Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Top 10 popular music artists countdown: 6-10

I just came across a fascinating feature on the Rolling Stone website called "The Top 100 Artists of All Time." The cool thing is that they have other musicians do the write-ups. Today and tomorrow I'll present excerpts from the Top 10. Let us know in the comments if you agree/disagree and what these icons have meant to you.
10. Ray Charles
"His sound was stunning — it was the blues, it was R&B, it was gospel, it was swing — it was all the stuff I was listening to before that but rolled into one amazing, soulful thing. As a singer, Ray Charles didn't phrase like anyone else. He didn't put the time where you thought it was gonna be, but it was always perfect, always right. He knew how to play with time, like any great jazzman. But there was more to him than that voice — he was also writing these incredible songs. He was a great musician, a great record maker, a great producer and a wonderful arranger."—Van Morrison
Charles's  great affinity for country music is evident when he sings with The Man in Black on Johnny Cash: The Greatest—Duets.  
 9. Aretha
"As a producer, I almost always addressed phrasing and enunciation with the singer, but in Aretha's case, there was nothing I could tell her. I would only be getting in her way. Nowadays, singers who want to be extra soulful overdo melisma. Aretha only used it a touch and used it gloriously because her taste was impeccable. She never went to the wrong place."—Jerry Wexler
Can I get an "amen" for the melisma critique? Aretha can be seen in a vintage performance in this history of the Montreux Jazz Festival on DVD
8. Little Richard
"You've got to remember, I was already known back in 1951. I was recording for RCA-Victor — if you were black, it was called Camden Records — before Elvis. Then I recorded for Peacock in Houston. Then Specialty Records bought me from Peacock — I think they paid $500 for me — and my first Specialty record was a hit in 1956: 'Tutti Frutti.' It was a hit worldwide. I felt I had arrived, you know? We started touring everywhere immediately. We traveled in cars. Back in that time, the racism was so heavy, you couldn't go in the hotels, so most times you slept in your car. You ate in your car. You got to the date, and you dressed in your car. I had a Cadillac. That's what the star rode in….
Most dates I didn't get paid. And I've never gotten money from most of those records. And I made those records: In the studio, they'd just give me a bunch of words, I'd make up a song! The rhythm and everything. 'Good Golly Miss Molly'! And I didn't get a dime for it. Michael Jackson owned the Specialty stuff. He offered me a job with his publishing company once, for the rest of my life, as a writer. At the time, I didn't take it. I wish I had now.
I wish a lot of things had been different. I don't think I ever got what I really deserved.
I appreciate being picked one of the top 100 performers, but who is number one and who is number two doesn't matter to me anymore. Because it won't be who I think it should be. The Rolling Stones started with me, but they're going to always be in front of me. The Beatles started with me — at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany, before they ever made an album — but they're going to always be in front of me. James Brown, Jimi Hendrix — these people started with me. I fed them, I talked to them, and they're going to always be in front of me.
But it's a joy just to still be here. I think that when people want joy and fun and happiness, they want to hear the old-time rock & roll. And I'm just glad I was a part of that."—Little Richard
 7.  James Brown
"James Brown is his own genre. He was a great editor — as a songwriter, producer and bandleader. He kept things sparse. He knew that was important. And he had the best players, the funkiest of all bands.... And the music always came from the groove, whereas for so many R&B and Motown artists at the time it was more about conventional songs. James Brown's songs are not conventional. 'I Got You,' 'Out of Sight'— they are ultimately vehicles for unique, even bizarre grooves….
I remember going to Minneapolis to visit Prince years ago, sitting in an office waiting for him — and there was an endless loop of James Brown's performance in the 1964 concert film The T.A.M.I. Show running. That may be the single greatest rock & roll performance ever captured on film. You have the Rolling Stones on the same stage, all of the important rock acts of the day — and James Brown comes out and destroys them. It's unbelievable how much he outclasses everyone else in the film."
—Rick Rubin
I could watch that clip forever! Brown does three or four more numbers too. Read more about the Godfather of Soul in The Hardest Working Man: How James Brown Saved the Soul of America. Above: Brown shows Carson how to bust some moves.
6. Jimi Hendrix
"He is the common denominator of every style of popular music. Was he a bluesman? Listen to 'Voodoo Chile' and you'll hear some of the eeriest blues you can find. Was he a rock musician? He used volume as a device. That's rock. Was he a sensitive singer-songwriter? In 'Bold As Love,' he sings, 'My yellow in this case is not so mellow/In fact I'm trying to say it's frightened like me'" — that is a man who knows the shape of his heart. So often, he's portrayed as a loud, psychedelic rock star lighting his guitar on fire. But when I think of Hendrix, I think of some of the most placid, lovely guitar sounds on songs like 'One Rainy Wish,' 'Little Wing' and 'Drifting.' 'Little Wing'" is painfully short and painfully beautiful. It's like your grandfather coming back from the dead and hanging out with you for a couple of minutes and then going away. It's perfect, then it's gone. I think the reason musicians love Hendrix's playing so much is that the language of it was so native to his head and heart. He had a secret relationship with playing the guitar, and though it was incredibly technical and based in theory, it was his theory. All you heard was the color. The math is what's been applied ever since."—John Mayer
Hendrix was also named the greatest guitar player in history by Rolling Stone, in a list compiled by a panel of music experts and top guitar players. The two-CD set Jimi Hendrix: People, Hell & Angels collects the eclectic material he was working on when he died, while his iconic performance at Woodstock is preserved in the DVD set Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music—Ultimate Collector's Edition.

TOMORROW: The Top 5.

In defense of English as a major

All hail English lit, an antidote to "big mouths spewing fantastic catchphrase fountains of impenetrable self-justification"! In his essay "The Ideal English Major," Mark Edmundson goes to bat for downtrodden humanities students yearning to breathe free amidst the masses of business, economics, and science majors thronging modern college campuses.
An English major is much more than 32 or 36 credits including a course in Shakespeare, a course on writing before 1800, and a three-part survey of English and American lit. That's the outer form of the endeavor. It's what's inside that matters. It's the character-forming—or (dare I say?) soul-making—dimension of the pursuit that counts. And what is that precisely? Who is the English major in his ideal form? What does the English major have, what does he want, and what does he in the long run hope to become?
The English major is, first of all, a reader. She's got a book pup-tented in front of her nose many hours a day; her Kindle glows softly late into the night. But there are readers and there are readers. There are people who read to anesthetize themselves—they read to induce a vivid, continuous, and risk-free daydream. They read for the same reason that people grab a glass of chardonnay—to put a light buzz on. The English major reads because, as rich as the one life he has may be, one life is not enough. He reads not to see the world through the eyes of other people but effectively to become other people. What is it like to be John Milton, Jane Austen, Chinua Achebe? What is it like to be them at their best, at the top of their games?
English majors want the joy of seeing the world through the eyes of people who—let us admit it—are more sensitive, more articulate, shrewder, sharper, more alive than they themselves are. The experience of merging minds and hearts with Proust or James or Austen makes you see that there is more to the world than you had ever imagined. You see that life is bigger, sweeter, more tragic and intense—more alive with meaning than you had thought.
Real reading is reincarnation. There is no other way to put it. It is being born again into a higher form of consciousness than we ourselves possess. When we walk the streets of Manhattan with Walt Whitman or contemplate our hopes for eternity with Emily Dickinson, we are reborn into more ample and generous minds. "Life piled on life / Were all too little," says Tennyson's "Ulysses," and he is right. Given the ragged magnificence of the world, who would wish to live only once? The English major lives many times through the astounding transportive magic of words and the welcoming power of his receptive imagination. The economics major? In all probability he lives but once. If the English major has enough energy and openness of heart, he lives not once but hundreds of times. Not all books are worth being reincarnated into, to be sure—but those that are win Keats's sweet phrase: "a joy forever."
Edmundson is a professor of English at the University of Virginia. The full essay, which appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, is adapted from his latest book, Why Teach? In Defense of a Real Education, to be published this month by Bloomsbury USA.
Now ponder this bit of scientific data as reported in The Daily Mail.
Researchers at the University of Liverpool found the prose of Shakespeare and Wordsworth and the like had a beneficial effect on the mind, providing a 'rocket-boost' to morale by catching the reader's attention and triggering moments of self-reflection.
Using scanners, they monitored the brain activity of volunteers as they read pieces of classical English literature both in their original form and in a more dumbed-down, modern translation.
And, according to the Sunday Telegraph, the experiment showed the more 'challenging' prose and poetry set off far more electrical activity in the brain than the pedestrian versions.
The academics were able to study the brain activity as readers responded to each word, and noticed how it 'lit up' as they encountered unusual words, surprising phrases or difficult sentence structure.
I know my brain just lights up when I put aside the tasks of the day and finally get to put my nose in a work of literature! Books by and about Shakespeare; an Oxford edition of Wordsworth's poems; and masses of Jane Austen titles are just some of our current literature offerings.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Strike a pose: Yoga in America

Yoga today is many things to many people. Variously or together it can be a path to spiritual liberation, a defense against illness, or a super-cool workout. Types of yoga taught include the classic Iyengar yoga, yoga for pain, yoga for women, and the ultra-sweaty Bikram yoga, which heats the room to 105 degrees in order to warm, stretch and strengthen muscles, ligaments, and tendons. But let's backtrack a bit with the following:

 10 facts about yoga

  1. The Sanskrit word means “union,” of the individual self with the cosmic Self.
  2. The physical aspect of yoga is really, really old. Stone carvings showing figures in various poses (asanas) go back to about 3000 BCE.
  3. Asanas comprise only one of the eight "limbs" of classical yoga, but they and meditation/breathing are the components most practiced in America.
  4. Physical benefits of yoga include strengthening and stretching as well as softening tense, stiff muscles. They also make the spine more flexible, which the Chinese believe to be a key to longevity.
  5. Yoga poses improve blood circulation and increase the body's ability to take in oxygen.
  6. A 2008 study inYoga Journal showed that at that time 16 million people practiced in the U.S.
  7. Emerson and Thoreau were some of the earliest Americans to embrace yoga. The latter would often meditate from sunrise to noon, and once wrote in a letter from Walden, “To some extent, and at rare intervals, I even am a Yogin.”
  8. In the early 1900s, the ritzy Braeburn Country Club in Nyack, NY, offered activities ranging from practicing yoga to joining a cross-dressed baseball team to watching circus trapeze acts.
  9. In 1940s Hollywood, Russian-Swedish immigrant Indra Devi taught yoga as physical culture to the likes of  Greta Garbo, Gloria Swanson, Jennifer Jones and Robert Ryan.
  10. When the '60s rolled around, alternative was the operative word, as yoga was seized upon for psychological, spiritual, and political healing. Allen Ginsberg sat in the lotus position and chantied in Lincoln Park in Chicago as the police clubbed protesters during the Democratic National Convention of 1968; swami Satchidananda gave an invocation at Woodstock, guiding the crowd in channeling its energies.
"Just as the computer scientists who built ARPANET created the conditions for Google without ever having anticipated it, Emerson created the conditions for an American yoga" writes Stefanie Syman in The Subtle Body, her history of the philosophy and practice of yoga in the United States. "What Ms. Syman does do deftly" wrote the New York Times' Michiko Kakutani in her review of the book, "is trace how the likes of Emerson (with his interest in Indian thought) and Thoreau (with his practice of meditation) helped create a context in which an American yoga could take root. And she provides a lively gallery of larger-than-life characters who would contribute to (or undermine, or co-opt) the progress of yoga in the United States — beginning with Swami Vivekananda, who came to America in 1893 to raise money for the poor in India, and who drew large audiences at the World Parliament of Religions, convened as part of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago."
You can get up to speed with the fascinating early history of yoga in America by sampling the complete first chapter of Syman's book, after the jump.
"In hatha yoga, the subtle body describes a network of channels (nadis) and wheel-like vortices (chakras).  These are invisible to the naked eye and even the microscope; the subtle body is distinct from the gross or physical body, though manipulating one necessarily affects the other." —The Subtle Body, p. 5

Friday, July 26, 2013

Another caption contest!

Have your witty way with any or all of these images. Place your entr(ies) in the comments section, s'il vous plait. Of course, no Anonymouses. The winner for each image will be awarded a copy of The New Yorker Rejection Collection I or II (your choice). In the event some wag has the winning caption for all three, we'll come up with another humor book. The august judges will be a jury of my peers from Daedalus Books & Music. Winner to be announced next Thursday.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Literary conversion experience: rejecter of Lessing novel becomes big fan

The person who famously turned down Doris Lessing's The Diary of a Good Neighbour (albeit written under a pseudonym) when he was a reader at Johnathan Cape has now decided she may be a bit of all right. James Lasdun tells the full story of his about face on a New Yorker blog. (Jeez, has it really been 30 years since that titillating incident?)
I won’t try to describe the experience of reading it [The Golden Notebook] except to  say that it is unlike any other book I’ve ever read. And that it contrives to make the most ordinary situations—a couple arguing, a woman cooking a meal—into epicenters of weather systems stretching from McCarthyite America to apartheid South Africa to Stalinist Russia. And that there is a vein of brilliant acid comedy flowing through it that nobody had warned me about. And that it is as great for its plainness of address—all the stylistic and vocal jigs it doesn’t dance—as it is for its structural originality and staggering psychological insight.
I massively regret that I didn’t read it when I was in my twenties. Even if it hadn’t helped solve the problems of my intractable novel, it would have shown me things—about life as well as writing—that I could have made much more use of at that formative age (to be crudely utilitarian about it) than I can now. On the other hand, it’s a thrill to be reminded that there are still books this grand and powerful waiting to be read.
I’ve ordered the Jane Somers novels (there was a sequel), and I await them with only slightly queazy eagerness. There’s a line in Lessing’s introduction to “The Golden Notebook” that seems to have been written expressly for me: “Remember that the book which bores you when you are twenty or thirty will open doors for you when you are forty or fifty.”
I’ll be bearing that in mind.
Makes me want to get out my vintage, unread paperback of The Golden Notebook off the shelf and dive in. Have you ever spurned a writer and then changed your mind and found you loved his or her work? Or came to appreciate a novel you disliked in your youth?

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Avian splendors ... human ignominy

1860 natural history print
Did you see the article in last week's New Yorker about the people caught stealing eggs from the nests of endangered birds in Britain? These remorseless felons are maniacs! Some of them were found to have thousands of eggs secured away in hidey holes. Sometimes humanity can be so depressing.
To calm myself down I'm going to share some vintage artwork of assorted lovely birds. And highlight books by people who know how to treat them properly. Respect the avian splendor!

Yikes ... we have three pages of books on birds. I'll let you browse to see what appeals!

Monday, July 22, 2013

"Food, glorious food": culinary ephemera to feast your eyes on from 19th- & 20th-century America

One of the key motives for this column is to share Daedalus items I'm taken with and to amplify on  our website's (necessarily) teensy cover shots and descriptions. My choice today is Culinary Ephemera: An Illustrated History, and it's a doozy.
A mere eight bucks will take you on an picturesque odyssey of rarities, led by an expert with an accessible prose style who has amassed and annotated some of the most variegated food-related imagery you'll ever lay eyes on. It's history, it's art, it's sociology, it's American advertising pizzazz. What's not to like?
As author William Woys Weaver wrote about his project in Fine Books Magazine:
The word ephemera is not new to collectors of printed materials, but its association with the term culinary is definitely a new twist. Perhaps it was inevitable that culinaria would gradually evolve into a distinct category, not only because it holds so much appeal for collectors, but because the study of food and the history of eating habits are quickly coming together as a specialized science in academe. Just as archeology needs artifacts for its interpretations of culture, so do food studies require more than cookbooks to understand the ever-changing role of food in human society…. Some people collect menus. Others collect trade cards, pamphlet cookbooks, match covers, post cards, railroad ephemera, valentines, labels and stickers, wrappers and packaging, and even sheet music with food themes.
1939 pig menu. "This popular eatery in Austin, Texas, helped introduce the idea of drive-in dining and take-out curb service—another cultural revolution, nice menu graphics aside."
“Trade cards were collected in the Victorian period, especially by children who assembled them into scrap books, so the market today is flooded with items removed from these books. Subject matter ranges from the promotion of products like iron cook stoves, baking powder, health panaceas, and dried fish, to fresh fruits, confectionery, ice cream, and oysters. Oddly, old time ice-cream parlors also sold oysters in season, and the Baltimore trade card featuring Jumbo the Elephant dining on oysters with his elephantine buddies is much sought after for its wonderful graphics. In fact, anything connected with the 'Jumbo Craze' in the early 1880s is fair game for collectors.”
"William Woys Weaver's personal collection of food-and-drink ephemera is a marvel of culinary Americana, and we have the chance here to visit it with Weaver himself as our guide. It's impossible to stop turning the pages of this dazzling book. Few works in any genre have captured so precisely and memorably the interplay of food, design, technology, business and popular culture. Food-lovers, professional and otherwise, will find that every one of these provocative images inspires new questions, fresh ideas and enormous delight."—Laura Shapiro, author of Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century
Feminine pulchritude was a sure-fire advertising ploy for bar and restaurant matches. As the Cole Porter song goes, "Give Him the Ooh La La"!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Usin' the Ol' Noggin: Memmmm'ries...Light the Corners of My Braaaaainnnnnnn....

by Karen Mulder
Diane Keaton's freaky 1987 movie Heaven includes an argument between an on-fire conservative preacher and an atheistic Hollywood scriptwriter. The preacher gets so fed up with the writer’s insistence about the lack of physical proof for God’s existence that he finally yells, “Tell me this: have y'ever seen yer own BRAIN?” A little flustered, the writer snaps back, “No, of course not! If I had I’d be dead!” To which the preacher responds, smugly: “Well then...how d’ya know yew GOT one????!!!”
How do we know, indeed? We now have CAT scans and MRIs and so on; we know it’s there physically, even though seeing our own personal noodle in the flesh is an impossibility. Mostly, we know it’s there by its voices, its suggestions and hints and asides. (Or, um, is this just me?!  Spooooky!) Without it, of course, we couldn’t know anything.
Which is why the brain book industry is especially precious to those of us in a certain age group who are more and more concerned about keeping our brainwaves lively. So far, the best cure seems to be prevention, for which no magic pill exists. Reforming habits is the only tonic.

This generational angst about "losing our minds" is constantly seeking the latest research, some of which plumps the pages of Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan’s The Alzheimer’s Prevention Program (2012). Dr. Small, who directs UCLA’s Longevity Center and co-wrote this with his wife, supplies the reader with tons of reassuring facts, brain challenges, and resources. It's clearly tightened up from their 2002 collaboration, The Memory Bible.  
Journalist Jean Carper’s repeat appearances on the New York Times bestseller roster are sure to be supplemented by 100 Simple Things You Can Do to Prevent Alzheimer’s and Age-Related Memory Loss (2010). Carper, formerly a medical correspondent for CNN, has a personal drive to remain on top of the confusing tangle of new ideas regarding cognitive erosion, especially since a routine blood test indicated that she carries the ApoE4 susceptibility gene for Alzheimer's. Her short, punchy little chapters reinforce some of the predictable prevention routines, like eating the right stuff, moving around, and keeping your brain active, but she also rolls out a few new twists.
Did you know, for example, that maintaining your eyes' health and optimal vision may reduce the chances of developing dementia or losing cognitive function by as much as 63%, according to University of Michigan Health System researchers? Or that ingesting the antioxidant alpha lipoic acid with ALCAR (acetyl-i-carnitine) has impressed biochemists with its ability to fire up the brains of aging mice, at the Linus Pauling Institute and Berkeley? Or that detecting a low blood pressure rate in the ankle (rather than the arm) might warn us about the possibility of future cognitive impairment, according to surveys at the University of Edinburgh and the National Institute on Aging?   
There are more subtle treatises that  cover some of the same ground for those of us who still don’t want to mention the “A” word. Consider You Can Have an Amazing Memory: Learn Life-Changing Techniques and Tips from the Memory Maestro (2011). Ageless Memory (2007) shoehorns 40 years of Harry Lorayne’s practical experience as a leading memory specialist into its promises of grooming razor-sharp minds.
Unlike the world’s fastest typists, who will eventually become obsolete when technology handles voice commands better (so long, Barbara Blackburn, 212 wpm, or Grace Pak for the Smartphone record), Memory Champions like O’Brien (8 times! or…was it 9???) will always remain heroes in their field.
Of course, while these books are loaded with viable tips, they can’t guarantee our delivery from memory loss; both merely offer foolproof methods to help us allay those “senior moments” everyone talks about so glibly. They encourage, commiserate, and soothe us with statements, like 56-year-old O’Brien's insistence that “Age equals experience, not forgetfulness!”
And there are, of course, practical benefits to a stronger memory. Think of the things you could do with all the spare time if you were not always involved in the search for a). car keys b.) reading glasses c.) cell phone d.) Um…I forget.

Friday, July 19, 2013

More literary raspberries

Artists of all stripes will agree that it's hard to put yourself out there and face the music. As the minimally talented wife who is strong-armed into singing opera cries out to Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane, "you're not the one who gets the raspberries!!" 
Larry Ceplair wrote in the LA Times when Rotten Reviews first came out that “these books, collections of snippets of nasty comments on well-known books or well-known authors … force one to confront a hideous, hidden truth about high culture: Critics hate authors even more than authors hate critics.” And as the LA Review of Books's William Giraldi wrote when Rotten Reviews Redux appeared:
Bloggers and other online epigones are the impetus behind editor Bill Henderson’s reprisal of his 1987 bestseller....  (Henderson is the publisher of the long-standing Pushcart Prize series, a labor of love and annual celebration of literary journals for which he deserves to be sainted.) Now called Rotten Reviews Redux, this priceless little compendium boasts a new preface by Henderson in which he castigates the “unfettered, unedited, unfiltered, and ridiculous rage” rampant on the Net. But it’s not necessarily the foppish rage that so incenses Henderson — it’s the anonymity: “Anonymous online critics ambush unprotected writers in bursts of verbal automatic rifle fire.” We now live, according to Henderson, “in an online Wild West.” The image is apt, whether or not your business is literature. “All civility gone. Empathy, balance, decency, knowledge, out the window. Everybody a blogger. Everybody an instant critic.”
Here, for your delectation, are some more choice bits of literary snarkery taken from the Rotten Reviews omnibus linked to above.
On Edgar Allen Poe
After reading some of Poe's stories one feels a kind of shock to one's modesty. We require some kind of spiritual ablution to cleanse our minds of his disgusting images. (Leslie Stephen [Virginia Woolf's father], 1874)
[Poor Poe. Not only did he have to fight for survival in this world, but they ganged up on him in the afterlife!]
On Henry James [left]
An idiot, and a Boston idiot to boot, than which there is nothing lower in the world. (H.L. Mencken, The American Scene, 1915)

On Ulysses, James Joyce [right]
...a misfire... the book is diffuse. It is brackish, It is pretentious. It is underbred, not only in the obvious but in the literary sense. A first rate writer, I mean, respects writing too much to be tricky. (Virginia Woolf, in her diary)

On Moby Dick, Herman Melville
This sea novel is a singular medley of naval observation, magazine article writing, satiric reflection upon the conventionalisms of civilised life, and rhapsody run mad...  (The Spectator)
On The Waste Land, by T.S. Eliot [above left]
Mr Eliot has shown that he can at moments write real blank verse; but that is all. For the rest he has quoted a great deal, he has parodied and imitated. But the parodies are cheap and the imitations inferior.  (New Statesman, 1922)

On Ezra Pound
A village explainer, excellent if you were in a village, but if you were not, not. (Gertrude Stein; above right) [surely the readers/critics who loathe Stein herself are legion??]

On Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust
My dear fellow, I may perhaps be dead from the neck up, but rack my brains as I may I can't see why a chap should need thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep. (Marc Humblot, French editor, rejection letter to Proust, 1912)

Balderdash!
On Moses and Monotheism, Sigmund Freud
...poorly written, full of repetitions, replete with borrowings from unbelievers, and spoiled by the author's atheistic bias and his flimsy psycho-analytic fancies. (Catholic World)

On Hamlet, William Shakespeare
It is a vulgar and barbarous drama, which would not be tolerated by the vilest populace of France, or Italy... one would imagine this piece to be the work of a drunken savage. (Voltaire, 1768)

On A Midsummer Night's Dream
The most insipid, ridiculous play I ever saw in my life. (Samuel Pepys, Diary) [fairies courtesy of Edmund Dulac]

As Anthony Brandt remarks in his introduction to Rotten Reviews Redux, “One of the pleasures of this wicked collection is watching the great being terribly wrong about the great.” Although surely one must acknowledge the often vast differences between cultures, periods, tastes, and styles of writing when evaluating the evaluators!

Coda: Yesterday a reader observed that Virginia Woolf dwelt often on class issues. Read this diary entry and wait for the kicker:
I have finished the Wings of the Dove, & make this comment. His [Henry James's] manipulations become so elaborate towards the end that instead of feeling the artist you merely feel the man who is posing the subject. And then I think he loses the power to feel the crisis. And then I think he loses the power to feel the crisis. He becomes merely excessively ingenious. This, you seem to hear him saying, is the way to do it. Now just when you expect a crisis, the true artist evades it. Never do the thing, and it will be all the more impressive. Finally, after all this juggling and arranging of silk pocket handkerchiefs, one ceases to have any feeling for the figure behind. Milly thus manipulated disappears. He overreaches himself. And then one can never read it again. The mental grasp & stret[c]h are magnificent. Not a flabby or slack sentence, but much emasculated by this timidity or consciousness or whatever it is. Very highly American, I conjecture, in the determination to be highly bred, and the slight obtuseness as to what high breeding is.
Oy! It's quoted in Poisoned Pens, as are several long passages on D. H. Lawrence by both Woolf and Dame Edith Sitwell. Both are engrossing, but it is the Mandarin Sitwell who takes Lawrence out for his faux working-class lingo. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

"Poisoned Pens" quiz: now that's a classic one needn't bother with


Literary putdowns abound because writers are often jealous and snooty about other writers—and have the wherewithal to express said emotions vividly. See if you can match the put down with the perpetrator from the list provided below. Bonus points if you can supply the name of the author/work if not given. All quotes are from Gary Dexter's Poisoned Pens: Literary Invective from Amis to Zola, which we have in both paperback and hardback editions (above, Goethe and Poe).

Martin Amis, Arnold Bennett, Samuel Butler, T. S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Henry James, Samuel Johnson, D. H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, Vladimir Nabokov, Lytton Strachey, Mark Twain, Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf 
  1. The want of human interest is always felt. Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is. Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure. We read Milton for instruction, retire harassed and overburdened, and look elsewhere for recreation; we desert our master, and seek for companions. [Milton, right, doesn't look bovvered.]
  2. The verses, when they were written, resemble nothing so much as spoonfuls of boiling oil, ladled out by a fiendish monkey at an upstairs window upon such passers-by whom the wretch has a grudge against."
  3. Also, to be fair, there is another word of praise due to this ship's library: it contains no copy of 'The Vicar of Wakefield', that strange menagerie of complacent hypocrites and idiots, of theatrical cheap-john heroes and heroines, who are always showing off, of bad people who are not interesting, and good people who are fatiguing. A singular book. Not a sincere line in it, and not a character that invites respect; a book which is one long waste-pipe discharge of goody-goody puerilities and dreary moralities; a book which is full of pathos which revolts and humor which grieves the heart.
  4. A hack writer who would not have been considered fourth rate in Europe, who tricked out a few of the old proven sure fire literary skeletons with sufficient local color to intrigue the superficial and the lazy.
  5. I have been reading a translation of Goethe's 'Wilhelm Meister.' Is it good? To me it seems perhaps the very worst book I ever read. No Englishman could have written such a book. I cannot remember a single good page or idea....Is it all a practical joke? If it really is Goethe's 'Wilhelm Meister' that I have been reading, I am glad I have never taken the trouble to learn German.
  6. Reading Don Quixote can be compared to an indefinite visit from your most impossible senior relative, with all his pranks, dirty habits, unstoppable reminiscences, and terrible cronies.
  7. Nobody can be more clownish, more clumsy and sententiously in bad taste, than Herman Melville, even in a great book like 'Moby Dick'....One wearies of the grand serieux. There's something false about it. And that's Melville. Oh dear, when the solemn ass brays! brays! brays!
  8. That Poe had a powerful intellect is undeniable: but it seems to me the intellect of a highly gifted person before puberty. The forms which his lively curiosity takes are those in which a pre-adolescent mentality delights: wonders of nature and of mechanics and of the supernatural, cryptograms and ciphers, puzzles and mazes, mechanical chess-players and wild flights of speculation. The variety and ardour of his curiosity delight and dazzle: yet in the end the eccentricity and lack of coherence of his interests tire.
  9. Dostoevky's lack of taste, his monotonous dealings with persons suffering with pre-Freudian complexes, the way he has of wallowing in the tragic misadventures of human dignity — all this is difficult to admire.
  10. With all due respect to the very original genius of the author of the Tales of Mystery, it seems to us that to take him with more than a certain degree of seriousness is to lack seriousness one’s self. An enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection.
  11. It took me years to ascertain that Henry James's work was giving me little pleasure.... In each case I asked myself: 'What the dickens is this novel about, and where does it think it's going to?' Question unanswerable! I gave up.
  12. I am reading Proust for the first time. Very poor stuff. I think he was mentally defective.
  13. E.M. Forster never gets any further than warming the teapot. He's a rare fine hand at that. Feel this teapot. Is it not beautifully warm? Yes, but there ain't going to be no tea. And I can never be perfectly certain whether Helen was got with child by Leonard Bast or by his fatal forgotten umbrella. All things considered, I think it must have been the umbrella.
  14. I dislike 'Ulysses' more and more — that is I think it more and more unimportant; and don't even trouble conscientiously to make out its meanings. Thank God, I need not write about it.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Freebie lollapalooza for music, book & comedy lovers

It's culture, both high and low. And it's free! So scroll down, see what appeals to you, and enjoy.
First up is a free download of a complete recording of Vivaldi's Gloria and Bach's Magnificat by the esteemed British group The Sixteen. How great is that? You can listen to the beginning of the Vivaldi above. For more awesome sacred music, try Hildegard von Bingen's Celestial Hierarchy or William Byrd's Music for a Hidden Chapel featuring the blissful singing of Chanticleer.
And now for something completely different. A curator at the tv/video site Network Awesome has put together this montage of cuckoo Terry Gilliam animations from the Monty Python show, all done by hand. Beware the dread perambulator of death! (We have several items of Pythonania at present, as well as DVDs of the quite risible series Little Britain.)
We love books, you love books, yeah? Focusing on the paperback revolution, here's an installment from the BBC's four-part series The Beauty of Books. And here's a sampling of our current selection of books for bibliophiles.




Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Hollywood from the inside

Did you know that Bette Davis and David Niven were originally slated to star in The African Queen? Warner Brothers was all set to go in 1938 when Davis has second thoughts about working outdoors. Thankfully, director John Huston picked up the ball for 20th Century Fox 12 years later, and a film classic was born.
I have been enjoying the many inside scoops on Hollywood royalty served up in David Niven's Bring On the Empty Horses: True Tales from the Golden Age of the Silver Screen, so I thought I would bring you some show-and-tell highlights. 
Bogey and Bacall were close friends with Niven, and he shares a great deal about their marriage ... one of the most successful in Hollywood. I cracked up at this little vignette: "Charlie and Anne Lederer gave a party for the Shah of Iran. When the incumbent of the Peacock Throne complimented Lauren Bacall by saying 'You were born to dance, Miss Bacall,' she replied with gusto, 'You bet your ass, Shah.'"
To Have and to Have Not is where the Betty/Bogey chemistry ignited.
Here's how power-mad gossip columnist Hedda Hopper got her comeuppance from Joseph Cotten for slandering him:
"Probably because of her Puritan outlook, she attacked ferociously those she suspected of any extra-curricular activities. She infuriated Joseph Cotten, and greatly disturbed his wife Lenore, when she printed heavy hints that Joe had been caught by the Malibu Beach Patrol in the back seat of his car astride the teenage Deanna Durbin. Joe Cotten, the epitome of the Southern Gentleman from Virginia, warned Hedda that if she added one more line on the subject he would 'Kick her up the ass.' Sure enough, Hedda went into action again a few days later and the next time Cotten saw Hedda's behind entering a party, he lined up on the target and let her have it."
Another couple manifestly made for each other were Clark Gable and sublime comedienne Carole Lombard. Both hated phoniness and lived life to the hilt. Like Bacall, Gable lost his soul mate heartbreakingly soon. Niven describes the aftermath of the small plane crash that killed Carole:
Ice-cold and monosyllabic, Clark supervised everything himself, from ordering a hot meal for the exhausted search party on that dreadful night to choosing hymns for the funeral three days later. Then he went to the Rogue River, holed up at his favorite fishing camp, and for three weeks drank himself into a stupor.
M-G-M, with the soaring costs of an unfinished picture very much on their minds, dispatched mealy-mouthed emissaries to enquire as tactfully as possible when their star might be expected to return to work. Clark never saw them, he just roared through the locked door of his cabin, "I'll be back when I'm good and ready—now beat it!"
I was astonished to find that while they were making their smashes for RKO together, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were the top box office attraction in the world! Niven says that Astaire dreaded "social" dancing: "An inhibited and self-conscious dancer in public, he would occasionally 'take off' in private. Coming home one night in 1950 and hearing loud canned music booming out of my house, I found Fred leaping from staircase to bookcase, to sofa, to floor, using my golf clubs as swords for a sword dance and Hjordis for a partner, and all the time, beating and incredible tattoo with his winged feet. If his timing was 'off' playing golf, he would rectify it by doing a few steps on the tee and hitting the ball as part of the rhythm."
"One was always getting caught short" muses Niven of the extravagance that Christmastime wrought in Tinseltown, "I once gave Miriam Hopkins half a dozen handkerchiefs and she gave me a Studebaker." He's pictured at right with his wife, Hjordis, and the family dog.
If you're interested in what life was really like at Hearst's castle San Simeon, why Bogie named his second child after Leslie Howard, and at at whose wedding reception tall, gaunt character actor Mischa Auer appeared from behind the giant cake and danced stark naked, then Niven's the man for you.