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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.

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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?

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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.

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June 10, 2009 at 11:55 pm

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The Bane of Gift Books

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My friend Susan H. was Susan G. until her second marriage and Susan H., but a different H., before the first one. Susan HGH must not have come to understand in our nearly 30 years of friendship that I will go to any length in order to avoid reading a book with an adverb in its subtitle. I opened a package from her and found a book titled “Work and Other Sins: Life in New York City and Thereabouts,” by Charlie LeDuff. On the one hand, I was pleased Susan HGH thought of me. On the other, I groaned at the responsibility of receiving yet another book from a well-meaning friend.

“Ronald, I thought you would enjoy this,” Susan HGH penciled on the first page.

A current selection of books received as gifts, under the guard of a Danish soldier

A current selection of books received as gifts, under the guard of a Danish soldier

She also thinks Michigan is a northeastern state. I’ve never heard of Charlie LeDuff, but what I’ve just turned up about him makes me leery. Evidently, he was exiled to Detroit after a plagiarism scandal forced him out at the New York Times. A witty commentator named Dexter writes: “He’s your typical suburban detroit [sic] douchebag reporter, in this case trying to stage a comeback as a hardboiled gonzo Charles Kuralt swooping down from his safe white suburb into the dark, black city to write about all those crazy colored people and their hilariously offbeat ignorance.”

And of course there’s the matter of the lazy sounding title and its adverb “thereabouts.” It just doesn’t have the same kick as the collection of stories by another New York writer, J.D. Salinger, namely, “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor.” (What a wonderful title!) And something more: “Work and Other Sins” is 357 pages of LeDuff’s Times pieces. With the exception of those penned by Mark Twain during his Washoe days, I have no interest in reading a collection of old newspaper columns or articles.

What my benefactress, and others like her, underestimate is just how slowly I read. Ten to 12 pages per hour is my usual rate, the result of being too careful, too much like a crawling Googlebot, which indexes an entire text. It doesn’t work for me, but obsessiveness rules. Another issue is my inability to stay awake after 9.00 p.m. My eyelids close as inevitably as the “Axiom’s” airlocks in “Wall-E.” Frothy books about sports or entertainment subjects provide the rare eye-opening exceptions.

I’m currently in the third week of enjoying a Swedish mystery novel by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, the wife-husband team whose detective, Martin Beck, flourished in a series during the 1960s and 1970s. Many readers would dispense with this thriller in two or three sittings. (Some people read a book a day.) My struggle with Herman Melville’s excruciatingly dull novel “The Confidence Man” extended over a three-month span early this year before I ground to a halt 80 pages from the end. My ambition of fully deconstructing this important work—the second time I’ve read it—has been cruelly thwarted.

Finishing about a dozen books a year is my reward. Other people glide through books as easily as the dog glides through a serving of Alpo Prime Cuts in Gravy. My friend Teri S. goes off on weekends to her little cottage in the woods east of Fairbanks to consume a book or two while watching the river ice break up. She sends many thoughtful selections my way. She must really have dug William Manchester’s “A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age.” It does look enjoyable. Problem is, I’m bogged down at page 154 of “A World on Fire: A Heretic, an Aristocrat, and the Race to Discover Oxygen,” by Joe Jackson.

Laura in Texas gets quite a kick out of David Sedaris and sent one of his collections. I’ve perused a few Sedaris offerings in the New Yorker. Maybe it’s because one needs to have at least a 0.10 percent reading of National Public Radio in one’s bloodstream, but I consider him as engaging and hilarious as ditchwater.

Laura also favored me with a copy of “Running with Scissors,” by Augusten Burroughs, but painful childhood memories are in ample supply inside my own head. I seek escape by reading about a couple of imaginative boys floating their raft past a town “peacefully sleeping, beyond the vague vast sweep of star-gemmed water,” as Mark Twain put it in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”

They come from everywhere. One benefactress in Denmark supplied two illustrated volumes of H.C. Andersen’s fairy tales. Another Dane gifted me with the fat little “Design Directory: Scandinavia.” The latter is occasionally useful as a reference; some day I’ll get to the tales. For a few years I hosted a biennial luncheon for art directors and the production editor from Automobile Magazine, and for my 50th birthday one of them gave me a cookbook devoted to cookie recipes. Nearly four years later, I’ve just had my first real spin through those pages: oatmeal-raisin looks like a good starting point.

Even my dear subversive wife lays the occasional book on me. The anthology of stories by contemporary Nebraska writers delighted this native Nebraskan until the actual reading was undertaken. Opening up with three miserable tales about white trash forces the concession that, indeed, every place has its seamy side. But why dwell on it? And what’s ahead in the next 340 pages? Are there the wise, understated, admirable Nebraskans? A random sampling from an upcoming story yields this nugget about a man watching a horror movie during a party: “…Gary, lost in his own private world of the macabre, is listening for the next rising moan, the next victim, when Linda, joint in one hand, vodka tonic in the other, tells Gary that she’s pregnant.” As badly as I yearn to know how things work out for them, I find myself—not for the first time—with Italo Calvino’s “Cosmicomics” open over my knee.

Now for the glaring contradiction. Coming soon to the Knoxville address of Andy and Jamie is Wilma Dykeman’s “The French Broad,” her cultural history of the Appalachian river of that name, along with a bonus guidebook to North Carolina’s mountains. I acquired them a few years ago in Asheville. Jamie’s parents live not far away from there. Good stewardship will likely prevail, and the books will make their way into the hands of someone who will cherish them.

And now I seek a recipient for “Roadside Geology of Idaho.” The title’s narrow appeal could be widened with a Sharpie: “Roadside Geology of Idaho and Thereabouts.”

Sequel: http://baggyparagraphs.wordpress.com/2009/06/10/little-women-and-a-seagull/

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May 21, 2009 at 5:00 pm

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Game of the Century

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Waiting for the game was like waiting for Christmas itself. We woke up on Monday, pinched ourselves, and counted only three more days. On Tuesday, two more days. And then an interminable Wednesday, the clock using a walker to drag itself around. Finally, it arrived: Thanksgiving Day, 1971. The Nebraska Cornhuskers would play the Oklahoma Sooners. “The Game of the Century,” the TV was saying, but even a 16-year-old recoiled from the hype. More than a quarter of the century remained to be played out. But it was a huge game. When the Cornhuskers won in thrilling fashion, yet again retaining their number-one ranking, we experienced euphoria in equal measure to the pre-game anxiety, waking Friday, pinching ourselves, and counting the first day since the great victory, and the second, and third, eager to return Monday to school and talk about Johnny Rodgers’s Etch-a-Sketch punt return and share the feeling that we Nebraskans were finally important.

huskers01It had never occurred to me that someone would write a book about all this, but my friend Budd recently passed along Michael Corcoran’s “The Game of the Century: Nebraska vs. Oklahoma in College Football’s Ultimate Battle,” published by Simon & Schuster in 2004. I could hardly wait to dip into a slick writer’s treatment of the subject. The opening chapters’ pace is excellent as Corcoran summarizes how Bob Devaney bounced around in Michigan high schools and was almost resigned to a mediocre life as a school administrator when Michigan State’s football staff solicited his services. (It isn’t explained the Spartans had won the 1952 national title and the program was a fecund producer of coaches.) Eight years later, Devaney brought his quips, garrulity, and football savvy to Lincoln.

My view of Oklahoma’s coaches had always been predictably dim, but Corcoran changes all that through his humane portrayals of the likable and accomplished Bud Wilkinson, the beleaguered but determined Chuck Fairbanks, and of course Barry Switzer, who was touched by tragedy. Something the three coaches shared in common, incidentally, was an excellent command of English. (Wilkinson had a master’s degree in literature and liked to sit down at the organ.) After a season of listening to Michigan’s Rich Rodriguez mangle his cases, a yearning arises.

The narrative builds momentum. It is clear why the looming game would be so important. But at an early point in the book I found myself beginning to chafe at some of Corcoran’s contrivances. Before 10 pages pass, the work is already creaking under the strain of the clichéd theme which asserts that football naturally flourished in a state inhabited by people of “pioneer stock,” to whom no game could seem too violent because life was so hard. (Through the rickety sides of a corn crib, do I hear the wind soughing?) Having grown up in Omaha and benefited from such advances as Cinerama, a sprayer attachment at the kitchen faucet, and daily radio serenades from Charlie Graham Buick (“That’s why Omaha-town is Buick-town, they’re all driving Buicks, best car around”), well, my pioneer stock had become diluted, I guess, and I really didn’t see it in my parents, either. Admittedly, Corcoran applies his asseveration to the much earlier era that produced song lyrics like these:

Where the girls are the fairest,

The boys are the squarest,

Of any old school that I knew.

But following his line of reasoning too closely would produce shock that, in 1952, for example, it was possible to drive an automobile from Florence, at Omaha’s northern edge, over to Iowa by crossing
a toll bridge over the Missouri River. (Why would anyone have wanted to go to Iowa, especially if paying a toll?) Or that the Nebraska Capitol, completed in 1932, is a modern masterpiece. It’s possible to lean too hard and long on the rickety fence that surrounds the state’s pioneer history. While also leaning a bit too often on sportswriters’ shopworn phrases like “particularly stellar,” Corcoran still manages to generate the anticipation of a thrilling climax to his tale. Here, I was disappointed. Note to journalism students across the land: it’s sometimes possible to do too much interviewing. Corcoran lets his tape recorder take over the story in the last 20 pages. It’s no longer a book but instead an ESPN retrospective, with each principal taking his turn in the spotlight. All the tension fizzles out as oral history intercedes. The author’s abdication is hard to figure out. It’s like giving up command of your cruise liner too early to the harbor pilot and being dashed against the rocks: hardly a salutary end to the journey.

Anyone who faults that metaphor, pointing out my landlubbing origins, is hereby referred to Corcoran’s line about Bob Devaney, who “looked more like a man who would give you an easy smile as he pushed his cap back slightly on his head and said he was sorry but your radiator was shot and that it’d be a day or two before the parts came in to fix it.” Hmmm. Maybe Corcoran knows something I don’t, but even in jalopies like those the Okies drove to California, the repair of radiators’ brass tubes and tanks just required a flushing out and bit of brazing before you were on your way. Which formula could be applied to “The Game of the Century,” as well.

Written by baggyparagraphs

April 29, 2009 at 4:36 pm

Impish Angus & the Volt Boys

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All the singer from Newcastle knew was that a rock band in London was looking for a front man. It was guaranteed worthwhile to come down and audition. He borrowed money for a rental car and made the trip. Arriving at the address, he found some fellows playing pool and assumed they were the musicians—but they were just the crew. After 20 minutes the band’s manager came downstairs looking for him and summoned him up to the rehearsal room. Brian Johnson was stunned when he entered, asking, “Is this who I think it is?”

The one-of-a-kind singer and lyricist Bon Scott had died of acute alcohol poisoning a few weeks earlier, in February 1980. His ill-timed departure occurred not long after AC/DC had completed its “Highway to Hell” tour, which positioned the band at the pinnacle of international success. Now they had to re-forge their identity, come out with a new album, and hope their fans would accept the result. By April, Johnson was leaving his car roofing and windshield replacement business and for Compass Point Studios in Nassau, the Bahamas, with his new band mates, producer Mutt Lange, and engineer Tony Platt. What resulted from their labors was “Back in Black,” one of the most powerful rock records ever. The subsequent tour established Johnson with the group, a position he still holds 29 years later.

His audition episode arrives more than 300 pages into “AC/DC: Maximum Rock & Roll: The Ultimate Story of the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band.” Authors Murray Engleheart and Arnaud Durieux keep their comprehensive history trundling along well enough so that an American reader, such as this one, can make it that far. It must be remembered that until “Back in Black,” the outrageous band had received very little airplay in the U.S., so few of us knew the story through the first five studio albums and one live release. Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles dominated the airwaves, along with disco tracks like “Funkytown.” As Shane cleared out a frontier town, AC/DC arrived to clean up all that with catchy ditties like “Hell’s Bells.”

The authors do a fine job of portraying the band’s origins. Malcolm and younger brother Angus Young came from a close family in which an older brother had enjoyed some success in the music world. Especially vivid is the gritty struggle AC/DC fought to achieve Australian success and then take that to London for something greater. On just a couple of occasions the narrative doesn’t satisfy. To the dilettantish reader like me, learning that Angus settled for a Gibson SG guitar instead of a Les Paul doesn’t mean a thing. And even though I like cars, I have only a vague idea of the significance inherent in drummer Phil Rudd’s choice of wheels, an HK Monaro. It sounds more like a brand of cigarettes. Sometimes I just need the full explanation.

On the other hand, the book more than answers questions about the dynamics within the band. Malcolm willingly ceded the soloist’s role to Angus, yet he has always called the shots. Despite Angus’s devilish posturing, their solid character is a Scottish birthright. Something I’ve always enjoyed about AC/DC is the lack of U2-style social philosophy. Why don’t we just rock? Perhaps there are blessings to be derived from going only so far in school. As Angus told Rolling Stone last fall, “I didn’t have any prospects for a career, with the education I had. When I started doing this, I thought, ‘You gotta give it 200 percent.'” Yes, there were drugs, alcohol, and women. But Angus seems to exist more on comic books, milkshakes, and sitcoms. And the Youngs have a fabulous work ethic. The mere fact that they had to endure until “Highway to Hell” before the money started rolling in attests to it. Not to mention the unshakable belief they would be big. But they hadn’t anticipated their charming crooner Scott’s death. How the Youngs found the perfect guy for the gig is a tribute to their astuteness.

“Brian sounded as if he had been buried alive for decades and had finally burst free,” the authors write. He warmed up for gigs by screaming. Working out became a necessity for keeping up with the sustained explosion of energy the shows required, and he once passed out onstage in the stifling St. Louis heat. But his earthiness and good humor, and an altogether different virility from Scott’s, helped to transform the band. The recent “Black Ice” album—which made its debut at number one here and in two dozen other countries—was acclaimed by Jason Fine, of Rolling Stone, as the best since “Back in Black,” and the world tour is showing legs.

Which brings us around to the (second) subtitle: Is AC/DC the world’s greatest rock and roll band? In the U.S., only the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and the Eagles have sold more records. After 35 years, AC/DC puts out a disc as good as “Black Ice.” In the live show, the school boy shtick and pants-dropping still works, at least a little bit. Elitists may laugh, but I didn’t hurry down the road a month ago when the Eagles came to town. They’re very good, but I was under the impression they cordon off their stage with yellow tape that warns, “Ballad Zone.”

Written by baggyparagraphs

April 25, 2009 at 11:25 pm

Deporting Postmodernists

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Yesterday we moved a bunch of furniture around, and part of that was bringing books up from the basement to my new study, and part of that was weeding through bookshelves to eliminate volumes. Why do I have five collections of short stories by Guy Davenport when I’ve only read the first story in one, even read it a second time and still found it perplexing? I have heard that Davenport, who died in 2005, was the most original exponent of something or other and not afraid to break the last taboo, but he’s practicing a kind of postmodernism that I just can’t penetrate and I suspect to be a private conversation with himself. “My few readers will recognize that ‘Wo es war, soll ich werden’ completes a trilogy begun with [stories in two previous books],” he writes. Maybe I should’ve been a Rhodes Scholar and gone to Oxford and written about Joyce and Pound, as Davenport did, in order to be able to understand it. On the other hand, that’s the beauty of a works like “To Kill a Mockingbird” or anything by Henry James. I get it the first time, and the second, and don’t feel trapped inside an equation. I separated out the two paperback collections of Davenport’s stories but kept the three hardcover ones, just in case I suddenly acquire a Classical education and also become thoroughly steeped in high modernism.

Additionally, foolishly designated for disposal: Neruda’s “Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada,” a pocket edition purchased at a Madrid train station. But I reconsidered my hasty decision, which was influenced by the disgust I feel with a certain someone who also likes Neruda. It isn’t the poet’s fault that what’s-her-name is intractable.

Here also is Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno’s “E.E. Cummings: A Biography.” Yes, another poet admired of what’s-her-name. But this time, she may claim no involvement. The problem with the 606-page book, I realized after reading more than 415 pages of it, is that I didn’t like Cummings, even after his promotion to the upper case. His writing is fun for an hour or so, but the man himself was consistently reprehensible. I left off in the year 1937, when Cummings was 42 years old and twice divorced. He had taken his $400 advance for a book, along with $300 in royalties, and went to England with his companion, Marion, a former model, who straightaway let herself be seduced into the bed of the philosopher A.J. Ayer. She confessed all the next day, but Cummings forgave her, probably because he hoped she could earn some money for them. They went to Paris, but at 31 years old, Marion was unable to get modeling jobs. Cummings wired home to his mother for $300, to be followed by two more appeals for money before the pair sailed home in late August. The life is nicely written by Sawyer-Lauçanno, but I had learned as much as I cared to know.

Based on my appreciation of Don DeLillo’s novels “White Noise” and “Libra,” I just had to plunk down $27.50 for “Underworld,” his 825-pager that follows a collectible baseball as it’s passed from hand to hand over a half century. But long, long novels are such a bane to me. I could instead reread “O, Pioneers!” In the edition on my shelf, it’s 150 pages, so I could read it five times with change to spare. It’s a beautiful novel. Sometimes I wonder if postmodern writers haven’t been trying to kill literature. “Underworld” has sat here and I’ve felt guilty when it has whispered, “Hey, Mister!” But I doubt that I would ever finish it.

Finally, we consider “Setting the Pace: Oldsmobile’s First 100 Years,” by Helen Jones Earley and James R. Walkinshaw. This was given me in June 2008 when I drove a vintage Olds for a magazine story. Someone handed me this book, a large eight-by-eleven as compared with the usual six-by-nine of a novel. The paper is heavy, glossy stock and the volume weighs an even five pounds, according to my bathroom scale. Handling a book like this could almost require protective gloves and steel-toe boots, just in case it slams shut on your fingers or falls on your foot. It would be very useful to keep around if I wanted to know the year the Cutlass Ciera was introduced. Here’s hoping the book will find its way into the possession of one who needs that information more than I.

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guy_Davenport

Written by baggyparagraphs

April 6, 2009 at 7:15 pm

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