Archive for March, 2009


Got back yesterday from a four-mile/three-hour float — miles and hours too short — on the South Llano River, near Junction (about two and a half hours west of Austin, if you don’t stop for sausage and doppelbock in Fredericksburg), where the Llano’s north and south forks converge into the plain ol’ Llano before continuing northeast to dump into the Colorado at Lake LBJ.

Don’t know that I’ve ever driven five hours for three hours of aggressively lazy paddling before. Wait — yeah, of course I have.

Never been on any bit of this river before. It’s a little river, and we put in and took out at little Hill Country low-water crossings. Pretty river. Good fishing I’m told, especially for a bass that isn’t really a bass. There wasn’t a lot of water in it, but there were some deep green holes, and I only had to get out and drag once, for about ten yards.

I posted some pictures on my flickr page.

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img035Aww man. Working in newspapers sucks. Just bitterly, brutally bad news every which way but loose.

Nothing new, but the Houston Chronicle is taking the next step in its nosedive toward something much smaller. It laid off 80 people a few months back, and it started laying off another reported 12-14 percent of its “workforce” today. That number was rumored to be higher in the editorial department. The cuts, announced generally a month ago, continue tomorrow.

Fire someone in fucking Human Resources for that stunt, you ask me.

Check out Rich Connelly at the Houston Press‘ Hairballs blog for the full skinny. 

I just wanted to acknowledge here that one of the good guys who got laid off was Books Editor Fritz Lanham, who’d been there since the early 1990s.

True story: In maybe 1993, 1994, I decided to try my luck as a freelancer in Houston, and I carefully prepared two manila envelopes with cover letters and a resume and a few Xeroxed clips from Portland’s Willamette Week and the Houston Press. I addressed them to Fritz Lanham at the Chronicle and Elizabeth Bennett at the Houston Post, which wasn’t dead yet then.

Elizabeth Bennett called a few days later to let me know, graciously, that I’d accidentally put the cover letter addressed to Fritz Lanham in the envelope addressed to her. I was mortified of course. I know how she felt, now. I know it every time I get an application from a would-be copy editor who’s addressed his cover letter to Bread Tyler.

Fritz never mentioned the mix-up that I recall. Even better, he tried me out on a review. I wish I remembered what that first one was. I guess I could look it up. But I did dozens for the Chronicle on and off over the years, as recently as last year. Fritz is a generous editor and never made any of my reviews anything but better than they were when I delivered them, and he sent a few back when they needed it. That’s not particularly common, but it’s much to be desired by a writer, and if I were to think of the editors from whom I’ve learned something necessary, however passively, about editing, Fritz is on the not-long list. 

I used to joke, without really joking, that I wanted Fritz’ job someday. Doesn’t look like those jobs are going to last though. Fritz’ll be fine — I’m not trying to eulogize him. He did good work, he did a good job, and he did well by me, and I appreciate it is all.

Re the book: Hearst Corp., descended from Willie, whom I’d never call that even on a blog if he was alive in the age of blogging, owns the Chron, and a bunch of other stuff, all of which I’ll revisit in a Texas Observer column I’ll post later.

Condolences to all at the Chronicle. There’s lots of good people and not just a few good friends over there.

Okay, back to drinking…

P.S. The count is 32 as I finish this, and I see now that Claudia Kolker is on the list. Goddammit. I remember when Claudia Kolker came to work at the Houston Press. We shared a cubicle wall and we took it down as a mutual small rebellion against cubicles. She went to the Chron pretty quickly and went to the editorial page pretty quickly after that. She’s brilliant and will land somewhere good. But goddamn.

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Watch me try to figure out how


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img029Just by virtue of logistical logjams, I think about re-reading books a lot more often than I ever get around to actually re-reading them. 

That said, all this infuriating news about bonus-wielding AIG execs holding American taxpayers hostage to the supposedly necessary retention of dubious corporate “talent” puts me in mind of the next great depression, which puts me in mind of the last one, which leads me around again to The Grapes of Wrath.

I was a little surprised to discover that neither of my omnibus Steinbeck collections collected it (too fat, I guess), so I did what Americans do when they decide they just have to have something they don’t already have: I went online and bought it.

img0301It arrived today wrapped in this gorgeous Van Gogh-meets-Soviet-realism cover courtesy Vintage’s old Compass Books division, the beauty of which I’ve noted elsewhere on this blog.

I don’t know what they’re teaching in high school these days, but I do know that what’s perceived as Steinbeck’s common-man sentimentality has made for a shaky perch in the canon that’s hard to square with the contemporary blurbage. No less savage an ironist than Dorothy Parker appraised The Grapes of Wrath as follows:

…I think, and with earnest and honest consideration, … that The Grapes of Wrath is the greatest American novel that I have ever read.”

img031The Swedish Academy, announcing Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize in 1962, wrote:

“His sympathies always go out to the oppressed, the misfits and the distressed; he likes to contrast the simple joy of life with the brutal and cynical craving for money.”

Seems like something along those lines might be worth a second look, no? With this financial plague of locusts winging dust in everyone’s eyes?

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purdy flowers

img028Novelist/short-storyist/playwright James Purdy died Friday, begging the question (I think I’m using the phrase properly, or spitting distance from properly): Who knew James Purdy was still alive? He was 94.

From The Nephew:

‘Had a word with Mrs. Barrington as I was coming up the walk,’ Boyd went on, forgetful again that his sister was still reading.

‘Yes, I heard her voice.’

‘The old girl is a spry one at her age. Just think of it — she’s nearly 90.’

‘She’s all of that.’ Alma looked up as if she, after all, was the authority on age.

‘But gad, what a backyard of hers. You have to hand it to her. Those flowering-trees — right at this time of year. No wonder it’s a showplace for this part of the country.’

‘Well it’s all she’s ever done — nearly,’ Alma parenthesized from a critical re-reading of one paragraph of the nephew’s letter. ‘She’s had more than two lifetimes to beautify her property.’

Domestic weirdness and prim propriety in the service of muffled revelations — that’s how I remember Purdy’s stuff, though I don’t even remember how I stumbled across him in the first place. Purdy wrote that scene in 1960, and the first Noonday Press edition — no. 315, of which I have the above brittle-paged and beautiful paperback — came out with a case-making forward by R.W.B. Lewis in 1967, the year I was born. 

The Nephew should have extended the reputation established by Malcolm, [Purdy’s high watermark comic masterpiece] but somehow it did not,” Lewis wrote. “Several reviewers were put off by a seeming awkwardness of narrative movement, and a seeming vagueness, even forgetfulness, about time and place in the novel.”

img027Fair enough, but some of us liked Purdy’s hallucinatorily shifting ground on its own disorienting merits. Houston theater genius Edward Albee adapted Malcolm to the stage, and I had a quite a phase with Purdy myself, and probably own more Purdy titles, at six, than anybody in my collection but Larry McMurtry — a phase I haven’t quite entirely entered yet. It’s good to be ready, though.

And it’s good to look at these covers again. New Directions did Children is All — stories, (one of which was originally published in something called The Texas Quarterly!) and two plays, at right — in 1971. 

It looks like DeCapo Books reissued a lot of his stuff most recently. It’s hard to imagine it selling, but even worse to think of the greater likelihood: that it just fade into obscurity entirely.

James Purdy revival, anyone? I dare ya. Brooklyn should make The House of the Solitary Maggot its Borough Book Club Selection of the Month.

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img026Dude, nice cover.

I’m coming late to Nacogdoches’ Joe R. Lansdale, even though he’s been right under my nose the whole time.

I just read Sanctified and Chicken Fried, a story anthology out this month, and Savage Season, a 20-year-old series-launching Piney Woods crime novel that just got reissued.

I don’t know much about the genre — a little James Crumley, some Jim Thompson, a smat of James Lee Burke and doses of Hammett, Cain and Chandler — but I know a little something about East Texas. That’s my people. My granny’s still there.



Leather Maiden, above, is my first audio book. I was trying to cram a lot of material-absorption into a relatively short span of time and I listened to it while I drove or rode the bus. It’s definitely a second-rate way to read, but I can see myself maybe listening to a few books a year that way.

My essay on Lansdale and East Texas is out in the new issue of the Texas Observer.

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chesilIan McEwan writes like a mofo. I read Amsterdam and liked it and forgot most of it a while ago. More recently I read On Chesil Beach and started to get a glimmer of just how high a caliber writer McEwan is. He may not know exactly how the brain works, but he sure seems to know an awful lot about what goes on in there.

It’s good to have another Large British Writer around. It was Martin Amis for me for awhile, but hasn’t been since he turned serious, and I never have gotten any hooks into Salman Rushdie. Saw him speak once, in Bozeman, Montana, a decent chunk of the downtown of which kind of randomly blew up today, but never read much

I went to hear McEwan read at UT last night. He’s on some sort of a tour, reading from a yet-to-be-published novel set to take place in some sort of global warming context. He’s taking pains to clarify that he’s not writing a novel “about” global warming, which anyone who’s read him will already understand. He talks about his science jones and the literary argument he’s been promoting lately between reason and intuition as the alternating drivers of novelistic plots. He thinks reason’s unfairly underrated. Eh.

He said some very funny things about the middle-aged male’s impulse to diet that I’m really, really, really sorry to relate to as much as I do.

He’s also got a recent profile in the February 23  New Yorkerwherein the story is told of his failure to get in at Cambridge in part because he couldn’t discuss Macbeth, because he hadn’t, umm, read it. Love that.

Mofo can write regardless. And he’s a funny reader, polished comic timing. He wore a thin v-neck sweater the color of the sky on the Chesil Beach cover. They couldn’t get the sound right so he spoke without a mike. I don’t know where he’s going, but I gather he’ll be doing the same thing in some other towns. I recommend it, if you have a chance.

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