Books postsSaturday March 09, 2013
“Anyway, I decided, if there was anything the human race had a sufficiency of, a sufficiency and a surfeit, it was books. When I thought of the cataracts of books, the Niagras of books, the rushing rivers of books, the oceans of books, the tons and truckloads and trainloads of books that were pouring off the presses of the world at the moment, only a very few of which would be worth picking up and looking at, let alone reading, I began to feel that it was admirable that he hadn't written it. One less book to clutter up the world, one less book to take up space and catch dust and go unread from bookstore to homes to second-hand bookstores and junk stores and thrift shops to still other homes to still other second-hand bookstores and junk stores and thrift shops to still other homes ad infinitum.”
-- Joseph Mitchell, “Joe Gould's Secret.”
Joseph Mitchell, author of “Joe Gould's Secret”
The New Hollywood 10: How Stars on the Left are Punished; How Stars on the Right Punish Us
It's logical to assume there are more liberals than conservatives in Hollywood. Artists tend to be progressive, cities tend to be progressive, Hollywood is a city full of artists and artisans. And businessmen. The rub. But not enough of one.
But I've long argued that it doesn't follow that the product of Hollywood, particularly the movies, is progressive. Movies have almost always been conservative. You can sum up most action movies this way: a lone man using violence to achieve justice. You can sum up most romances this way: ...and then they got married. The movies are wish-fulfillment fantasy. That's why we go. And wish fulfillment isn't progressive; it's stagnant. It moves us but it doesn't move us.
Consider this a clumsy lead-in to a quick discussion of Steven J. Ross's book “Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics.” Ross gives us nine chapters on 10 different stars and their involvement in the political scene, generally intercutting between stars on the left and stars and moguls on the right:
- Charlie Chaplin
- Louis B. Mayer
- Edward G. Robinson
- George Murphy and Ronald Reagan
- Harry Belafonte
- Jane Fonda
- Charlton Heston
- Warren Beatty
- Arnold Schwarzenegger
Hollywood may have more liberals than conservatives, but, certainly in the above scheme, it's better to be conservative than liberal.
Look what happens to those on the left: Chaplin is kicked out of the country, Robinson is blacklisted; Belafonte gives up his career for the civil rights movement and never gets it back; Fonda is pilloried for the rest of her life for a bad, 10-second photo op not of her own making; and Beatty, well, Beatty is the Hamlet of the group. He's the good actor who has trouble acting. He can't make a decision.
(All of these stars on the left, by the way, tend to be incredibly talented, and their legacy in the arts is long.)
On the right? Mayer ran the biggest studio in Hollywood's Golden Age and indoctrinated a few choice stars to the conservative cause. Heston became president of the NRA, Schwarzenegger governor of California, George Murphy U.S. Senator, and Ronald Reagan, of course, became the 40th President of the United States.
(All of these stars on the right, by the way, aren't very talented, and their legacy in the arts, Mayer notwithstanding, is puny.)
You could say the stars on the left were punished while the stars on the right punished us. Murphy, Reagan, et al., transferred the absolutist, wish-fulfillment fantasies of Hollywood to the political realm (“Morning in America”; tax cuts + increased defense spending = balanced budget; “my cold, dead hands”) and remade our society. But there's no Hollywood ending for us. At least not for the middle class. The bad guys win. We just don't see it.
Ross doesn't draw so stark a conclusion but it's there.
The saddest chapter may belong to Edward G. Robinson, who was a good guy, a solid liberal, an anti-Nazi, who was made to pay during the McCarthy era for being liberal and anti-Nazi. He was set up to serve as a warning to everyone in the community to shut the fuck up. I.e., If they could do what they did to Edward G. Robinson, what can't they do to you?
I could see a movie being made out of Robinson's chapter. Not wish fulfillment.
The dirty rats were in HUAC and Red Channels.
Freedom vs. Security: Entering Salman Rushdie's World
In the latest New Yorker, Salman Rushdie has an essay, third person, on his life after the fatwa. The following is my Sept. 2002 review of his book, “Step Across Ths Line: Collected Nonfiction: 1992-2002.” In it, Rushdie raises questions not just for himself but for all of us in the 21st century.
On Feb. 14, 1989, Indian novelist Salman Rushdie was sentenced to death by Islamic fundamentalists for the way he wrote about Islam in the novel “The Satanic Verses.”
On Sept. 11, 2001, all of us, in a sense, entered Salman Rushdie's world.
The issues that Salman Rushdie has been dealing with for the past 13 years are now our issues: terrorism versus security, security versus liberty. “How many more murders and assaults on innocent men and women will the Free World tolerate?” he wrote in October 1993. The answer was: thousands.
And in a sentence that might one day rank with W.E.B. Dubois' 1903 contention that “the issue of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line,” Rushdie wrote, in January 2000, “The defining struggle of the new age would be terrorism and security.”
During the early, dark years of the fatwa, Rushdie was encouraged to keep quiet about the fact that an entire nation (Iran) and an extreme faction of a religion (Islamic fundamentalists) had ordered his death. His adopted homeland, Britain, was still negotiating with Islamic fundamentalists for the release of British hostages (Terry Waite, et al.), and it was felt that Rushdie shouldn't stir the waters. When the hostages were finally released, Rushdie's voice was finally released, and many of the pieces in his new book, “Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002,” were the result.
In articles and letters, and in speeches given around the world, Rushdie kept reminding us that he was not the issue, that what he had written was not to blame. “Many people say that the Rushdie case is a one-off,” he told the International Conference on Freedom of Expression in April 1992, “that it will never be repeated. This complacency, too, is an enemy to be defeated.”
He spoke out not only against atrocities that related to the fatwa (the shooting of his Norwegian publisher; the murder of his Japanese translator) but against religious extremism everywhere: from the persecution of Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin to the Kansas Board of Education's decision, in 1999, to remove evolution from the state's recommended curriculum — an action which, Rushdie writes, actually disproves Darwin's greatest theory: “the dumbest and unfittest sometimes survive.”
Throughout, one feels Rushdie's prose sharpening, his anger growing. In the early years, he writes about freedom of expression and national sovereignty. But after Hindu and Muslim violence killed hundreds of innocents in Ahmadabad, Gujarat, in March 2002, he becomes more blunt. “What happened in India happened in God's name. The problem's name is God.”
Not all of the pieces in this collection are fatwa-related. If most writers struggle for the world to take them seriously, Rushdie struggles with the opposite, and in one section of the book Rushdie indulges his pop-cultural sweet tooth with quick articles on U2, the Rolling Stones and soccer. He is most impressive in a long essay about, of all things, “The Wizard of Oz,” focusing on the film's internal contradiction: the need to leave (“Over the Rainbow”) versus the need to return (“There's no place like home.”). He defends the state of the novel (yet again) from those who would declare it dead — making the fine, contrarian argument that the novel's problem is actually its abundance. “Readers ... give up. They buy a couple of prizewinners a year, perhaps one or two books by writers whose names they recognize, and flee.”
Most of the articles, unfortunately, were written for newspapers, and are thus only two or three pages long. Reading straight through can sometimes seem like riding in a car with a stick-shift novice: as momentum builds, you jerk to a stop, only to start up again. Also, many of the pieces are literally yesterday's news. Who wants to read once more about Elian Gonzalez or hanging chads?
Yet there are excellent longer pieces, particularly a 30-page essay on returning to India (the first country to ban “The Satanic Verses”) after 11 years of exile, in April 2000.
Most important, Salman Rushdie has been living in a post-Sept. 11 world now for 13 years, and his wisdom is earned. His January 2000 column alone should be required reading for everyone in America. “We need to understand that even maximum security guarantees nobody's safety ... ” he writes. “And to thank our secret protectors, but to remind them, too, that in a choice between security and liberty, it is liberty that must always come out on top.”
Gore Vidal (1925-2012)
My friend Mark F. used to tell the following story during our days working in the University Book Store warehouse in the 1990s.
Apparently Gore Vidal was on the Phil Donahue Show one time (according to IMDb.com, it would have to be this episode from 1974), and the discussion got around to God and Jesus and yadda yadda, and someone from the audience, a kindly woman, stood up and asked Mr. Vidal, author of “Myra Breckenridge” and eventually “Live from Golgotha,” whether he had ever read the Bible. He responded that, yes, he had read it many times. An even more sincere look crossed her face and she asked, “Yes, but have you ever read it with your heart?” Mark, who bears a slight resemblance in appearance and manner to Dr. Niles Crane, Frasier's brother on “Frasier,” would then do his masterful Gore Vidal response. “My dear,” Mark would say, “I'm afraid that that is hardly the proper organ with which to read.”
As Gore Vidal did with the Bible, so I've done with Gore Vidal. Over the years, reading his books, I've found myself highlighting this or that sentence, or paragraph, or page, which I felt was funny, or sharp, or helped explain some part of the world. That's what I've peppered the blog with today: the stuff I've highlighted over the years. These aren't his most famous quotes; they're probably not his best. But they're the ones that struck me or tickled me as I happened to read with pen or pencil in hand.
I disagreed with him a lot, too, of course, more so as he aged. He came to believe that Pearl Harbor had been a vast conspiracy to get us involved in World War II. I.e., FDR knew the attack was coming and did nothing. Post-9/11, same thing. Bush knew. He became one of those guys. In a 1998 piece for Vanity Fair, Vidal revealed too much sympathy for Timothy McVeigh and not enough for his victims. For years, Vidal suggested a new constitutional convention to replace the worn-out one we've been using.
My disagreements with him even reached my subconscious. From my 1996 dream journal:
Gore Vidal and I are talking in my apartment, and he picks up a book of his essays that I'm reading. Initially I worry I might have scribbled offensive lines in the margins but he doesn't find anything. We talk of other authors and other books, and he asks if I have them, but I worry about the notes scribbled in the margins of those books, too, and don't bother to show him.
I felt bad that I didn't read more of his novels, but the ones I did read (“Lincoln,” “Washington, D.C.,” “Burr”) I didn't like much. His personality didn't come through. I know he railed against the state of the modern novel, its smallness, to go along with the size of its audience. He kept argung that the literature that lasts tends to focus on great men and great events, which is why he wrote about ancient Rome, and Jesus, and the United States of America: from the founding fathers to Washington, D.C., post-World War II, when, as he reminded us again and again, the great Republic died and was replaced by the National Security State. He even gave us an exact date for this replacement: February 27, 1947.
I wound up interviewing him, by fax, and meeting him, at Town Hall, and reviewing for The Seattle Times a few of his later books, none of which thrilled. But the essays remain necessary reading. A final quote, from “How I Do What I Do If Not Why,” which appeared in The New York Review of Books in 1988:
Writers and writing no longer matter much anywhere in freedom's land. Mistuh Emerson, he dead. Our writers are just entertainers, and not all that entertaining either. We have lost the traditonal explainer, examiner, prophet.
Yes, we have.
Gore Vidal (1925-2012)
The Novel for the 99%: Max Barry's 'Company'
Just spent a week on Kauai, Hawaii, a great vacation I'll write about it in the coming days.
But for now a book recommendation: Max Barry's “Company,” which I read during my first two days on Kauai. It's not only the novel for anyone who has suffered a dead-end, meaningless job with idiotic managers—which means 99% of us—it's also the novel most of us who suffered dead-end, meaningless jobs with idiotic managers wished we'd written. In the early nineties, I must have written five short stories/novellas on customer-service/bookstore work but they were all a little too bitter and not nearly clever enough. Barry's wit outweighs all. He pushes the bounds. He makes the absurdity funny. He also makes it both logical and, at the same time, more absurd.
Here's a sample. Sydney, an awful manager and a worse person, is in the act of firing her personal assistant, Megan:
“Second, you don't show any teamwork.”
“But I work alone! I'll work with people if you want! I'd love to work with people! I'm stuck by myself!”
Sydney folds her hands on her desk. “Well, there's no point in complaining now.”
“Then ... why are you telling me these things?”
“It's part of the feedback process. I'm showing you what you need to work on to improve.”
“So if I improve--”
“Not here. You can't improve here. You're being fired, Megan. This is just the process we go through. It's really for your benefit. A little gratitude wouldn't be out of place.”
Megan's mouth works. What finally comes out is: “Thank you.”
“You're welcome,” Sydney says. “Anyway, those two categories hurt your score. But the clincher was your failure to achieve any goals.”
“Well, you didn't have any.” Sydney picks up a silver pen and waggles it. Little daggers of reflected sunlight flash into Megan's eyes. “During your last evaluation, we were meant to agree on goals for you, but we never did. So where it says, 'Goals Accomplished,' I had to tick 'None.'”
“I would have accomplished goals if you'd set some!”
“Well, you might have. It's hard to say.”
“How can you sack me for not accomplishing goals I never had?”
“You don't want me to say you accomplished goals when you didn't, do you?”
Then there's this passage, spoken by the CEO of the company, Klausman, which surely resonates in this presidential year when Republicans are going on about “job creators”:
“You're probably too young to remember, Jones, but there was a time when a man filled your gas tank for you. A boy carried your groceries to your car. There was a time when you hardly ever stood in line, not outside of a government office. But labor is a source of cost, so companies externalized it. They, as you say, shat it out. And those costs landed exactly where they belonged: on their customers.”
“And on their remaining staff.”
“Quite so. Quite so. Hence: 'Doing more with less.'”
In a masterstroke, the novel is dedicated thus: “For Hewlett-Packard.”
Essential Freud by Badcock, and Other Stories
All of the textbook/author combos below are legitimate. They were culled from my days in the 1990s working in the textbook department at University Book Store in Seattle, Wash.
- Essential Freud by Christopher Badcock
- Organization Theory and Design by Robert Daft
- Basic Human Genetics by Mange and Mange
- Immigrant Voices by Thomas Dublin
- Introduction to Advertising and Promotion by Belch and Belch
- The Psychology of Blacks by Joseph L. White
- Microeconomics by Robert Pindyck
Apologies for all the dick jokes but Essential Freud would understand.
Book Review: I Never Had It Made by Jackie Robinson
During the baseball strike of 1994-95 I read a lot of books on baseball, then wrote reviews of what I'd read. I did that all the time back then. I wanted to remember why I felt something rather than just what I felt. I suppose it's led to what I do here. This review, which I came upon while researching potentional Jackie Robinson Day posts, was written in April 1995, just as Judge Sotomayor was telling the boys of summer to shake hands and play ball already...
Don’t purchase I Never Had It Made, Jackie Robinson’s autobiography, expecting to read a lot about baseball. He’s retired before we’re halfway in. The 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers are given less than a page. I understand he wants to be known as more than just a ballplayer, but, let’s face it, working at Chock Full O'Nuts isn’t exactly why Jackie Robinson is an important figure in American history.
And where’s the famous fire? Recounting the race-baiting from the dugout of the 1947 Philadelphia Phillies, which included racial epithets, black cats thrown onto the field, and the Phillies players leveling their bats at Jackie and making machine gun noises, Jackie comments thus: “It was an incredibly childish display of bad will.” That same year, Dodgers pitcher Hugh Casey, losing a poker game, said to Jackie, “‘You know what I used to do down in Georgia when I ran into bad luck?.... I used to go out and find me the biggest, blackest nigger woman I could find and rub her teats to change my luck.’” The reader expects an explosion but it’s as if Jackie, the writer, is still trapped in 1947, and turns the other cheek. “I don't believe there was a man in that game, including me, who thought that I could take that,” Jackie writes. “Finally, I made myself turn to the dealer and told him to deal the cards.” Really? That’s it? What was your relationship like with your teammate after that? How could you play on the same team? Did you seethe watching him pitch? Anything?
Not only is little said about his baseball life, but little is said about how his baseball life affected African Americans. Maybe he worried such a chapter would seem self-serving.
Instead we get advertisements for Chock Full O’ Nuts:
Soon Bill Black was in the restaurant business offering a limited number of rapidly prepared items at reasonable prices and with swift and polite service.
We get press releases for politicians:
The Nelson Rockefeller personal charm and charisma had now become legendary.
We get the bourgeois existence of Jackie and Rachel Robinson. They buy a house in Connecticut. Their children have problems with fame and drugs. Rachel, trying to establish her own identity, denies that she's married to Jackie Robinson, which so worries her she consults a psychologist.
For the most part Jackie seems to be justifying his post-baseball actions. Why did he support Nixon in 1960? Why did he support Nelson Rockefeller? How can he live in Connecticut? Wasn't he involved in a takeover at Freedom Bank?
Perhaps this is why the book seems unfairly weighted towards his post-baseball life. His baseball life needs no such justification.
--April 18, 1995
Searching for Ralph Ellison's Quote
You remember “Almost Live”? Good show. Nancy Guppy was a regular, and funny. Last year at opening night of the Seattle International Film Festival at McCaw Hall, I ran into her. I was with a group of mostly women, I believe, suited up and wearing sunglasses, so not my usual raggedy self, when I saw her by the front stairs and pointed her out. She noticed being pointed out, and I smiled, and she came up to me. I think she thought I was someone else. Her disappointment when it turned out to be just me was muted but palpable, but, as things go, she's now a friend ... on Facebook. Just that. She wouldn't know me from Adam Wahlberg.
The other day, on Facebook, she posted this:
“Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat.”
I immediately loved it. I asked her where it was from but she didn't know. So I searched it out in 2012 fashion.
The first Google search result is from an ad-heavy site called Brainy Quote, which sandwiches Ellison's thought between two similar thoughts from F. Scott Fitzgerald and Anais Nin, but of course it attributes nothing. Such is the way these days. You can click on his name and find out that he's an AUTHOR, that he's AMERICAN, when he was BORN and when he DIED, but the quote is just there to be quoted, along with other Ralph Ellison quotes plucked from the obscurity of, what, a book, and made to live forever here. And now here's an ad from Google.
The second and third results are from Good Reads, which at least tells us the quote is from “Invisible Man” (rather than, say, “Shadow and Act”), but provides no context. We do find out, however, that 1,190 people “liked” it. Which is good enough for me.
Linguaspectrum.com, fourth, expands upon the quote. On its page, “92 Quotes About Defeat,” it gives us a slightly fuller version:
“America is woven of many strands; I would recognize them and let it so remain. It's winner take nothing that is the great truth of our country or of any country. Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat. Our fate is to become one, and yet many - This in not prophecy, but description.”
The fifth result, from the ad-heavy Bookrags.com, which uses those awful double-underlined pop-up ad-links to specific words, finally gives us context. Ralph Ellison's quote is from the epilogue to “Invisible Man,” pg. 577, which does no good for me since my Modern Library edition only goes to 439 pages. But at least we know where it's from now. It's no longer invisible, you could say.
But how about that line right before the plucked version?
It's winner take nothing that is the great truth of our country or of any country.
Tell that to Bill Gates' house on Lake Washington.
I finally found the quote in my edition of “Invisible Man,” by the way. It's at the bottom of pg. 435 of the Modern Library edition and part of an argument for diversity and against conformity. “Must I strive toward colorlessness?” he asks, among other things. I actually underlined (not doubly so) “winner take nothing” when I read this back in college, but for what reason I can't image. Because I thought it was profound? Because I disagreed? I hope I disagreed.
Originally I was going to tie Nancy Guppy's FB quote to Roger Kahn's quote about a team in defeat, one of my favorites, and then tie both to any team playing the New York Yankees, and have fun that way. This was going to be a YANKEES SUCK blog post, and giddy, and ha-ha fun, but the Google searches depressed me too much: All the crap out there that ranks so highly. I'm even more depressed that somehow, in the last month, Pres. Obama's approval rating has dropped from 50 % to 41%. What happened in the last month? Tell me. How is he now in a statistical dead heat with Mitt Freakin' Romney? All the crap out there that ranks so highly.
Seriously, bless those who play in the face of certain defeat. Me, sometimes I get so sick of it all I search for e.e. cummings' helluva good universe next door.
Ralph Ellison of brainyquote.com. Make sure to “like” him.
Talkin’ Leeea-vy, Bryant and Jim Hirsch
In the 1950s, among baseball fans across the country and New York City kids in particular, the question was “Willie, Mickey or the Duke?”
It turned out to be the wrong question. It was circumscribed by time and place—1950s, New York, center field—and anyway Duke Snider, who led the 1950s in homers, faded in the LA sun, and Mantle crumpled under bad knees, leaving only Willie and his .302 batting average and 660 career homeruns in the discussion—even if modern stats such as OBP and OPS have resurrected Mantle back into it.
No, the true argument was Willie, Mickey or the Hammer, as in Henry Aaron, another kid who arrived in the bigs in the early 1950s and rewrote the record books. They were the three preeminent players of their era.
In the last two years we’ve had well-received biographies written on all three: “Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend” by James Hirsch; “The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood” by Jane Leavy; and “The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron” by Howard Bryant. I’ve now read all three.
Leaving aside the publishing industry’s awful penchant for titular absolutes, for “The Last X” or “The End of Y” (Aaron wasn’t the last hero and Mantle certainly wasn’t the last boy); and ignoring, for the moment, which of the three was the better player (OK, I still choose Mays), a new question emerges: Leavy, Bryant or Hirsch?
I can’t go Bryant, which is too bad. Hank Aaron’s life and career, more than Mays’ (who was more insulated), spanned the great racial divide of our country. He began playing in the Deep South in an era of segregation and lynchings, and came to true national prominence in a post-civil-rights era of Wheaties commercials and Jesse Jackson press conferences. He's also the underdog: the great player left out of the discussion until everyone suddenly realized that he was the guy who was going to break the game's greatest record. It should be a fascinating story. Part of it is. But Bryant spends too much time pushing us toward a specific viewpoint, his “last hero” viewpoint, and becomes annoying. He makes excuses for Aaron. He doesn’t just let him be. He spends so much time trying to make us like Henry Aaron, I actually began to dislike Henry Aaron.
James Hirsch isn’t pushing us toward a particular viewpoint with his subject. But “Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend” is still a monumental book in the sense that we view Mays from a distance. It’s an authorized biography but apparently that didn’t mean much greater access. It meant, Yeah, go ahead, whatever. It’s a fine baseball book, and the chapter “Miraloma Drive,” about the difficulty Mays had buying a home in San Francisco in the late 1950s, should be made into a movie—either HBO or theatrical. But I still don’t get a true sense of the man.
Leavy is the best writer of the bunch, and she gets closest to her subject—colonoscopy close. Mantle was dead by the time she began writing but she did interview him in 1983 and gives us a scene of Mantle making a late-night, drunken pass, hand up her skirt, then passing out on top of her. It’s pretty sad. She gives us Mantle’s positives and negatives but lets us make up our own minds. She’s basically saying: This is the way some people saw him; this is the way other people saw him. Here’s some good he did. This is destruction he left in his wake. This is how he acknowledged that destruction.
Some folks want to prop up our heroes; they want us to return to the era of ghost-written hagiographies. They miss the point. I keep returning to something actor Philip Seymour Hoffman told critic David Edelstein in 2005. He was talking as an actor toward his character but he could have been a biographer, or any writer really, talking about his subject:
The way toward empathy is actually to be as hard as possible on this character. The harder you are, the more empathy you'll gain, ultimately, by the end. ... [Because] I think deep down inside, people understand how flawed they are. I think the more benign you make somebody, the less truthful it is.
The Aaron bio is benign and thus other. The Mays bio is distant and thus other. The Mantle bio gives us the flaws and joys and horrible, horrible moments but what feels like the whole man. I always thought Mantle was a dull boy: stolid and strong and sun-bleached and stupid. I came away from “The Last Boy” with admiration and empathy. I came away grateful.
Is this the only photo of the three of them together? It's the only one I could find--and Mantle was retired by the time it was taken. No photog got a shot of them in some All-Star Game in the late 1950s or early 1960s? We get Mays and Mantle (at All-Star Games and before the '62 World Series), and Mantle and Aaron (before the '57 and '58 World Series), and of course Mays and Aaron (all the time), but not all three together. Except for this. For now. Someone out there, some newspaper, some magazine, some photographer, has a better shot. I know it.
Quote of the Day
“Many would argue, if they ever had cause to think about it, that one Bad News Bears movie was enough. But no nine-year-old baseball-loving boy in 1977 would agree, not even one who had, unlke me, seen the first movie. The sequel came out that summer, after Little League season had ended all over the land, and who wouldn't want the season and the summer to somehow go on and on?
”The makers of the Bears sequel keyed in on this need to go on and on. Really, the premise of another Bears movie couldn't have been otherwise: there would have to be another game. But whether by design or happy accident, or some combination of the two, the sequel not only centers on the idea that the season can go on but continually frames it as an urgent question: can the season go on? It is, in a way, the prototypical sequel. Its plot mirrors the very question of its exisence. One story has ended. Can there be another?“
I think ”Breaking Training“ one of the worst baseball movies ever made; but Wilker's short book, with its asides to the American myth of the road, the catchphrases of ”Happy Days,“ Jimmy Carter's ”malaise“ speech, the ”USA! USA!" chant, and the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, and how they all intertwine with this horrible, horrible movie, is something close to a work of art.
Quote of the Day
“Perhaps the master of the British art of telling stories against oneself is the writer and playwright Alan Bennett, who is about the closest thing Britain has to a national treasure. He seems genetically incapable of being pleased with himself. When asked by the actor Ian McKellen in 1987 whether he was gay or straight, he responded that it was like asking a man crawling across the Sahara Desert what sort of water he preferred, Perrier or Malvern.”
--Sarah Lyall, “The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British,” pg. 154
Quote of the Day
“It seems to me that a Democratic president who gets us health care reform and tough new financial protection for consumers, who guides the economy through its roughest period in 80 years with moderate success (who could do better?), who ends our long war in Iraq and avenges the worst insult to our sovereignty since Pearl Harbor (as his Republican predecessor manifestly failed to do, despite a lot of noise and promises); a president who faced an opposition of really spectacular intransigence and downright meanness; a president who has the self-knowledge and wisdom about Washington to write the passage quoted above, and the courage to publish it: that president deserves a bit more credit from the left than [Thomas] Frank is willing to give him.”
--Michael Kinsley in his review of “Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right,” by Thomas Frank, which is as critical of Pres. Obama as Frank's previous book, “What's the Matter with Kansas?,” was critical of Kansas.
Quote of the Day
“Hitler cared deeply about animals and animal welfare. 'In the Third Reich,' he once announced, 'cruelty to animals should no longer exist.' Some of the earliest laws enacted by the Nazi Party pertained to animal protection, and violators could be sent to concentration camps. Vivisection, tail docking, and neutering were banned...
”What accounted for this concern for animals? Some of these laws, such as a ban on kosher butchering and on Jews having pets, were probably enacted because they furthered the goal of religious persecution; the restriction on vivisection might have been an effort to inhibit Jewish scientists. But the Nazi reverence for nature and natural order was more far-reaching and fundamental than a simple anti-Semitic attack. The pagan-like worship of nature as an immutable force was at the core of the Nazi belief system. Nature, with its invioable schematic and pitiless ranking of strong over weak, was held up as a model and a justification for the Nazis' worldview, and therefore nature and animals had to be honored and protected...
“Nazis also used their attention to animal well-being as a way to further humiliate their victims ... illustrated by the Angora Project, a rabbit-breeding program operated by the SS at the Auschwitz, Dachau, and Buchenwald concentration camps. Raised by inmates at the camps, the rabbits lived in gorgeous hutches and were fed lavish meals; their fur was trimmed and used as insulation in Luftwaffe pilots' winter jackets. But Henreich Himmler, the chief of the SS, who ran the project and kept a notebook documenting it, also wanted the rabbits for another purpose; he liked the starving prisoners to be reminded, as they prepared meals for the animals and cleaned their cages, that they had less value in the Nazi world order, deserved less dignity and fewer rights than the animals they cared for.”
--Susan Orlean, in one of the many interesting sidebars in her book, “Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend,” pp. 145-46
Dialogue of the Day
“You're a Christian, right, Chad?
”You believe in Jesus?“
”Have you ever seen him?“
”No, I've never seen him.“
”Ever seen yourself get hitters out?“
”So why the fuck do you have faith in Jesus when you never seen him, but you don't have faith in your ability to get hitters out when you get hitters out all the time?“
--2002 Oakland A's pitching coach Rick Peterson to 2002 Oakland A's reliever Chad Bradford in Michael Lewis's ”Moneyball," pg. 253.
This past week, for obvious reasons, I've been reading Michael Lewis's “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” for the first time since I reviewed it for The Seattle Times back in 2003.
Being a fan of Bill James, who, in the 1980s and '90s, revolutionized the way we looked at baseball statistics, I never doubted the efficacy of what Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, the first Jamesian in a Major League Baseball front office, was doing. I.e.,:
- To compete in an unfair game, in which your opponent has three times your payroll (now: five times your payroll), you have to find what is undervalued and buy it, and what is overvalued and sell it.
- What was undervalued, in 2002, was on-base percentage, which is a more reliable measure of a hitter's potential to score runs, and thus help win games, than batting average, the measure of hitting prowess for most of baseball history.
- The plate discipline necessary to create a high on-base percentage was a less teachable trait than people believed. At the same time, it was translatable from the college to the professional level: a guy with a high OBP in college would tend to have a high OBP in the Majors. Thus college-level players with high OBPs were players worth drafting.
Since 2003, whenever anyone's disparaged “Moneyball” and Beane, and it's happened a lot (here, for example), I've defended. If the Oakland A's were having a hard time of it recently, I argued, it's not because the concepts of “Moneyball” failed; it's because they succeeded all too well and were adopted by other, richer GMs, such as Brian Cashman of the much-hated New York Yankees, who made OBP his touchstone, too. That particular market inefficiency, which Beane had exploited for years, had corrected itself. Thanks in large part to Michael Lewis's book.
* * *
But the Jamesian stuff is only one aspect of the philosophy conflated into the term “Moneyball.” Beane also attempted to upend long-standing baseball traditions because of his own sad experience with the national pastime.
In 1980, he had been a prized, five-tool, high school player, a first-round draft pick with a “good baseball body” who never quite panned out, even as less-talented but gung-ho teammates such as Lenny Dykstra became stars. From this, Beane, the GM, concluded the following:
- Scouts are overvalued.
- Body type doesn't matter. (“We're not selling jeans.”)
- High school players, particularly pitchers, aren't worth a first-round draft pick.
Basically he never wanted to draft himself.
Reading in 2003, a part of my brain went, “Wait. Ken Griffey, Jr. and Alex Rodriguez were drafted out of high school.” But such thoughts were pushed aside as Michael Lewis's narrative propeled me along.
Re-reading in 2011, these thoughts weren't pushed aside.
There's a big set piece in the book, the June 2002 draft, and reading it in 2003 one accepted Lewis's interpretations of Beane's assumptions because the drafted names were just that: names. They meant nothing. Now they do ... or don't. Now they're superstars ... or not.
This, for example, was Billy Beane's wish-list for the 2002 draft:
Just names back then. Now they have numbers, too.
Nick Swisher was Beane's baby, and he took him with the 16th overall pick, and Swisher has panned out more or less: first for the Oakland A's, then for the Chicago White Sox, and now, most famously (and ironically), with the New York Yankees. His career batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage are: .254/.360/.467. Not stellar but pretty good.
Meanwhile, Prince Fielder, who was disparaged in the book as “too fat even for the Oakland A's,” and was picked 7th overall by the Milwaukee Brewers (saps!), is having a better career: .281/.388/.537. He's a star. Swisher's a character but he's not a star.
Obviously the A's, with their 16th pick, couldn't have chosen Fielder; but here's the thing: they wouldn't have chosen him anyway. He was a high school player. And that was too close to Beane's own experience.
How about the player who went after Swisher? The 17th overall pick belonged to the Philadelphia Phillies who chose, yep, a high school pitcher (saps!), named Cole Hamels, who, after making the bigs in 2006, has gone 74-54, with a 3.54 ERA and a 3.75 K/BB ratio.
I don't doubt the efficacy of the basic Bill James lessons from “Moneyball.” But, re-reading, I'm beginning to doubt the efficacy of the lessons Billy Beane culled from his own sad experience with the national pastime. Maybe scouts are more necessary than he thinks. Maybe high school players should be considered in the first round.
* * *
In the five years after the “Moneyball” amateur draft, from 2003 to 2007, 189 players were chosen in the first round of the draft. Of those 189, 85 were high school players. Of those 85, eight have become Major League All-Stars, including current NL MVP candidate Justin Upton, current NL Cy Young candidate Clayton Kershaw, and Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen.
Of the remaining 104 first-round draft picks, all out of college, 17 have become All-Stars, including current AL Cy Young candidate Justin Verlander, current NL MVP candidate Ryan Braun, and former Cy Young award winner Tim Lincecum.
The odds of drafting a future All-Star are greater with college players, at least in this small sample size, 16 percent to nine percent; but given the chance on a Justin Upton or Clayton Kershaw, not to mention a Ken Griffey, Jr. or Alex Rodriguez, why not take it? Why ask to see the B.A.?
The A's were one of only two teams—the White Sox were the other—who didn't draft a high school player in the first round during these five years. Here's who Beane chose instead:
- Brad Sullivan, Brian Snyder and Lauren Geminder in 2003
- Landon Powell and Richie Robnett in 2004
- Cliff Pennington and Travis Buck in 2005
- No one in 2006
- James Simmons in 2007
Only the three hyperlinked names made it to the bigs. Of those three, none has a career OBP above .325.
* * *
So is Billy Beane misreading the lessons of his own life? If so, he wouldn't be the first.
What was the problem with Beane as a young player? Was it his body type? His five-tool talent? The fact that he was merely a high school player? Not really. The real problem, delineated by Lewis but subsequently ignored by Lewis for the larger narrative, was his personality, which didn't handle failure well. He obsessed over it. He began assuming he wouldn't succeed and wound up not succeeding. Guys like Lenny Dykstra? They never doubted. (Which ultimately, after baseball, brought Dykstra down, too.)
And for those with doubt? There are coaches like Ron Washington, “Wash” to his friends, who, during the 2002 season, took a former catcher, Scott Hatteburg, necessary because he came cheap and had a talent for getting on base, and turned him into a “pickin' machine” at first base. Wash is now manager of the Texas Rangers, who won the American League penannt last year, something Beane's A's (and my sad, sad Seattle Mariners, for that matter) have yet to do.
The scouts in the book come off as daft oldsters who pay attention to the inconsequential (“a good baseball face”) and miss the bigger picture (the Jamesian stats). But maybe sabermetricians like Beane and his assistant, Paul DePodestra, are missing the bigger picture, too. Maybe the point isn't upending conventional wisdom so much as balancing it with their own unconventional wisdom. Maybe the point, as in so many areas of baseball, is simply balance.
* * *
There are a lot of ifs associated with “Moneyball.” If only Tim Hudson had pitched up to his usual standards in the 2002 ALDS and the A's had gotten past the Minnesota Twins and eventually to the World Series. If only Jeremy Brown, the fat Alabama catcher with the gaudy OBP drafted in the first round by Beane, had panned out. (Jerry Crasnick suggests the attention from “Moneyball” did him no favors, but, to his credit, he did retire with a .864 OPS.) If only Brian Cashman was like most Yankees fans and didn't read.
The book feels poignant now. It's full of regrets.
Does Michael Lewis have any? Billy Beane helped change the game but so did Lewis. His best-seller stabilized the market inefficiencies Beane had been exploiting. It was as if Lewis had shown David's playbook to Goliath. When the two returned to the field, Goliath had a slingshot of his own.
More, does Lewis regret the following analogy? It is, without a doubt, the most shocking thing about reading “Moneyball” in 2011 rather than 2003.
First, a little backstory. Baseball is often about luck. A pitcher may make a good pitch, a batter may mistakenly swing at that pitcher's good pitch, but it still might result in a bloop single to left. Old baseball hands say such luck evens out over a season, and a career, and maybe it does, but the stats people would still like to remove it from the equation. They would like to get a truer picture of past performance and thus a better indicator of future performance. They would like to minimize risk.
In Chapter Six of “Moneyball,” Lewis writes about a company that is doing just that: AVM Systems, run by two former Chicago stockbrokers, Ken Mauriello and Jack Ambruster. These guys take a baseball field, divide it up into thousands of mini-grids, then track every baseball hit during a game by velocity and trajectory and landing point (point #643, for example), and place value judgements on every action. Was the hit a true hit? Was the right fielder properly positioned? Would an average right fielder have caught the ball? Etc.
These guys are part of Moneyball strategy, too, and Lewis writes about them in glowing terms. He even compares what they do—the cutting up a baseball field into thousands of meaningless fragements—to what was then a very successful, very lucrative, and virtually riskless area of Wall Street: derivatives. The cutting up of stocks and mortgages into meaningless fragments, and bundled together to minimize risk.
The kinds of people who were transforming baseball for the better, in other words, were thus just like the kinds of people who had transformed Wall Street for the better. Both were minimizing, or, in Lewis's words, “more accurately” pricing, risk. He writes:
The chief economic consequence of the creation of derivative securities was to price risk more accurately, and distribute it more efficiently, than ever before in the long, risk-obsessed history of financial man.
If only that had been the chief economic consequence of the creation of derivative securities.
Quote of the Day
“When the axe came into the woods, the trees whispered, 'The handle is one of us.'”
--a Turkish proverb quoted in Arlene Kim's book of poetry, “What Have You Done to Our Ears to Make Us Hear Echoes?”
Arlene Kim reading from her book of poetry, “What Have You Done to Our Ears to Make Us Hear Echoes?” at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle; September 2011
Quote of the Day
“Though I have some respect for 'The Virtue of Selfishness,' her collection of essays ... I don't think there's a need to have essays advocating selfishness among human beings. I don't know what your impression has been, but some things require no further reinforcement.”
--Christopher Hitchens on Ayn Rand, from the Q&A portion of his lecture, “The Moral Necessity of Atheism,” given on February 23, 2004 at Sewanee University
The Lost Scenes of “Citizen Kane”
“As the writing team came back from Victorville, and as Houseman returned to New York, Welles took over the task of making the script into a picture. From mid-April to mid-July, the script came down to 172 pages [from 268]. Many episodes were abandoned—for example, Kane's honeymoon with his first wife, Emily; a later meeting between Kane and his father, when the older man is remarried to a 'young tart'; Kane's son's involvement in a fascist movement; a good deal of political byplay with an oil scandal; scenes in Rome, when Thatcher goes to visit Kane; an affair Susan Kane has with a younger man at Xanadu. These deletions made Kane simpler to follow—and we should realize that nothing hurt it more on first release than its difficulty. In addition, Welles strengthened the line of dramatic consequence—the way Kane's career hinges upon the exposure of the love nest during the electoral battle with Jim Gettys, and the way Susan's nightmare career breaks the bond between Kane and Leland.”
--from “Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles,” by David Thomson; pg. 147
Quote of the Day
“I can’t help wondering if 'Believing Is Seeing' is the first installment in a three-volume attempt to make sense of the relationship between the documentarian, the documented and the truth. I hope so. For Morris, the truth is (as they say) out there; the question is how to pick our way in its direction. There is no mechanical means of doing so, he argues; the camera is never wholly obscura or lucida. Perhaps this is why Morris’s book feels so human. It combines the hubris of his ends — the desire, shared by approximately all of us, to lay claim to the truth — with the humility of his means.”
--Kathryn Schulz in “Limited Vision,” her review of Errol Morris' new book “Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography,” in last Sunday's New York Times
Read These Books
The following list was given out at the funeral of Kim Ricketts last May. Thought I'd pass it along and encourage others to 1) read these books, and 2) come up with their own list. I double-down on Willa Cather:
- “The Bunny Planet” by Rosemary Wells
- “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott
- “The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe” by C.S. Lewis
- “I Capture the Castle” by Dodie Smith
- “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith
- “The English Patient” by Michael Ondaatje
- “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” by Annie Dillard
- “My Antonia” by Willa Cather
- “The Shipping News” by Annie Proulx
- “Birds of America” by Lorrie Moore
- “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” by Dave Eggers
- “The Silver Palate Cookbook” by Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins
What's on your must-read list?
Book Review: Crime Films by Thomas Leitch (2002)
In 2004 I reviewed the book “Crime Films” by Thomas Leitch for Film Quarterly magazine. The original review, which I reread recently, wasn’t good. Here’s an attempt to both loosen up and focus the original. Apologies to all involved.
In the first chapter of “Crime Films,” which is the third installment in Cambridge University Press’ series, “Genres in American Cinema,” author Thomas Leitch, professor of English and director of Film Studies at the University of Delaware, spends much of his time debating whether he even has a genre to explore.
Historically, he argues, crime film has been an academically ignored category; its sub-genres—including film noir, detective stories and gangster films—garner the attention. So should the larger category be its own genre or simply an umbrella covering better-known genres? And does it matter what we call it? And what makes a genre a genre?
In this way Leitch exercises himself for pages even though we know—as surely as we know that the detective will solve the crime, because that’s the way of detective films—that Leitch will argue in favor of the crime film genre, because we’re holding the book in our hands.
We’re not there yet, though. Leitch raises three “insuperable obstacles” in defining his genre: 1) crime is an aberration but crime films tend to treat it as normal; 2) how to distinguish crime films from thrillers, where crime is an isolated event rather than a metaphor for social unrest; and, 3) the various intermingling of the genre’s stock characters: the criminal, the victim and the avenger. Reading, I thought, “Why are these obstacles? They read like definitions.” At which point, Leitch, like a bad magician, reveals, with a hearty abracadabra, that his obstacles aren’t obstacles at all but “at the heart of such a definition.”
It’s still an interesting topic. Human beings are constantly veering between the wish for order (and safety from the lawless), and the wish for freedom (and safety from the law), and crime films are celluloid representations of this ambivalence. It’s tricky generalizing about decades, but it’s still worthwhile pointing out, as Leitch does, that the lawyer as hero (Atticus Finch) reflected comforting thoughts about institutions in the 1950s; the gangster as hero (Bonnie and Clyde) reflected doubts about institutions in the 1960s; and the rogue cop as hero (Dirty Harry) reflected doubts about both rebellion and institutions in the 1970s.
I wish he’d continued in this direction. I wish he’d taken individual crime films through the years and charted whether they affirmed or challenged the existing moral, social or institutional order. This could have proven fascinating.
Instead, shortly after identifying the crime-film genre, he abandons it in favor of its better-known subgenres. Chapters 4 through 12 highlight, in order, the victim film, the gangster film, the film noir, the erotic thriller, the unofficial-detective film, the private eye film, the police film, the lawyer film, and the crime comedy, with a representative film explicated at the end of each chapter. This is certainly fun but scattershot. We’re never sure why, for example, his representative films are representative. At times he chooses purity over complexity: “Bullitt” instead of “The French Connection” for police films. Other times, he opts for complexity over purity: “Fury” instead of “Death Wish” for the victim film. “The Godfather” is selected as the representative gangster film because it’s “the most ambitious of all such studies, and the greatest of all American crime films.” But doesn’t this make it least representative?
So is there value in dealing with the crime-film genre via its tidier sub-genres? Sure. In the chapter on the lawyer film, represented by “Reversal of Fortune,” Leitch writes, “The lawyer’s official role, held in contempt in gangster films and police films alike, is to represent the law to individual citizens accused of wrongdoing...”—which is when a light went on over my head. Of course! Since we identify and root for the protagonist in each subgenre, studying the gangster film without the corresponding lawyer or police film is like watching a third of “Rashomon”: we’re only getting part of the story.
Leitch says so much in the final chapter. The full story, he writes, “continues to haunt the partial story each subgenre represents, for every film in every crime subgenre is marked by numberless traces of the alternative crime story it could have been.” Imagine, for example, “The Godfather” as a police film about the rise-and-fall of a corrupt cop (Capt. McCluskey). Imagine it focusing on a young, ambitious gangster (Sollozzo), who saw the future in drugs and had it stolen away by Don Corleone and his greedy sons. In this manner, you could to any crime film what Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” did to “Hamlet.” Where’s the film on Dirty Harry’s beleaguered chiefs—trapped between a maverick cop and the prigs at city hall? Where’s the film on the good folks at city hall who must deal with this rampaging cop and his ineffectual police chief?
This raises the question: Are there crime films that abandon the singular viewpoint? That give us the movie from the perspective of criminal, victim and avenger? If not, maybe it’s an argument for why the crime film, as defined by Leitch, doesn’t exist. It needs a greater wisdom than we, with our love of the narrow point-of-view, have.
“Crime Films” isn’t an easy read. Leitch’s prose tends to be overly academic and his mind tends to wander. Some meanderings, admittedly, are interesting: his distinction, for example, between the European victim film like “The Bicycle Thief,” in which there is a crime and a victim but not a criminal or avenger, and the Hollywood victim film, like “Death Wish,” in which victims tend to be “worms who turn on their tormentors.” And as academic as he is, he still provides a structure through which any film with a criminal, victim and avenger can be studied.
That structure is never more valuable than now. We’re living in a post-Enron world, in which our institutions are corrupt and must be weakened. We’re also living in a post-9/11 world, in which the world is corrupt and our institutions must be strengthened. So which way will we go? How will our ambivalence about order and freedom be exhibited over the next decade? And how will this ambivalence be reflected in our art?
--Originally published in a 2004 issue of Film Quarterly
Al Qaeda's New Leader
“In [Ayman al-]Zawahiri's hands, al-Jihad had splintered into angry and homeless gangs. ... His disillusioned followers often reflected on the pronouncement, made during the prison years by the man Zawahiri betrayed, Major Essam al-Qamari, that some vital quality was missing in Zawahiri. Qamari was the one who had told him, 'If you are the member of any group, you cannot be the leader.' that now sounded like a prophecy.”
—from page 246 of Lawrence Wright's much-recommended book, “The Looming Tower,” on one of the low points for Ayman al-Zawahri, the former leader of al-Jihad, and current leader of al-Qaeda. The Christian Science Monitor agrees about his lack of charisma.
This Wright paragraph, by the way, follows a horrific story of Egyptian intelligence drugging and sodomizing the thirteen-year-old son of a senior member of al-Jihad, then blackmailing him to spy on his father, then recruiting another boy, a friend, for the same purpose. When the two boys were discovered, Zawahiri convened a Sharia court, forced the boys to strip to determine if they had attained puberty, and, since they had, and so were officially men, had them convicted of sodomy, treason and attempted murder. “Zawahiri had the boys shot,” Wright writes. “To make sure he got his point across, he videotaped their confessions and their executions, and distributed the tapes as an example to others who might betray the organization.”
Quote of the Day
“The city for the first time in its long history is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm.”
E.B. White, Here is New York, 1949
From the Archives: My 1996 Interview with Jeff Bezos - Part II
In October 1996, 15 months into his run as founder and CEO of amazon.com, I interviewed Jeff Bezos for The Seattle Times. It was all new to me: both the Internet and interviewing people. I was actually singularly wrong for the role. I went in ready to talk about literature, about which, it turns out, Bezos didn’t know much, and we wound up talking about technology and business issues, about which I knew even less. The resulting Q&A still feels valuable from an historical perspective. Part I can be read here.
How do you get your list of books together?
We get the bulk of our data from book wholesalers who have computerized inventory data bases of their own, which they use to manage their warehouse operations. We get data from the Library of Congress. And we get data directly from publishers. Any publisher can come to our website and one of the links at the bottom of the home page—there is one that says “Is there an author in the house?” and there's another one that says “Calling all publishers.” A tiny fraction of the data we actually enter by hand.
Which books are the big sellers?
We sell everything, but we are probably disproportionately strong in literary fiction, science fiction, and computer books, Internet books, things you would expect. But we also sell a huge amount of romance novels. We sell a disproportionately small number of romance novels, but romance is such a huge category. It's a small piece of a huge pie.
Do you have a favorite book?
It used to be Dune. I'm sort of a techno-geek, propeller-head, science-fiction type, but my wife got me to read Remains of the Day and I liked that a lot. I also like the Penguin edition of Sir Richard Francis Burton's biography
Bugs in the system?
There aren't any bugs per se but there are things we want to do better; and there are whole new things that we want to do.
We want to increase the amount of customer-to-customer interaction that we have, and increase the amount of customer-to-author interaction. We want to set the store up so we can redecorate the store for each individual who walks in; so you can set up a series of preferences and say, “I never read romance; don't ever show me any romances.”
What do you mean?
The whole page would be personally designed for you. So if you said, “I really love literary fiction”...etc., well, here's a great science ficton novel that we actually think you'd like based on your preferences in literary fiction. Stuff like that. In case you want to broaden out.
It would all be done automatically. It would have to be. The way it might work is you might come in and we present you with a list of 100 books that are in a particular genre, like literary fiction, let's say, and you would rate the ones you liked the most and disliked the most, and based on what you liked and disliked the computer would be able to form a profile of your particular tastes, and it might try to match you up with people of similar tastes. You call that your affinity group. What are things you haven't read that people in your affinity group love? And then it would recommend those things to you.
Are there other on-line booksellers?
There are more than a thousand on-line booksellers. We are by far the largest and best-known and the one doing the best job of customer service. There’s Book Stacks Unlimited in Ohio--they only offer about 400,000 titles. We discount our prices and they don't. We discount the top 300,000 bestsellers from 10 percent to 30 percent. Again, that's almost twice as many titles as the largest physical bookstores even carry.
We can afford to do that because we have such a lower cost structure. Our desks are made of doors. We spend money on things that matter to customers. We have the world's best servers—we use digital alpha servers—64-byte machines with a gigabyte of RAM and all this stuff. We hire only the most talented computer programmers.
How will all of this affect physical bookstores?
I think you'll see a continuation of the trend that's already in place, which is that physical bookstores are going to compete by becoming better places to be. They'll have better lattes, better sofas, all this stuff. More comfortable environments. I still buy about half of my books from physical bookstores and one of the big reasons is I like being in bookstores. It's just like TV didn't put the movies out of business—people still like to go to the movie theater, they like to mingle with their fellow humans—and that's going to continue to be the case. Good physical bookstores are like the community centers of the late 20th century. Good physical bookstores have great authors come in and you can meet them and shake their hands, and that's a different thing. You can't duplicate that on-line.
Now there's a whole series of stuff that we're going to do on-line that you could never do in a physical bookstore; and we're doing some of that now. Any customer, any browser, anyone in the world, can come to amazon.com and review any book on our bookshelves; you can't do that in a physical bookstore. What are you going to do--put yellow 3M post-its on the spine?
How do you police that?
On a daily basis we have people who read through all the submissions and weed out the ones that are frivilous; but it's an incredibly small number of people who actually do that. We had God review the Bible. We had J.D. Salinger review Catcher in the Rye. It was very funny. The person who did that one actually had a terrific sense of humor. But we just get rid of it.
But if you want to trash a book, that's fine with us. If you want to come in and say “I thought this was John Grisham's worst book ever; he should be embarrassed by foisting this on us. It's not as good as Time to a Kill, blah blah blah,” that helps people make purchasing decisions; and that's fine with us.
Our whole editorial department gets together the third Tuesday of every month--or something like that--at one of their houses, and they sit and read through all of these and make the decisions. [There are] eight people in the department.
Why call it “amazon”?
The amazon is the earth's biggest river and we’re the earth's biggest bookstore.
How many employees do you have now?
Just over 100. We opened the store almost fifteen months ago, July 16th, 1995, and we've been growing at 34 percent a month, which is basically unheard of. That annualizes to more than 3000 percent a year. We've been in four different offices in the last fourteen months, always moving because we don't have enough space—both in terms of our staff and our warehouse space. We're about to move our warehouse again. We've shipped books now to over 95 different countries.
Anything new on the horizon?
We've made it possible for any website on the entire Internet to have their own bookstore in association with amazon.com. No matter how small or big your website, you can add a bookstore to it. And we pay you 8 percent of revenues for any order you send us through your bookstore. It costs nothing up front. All you have to do is come to our homepage and fill out an on-line application form; we give you a special ID number and you encode in the URL that you use to point to the books in our catalogue. That special ID number allows us to track where the books came from.
We've had this open now for just over two months. It’s called the Associates Program, and we already have over a thousand websites. There's one Associate who has a website that sells meteorites. This guy knows everything about meteorites but you could never set up in the physical world a store that just sold books on meteorites. It would never make any money.
I came up with the idea by trying to figure out "How can amazon.com become experts on all 300,000 Library of Congress narrow niche subject categories?” There's just no way. But there are such experts out there. And they already have websites. Let them do it.
From the Archives: My 1996 Interview with Jeff Bezos - Part I
In October 1996, 15 months into his run as founder and CEO of amazon.com, I interviewed Jeff Bezos for The Seattle Times. It was all new to me: both the Internet and interviewing people. I was actually singularly wrong for the role. I went in ready to talk about literature, about which, it turns out, Bezos didn’t know much, and we wound up talking about technology and business issues, about which I knew even less. The resulting Q&A still feels valuable from an historical perspective ...
So how did you come up with the idea for this company?
In the spring of '94 I came across this guy named Quartermain. At that time he was collecting statistics on Internet growth. He had a web page where he did this.
Nobody knew, nobody had a clue, how many people were on-line. What you could measure, and what Quartermain was measuring, was the rate of Internet growth. He set up ... sniffers so he could measure, at certain key points going past on the Internet, these packets of data and see what protocol they were in; and if they were in http protocol he knew they were web packets. So because he wasn't measuring the whole Internet, just these choke points, he didn't even know what the base usage of the Web was. But he could measure very accurately the rate of growth; and the rate of growth was 2300 percent a year. I had never seen anything grow at 2300 percent a year.
At the time I was working for a very specialized investment bank in New York City called D.E. Shaw and Co. It is, unarguably, the largest quantative hedgefund in the world. What they did was they made lots and lots of tiny little trades—computers decided all the trades—and all the trades were made based on inefficiencies in the equity and bond markets. Totally technologycentric. Very similar to amazon.com in that sense. In other words, amazon.com is not a technology company per se but we're a completely technologycentric company—we live and die by the computer programs we write—and D.E. Shaw was the same way but in the realm of finance.
I was one of four senior people [at D.E. Shaw] who helped to run that company, ran a couple of the firm's profit centers; but this startling growth statistic of 2300 percent a year sort of pried me out of there. I said “This is interesting. What kind of businesses can you do on the Web that would actually make sense?” It had to be a business where the value proposition to the customer was incredibly high, because this Web technology was completely in its infancy. It's immature. There are lots of inconveniences associated with using it: your modem line hangs up on you, your call-waiting clicks in and everything goes crazy, there are so many points on the Internet where things don't work right. Images take a long time to download. So if you're going to get people to use your service on-line, whatever it is, you have to be offering something with an incredibly strong value-proposition to make them willing to put up with that large level of inconvenience.
I looked at several different areas and finally decided that one of the most promising ones is interactive retailing. Then I made a list of 20 products, and force-ranked them, looking for the first-best product to sell on-line.
In the top five were things like magazine subscriptions, computer hardware, computer software, and music. The reason books really stood out is because there are so many books. Books are totally unusual in that respect—to have so many items in a particular category. There are one and a half million English-language books, different titles, active and in-print at any given time. There are three million titles active and in-print worldwide in all languages. If you look at the number two category in that respect, it's music, and there are only about 200 thousand active music CDs. Now when you have a huge number of items that's where computers start to shine because of their sorting and searching and organizing capabilities. Also, it's back to this idea that you have to have an incredibly strong value proposition. With that many items, you can build a store on-line that literally could not exist in any other way. It would be impossible to have a physical bookstore with 1.5 million titles. The largest physical bookstores in the world only have about 175,000 titles. It would also be impossible to print the amazon.com catalogue and make it into a paper catalogue. If you were to print the amazon.com catalogue it would be the size of seven New York City phone books.
So here we're offering a service that literally can't be done in any other way, and, because of that, people are willing to put up with this infant technology.
That's actually one of the huge cost advantages we have over physical bookstores: We don't have to inventory all the books. Even the ones we do inventory we don't have to inventory in expensive retail real estate; we inventory in very inexpensive warehouse space.
If you look on our website, every book has its own web page, and one of the things that's on each book's web page, is what we call the availability status. So we're telling our customers what the availability is on each individual title. There are five different availability categories: There are things that are usually shipped within 24 hours; things that are usually shipped within 2-3 days; thngs that are usually shipped within one to two weeks; things that are usually shipped within four to six weeks; and there's a fifth category, not yet published, shipped when available.
So the books that we actually inventory in our warehouse are the ones that are marked “shipped within 24 hours.” Those are the best-selling books.
Then there are about 400,000 titles—keep in mind that's more than twice as many titles as you'd find in the largest of the superstores—that we can ship within 2-3 days. Those we get from wholesalers, like Pacific Pipeline, or Ingram, the world's largest book warehouse is in Roseberg, Oregon, another reason why we're located in Seattle. They have more titles than in any single warehouse in the country. We use a network of about a dozen different wholesalers to provide us with rapid access to the 400,000 best-selling titles.
Then the next 500,000 titles are either one to two week titles or four to six week titles. Those we get directly from 20,000 different publishers, and, depending upon the publisher, either one-to-two weeks or four-to-six weeks. Then there are these books that are not yet published.
Tomorrow, part II: Bezos' favorite books, why choose “amazon,” the two-month-old Associates Program, and that futuristic concept of “redecorating the store for each customer”...
Osama + Arnold
Michiko Kakutani, New York Times, surveying the books about Osama bin Laden:
As for the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, most of these books agree that it was a terrible misstep that played into Bin Laden’s hands, fueling Qaeda recruitment efforts and diverting critical military and intelligence resources away from Afghanistan, which in turn led to the resurgence there of the Taliban. Peter L. Bergen’s new book, “The Longest War,” provides a devastating indictment of the Bush administration on many levels, from its failure to heed warnings about a terrorist threat, to its determination to conduct the war in Afghanistan on the cheap, to its costly, unnecessary and inept occupation of Iraq.
Both “The Longest War” and Lawrence Wright’s “Looming Tower” give readers a visceral sense of what day-to-day life was like in Qaeda training camps. Mr. Wright, noting that Bin Laden was not opposed to the United States because of its culture or ideas but because of its political and military actions in the Islamic world, observes that Qaeda trainees often watched Hollywood thrillers at night ( Arnold Schwarzenegger movies were particular favorites) in an effort to gather tactical tips.
Why Every Guy Wants to be Famous
“At that moment, Matt Dillon saunters past and the girls sway en masse like willows in a spring breeze. ...
”'Aaah, man, I'm tired. See you at rehearsals,' he says, hoisting his boom box to his shoulder. He crosses to the elevators and passes the gaggle of fans. Then something remarkable happens. He stops dead in his tracks and whispers to a pretty brunette. She listens for a beat, then turns to the four girls she's standing with and whispers something to them. Matt fiddles with the volume on the boom box. The girls caucus for a total of four seconds, till the brunette leaves her friends behind and joins Matt for a walk to the elevators. He puts his free arm around her. At the last second, just before they enter the elevator, she turns back to look at her friends. Her expression is one I've never seen before. It's like she has a thought balloon over her head that reads: 'Holy shit! How lucky am I?' Matt yawns, and the elevator doors close. The entire transaction takes less than 45 seconds.“
--from Rob Lowe's memoir, ”Stories I Only Tell My Friends: An Autobiography,“ excerpted in the May 2011 Vanity Fair. Most of the excerpt, including the above anecdote, focuses on auditioning for and acting in Francis Ford Coppola's ”The Outsiders" in the early 1980s.
Why You Should Never Name Your Plane “Green Hornet”
I don't want to make light of a book that contains the horrors that Laura Hillenbrand's “Unbroken” contains, but I find it—how do I put this?—superheroally appropriate that a WWII airplane named Super Man, after getting shot 594 times during an air battle over the island of Nauru, continues to fly many hours and hundreds of miles over the Pacific Ocean to deposit its crew safely on the island of Funafuti; while a plane called Green Hornet can't handle one rescue mission, crashes into the ocean, and in effect causes all the unspeakable horrors that ensue.
Name your planes well, people.
My Starting Nine (of the Literary World)
Josh Wilker, voice of the mathematically eliminated, and author of one of my favorite recent books, “Cardboard Gods,” was interviewed a few weeks back by Shelf Awareness, who asked him, among other things, to name his five favorite authors. He did them one better: he gave them a starting nine.
On his own site he asked, a la the MLB Network, “What's your starting nine?”
That's my kinda question.
First, I went with American authors only, partly because it's our national pastime, and partly because I couldn't figure out positions for Tolstoy and Kundera. Then I tried to pick my most-read authors. This is what I came up with:
- James Baldwin, CF: Great range—from novels to essays to memoir to plays. (.312/.401/.405)
- Tobias Wolff, 2B: Never hits the ball far but always hits it cleanly; good at moving the man over. (.293/.397/.372)
- Ernest Hemingway, 1B: The legend. Opposition pitchers quake when he steps up. (.302/.384/.557)
- Norman Mailer, C: Big mouth behind the plate; big bat at the plate—he’s always swinging for the fences. (.264, .374, .531)
- John Irving, 3B: Another big hitter, not as naturally talented as Mailer, but he's put together some incredible seasons. (.274/.359/.514)
- Philip Roth, RF: A line-drive hitter, he sprays it all over the park. (.282/.367/.482)
- E.L. Doctorow, LF: Just what the world needs, Edgar, another left fielder. (.275/.353/.455)
- J.D. Salinger, SS: A lot of heart and soul; plus poetry on the glove. (.266/.353/.422)
- Kurt Vonnegut, P: Crazy lefty. (2.88 ERA)
My starting nine.
This means a lot of talent on the bench, of course: Cather, DeLillo, Morrison, Updike. Serously: Updike? I'm not starting Updike? Don't I want to win this thing?
Originally, by the way, I had Gore Vidal pitching, so I could have a battery of Vidal-Mailer, but then I remembered Doctorow wasn't on the team so someone had to go.
It's a tough, fun exercise. Now what's your starting nine?
From the Archives: 1996 Book Review of Making Movies by Sidney Lumet
A dozen pages into Making Movies I sent a copy to a friend for graduation. I assumed the rest of the book would be good enough for such an occasion. I wasn't wrong.
At the time of the writing, Sidney Lumet had directed 39 movies, starting in 1957 with 12 Angry Men, peaking in the 1970s with classics like Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network, then gradually losing steam until, by the early '90s, he was directing vehicles for Melanie Griffith (A Stranger Among Us) and Don Johnson (Guilty as Sin). But this is not a book about one man's rise and fall. Lumet doesn't even see his career as following this trajectory. Who does? If anything, he sees the movie industry suffering in this manner. The last chapter includes diatribes against the National Research Group and their audience surveys, and the fact that certain studios won't green-light pictures until a major star is involved. He writes:
This has two immediate effects. First, the stars' salaries skyrocket... The second effect is that the agencies that represent the stars are automatically in a more powerful position.
Don’t forget script girls. Because certain scenes may require many takes, and because a portion of take two may be spliced with a portion of take 11, a script girl is employed to ensure that actors perform the same actions at the same moments. Making 12 Angry Men, for example, the script girl mentioned that an actor had taken a puff of his cigarette on Line A yesterday while today he did it on Line B. Henry Fonda disagreed; he said the actor did it on Line B yesterday. So two takes were made. It turned out Fonda was right. This anecdote is told to demonstrate Fonda's incredible movie memory but it also helps reveal movie making’s incredible complexity.
Add artistic considerations if you are artistically considered. It's not about lighting actors well; it's about lighting them in ways that relates to character and theme. Ditto camera shots and camera angles. There is no camera shot of the sky in Prince of the City until the lead character is contemplating suicide. Sky implies freedom, Lumet writes, and the lead character is finding himself more and more trapped as the movie progresses. Since he starts out the movie self-assured, too, and then slowly loses control, Lumet lights the movie to follow this pattern:
In the first third of the movie, we tried to have the light on the background brighter than on the actors in the foreground. For the second third, the foreground light and the background light were more or less balanced. For the last third, we cut the light off the background.
What camera angle? Which lens? How should character A be edited against character B?
With the director needing to answer each question, you might think Lumet would be a proponent of the auteur theory. Nope. In fact, he uses the favorite auteur of the auteur theory, Alfred Hitchcock, to fault it:
He always essentially made the same picture. His stories weren't the same, but the genre was: a melodrama, layered with light comedy, played by the most glamorous actors he could find...photographed often by the same cameraman, with music composed by the same composer... His how to do it was the same because what he was doing was the same.
“Movie directors do not work alone,” Lumet writes. “There will be a visual difference if we work with Cameraman A or Cameraman B, Production Designer C or Production Designer D.” Then he writes about those he works with. He gives credit to cameramen Peter McDonald and Andrzej Bartkowiak and Boris Kaufman; production designers like Tony Walton; editors like Margaret Booth; and stars like Paul Newman and Sean Connery, who wear their fame lightly; who travel without entourages.
He answers questions I’ve long had about the movies. How can the Academy give awards for Best Editing unless you know what they edited in the first place? “In my view,” he writes, “only three people know how good or bad the editing was: the editor, the director, and the cameraman.” He includes tantrums against the uselessness of the teamsters and love taps for Paddy Chayevsky, the screenwriter of Network. His love for the movies is apparent in every sentence, as well as his intolerance for the parasites that high-profile industries like film-making attract. Making Movies is that rare movie book that is as interesting discussing camera lenses as it is discussing Paul Newman. I’ve now got a new book to give to friends.
--May 24, 1996
“Paul leads one of the most generous and honorable lives of anyone I've ever known.”
Quote of the Day
“For airmen [in the Pacific Theater in WWII], the risks were impossible to shrug off. The dead weren't numbers on a page. They were their roommates, their drinking buddies, the crew that had been flying off their wing ten seconds ago. Men didn't go one by one. A quarter of the barracks were lost at once. There were rarely funerals, for there were rarely bodies. Men were just gone, and that was the end of it. ...
”In the early days of 1943, as men died one after another, every man dealt with the losses in a different way. Somewhere along the way, a ritual sprang up. If a man didn't return, the others would open his foot-locker, take out his liquor, and have a drink in his honor. In a war without funerals, it was the best they could do.“
—pp. 89-90 of ”Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption" by Laura Hillenbrand
From the Archives: Amazon.com Ushers in New Era (1996)
I wrote the following for the now-defunct Downtown Source, a Seattle Times publication, in October 1996...
Amazon.com Ushers in New Era
by Erik Lundegaard
Jeff Bezos, the founder and president of Amazon.Com, the Seattle-based on-line bookseller, wants to quiet the fears of traditional booksellers.
“I still buy about half of my books from physical bookstores,” he admits, “and one of the big reasons is I like being in bookstores. TV didn't put the movies out of business, because people still like to go to the movie theater, they like to mingle with their fellow humans; and that's going to continue to be the case. Good physical bookstores are like the community centers of the late 20th century. They have great authors come in, and you can meet them and shake their hands. You do booksignings and hear readings. You can't duplicate that on-line.”
Bezos has a reason to soothe the competition. His company has moved to progressively bigger offices four times since its inception in July 1995. His staff has ballooned from 33 to over 100 in just four months. And, though he won't disclose monthly sales figures, Bezos says that Amazon.Com is growing at the rate of 34 percent a month. “That annualizes to more than 3000 percent a year,” he adds.
It was a similar figure—the 2300 percent Internet growth rate—that drove Mr. Bezos, 32, from a senior position at D.E. Shaw & Co., an investment bank in New York City, and onto the Web. But what to sell there? It wasn't a love of literature that led him to choose books; it was the volume of literature: one and a half million English-language titles in print at any given time; three million titles worldwide.
“When you have a huge number of items,” Bezos says, “that's where computers start to shine, because of their sorting and searching and organizing capabilities.”
Amazon.Com's claim to being “Earth's Biggest Bookstore” is a bit misleading, however. Though they offer 1.1 million titles—in comparison to, say, Elliott Bay's 140,000—the only thing you'll find in their warehouse south of the Kingdome is bestsellers. Other titles come from wholesalers or directly from the publisher—services that traditional bookstores offer as well.
Even so, Amazon.Com's list of books, culled from the Library of Congress, and various publishers and wholesalers, is spectacular. An author search of “Mailer, Norman” brought up three unheard-of titles (special orders for $70 each), while “Salinger, J.D.” elicited not only the familiar titles but Hapworth 16, 1924, a novella that appeared in The New Yorker in 1965—the last published sighting of the reclusive author—and never released in book form. Until now, that is. According to Amazon, a small outfit in Virginia is issuing Hapworth next January.
Amazon's Web site, for all its choking information, is as quirkily fun as its originator, with on-line shopping baskets, author self-interviews, and free giftwrapping. (One can choose between Holstein, Flowers, and “Fish of the Amazon.”) Readers are encouraged to write their own reviews, and each month Amazon's eight-person editorial staff selects a winner. Obscene reviews are deleted. “But if you want to trash a book,” Bezos adds enthusiastically, “that's fine with us. If you want to come in and say 'I thought this was John Grisham's worst book ever; he should be embarrassed for foisting this on us. It's not as good as Time to a Kill. Blah blah blah.' Fine. Because that helps people make purchasing decisions.”
Services are continually added. The two month-old Associates program allows anyone with a Web site to start their own bookstore in conjunction with Amazon.Com. Bezos was simply trying to figure out how Amazon.Com could act as an expert on all 300,000 Library of Congress narrow-niche subject categories. “There's just no way,” Bezos says. “But there are such experts out there, and they already have Web sites, so let them do it; then we will share the revenues with them.”
The effect of all this is already apparent on traditional bookstores. Mr. Bezos predicts that “Physical bookstores are going to compete by becoming better places to be. They'll have better lattes, better sofas, more comfortable environments.” And, he might have added, more Web sites. There are already over one thousand on-line booksellers. They include such traditional booksellers as Powell's, The University Bookstore, and Elliott Bay Book Company.
What the website looked like circa 1996...
Opening and Closing: Louis Menand on Wild Bill Donovan and the Hollywood View of History
Nathaniel Rogers over at Film Experience has a fun feature he does semi-regularly, called “First and Last,” in which he shows readers a screenshot of the first and last images of a movie and asks them to guess the movie. It's harder than you'd think.
This isn't meant to emulate that. Yesterday I simply read Louis Menand's review of Douglas Waller's “Wild Bill Donovan," about the founder of the O.S.S., and thus the granddaddy of all U.S. foreign intelligence operations, and was particularly impressed by Menand's opening and closing paragraphs. I wanted to share.
Here's the opening:
There is history the way Tolstoy imagined it, as a great, slow-moving weather system in which even tsars and generals are just leaves before the storm. And there is history the way Hollywood imagines it, as a single story line in which the right move by the tsar or the wrong move by the general changes everything. Most of us, deep down, are probably Hollywood people. We like to invent “what if” scenarios—what if x had never happened, what if y had happened instead?—because we like to believe that individual decisions make a difference: that, if not for x, or if only there had been y, history might have plunged forever down a completely different path. Since we are agents, we have an interest in the efficacy of agency.
Here's the closing:
Waller believes that Donovan got his nickname from his soldiers in the 165th, one of whom is supposed to have shouted out, during a particularly intense drill, “We ain’t as wild as you are, Bill.” Other writers, such as Tim Weiner, in his eye-opening history of the C.I.A., “Legacy of Ashes,” claim that it came from a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers who was called Wild Bill Donovan in tribute to the number of walks and hit batters he was responsible for. The first story suggests fearlessness, the second recklessness. Donovan had both. It is good that his time onstage was brief.
Scene at a Barnes & Noble II
Scene: The Barnes & Noble on the Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis three days before Christmas. I enter the store for the second time in the span of an hour to buy a DVD (“How to Train Your Dragon”) for my nephew Jordy. That's when I spot an author table near the door. The table is small, the author ready, no one is paying attention. Too bad, I think. Wonder what the dude wrote? Then I see the book propped up around the table:
I go over, pick up the book, leaf through it. I exchange pleasantries with the author, Bob Showers. He begins to explain how the book came about.
Bob: I contacted the Twins organization for official photos from the period. See these? I got all of these from the Twins. Then I brought them along when I interviewed the players to jog their memories.
Me: Oh, so it's an oral history, too. Wow, you interviewed Killebrew?
Me: Hey, has anyone written a biography of him?
Bob: Well, biographies have been written, back in his playing days, but...
Me: I'm talking about a big bio, like Mays and Aaron just got, but about Harmon. There'd be less interest nationally, of course, but ... I don't know. All the more reason to do it. I'd like to read it anyway. Hey, the Beatles!
Bob (nodding): Beatles played at the Met in '65, Eagles in '78.
Me: I remember that concert. The Eagles, not the Beatles. God, great photos. Cesar Tovar, Rich Rollins, Ted Uhlander. Love the '60s uni. That “Twins” script and the TC caps. Hated it when they went to the red cap and the beltless stretch pants in the mid-seven- ... Holy crap!
Me: It's ... me.
I'd come across a photo that I knew well but hadn't seen in decades: Dave Edwards, on June 13, 1979, bounding toward the Twins dugout after hitting a late-game, two-run homer to give the Twins an 8-6 lead over the New York Yankees. The shot is from behind so you can see his name and number (33), the Twins players in the dugout, including Kenny Landreux and Johnny Castino, smiling and ready to congratulate him, and about ten rows of cheering fans. The photo made the front page of the sports section of The Minneapolis Tribune the next day, and I kept it for years, because I was in it. Me, my father, and my friend Dave Budge sat in row 8 that night.
Me: Right there.
Observer #1: That's you?
I look up. By now we've drawn a crowd.
Observer #2: Right. Sure, that's you.
Me (vaguely amused): Why would I make that up?
Bob: The guy in front of you is wearing a CheapTrick concert T-shirt. When was the photo taken? June 1979? I bet he was at that CheapTrick concert at the Met around that time.
I flip through more pages. I'd planned on buying it anyway. Now it's a done deal. Me and two other guys start talking about the last Twins game at Met Stadium. Turns out we were all there.
Me: How odd. Because that crowd was, like, sparse.
Observer #1: Less than 25 thousand.
Bob: 15 thousand.
Observer #1: That low?
Me: Right? So it's weird that 30 years later three of those 15 thousand would be in the same Barnes & Noble at the same time. Weird but cool.
And remember to check out author tables. I'm not saying you'll find yourself but you never know.
Scene at a Barnes & Noble
Scene at a Barnes & Noble in downtown Minneapolis three days before Christmas...
Clerk: May I help you find something?
Me: I'm alright. Wait. Actually, yeah. I'm looking for a book: “The Letters of Saul Bellow.” Where would that be exactly?
Clerk returns to information desk and stands before computer.
Clerk: What was the name again?
Me: “The Letters of Saul Bellow.”
Clerk clatters on keyboard. Pause.
Clerk: How do you spell that?
Me: Saul? S-a-u-l.
Clattering on keyboard. Pause.
Clerk: Is that one word?
Me: Um. Saul: S-a-u-l. Then there's a space and it's Bellow, B-e-l-l-o-w. Saul Bellow.
Clerk: Here it is. Yes, we should have several copies.
Clerk comes out from behind information desk. He's wearing a button that says: “I'm NOOK Smart.”
Packer on W.
In the latest issue of The New Yorker, George Packer, who spent all that time in Iraq thanks to George W. Bush, goes over W.'s memoir and comes up with a telling but not surprising question: Why does a book called “Decision Points” tell us so little about how the author's decisions were made? But of course this tells us almost everything we need to know about George W. Bush (but knew already).
Some excerpts from Packer's review:
- There are hardly any decision points at all. The path to each decision is so short and irresistible, more like an electric pulse than like a weighing of options, that the reader is hard-pressed to explain what happened. Suddenly, it’s over, and there’s no looking back.
- Here is another feature of the non-decision: once his own belief became known to him, Bush immediately caricatured opposing views and impugned the motives of those who held them.
- For Bush, making decisions is an identity question: Who am I? The answer turns Presidential decisions into foregone conclusions: I am someone who believes in the dignity of life, I am the protector of the American people, I am a loyal boss, I am a good man who cares about other people, I am the calcium in the backbone. This sense of conviction made Bush a better candidate than the two Democrats he was fortunate to have as opponents in his Presidential campaigns. But real decisions, which demand the weighing of compelling contrary arguments and often present a choice between bad options, were psychologically intolerable to the Decider. They confused the identity question.
- For him, the [Iraq] war remains “eternally right,” a success with unfortunate footnotes. His decisions, he still believes, made America safer, gave Iraqis hope, and changed the future of the Middle East for the better. Of these three claims, only one is true—the second—and it’s a truth steeped in tragedy.
Then there's this devastating close:
- Bush ends “Decision Points” with the sanguine thought that history’s verdict on his Presidency will come only after his death. During his years in office, two wars turned into needless disasters, and the freedom agenda created such deep cynicism around the world that the word itself was spoiled. In America, the gap between the rich few and the vast majority widened dramatically, contributing to a historic financial crisis and an ongoing recession; the poisoning of the atmosphere continued unabated; and the Constitution had less and less say over the exercise of executive power. Whatever the judgments of historians, these will remain foregone conclusions.
The Joy of Mere Words
I often re-read George Orwell's essay, “Why I Write,” because it's short, and good, and I need a reminder now and again. I need bucking up.
I've always liked this part in particular:
When I was about sixteen I suddenly discovered the joy of mere words, i.e., the sounds and associations of words. The lines from Paradise Lost—
So hee with difficulty and labour hard
Moved on: with difficulty and labour hee,
which do not now seem to me so very wonderful, sent shivers down my backbone; and the spelling “hee” for “he” was an added pleasure.
For me it was later, when I was about 19, and taking a freshman literature course at the University of Minnesota. One of the books on the syllabus was Ernest Hemingway's “In Our Time,” and one of the stories in that collection was “Soldier's Home,” about a young man, Krebs, coming back from the Great War. This is the second paragraph:
There is a picture which shows him on the Rhine with two German girls and another corporal. Krebs and the corporal look too big for their uniforms. The German girls are not beautiful. The Rhine does not show in the picture.
That seemed wholly perfect to me in a way that no paragraph ever had. Hemingway gives us an image, which, because we're romantic fools, can be romanticized; then, with the next three sentences, he takes away all romantic notions. Some part of me still thinks “The Rhine does not show in the picture” is the greatest sentence ever written in the English language.
I stared at the paragraph after I'd read it until tears came to my eyes; then I took it downstairs to share with my father. Because the joy of mere words needs to be shared.
What about you? When did you first discover the joy of mere words?
Review: "Cardboard Gods" by Josh Wilker
“Cardboard Gods,” Josh Wilker’s coming-of-age memoir as revealed through his baseball card collection, should have immediate resonnance for the following groups:
- Baseball lovers.
- Baseball card collectors.
- Folks who grew up in a dysfunctional family.
- Folks who grew up in the 1970s and remember what it was like when the more anarchic elements of the counterculture lapped up to your front door, and then inside, and then washed away your world.
That first group isn’t as big as it used to be, but if you’re 1), and you’re a boy, you were probably 2). The fourth group is obviously tied to a specific time. It’s the third group that’s the mother lode. That’s most of us.
Wilker hit the jackpot with me. I’m all four—with the proviso that I collected baseball cards in the five-year period before Wilker did: Topps 1970-1974, rather than Topps 1975-1980. We’re almost a tag team. Just as I got done, he started.
Question: Does this make me an easy mark? Or a tougher sell?
The latter, I think. Rob Neyer pushed the book on his ESPN blog, and he has a to-die-for blurb on the front cover (“Josh Wilker writes as beautifully about baseball and life as anyone ever has”), but I still picked it up with skepticism. What does Neyer know? What can Wilker tell me about my times that I don’t know?
That skepticism died on page 9.
Wilker’s subtitle is “An All-American tale told through baseball cards,” and the first chapter is called simply “Topps 1975 #533: Rudy Meoli,” and includes what we used to call an “in action” shot of Meoli at the plate. Wilker writes:
Behold the uniformed maestro at the center of everything, his head thrown back in awe, his arms outspread as if to proclaim: Behold.
We look back at the card to see if we’ve missed something, to see if we’ve misread what’s going on there. We haven’t. Five-year-old Josh Wilker has. The adult Wilker writes:
For a long time, I lived in an angelic state of stupidity and grace. ... For a long time, years, I didn’t understand that I wasn’t witnessing the occurence of something magnificent in Rudy Meoli’s card from 1975, my first year of collecting. I didn’t understand that all I was looking at was some little-known marginal who’d just squandered one of his rare chances to reveal any previously undiscovered magificence by hitting a weak foul pop-up, the easiest of outs.
But the writer in him doesn’t end with the adult mea culpa; he pushes on toward an angelic state of understanding and grace:
Even to this day there’s a faint residue on my inability to interpret the blatantly obvious in this picture. On some level, perhaps the only level of any importance in this life, I still think of Rudolph Bartholomew Meoli, a backup infielder with a .212 lifetime average and more career errors than extra base hits, as one of the most thrilling performers of his era, a superstar in the reign of happiness and confusion.
That was the moment when I thought, “OK, this is going to be good.”
Baseball cards turn out to be a brilliant framing device. Not because Wilker’s childhood was idyllic. Because it wasn’t.
His parents were more-or-less happily married until his mother took a bus from their home in Willingboro, N.J., to attend a peace rally in Washington, D.C. in 1969 and wound up falling for her hippyish seatmate, Tom, who, by 1973, had moved into their home. He was, in fact, sleeping with the mother while the father took a smaller room down the hall. In his own home. In which he paid the bills.
What baseball card could possibly represent such family trauma? A 1976 Mike Kekich card. That year, Kekich was with the Texas Rangers, and he would end his career a year later with the nascent Seattle Mariners, but he’s famous, or infamous, as one of two 1973 Yankees pitchers—Fritz Peterson is the other—who traded entire families: wife, kids, dogs. After several weeks, Kekich tried to call off the switch, but by then Peterson and his wife were cozy and wanted to make the switch permanent. Peterson basically told him what we kids told each other when we wanted a baseball-card trade to be permanent: “No backs.” Kekich wound up in the metaphoric smaller room down the hall. Hell, he wound up with the Seattle Mariners.
Wilker’s story gets worse before it gets better. His mother and Tom, dragging along five-year-old Josh and his more aware, older brother Ian, moved to backwoods Vermont expecting paradise. They wound up in a shitty home surrounded by shitty neighbors. They wanted to live off the land but the land was harsh. They tried to start a non-competitive school, which only increased the contempt of the neighbors. The family was isolated and ostracized, and poor Josh could barely make it down to the grocery store and back without being picked on. That’s part of the reason for the baseball cards. He needed something certain. He needed big men he could hold in his hand. He needed cardboard gods.
Wilker frames this chapter on social experiment gone awry with “Topps 1975 #407: Herb Washington,” that great baserunning experiment of Charley O’Finley’s that went awry: the professional pinch-runner who was caught stealing more than half the number of times he stole. The adult Wilker remains understanding. In the face of a more affluent acquaintance named Wendell who scoffed at the idiocy of the family experiment, Wilker writes:
Whether the useless innovation of Herb Washington signaled the apotheosis of the A’s dynasty or foretold the team’s impending descent at champion-sprinter speed into abject late-1970s suffering is beside the point. The point is that life is not to be methodically considered and solved like a math equation. Life, fucking Wendell, is to be sprinted toward and bungled beyond recognition.
In this manner, the book continues. Wilker’s childhood confidence falters and there’s Mike Cosgrove with a face full of faltering confidence. Girls make him self-conscious of his clothes and there’s the 1977 Chicago White Sox team card, the players wearing collared shirts and shorts, the most embarassing uniform in a decade of embarassing uniforms. He discovers death and there’s Lyman Bostock.
Because Wilker is a Red Sox fan, one anticipates the one-game playoff with the hated New York Yankees in 1978. Yet for some reason the representative card is “Topps 1975 #299: Bucky Dent,” back when Dent was with the Chicago White Sox. Wilker explains, sympathetically:
...here’s the tragic figure of Bucky Dent, the mildly promising, light-hitting young Chicago White Sox shortstop who after being named to the Topps All-Star Rookie Team in 1975 was killed in a horrific wood-chipper accident.
Sure, Wilker says, there’s that odd rumor that Dent didn’t die during the ’75 off-season; that he was eventually traded to the Yankees, and, in that one-game playoff, came to the plate with two on and the Yanks down by two, and after a delay, and after a new bat, he hit a homerun over the Green Monster in left field to put the Yankees ahead, and the Yankees would go on to win the game, the ALCS and the World Series, all on the back of the puny Dent, who, himself, would become a shirtless pin-up boy and lousy TV actor (see: “Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders”). But then Wilker writes reasonably:
Clearly, the stronger Bucky Dent theory is the one in which Bucky Dent was tragically chopped into pieces, then minced into bits, then pureed into a mush of flesh and feathered hair and eye black by a ravenous, extemely efficient wood chipper before he was ever able to make any significant impact on baseball history or on the innocence of, say, a ten-year-old Red Sox fan in East Randolph, Vermont on October 2, 1978.
Wilker is particularly excellent on that childhood. He watches “The Incredible Hulk,” tags after Ian, yearns for Yaz. “Go with me, Josh!” young girls ask and he thinks “Go where?” Bullies descend:
“Hey, doofus,” the second one, Denny, said. “How many hours in a day?”
“Hey, yeah,” Muskrat said. “How many days in a week?”
“He doesn’t know. They don’t know shit.”
“Hey, how do you spell dog? How do you spell cat?”
“Why is your hair so curly and long?” Denny said. “You must be a woman.”
“Why are you a woman?” Muskrat said.”
He is less excellent on his dissolute twenties and thirties, but that’s a tougher sell. Children are powerless and thus sympathetic. By the time you hit 25, if you can walk and talk, you need to get a life. Wilker, the character, doesn’t even sprint towards his bungling as his parents did; he wanders, shuffles, meanders. One loses patience with him, as he does with himself. But in that wandering, drop by drop, comes the wisdom to write this book.
My own baseball card collection is long gone, sold to Joe Roedl in sixth grade for a few dollars, but I can’t see any of the Topps series from that period—or, more, from the coveted period preceding mine, particularly the 1965 series with the team name embedded in a pennant in the lower left corner—without a yearning to have. Those cards look the same—as immortal as gods. But I’m 47 now, not 8, and the places I bought baseball packs, Little General and Salk’s Drugs on 54th and Lyndale in south Minneapolis, don’t even exist anymore. We said it to each other when we were trading baseball cards back then but time says it better to us: No backs.
How Market Research Almost Destroyed the Most Popular Shows in TV History
I'm late to the Maclolm Gladwell parade. I read his stuff in the New Yorker but didn't check out any of his books until I had to read "Outliers" for work—I interviewed M&A lawyer Joseph Flom, who is the subject of that book's fifth chapter, "The Three Lessons of Joe Flom"—and was particularly impressed, not only with the Flom chapter, but with the first chapter, in which Gladwell dissects the success of youth hockey players in Canada and the puzzle over the preponderence of early-month birthdates among them. Lots of January, February and March babies playing in the NHL. Why? January 1 is the cut-off date for youth hockey, so at an early age a January 1st kid will be competing against a December 31st kid and have a year advantage in growth and coordination. That January kid will play in more tournaments, and get more coaching and practice, and what began as an accident of birth will become a self-fulfilling prophecy: He'll be better. We're never the meritocracies we think we are.
"Blink" isn't quite as good but I did enjoy the chapter, "Kenna's Dilemma," for its confirmation of my own thoughts on audience test scores. Two years ago, when this blog was a baby, I wrote how "The Office" (both versions) got some of the lowest audience test scores in their respective networks' histories, as did "Seinfeld." I asked:
If you don’t recognize Seinfeld and The Office and The Office for what they are, or what they might be, what good are you? How many other Seinfelds are you turning into something ordinary and short-lived? How many millions are the money-people blowing?
Thanks to Gladwell, here are a few more names to add to the list:
In the late 1960s, the screenwriter Norman Ler produced a television sitcom pilot for a show called All in the Family. ... All in the Family scored in the low 40s [out of 100, in market research]. ABC said no. Lear took the show to CBS. They ran it through their own market research program... The results were unimpressive. The recommendation of the research department was that Archie Bunker be rewritten as a soft-spoken and nurturing father. CBS didn't even bother promoting All in the Family before its first season. What was the point? The only reason it made it to the air at all was that the president of the company, Robert Wood, and the head of programming, Fred Silverman, happened to like it...
That same year, CBS was also considering a new comedy show starring Mary Tyler Moore. ... The [market research] results were devastating. Mary was a "loser." Her neighbor Rhoda Morgenstern was "too abrasive"...
"Archie Bunker [should] be rewritten as a soft-spoken and nurturing father." That's one of my new favorites.
In case the lesson isn't obvious, Gladwell drives it home:
The problem with market research is that often it is simply too blunt an instrument to pick up this distinction between the bad and the merely different.
I wrote much the same a year ago January, regarding a Tad Friend New Yorker piece about audience testing, in which it was mentioned that "Pulp Fiction" received some of the lowest test scores in its studio's history and "Akeelah and the Bee" received some of the highest.
"Pulp Fiction," "All in the Family," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Seinfeld," "The Office," "The Office."
“The Yankee Years” by Joe Torre and Tom Verducci: Special YANKEES SUCK Edition
The New York Daily News called it “One of the best books about baseball ever written,” while The New Yorker named it one of its BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR, but for the rest of us, “The Yankee Years,” by Joe Torre and Tom Verducci, seems awfully schizophrenic.
It's a mostly plodding hagiography of the 1996-2001 New York Yankees and their even-keeled manager, Joe Torre, but Verducci keeps pushing in directions that undercut the hagiography. He includes a chapter on steroid abuse, for example, that renders irrelevant the team's accomplishments. Clemens blew the Mariners away with one of the best performances in post-season history. (Yay!) But while he was on steroids. (Boo!) Oh, but don't worry, the steroids don't matter. (Huh?) He lists off the ways Michael Lewis' Moneyball changed the game—with teams like the Red Sox valuing previously undervalued stats, like On-Base-Percentage, and prospering as a result. But while Yankees' GM Brian Cashman became a quick if sloppy convert, Torre, the book's hero, never did, continuing to focus on less-measurable aspects of the game like personality and heart.
We're reminded, again and again, of the four titles Torre helped bring to New York, as if the book were written for the Steinbrenners and Cashman, who unceremoniously cut Torre loose after the 2007 season. We're reminded, again and again, of the grinding qualities those late '90s players, such as Paul O'Neill and Tino Martinez, brought to the team, and how newer players, such as Jason Giambi and Alex Rodriguez, didn't have that same heart, and didn't care enough about the team, which is why, according to Torre, the Yankees stopped winning World Series. But this construct, which is Torre's construct, is later refuted by, of all people, Derek Jeter, who mostly blames lack of pitching for the non-title years. Verducci then backs up Jeter with stats. So which is it? Or which is it mostly? No attempt to clarify this apparent discrepancy is made.
As a result, the book is a fascinating mess. It's also annoying for anyone who hates the Yankees. That's most of us.
- “The  postseason became a 15-game version of their regular season. The Yankees capitalized on any opening...” (p. 15) ...particularly the opening of Jeffrey Maier's glove.
- “After five games, the 1998 Yankees were 1-4, in last place, already 3 1/2 games out of first, outscored 36-15, at risk of losing their manager and letting teams like the Mariners kick sand in their faces.” (p. 42) Teams like the Mariners? How awful. I'm reminded of that Charles Atlas ad. “That team is the worst nuissance on the beach!”
- “Like Torre, [David] Cone was angered by what he saw the previous night. He watched Seattle designated hitter Edgar Martinez, batting in the 8th inning with a 4-0 lead, take a huge hack on a 3-and-0 pitch from reliever Mike Buddie—five innings after Moyer had dusted [Paul] O'Neill with a pitch.” (p. 44) Wow, Moyer dusted someone? And apparently Edgar violated one of the unwritten rules of baseball: Swinging on a 3-0 pitch when up by four runs in a stadium where David Cone threw 148 pitches and walked in the tying run in the final game of the 1995 ALDS. Edgar should know better than that.
- “'You have to find something to hate about your opponent,' [Cone said in a pre-game speech to his teammates.] 'Look aross the way. These guys are real comfortable against us. Edgar is swinging from his heels on 3-and-0 when they're up by about 10 runs!'” (p. 44) Give or take six runs.
- “At some point over the 2000 and 2001 seasons, according to the Mitchell Report, Radomski provided drugs for [Yankees] Grimsley, Knoblauch, pitcher Denny Neagle, outfielders Glenallen Hill and David Justice, and later for pitcher Mike Stanton. In addition, the 2000 Yankees included three other players who later admitted their drug use (though not necessarily specific to that particular year): Jose Canseco, Jim Leyrtiz and Andy Pettitte. Most infamously, the 2000 Yankees had a tenth player who would be tied to reports of performance-enhacing drug use: Clemens.” (p. 105) We're back to the Charles Atlas ad. Mariners kick sand, Yankees beef up. “The INSULT that made steroids users out of 'Yankees'!”
- “'Andy [Pettitte] was great,” Torre said. 'I think he taught Roger how to pitch in New York. And Roger taught Andy how to be stronger.'“ (p. 77) ”Stronger.“
- ”Pettitte was a churchgoing, God-fearing Texan, known in the Yankees clubhouse for his integrity and earnestness. If Pettitte was going to cheat, who wouldn't?“ (p. 111) Atheist bastards from Massachusetts?
- ”'It's like Bob Gibson said: “To win a game you'd take anything,”' Torre said. 'We'd all sell our souls. Winning is something that was first and foremost and that's what we wanted to do. Unfortunately, now what stimulates the need to do this is individual performance and not winning.'“ (p. 113) Ah, for the days when players took illegal substances for the good of the team.
- ”There was so much going on, so much in his head, so much emotion coursing through his body, that Clemens could not process the inventory of what was happening at that moment [when Piazza's bat shattered during the 2000 World Series] quickly enough.“ (p. 134) ”...so many steroids coursing through his body...“
- ”The Steroid Era was baseball's Watergate, a colossal breach of trust for which the institution is forever tainted. It floats untethered to the rest of baseball history, like some great piece of space junk, disconnected from the moorings of the game's statistics.“ (p. 117) Including championships in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000?
- The [Fenway Park] crowd arrives with the meanness and edginess of a mob.” (p. 80) Yankee crowds, bless them, arrive with smiles and pic-a-nic baskets.
- “Intimidation, and the mere threat that he could go off at any time, was part of Steinbrenner's personal and leadership package.” (p. 122) “Leadership.”
- “No 2000 World Series rings were forthcoming for the scouts, numbering about two dozen. Morale worsened when they were instructed not to bring up the subject of World Series rings at organizational meetings. It worsened still when they saw Steinbrenner cronies such as actor Billy Crystal or singer Ronan Tynan wearing World Series rings.” (p. 143) “Leadership.”
- “[In Steinbrenner's office, there was] a picture of General George S. Patton, given to him by a member of Patton's staff. It was not your typical military portrait. Patton is seen pissing into the Rhine.” (p. 467) Patton: Rhine; Steinbrenner: Baseball.
- “When Jeter was 24 years old and after the Yankees won the 1998 World Series, George Steinbrenner gave a book to him as a present: Patton on Leadership: Strategic Lessons for Corporate Warfare.” (p. 159) No bastard ever got rich by going long on subprime CDOs. He got rich by making the other poor dumb bastard go long on subprime CDOs.
- “Jeter requires fierce, unqualified loyalty from friends and teammates.” (p. 245) Baby.
- “The Yankees [after 9/11] had become not just New York's team, but also America's hometown team.” (p. 148) Fuck you.
- “So it came down to this: Mariano Rivera on the mound with a one-run lead against the bottom of the Arizona lineup [in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series]. Steinbrenner was standing in front of the bathroom mirror, combing his hair, preparing to soon accept the Commissioner's Trophy for a fourth straight year.” (p. 157) Ha!
- “The [2003 World] Series could have gone either way. A sacrifice fly here, a hit there, a little back and core maintenance there, and who knows?” (p. 237) A roided-up pitcher here, a Jeffrey Maier catch there...
- “'They always play Yankeeography in New York on the videoboard. As a visiting player, you see that they get music to hit to and when we come up we get Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle all the time,' [said Kevin Millar]. Millar walked into the office of [manager Terry] Francona [before Game 6 of the 2004 ALCS]. 'We're not hitting [batting practice] on the field today, Skip,' Millar said. 'We're not falling for any of that Yankeeography crap.'” (p. 304) Ha!
- “The Yankees were saddled not only with the worst collapse in baseball history [in the 2004 ALCS], but also the insult of having the hated Red Sox spill champagne in their stadium.” (p. 311) Ha!
- “Cashman didn't want [Ted] Lilly. He preferred [Kei] Igawa, though Igawa would cost the Yankees more money over four years ($46 million, including the $26 million posting fee)...” (p. 376) Wait for it....
- “'I caught Kei Igawa,' [bullpen catcher Mike] Borzello said... 'He threw three strikes the whole time. His changeup goes about 40 feet. His slider is not a big league pitch. His command was terrible.'” (p. 377) Ha!
- “Just the memory of [the 2003 World Series] pained Pettitte...especially that last night when Beckettt beat Pettitte and the Yankees, 2-0, in what would be the last World Series game every played at Yankee Stadium.” (p. 386) “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest [Yankees] thought” —Percy Shelley (with help from Erik Lundegaard)
- “Damon's teammates grew so frustrated with him [in 2007] that several spoke to Torre out of concern that he was hurting the team. One of them visited Torre one day in the manager's office and was near tears talking about Damon. 'Let's get rid of him,' the player said. 'Guys can't stand him.'” (p. 395) Pssst...Jeter.
- “[Joba] Chamberlain, glistening from the spray and his heavy sweat, was a midge magnet. ... Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, New York's $43 million left side of the infield, were constantly waving their gloves and throwing hands at the little midges. Fighting for their playoff lives, the most expensive team in baseball had developed into a vaudeville act.” (p. 438) This game almost made me believe in God. Or at least plagues.
- “It was 11:38 p.m. when the end came. Jorge Posada swung and missed at a pitch from Cleveland closer Joe Borowski for the final out of a 6-4 Yankees loss. It was the last pitch of the last postseason game ever played at Yankee Stadium.” (p. 462) Jor-ge! Jor-ge! Jor-ge!
- “'Guys, you're playing for the best manager you could possibly play for,' [coach Larry] Bowa told the players. 'He never rips you. He sticks up for you whether you're right or wrong. He gives you the benefit of the doubt on anything...” (p. 405) Until this book, in which Torre basically rips, among others, David Wells, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, Johnny Damon, Kevin Brown, Chuck Knoblauch, Bobby Abreu and Alex Rodriguez.
- “In another era, the Yankees might have cherry-picked elite pitchers in their prime from organizations that could not longer afford them, in the same way they had plucked David Cone from the Blue Jays in 1995 and Mussina from the Orioles after playing out his contract in 2000. Instead, the Blue Jays locked up Roy Halladay, the Indians locked up CC Sabathia, the Brewers locked up Ben Sheets, the Astros locked up Roy Oswalt and the Twins locked up Johan Santana—all small-market teams who suddenly had the cash to keep their ace pitchers off the trade and free agent markets. The kicker for the Yankees was that under the revenue-sharing system they were financing some of the newfound solvency of those teams.” (p. 421) Has a more self-absorbed paragraph ever been written? The Yankees feel sorry for themselves because they can no longer treat the rest of the Major Leagues like its own farm system? Worse, it's all wrong. The true kicker, not Verducci's kicker, is that all of these pitchers, save one, are not only not “locked up” but now with other teams—including Sabathia with the Yankees. Only Oswalt is still with the Astros...and he wants out.
- “Cashman and the Yankees [in the offseason leading up to the 2009 season] only had just begun to change the story. In 12 days they spent $423.5 million on Sabathia, pitcher A.J. Burnett, who was 31 years old at the time, and first baseman Mark Teixeira, who was 28. ... All told, the Yankees spent $441 million on free agents in that one winter. The rest of the league combined spent $176 million.” (p. 486) The rigged game continues. Rooting for the New York Yankees is like rooting for Goldman Sachs.
Morons, Crooks, and the People Who Saw It Coming: Assessing Credit on the Subprime Mortgage Disaster
Here are four names to remember. There are more but these are the ones I know:
They're the names to trot out whenever someone—particularly a higher up at an investment bank—says, vis a vis the subprime mortgage disaster, that no one saw it coming.
No, people saw it coming. These guys saw it coming. They bet against it and made hundreds of milions. Or billions.
I certainly didn't see it coming. I'm an idiot when it comes to finance. I'm even more of an idiot when you get into esoteric matters like banks selling mortgages and bundling them into bonds, which are rated by agencies that aren't rating them properly, and some of these bonds, the worst of the bonds, are sometimes rebundled into new packages called collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs, that are also rated by agencies that aren't rating them properly, and then side-bets are placed on those... I mean, you lost me back at the pass. It's partly why I read Michael Lewis. He writes well enough that even I can fathom some of this stuff. Right now I'm reading "The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine," about the subprime mortgage disaster.
Man, is it depressing.
There was an article in The New York Times yesterday, Andew Ross Sorkin's column, about uber-investor Warren Buffett coming to the defense of Goldman Sachs. He said: "I don't have a problem with the Abacus transaction, and I think I understand it better than most." He probably does. I didn't even know it was called the Abacus transaction. All I know is that John Paulson helped put together...what? A bond? Securities? An instrument? Then he shorted that instrument, the Abacus instrument, and Goldman Sachs didn't tell the people who bet long that the instrument was put together in part by the guy who was shorting it; the guy on the other side of their bet.
“I don’t care if John Paulson is shorting these bonds. I’m going to have no worries that he has superior knowledge. ... It’s our job to assess the credit.”
To which Sorkin chimes in: "The assets are the assets. The math either works or it doesn’t."
All of that makes sense. But it still sounds wrong. It's like finding out that the lineup of the baseball team I'm betting on was put together, not by the manager, whom I trust, but by the guy in the stands who's betting against my team, whom I don't. This behavior may not be illegal but it should be.
There's also the matter of being able to see the line-up. That lineup may not be online. It may not be posted in the dugout. The manager might not exchange it with the other manager's lineup before the game begins. Buffett calls it "assessing the credit," but according to Lewis, the bond market is opaque in a way that the stock market, which is more heavily regulated, is not. It's often hard to assess the credit. Was this particular instrument that John Paulson created for Goldman Sachs one of those that was hard to assess? I don't know. Does Warren Buffett, who understands these things better than most, have greater access to Wall Street firms and can thus assess the credit more easily than, say, a Michael Lewis, or you, or I? I don't know. These are merely my follow-up questions. The follow-up questions that Andrew Ross Sorkin didn't ask.
Let's pull back further. Are roles being blurred here? Why are investors on either end of a deal creating that deal? Why are investment banks placing bets on their own creations? Why is this allowed? Why is this still going on?
Back to Lewis' book. Page 158:
It was in Las Vegas [in Jan. 2007] that [Steve] Eisman and his associates' attitude toward the U.S. bond market hardened into something like its final shape. As Vinny put it, "That was the moment when we said, 'Holy shit, this isn't just credit. This is a fictitious Ponzi scheme.'" In Vegas the question lingering at the back of their minds ceased to be, Do these bond market people know something that we do not? It was replaced by, Do they deserve merely to be fired, or should they be put in jail? Are they delusional, or do they know what they're doing? Danny thought that the vast majority of the people in the industry were blinded by their interests and failed to see the risks they had created. Vinny, always darker, said, "There were morons and crooks, but the crooks were higher up."
That's Eisman and associates in Jan. 2007. They saw it coming. And Michael Burry? He saw it coming in 2003.
You should read Lewis' book. Burry is the most interesting character in it but Eisman is the big quote. I leave with him:
I think Alan Greenspan will go down as the worst chairman of the Federal Reserve in history. That he kept interest rates too low for too long is the least of it. I'm convinced that he knew what was happening in subprime, and he ignored it, because the consumer getting screwed was not his problem. I sort of feel sorry for him because he's a guy who is really smart who was basically wrong about everything.
Why You're Somewhere Between Dissatisfied and Disgusted
"Senior management's job is to pay people. If they fuck a hundred guys out of a hundred grand each, that's ten miliion more for them. They have four categories: happy, satisfied, dissatisfied, disgusted. If they hit happy, they've screwed up; They never want you to be happy. On the other hand, they don't want you so disgusted you quit. The sweet spot is somewhere between dissatisfied and disgusted."
—Greg Lippmann of Deutsche Bank, in Michael Lewis' "The Big Short," pg. 63. Last week, Lippmann, who not only bet against the subprime housing market but spread word that others should bet against the subprime housing market, too (he was, Lewis, writes, the "Patient Zero" of those bets), left Deutsche Bank for a hedge fund founded by Fred Brettschneider.
Happy St. Jordi's Day!
About 10 years ago, around this time of year, I received a book and card from my friend Kristin, an extensive traveler fluent in Spanish, wishing me a happy St. Jordi's, or St. George's, Day. Via Wikipedia:
La Diada de Sant Jordi is a Catalan holiday held on April 23rd with similarities to Valentine's Day and unique twists that reflect the antiquity of the celebrations. The main event is the exchange of gifts. Historically, men gave women roses, and women gave men a book—"a rose for love and a book forever." In modern times, the mutual exchange of books is customary. Roses have been associated with this day since medieval times, but the giving of books originated in 1923 when a bookseller started to promote the holiday as a way to commemorate the deaths of Miguel Cervantes and William Shakespeare on April 23, 1616.
In Barcelona's most visited street, La Rambla, and all over Catalonia, thousands of stands of roses and makeshift bookstalls are hastily set up for the occasion. By the end of the day, some four million roses and 800,000 books are purchased. Most women will carry a rose in hand...
I could get behind this. In the U.S. we merely have St. Valentine's Day, in which men give women flowers and chocolates, and women give men grief. It's a day when single people get to feel like shit and florists get to double their prices. Not a fan, generally.
St. Jordi's Day isn't limited to romantic partners; it's for anyone you love or care about. It's worth adopting. Of course...
Catalonia exported its tradition of the book and the rose to the rest of the world. In 1995, the UNESCO adopted April 23 as World Book and Copyright Day.
"World Book and Copyright Day"? Sexy!
Anyway, it's April 23rd. Shakespeare, Cervantes, St. Jordi, Barcelona, La Rambla, women with roses: somehow it all goes together. It's April 23rd. Buy someone you love a book.
Another Happy Ending
"Really, it was a federal issue. Household [Finance Corporation] was peddling these deceptive mortgages all over the country. Yet the federal government failed to act. Instead, at the end of 2002, Household settled a class action suit out of court and agreed to pay a $484 million fine distributed to twelve states. The following year it sold itself, and its giant portfolio of subprime loans, for $15.5 billion to the British financial conglomerate the HSBC Group.
"Eisman was genuinely shocked. 'It never entered my mind that this could possibly happen,' he said. 'This wasn't just another company—this was the biggest company by far making subprime loans. And it was engaged in just blatant fraud. They should have taken the CEO out and hung him up by his fucking testicles. Instead they sold the company and the CEO made a hundred million dollars. And I thought, Whoa! That one didn't end the way it should have.'"
—from Michael Lewis' "The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine," pg. 18
Off By That Much
"At headquarters, the agency kept advising Truman that China would not enter the [Korean] war on any significant scale. On October 18, as MacArthur's troops surged north toward the Yalu River and the Chinese border, the CIA reported that 'The Soviet Korean venture has ended in failure.' On October 20, the CIA said that Chinese forces detected at the Yalu were there to protect hydro-electric power plants. On October 28, it told the White House that those Chinese troops were scattered volunteers. On October 30, after American troops had been attacked, taking heavy casualties, the CIA reaffirmed that a major Chinese intervention was unlikely. A few days later, Chinese-speaking CIA officers interrogated several prisoners taken during the encounter and determined that they were Mao's soldiers. Yet CIA headquarters asserted one last time that China would not invade in force. Two days later 300,000 Chinese troops struck with an attack so brutal that it nearly pushed the Americans into the sea."
—from Tim Weiner's "Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA," pp. 58-59, beginning, or continuing, a tradition of faulty intelligence that invariably missed the biggest foreign policy events of the 20th century and beyond.
Saigon Signing Off
"Three hours after President Ford issued the evacuation order, the first American helicopters arrived from 80 miles offshore. The marine pilots performed with skill and daring, shuttling out about a thousand Americans and close to six thousand Vietnamese. A famous photograph shows one of the last helicopters leaving Saigon, perched on a rooftop as a trail of people climb a ladder to safety.* That photo, for many years, was mislabeled as a shot of the embassy. But in fact it was a CIA safe house, and those were [CIA station chief Tom] Polgar's friends clambering aboard.
"Polgar burned all the CIA's files, cables and codebooks that evening. Not long after midnight, he composed his farewell: THIS WILL BE FINAL MESSAGE FROM SAIGON STATION. ... IT HAS BEEN A LONG FIGHT AND WE HAVE LOST. ... THOSE WHO FAIL TO LEARN FROM HISTORY ARE FORCED TO REPEAT IT. LET US HOPE THAT WE WILL NOT HAVE ANOTHER VIETNAM EXPERIENCE AND THAT WE HAVE LEARNED OUR LESSON. SAIGON SIGNING OFF."
—from Tim Weiner's "Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA," pg. 397.
* from the Boston Globe obituary of Hugh Van Es, the Dutch photojournalist who took the shot below:
From his vantage point on a balcony at the UPI bureau several blocks away, Mr. Van Es recorded the scene with a 300-mm lens - the longest one he had. It was clear, Mr. Van Es said later, that not all the approximately 30 people on the roof would be able to escape, and the UH-1 Huey took off overloaded with about a dozen.
The Wisdom of Buck O'Neil
“Buck [O'Neil, age 94] was wearier than usual. He had been sucker-punched by the Star [radio] interview and then pounded relentlessly by so many interviews and requests. His head spun. He was hungry. He was surrounded by a Friday evening in New York—the construction sounds, the blaring horns, the fast walkers, the street hustlers, the Broadway lights, the hole in the sky. Buck loved New York. He was ready to get home.
”'I'm going to sleep,' he announced when the car pulled up to the Marriott. As we stepped out of the car, I notcied a woman standing outside, near a concrete bench. She was wearing a red dress. It's not quite right to say I noticed her, as if this took some doing. She was noticeable. Her dressed blazed candy-apple red. You could see it from Brooklyn. The woman who wore it looked nothing at all like Marilyn Monroe and yet that was the name that came to mind. Marilyn. It was that kind of dress. We walked into the hotel, and I turned back to mention something to Buck about the woman and her red dress. He was gone. I looked back to see if he had stayed in the car but the car was gone, too. I looked down the hall. Empty. Bathroom? Empty.
Then I looked outside. There was Buck talking to the woman in the red dress. Buck talked and she laughed. She talked and he laughed. They hugged. She kissed him. A young man walked over, and Buck talked to him, they hugged, they all laughed. The three of them stayed together for a long time, Buck and the woman and the young man. Finally Buck hugged both of them and walked in looking fresh as the morning. Star was a long way back in his memory. Buck said, 'Let's go get something to eat.'
“As we walked to the restaurant, he asked: 'Did you see the woman in the red dress?'
“Buck shook his head and looked me in the eyes. And very slowly, with a teacher's edge in his voice, Buck said this: 'Son, in this life, you don't ever walk by a red dress.'”
—from Joe Posnanski's “The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America,” which I read in its entirety during our plane trip from Seattle to Seoul and then Seoul to Hanoi, enjoying every minute I spent with Buck and Joe. Much recommended. Rest in Peace, Buck. Keep going, Joe.
Legacy of Something
I've been reading Tim Weiner's book Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA while on vacation in Vietnam (I know) and the big takeaway, for me, 100 pages in, reflecting the first 10 years of the agency's history, is this:
We were never as weak as we feared. Our enemies were never as strong as we feared. Our big mistake was our fear. It made us adopt a policy, chosen mostly in secret by a handful of men, that runs counter to an open democracy and that played to the strengths of our enemies: covert operations. They were better at this than we were because they lived in a closed, controlled society. We didn't fight from our strength but from our weakness. We tried to beat our enemy by becoming like our enemy, and in the process we weakened ourselves and strengthened them. And the only thing worse than our countless, bumbling failures was our few successes--not least because of the long-term consequences. Guatemala in 1954 became the blueprint for the Bay of Pigs in 1961. Iran in 1953 led to the Ayatollah in 1979... which led... which led...
And the press, in the golden age of journalism, was nowhere to be seen.
Meanwhile, today, the argument that we are weak, and that we need to become like our enemy to defeat our enemy, continues.
And Thus was the Taliban Created
"Smuggling narcotics [in Afghanistan in the spring of 1994] was just one among many criminal endeavors pursued by the warlords, whose entrepreneurial instincts had them constantly looking for ways to expand their sources of revenue. So-called checkpoints, for instance, sprouted like noxious weeds along every road in Afghanistan. The major thoroughfares—especially Highway A1, which formed a giant loop around the entire nation to link its principal cities—were plagued by hundreds if not thousands of such checkpoints, typically consisting of a chain or a log pulled across the road, attended by three or four bearded men brandishing AK-47s. Every time a trucker, farmer, or other traveler encountered one of these roadblocks, he would be asked at gunpoint to pay a 'road tax.' Refusal was not an option. Women were sometimes raped.
"Sanghisar is linked to Highway A1 via a two-mile maze of crude dirt lanes. After the junction with the paved highway, 23 additional miles of potholed macadam lead east to Kandahar City—the provincial capital and second-largest city in Afghanistan. In 1994, during a routine trip to Kandahar, Mullah Omar was stopped and shaken down for cash at five different checkpoints on this one short stretch of highway, which made him so angry that he organized a tribal council—a jirga—of more than 50 mullahs to eradicate the roadblocks and halt the extortion.
"The religious leaders decided to start small by pooling their weapons, forming a militia of their own, and forcefully removing a single checkpoint—the one nearest to Sanghisar. It was taken for granted that blood would be spilled, but they believed their cause was righteous and saw no other option, in any case. On the appointed day they approached the checkpoint warily with their rifles locked and loaded, prepared for a firefight, but as they drew near, a surprising thing happened: the hooligans manning the checkpoint fled without firing a shot. Encouraged, the mullahs turned their attention to the next checkpoint several miles down the road, and the outcome was similar. Before the week was out, they succeeded in removing every roadblock between Sanghisar and Kandahar. And thus was the Taliban created. The name—a Pashto word meanign "students of Islam"—was bestowed by Omar."
—from Jon Krakauer's "Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman," pp. 48-49
Quote of the Day
"You're not so nice and polite in your fiction," he said. "You're a different person."
"I should hope so."
—E.I. Lonoff talking to Nathan Zuckerman in Philip Roth's "The Ghost Writer," an underrated classic.
J.D. Quote of the Day
"A community of seriously hip observers is a scary and depressing thing. It takes me at least an hour to warm up when I sit down to work. ... Just taking off my own disguises takes an hour or more."
—J.D. Salinger, in a letter to Lillian Ross, and quoted in The New Yorker, Feb. 8, 2010
Lancelot Links (RIP JD edition)
- My sister forwarded this Washington Post article on the unintentioned heartbreak we caused the publisher of Orchises Press, Roger Lathbury, who was all set to publish J.D. Salinger's "Hapworth 16, 1924" in January 1997 when I discovered it on amazon.com in October 1996, wrote about it briefly for a Seattle Times publication, then told my sister, who wrote about it, more prominently, for The Washington, D.C. Business Journal. Her article was picked up by The Washington Post, The New York Times, NPR, etc., and the ensuing publicity caused Salinger to withdraw permission to publish. I wrote about my experience in the matter here. The Wikipedia version is here. My apologies to Mr. Lathbury—and to myself, since I would have loved reading "Hapworth" in book form, no matter what I ultimately thought of it. According to the article, it took Salinger eight years to agree to let Lathbury publish "Hapworth." If it had taken him six or seven, the book probably would've happened. Unfortunately, by the time he said yes we were in the dawn of the Internet age. And there are no secrets in the Internet age.
- Don't miss the Times' "Walking in Holden's footsteps" literary map of Manhattan.
- Here's Le Monde's version of the Salinger obituary.
- And here's my friend Andy's poignant take on the influence of The Catcher in the Rye.
- I also like this New York Times' piece on how "recluse" is in the eye of the beholder.
- I linked to this last week but it's worth linking again: Steven Lomazow's post on the early, uncollected Salinger stories that I wrote about here. The post comes from Lomazow's blog on "the history, importance and joy of magazine collecting."
- Finally, Charles McGrath did a nice job on Salinger's obituary for The New York Times, although I would've changed the lead to read: "J. D. Salinger, who was thought at one time to be the most important American writer to emerge since World War II, at a time when writers, American or otherwise, were thought to be important, died on Wednesday at his home in Cornish, N.H., where he had lived in seclusion for more than 50 years. He was 91." That's part of the tragedy for Salinger and us. Apparently he couldn't stand all that attention on his writing; but if he'd simply waited a few decades his writing would've received all of the lack of attention he wanted.
Three Stories with J.D. Salinger — Epilogue
Epilogue: The Fat Lady Sings
I have many more stories about J.D. Salinger, of course. In Mr. Wolk’s 10th-grade English class, we had to write mini-plays about one of the texts we’d read, and I wrote mine, or ours (it was a group project), about Holden Caulfield riding an elevator up Macy’s Department Store, making it, or trying to make it, all symbolic, with each floor representing an age of life. It was a disaster. In college I rediscovered the humor of The Catcher in the Rye and delved into the book several times a week. (One of my favorite lines: “I thought the two ugly ones, Marty and Laverne, were sisters, but they got very insulted when I asked them. You could tell neither one of them wanted to look like the other one, and you couldn’t blame them, but it was very amusing anyway.”) I kept having discussions with friends about the best story in Nine Stories. Twenty years ago Pete said “Teddy.” Craig has rarely deviated from “For Esme.” I keep coming back to “The Laughing Man.”
When I interviewed Jeff Bezos in 1996, and he was informing me of the future—the Internet’s 2300 percent growth rate, the sorting capabilities of computers, the 1.5 million English-language books in print—I threw him off slightly by asking about the past, Hapworth 16, 1924, a then-31-year-old story that his Web site said was being published as a book in January. Bezos recovered nicely, though. You know how amazon.com makes recommendations based upon what you’ve bought or browsed? He was like that in the interview. I brought up Salinger so he kept bringing up Salinger. When I wondered how they weeded out frivolous customer reviews, for example, he said, “It's an incredibly small number of people who actually do that. We had God review the Bible. We had J.D. Salinger review Catcher in the Rye. It was very funny. The person who did that one actually had a terrific sense of humor.” I got the distinct impression, though, even as he spoke about him, that Bezos thought Salinger was dead.
When most famous authors die, pundits and obituary writers toss around some variation of the phrase, “A great voice has been stilled.” When J.D. Salinger died last week at the age of 91, it was opposite. Now that he’s dead, we hope he’ll talk. Are there more stories? Novels? Letters? Something? I can’t pretend I’m not intrigued. I followed him to his beginnings so I’m sure I’ll follow him to his ends. At the same time I know that a week doesn’t go by when he’s not talking with me already.
Here’s to Buddy. Here’s to the Fat Lady. Here’s to moving from one piece of Holy Ground to the next.
Three Stories with J.D. Salinger — Part III
Part III: Seymour: An Erasure
During my year in Taiwan, British author Ian Hamilton published a thin biography called In Search of J.D. Salinger. It was thin because Salinger wasn’t talking, and neither were his friends, and neither, it turns out, were the letters Salinger had written to those friends in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, which Hamilton found in library collections at Harvard, Princeton and the University of Texas. They weren’t talking because it was ruled, in Salinger v. Random House, Inc., that while the letters themselves were public, Salinger still owned the words in those letters, and those words couldn’t be reprinted without his permission. Which, of course, he refused to give.
In Newsweek magazine, whose international edition I read in the Tien Mu library on the outskirts of Taipei, Walter Clemons took it upon himself to review not only Hamilton’s bio but Salinger’s oeuvre and his then-23-year silence. The review bothered me enough to write a letter to the editor. Here’s how it appeared, the second of three letters under the heading “In Defense of the Author”:
Walter Clemons writes of J.D. Salinger: “His work went to hell as he withdrew into solitude ... The sad fact is that one can’t hope that the work he’s done in his jealously defended privacy is likely to be very interesting.” No, one can still hope, Walter, despite your sad “fact.”
It was Clemons’ language that pissed me off—his confusion of facts and hopes—but I didn’t agree with his opinion, either. I was still dazzled by Salinger; I hadn’t seen the pattern.
The best criticism I’ve read of Salinger is a cautionary review of Franny and Zooey by John Updike in 1962. Updike notes that in “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters”...
...Seymour defines sentimentality as giving “to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it.” This seems to me the nub of the trouble: Salinger loves the Glasses more than God loves them.
In this same review, Updike writes that the Franny of “Franny” and the Franny of “Zooey” are not the same person. The former is a simple college girl going through a spiritual crisis because she found a book, The Way of the Pilgrim, in her college library. The latter is a savant, the youngest of the seven Glass children—each of whom appeared on the radio show, “It’s a Wise Child”—who got The Way of the Pilgrim, not out of her college library, but out of older brother Seymour’s bedroom. When Zooey admonishes his mother for not realizing where Franny gets her books (“You’re so stupid, Bessie”), it’s as if he’s admonishing Salinger himself, who got it wrong the first time.
All true. But it’s nothing compared to how Salinger kept changing his second-most-famous character.
When we first see Seymour Glass sitting on a beach in 1948’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” he’s a classic Salinger hero: skinny, pale, good with kids, a bit crazy. He could be Holden as an adult. Then he returns to his hotel room, lays down next to his wife and blows his brains out.
We don’t see Seymour again until “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” published in November 1955. In the interim, Salinger published The Catcher in the Rye and nine short stories (the other eight stories of Nine Stories and “Franny”), but it’s not until “Raise High” that we find out that some of the characters in these stories—Seymour in “Bananafish,” Walt in “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” Boo Boo in “Down at the Dinghy,” and Franny in “Franny”—are actually part of the same family. The Glass family.
“Raise High” is about Seymour’s wedding, and his disappearance from same, in 1942, but Seymour himself is never shown. We only encounter him through the thoughts of the hapless Buddy, the second-oldest Glass child, and through excerpts in Seymour’s journal, which Buddy reads on the edge of his bathtub.
By this time, the quirky young man of “Bananafish” has become, in Buddy’s words, “A poet, for God’s sake. And I mean a poet. If he never wrote a line of poetry, he could still flash what he had at you with the back of his ear if he wanted to.” He’s a man conflicted between acceptance of everything and discrimination of, say, the best way to live, or the best poetry, and he bridges this gap with a kind of condescension. He writes of his future mother-in-law: “She might as well be dead, and yet she goes on living. ... I find her unimaginably brave.” We find out that when was young he threw a rock at a beautiful girl because she was so beautiful. He claims to have scars on his hands from touching people he loves. He’s either a crazy man or a holy man—or both crazy man and holy man—and Salinger hasn't showing his cards in the matter yet. We still have that tension. It’s part of why the story works.
“Raise High” is, in fact, one of the best pure stories I’ve ever read. It’s both rooted in the everyday and mystical. Its ending is so understated it doesn’t seem to end but continues to glide along into the unknown. He does this in 89 pages. In “Zooey,” published a year and a half later, a boy takes a bath and talks to his mother and sister. It’s 150 pages. The indulgence has begun.
“Zooey” is set in 1955, and, though Seymour’s been dead for seven years, he continues to grow. We find out he got his Ph.D. at 18. We get a glimpse of his poetry (“The little girl on the plane/ Who turned her doll’s head around/ To look at me”). The beaverboard in his old room is full of quotes from wise men and wise texts: Tolstoy, Epictetus, De Caussade, Ring Lardner, Mu-Mon Kwan, and The Bhagavad Gita. The tension between crazy man and holy man is dissolving, and, with it, story.
It’s in the next one, though, published more than two years later, that Salinger, the master storyteller, gives up on story altogether. It’s called “Seymour: An Introduction” but it might as well be called “Seymour: An Erasure.” Remember that poem about the girl on the plane? That’s actually Buddy’s translation of Seymour’s haiku, which was written in Japanese, one of dozens of languages Seymour knew. Remember the Seymour of “Bananafish”? That’s actually Buddy’s interpretation of Seymour, which he now admits was a little too much (“alley oop, I’m afraid”) like himself. By this time Seymour is no longer a crazy young man (“Bananafish”), or a poet, for God’s sake (“Raise High”); he’s one of the greatest poets in the history of the English language. And how could one of the greatest poets in the history of the English language write that crap poem about the girl on the plane? He couldn’t. Buddy did. Or Salinger did. But who’s Salinger? A hack compared to Seymour. The creation has outgrown his creator. Seymour has become too powerful to write about.
In order to even capture Seymour in “Hapworth 16, 1924,” published six long years later, Salinger has to shrink him back to the age of 8; and even here, pintsized, he’s so powerful Salinger can barely keep him on the page. Seymour may be a kid writing a letter home from summer camp, but the letter is over 100 pages long and includes sentences of Jamesian complexity. Story? Gone. Epiphany? What’s the point? Seymour is a reincarnated wise man now, increasingly aware of past, present and future. He accurately prophesies his own death. He talks about the other lives, or appearances, he’s lived, and the appearances of everyone else at the camp. So what can he realize that he doesn’t already know? How can he journey to a place he doesn’t already see? You understand why it’s the last thing Salinger ever published. He’s left himself, and his creation, nowhere to go.
Anyway that’s the story the fuss was all about.
Tomorrow: The Fat Lady Sings
Three Stories with J.D. Salinger - Part II
Part II: My Summer of Salinger
I first encountered J.D. Salinger the way most of us did—when I was assigned The Catcher in the Rye in high school—but there was a time when I could read no one else. It was the summer of 1987. I’d just graduated from the University of Minnesota and was in love with a girl who was in Maine for the summer while I was about to leave for Taiwan in the fall. It felt like life was flowing in the wrong direction and I could do nothing to stop it. I felt bruised, and other authors kept pressing the bruised spots. Only Salinger consoled.
I didn’t re-read Catcher. I re-read Nine Stories and the Glass family stories, and then re-read them again. I read “Hapworth” in an old copy of The New Yorker my father had kept. I was so desperate I read a slim paperback, Salinger, published in 1962, which consisted of cold, critical thoughts on the author, but which contained references to Salinger stories I’d never heard of. “Personal Notes of an Infantryman”? “Slight Rebellion Off Madison”? The titles themselves sounded magical.
Turns out that before the nine stories of Nine Stories, as far back as 1940, Salinger had published stories, in magazines like Colliers and The Saturday Evening Post, that had never been collected in book form, and I found them at the University of Minnesota library. Throughout that long hot summer, I kept returning to its cool, fluorescent-lit stacks to read about ‘30s kids at parties (“The Young Folks”) and young married couples with problems (“Both Parties Concerned”).
It was hit or miss stuff. “Hang of It,” from 1941, concerns a World War I screw-up whose drill sergeant bellows at him, “Aincha got no brains?!” and the narrator sides with the drill sergeant. In the end we find out that the narrator is (“alley oop, I’m afraid,” as Buddy Glass would later write) the screw-up, now a colonel, and forever indebted to his loveable old drill sergeant. It’s the kind of thing Holden Caulfield would’ve torn apart.
War transformed Salinger’s writing. “The Stranger,” from December 1945, is blunt and unsentimental in comparison. “Your mind, your soldier’s mind, wanted accuracy above all else,” Babe Gladwaller thinks as he returns to New York to inform Vincent Caulfield’s girlfriend about his death. “So far as details went, you wanted to be the bulls-eye kid: Don’t let any civilians leave you, when the story’s over, with any uncomfortable lies.”
That’s right: Vincent Caulfield. He first shows up in “Last Day of the Last Furlough” from 1945, telling Babe: “My brother Holden is missing [in action].” Holden, not missing at all, not touched by war at all, shows up in two other stories from 1945 and 1946, while his much-imitated way of speaking—that repetitious, inarticulate way of circling closer to the truth, replete with I means and goddamns—shows up even earlier. In “Both Parties Concerned,” Ruthie leaves her husband, Billy, but she can’t stand staying at her mother’s place and returns. “It got me down,” she tells Billy. “I mean when I saw her looking so funny in her hair net again. I knew I wouldn’t be any good at home anymore. I mean not any good at their home.”
So many bells go off reading this stuff. In “The Varioni Bros.,” Joe, the more poetic half of a songwriting duo from the 1920s, dies horribly, tragically young—prefiguring Seymour Glass. In “The Stranger,” Babe’s relationship with his sister, Mattie, is right out of the Holden-Phoebe school. In “A Boy in France,” Mattie’s letter to Babe allows him to fall “crumbly, bent-leggedly, asleep”—as Esme’s letter would for a different soldier in “For Esme—With Love and Squalor.”
Eventually my love and need for Salinger became, like all loves and needs, stifling. I was reading 50-year-old stories that—beyond this epiphany or that moment of grace—didn’t take me anywhere I hadn’t been taken before, and better, by the same author. Occasionally I’d glance through these magazines to stories by the likes of Alice Farnham and Walt Grove and wonder whatever became of them. One issue of Story trumpeted the inclusion of “the 1944 Avery Hopwood prize novella, ‘Mexican Silver’ by Hilda Slautterback.” And it dawned on me—me who had such grand literary ambitions, but who had published exactly nothing—how hard it would be, not to be published and remembered like Salinger, but simply to be published and forgotten like Hilda Slautterback.
It was a Salinger reference that finally kicked me free from Salinger. In “A Girl I Knew,” the narrator mentions Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, and I sought it out. From there I read Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and by then I was living in Taiwan and on a new trajectory.
Tomorrow: Seeing More of Seymour
Three Stories with J.D. Salinger - Part I
My First Story with J.D. Salinger: Hapworthed
In October 1996 I was writing an article for a short-lived Seattle Times weekly about someone named Jeff Bezos who had started something called amazon.com, and, needing to see what a .com was, I biked over to my friend Ciam’s house and went online for the first time.
It would be interesting to see a screenshot of what I saw. I remember Ciam sat down at his desk and tapped on his computer keyboard, until, after some time, and even odder noises, he declared, “Here we are.”
I look over his shoulder and narrowed my eyes. “Is this on your computer?”
His explanations about what the online world was, I’m sure, fell noiselessly into some bottomless pit in my brain labeled “tech crap.” Once things go abstract I don’t quite get them, and if I understand the online world now it’s less because I get its abstractness than because I’ve transported its abstractness into the tangible world. Some part of my brain thinks reading online is as real as reading a newspaper.
“So what kinds of books do these guys have?” I asked.
Ciam shrugged. “Give me an author,” he said. I suggested Norman Mailer. I often went through phases with writers, and I was going through a Mailer phase now—even reading him chronologically—and I was pretty aware of all he had written. Or so I thought. After we typed in his name, some of the titles that came up dumbfounded me. The Bullfighter from 1967? Ciam and I were testing amazon but it felt like I was doing the failing.
So I suggested J.D. Salinger. Just four titles, right? The Catcher in the Rye, Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey, and Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction. Sure enough, we got those four titles in all of their various incarnations. We also got this: Hapworth 16, 1924.
“You’re kidding,” I said, staring at the screen.
“What?” Ciam asked.
“Hapworth. It’s the last story Salinger published—in The New Yorker in 1965—but it’s never been published in book form.” I motioned toward the screen. “Can you find out more about it?”
Ciam clicked on the link—a verb and a noun that hadn’t yet entered my vocabulary. Hapworth was due to be published by an outfit called Orchises Press in January 1997. Three months away.
“Wow,” I said. Initially I was more excited as a reader. Only slowly did I realize I had something of a scoop.
“Does anyone else know about this?” I asked, looking around.
The next time I spoke to my editor at The Seattle Times I mentioned the Hapworth discovery and suggested we do a separate story on it. Or at least a side-bar. The first J.D. Salinger book in 35 years! Think of it!
He didn’t share my enthusiasm. It’s not new? he asked. It’s just a reprint? he asked. “But feel free to put it in the story,” he added helpfully.
There are moments in life when you show what you’re made of, and, unfortunately, this was one such moment for me. I don’t remember my editor’s exact arguments but I accepted them in a defeatist way—as a door closing—rather than as what they were: a door opening. Since I was a freelancer, this editor had basically given me carte blanche to pitch the story to someone higher on the food chain: The Washington Post, The New York Times. But taking the individual for the institution, and assuming the institution knew what it was talking about, I folded.
Too bad, I thought. Felt like a story to me.
I did mention Hapworth to my sister. She had just gotten a job as a reporter with the Washington D.C. Business Journal, and, since Orchises Press was located in Virginia, I thought it might make a good local story. She ran with it. A few days after her article appeared, The Washington Post picked it up. A few days after that, The New York Times picked it up. About a week later, in the bookstore warehouse where I worked, National Public Radio, which we listened to all the time, did a feature on the excitement the new edition of Hapworth was engendering. I stood for a while and listened. In Don DeLillo’s novel, Libra, the CIA agent who suggests assassinating JFK is, by the time the assassination goes down, just a guy sitting in his basement going through his wine collection. He’s out of the picture. That’s how I felt—like I was on the wrong end of the radio. I listened for another moment before going back to shelving books.
The punchline? Perhaps because of the sudden media attention for Hapworth brought about by my sister’s story, Salinger withdrew permission to publish. Thirteen years later, the story still hasn’t been seen in book form.
Tomorrow: My Summer of Salinger
Quote of the Day: "City of God"
"If Albert is right, there is consolation to be derived from the planets. For example, that they're all spheroid, that none of them are shaped like dice or the cardboards laundered shirts come folded on. And thinking about their formation—how, from amorphous furious swirls of cosmic dust and gas, everything spins out and cools and organizes itself into a gravitationally operating solar system... And that this has apparently happened elsewhere, that there are bilions of galaxies with stars beyond number, so that even if a fraction of stars have orbitting planets with moons in orbit around them...a few planets, at least, may have the water necessary for the intelligent life that could be suffering the same metaphysical crisis that deranges us. So we have that to feel good about."
—E.L. Doctorow, "City of God," pp. 61-62
The Problem with The Shadow
“[Lamont] Cranston himself I thought a little slow-moving; he was fairly sedentary, as compared, say, with the Green Hornet, who could probably lick him in a fight if they went at it visibly. I didn’t think of the Shadow as being able to jump rooftops or climb ropes or run very fast. On the other hand, why should he have to? Also, I wondered about his restraint when he could become invisible anytime he chose. I wondered if he ever took advantage of women, as I surely would. Did he ever watch Margo Lane go to the bathroom? I knew that if I had the power to be invisible I would go into the girls’ bathroom at P.S. 70 and watch them pulling their drawers down. I would watch women take their clothes off in their homes and they wouldn’t even know I was there. I wouldn’t make the mistake of speaking up or making a sound, they would never even know I had been there. But I would forever after know what they looked like. The thought of having this power made my ears hot. Yes, I would spy on naked girls but I would also do good. I would invisibly board a ship, or, better still, a China Clipper, and I would fly to Germany and find out where Adolf Hitler lived. I would in absolute safety, and with no chance of being caught, go to Hitler’s palace, or whatever it was, and kill him. Then I would kill all of his generals and ministers. The Germans would be going crazy trying to find the invisible avenger. I would whisper in their ears to be good and kind, and they would thereafter be thinking God had been speaking. The Shadow had no imagination. He never looked at naked women nor thought of ridding he world of dictators like Hitler or Mussolini. If his program hadn’t been on a Sunday afternoon, I would probably not have listened to it.”
—from E.L. Doctorow’s World’s Fair, which I recently re-read for the first time in 20 years. It’s a beautiful book, and reminds me of Willa Cather’s lyrical My Antonia. Both are coming-of-age stories. This one's about coming into consciousness and perception in the Bronx in the 1930s. Funny, but I never thought about the double meaning of the title before: Not only a destination—the 1939/40 version in Flushing Meadows, New York—but a declaration of the way things are, which, given the circumstances of the story, not to mention our own perceptions, can only be viewed as ironic. Was Doctorow ever going to call it the title of the World's Fair essay contest our protagonist enters? “The Typical American Boy”? And how much of the book grew out of writing The Book of Daniel?
Herman Roth Gets Mugged
Yesterday's reference to Philip Roth’s “Patrimony” reminded me of one of my favorite anecdotes ever. It’s on pages 125-26 of the Simon & Schuster paperback edition. Philip, dutiful, distant son, is having a late-night talk with his friend Joanna, originally from Poland, now a recovering alcoholic living in Princeton, about his 86-year-old father, who is beginning to physically break down:
“Did I ever tell you what happened when he was mugged a couple of years ago? He could have got himself killed.”
“No. Tell me.”
“A black kid about fourteen approached him with a gun on a side street leading to their little temple. It was the middle of the afternoon. My father had been at the temple office helping them with mailing or something and he was coming home. The black kids prey on the elderly Jews in his neighborhood even in broad daylight. They bicycle in from Newark, he tells me, take their money, laugh, and go home. ‘Get in the bushes,’ he tells my father. ‘I’m not getting in any bushes,’ my father says. ‘You can have whatever you want, and you don’t need that piece to get it. You can put that piece away.’ The kid lowers the gun and my father gives him his wallet. ‘Take all the money,’ my father says, ‘ but if the wallet’s of no value to you, I wouldn’t mind it back.’ The kid takes the money, gives back the wallet, and he runs. And you know what my father does? He calls across the street. ‘How much did you get?’ And the kid is obedient—he counts it for him. ‘Twenty-three dollars,’ the kid says. ‘Good,’ my father tells him—‘now don’t go out and spend it on crap.’”
The Right-Wing Pisses on You—Literally
I now “get” that Pup’s greatness was a piece with the way he conducted himself at sea. Great men always have too much canvas up. Great men take risks. It’s the timorous souls—like myself—who err on the side of caution; who take in sail when they see a storm approaching and look for snug harbor. Not my old man. Or as Mum used to put it, “Bill, why are you trying to kill us?”
—Christopher Buckley, “Losing Mum and Pup,” pg. 122
I’m a similar timorous soul, a worst-case scenario man, and so I inevitably feel some admiration for men who are tougher and braver, who venture out in worst-case scenarios rather than imagining them, as I do, during best-case situations.
Not sure where one crosses the line from “adventurer” into “asshole” but William F. Buckley seems to cross it. He constantly plows his boat into docks; he risks lives—including his only son’s—to venture forth in storms; he steals lobsters from the traps of fishermen (but leaves behind bottles of Johnnie Walker as payment); he switches channels and movies and party locations without consultation. Consultation? What’s that? Hell, in his later days he often opened the front door of his car while it was moving to pee. Sometimes he did this in traffic. Onto other cars.
It would be easy to see this as a metaphor for the right-wing in this country but it’s probably a better metaphor for our ruling classes—regardless of political persuasion. Buckley, it turns out, was friends with not just Henry Kissinger but George McGovern and Ted Kennedy. One almost gets the feeling that the whole thing is a game to them and we’re the pieces. A less chilling comparison is to professional sports. Yankees and Red Sox fans may hate each other but it doesn’t mean David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez have to. They’re just two men playing the same game. They have more in common with each other than with the fans in the stands.
In the end no metaphors are truly needed to fathom the conservative mind. Merely go to the footnote on pg 117:
The book [on Goldwater] ends with an anecdote in which I, age twelve at the time, figure. Pup had gotten the details a bit wrong, and I had e-mailed him from Zermatt the correct version. He declined it, saying “I like my version better.” I thought to say, “Pup, it’s not a question of liking your version better, but of using the accurate version,” but then thought, Never mind.
That’s part of the reason why we’re in this mess. They always liked their version better.
As for C. Buckley’s book? It’s breezy and funny—although the humor is occasionally too rim-shot. The book jacket compares Buckley’s effort to Joan Didion’s memoir about the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, in “The Year of Magical Thinking,” but that book was devastating while this one is...kinda fun. Meanwhile, the best book I’ve read in the genre, if you want to call it a genre—“the death of loved ones by famous authors”—is Philip Roth’s “Patrimony,” in which the sickness and eventual death of his father is grounded and specific, and no messy detail is ignored. Put it this way: Christopher may have put up with his father’s shit but Philip cleaned up his father’s.
So we begin with piss and end with shit. The way of the world.
The Do-Little Academy
"The Academy Awards race was hardly a gentleman's game in the 1960s. If campaigning was less costly and public than in more recent years, it wasn't due to a sense of decorum as much as to the fact that the Academy itself was half the size it is today, much more heavily populated with rank-and-file studio employees, and thus easier to manipulate and control. Oscar prognostication was not yet a blood sport; each year, the movies that would be the subject of campaigns were selected by their studios, and then essentially dictated to selected gossip columnists and writers from Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and the Los Angeles Times, the only major publications that then took much notice of the nominating process."
— from Mark Harris' "Pictures at a Revolution," pg. 385
"The Graduate": Not Starring Robert Redford
[Mike] Nichols, who had championed the idea [of casting Robert Redford as Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate], surprised himself by turning the actor down. "We were friends, we had done Barefoot, I was playing pool with him, and I said, 'I'm really sad, but you can't do it. You can't play a loser,'" says Nichols. "He said, 'Of course I can play a loser!' I said, 'You can't! Look at you! How many times have you ever struck out with a woman?' And he said, I swear to you, 'What do you mean?' He didn't even understand the concept. To him, it was like saying, 'How many times have you been to a restaurant and not had a meal?'"
— from Mark Harris' "Pictures at a Revolution," pg. 237
SWJM, 27, Looking for Work
“Nonetheless, by the beginning of 1965, [Dustin] Hoffman was twenty-seven, seriously demoralized by his inability to land an acting job, and considerng a change in careers. ... [Susan] Anspach, who met him during that production [of A View from a Bridge], recalls a lunch for the cast and crew of the play at which he told her with bravado, '”You know, if I were older, I'd be playing Bobby's [Duvall] part.“ and I said, ”Sure, right, Dusty.“ And he said, ”What do you mean? I'm fuckin' talented! Ask Bobby! He'll tell you himself!“ I said to Bobby, ”Is he putting me on? He's the sweep-up guy!“ And Bobby said, ”No, it's true, he's the most talented guy among all of us.“'”
— from Mark Harris' “Pictures at a Revolution,” pg. 164
Quote of the Day
"Building is interesting, because it's ultimately impossible, I suppose, but killing is boring. It's easy to see through something—to show how stupid it is, or how wrong—but that doesn't take very long, and then you're finished. ... Killing doesn't solve the problem of boredom."
—Wendy O'Flaherty, professor at the University of Chicago's Divinity School, in Janet Malcolm's "In the Freud Archives," pg. 155
Overstates the case but it reminds me of the emptiness I feel after writing a movie review. It also reminds me that it's always easier to write a negative review than a positive one—in part because you want to do justice to the good film ("The Soloist") and could give a crap about the bad one ("Wolverine"). Writing a negative review is more freeing; you're not beholden to anything but the truth. The above quote also reminds me of most things on the Internet.
Alec, Charlie & Me
I know the difficulty of the Proust Questionnaire, having done my own now, and I think I appreciate good answers more. In the latest, I like the ying-yang of Alec Baldwin's "traits you most deplore in yourself/others" (Insecurity/Overconfidence), but he completely won me over with this one:
Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
Now why didn't I think of that? Rats.
Freudian Quote of the Day
"Denise is echt California," Masson said fondly. "When I first met her, you couldn't get more than six words out of her, and they were generally 'like,' 'you know,' 'I mean, like.' She spoke in half sentences. There is something so echt California about that."
"It has nothing to do with California," Denise said.
"But you have a basic mistrust of speech, right?"
"It's just not fast enough," Denise said. "It doesn't say what I mean."
-- from Janet Malcolm's "In the Freud Archives."
Book Quote of the Day
"They were both of them jovial about the cold in winter and the heat in summer, always ready to work overtime and to meet emergencies. It was a matter of pride with them not to spare themselves. Yet they were the sort of men who never get on, somehow, or do anything but work hard for a dollar or two a day."
— "My Antonia" by Willa Cather, published 1918
Book Quote of the Day
"I sat down in the middle of the garden, where snakes could scarcely approach unseen, and leaned my back against a warm yellow pumpkin.... The earth was warm under me, and warm as I crumbled it through my fingers. Queer little red bugs came out and moved in slow squadrons around me. Their backs were polished vermillion, with black spots. I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great."
— "My Antonia" by Willa Cather
Quote of the Day
“Those [New Yorker] reviews alone would have been enough to make a major career, each one not laying down the law for the writer but bringing news to the reader. (What editor would not cry out in delight at finding a piece that made the simple and sage distinction that purposes are not points, that, where the purpose of “King Lear” was to purge the soul with pity and terror, its point was that old men should not retire prematurely.)”
—Adam Gopnik in “Postscript: John Updike,” in The New Yorker. Read Roger Angell on same here. Updike's incomparable piece about Ted Williams' final at-bat, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” can be, must be, read here.
John Updike Quote of the Day
Were I to die, no one would say,
“Oh, what a shame! So young, so full
Of promise — depths unplumbable!”
Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes
Will greet my overdue demise;
The wide response will be, I know,
“I thought he died a while ago.”
For life’s a shabby subterfuge,
And death is real, and dark, and huge.
The shock of it will register
Nowhere but where it will occur.
The Baseball Essays of Stephen Jay Gould
In case you don’t know where I stand. During Ken Burns’ 1994 “Baseball” documentary, Gould, one of the doc’s many talking heads, pissed me off for all eternity by declaring that no one could ever mention in his presence Bill Mazeroski’s homerun that won the 1960 World Series for the Pirates (their third, and first since 1925), instead of handing the Yankees yet another title (their 19th, and first since 1958), because the memory was still too painful for him. To top it off, Burns didn’t even interview a Pirates fan, or even an anti-Yankees fan, about what was, after all, one of the greatest homeruns ever hit — the dream homerun of any baseball-loving kid across the country: Game 7, bottom of the ninth, one swing, season over. Instead we got glum Yankees fans like Gould and Billy Crystal kicking the dirt. Gould then one-ups himself by talking about a kind of cosmic balance being restored to the universe with the Yankees’ 1962 World Series victory over the Giants. As payback for 1960. As redemption for Ralph Terry. Cosmic balance? Tell it to a Royals or Rangers or Mariners fan. Tell it to a Pirates fan.
Anyway, that’s where I stand.
Gould, here, is at his best when he combines his profession with his avocation. Three essays are must-reads.
In “Why No One Hits .400 Anymore,” Gould argues that while .260 may be the mean batting average throughout most of baseball history, overall improvement in play — as a diversion became a profession — has shrunk highest and lowest batting averages against that mean. I.e., everyone’s better now so it’s that much harder to be exceptional.
In “The Streak of Streaks,” ostensibly a review of Michael Seidel’s book, “Streak: Joe DiMaggio and the Summer of ‘41,” Gould writes that his colleague, Ed Purcell, a Nobel laureate in physics, studied streaks and slumps in sports, particularly baseball, and concluded that, adjusting for talent, all streaks fall within the realm of coin-tossing probability except one: DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. Other academics have disputed this, but at the least you have to admire the gap between first place (DiMaggio, 56) and second (Keeler and Rose, 44). Gould finishes the piece beautifully by writing about the odds, and about the gambler whose goal is to stick around as long as possible before going bust. Then he uses this gambler as a metaphor for all of us:
DiMaggio’s hitting streak is the finest of legitimate legends because it embodies the essence of the battle that truly defines our lives. DiMaggio activated the greatest and most unattainable dream of all of humanity, the hope and chimera of all sages and shamans: he cheated death, at least for a while.Finally, the paleontologist in Gould is excellent in “The Creation Myths of Cooperstown,” which isn’t just about the humbug of Abner Doubleday but the purpose creation myths serve.
A few of the other essays are worthwhile, too, particularly for what they evoke. “Streetball from a New York City Boyhood,” with its talk of recess and stoopball and baseball cards in bicycle spokes, helped me recall a part of my childhood. Thirty years after Gould, and half a country away, I too played a version of stoopball, throwing and catching a usually soggy tennis ball against the front steps of our home on Emerson Avenue in Minneapolis. It was, in my mind, an early version of fantasy baseball, Twins vs. the Orioles probably, with the game rigged for the Twins. That is, I’d soft-toss for the O’s and hard-toss for the Twins. Frank Robinson up...and he lines out to Carew! Here’s Big Boog Powell — ground out! Bases loaded for Killebrew —grand slam! Hwwwaaaahhhwww!
That’s the crowd cheering.
A few of the essays made me long for movies about their subjects. In “The Amazing Dummy,” Gould writes about Dummy Hoy, an above-average ballplayer from the19th century who lived long enough to throw out the first pitch in the 1961 World Series. He was also, as his name indicates, both deaf and dumb, yet still played centerfield, the most vocal of all positions, and played it well. How can that not be a movie? And, sure, Jim Thorpe’s life has already been made into a movie, starring Burt Lancaster, but you know they didn’t do it justice back in 1951. Hell, they might even be able to cast a Native American in the lead now.
But here’s the movie I’d really like to see. Earlier this decade, Billy Crystal made one of the best baseball movies ever, “61*,” about Maris, Mantle and the ’61 season, for HBO, and in that spirit, and without even deviating from numerical titles about the New York Yankees, I would love to see what he could do with: “56.”
Gould died in 2002, so didn’t live long enough to see the ignominy of many of the players he celebrated in his shorter newspaper pieces: Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds. Would’ve loved to hear his take on the steroids scandal. Would’ve loved to hear his reaction to his adopted team, the Red Sox, suddenly winning everything, while his favorite team, the Yankees, shot blanks.
There’s also this postcard I have of Bill Mazeroski’s 1960 World Series homerun just burning a hole in my pocket. Would’ve loved to send it to him. Just to say hi. Just to restore some balance, cosmic or not, to the universe.
Quote of the Day
"I often got ahead of the dailies by simply stating what was in plain sight instead of submitting to the straitjacket of spokespeople and prepared statements and pat answers."
— David Carr in "The Night of the Gun," pg. 263
Authors: Joe the Plumber, Sarah Palin, Barbara Bush's Dog
What impresses me about Timothy Egan's Op-Ed today, "Typing without a Clue," about the likes of Joe the Plumber and Sarah Palin getting multimillion-dollar book contracts while real writers languish in obscurity and poverty, isnt' the logic of his argument, which is unassailable, but the fact that he can still be pissed off about it. I've taken it as a given for so long it doesn't even register as an affront anymore.
This isn't a criticism. Or, if it is a criticism, it's a criticism of me. Because Egan's right. He's so right:
Next up may be Sarah Palin, who is said to be worth nearly $7 million if she can place her thoughts between covers. Publishers: with all the grim news of layoffs and staff cuts at the venerable houses of American letters, can we set some ground rules for these hard times? Anyone who abuses the English language on such a regular basis should not be paid to put words in print.
Most of the writers I know work every day, in obscurity and close to poverty, trying to say one thing well and true. Day in, day out, they labor to find their voice, to learn their trade, to understand nuance and pace. And then, facing a sea of rejections, they hear about something like Barbara Bush’s dog getting a book deal.
Two-Minute Review: E.L. Doctorow's “Creationists”
E. L. Doctorow's Creationists: Selected Essays 1993-2006, is ordered chronologically — from an essay on Genesis to one on the bomb, or from the beginning of the world to its possible end — and these essays tend to get more interesting the closer Doctorow gets to his own time.
I’ve found this to be true for his novels as well. I love The Book of Daniel (1940s to 1960s) and Ragtime (early 1900s), and like well enough, but have read only once, the trio from the 1930s: Loon Lake, World’s Fair and Billy Bathgate. But once E.L. went into the 19th century he lost me. I barely made it through Waterworks (post-Civil War) and couldn’t get into The March (Civil War). It's as if the 19th century stilts his prose.
Most of the essays here weren’t written as essays anyway. Some were written as lectures and some were written as introductions to classic texts (Tom Sawyer) or afterwords to less-than-class texts (Arrowsmith), and I often felt something was missing. What’s missing is their context, or the primary text to which they’re supposed to relate, and to which Doctorow is silently alluding. They’re less essays than addenda; they don’t have legs to stand on.
Still, as I said, the closer Doctorow gets to our own time the more interesting he becomes. The stuff on Poe and Stowe? Drags. Melville, too, though I was amused that he writes about Moby Dick (“The surpise to me, at my age now, is how familiar the voice of that book is...”) in the sane way that I wrote about The Book of Daniel (“What a surprise that some of the forgotten lines of my life are in here...”).
Yet Doctorow did make me want to read Dos Passos and re-read Kafka. He made me want to see more Arthur Miller plays:
...among the protagonists of these plays, there are those incapable of self-reflection who choose rather to destroy themselves...and those who undergo the crisis of self-revelation and find some means of stumbling on. ... But there are no easy answers. ... Lyman Felt says “A man can be faithful to himself or to other people—but not to both.” That is one tough line and it could not be uttered in a facile moralistic tale.
He’s particularly good on Kafka’s Amerika, in which Kafka learned, according to Doctorow, that his characters needn’t travel anywhere to be trapped. But he’s best outside of literature: on Einstein and his genius — which prefigures Malcolm Gladwell’s discussions on the communal context of creativity — and on the bomb: the why and the how and the oops of it, and the difference, in layman’s terms, between the A- and H-bomb. The A-bomb exhausts its own chain reaction, which limits its destructive power. “The H-bomb has no known limits,” he writes.
I don't get Doctorow's fascination with the 19th century but he keeps drifting further and further back into it. Note from the 21st century: Come back, E.L. You're needed.
DFMF Quote of the Day
"So, Barry. What have you brought me from America?"
I reached into my bag and pulled out one of the portable cassette players that I had bought for him [Abo] and Bernard. He turned it over in his hands with a thinly disguised look of disappointment.
"This brand is not Sony, is it?" he said. Then, looking up, he quickly recovered himself and slapped me on the back. "That's okay, Barry. Thank you! Thank you."
I nodded at him, trying not to get angry. He was standing beside Bernard and their resemblance was striking: the same height, the same slender frame, the same smooth, even features. Just shave off Abo's moustache, I thought to myself, and they could almost pass as twins. Except for...what? The look in Abo's eyes. That was it. Not just the telltale redness of some sort of high but something deeper, something that reminded me of young men back in Chicago. An element of guardedness, perhaps, and calculation. The look of someone who realizes early in life that he has been wronged.
—Barack Obama, visiting Kendu Bay in Kenya in the 1980s, in Dreams From My Father, pg. 384
DFMF Quote of the Day
"Life is short, Barack," he would say. "If you're not trying to really change things out here, you might as well forget it."
—Community organizer Marty Kaufman to the future president in Dreams From My Father, pg. 229
Obama Quote of the Day - II
“Like water finding its level, you will arrive at a career that suits you.”
—Barack Obama's father, in a letter to a teenaged Obama, in Dreams From My Father, pg. 76.
Obama Quote of the Day - I
“Let's get out of here. Your shit's getting way too complicated for me.”
—Barack's friend, Ray, after Barack articulated the nuances of high school race relations in Dreams From My Father, pg. 74.
Norman Mailer and the 1964 Republican Convention
The excerpts of Norman Mailer’s letters in The New Yorker led me back to his piece, “In the Red Light: A History of the Republican Convention in 1964,” from Cannibals and Christians, which I first read over a decade ago. I remember I didn’t particularly like it. Norman went off on too many tangents, he reduced too many groups — “Goldwater girls ran to two varieties,” etc. Sometimes this stuff felt close to truth and sometimes it just felt hollow and mean. Parts of it still feel hollow and mean but most of the article feels shockingly contemporary. It makes the 1964 election feel like the first half of a bookend whose second half we may be fashioning.
So an Arizona senator is running for president by appealing to the worst elements of his party. The Midwestern and western elements of that party viciously attack the eastern establishment, the media, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. “Indeed there was a general agreement that the basic war was between Main Street and Wall Street,” Norman writes. There’s a down-home folksiness in the candidate’s voice: “I think we’re going to give the Democrats a heck of a surprise,” he says. There’s a callback to Christianity: “The thing to remember is that America is a spiritual country, we’re founded on belief in God, we may wander a little as a country but we never get too far away,” he says.
At the convention, at the Cow Palace in San Francisco of all places, a senator from Colorado, Dominick, gives a speech in which he quotes a New York Times editorial from 1765 which rebuked Patrick Henry for his extreme ideas. Norman writes:
Delegates and gallery whooped it up. Next day Dominick confessed. He was only “spoofing.” He had known: there was no New York Times in 1765. Nor was there any editorial. An old debater’s trick. If there are no good facts, make them up. Be quick to write your own statistics. There was some umbilical tie between the Right Wing and the psychopathic liar.
Even so, for a time Norman considers voting for Goldwater. There are elements of LBJ and the Democratic party he can’t abide — its modern, clinical quality — and he thinks it may be worse to die a slow, suffocating death than to go out with Goldwater in a blaze of glory. But then:
One could not vote for a man who made a career by crying Communist—that was too easy: half the pigs, bullies and cowards of the twentieth century had made their fortune on that fear. I had a moment of rage at the swindle.
Cuba comes up, and Norman writes:
One could live with a country which was mad, one could even come to love her (for there was agony beneath the madness), but you could not share your life with a nation which was powerful, a coward, and righteously pleased because a foe one-hundredth our size had been destroyed.
Again and again, from a distance of 44 years, Norman hits you upside the head with the truth.
Goldwater lost that election, he lost big, but in later years even the much-hated media would see that convention, and that loss, as the birth of the modern Republican party; they’d bend to Goldwater and see him through orange-colored glasses. Read this, though, and there’s no doubt about the elements he was stirring up.
So it feels like a bookend. Two Arizona senators. The first attacking the Civil Rights Act, the second attacking what may be the culmination of that Act. A friend of mine once said, “When I was a teenager I realized that you could either be successful or you could be right,” and in the early 1960s the Democratic party decided to be right, finally right, on the issue of civil rights and on the promise of the Declaration of Independence, and since then the Republican party has been successful largely on the back of that decision. But maybe not now. Maybe this period, in which I’ve lived my entire life, can finally be bookended. Ended. Maybe.
Letters from Norman
Finished reading the political excerpts of Norman Mailer's letters in the Oct. 6 New Yorker (apologies: I've been busy) and it reminded me all over again why I love that old left-conservative bastard. He's grandiose but self-effacing. He's far-sighted and non-doctrinaire. He's a late '40s Marxist who despised the Soviet Union, a man who admired both Fidel Castro and William F. Buckley, who even contributed to The National Review, but who, at the same time, or later (in '76), wrote, “But as for Ford, Reagan, Dole and the rest of that pirate ship — Mary, they're puke,” and who wrote, even later (in June '03):
Even if you're a deep-dyed conservative, and Republican, please disabuse yourself of the idea that Bush is a good guy. Please, Sal. It seems to me the best argument you can present is that he's a total, shallow, maniuplative shit, but that he's got the luck of the devil working for him and so his policy may not end up in total disaster...
Or how about this 1987 observation on the nature on Russians and Americans:
There is one difference between Russians and Americans that is crucial: in America we keep running ahead of our guilt. We stay ahead of it by technique, by every trendy step. We’re analyzed, tranquilized, and roboticized, nouvelle cuisine-ized, yuppified, we stay ahead of our anxiety and our great guilt and are able to avoid the issue. The Russians aren’t. They’re marooned in their guilt and there are very few Russians who don’t have a bad conscience because the history of that place for 30 years required one to turn on friends, not overly perhaps, but through acts of omission, not helping friends who run afoul of the authorities. And authority itself kept stalling in its own huge bad conscience. The Russians, I think, live closer to their souls than we do because they’re guilty, and I can’t tell you how moving it is that out of the top bureaucracy itself has come this recognition that they’ve got to change and have a more human government.
My favorite letter may be the one to Don DeLillo in 1988 congratulating him on Libra. Most people can't get past the size of Norman's ego but if they did they'd find a largeness of spirit that few people have:
What a terrific book. I have to tell you that I read it against the grain. I’ve got an awfully long novel going on the CIA, and of course it overlapped just enough that I kept saying, “this son of a bitch is playing my music,” but I was impressed, damned impressed, which I very rarely am. I think we keep ourselves writing by allowing the core of our vanity never to be scratched if we can help it, but I didn’t get away scot-free this time. Wonderful virtuoso stuff all over the place, and, what is more, I think you’re fulfilling the task we’ve just about all forgotten, which is that we’re here to change the American obsessions—those black holes in space—into mantras that we can live with. What you’ve given us is a comprehensible, believable, vision of what Oswald was like, and what Ruby was like, one that could conceivably have happened. ... It’s so rare when novel writing offers us this deep purpose and I swear, Don, I salute you for it.
Literary Quote of the Day
"People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster."
— James Baldwin, from the essay "Stranger in the Village" in Notes of a Native Son. He wrote it about America in the 1950s, and I first read it in the 1980s when it seemed truer than in the 1950s. Today it seems truer still.
Is Ron Suskind a Coen Brothers Fan?
Continuing to read Ron Suskind's book, now on part II (The Armageddon Test), and I've come across a few references to the word "abide" — such as how Pres. Ford's funeral in January 2007, according to Suskind, "prompts reflection about what abides and what is lost with the passage of time." It's a common Biblical word but pop-culturally I couldn't help but think of Jeff Bridges' character in the Coen brothers' film The Big Lebowski: "The Dude abides," etc.
A few minutes later I came across this line: "But that thought is like a seed that can find no purchase..." Again, Biblical, but, again, Coen brothers, this time Raising Arizona: "Edwina's insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase."
So have both Suskind and the Coens studied their Bibles (likely) or is Suskind simply a huge Coens' fan? Either way: kind of funny in a book that is anything but.
Why you can't take toothpaste on an airplane
The day is July 27, 2006, when, in a move calculated to win some iota of support from African-Americans for the upcoming mid-term elections, Pres. Bush signs the Voting Rights Act reauthorization a year early in a ceremony on the White House lawn. It’s also the day Khosa is taken into custody by the Secret Service for fiddling with his iPod while waiting for a car to pass through the White House gates. He’s dragged into an interrogation room inside the White House, made to give up the names of friends and acquaintances, then let go with warnings. His friends and acquaintances will all be checked out. So will he. “We know everything about you and where to find you,” one Secret Service agent tells him. His crime? Fiddling with his iPod while Pakistani.
But the bigger issue, in the first two chapters, involves the backstory to the British government’s capture of a major terror cell in the suburbs of London, which was plotting to hijack airplanes and head for the U.S. East Coast. “The second wave,” Bush and Cheney had been warning us about.
MI-6 was cautious. Suskind writes: “The Brits, after their experience in Northern Ireland, were starting to believe that the key was to treat this not as a titanic ideological struggle, but rather as a law enforcement issue. This required being patient enough to get the actual evidence —usually once a plot had matured — with which to build a viable case in open court.”
Bush? Not so open. Not so cautious. Suskind implies that when Tony Blair refused to speed up arrests to suit Bush’s timetable — that is, the August before midterms — Bush nodded to Cheney, who dispatched the fourth-ranking CIA officer to Pakistan to alert the authorities there to Rashid Rauf, the Pakistani contact for the terror cell. Once Rauf was arrested, the terror cell panicked, and the Brits, who were apoplectic that their carefully constructed strategy had been knocked over, had no choice but to round them up... before they had enough evidence to put them away forever. And The White House got to say how they had been right all along “about everything.”
Suskind gets us into the heads of both Bush and Cheney, which is a little odd, you wonder which sources could possibly get us there. But these early chapters make you realize both a) how real the terrorist threat is, and b) how politically motivated and short-sighted the Bush administration response has been. It’s a scary world, but all the scarier for who we elected to protect us.
"Bush II" by William Shakespeare
That’s not the main reason I bought his book, though. I bought it because Ron Suskind is the guy who wrote the 2004 New York Times Magazine article that, through a smug Bush aide, introduced the phrase “the reality-based community” to the world. I remember how the article stunned me. I remember how it made me better aware of what we were up against. That certain Republicans were willing to overthrow centuries of rational thinking to keep winning elections. The money quote:
The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” ... “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
Gotta be Rove, right?
I’ve only read the prologue of The Way of the World but I’m already glad I bought it. In the first pages Suskind gives a better reading of the presidential failures of George W. Bush than I’ve read anywhere else. And I’ve read a lot about the presidential failures of George W. Bush.
Bush came to power, Suskind says, relying on his gut, his instinct. “What he does,” Suskind writes, “is size up people, swiftly — he trusts his eyes, his ears, his touch — and acts… Once he landed in the Oval Office, however, he discovered that every relationship is altered, corrupted by the gravitational incongruities between the leader of the free world and everyone else.”
Other presidents have fought against this corruption, this alteration. Ford arranged Oval Office arguments between top aides. Nixon ordered subordinates to tell him something their superiors didn’t want him to hear. There was good old-fashioned eavesdropping and wire-tapping and polling. But W. continued to rely on his instinct, making him, to Suskind, a tragic figure worthy of Shakespeare: “A man who trusts only what he can touch placed in a realm where nothing he touches is authentic.” Or more brusquely: “...you can’t run the world on instinct from inside a bubble.”
Le Pays de Cons
I've been hip-deep in idiocy lately. And not just my own.
Sunday evening Patricia and I watched Le Diner de Cons, a 1998 French comedy from Francis Veber (La Cage Aux Folles, Le Placard), whom I met last spring at the Lagoon Theater in Minneapolis for an Alliance Francaise-backed showing of his fun, lightweight, La Doublure (The Valet). Very tan man. Le Diner de Cons, The Dinner Game, literally “The Dinner of Idiots,” is a better film. Most of the action takes place in one room, so it feels like it could be a play. Pierre Brochant (Thierry Lhermitte) is a well-off intellectual who participates in a weekly Wednesday night dinner game with friends. The goal is the intellectuals’ version of Dogfight: Who can bring the biggest idiot?
So Wednesday’s approaching and poor Pierre is without a good idiot to bring...until, on the TGV, his friend sits next to Francois Pignon (Jacques Villeret), a well-meaning bore who regales him with pictures of his matchstick-built landmarks (Eiffel Tower, etc.). Unfortunately, the day of the dinner, Pierre wrenches his back playing golf and can’t make it...but Francois still shows up at his house. It will be a while before he leaves.
What’s great about the film is that we’re initially horrified by this dinner, by such bastards who would make fun of dim sweethearts like Francois Pignon, and any Hollywood version would surely lapse into the sentimentality of lessons learned — Francois demonstrating smarts, Pierre his heart — and there are intimations of this in Le Diner de Cons. But ultimately Veber is made of sturdier, funnier stuff. In the end, as horrified as we initially were by the game, we have to admit that it’s Francois Pignon’s very idiocy that allows some karmic balance into the universe.
Meanwhile, I’ve been reading Rick Shenkman’s book, Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter, in which he argues that the problem with our political system is less the politicians and their marketers, who dumb down the message, or the media, who sensationalize the contest, than us, the mythical, Capra-esque people, i.e., “The People,” for whom the message is dumbed down and the contest sensationalized. It’s not a bad argument at not a bad time. The sad part? Unlike the ending of Le Diner de Cons, our idiocy isn't exactly bringing any kind of balance, karmic or otherwise, into the universe.
Something to be said for blitzkrieg
I spent the morning in bed with Robert Graves. Since I liked I, Cladius so much I borrowed Good-Bye To All That, the autobiography he wrote in his late 20s, from my father, but the last few days were busy ones and I'd lost the thread. I wanted to pick it up again with a bout of sustained reading.
At the moment Graves is in the trenches of northern France. Volunteered. Raring to go. At school he was an iconoclast who didn't get along with the bullying sportsmen but as soon as war was declared he wanted to join the mass. Along with many others. Once they realized what it was they shifted to survival tactics, which might include a “cushie,” or flesh wound, that would take them away from the lines and maybe back home. One wonders about this desire to go to war. It's probably less patriotism than a wish to be where the action is; a wish to be involved in something greater than yourself. Once the action is revealed to be what it is, and the “something” not so great, other instincts take over.
There’s a great vignette about being stationed in Vermelles:
The old Norman church here has been very much broken. What remains of the tower is used as a forward observation post by the Artillery. I counted eight unexploded shells sticking into it. Jenkins and I went in and found the floor littered with rubbish, broken masonry, smashed chairs, ripped canvas pictures... Only a few pieces of stained glass remained fixed in the edges of the windows. I climbed up by way of the altar to the east window, and found a piece about the size of a plate. I gave it to Jenkins. “Souvenir,” I said. When he held it to the light it was St. Peter's hand with the keys of heaven. “I'm sending this home,” he said. As we went out, we met two men of the Munsters. Being Irish Catholics, they thought it sacreligious for Jenkins to be taking the glass away. One of them warned him: “Shouldn't take that, sir, it will bring you no luck.” Jenkins got killed not long after.
Much of the book is like this. Beautiful writing. Worlds contained in a paragraph.
I was reminded of our trip to France last summer and all of the memorials we saw in the small towns. In a church vestibule in Capestang: A la memoire del nos heroes morts pour la France: 1914-1918. Then 120 names. Outside a chuch in Manigod: Aux Enfants de Manigod Morts Pour La France. Then 56 names for World War I and five names for World War II. Something to be said for blitzkrieg.
From Robert Graves' I, Claudius, page 467. As a writer, I laughed out loud at Claudius' thoughts when he suddenly became Emperor of Rome:
“So, I'm Emperor, am I? What nonsense! But at least I'll be able to make people read my books now. Public recitals to large audiences. And good books too, thirty-five years' hard work in them. It won't be unfair... My History of Carthage is full of amusing anecdotes. I'm sure they'll enjoy it.”
My current interest in ancient Rome, about which I know nothing, began with a Sunday afternoon at the Seattle Art Museum's exhibition “Roman Art from the Louvre,” after which, in the museum gift shop, I picked up Graves' book, read the first sentence and bought it. From there we began watching the '70s BBC miniseries, “I, Claudius,” starring Derek Jacobi (nine episodes in now), and from there we watched Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Julius Caesar (1953), which was much better than I thought it would be. The three leads are great. Brando stuns. He certainly stunned Patricia, who forgot how good-looking and sexy he was as a young man. I was surprised, not having read the play, and particularly after watching HBO's “Rome,” that Brutus turned out to be the least calculating and most honorable of all the characters in the play. Shakespeare himself makes the argument:
All the conspirators, save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only, in a general honest thought,
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle; and the elements
So mixed in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the word, This was a man!
I knew the speech but didn't know it was for Brutus.
A curious thing about I, Claudius: Claudius is one of those Romans who wishes to restore the Republic, and the actions of the Emperors, particularly Tiberius and Caligula, certainly strengthen his argument. But the Senate is so weak, bends so willingly to those in power, that one wonders what good a restored Republic would be.
The Fall of the American Empire Quote of the Day
"The pay was certainly insufficient: the soliders had to arm and equip themselves out of it and prices had risen. And certainly the exhaustion of military reserves had kept thousands of soliders with the Colours who should have been discharged years before, and veterans were recalled to the Colours who who were quite unfit for service..."
— Robert Graves' I, Claudius, page 199, on a mutiny that broke out among Roman soldiers along the Rhine.
The Ten-Cent Plague and the ebb and flow of culture
Hajdu’s also adept at our cultural ebb and flow: how and why the focus of comic books became superheroes, then crime, then romance, then horror, then Mad and all of its imitators; how comic books nearly went down in flames in 1954 after often going up in flames in comic-book burnings in isolated spots around the country in the late 1940s.
The general historical overview of this period tends to focus on Frederic Wertham’s book The Seduction of the Innocent, and Hadju shows not only how Wertham was deeper — he opened the first mental health clinic, the Lafargue Clinic, in Harlem — but how the scare went wider, encompassing the rise of juvenile delinquency as far back as the early 1940s. Comic books were an easy scapegoat, the quick fix we’re forever looking for. Even if delinquency wasn’t necessarily on the rise, our concern about it was. One of my favorite bits, from pg. 213:
In the spring of 1953, juvenile crime showed no signs of worsening: to the contrary, on April 16, a headline in The New York Times announced “Youth Delinquency Down”...Eleven days later, the United States Senate approved a resolution to launch an investigation into the causes and effects of juvenile delinquency...Those televised subcommittee hearings seem a staple of the 1950s — Army-McCarthy, etc. — but what I didn’t know, what Hajdu lets me know, was how popular they were. Sen. Estes Kerfauver’s earlier hearings on organized crime, which traveled around the country, from New Orleans to Detroit to St. Louis and onto the west coast, before landing in New York in March 1951, produced gigantic ratings for the period:
Some 70 percent of New Yorkers with TV sets tuned in for the hearings — seventeen times the number of people who usually watched daytime television... Two theaters in Manhattan, finding their seats vacant during the “Kefauver hours,” set up systems to project the broadcasts on their screens... Homemakers had “Kefauver parties”...Several schools dismissed students early so they could watch the hearings at home...I’m reminded of the discussion here a few months back on the fragmentation of our society and our current lack of a national meeting place; these hearings were obviously one such place. I’m also impressed that there was a time when Americans would rather be informed than entertained — or, at least, they found information, this information anyway, entertaining. Not sure how our culture flowed away from that dynamic.
Reframing the War on Terror with Milan Kundera
Its current frame has been problematic from the start. How do you fight a tactic? Why not just a war on al-Qaeda? But we called it “The War on Terror” and it’s partly why we are where we are. The War on al-Qaeda wouldn’t have led us into Iraq.
I know: old topic. But I started thinking about it again while reading, of all things, Milan Kundera’s The Curtain, particularly “Part Two: Die Weltliteratur,” in which the author makes an impassioned plea for world literature — for literature studied in the large context (aesthetically, as part of one world literature) rather than in the small context (geographically, as part of one’s country’s literature).
The main reason literature isn’t studied aesthetically, according to Kundera, is provincialism, which he defines as “...the inability (or the refusal) to see one’s own culture in the large context.”
He then gives us two kinds of provincialism: that of large nations and that of small nations.
Large nations feel their literature is rich enough and central enough that they needn’t bother with literature from other, smaller countries.
Small nations feel the opposite. They are overwhelmed by world literature. Kundera writes that they see it as “something alien, a sky above their heads, distant, inaccessible, an ideal reality with little connection to their national literature. The small nation inculcates in its writer the conviction that he belongs to that place alone. To set his gaze beyond the boundary of the homeland, to join his colleagues in the supranational territory of art, is considered pretentious, disdainful of his own people.”
Like all good definitions, Kundera’s definitions resonate beyond the borders of his immediate discussion. The provincialism of large nations, for example, is reminiscent of the provincialism of major cities like New York. A friend of mine, a Seattleite, once visited her sister in Manhattan and the sister brought up a popular film seen all over the country and asked, “Do you get that where you are?” Where you are. Because we don’t know and don’t need to know. It’s the attitude Saul Steinberg lampooned in his famous New Yorker cover — in which 9th and 10th Avenues predominate and the rest of the country is merely a truncated square, with dots for Texas and Chicago.
The provincialism of small nations, meanwhile, reminds me of Minneapolis, where I grew up, and where any artist who builds a following in the smaller context of the Twin Cities and then dares to succeed in the larger context of the nation is immediately set upon by locals as a sell-out. You belong to us. To think you belong “out there” is pretentious. Diablo Cody, the Oscar-winning former City Pages columnist, is the latest to experience this phenomenon.
But more than anything, Kundera’s talk of provincialism reminded me, even reframed for me, The War on Terror.
Al-Qaeda demonstrates the provincialism of small nations. They may not see western culture as “an ideal reality” but it’s definitely an alien sky that covers all, and so they’ve declared war on it. They are as likely to win this war as they would a war against the sky.
The U.S., unfortunately, keeps helping by demonstrating the provincialism of large nations. Kundera writes that artists in such nations “need take no interest in what people write elsewhere,” and that’s the U.S. attitude since 9/11. Hell, the attacks made us more provincial. The U.N.? The Geneva Conventions? We invaded the wrong country and most of the U.S. was fine with it. Once Baghdad fell, we filled important positions with functionaries who had no Mid-East background, who spoke no Arabic. Doesn’t everyone want state-owned enterprises privatized under foreign occupation? Don’t they want their constitution written under foreign occupation?
Isn’t this going to be easy?
The War on Terror, in other words, is simply a battle between two provincial groups who refuse to see their culture in the large context; who refuse to see themselves as part of the world.
At one point in The Curtain, Kundera takes great, almost humorous exception to a French honor panel’s list of the 100 greatest works in French literature — De Gaulle’s War Memories ahead of Rabelais and Flaubert? — and scolds the honor panel thus: “France is not merely the land where the French live, it is also the country other people watch and draw inspiration from.”
As are we. Something to keep in mind anyway as we head towards November.
5Top Cinematic Stoners
Latest MSNBC piece. Not bad for a guy who never really smoked pot.
"'Never really,' Mr. Lundegaard? Are you telling us that you did smoke pot?"
"Well. Implying it anyway."
"So you inhaled." (Laughter from the gallery)
"You know, Pres. Clinton got a lot of flack for that line, but I understood it. The first couple of times I smoked pot I got nothing out of it because, not being a cigarette smoker, I didn't know how to inhale properly, which is what I assumed he was saying. He smoked, but he didn't get the effects. Also, Jimmy Carter was never attacked by a killer rabbit, but that's another story."
For more on pot, check out Dan Baum's book, Smoke & Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure.
Why a stripper is like you
My girlfriend bought Diablo Cody's CANDY GIRL: A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF AN UNLIKELY STRIPPER at the Minneapolis airport a few months ago and on the flight back to Seattle I read over her shoulder for a minute: a graf on the nose-wrinkling fetishes of some of the customers. My first thought: "So much for sex tonight."
Finally read it myself. Zip zip. It's a fun, breezy read. Also prefigures one aspect of JUNO in this description of Sex World: "There was a red sofa shaped like Marilyn's pucker, and a pair of chairs shaped like stiletto heels. It was all very reminiscent of the eighties trend toward 'wacky' high-concept furniture; I half-expected to see a hambuger phone."
But it also reminded me of Jim Bouton's BALL FOUR. Both books are year-in-the-life stories regarding jobs (major league baseball player, stripper) that most of us can't get or don't want; but we relate anyway because Bouton and Cody, in these occupations, suffer the way we suffer in ours. I.e., their boss is an idiot.
Read here for Bouton. In Diablo's case it's more than the moustache-men and their fines over at Deja Vu; it's also the thick (both senses) female manager at Dollhouse who leaves the following note:
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN I WANT THESE LIGHTS ON ALL THE TIME I DONT CARE HOW THEY MAKE YOU LOOK OR IF YOUR GETTING A HEADACHE IF I FIND THEM TURNED OFF YOULL RECIVE A WRITTEN WARNING AND OH YES I WILL WRITE YOU UP FOR SOME DUMD SHIT LIKE THE LIGHTS NOT BEING ON TRY ME ANY QUESTIONS
"Dumd shit." You can't make that up.
Captain America and the short end of the stick
Yesterday the New York Times ran this piece on Joe Simon, who, with Jack Kirby, created Captain America in December 1940. Simon is now 94 and part of a panel at this weekend’s New York Comic Con that he calls “The old geezer table.”
It’s a newspaper piece, and thus skimps, but it brings up a key issue not only for comic creators but for artists in general: the inability to profit from your own hugely successful creation. Simon, who got squat for creating the good Captain, puts it this way: “People in comic books have a very sad history in dealing with their creative people.” Todd McFarlane, reinventor of Spider-Man in the 1990s, and creator of Spawn, says this: “I read the stories of Jack Kirby. I read the stories of all those guys in the ’40s, ’50s and even the ’60s. I kept coming across this repetitive story: the creative guy got the short end of the stick.”
The great cautionary tale, of course, belongs to Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, the two Cleveland boys who jumpstarted an entire industry with Superman in 1938, and who, for their trouble, got $116 from Detective Comics (and, after decades of lawsuits, an annual stipend from Warner Bros.). Their story, along with many others, is told — extremely well, I should add — in Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerard Jones. Check it out.
"In the Shadow of the Moon"
Here's a couple of lasts.
1) Last night I watched the David Sington doc In the Shadow of the Moon and this morning looked it up on IMDb.com. The site listed two under that name: the 2007 doc about the Apollo missions (mine), and something being released in 2009. For a moment I was excited. "Hey, are they making a feature film out of this?" and clicked on the link: "Small Northern California town deals with a pack of modern werewolves." Nope.
2) Last fall Shadow was playing a block from where I work, at the Uptown theater in lower Queen Anne, and I wish I'd seen it then. Wish I'd seen it on the big screen. Or a big screen. The doc also celebrates a time when the world came together, proudly, because of an American accomplishment, so feels like it should be part of the communal experience of theater-going rather than the singular experience of TV-watching. But I blew it. Many didn't. It did alright for a doc — $1.5 million globally — but you feel like it should've done better. It's easy to watch, makes you proud, fills you up. Apparently we can't sell this anymore. Even to me.
3) Last week P and I went to a birthday party in Fremont where I met Rick Shenkman, author of several books and editor at the History News Network, and he and I and some others were talking about his latest book, Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter, which comes out in May, and we got on the topic of the specialization, or "niche-ization" (someone come up with a better term, fast), of the national dialogue, and our current lack of a national meeting place, which is a well-worn topic for me. Someone asked, "What was a national meeting place?" and before I could answer, Rick said, "Walter Cronkite." Exactly. You could also say the Apollo lift-offs were national meeting places, too.
Shadow is made up mostly of interviews with the men who flew to the moon (sans Neil Armstrong, strong on Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin), with the emphasis, obviously, on the Apollo 11 moon landing. Apparently if 11 didn't work, NASA had two back-up missions ready, both in 1969, to ensure that President Kennedy's promise of sending a man to the moon and bringing him back safely before the end of the decade would be kept. Nice to have national goals. At one point Jim Lovell, commander of both Apollo 8 and 13 (Tom Hanks played him in the movie), talked about how Apollo 8 was switched from an earth orbital launch to a flight to the moon, which he thought a bold move. "But it was a time when we made bold moves," he says. He should've added "smart" to that. We still make bold moves. We still have national goals. They just haven't been smart for a while.
W.C. Heinz: Rest in Peace
The great writer/journalist passed away earlier this week at the age of 93. You can read his NY Times Obit here.
I haven't read much Heinz but he was the writer with the most clips in The Best American Sportswriting of the Century — a great collection for any sports fan — and a source of inspiration to David Halberstam and the New Journalists of the 1960s. He also tells one of my favorite sports stories ever in his profile of football great Red Grange, "The Ghost of the Gridiron," for True Magazine in 1958. Red Grange is talking:
"Once about fifteen years ago, on my way home from work, I dropped into a tavern in Chicago for a beer. Two guys next to me and the bartender was arguing about Bronco Nagurski and Carl Brumbaugh. On the Bears, of course, I played in the backfield with both of them. One guy doesn't like Nagurski and he's talking against him. I happen to think Nagurski was the greatest football player I ever saw, and a wonderful guy. This fellow who is knocking him says to me, 'Do you know anything about football? Did you see Nagurski play?' I said, 'Yes, and I think he was great.' The guy gets mad and says, 'What was so great about him? What do you know about it?' I could see it was time to leave but the guy kept at me. He said, 'Now wait a minute. What make you think you know something about it? Who are you anyway?' I reached into my wallet and took out my business card and handed it to him and started for the door. When I got to the door, I looked back at him. You should have seen his face."
Great Clark Kent moment and Heinz knows enough not to get in the way of the story. Then he ends the piece poignantly. Read it, if you can.
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