Baggy Paragraphs

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11 Books That Stayed with Me

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Being tagged on Facebook to name 10 books that have stayed with me, I received these meager guidelines:

  • Don’t think too hard or take more then a few minutes.
  • They don’t have to be great works of literature but must have affected you in some way.

Of course, I’ve overthought it. And there’s the need to elaborate and provide context.

Old_YellerFrom youth, a group of titles comes to mind:  Old Yeller (by Fred Gipson), Rascal (Sterling North), The Pond (Robert Murphy), The Yearling (Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings), and Animal Farm (George Orwell). All featured animals (but no cats).

So here’s my list:

Fahrenheit 451: My younger sister Kate and I accompanied our father to the the Francois Truffaut film version when I was 11 and she was 10. It was hard to comprehend. The fire trucks had funny sirens compared to those I was used to. And why were firemen setting books ablaze? I’ve read Bradbury’s novel a couple of times since and figured it all out.

Crime and Punishment, by Dostoevsky. My idea of a big, important novel. In our home, our father cultivated a disdain for high culture in general and British culture in particular. (Continental culture came in a close second, though.) The monarchy and all that proceeded from it were derided. Of course I was affected, so I wasn’t inclined to read Thackeray or Hardy. When I was 19, in my first college literature class, Crime and Punishment was exotic, a premium novel I’d always heard of. And not British.

The American, by Henry James. After an American literature survey course, when I first heard of Henry James, I read this novel over Christmas break. The experience opened me up to a different kind of writing–the realism and the prose–and gave a view inside a rare world. I’ve read a fair amount of James since.

The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe. After college, I found my way to this nonfiction novel, which in its enjoyably bombastic style and robust subject matter offered release from academic constraints.

sins-of-madame-bovary-dvdMadame Bovary shows incredible deftness, making us feel compassion for Emma while also seeing her as a fool.

The Monkey Wrench Gang, by Edward Abbey (and illustrations by R. Crumb), was encountered when I was in my late-20s–the perfect thing at the time. I’ve never reread it, but maybe I ought to!

White Noise, by Don DeLillo, is a satire about a family fleeing an “airborne toxic event” (namesake of an indie rock band) and rings true in every line.

The Baron in the Trees, by Italo Calvino, is my favorite of his novels, although not long ago I had a great time reading another of his absurdist fables, The Nonexistent Knight.

Smilla’s Sense of Snow, by Peter Hoeg, came along at the peak of my interest in Scandinavian literature and film, the rare thriller on my shelf.

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides, is the best contemporary novel I’ve found in years. The main female character, Madeleine, made me think of someone I’d once been very fond of.

Great Expectations, by Dickens, embodies the benefits of this great novelist, now that I’ve finally gotten around to him. (I finished in June.) It’s quite a page turner, actually, and one superb line after another.

That’s 11 books. Good thing I read so slow, or I would have finished many more, adding to the difficulty of this task.




What the Wall Street Journal Missed by Omitting My ‘Twelve Months of Reading’ Roundup

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Once again the Wall Street Journal has neglected to include me among the fifty people who recount highlights from their past year’s reading. Maybe this oversight should come as a relief because, as usual, I bought more books than I read, most recently a friend’s automotive journalism title. At his book signing, I met a self-proclaimed “Southern lady novelist” with a sideline in motor racing who was so pleased that I could recite the names of two novels by Carson McCullers that she made the unsolicited promise to send me a review copy of a newly reprinted work of her own.

Internal organs, before and after.

Internal organs, before and after.

I’m in the hole for at least couple of reading years when you add in the number of books received as gifts—books that wouldn’t even have caught my second glance. “Olive Kitteridge,” by Elizabeth Strout, for example, had somehow eluded me, although I’d almost surely have noticed a volume called “Elizabeth’s Trout,” by Olive Kitteridge. Today’s mail brought a Christmas package containing the former.

Much of last winter was devoted to Daniel Yergin’s hefty “The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World,” but the reading was always a pleasure and Mr. Yergin made me feel almost blasé about trading carbon credits. Soon afterward, I took up a kind of sequel to Yergin’s themes of scarcity and plenty in “Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think,” by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler. Thanks to this book, I’ve allowed myself to drink as much beer as I like, knowing that, thanks to tissue engineering and stem cells, a 3-D printer will be capable of making my next liver.

“The Amateur: Barack Obama in the White House” was a secret pleasure. No way I’d tell my friends, almost all of whom are liberal conformists, but I delighted in Edward Klein’s portrait of the POTUS as a bungler and charlatan with a prickly nature and a jealous wife; not long after finishing it I told my elderly father, who was salivating at the prospect of ditching Obamacare, “I think President Obama will be reelected in the fall and the whole idea of repeal will die, so everybody might as well start getting used to it.”

Yes, there is also fiction, and just as I felt thrilled yesterday when I needed a rolling pin for the tart I was making and found exactly one available at Target, it was also a thrill in early November to secure the last remaining copy of “Fifty Shades of Grey” in the Austin, Texas, airport. Alas, it proved to be one of the ten worst books I’ve ever read, and I can attest that the rolling pin has a better idea where it’s going and is more entertaining. And as a added virtue, the rolling pin can play itself in the movie.

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December 17, 2012 at 3:37 pm

The first faltering steps of Sony Pictures in Hollywood

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Jon Peters and Lesley Ann Warren in 1978

Jon Peters and Lesley Ann Warren in 1978. 

A skunk in the works. All boogered up. Guber and Peters.

The latter phrase, a grouping of two proper nouns, should endure as a quintessential expression of incompetence and subversion from within, no matter what organization. A Sioux Falls accounting firm could be just as Guber-and-Peters as a Hollywood studio.

I’ve just finished “Hit and Run: How Jon Peters and Peter Guber Took Sony for a Ride in Hollywood.” This report by Nancy Griffin and Kim Masters, already a generation old, fills in some gaps in my knowledge of Hollywood.

Made into a movie, this comedy would require airsickness bags in the back pockets of all seats.

As Sony aimed to marry hardware and software, Sony executives were convinced they needed Guber and Peters to run their new studio. It was a mess from the start, but Guber and Peters made everything worse with their grandiosity. Huge salaries for themselves and other execs, overpayment on scripts and productions, a fleet of jets, and even lavish Christmas parties for the staff. Expenses at Sony Pictures were way out of line with revenues.

One starts to root for the protagonists to meet a grisly end. But in Hollywood, you get a production deal.

This is a very well told story, although Jon Peters disappears rather abruptly from the narrative. Not that the reader misses him! Orangutans are better behaved.

If at any time in the near future you find yourself spending several billion dollars to acquire a Hollywood studio, follow your own instincts about how to run it instead of letting loud-mouthed promoters sit behind the steering wheel. Then you’ll be all Guber and Peters.

Written by baggyparagraphs

May 19, 2012 at 10:20 am

Where there’s a Willa away, Cather if you can

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Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909) This is actually...

I’ve been reading Willa Cather‘s stories from “The Troll Garden,” which was published in 1905. It’s a while since I’ve read anything from this period and longer since I’ve read any Cather. This is good reading, but I sure am amazed at how much language has changed since 1905. I don’t think I’d even dare use a word like “celerity” in a story. (No, it has nothing to do with green vegetables; it means “rapidity of motion or action.”) One of my professors from the University of Nebraska says “celerity” is a favorite word of his, but then he doesn’t write for the public print. I’ve used plenty of words like “celerity,” which I would say is an obscure word, but this one today seems like a wooden leg in a sentence.

At the same time, I’ve also been writing a piece for Automobile about the history of automotive headlamps, with two sources being articles from The Horseless Age (1907) and Motor Age (1908); the way the sentences wind themselves up makes me snicker. But 100 years from now a reader might say the same about these sentences. There was a terrific piece in the Wall Street Journal a while ago (I knew I should’ve clipped it; I can’t find the link) about the rapid changes occurring in English, including the incorporation of graphic symbols. Decrepitude inheres.


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April 11, 2012 at 8:37 am

Daniel Yergin’s new book, ‘The Quest,’ illuminates energy questions of the day

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On the same day as I finished reading “The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World,” I saw in the newspaper that the estimate for North Dakota’s recoverable oil reserves is now 24 billion barrels–but that’s only a small fraction of the reserves under the Bakken Shale formation. North Dakota is now the number-three oil producing state, after Alaska and Texas.

Yergin, who’s a terrific writer (although this book desperately needed a copy editor), presents the case for a mixture of energy sources in the future. In this follow-up to his equally monstrous “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power,” published twenty years ago, he devotes enormous care to explaining how nations like Kazakhstan and Brazil are helping to meet rising demand from China and elsewhere; how the study of climate science has exerted its influence; how renewable energy has developed to this point.

Yergin quotes Churchill: “Safety and security in oil lie in variety and variety alone.” But he would substitute “energy” for “oil.” The problem remains that none of these anointed alternatives matches the bang for the buck that oil provides. Greenies and politicos can mandate change, but ultimately it comes down to the consumer’s pocketbook. Having driven the Chevy Volt and Fisker Karma–two plug-in electric cars that were heavily subsidized by the federal government–I’m unimpressed. OK, I love the Karma because it’s gorgeous. But it weighs about as much as a rhinoceros and achieves the equivalent of 20 mpg.

Meanwhile, Chevy just suspended operations at the Volt factory because people aren’t buying the car, not even after the $7500 tax kickback. Having also visited a wind farm and a solar-thermal generating station, I’m aware of the upside and the downside to renewables. The upside is that this type of heavily subsidized power generation helps to meet peak demand. The downside is that windmills routinely kill protected golden eagles and other birds. If this slaughter went on at an oil well, the greenies would wet their pants about it. And solar-thermal generation uses an awful lot of groundwater from the aquifer. In any event, renewables are impossible without governmental subsidies.

The Fisker Karma was awarded Automobile Magazine's Design of the Year.

The other day, President Obama said, “Here is the truth. If we are going to control our energy future, then we’ve got to have an all-of-the-above strategy. We’ve got to develop every source of American energy—not just oil and gas, but wind power and solar power, nuclear power, biofuels.”

Here are a couple of suggestions for the President. Stop taking credit for the increase in domestic oil and gas production; you have nothing to do with it. In fact, North Dakota wouldn’t have passed California for third place among producing states if the Golden State’s industry weren’t strangled by regulation. And Mr. Obama wants to end the $4 billion annual subsidies that oil and gas industries receive. Maybe he’s right. But in that case, he should also stop funding pet projects in renewables and stop bribing consumers to buy government-supported cars.

A final thing to take into account is that the improvement of the internal combustion engine isn’t finished. People tend not to think past 1973, to hold any hope of further gains in efficiency. Call me crazy, but I’d guess onboard carbon capture is more likely before there’s ever a truly practical battery-powered car.

After reading “The Quest,” I conclude that the rapid increase in oil and gas production should continue as our national priority, along with efficiency gains. The real and immediate prospect of North American energy independence is something we’ve dreamt of for several decades. We shouldn’t have qualms about exploiting the advantage.

Written by baggyparagraphs

March 11, 2012 at 2:36 pm

3 easy-to-keep resolutions for 2012

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Not to be overambitious, but I have resolutions for 2012. This could be a first. I can’t remember making resolutions about anything other than the number of books to read and my intended faithfulness in journal writing. (I’ve never been so foolish as to pledge a daily blog post.) Resolutions just have self-defeat built right in, like the sulphur stink at a hot springs. Why put the goat horns on my own head?

With 2012 looming, there’s a difference, a practicality about my resolutions. To be specific, I don’t have to give up anything. Beer, chocolate, swearing, berating individual laggards and institutional laxity, laying rubber in school zones, switching candidates and parties at the last minute, slicing prints out of volumes in the Rare Books Room–hallelujah, I can keep it up!

I expect to keep my resolutions because each is a positive step, an incremental gain and not an excremental pain. If I fail one day, the next will bring me ahead. And in fact, in one case, all that’s needed is cash.

  1. Get an iPad. It’s either this or pro lenses for my Canon EOS 50D. A hardware upgrade every year is a good idea. But I can probably get by with the  current lenses, one of which, it just occurred to me, will celebrate its twentieth birthday in 2012. This last year was the designee for a smart phone, and my iPhone, purchased right after my move to California in May, is a delight and a wonder. So even though it’s impossible to see why it’s really needed, I want an iPad. And buying something is never a hard resolution to keep.
  2. Take pics of my contacts. For instance, my landlord was here today. While he got a vacant unit ready to show, wearing his alma mater Stanford’s T-shirt and a pair of shorts on Dec. 26, it never occurred to me to take his picture. All that’s needed is a mug shot. On the other hand, the guy who set up my account at Comerica Bank’s Pasadena branch got all squirmy when I took his picture, so it was deleted. He’s originally from Bolivia; maybe that makes him believe a photo captures his soul. Or he doesn’t want to be associated with the paltry interest he’s paying.
  3. Stop blurting out “I read that such and such” or “I read about that in” as a preface to my remarks. What am I, a walking bibliography? It’s probably irritating to hang out with someone so precious.

As you can see, success is built into the program. Even if a year from now I’m only five percent better, I’m still five percent better.

In fact, I might start thinking in broader terms for 2013, and grander yet for 2014 and 2015, because it could lead to my publishing a self-help book: How to Stop Smoking, Lose Weight, and Quit Giving Blow Jobs in Public Toilets. This would be the first of a series.

Then I hit the road as a motivational speaker.

Is that overambitious?

Written by baggyparagraphs

December 26, 2011 at 6:41 pm

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‘Little Women’ and a Seagull

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When writing recently about the bane of gift books, I started off by lustily inveighing against the very most recent one of these to be sent my way, which is the collection of Charlie LeDuff’s newspaper pieces. But I’d completely overlooked the first gift books among them. I trace it back to the time I was turning 11 or 12 and decided I’d like to have a birthday party. A kid named Steve, who lived at the bottom of the hill, was one of the puny number of attendees. His family took its faith seriously, and he had been brought up to be kind to everyone.

LittlewomenSteve was physically a much bigger kid, with dark hair and eyes and a pleasant smile. On the playground he showed very little footspeed but was a ready participant in ballgames and could dependably clog up the middle, as they say of defensive tackles. In saying he was a big kid, I don’t mean he had large powerful shoulders. Once as were changing back to street clothes after ninth-grade gym class, I had a glimpse of his bare dimpled rear end and impulsively called him “Jell-O butt,” which was a most ungracious thing to say, and I’ve often regretted my callousness and would happily apologize if I ever meet him again, which will probably be in a big-box store as he’s driving down the aisle in an electric cart because he’s grown too fat to walk.

Steve’s gift to me at my birthday party, a hardcover edition of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” was probably a recycled item. Maybe Steve had received it at his own earlier birthday party, to which I most conspicuously had not been invited. (How else would he have seen the way clear to foist his book upon me?) Or maybe one of his older sisters owned but was discarding it after having purchased a leather-bound edition of the work. Maybe the advance notice for my party had been too slim, leaving only enough time to skim off “Little Women” from the scant selection of possible gifts in the family’s inventory. Maybe times were hard down there at the bottom of the hill—my mother said the salary of Steve’s father, a YMCA manager, couldn’t be too great. Maybe the whole family was just a little odd and Steve went off to the next birthday party with a copy of “Anne of Green Gables” or “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.”

My younger brother, Dan, once reported that Steve’s younger brother, Larry, took down his own pants and challenged Dan to do the same in a comparison of manly parts. Maybe Larry’s aberrant behavior was due to early and repeated contaminating exposure to “Little Women.”

Even aside from the question of the poor taste Steve had shown in giving me chick lit, the fact was that sentimental nineteenth-century fiction was definitely not the intellectual fashion in our house. Among other subjects my father would probably not have cared to see me pursuing were Greek and Roman mythology, Renaissance poetry, or Victorian literature. His disdain for the gods and goddesses of the Classical Period was in keeping with his rejection of all religious expression as naught but ego-based superstition. (“We’re too important to die, so there must be a soul and eternal life.”) As for the Renaissance, its artistic glories were too much within the purview of high-culture elitists who must be refuted. And the Victorians were of a royalist society, royalism being worthy of contempt and ridicule.

SkagwayMy father, being nevertheless a great believer in the advantages of reading, used to spend more time than money at newsstands. Why purchase the magazine for 35 cents when it could be read on the spot for nothing? “Wait here,” he would tell me and my sister Kate, leaving us sitting in the car outside the drugstore for 45 minutes while he perused Popular Mechanics. He usually wasn’t alone: freeloading at magazine racks was quite popular in those days. I remember accompanying him as an eight-year old at the huge Skagway superstore, located at 72nd and L Streets in our fair city of Omaha. While he was absorbed in his technical reading, I roamed the enormous humanities section of the periodicals, and here I came upon the first pornographic image of my life (aside from the centerfolds in an auto parts store he frequented). This image, offered by some rag that was included among the True and Argosy imitators, depicted the dungeon where Nazis were about to torture a woman, who was clad only in tattered underthings and was bound, spread-eagled—XXX marks the spot—to a wagon wheel. It must have been the Russian front because of the spoked wooden wheel: probably some oxcart had been flattened by a Panzer. I have never forgotten the thrill—an eight-year-old boy’s inexplicable tastes—and the instantaneous knowledge that this page was surely forbidden, verboten, taboo. I had most likely already committed a sin merely by chancing upon this page. Sometimes I’ve since regretted having put back the magazine so fast, as though it had scorched me. What became of the poor maiden? Maybe Allied bombers smashed the dungeon, and with fate leaving her as the only survivor, she precariously rolled herself on her wheel to amnesty in Switzerland. In any event, the result of my porn immersion at the 100,000-square-foot Skagway superstore was undoubtedly to leave me annealed—even if there hadn’t been too many words on the page—against the insipidities of such limp fiction as “Little Women.” I was into the hard stuff.

IvanhoeMy father hadn’t seemed to notice any of this, but perhaps I was wrong. Sometime afterward, for no reason at all, he proffered “Ivanhoe,” the comic book. This historical romance by Sir Walter Scott was published in 1819 and put out by Classic Comics in 1946, with subsequent editions. Even if it hadn’t been way over my head—the dialog balloons teemed with loquacity—I had no taste for this sort of thing, being but my father’s son. I can’t imagine that he would have read Scott’s novel of Saxons and Normans and Lady Rowena, so why did he think I’d go for the comic book? I was already a newspaper reader but skipped the “Prince Valiant” strip on the funny pages. It was comedy, not Arthurian adventure, for me. I was a “Peanuts” kid. I dug “Andy Capp.” I have never forgotten that Dagwood Bumstead’s boss was J.C. Dithers, and I react approximately like Dagwood, which is to say apoplectically, when a door-to-door salesman rings my bell.

WiltAs a teenager, my thoughtful selection one year for my father’s Christmas present was Wilt Chamberlain’s autobiography, “Wilt: Just Like Any Other 7-Foot Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door.” I adored Wilt the Stilt but should have known better than to make my father read about a black man, especially an egotistical one like Wilt, and even more especially one who suggested he might live next door. It wouldn’t have much less palatable if I had chosen Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul on Ice.” To my father’s credit, thought, he soon applied himself to the hoopster’s autobiography but pronounced it nearly insufferable because of Wilt’s braggadocio.

My teen years passed. I read the hilarious “MASH,” by Richard Hooker, and the less hilarious sequel, “MASH Goes to Maine.” Besides the daily newspaper, I didn’t do much additional reading. I had always wanted to read George Plimpton’s “Paper Lion” but never sprang for the $1.95 and still haven’t read it. However, one day in a book nook at the Westroads shopping mall, I came across the racy novel “Three in a Bed.” How I wish I’d held on to this pocket paperback! What a rarity I’d possess today! At the moment of purchase it seemed to be part of a series of multifariously themed soft-porn novels that shared the same cover design, a sort of World Book Encyclopedia of perversity. Buying this—I couldn’t in those days buy cigarettes as easily as the literary transaction was completed—I brought home my prize, thinking finally I had found a subject that suited me: the ménage à trois! I read just the first couple of pages, and then stashed the book with my underwear. I went off to school, forgetting that my mother took care of laundry duties, including the loving placement of all clean and dried and folded underwear back into the bureau. My father—who had probably suffered feelings of rejection those nine years earlier over the “Ivanhoe”—entered my room that afternoon. (Why the hell wasn’t he at work?) “I see you’re finally reading,” he said, grimly tossing “Three in a Bed” at me. “Too bad your choice of material isn’t too good.”

200px-Johnathan_Livingston_Seagull[1]My high school graduation occurred just weeks later. At the small party that was held for me, I knew Grandmother Tillotson could be counted on for some Holy Cards, as usual. Meanwhile, Aunt Margie had given me Peace Dollars over a succession of birthdays, my Holy Communion, and Confirmation. (I still have every one of them.) Another silver dollar would be fine, but I now unwrapped a package that obviously contained a book and found “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” which had been a fixture on the bestseller list. This volume was a beautiful slip-cased hardcover with endpapers of vellum: my first deluxe edition.

It helped that “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” was brief—a shrewd choice on my aunt’s part—so I actually read the novel, or novella, which is very nearly a unique circumstance in my entire history of receiving gift books. Of course I don’t remember a thing about the story other than its seeming a bit vapid. Once I got to college and started reading the heavyweights like Melville, with all his deep philosophical musings, Richard Bach’s pop fiction fable hardly seemed to belong in my collection: J.L. Gull met Melville’s Confidence Man and endured quite the plucking. Somewhere along the line, I parted with him. Today I regret this action, but not as much as having sold back my physical geography text to the college bookstore.

It seems as though “Little Women” was still in the bookcase at my parents’ house in 1986, on the eve of their move from Omaha to Florida. Being present to help them pack up, I salvaged a couple of my childhood books and brought them back to Ann Arbor. My foxed copy of “The Flight of the Silver Ship,” a 1930 work of juvenile fiction by Hugh McAlister—a dirigible adventure story—survived the transition. “Little Women” got shuffled off among the discards. Society’s attempt to create out of me a eunuch for Jane Austen had inexorably failed.

Written by baggyparagraphs

June 10, 2009 at 11:55 pm

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