leavis was mad. I tried to make myself read it, my mouth gaping in a silent scream, but I failed. I wanted all the characters to die, slowly and in terrible agony. It would be the first interesting thing that had happened to them.
Ian Rankin mentions The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and wonders, "How can a book be harrowing and pedestrian at the same time?" I've wondered the same thing myself.

I found the Times piece through The Elegant Variation, where Mark Sarvas asked: "what is it with all this 'Books we hate' nonsense?" I'm all for it. It seems a day doesn't pass when there isn't a new book on the tables at B&N with a subtitle like 75 Writers on the Books They Love or 5,005 Books to Read Before You Die. I don't know about you, but I'm not immortal. It would be nice to occasionally focus on narrowing the list, rather than expanding it.

Norm Geras makes the point that some dismissals are less worthy than others. Fair enough. But that doesn't mean dismissals are inherently less compelling -- or less honest -- than raves.

Along these lines, a friend and I had a conversation about a "modern classic" that we both detest. Part one is here. Part two is here. (A long-planned third part may be on its way...)

Going Back to the Vault for Wednesday

I think posting that Teenage Fanclub song last week put me in a '90s state of mind. (Teenage Fanclub continues to make good music in this century, so I don't mean that as a slight.) Anyway, the song below was a modest hit when I was in high school: "The Life of Riley" by the Lightning Seeds. This is a performance of the song from a 1998 festival at Glastonbury:

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Magician

Shortly after Cyd Charisse died last week, I got an e-mail from my dad that included these lines:
If you want to know why I lament the passing of the musical and cannot help but feel that my kids have been shortchanged, type in Cyd Charisse on You Tube. Check out her "Dancing in the Dark" number with Fred Astaire from the movie The Band Wagon. It is set in Central Park (not the real thing, a Hollywood set), and that dance sequence is as good as it gets. She was plenty hot and did steamy numbers way ahead of her time, but the fact is that she was a world-class talent and, teamed with Astaire, who was the world-class talent, magic happened.
Well, I don't feel as shortchanged as I might, because my family introduced me to so many great musicals, but it's true that I didn't have a very good sense of Charisse's work. Hard to dispute that it's magic:

If you're interested in one of those steamy numbers, click here and wait for about a minute.

A Poem

"It Cannot Be Said for Certain" by Kay Ryan, from the new issue of The American Scholar:
It cannot be
said for certain
that imagining
a pattern is
Our acts could
matter. At some
unfathomed distance
the random
could condense
to something -- say
a fork -- against
the velvet dark.
The silver shiver
that we get from
time to time
somewhere adding
up to silver. The
vacancies we suffer
the necessary black
between the tines.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Five More Albums...

My friend Dezmond's most recent installment of his top 100 albums list includes "a glorious, coked-out mess of a record." The post also features an amazing album cover from Jeff Beck.

Two of the bands he writes about this time will be on my list, which I hope to start posting by the end of this week.

The Ad Game

The cover story about "Mad Men" in yesterday's New York Times Magazine generated more conversation (around me, anyway) than I would have predicted. I haven't seen the show, so I have to withhold final judgment.

At one point, the author asks old-timers in the advertising game about the show's accuracy. This short paragraph made me want to read the memoir:
But the way Jerry Della Femina remembers it, that’s not far off. He now owns his sixth agency, Della Femina Rothschild Jeary & Partners, and wrote a best-selling account of his early advertising career in 1970. Its title was his proposed slogan for the Japanese-owned Panasonic account when he was creative director at Ted Bates: “From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor.”

"The kid who swallows too many marbles doesn't grow up to have kids of his own."

George Carlin died.

I think that's how he would say it. During his classic rant about softened language (which you can see it in its entirety here), he said:
Thanks to our fear of death in this country, I won't have to die. I'll "pass away." Or I'll "expire," like a magazine subscription. If it happens in the hospital, they'll call it a "terminal episode." The insurance company will refer to it as "negative patient care outcome."
So instead of saying "rest in peace," since Carlin will be very disappointed in his powers of prediction if he's resting in peace (it's worm food for him), I'll just share the clip below. It's one of my favorites:

Sunday, June 22, 2008

What Lies Beneath

To end your weekend/begin your week, here's a bit of graphic disillusionment for you (via Andrew Sullivan). This site takes before and after pictures of dolls, first the whole thing and then just the robotic pieces inside. Some are hilarious, others are compelling, and still others, like this one, are flat-out terrifying:

Saturday, June 21, 2008

A Reading

This Wednesday night, at 6:30, I'll be taking part in a reading series called Literary Death Match. I'm working on the story I'll be reading, and would love the support of anyone who wants to come out. (I have a feeling the audience might have a say in who "advances," but I'm not certain.)

A Review in the Form of a Question

R.E.M. played Madison Square Garden on Thursday night. I was thinking about going to see them next week at Jones Beach Theater, except -- joke's on me -- they played Jones Beach last week. I'm kicking myself for missing them this time around. The only time I caught them was on the Monster tour, and the set lists left a lot to be desired. The current tour has featured several songs from the new album, and the brevity of those songs has left time for a lot of material from records like Reckoning and Life's Rich Pageant.

The Jones Beach show sounds like it was a memorable experience. As for the Garden show, one blogger shared the set list, complained about the people around him, and then asked this (pretty good) question:
Which kind of leads me to this: To have such a huge fanbase, even if it’s leftover from the mid-90s when they had hit albums Automatic for the People and Out of Time, is bizarre for a band as weird as R.E.M. I mean they are a really f***ing weird band: They are dorks. Weird dorks. Mike Mills is a dork, the kind of guy that the mook in front of me probably used to beat up in high school. Michael Stipe is gay — not usually a cheered-for-by-jocks demographic — and sings about summer camp and aluminum tasting like fear. I suppose Peter Buck is relatively normal. But how did this band ever get this big?
He's right that the band has a lot of fans that would have beat them up in high school. I guess it just goes to show that great music can bring people together.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Summarizing a Thread For You

Over at Crooked Timber, where comment threads are often lengthy and rewarding (imagine that), there's a post about defining conservatism. The post is triggered by a definition from Ross Douthat that I think is too vague to be of much use.

The commenters have fun with it, though, and make some good points along the way. The biggest problem, of course, is differentiating between some kind of baseline conservatism and "the contemporary American conservative temperament." One responder says, "Conservatism likes to think of itself as an anti-ideology, as reactive. It clearly is not."

Or, as another exchange went:
Liberals have a goal – maximize fairness and equity. Conservatives have no goal, that’s why it is so hard to define what the philosophy is about.


Conservatives have the goal of letting people set their own goals.
Again, the problem of contemporaneity raises its head, because as someone immediately points out, try telling that last definition to, say, gay people. The conflation of political conservatism with Christianity in this country makes discussions like this increasingly meaningless. Still, some try to get to the heart of the matter by looking at certain policies: would seem to me that a reasonably fair test of liberal versus conservative is to find two people who agree that segregation was wrong and then ask them if busing was wrong. I think most conservatives would answer that busing was wrong and most liberals that it was not.
Others take a more philosophical tack:
I think comfort with the justice of inequality is a primary feature of conservatives. There was a recent study that showed conservatives are happier because they don’t care as much about the world being unfair. This is not simple selfishness. Poor conservatives just don’t feel as much pain about being on the bad end of the stick and likewise rich conservatives don’t have a guilty conscience about their good fortune.
That's interesting from a psychological perspective. One commenter follows that by saying you could truncate it to "conservatives are happier because they don't care." That's funny. And sometimes true, I think. But pruning that last part is not just unfair, it eliminates the most telling component -- that one definition involves the acceptance that the world is inherently unfair, and always will be.

Of course, one smart participant says that it might be best to go straight to a heavyweight source, like Michael Oakeshott.

My favorite comment comes toward the end, though, from Will Roberts, a professor at McGill University in Montreal. This is great:
I think this effort at definition is futile (and not only because of all of the self-serving). “Conservatism” is NOT a political philosophy or a philosophy of life or anything coherent at all. Neither is liberalism in the contemporary American political sense of the term. Rather they are two loose and self-contradictory groupings of cultural and political affinities and tics. No set of core principles unites the white suburban soccer mom who listens to Dr. Laura, the Straussian political scientist who reads the Weekly Standard, the bottle-blond society matron with a tiny dog and John Birch sympathies, and the Wal-Mart manager with a big SUV, a golf-club membership, and a Wall Street Journal subscription. They might all vote Republican till they die, and they might all call themselves conservatives and be filled with disdain or hatred of liberals. There is no “philosophy” there, however. No unified outlook on life. Just a set of overlapping affective investments. Engage them in conversation and you’ll probably find radically different “sticking points,” places where they will not budge and will get increasingly irate if pushed.

Same goes for “liberals.”

I have no doubt that the affective constellation of conservatives is very different from that of liberals, and there have been efforts to characterize those differing constellations. But that is not the same as a definition of conservatism or liberalism. This is the realm of descriptive sociology, not political philosophy.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

What's Ignored

The primary season -- dramatic as this past one was -- should not last 37 years. For one thing, it's just an unnecessary length for what it needs to accomplish. For another, it's such a distraction. It's true that we've mercifully entered the stretch run for the end of this administration, but it would be nice if there was more focus on all that's been done (and being done) in our name, rather than just the loading gate for the next race. As he has for some time now, Andrew Sullivan is staying on point:
It matters not a whit what fantasy the president had cooked up in his own mind about what he was doing. This is what he was doing.

TFC for, Thursday

I'm getting inexcusably late with these. I promise, they're still Wednesday songs, not Thursday songs.

I have a bit of work to do before I begin posting my albums list, but this is the first song from a record that will certainly be on it. Teenage Fanclub -- at Irving Plaza in New York in 1994 -- doing "The Concept." Enjoy:

Monday, June 16, 2008

AP Headline of the Day

Colorado Lottery to Offer Scratch-N-Sniff Games

Sexism's Role

Speak of the devil. Christopher Hitchens wrote a piece for Slate today that tackles accusations of sexism against Hillary Clinton's campaign. I have to say, I think there's a better -- or at least fuller -- case to be made than the one Hitchens does, and I think his strong feeling about the Clintons isn't useful when arguing something that should be able to convince a neutral jury. But here's the last line, which I mostly nod along with:
Her whole self-pitying campaign, I mean to say, has retarded and infantilized the political process and has used the increasingly empty term sexism to mask the defeat of one of the nastiest and most bigoted candidacies in modern history.

A Rundown

I've been busy and warm. So some things I've wanted to write about have fallen through the cracks. Here's a quick rundown of what I've read, seen, and heard lately:

I watched Capturing the Friedmans, a slick documentary in desperate need of a character who elicits even an ounce of sympathy. . . . After enjoying The 400 Blows, I watched the two movies Truffaut followed it with, Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim, both recommended, though I think the debut is still his strongest overall. . . . I read The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, which is great, especially if you like sentences like these three: "It seemed like a nice neighborhood to have bad habits in," "Dead men are heavier than broken hearts," and "I went back to the office and sat in my swivel chair and tried to catch up on my foot-dangling." . . . I watched Zodiac, which was one of the more underrated movies of last year. It's terrific. . . . I also saw the first season of Slings & Arrows, a Canadian TV series about a Shakespeare theater company. Mark McKinney from "Kids in the Hall" is in the cast and wrote for it as well. Rachel McAdams (swoon) is also featured. I may have more to say about this as I watch the next (and final) two seasons on DVD. . . . I was very lucky to see "South Pacific" on Saturday afternoon at Lincoln Center, part of a weekend spent celebrating my dad's **th birthday. Kelli O'Hara was phenomenal in the lead role, and the rest of the cast wasn't far behind. Probably the best show I've seen in New York. . . . I continue to read Wilfrid Sheed, about whom there will be more here soon. The guy's a genius.

Judge Not Lest the Clintons Be Judged

Speaking of friends, a good one recently pressed on me a copy of Christopher Hitchens' No One Left To Lie To, a polemic about the Clintons that he published in 1999. (This was when Hitchens was allowed to lob such grenades and still write for the more respectable journals of the American left, like Harper's and The Nation.)

The relatively brief book (small trim, 150 pages; I read it in a night) is great fun. It will also leave you scratching your head -- if you aren't already -- about the extraordinary mental gymnastics that people must do to believe that supporting the Clintons is somehow a feminist position.

Hitchens notes that Bill Clinton, while governor of Arkansas, had called the first President Bush "anti-woman" for not believing Anita Hill. This is hypocrisy stretched so far that it becomes high comedy. In another section, we're reminded that Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., during Clinton's troubles, "instructed Congress that a gentleman was obliged to lie, under any duress, in matters of sex." Hitchens writes:
Gentlemen are indeed supposed to be discreet about affairs, at any hazard to themselves, in order to protect the modesty and honor of the ladies involved. This doesn't quite track with Clinton's policy of maintaining a semi-official staff for the defamation and bullying of inconvenient but truthful former girlfriends: "the politics of personal destruction" elevated into an annex of the state machine. It is not "philandering" -- a term of some dash and gaiety that has been much abused -- to hit on the help and then threaten dire reprisals.
Of course, hitting on and then bullying the help may have been one of Clinton's lesser crimes against women (Hitchens makes a good case for the others, and they are indeed terrible).

But my favorite paragraph in the book was a broader statement about the political landscape. This sums up at least one reason why I think it's necessary to maintain independence from party:
The Establishment injunction -- to focus on "issues" and "concerns" and "agendas" rather than mere "personalities" -- is overripe for the garbage heap. . . . the judgment of "character" is one of the few remaining decisions that an otherwise powerless and unconsulted voter is able to make for himself (or, and here I defer to Ann Lewis, for herself). Simply put, a candidate can change his/her campaign platform when in office, but he/she cannot change his/her nature. Even more simply put, the honest and the powerless have a vested interest in a politician who cannot be bought, whereas the powerful and the dishonest have already begun to haggle over the tab while the acceptance speech is still being written.
Too many people I know take the fact that some Americans, by "character," mean "the ability to attend a barbecue and drink beer," and use it to ignore that there are meaningful definitions of the word. This is the most lasting legacy of the Clintons that I've seen -- their corruption and the ensuing argument that their "enemies" were just out to get them has hastened us to the point where judgment of character is considered a trap rather than an obligation. The (D) or the (R) is all that matters.

The Tougher Road

On two occasions last week, separate friends of mine voiced the opinion that gender bias is worse in this country than racial bias. Neither of them said it was a large margin, but still. My reflexive opinion was that the opposite was true, and that it was, in fact, kind of a blowout. I thought to myself, if I were someone interested in being treated fairly -- and with respect -- would I want to wake up tomorrow a woman or an African-American man? To me, the choice was easy. Obviously, the issue came up because of the battle for the Democratic nomination. In this week's New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg writes about the end of Clinton's campaign, and he gets around to the subject of historical wrongs. I couldn't agree more with the first six words of the excerpt below (which is why I'm not even interested in a prolonged debate), but the rest of it is smart about these competing grievances:
Competitions among grievances do not ennoble, and both Clinton and Obama strove to avoid one; but it does not belittle the oppressions of gender to suggest that in America the oppressions of race have cut deeper. Clinton’s supporters would sometimes note that the Constitution did not extend the vote to women until a half century after it extended it to men of color. But there is no gender equivalent of the nightmare of disenfranchisement, lynching, apartheid, and peonage that followed Reconstruction, to say nothing of “the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil” that preceded it. Nor has any feminist leader shared the fate of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. Clinton spoke on Saturday of “women in their eighties and nineties, born before women could vote.” But Barack Obama is only in his forties, and he was born before the Voting Rights Act redeemed the broken promise of the Fifteenth Amendment.

Clinton was right to say that from now on it will be “unremarkable to think that a woman can be the President of the United States”—and that, in large measure, is her doing. But the Speaker of the House is a woman; and there are, at the moment, sixteen women in the Senate and eight in the nation’s governors’ offices, the pools from which Presidential candidates are usually drawn. There are two African-American governors, only one of whom was elected to that office. There is one African-American senator—and seven months from now that one may have a different job.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Incredible Hulk

Over at Pajiba, I review The Incredible Hulk, another filmed attempt to do justice to a great character:
Finally, Hollywood gets around to remaking something that needs to be remade. Hulk (2003) stands out on Ang Lee’s resumé like Larry the Cable Guy at a black-tie dinner. With Eric Bana as its wooden lead, CGI effects that were monstrous in all the wrong ways, and Nick Nolte rampaging more than the title character (Nolte didn’t chew the scenery in the movie’s climactic scene; he swallowed it whole), Hulk was rightly lambasted by critics. Which would have been fine with the studio, of course, except that audiences stayed away, too. We can’t have that. So, five short years later, the jolly-allergic green giant bounds into theaters again, trying to smash his way back into our hearts. The results are decidedly mixed.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Get Out the Demons in '08!

Bobby Jindal, the 37-year-old governor of Louisiana who's been mentioned as a possible VP for McCain, has an interesting past:
. . . in an essay Jindal wrote in 1994 for the New Oxford Review, a serious right-wing Catholic journal, Jindal narrated a bizarre story of a personal encounter with a demon, in which he participated in an exorcism with a group of college friends. And not only did they cast out the supernatural spirit that had possessed his friend, Jindal wrote that he believes that their ritual may well have cured her cancer.
Take that, John Edwards! You might end poverty, but Jindal is going to end cancer. And not with some tangled, wasteful bureaucracy, but just with his God thoughts. That should poll very well.

Stay Positive

For anyone interested, the forthcoming Hold Steady record is streaming on the band's MySpace page.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Weather/Posting Update

Posting's been a little light for the past week because New York's weather has been disgusting. It's been quite difficult to breathe, much less move, type, or think.

The worst of it seems to have broken, so as we transition from life-draining to just too hot, things should pick up around here starting tomorrow.


Over at Pajiba, I review Reprise, a Norwegian movie about best-friend novelists. Here's the start:
Writers are notoriously hard to capture on screen. Not in a physical sense, like Bigfoot — after all, they’re normally just sitting at a keyboard somewhere — but in a spiritual sense. Whatever spirit might be alive in their work is not much on outer display. Think of Frank Langella in last year’s Starting Out in the Evening, playing a fictional novelist who quietly lumbered around and occasionally clanked on an ancient typewriter. Or Philip Seymour Hoffman, who managed to make Truman Capote seem dull for long stretches of time, which he may have been while isolated and working in Kansas. Excellent actors, hemmed in by scripts overly interested in typing.

In the energetic and poignant Reprise, Norwegian writer-director Joachim Trier maneuvers around this problem by not being overly concerned — or reverent — about writing.

Damn, Regina

For Wednesday, Regina Spektor singing "Samson." Enjoy:

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

100 Albums

Over at his blog, my friend "Dezmond" (I think I'm one of the last non-compensated bloggers to use my real name) has thrown down the gauntlet. He's counting down his favorite 100 records, five a week. It should be a fun ride. Dezmond and I have been exchanging absurdly detailed lists of favorite records, songs, and movies since Rob Fleming was just a gleam in Nick Hornby's eye. So, I cannot let this moment go unanswered. Soon, I'll begin my own installments. I've got 58 must-haves already, but there are 118 contenders for the 42 remaining slots. So I've got some whittling -- and then ordering -- to do.

For now, head over for Dezmond's first shot across the bow.

Carbon Calculations

I've never taken the time to enunciate why I think stressing about one's "carbon footprint" seems ridiculous. I'm not talking about the gross legions who do their best to waste and pollute at every turn. I mean the average person. I take only mass transit. I recycle (some of the time). I'm very good about not wasting water or light. But this blogger does the enunciating for me:
Doing this stuff is impossibly difficult, as is amply demonstrated every time someone tries to figure out the comparatively narrowly-defined problem of biofuels' net energy balance. This is the first problem: literally every human endeavor consumes energy — and of course, it's very hard to reduce any action in civilization to just one step. It's tough to figure out how much energy something took, very tough to accurately guess, and nearly impossible to know how much carbon it took to generate that energy.

This came up when I was out in San Francisco for work (a trip that was unambiguously environmentally awful, I'll be the first to admit). Over beers Michael told a story about a passenger on his flight jealously guarding his trash, refusing to surrender it to the flight attendants unless they promised it would be recycled.

But it's not that easy, right? Last I heard, metal is unambiguously beneficial to recycle; glass takes more energy to recycle than it's worth; and plastic — well, who knows? It probably depends on the type of plastic and where the recycling plant is.

Or take the great coffee cup debate: if a given ceramic mug is likely to get less than a thousand uses, you're better off drinking from a styrofoam cup. Probably, anyway. I'm sure it depends on your dishwasher, or its settings. Or if you don't have a dishwasher. Or the detergent you buy. And probably how far you are from the water pumping station, right? Maybe how much rain your area gets, or has gotten this year, or what floor you live on.

Which is the other problem: as individuals it seems like we all pretty much live within the margin of error on these questions. It adds up over the population, of course, but for one person it's nearly impossible to know what the right thing to do is. There are unambiguous things, of course: don't leave the water running when you brush your teeth, and minimize electricity use, and don't leave your car idling. Although sometimes even those wind up ambiguous: I've heard that restarting a car takes about as much gas as running it for a minute.

...And the press is more than comfortable enough with their anecdotes and innumeracy to continue publishing hunches they had while shopping at Whole Foods, as if a half-day's worth of googling and algebra was sufficient to untangle the world's unimaginably complicated economic and energy-use web (a pursuit that I admit I've indulged in myself — but at least nobody paid me for it).
I found this through Megan McArdle and, as always, the commenters at her site had a lot to say about the subject.

Monday, June 09, 2008

What Can Brown Do For You? He Can Finish Last at 1-4.

Speaking of the races themselves, everyone knows by now that Big Brown fell well short of the Triple Crown on Saturday. I couldn't quite bring myself to root for him, because his trainer, Rick Dutrow, had been such a classless act leading up to the race. Plus, as great as Big Brown looked in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, his competition looked equally bad. We've waited 30 years for a Triple Crown winner; I don't mind waiting another few if it means finding a more dramatic and well-tested winner.

What's mostly lost in all the post-race talk is that Da' Tara won the race going wire to wire. Not an easy task at a mile and a half, even if the competition was so-so.

A Worthy Cause

I guess it’s obvious to anyone who’s spent time around here that I don’t think it’s inherently immoral to race horses. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the world of horse racing -- run, as it is, by humans -- is free of immorality. Not by a long shot.

For purposes of analogy, I don’t think it’s inherently wrong to eat meat. That said, I’m not proud that I’ve probably eaten plenty of meat from animals that were badly mistreated on their way to my plate. I don’t have much of an excuse for not paying better attention to such things, so I won’t try to conjure one.

And it’s not that I don’t get shaken up when a horse has to be put down, but that's often for reasons of injury that would make life unbearable (or impossible) for the horse. Compare that to the 5,000 dogs who are euthanized every day in this country (16 per second), mostly for reasons that have little or nothing to do with health. (You can find that statistic as well as a more heartwarming central story in this excellent piece by Charles Siebert.)

A recent story on HBO’s “Real Sports” -- a terrific show, if you can ignore host Bryant Gumbel, and his ridiculously posed writing of notes in the studio after each pre-taped segment ends -- brought home a truly disgusting side of the racing industry. In short, it involves horses who are no longer of value to an owner being cheaply sold in order to be killed for their meat. (Horses are a delicacy in parts of Europe and elsewhere around the world.) This would be bad enough, except that this process is illegal in the U.S., so the horses are shipped to Canada and Mexico, and their treatment there -- as captured by cameras in the piece -- is largely unregulated and truly horrific.

Conscientious people in the U.S. and elsewhere are investigating long-term ways to help with this problem. It makes sense that owners need to find a place for horses not up to racing, but surely there are better alternatives. But in the meantime, one scrappy group in the HBO feature caught my attention. It’s called Another Chance 4 Horses, a very small operation in eastern Pennsylvania that attends meat auctions in order to save horses from slaughter. They then care for the horses and try to adopt them out. It’s a group with modest resources facing down a large problem -- they can only outbid a handful of buyers at each auction, if that -- and I think it deserves your support. You can visit the official web site to donate.

(The “Real Sports” episode can be seen on HBO On Demand through tonight, and likely from time to time after that, but I only recommend it for the strong of stomach.)

If You Need to Name a Dog... friend "Johannes" might be able to help. A good friend of ours recently got a truly adorable Maltese, and asked people to write in with potential names. Here are just a few of Johannes' suggestions:

Steven Segal
Lt. Bloodsport
Monsignor Pepe de la Boudinhon
Col. Aloyisous Chewbone
Prof. Foofy-woofy
William Howard Taft, The Dog

Friday, June 06, 2008

Go Giants

I don't post much news about personal connections on the blog, but this is too cool not to share: After a great career at Dartmouth, Damon Wright, a good friend of my family, was selected by the San Francisco Giants in the 25th round of this year's Major League Baseball draft.

Congrats to Damon on this weekend's accomplishments: graduating and getting drafted by the Giants. Not a bad exacta.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Neko, Belated

I forgot about the weekly song yesterday. Apologies. Here's Neko Case singing "Hold On, Hold On." Enjoy:

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Nominee

Obama's speech tonight was terrific. Contrast it to McCain's speech today, and it gets even better. McCain doesn't deserve a Reagan-Carter-like landslide, but he could be headed for one. I'm just saying, that's one of a few possibilities. In politics, as in sports, old age looks especially bad next to vital youth.

As for Clinton's speech, it was unbelievable. She's not going to "make any decisions" tonight. That is hilarious. To extend the Pistons joke from earlier today, the time for decisions are over. The only decision to make is whether you'll be off the court by the time the next game starts. For your safety, I recommend it. Put a different way, here's a quick (and appropriately exhausted) statement to the Clinton campaign before I head to bed:

A Real Find

The bad news is, this will be a long post. The good news is, much of it will be written by Wilfrid Sheed, not me.

I first heard of Sheed (or first noticed hearing of him) last year, when Allen Barra wrote about him at Critical Mass. (I use the same photo of Sheed that Barra did, because it’s a great one. I also, like Barra, include a laundry list of Sheed excerpts below, because he speaks for himself better than we ever could.) Barra wrote: "No other American critic – and certainly no other American-English-Australian-Irish critic -- of my generation has had such catholic (small c intended) tastes and range as Wilfrid Sheed. No other critic approaches his ability to synthesize the vast literature on a subject or to illuminate a writer’s oeuvre in a short starburst of words."

I’m almost done with Essays in Disguise, a collection that is one of the best things I’ve ever read. I’ve already bought six more of his books (two more collections of criticism and essays, a memoir about his parents, a book about his life as a baseball fan, a novel, and a book of two novellas -- much of his work is out of print, so this windfall was thanks mostly to the world’s best bookstore). The confidence of my early opinion is strengthened by the fact that the essays in Disguise are drawn from different years and various sources. If this was just one stretch of a book, I might attribute its sustained brilliance to freakish luck. But it’s obvious that Sheed can write about anything, anytime.

Most of the pieces are terrific from start to finish, so it’s misleading -- but ultimately too tempting -- to lead with his one-liners. Here’s a sample:
To batter his way up through Harvard and the world he needed vanity, and vanity displaces humor in precise ratio.

It seems (Lowell) was strictly a line poet, string them as you will, so that his poems are like all-star teams that haven’t practiced together.

(Berryman) and Schwartz had once talked with contempt of writers who drown their talent in booze, but both would now proceed to do so themselves, having badly misjudged the undertow.

In general, comic essayists tend to work with the same worn deck of cards, getting their effects with small variations of patter and style.

The area around a skinflint’s wallet is like an inflamed rash that he has been warned not to touch.
He’s also consistently wonderful with openings. Here are five:
Sad things can happen when an author chooses the wrong subject: first the author suffers, then the reader, and finally the publisher, all together in a tiny whirlpool of pain.

Jean Stafford’s memorial service was almost as ironic as she was.

As with God in the late Middle Ages, all that there is to know about the Mafia seems to be known by now except whether it actually exists.

Prejudices are probably bad things to have, however much fun they seem at the time.

“Pride, Anger, Lust . . . no, I mean Envy, Covetousness, Lust . . . and (pause for mind to empty completely) did I mention Lust? That makes seven, doesn’t it?” Naming the deadly sins is uncannily like trying to remember the seven dwarfs. The first person to say “Doc” three times figures he’s made it.
But here are three examples of slightly longer excerpts, to even things out.

On reading James Thurber:
Looking back, I can see now that any one of a dozen books would have done the trick as nicely -- just as any one of a dozen girls would have done for the Perfect Affair (if you hadn’t met Maud first). But The Thurber Carnival had the great virtue of being there: a routine case of “the time and the place and the loved one together.”

I can’t even remember our first meeting -- probably in the back of some little bookstore, the two of us surrounded by dust beams and old men reading with umbrellas between their knees. But I remember my predicament very well indeed. I was looking desperately for an antidote to England, particularly to the sound of England.
On one of those deadly sins:
Sloth, like the other deadly no-no’s, becomes acutely uncomfortable after the first fine flush, and -- sure proof of its sincerity -- frequently works against your own interests. It not only won’t pay your bills, but it won’t fill in applications for grants or phone up appropriate women. It won’t even close windows when you’re freezing to death. It is stoical because it is too lazy to be anything else.
On the autobiographical work of S.J. Perelman:
Years of writing the Mock-Ornate had left him almost as ill at ease with the straight sentence as W.C. Fields. “He (Nathanael West) openly disliked the swollen dithyrambs and Whitmanesque fervors of orgiasts like Thomas Wolfe, and the clumsy, unselective naturalism of the proletarian school typified by James Farrell repelled him equally” -- that’s quite a swollen dithyramb in its own right, reminding one of what’s supposed to happen to children who make faces. Perelman’s prose was distorted like a pitcher’s elbow from unnatural use.
It's a shame that Sheed isn't around as a regular critic anymore. At 77, and after suffering various illnesses over the years, I get the impression that he's on the verge of full retirement. His most recent book did just come out in paperback, but it was his first in more than a decade. It seems his most prolific years were from the mid-1960's to the late 1980's, and I suppose Sheed's OK with that. After all, he wrote the following, in an essay called "The Twenty-Year Itch":
Kurt Vonnegut gives writers twenty years of prime, and it’s dismayingly hard to think of exceptions. Whether they start the meter late, like Shaw or Conrad, or early, like Fitzgerald, or even stop it in the middle, like Tolstoy, it runs for about the same twenty years.

Which means that one’s prime is not a function purely of age but of some finite source of energy inherent in the profession itself.

Count All the Baskets!

Chris Orr has posted a very funny "letter" from Detroit Pistons GM Joe Dumars. The whole thing's worth reading. Here's a taste:
Yes, Boston has won four games and Detroit only two. But it's hard to imagine a more arbitrary and undemocratic way to determine this series’s outcome than "games won." It is, after all, a bedrock value of the game of basketball that all points must be counted. But how can that be the case when every point beyond the winning point is ignored? There are literally dozens of layups, jumpers, free throws, and (yes, even) dunks that our opponents want to say don't count for anything at all. We call on the NBA to do the right thing and fully count all of the baskets that were made throughout the course of this series.

Once you abandon the artificial four-games-to-two framework that the media has tried to impose on the series, a very different picture emerges, with the Celtics leading by a mere 549 points to 539. Yes that’s right, the margin between the two teams is less than one percent—a tie, for all intents and purposes. This is probably the closest Conference Finals in NBA history, though I will thank you not to check on that.
(Via Andrew Sullivan)

Monday, June 02, 2008

Titlepage, Part VI: Revenge of the Nerds and the Sand Traps

I present to you the sixth episode of Titlepage, in which the authors discuss golf, nerds, talk radio, country music, and much more. Enjoy:

Straight Monk

After having it strongly recommended by a friend (thanks, BB), I just watched Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser. The documentary, executive-produced by Clint Eastwood and released in 1988, is notable mostly for its treasure trove of vintage footage. (The majority of the movie is composed of uninterrupted performances by Monk and other musicians.) There are occasional talking-head moments, during which Thelonious Monk, Jr., and others talk about Monk's mental health, or lack thereof. And there are brief portraits of the two women who saw Monk through life: his wife, Nellie, who tirelessly devoted herself to the details (there's a great scene in which she organizes some money on her lap while Monk absent-mindedly eats an apple); and later, his patron, Nica de Koenigswarter, a member of the Rothschild dynasty about whom I'd love to learn more.

But mostly, it's worth it for the archival music and visuals, like Monk walking along 64th St. in New York, being greeted by fans. (The whole thing is up on You Tube; here's the first part.) Oh, and I can't forget to single out a montage they show of Monk's work, including what has to be my pick for best album cover of all-time. Beat this: