Monday, August 19, 2013

Author Look-Alikes, Vol. 18

I give you W. H. Auden and the grandpa from the Gilmore Girls  (Edward Hermann):

Then there’s Ann Patchett and Laura Linney:

Or Sylvia Plath and Peggy from Mad Men (Elizabeth Moss):

Even without gobs of mascara, young Susan Sontag could have given Natalie Wood a run for her money:

And William Styron looks exactly like you'd imagine an aging Piers Morgan:

Friday, August 16, 2013

Feature Film Friday:

It’s been a little over a year since Ray Bradbury passed away, and a full fifty years since this awesome documentary was made. Enjoy!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

See Mexico City! Read a Novel!

“A brief mountain pass took us suddenly to a height from which we saw all of Mexico City stretched out in its volcanic crater below and spewing city smokes and early dusklights. Down to it we zoomed, down Insurgentes Boulevard, straight toward the heart of town at Reforma. Kids played soccer in enormous sad fields and threw up dust. Taxi-drivers overtook us and wanted to know if we wanted girls. No, we didn’t want girls now. Long, ragged adobe slums stretched out on the plain; we saw lonely figures in the dimming alleys. Soon night would come. Then the city roared in and suddenly we were passing crowded cafes and theaters and many lights. Newsboys yelled at us. Mechanics slouched by, barefoot, with wrenches and rags. Mad barefoot Indian drivers cut across us and surrounded us and tooted and made frantic traffic. The noise was incredible. No mufflers are used on Mexican cars. Horns are batted with glee continual. “Whee!” yelled Dean. “Look out!” He staggered the car through the traffic and played with everybody. He drove like an Indian. He got on a circular glorietta drive on Reforma Boulevard and rolled around it with its eight spokes shooting cars at us from all directions, left, right, izquierda, dead ahead, and yelled and jumped with joy. “This is traffic I’ve always dreamed of! Everybody goes!” An ambulance came balling through. American ambulances dart and weave through traffic with siren blowing; the great world-wide Fellahin Indian ambulances merely come through at eighty miles and hour in the city streets, and everybody just has to get out of the way and they don’t pause for anybody or any circumstances and fly straight through. We saw it reeling out of sight on skittering wheels in the breaking –up moil of dense downtown traffic. The drivers were Indians. People, even old ladies, ran for buses that never stopped. Young Mexico City businessmen made bets and ran by squads for buses and athletically jumped them. The bus-drivers were barefoot, sneering and insane and sat low and squat in T-shirts at the low, enormous wheels. Ikons burned over them. The lights in the buses were greenish, and dark faces were lined on wooden benches.
“In downtown Mexico City thousands of hipsters in floppy straw hats and long-lapeled jackets over bare chests padded along the main drag, some of them selling crucifixes and weed in the alleys, some of them kneeling in beat chapels next to Mexican burlesque shows in sheds. Some alleys were rubble, with open sewers, and little doors led to closet-size bars stuck in adobe walls. You had to jump over a ditch to get your drink, and in the bottom of the ditch was the ancient lake of the Aztec. You came out of the bar with your back to the wall and edged back to the street. They served coffee mixed with rum and nutmeg. Mambo blared from everywhere. Hundreds of whores lined themselves along the dark and narrow streets and their sorrowful eyes gleamed at us in the night. We wandered in a frenzy and a dream. We ate beautiful steaks for forty-eight cents in a strange tiled Mexican cafeteria with generations of marimba musicians standing at one immense marimba—also wandering singing guitarists, and old men on corners blowing trumpets. You went by the sour stink of pulque saloons; they gave you a water glass of cactus juice in there, two cents. Nothing stopped; the streets were alive all night. Beggars slept wrapped in advertising posters torn off fences. Whole families of them sat on the sidewalk, playing little flutes and chuckling in the night. Their bare feet stuck out, their dim candles burned, all Mexico was one vast Bohemian camp. On corners old women cut up the boiled heads of cows and wrapped morsels in tortillas and served them with hot sauce on newspaper napkins. This was the great and final wild uninhibited Fellahin-childlike city that we knew we would find at the end of the road. Dean walked through with his arms hanging zombie-like at his sides, his mouth open, his eyes gleaming, and conducted a ragged and holy tour that lasted till dawn in a field with a boy in a straw hat who laughed and chatted with us and wanted to play catch, for nothing ever ended.”

— from On the Road , by Jack Kerouac

Monday, August 12, 2013

"Like looking at Flemish tapestries from the wrong side"

So here’s an idea I’ve been toying with:  I’m one of roughly two million people on earth who speak Slovenian (Sounds like a lot, but that equates to less than 3 hundredths of one percent of the world’s population.) The vast majority of the seven billion other  people on earth have never even heard of Slovenia—and if they have, I’d bet good money that they’ve never picked up a book of Slovene literature  a) because it’s a small country,  b) because it’s only 20 years old, but  c) mainly because most of the Slovene canon remains untranslated.

And while there are a few academics out there who are slowly working their way through a couple of the most important works, the door is wide open for, say, a Slovene-speaking native English speaker, and an English-speaking native Slovene speaker to put their heads together and start translating some stuff.  Mrs. DeMarest and I just happen to fit the bill. So we’ll see…  This would be a years-long project, of course, and a huge commitment of free time, but it might just be something I’d look back on with immense satisfaction.

Anyway, while mulling this over I was reminded of a passage from Don Quixote that rang true to me at the time:
“…it seems to me that translating from one language to another, unless it is from Greek and Latin, the queens of all languages, is like looking at Flemish tapestries from the wrong side, for although the figures are visible, they are covered by threads that obscure them, and cannot be seen with the smoothness and color of the right side”

     From Don Quixote , by Miguel Cervantes

Friday, August 9, 2013

First Line Friday: On the Road

It’s been a while since we’ve done one of these, but today’s first line is, in my opinion, kind of a stinker, even though it leads into one of my favorite books. The first two lines, as a matter of fact, are bits of back story we don’t really need, and that don’t figure in the rest of the novel. But that third line , now, that third line is great. If you ask me, it is the rightful heir to the first line throne. And if I were Kerouac’s editor, I would have lopped off the first two and made that one my opener:
“I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead. With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road. Before that I’d often dreamed of going West to see the country, always vaguely planning and never taking off.”

What do you think? Am I off here? Of course I'm not...

Thursday, August 8, 2013

"let fly with the secret pleasure of a bedwetter"

“My bladder was beginning to be insistent, too, and though I was armed with my Policeman’s Friend and would have ordinarily have let fly with the secret pleasure of a bedwetter, I couldn’t see myself pissing down a tube with a lady standing six feet from me.”
    From Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose

The internet is surprisingly short on information about the “Policeman’s Friend” apparatus that Stegner’s narrator is describing above, but I imagine it’s a close cousin of the Stadium Pal "accessory" described by David Sedaris below. Another reason to love curmudeonly ol’ Lyman Ward:

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

How Mark Twain gave us Thurgood Marshall

Margaret Mitchell and Mark Twain are two authors who are often discussed in the context of racism in literature. Gone With the Wind  and The Adventures of Huck Finn  are two of the most frequently banned books across the U.S.

But while debate rages in school boards across the country, it’s interesting to note that in their personal lives Mitchell and Twain were quite generous to aspiring black professional students. Over a number of years Mitchell secretly funded dozens of African American medical students at Morehouse college and elsewhere, helping to lift up a class of black professionals in the segregated South. 

And while Twain’s philanthropy centered on one student in particular, it may have had an even more powerful impact on society. Warner T. McGuinn, the man whose room and board Twain paid at Yale Law School, graduated #1 in his class and went on to become a force in the early civil rights movement in Maryland and a mentor to Thurgood Marshall. In a letter to the dean of the law school, Twain explained his reasoning for supporting McGuinn:
“I do not believe I would very cheerfully help a white student who would ask for the benevolence of a stranger, but I do not feel so about the other color. We have ground the manhood out of them, and the shame is ours, not theirs, and we should pay for it.”

 Interesting, no?

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Thurber gets a reboot

Here’s one I really want to see: James Thurber’s short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is being re-made into a movie this year. The last time this was tried, in 1947, Danny Kaye turned the picture into a screwball comedy only loosely based on the original. Okay, fine, whatever. Thurber was a very humorous writer, and “Mitty” was a slightly campy tale that could certainly be taken that direction.

This time around Ben Stiller acts and directs in a reboot that promises to be much truer to the heart of “Mitty.” I can’t comment on its merits as a true-to-the-story adaptation, but it looks like it’ll deliver far less mad-cap comedy, and far more insight into the secret psyche of the inveterate daydreamer- which is really what the original story was all about.

But don’t take my word for it. Here is a link to the original story, and here is Stiller’s latest trailer:

For comparison, have a look at the 1947 version:

We're definitely getting better at movie trailers, but I also think we’re getting better at this adaptation thing…

Monday, August 5, 2013

Buyer Beware: Vol. 14

We're on vacation until August 6th. Until then, buyer beware: this isn’t  the book you’re looking for…

Friday, August 2, 2013

Buyer Beware: Vol. 13

We're on vacation until August 6th. Until then, buyer beware: this isn’t  the book you’re looking for…

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Buyer Beware: Vol. 12

We're on vacation until August 6th. Until then, buyer beware: this isn’t  the book you’re looking for…

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Buyer Beware: Vol. 11

We're on vacation until August 6th. Until then, buyer beware: this isn’t  the book you’re looking for…

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Buyer Beware: Vol. 10

We're on vacation until August 6th. Until then, buyer beware: this isn’t  the book you’re looking for…

Monday, July 29, 2013

Buyer Beware: Vol. 9

We're on vacation until August 6th. Until then, buyer beware: this isn’t  the book you’re looking for…

Friday, July 26, 2013

Buyer Beware: Vol. 8

We're on vacation until August 6th. Until then, buyer beware: this isn’t  the book you’re looking for…

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Buyer Beware: Vol. 7

We're on vacation until August 6th. Until then, buyer beware: this isn’t  the book you’re looking for…

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Buyer Beware: Vol. 6

We're on vacation until August 6th. Until then, buyer beware: this isn’t  the book you’re looking for…

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Buyer Beware: Vol. 5

We're on vacation until August 6th. Until then, buyer beware:  this isn’t  the book you’re looking for…

Monday, July 22, 2013

Buyer Beware: Vol. 4

We're on vacation until August 6th. Until then, buyer beware: this isn’t  the book you’re looking for…

Friday, July 19, 2013

Review: The Monkey Wrench Gang, by Edward Abbey

So, I’ve mentioned the Monkey Wrench Gang  a couple times already, but now that I’m through with it I might as well put a few thoughts together by way of review. What an entertaining book! It’s its own strange mix of humor and melancholy, hope and defeat, beauty and crassness.

Dubbed by Larry McMurtry as the Thoreau of the American West, Abbey can paint effortless word pictures like this one…
“He remembered the real Colorado, before damnation, when the river flowed unchained and unchanneled in the joyous floods of May and June, swollen with snow melt. Boulders crunching and clacking and grumbling, tumbling along on the river’s bedrock bed, the noise like that of grinding molars in a giant jaw.”
… and a minute later, refer to a truck’s “seared differential scrota” without batting an eyelash. The biggest coups he manages to pull off, though, are the well-drawn, memorable characters: the loveable Jack-Mormon river guide, the crude PTSD-stricken Viet Nam vet, the refined and aging surgeon, the beautiful yet aimless female Brooklyn transplant, and of course, the stunning, forbidding, alluring canyon country of southern Utah and northern Arizona, which is perhaps the most important character of all. Even the villains jump off the page and make a deep impression.

There’s plenty of pastoral contemplation coupled with truckloads of surprise and suspense, and the whole time the reader is drawn right into the characters’ eco-activist conspiracy. There are cliffhangers (like, literally) and a surprise ending that made me want to go right out and buy the sequel. (There really is one!) Anyway, I highly recommend it.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Books on Screen

We hope you're making time for a few literary adaptations in between summer blockbusters, moviegoers. Here are a couple I've recently watched.

On the Road (2012)
I loved this book, and I was really looking forward to the film. After I missed it in theaters, though, it was kind of hard to get a hold of until it popped up on my On Demand offerings—I hoped this scarcity meant that it was just too awesome for the unwashed masses to appreciate, but that I would still love it. Alas, no, it was just okay. And it was a bit depressing. And it was kind of boring. I mean, look, there are moments in the book like this one:
“At dawn I got my New York bus and said good-by to Dean and Marylou. They wanted some of my sandwiches. I told them no. It was a sullen moment. We were all thinking we’d never see one another again and we didn’t care.”
…that clearly show there were some lulls and some downers in Sal’s adventures. But to see those moments pervade the entire film was a bit of a letdown. Here’s the other thing: what excitement there was, was mainly focused on drugs, sex and fast driving, all of which were played up disproportionately compared to the book. But where was the unbridled exuberance? And the sense of wonder? Where was the fun? They tried to sell us on Sal’s and Dean’s friendship with lots of intense, heartfelt man hugs—a constant coming and going where locked eyes and sincere, sullen glances were supposed to communicate everything. They didn’t. I thinkall but the most hardcore Kerouac fans, and even a good number of those, can skip this one.

The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952)
Ten years before he became Atticus Finch, Gregory Peck played the role of Harry Street in the adaptation of Hemingway’s classic short story. But while it starts off true enough to the original—the necrotic leg injury, the vultures, the desperate wait for a plane—it takes some liberties that rubbed me the wrong way. For one, the flashback action was just a cheap rehash of Hemingway’s own life story: Spanish Civil War, expat Paris, big game hunting, bullfights in Pamplona. I guess if you’re trying to get Hemingway nuts into the theater, that’s one way to do it. But it cheapens the work of fiction that’s supposed to be played out on screen. 

And while the trail of tortured romances opened up roles for Ava Gardner and Susan Hayward, that’s not what the story’s really about. Snows  is about examining one’s life, finding it wanting, resolving to change and redeem oneself… only to have the chance whisked away at the last second. Bittersweet brilliance. Which brings me to the most egregious crime of all: the ending. Instead of flying off into the metaphorical snows of Kilimanjaro, a peaceful resignation to death and dying, Harry Street (and his romance!) are saved. The plane arrives, the vultures disappear, and all’s well that ends well. I haven’t had a film betrayal like that since The Grapes of Wrath , the movie.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Makin' it Twain!

Here’s a fun fact for you: At a time when the average household income was less than $500 per year, that venerated man of the people, Mark Twain, had household expenses in excess of $30,000 per year. Sixty times the median. In today’s dollars,  that would be more than $3,000,000 per year. And he still  had to hit the lecture circuit to make ends meet.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Literary Devices with Edward Abbey

A couple choice excerpts from Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang:
“They roared down the high-centered road, bristly blackbrush and spiny prickly pear clawing at the truck along the greasy perineum of its General Motors crotch.”
“The enemy, only a few miles behind, out of sight but closing the gap, spurred on with extra vigor by the indignity of singed bottoms, scorched automotive coccyges, seared differential scrota, would soon come round the last bend in the trail and see them—Hayduke and Smith, Inc.—crawling slow and beetle-like up this improbable exit way.”

Gotta admit, the man has a way with words. Of course, the technical  term for this literary device is "anthropomorphization." And for those interested in further study, its commercial application, can be explored here.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

J.K. Rowling & Little Brown: 1, Honest Business Practices: 0

In case you haven’t heard, J.K. Rowling has been unmasked as the true identity behind “Robert Galbraith,” a Little Brown author who recently released a detective novel to mostly positive reviews. The news is being hailed far and wide as the greatest literary coup since Stephen King took up the pen name “Richard Bachman” back in the 80s. But there’s an important question no one is asking: Is this kind of thing actually ethical?

Because to me it stinks to high heaven.

Not the use of a pen name, mind you. Let me state at the outset that I am all for  the use of pen names. If an author has a reason to stay incognito, power to them. We’ve covered that topic here. But when the publisher  goes so far as to fabricate an author bio in order to lend credibility to an unknown author, I have to admit that as a reader, I’m a little miffed. Here is what Little Brown says about Mr. Galbraith while pitching his book on their site:

“A remarkable debut…” (LIE)
“Robert Galbraith is married with two sons. (LIE) After several years with the Royal Military Police (LIE), he was attached to the SIB (Special Investigation Branch) (LIE), the plain-clothes branch of the RMP. He left the military in 2003 (LIE) and has been working since then in the civilian security industry. (LIE) The idea for protagonist Cormoran Strike grew directly out of his own experiences and those of his military friends who have returned to the civilian world. (LIE) Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym. (TRUE! But all the lies above kind of lead us to believe the pseudonym is simply a necessity in Galbraith’s line of work, so… LIE!)

Did the fabrications accomplish what Little Brown wanted it to? Sure. Getting reviewed as a “major new talent,” or having your work praised as an “auspicious-” or “stellar-” or “remarkably mature debut” is a heckuvalot better than getting reviews that say, “J.K. Rowling seems to have righted the ship after her last non-Harry Potter project, which actually had a lot of her fans quite worried.” But it’s patently dishonest. Fiction is what’s inside the book. We expect the packaging and the credentials on the outside to represent the publisher’s best, but honest, effort to get us to buy what’s inside. Lying to me about the author’s background so that I’m more likely to pick up the book, is two or three kinds of shady.

After all, where do we draw the line? Can a publisher pull non-existent blurbs out of thin air to sway potential readers? Can they throw “New York Times Bestseller” on the cover if it will help them sell copies? How about an Oprah’s Book Club seal? Or “Winner of the Man-Booker Prize?” Made-up snippets from national media outlets? Or outlets that sound like national media authorities?

I’m happy the Rowling’s written a great book, but as long she  uses snake oil salesmen to hawk it, I’m not buying.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Another Month in the Can!

Yesterday marked the end of our 19th month on the web. That’s well over 500 posts in just over a year and a half. Thank you to all our regular, intermittent, and accidental readers. We hope you keep coming back for more. Above are the authors we’ve mentioned in the past 30 days, and below are the five most popular posts from that period:

And, as always, some of the many-splendored search terms that led people here:

Thursday, July 11, 2013

"A Ruse of One's Own" or Virginia Woolf: Practical Joker

You learn something new every day. Today, for example, I learned that 28 year old Virginia Woolf helped perpetrate a hoax on the British Navy that got attention around the world. Not merely as a planner or supporter, mind you, but as a cross-dressing imposter prince in black-face. That’s right. Take a closer look at that sleight fellow on the far left below. That is not  an Abyssinian prince. But the officers of the HMS Dreadnought thought it was. And hilarity ensued.

You can read more about the Dreadnought Hoax here and here. But my favorite detail is this: the Navy couldn’t scrounge up an Abyssinian flag anywhere, so the Honor Guard used the flag and national anthem of Zanzibar. Naturally.

—Via Retronaut

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Buyer Beware: Vol. 3

This isn’t  the book you’re looking for…

Try this one instead:

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Review: Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

In his book Palm Sunday, Kurt Vonnegut once gave out letter grades to his own works. He handed out some Bs, Cs and Ds, but he also gave Mother Night , God Bless You Mr. Rosewater  and Jailbird  a grade of “A.” Of those, I’ve only read Mother Night , and absolutely loved it. So far so good.

To two other books, he awarded “A+”s:  Slaughterhouse-Five , which is kind of a universally accepted no-brainer, and Cat’s Cradle , which I hadn’t read until this week. So the question I naturally kept asking myself was this:  is Cat’s Cradle  really as good as Slaughterhouse–Five? And is it really better than Mother Night ?

And even though it was nominated for a Hugo Award, the answer I kept coming back to is… not a chance. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, mind you, but I don’t think it really measures up.  Now, it’s certainly as funny as either one of them, but I just got the impression it wasn’t really about  anything.

He starts out strong, unraveling a mystery for the reader that is equal parts family history and geopolitical intrigue, and piecing together the fictional religion of Bokononism, which is wildly entertaining and has, I suppose, some decent satirical purposes. But from there we’re just kind of sucked through a vortex where everything happens so suddenly, and ends so quickly, that it  almost left me with the impression  Vonnegut was too bored to follow through and make it a book about something important. Either that, or he wasn’t sure how to end it, so he just cut it short in a “betcha-didn’t-see-that-coming” sort of a way.

Anyway, it’d be fine as a beach read. It packs a few punches, and it will definitely make you laugh. But if you’re looking for A-level Vonnegut, you might want to look elsewhere. Just my $0.02.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Meeting your literary hero...

I’ve always wondered, would it go something like this?

Friday, July 5, 2013

"Don't let me make you sad"

"Really our Fourth of July is our day of mourning, our day of sorrow. Fifty thousand people who have lost friends, or who have had friends crippled, receive that Fourth of July, when it comes, as a day of mourning for the losses they have sustained in their families.
“I have suffered in that way myself. I have had relatives killed in that way. One was in Chicago years ago—an uncle of mine, just as good an uncle as I have ever had, and I had lots of them—yes, uncles to burn, uncles to spare. This poor uncle, full of patriotism, opened his mouth to hurrah, and a rocket went down his throat. Before that man could ask for a drink of water to quench that thing, it blew up and scattered him all, over the forty-five States, and—really, now, this is true—I know about it myself—twenty-four hours after that it was raining buttons, recognizable as his, on the Atlantic seaboard. A person cannot have a disaster like that and be entirely cheerful the rest of his life. I had another uncle, on an entirely different Fourth of July, who was blown up that way, and really it trimmed him as it would a tree. He had hardly a limb left on him anywhere. All we have left now is an expurgated edition of that uncle. But never mind about these things; they are merely passing matters. Don't let me make you sad.”

—from “Independence Day”, a speech made by Mark Twain July 4th, 1907

I - wish - he - were - just - joking ...

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Happy Fourth!

“I began to occupy my house on the 4th of July, as soon as it was boarded and roofed…”
—from Walden , by Henry David Thoreau

“Noiseless as a flower opening, a rocket burst above the hills. She sat up, watching the white stars curve and fall. Then BOOM! All the night air between her and the town, two and a half miles of it, trembled with the delayed report.
“…Another rocket seared across the sky at an angle and bloomed with hanging green balls. Another went up through the green shower and burst into an umbrella of red. Then three together, all white. Then one that winked hotly but did not flower. BOOM! Went the cushioning air. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
“…Above the town, streaks of smoke were lighted by the rocket bursts. Under the sodden booming she heard a continuous musketry of firecrackers, big and little. She could imagine the boys and drunken men who would be darting around through the crowds on the Capitol grounds throwing cannon crackers under the feet of tied horses and dressed-up girls, and into the buggies of the dignified.
“…And yet from a distance how beautiful! There was a colored mist all above the unseen city, as if the smoke of the explosions were now lighted by fires from below.”

—from Angle of Repose , by Wallace Stegner

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Author Look-Alikes: Vol. 17

Theodore Dreiser and Carl Reiner. If you don’t see it, I don’t know what to tell you:

Zora Neale Hurston and Queen Latifah: the cheekbones, the nose, the smile, the eyes… it’s all there:

Vladimir Nabokov and Alfred Hitchcock are not a bad match:

Neither are Alexander Solzhenytsin and Edward Norton Jr.:

And when I look at this picture of Charles Dickens all I hear is Vincent Schiavelli screaming for me to get off his train:

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

"A platinum blond Jesus with spaniel eyes"

"During my trip to Ilium and to points beyond—a two-week expedition bridging Christmas—I let a poor poet named Sherman Krebbs have my New York City apartment free. My second wife had left me on the grounds that I was too pessimistic for an optimist to live with.
"Krebbs was a bearded man, a platinum blond Jesus with spaniel eyes. He was no close friend of mine. I had met him at a cocktail party where he presented himself as National Chairman of Poets and Painters for Immediate Nuclear War. He begged for shelter, not necessarily bomb proof, and it happened that I had some.
"When I returned to my apartment, still twanging with the puzzling spiritual implications of the unclaimed stone angel in Ilium, I found my apartment wrecked by a nihilistic debauch. Krebbs was gone; but, before leaving, he had run up three-hundred-dollars’ worth of long-distance calls, set my couch on fire in five places, killed my cat and my avocado tree, and torn the door off my medicine cabinet.
"He wrote this poem, in what proved to be excrement, on the yellow linoleum floor of my kitchen:
"I have a kitchen.
But it is not a complete kitchen.
I will not be truly gay
Until I have a

—from Cat’s Cradle , by Kurt Vonnegut

Monday, July 1, 2013

What's a Marmon?

Glad you asked:
Everything about that behemoth was an anachronism—hand choke, starter button on the floor, a switch instead of a key, a hinged hood that lifted up on both sides, a chrome radiator cap in the form of a naked lady who leaned into the wind. Sid unscrewed the lady, stuck his finger down the pipe, and screwed her back on. He lifted one side of the hood and found the dipstick and pulled it out and carried it to the light and squinted at it and brought it back. With one foot he flattened the folding luggage rack on the running board, opened the door, and climbed in. Squinting down into the shadow, he pulled out the choke. I heard his foot pump the throttle three times.
“Hail Mary full of grease,” he said, and stepped on the starter.
A subterranean grinding, heavy and hoarse. I could imagine pistons the size of gallon jugs trying to move in the cylinders. Sid took his foot off the starter, adjusted the choke, and stepped down again. The grinding resumed, went on patiently for a good minute, grew slower, weakened. Another tired half turn—uh-RUG!—and on the last juice from the battery she coughed, raced, faded, caught again, and was running.
“Ha!” Sid said. He sat nursing her, easing the choke in until she talked to us comfortable. Looking in under the propped hood I could see that the engine was not twelve in line, as I had always half believed, but a V-16. It would have pulled a fire truck. At every stroke a stream of gasoline as thick as my finger must be pulsing through the carburetor. She panted at us in the whiskey-and-emphysema whisper of an Edith Wharton dowager. “Dollar-dollar-dollar-dollar-dollar,” the Marmon said.
—from Crossing to Safety , by Wallace Stegner

Dr. Breed told me that Dr. Hoenikker, as a very young man, had simply abandoned his car in Ilium traffic one morning.
“The police, trying to find out what was holding up traffic,” he said, “found Felix’s car in the middle of everything, its motor running, a cigar burning in the ash tray, fresh flowers in the vases . . .”
“It was a Marmon, about the size of a switch engine. It had little cut-glass vases on the doorposts, and Felix’s wife used to put fresh flowers in the vases every morning. And there that car was in the middle of traffic.”
“Like the Marie Celeste ,” I suggested.

—from Cat’s Cradle , by Kurt Vonnegut

Friday, June 28, 2013

The Tour!

I gave pretty short shrift to Roland Barthes’ Mythologies  when I “reviewed” it last year. But since the Tour de France is kicking off tomorrow, I thought I’d share an excerpt from the book on just that subject—to give you a taste for his analysis (with a few paragraph breaks inserted for readability):
“The Tour’s geography, too, is entirely subject to the epic necessity of ordeal. Elements and terrain are personified, for it is against them that man measures himself, and as in every epic it is important that the struggle should match equal measures: man is therefore naturalized; Nature, humanized. 
"The gradients are wicked, reduced to difficult or deadly percentages, and the relays-each of which has the unity of a chapter in a novel (we are given, in effect, an epic duration, an additive sequence of absolute crises and not the dialectical progression of a single conflict, as in tragic duration)- the relays are above all physical characters, successive enemies, individualized by that combination of morphology and morality which defines an epic Nature. The relay is hairy, sticky, burnt out, bristling, etc., all adjectives which belong to an existential order of qualification and seek to indicate that the racer is at grips not with some natural difficulty but with a veritable theme of existence, a substantial theme in which he engages, by a single impulse, his perception and his judgement.”
“The dynamics of the Tour itself are obviously presented as a battle, but its confrontation being of a special kind, this battle is dramatic only by its d├ęcor or its marches, not strictly speaking by its shocks.
"Doubtless, the Tour is comparable to a modern army, defined by the importance of its materiel and the number of its servants; it knows murderous episodes, national funks, and the hero confronts his ordeal in a Cesarian state, close the divine calm familiar to Hugo’s Napolean (“Gem plunged clear-eyed into the dangerous descent above Monte Carlo”). 
"Still, the very action of the conflict remains difficult to grasp and does not permit itself to be established in duration. As a matter of fact, the dynamics of the Tour knows only four movements: to lead, to follow, to escape, to collapse. 
"To lead is the hardest action, but also the most useless; to lead is always to sacrifice oneself; it is pure heroism, destined to parade character much more than to assure results; in the Tour, panache does not pay directly, it is usually reduced by collective tactics. To follow, on the contrary, is always a little cowardly, a little treacherous, pertaining to an ambition unconcerned with honor: to follow to excess, with provocation, openly becomes a part of Evil (shame to the “wheel-suckers”). 
"To escape is a poetic episode meant to illustrate a voluntary solitude, though on unlikely to be effective, for the racer is almost always caught up with, but glorious in porportion to the kind of useless honor which sustains it (solitary escapade of the Spaniard Alomar: withdrawal, hautiness, the hero’s Catilianism a la Motherlant). Collapse prefigures abandon, it is always horrible and saddens the public like a disaster. On Mount Ventoux, certain collapses have assumed a “Hiroshimatic” character. These four movements are obviously dramatized, cast into the emphatic vocabulary of the crisis; often it is one of them, in the form of an image, which gives its name to the relay, as to the chapter of the novel (Title: Kubler’s Tumultuous Grind). Language’s role is enormous here, it is language which gives the event- ineffable because ceaselessly dissolved into duration-the epic promotion which allows it to be solidified.”

—from Mythologies , by Roland Barthes