Archive for August, 2008

It could be as much as a week before I post again, since I seem to have slipped my way into a semi-coveted slot covering the Democratic National Convention next week in Denver.

But I hate to leave all 6 of you with nothing to read in the interim, so let me recommend what I’m reading: Miami and the Siege of Chicago, by Norman Mailer, about the 1968 presidential conventions, in a new edition published by New York Review Books with an introduction by the always delectable Frank Rich. This is gonna get a workout on the plane tomorrow. 

If anyone’s interested in the Texas Observer‘s convention coverage, including some by me, click on over to www.texasobserver.org/blog come Monday.

I’ll be back when I’m back.

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as I were

I got passed over today for a job I’d applied for. The job was editor. I’m currently managing editor, second rung from the top of that particular ladder. Not, of course, that any ladders are involved.

I’ve been an editor before, which made it hard to not apply, because we’re all ego-propped maniacs at heart, but which also made it hard to really want it, because that job is more work than even marginally sane people would knowingly invite into their lives. 

As if editors had lives.

Regardless, I didn’t get it, and neither did some other highly qualified people, and another highly qualified somebody did, and I find there’s a decent-size swath of relief mixed in with the various and less pleasant emotions engendered by being so purposefully unchosen.

And it got me thinking about books — and I don’t mean how-to books, which is a hole nother genre — about editing.

I know there are plenty of memoirs by actual newspaper editors out there, usually on vanished or vanity presses, but I haven’t run into one worth recommending. I expect the exceedingly unseemly (trust me) contents of Surviving the Male Mid-Life Crisis (1977), by one-time Rocky Mountain News editor Henry Still are more representative of that lot than not, even if it isn’t, strictly speaking, a memoir (so much, perhaps, as a symptom) of a working life lived in the word trade.

I hope Henry Still (at left) isn’t still alive, and I hope he died peacefully of ripe old age, or his wife murdered him in his sleep and enjoyed it, because I’d feel just terrible about outing him as all of male-journalism-dom’s biggest douchebag ever if he were still alive. And if anybody ever sees a picture of me with my chin in my hand I ask them to kindly bury a steak knife in my temple. Unless, you know, I come down with some face-shaking disease and I’m just trying to hold myself still for the photographer.

No, actually, even then. The knife please.

There don’t seem to be many memoirs by magazine editors, though those are the ones I’d most want to read. Granted, there’s an entire cottage industry of memoirs-with-editor by New Yorker writers, but a little of that scene goes a long way. Next time I read one of those it’s going to be Renata Adler’s Gone, the Last Days of the New Yorker. I suspect, judging by secondary sources, she’s just bitchy enough to knock that topic right off the page.

So I turned to Diana Athill’s Stet: An Editor’s Life. By “editor,” Diana Athill refers to her essentially lifetime sinecure at the British publishing house of Andre Deutsch, where she bumped pencils with the likes of Jean Rhys, V.S. Naipaul, Norman Mailer and Mordecai Richler. She writes beautifully and she seems to have lived well. She certainly edited at a rarefied level.

And her title is perfect. For all you blissfully ignorant non-editors, the word “Stet,” usually seen in pencil or red pen, is a copy-editing mark designed to blot out or devalidate a previous and erroneous copy-editing mark. “Stet” tells the typesetter to leave it the way it was before some goddamn editor tried to fix it. In defense of editors, it’s usually another editor who smartly applies the stet to some earlier editor’s edit.

Sometimes the best edit is no edit. With a little bit of after-the-fact self-justificationomism thrown in as thickener, such a dictum might be held to apply to career moves as well as manuscripts. (oh yeah, we’ve got your blogaliscious daily-life-type topical relevance right here—even if we have to go out behind the garage and kill it with our own bare hands...)

(I have read this book, unlike most of the books on this blog, and consider it time well spent. I only mention this because I’m starting to get a little self-conscious at the apparently neverending pile-up of books I haven’t read. Book review assignment editors — like you’re reading this — please take note: I really can read, and do so scrupulously when I’m working. This isn’t working.

This, blessedly, is blogging.)

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A few weeks ago I found I nice little young-adult pulp called Downriver by Will Hobbs and asked, kinda rhetorically, who is Will Hobbs? Whoever he is, here he is again, with Down the Yukon. This one’s a hardback, first edition even, and as such it’s got a jacket, and so a back-flap author blurb:

Will Hobbs is the award-winning author of eleven previous novels for young readers, including FAR NORTH, GHOST CANOE, THE MAZE, and JASON’S GOLD, to which DOWN THE YUKON is a sequel. Seven of his books have been chosen by the American Library Asociation as Best Books for Young Adults. In addition to his novels, Will has published two picture books for younger children, BEARDREAM and HOWLING HILL.

The adventures in JASON’S GOLD and DOWN THE YUKON were inspired by the author’s childhood in Alaska, his travels in the north, and extensive research into the Klondike gold rush days.

A graduate of Stanford University, Will lives in the mountains near Durango, Colorado, with his wife Jean. 

Now we know. He’s even got a website.

I bought this for the cover. It has perhaps not escaped notice that I’ve got a thing about rivers, and especially about canoeing. These co-ed campers are going to be in real trouble when they get sucked up under that log, and that dog isn’t helping at all, but they’re showing remarkably good form (though not, apparently, for the maneuver they ought to be attempting), especially for a couple of paddlers better dressed for baling hay than running rapids. Remember, kids: cotton kills!

Curiously enough, at the same Goodwill, on the same day, I found Comrades: Brothers, Fathers, Heroes, Sons, Pals, by Stephen E. Ambrose, and what should be on the cover but a canoe paddled through heavy water by two guys who clearly know what they’re doing? The drawing looks remarkably like a photograph of famous Canadian father-son paddling team Bill and Paul Mason, but that must be true coincidence, because according to the table of contents there’s nothing about the Masons in this book on male friendships.

(Though the canoeing conceit is certainly appropriate to male friendships, as opposed to the hetero romantic sort; there’s a reason tandem canoes are called “divorce boats.”)

Comrades also resonates personally, if only because my canoeing buddy Matt in Missoula and his half-dozen brothers are originally from Wisconsin, like the 3-brother Ambrose clan, and learning to canoe with your dad and brothers is apparently the sort of thing they do a lot of in Wisconsin.

It’s a nice, wholesome pastime, like drinking beer and chopping wood, that well prepares a boy for a lifetime of friendship, brotherhood and fatherhood.

Oh, yeah, and wringing their panties over Brett Favre.

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So I’ve been cycling between Cloud Nine and abject fear of failure because it turns out I’m getting to go to the Democratic National Convention in Denver in a few weeks, to cover it for the Texas Observer. If I got to go to a convention in my lifetime — and this will be my first — this is the one I’d want to go to. I haven’t drunk all the Kool-Aid — me and The Judys remember Jonestown — but this shit is going to be historic no matter how it shakes out. Not that I have any idea how to cover a convention.

Esquire sent Terry Southern, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Jean Genet to cover the infamous Chicago convention of 1968. I’ve got that issue somewhere, thanks to eBay. Then there’s 1972. HST’s game-changing Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail covered that race. I don’t have my copy anymore. Mass market. Thick. Red and white.

I had the pleasure a few years back of a long conversation in Stevensville, Montana with 1972 peace candidate George McGovern, who was tight with Thompson. I ended up offending the gentleman, for which I’m sorry, because I admire him. He didn’t like being called the biggest loser in the history of the Democratic party, and I wouldn’t either, but a fact is a fact. I profiled him in the Missoula Independent.

And in the process I read Right From the Start, a campaign chronicle written by a Denver lawyer-turned-campaign director named Gary Hart, who, we might as well mention, later ran his own campaigns for president (1984 and 1988), during which he practically begged reporters to document his adultery, which they eventually did. (Remind you of any other recent lawyer-candidate with gifted hair?)

(And while we’re on this tangent, did anyone else notice the oddly muted news that the woman on whose altar John Edwards sacrificed his political future happened to be the former paramour of novelist and wine hack Jay MacInerney, muse and model for druggy sexpot Alison Pool in Story of My Life? Good thing that’s not John’s baby. Yeah, amen. I mean: ahem…)

McGovern, like Obama, gave good speech. Apparently young people walked away inspired. McGovern came from behind — came from nowhere, really — to top a tough field for his place on the Dem ticket and then started falling apart at his convention, in Miami Beach, not least through his unfortunate choice of running mate, Sen. Thomas Eagleton, who’d failed to disclose a psychotherapeutic history that included electro-shock therapy.

McGovern stood by Eagleton, then ditched him, then got trounced in the general by Richard Goddamn Nixon. Trounced bad.

There’s an unspeakable fear out there that Barack Obama, who has inspired a lot of people young and old, might fall prey to a 1968-style tragedy. God forbid. I’m an optimist on that front. I’m more afraid of a 1972-style tragedy. McGovern was coming strong into the conventions. He was looking almost inevitable. There was nothing that anyone liked about Richard Nixon. It shouldn’t have turned out like that, but McGovern won only a single state. No one had to stay up late on Nov. 7, 1972, to find out who their next president was.

I read and skimmed a few other books about the 1972 election, but the best was Norman Mailer’s St. George and the Godfather, which covered both parties’ conventions (a sequel of sorts to Miami and the Siege of Chicago, which covered the 1968 contests). It begins:

Greetings to Charles Dickens across vales of Karma: it was the best and worst of conventions. The hope that democracy would yet be virtuous lived in the broth and marrow of the mood. Nonetheless, our convention was so dismaying in its absence of theater that the sourest law of the police reporter was also confirmed — deaths are more interesting than births.”

Norman Fuggin’ Mailer knew how to cover a convention.

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My friends Brad and Rich were in town this weekend, and for me, anyhow, Saturday went a little something like this:

* 2 bloody marys at Opal Devine’s

* 4 Tecates at Red Bud Isle

* 1 margarita at Maria’s Taco Express

* 1 Lone Star at The Poodle Bar

* 1 unidentified wheat beer at our friends Matt & Mo’s house

* 1 shot Jameson’s, ibid

* 1 shot Tito’s vodka, chilled, ibid

* 2 gin & tonics, ibid

And from the Lone Star on, I was whooping their asses at pool tables all over town. Consistently. Punishingly. Ego-strokingly.

These are friends who remember Andy, who were, like me, close to Andy. Some of my best memories are of playing pool with Andy at the Waugh Drive Pool Hall in the mid-to-late 1990s in Houston. They had a pool-ball mural on the exterior wall that I once heard was painted by Blaze Foley, Townes Van Zandt’s drunker doppelganger in Houston days, and inside they had a jukebox where I always but always played Townes’ “Flyin’ Shoes,” CCR’s version of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You,” Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man” and Tommy Roe’s “Sweet Pea,” which Andy had turned me on to.

That was one of the best jukeboxes I ever knew. We’d drink cold Lone Stars and play pool until we decided to go to Rudyard’s, a watering hole just down the block. For a long while, Andy lived walking distance from both, and for an even longer while that radius defined the epicenter of my Houston.

I don’t know if Minnesota Fats was actually from Minnesota, and it’s one of the few things that Wikipedia won’t tell me, but Andy was — from Duluth. Townes died in 1997. Blaze died in 1989, before I’d ever heard of him. The Waugh Pool Hall has been gone for a while now, razed for condos. And Andy died last year. He was 41, and he’d finally drunk too much after trying too hard for too long.

Not one of us said a word about it Saturday, drinking and shooting stick, but we sure did miss him.

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This post — oddly, given the illustrations — is not much about Graham Greene. Lots of unread Graham Greene out there, including two-thirds of this lineup. I know mostly of him that he divided his output into categories: literature, and entertainment. He wrote both prolifically, and he knew the difference. That I admire.

I’m more interested in the covers. To have one’s name on a cover like that. That would rock.

These are Viking Compass Books, C307, C40, and C83 (top to bottom), issued thusly (thusly!) in 1970, 1958, and 1961, respectively. God they’re gorgeous, and just exactly right-sized in the hand

I don’t know much about how long this series went on, though I’m always on the lookout for these, no matter the contents. So far all else I’ve found is the complete D.H. Lawrence short stories (C96). Not sure how I assembled three Graham Greenes, but they didn’t arrive together.

But check this out: Viking’s Compass Books logo, at right, doesn’t match, for some inexplicable reason, THE VIKING COMPASS (which, to be fair, anybody non-Nordic only knows about because Bjork has one tattooed on her arm).

As the possessor of no fewer and yet somehow no more than two stupid tattoos, what I don’t get is how the good folks at Viking, while clearly adept at finding and hiring wildly talented book designers, could miss the chance to, you know, make THE VIKING COMPASS! the logo of VIKING COMPASS BOOKS!

This is the Viking Compass, at left, and according to wherever I stole it from, that’s Bjork’s arm it’s on. Regardless, I don’t see how the two are related, aside, obviously, from being dissimilar depictions of a compass. Viking’s compass is clearly not THE VIKING COMPASS.

It takes nothing away from how much I like these books, but still, seems like a missed opportunity to me.

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So when I started this I didn’t foresee Judy Blume OR Carlos Castaneda, never mind back to back. I should have known they’d show up. Here’s a post I netted that’s about not fishing, not not reading, but there are several things I like about it, including the positive treatment of negative action, and also the co-presence of books and Butte, Montana.

note: smiley and links in excerpt are NOT MINE.

The Art of Non-fishing on the Big Hole River near Butte Montana

Do you remember Carlos Castaneda? I keep a copy of his classic little The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge (1968) in my backpack, and read a few pages before my post-peak bagging naps and bedtime. Very inspirational, I think the book even guided a few of us through those drug-crazed late-60s/early 70s. Castaneda gave us hope that some deep spiritual insights lay beyond the surface glimmer of the drug experience per se. Yesterday was an experience in the art of non-doing, a common Taoist meditative technique that snuck into old Don Juan’s teachings.” 

Guy’s got an interesting blog about living where he does. And fishing. And stuff.

To leave it at that, though, would be a cheap post. Especially after that Judy Blume drive-by.

So here’s a book that I haven’t read but soon will. And the book’s got a fish on the cover and fish on the brain. How’s that for a hook?

This is Trash Fish (Counterpoint; Oct. 2008), a forthcoming memoir by Greg Keeler. I love the idea of trash fish: the weeds of the water. Southeast Texas is full of em. We’ve got carp with sucker mouths like the one on the cover. They were imported to eat the weedy hydrilla of Texas, which they did. We used to fish for them with moist nuggets of dog food.

Keeler is a prof at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana (see? this post isn’t totally random…) and a fisherman, apparently. Everyone’s a fisherman in Montana. Not every fisherman in Montana, though, would admit to, much less be photographed, having caught the suck-faced disappointment at right, much less on a blue-ribbon Montana trout stream, which is where this was probably hooked, or netted, or dynamited, or whatever.

I don’t know what the larger market is likely to say (though I can guess), but I like the title. I’d be more likely to buy it by far than, say, Missoulian Jeff Hull’s fishing-oriented collection Streams of Consciousness, which might be the most brilliantly written book I’ll never read, but I’ll never know, because I just can’t conceive of spending the requisite couple of hours with that horrible, horrible title.

But I’ll read Trash Fish, not least because I’ll be reviewing it soon-ish. That’s why I had to mention it now.

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I’ve realised that I don’t think I ever actually read Forever in its entirety; I think I may have just read the dirty bits…” MORE AT TRASHIONISTA

Amen, sister. I’ve read some Judy Blume, probably this one, definitely the dirty bits, at the back of a junior-high-school schoolbus once, I think. In a group, girls and guys. It wasn’t like that. I understand that Judy Blume is considered formative among a substantive segment of certain-age citizens of the stereotypically fairer sex.

Haven’t seen a copy in a while. Maybe I’m just not looking on the right shelves. Someone surely collects these. Mel? You out there? This one — as earnestly unimaginative as it is — is way better looking than the new edition, which is so fugly I wouldn’t post it with your link.

Whatever the hell that means.

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Kind of a semi-momentous occasion. Last night I finished reading Pierre Bayard’s How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read — the winsome little bit of French Lit-Theory Lite that catalyzed the start of this whole Browser endeavor for me.

It rang a lot of my bells, and if I had to boil its argument down, it’s that there’s no shame in not having read everything, and not having read any particular title oughtn’t be any impediment to having a great conversation about it.

Or: We all relate with varying degrees of awareness to any particular book, and there will always be increasingly more books in the world that we cannot or will not for whatever reason “read,” from cover to cover, and thus a more nuanced expression of our relationship to books — books we’ve read; books we’ve just skimmed; books we’ve listened to smart people talk about for years; books we’ve never heard of but still nod politely; books we’ve only just fallen at first sight for, before even cracking their little spineses — is called for.

I think I always understood that, but it’s been curious and a bit revelatory to see it made the subject of focused consideration.

It also contains this secondhand bit about the role of criticism, which is Oscar Wilde talking through his character Ernest in “The Critic As Artist.” It’s as good a presentation as I’ve seen on the reason that some newspaper critics will still bridle if you ask them whether they “liked” the [book/movie/album] under review in that week’s issue:

The poor reviewers are apparently reduced to be the reporters of the police-court of literature, the chroniclers of the doings of the habitual criminals of art. It is sometimes said of them that they do not read all through the works they are called upon to criticise. They do not. Or at least they should not. If they did so, they would become confirmed misanthropes […] Nor is it necessary. To know the vintage and quality of a wine one need not drink the whole cask. It must be perfectly easy in half an hour to say whether a book is worth anything or worth nothing. Ten minutes are really sufficient, if one has the instinct for form. Who wants to wade through a dull volume? One tastes it, and that is quite enough—more than enough, I should imagine.”

In a similar vein, back in Bayard’s words, there’s also this, toward the end:

Beyond all defensiveness, our discussion of unread books offers a privileged opportunity for self-discovery, akin to that of autobiography, to those who know how to seize it. In these conversations, whether written or spoken, language is liberated from its obligation to refer to the world and, through its traversal of books, can find a way to speak about what ordinarily eludes us.

Beyond the possibilities of self-discovery, the discussion of unread books places us at the heart of the creative process, leading us back to its source. To talk about unread books is to be present at the birth of the creative subject. In this inaugural moment when book and self separate, the reader, free at last from the weight of the words of others, may find the strength to invent his own text, and in that moment, he becomes a writer himself.”

A little self-congratulatory, but elegantly pulled off, and who wouldn’t like to think so?

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“From A to Zyxt”


One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages.

By Ammon Shea.

223 pp. Perigee. $21.95.


Published: August 3, 2008

Ammon Shea, a sometime furniture mover, gondolier and word collector, has written an oddly inspiring book about reading the whole of the Oxford English Dictionary in one go. Shea’s book resurrects many lost, misshapen, beautifully unlucky words — words that spiraled out, like fast-decaying muons, after their tiny moment in the cloud chamber of English usage. There’s hypergelast (a person who won’t stop laughing), lant (to add urine to ale to give it more kick), obmutescence (willful speechlessness) and ploiter (to work to little purpose) — all good words to have on the tip of your tongue when, for example, you’re stopped for speeding.”

I call it puttering. The OED calls it ploitering. I stand corrected. Now can I get back to it? READ THE WHOLE REVIEW HERE (registration required).

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