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Archival Interview: Bruce Wagner

The Chrysanthemum PalaceBruce Wagner has been turning up everywhere. Not too long ago, Still Holding was a “Lisez” pick at Whatevs.org. And his latest book—The Chrysanthemum Palace—has gotten a positive, if brief, write-up in The New Yorker, and two glowing reviews in America’s paper of record—a clever-clever piece in last Sunday’s Book Review and a February rave by la Kakutani herself. I also heard Terry Gross announcing an upcoming interview with the author when I was driving home from Spanish class last night.

I'll Let You GoI didn’t listen to the interview itself—I’ve been allergic to Terry Gross ever since I heard her interrupt Ridley Scott to make him define “CGI”: seriously, even if she thinks some members of her audience might not know, how about giving them the satisfaction of learning something from context clues?—but it reminded me of my own interview with Wagner when I’ll Let You Go (the first novel in his Cell Phone Trilogy) came out. I adored that book—it was big and droll and absolutely heartbreaking—and I really liked talking to Wagner.

March 23, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Bobby Short: 1924-2005

Oh, no.

I can’t believe Bobby Short is dead. I can’t believe he died before I heard him sing. I have been to New York so many times since I discovered him. It’s totally bullshit that I never went to the Cafe Carlyle on a night when he was singing.

It’s hard to explain why I love Bobby Short—he’s so different from everybody else in my personal musical pantheon. I guess the thing that links him to Shonen Knife and the Beastie Boys and Beck and Modest Mouse is that he just couldn’t help it: He had to sing. Unlike many of my musical heroes, though, Bobby Short actually knew how to sing and how to play. He was fantastic, and I’m so sorry that I missed him.

Back when I was doing some freelance work for All Music Guide, I wrote the following review of Bobby Short Celebrates Rodgers and Hart. I stand by it.

Bobby Short is the Sinatra of the supper clubs. Like Sinatra, Short is a consummate entertainer, a true professional. But the distance between Caesar’s Palace and the Cafe Carlyle is approximately equal to the distance between Hoboken and uptown Manhattan, and Bobby’s style is absolutely uptown. He has none of the hardscrabble swagger that infused Sinatra’s work with pathos. If ever there was a time when Bobby Short was not invited to all the right parties, he doesn’t let on, not for a note. The complete absence of angst makes this CD easy listening indeed, but in the most wonderful way. His voice is unruffled and mellifluous, his phrasing spirited without ever being quite over the top. His articulation of Lorenz Hart’s superb lyrics rests upon his witty and urbane piano playing like a marcelled starlet draped across a chaise lounge. His music is lovely without being too sweet, coquettish without being coarse, droll without being camp.
Debonair, cosmopolitan, and utterly self-possessed, Bobby Short is the just the man for the classic showtunes of Rodgers and Hart. Throughout this recording, he sustains a fantasy of New York that exists only on the big screen, and only in black and white. The national anthem of this magical dreamland is the “Hollywood Party” medley. This song is itself a delightful little movie—a rousing start; drama, action, and intrigue in the middle; culminating in one big, big finale.

God bless Bobby Short, wherever he is.

March 21, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

She’s a Total Velma

It seems I struck a nerve with my recent postings on girls who wear glasses. One commentator suggested that we reclaim Velma—the cleverest member of the Scooby gang—and use her name to signify a woman whose beauty and sexiness depend, at least in part, on her awesome intelligence. Thus, we might say, “That Tina Fey is a total Velma.”

Madonna in Velma DragI’m all for it. I have always believed that an ample brain is an asset, regardless of one’s gender, and that glasses are just another chance to accessorize. And, while I still put in my contacts when I want to slap on the liquid eyeliner, I must admit that my idea of glamour is, perhaps, slightly out of sync with at least some conceptions of sex appeal. Back when I was single and cruising the personals ads, I discovered that all sorts of guys cited Janeane Garofalo as their ideal woman, and I ended up marrying a man who listed Daria as one of his very favorite ladies. So, Dorothy Parker’s famous dictum aside, female four-eyes should know that Velmas are hot.

March 16, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Martha Stewart’s Prison Poncho Pattern

Martha Stewart's Prison PonchoIt breaks my heart when people come to my site and don’t find what they’re looking for (except when they’re looking for something nasty, in which case it doesn’t). Because I have blogged about handmade ponchos and Martha Stewart, hundreds of visitors seeking a pattern for the inmate-crocheted wrap Ms. Stewart wore on her release from prison have arrived here only to be disappointed.

Luckily, I’m not the only person who has noticed the flood of crafty ladies desperate for this pattern. The kindly folks at Lion Brand Yarn are offering a facsimile pattern for free on their site. It’s, as they say, a good thing—but I’d still rather have Martha’s Birkin bag.

March 14, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Spring Break with James Joyce: Day 5

BLOGGER’S NOTE I’m on Spring Break this week, so I’m taking a vacation from schooling and blogging. Since most of my creative energy over the past several weeks has been academically oriented, I’m leaving you with a half-semester’s worth of my thoughts on James Joyce. Seriously: I really am. Have fun with it!

DublinersI tried to read Portrait once, several years ago. I was working in a used bookstore in North Carolina, and a lovely paperback edition from the ‘60s came in (wonderful cover; echoes of Soviet poster art). I bought it, and, as I said, I tried to read it, but I had to stop. I couldn’t get past the sermon on hell.

I’m a heathen, and the child of heathens. My grandma did take my dad to tent meetings and revivals, but only because they were free entertainment. And my great-great-grandfather did preach Jesus to trees and to animals (given his Pentecostal background and scanty education, it’s highly unlikely that Grandpa Jordan knew that St. Francis got to the animals first), which turned my great-grandmother into a weird-but-sincere kind of Baptist, but her faith just gave me the creeps—much like her maudlin alcoholism and fondness for organ meats. My point is that I was not raised to believe in any particular god—and hell has never had any power over me. It’s the priest’s repeated invocations of eternity that get me; and, once he has me staring into that abyss, I find myself strangely receptive to the idea of gnawing worms and unimaginable stench. Hell’s dark fire makes me particularly woozy, as it reminds me of Paracelsus’s light-in-darkness, an image that had a profoundly disorienting effect on me when I first encountered it, and which I still can’t contemplate for long without starting to sweat.

I don’t often “identify” with characters in novels, but I felt an intense pang of sympathy when poor little Baby Tuckoo’s noggin was troubled by thoughts of infinity, because my own infant mind was blown by similar contemplation. While I’m sure that analysis would show that my unconscious depths are roiling with all kinds of unresolved traumas, the first angst I remember is the problem of infinity and my place in it. I would go so far as to say that is my ur-angst, the one that lies at the root of all my other persistent worries.

I decided to take a class on James Joyce because, having tried to read Portrait, having tried to read Ulysses, I was pretty sure I was never going to actually grapple with Joyce if I didn’t have an expert guide and a grade attached. The sermon on hell still makes my hair stand on end, and I’m quite confident I would have tossed Portrait aside and picked up a nicely diverting historical novel or even retreated to the comfortable pleasures of an old favorite if I hadn’t felt externally compelled to get through the sermon and onto the rest of the story. All I can say is, it had better be worth it.

SPRING BREAK WITH JAMES JOYCE
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March 11, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Spring Break with James Joyce: Day 4

BLOGGER’S NOTE I’m on Spring Break this week, so I’m taking a vacation from schooling and blogging. Since most of my creative energy over the past several weeks has been academically oriented, I’m leaving you with a half-semester’s worth of my thoughts on James Joyce. Seriously: I really am. Have fun with it!

When I read an early draft of “The Sisters”, I was amazed: It’s so inflated and precious, and it bears so little resemblance to the published work. Comparing passages like the following

As I went home I wondered was that square of window lighted as before or did it reveal the ceremonious candles in the light of which the Christian must take his last sleep.
…and night after night I had found it lighted in the same way, faintly and evenly. If he was dead, I thought, I would see the reflection of candles in the darkened window for I knew that two candles must be set at the head of a corpse.

offers dramatic demonstration of James Joyce’s evolution as a writer. The first is a rather stuffed euphemism—it offends me like bad aftershave offends me. The second is elegantly direct—you really can’t beat the word “corpse” for provoking an direct confrontation with death—and it is a more faithful reproduction of thoughts a young boy might actually have.

DublinersMy reaction to his essay, “A Portrait of the Artist”, was like my reaction to the proto-“The Sisters”, but more violent. I wasn’t kidding when I said it was unreadable; indeed, it reads as if the author assumes I have no business reading it. The style—Romantic, sentimental, grossly overblown (like the self-important, self-indulgent ranting of practically every 20-year-old beta male I have ever known)—is not only off-putting: It seems antithetical to Joyce’s project as an instrument of modernity, of aesthetic honesty and social revolution.

The rejection of this essay was an altogether predictable miracle—predictable because it’s dreck; miraculous because it turned into A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

SPRING BREAK WITH JAMES JOYCE
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March 10, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Spring Break with James Joyce: Day 3

BLOGGER’S NOTE I’m on Spring Break this week, so I’m taking a vacation from schooling and blogging. Since most of my creative energy over the past several weeks has been academically oriented, I’m leaving you with a half-semester’s worth of my thoughts on James Joyce. Seriously: I really am. Have fun with it!

I spent most of 1993 struggling with Jesus. I was writing my undergraduate thesis, an attempt to explicate the difference between divine and human language in the Gospel of Mark.

Reading the Mark made me feel like my head was on fire. My friend Kate took a much more rational, analytical approach to her thesis (she’s a doctor now, and she’s always tended in that direction). She wrote something quite brilliant, elegantly structured, and seemingly quite dispassionate on Bakhtin and Paul, and she won the thesis prize for our year. Kate has always felt like the plodding member of our dyad, and, in my youth, I adored her for her other virtues, but I secretly agreed with her. As an adult, though, I have acquired a sincere admiration for her ability to get things done (nothing will knock the mad genius out of you quite like several years in middle management). I’ve also realized that, just because she’s organized doesn’t mean she’s not creative—and, in fact, her outward calm and cool presentation almost discourage the observer from noticing the astonishing originality of her thoughts.

DublinersSo, I’ve been reflecting on all this as I try to pull together my first paper for class. I considered several ideas, looked for places where Joyce’s project and my interests overlapped. I thought it might be fun to pull together a clever, but tidy, little paper on the uncanny—as in, unheimliche—in Dubliners. I quickly realized that this was a bit ambitious, so I decided to focus on one story instead. Why not work with “The Sisters”? It’s the first story in the collection, it anticipates the rest of the collection in a variety of thematic ways, and it has a corpse and a ghost. Perfect!

Now I feel like my head is on fire.

When I was reading Mark, each reading led to another reading. I believed that the story contained powerful secrets—secret truths—that I could unlock if I just found the key, and the key could only be found in the text. I have realized that, in order to write my wee paper, I have to stop reading, and, in fact, I have to winnow my questions and commentary in order to pull together a coherent short paper. Following are just a few extracts from my potentially infinite notes:

Why is a priest who left his parish—a priest who dropped an empty chalice, a priest who laughed, alone and in the dark, in the confessional—discussing theology with a boy? Does he believe what he teaches? He know longer practices what he preaches.

What does his ghost confess to the boy? How is he a “simoniac”? There is no indication that his sins—or his disappointments—are financial. The priest has his beef tea and his High Toast and his warm fire, but not much more, nor does he seem to need or want much more. He does have a pupil, an acolyte, a disciple, though. Is this his simony: the exchange of spiritual wisdom for worship? “I had thought his words idle. Now I knew they were true” (9); “an idle chalice on his breast” (18): idle = unmoving, pointless, worthless = idol: an invalid object of worship?

How does the boy feel about the priest? The first half of the story—up until he visits the “house of mourning”—is suffused with an uneasy feeling. He certainly shows an interest in the priest, and his uncle suggests that he will be saddened to learn of his death, but the boy himself displays only a slightly obsessed ambivalence. His vision of the priest’s ghostly head is ghastly and frightening. It’s only on being convinced that the priest is dead, and when he wonders at his sense of freedom, that the boy seems to care for the priest—but this is an ambivalent moment, too.

As the children say, wtf?

SPRING BREAK WITH JAMES JOYCE
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March 9, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Spring Break with James Joyce: Day 2

BLOGGER’S NOTE I’m on Spring Break this week, so I’m taking a vacation from schooling and blogging. Since most of my creative energy over the past several weeks has been academically oriented, I’m leaving you with a half-semester’s worth of my thoughts on James Joyce. Seriously: I really am. Have fun with it!

DublinersI think Lenehan is my favorite character in Dubliners, and, if “The Dead” isn’t my favorite story, “Two Gallants” is. The paragraph in which Lenehan reflects on his life (57-58) is a comic masterpiece, a perfect parody of the wayward hero’s cathartic resolution to change his ways. Rather than seek a solution to his despair in himself, Lenehan decides that he still has a chance of finding himself “a simple-minded girl with a bit of the ready” and goes back to his drink-seeking perambulations fortified by essentially unchanged. Indeed, even as he dreams of an easily manipulated woman to supply him with some cash, he gives away his own few coins to another in a presumably long series of “slatternly” girls.

It’s funny, but it’s also tragic—I would call it “American tragedy” as opposed to classical if that wasn’t an anachronism. Consider the context: Lenehan is exhausted, worn out by walking and by the sometimes thankless work of being charming. And what gives him the psychic energy to find hope? A plate of peas in a cheap restaurant. Lenehan is impoverished—financially, physically, spiritually—and Joyce gives us little reason to believe that a change of circumstances is truly possible for Lenehan. He is paralyzed not just by laziness or alcohol, but by his surroundings. We don’t know everything about Lenehan—we don’t know all the details of his story—but we do know a lot about Dublin, and what we know doesn’t give us much cause for hope. It may be hard to imagine Lenehan enthusiastically engaged in gainful employment, but it’s also difficult to imagine that any such employment is available to him. And alcohol may be that became part of his disease, rather than its cause, even as alcohol makes escape increasingly less possible.

Lenehan is ridiculous, but Joyce makes it impossible for the reader to see him as anything less than human.

SPRING BREAK WITH JAMES JOYCE
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March 8, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Spring Break with James Joyce: Day 1

BLOGGER’S NOTE I’m on Spring Break this week, so I’m taking a vacation from schooling and blogging. Since most of my creative energy over the past several weeks has been academically oriented, I’m leaving you with a half-semester’s worth of my thoughts on James Joyce. Seriously: I really am. Have fun with it!

When I was teaching high school students, I found that they generally had little use for literary criticism. They would tolerate it and sometimes even appreciate it if they felt that the external material I was introducing to their study of a book or story illuminated some element in the text, but they were incredibly resistant when they felt that I was imposing meaning on the text. It was as if they experienced criticism as a hostile force.

DublinersI kind of understood how they felt when I read Harry Stone’s “‘Araby’ and the Writings of James Joyce.” While I found the background material he provided interesting and useful, I found much of his analysis less than convincing—not simply because I disagreed with him, but because I thought he occasionally abandoned Joyce’s story to create readings that really are not supported by the text.

My main complaint is in his analysis of the girl, and of the narrator’s final revelation. Stone suggests that, when he encounters the vapid and possibly mendacious English salesgirl, the boy realizes that his own beloved is equally false—that is, that she is just a girl. Stone musters an encyclopedic amount of information to buttress this conclusion, but I just don’t see it. The boy’s discovery, as I see it, is not about the girl, but about himself.

I think the text supports this reading, without any appeals to other women in Joyce or well-known Irish poems or controversies surrounding the florin. Joyce writes, “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger” [emphasis added].

The girl isn’t mentioned here—the boy’s new self-knowledge—and, to me, the particular excruciation Joyce describes is a specifically adolescent kind of torment. In his moment of clarity—when the shabby reality of Araby dismantles his romantic dreams—he is poised between a childish dream and adult knowledge. He is, at this moment, old enough to recognize his silliness, and young enough to feel mortified by it.

I realize that my own reading makes external appeals—not to history or religion but to my own keen recollections of adolescent embarrassment. It is, then, reader-response criticism. In class, we touched on the potential and the limits of this kind of criticism (although one might argue that all literary analysis boils down to reader-response criticism), but I do feel that it’s a valid approach to Joyce. Dubliners is full of stories without conventional endings. Joyce doesn’t explain the meaning of his stories. He concludes not with resolution, but with the moment of crisis. Joyce intended Dubliners to be a mirror in which the Irish can see themselves; thus, he rouses the reader, and compels her to find meaning in her own experience.

SPRING BREAK WITH JAMES JOYCE
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March 7, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Girls Who Wear Glasses

Fran Gerard: Miss March 1967Writing about the newly madeover Velma yesterday got me to thinking about my favorite Playboy playmate ever. If you dig a girl with glasses, do yourself a favor and spend some quality time with my Fran Gerard photo album.

On a related note, while perusing this morning’s traffic report for my wee blog, I came across this heartening and entertaining anecdote from a fellow female four-eyes. (Yes, I know there’s something terribly self-serving and solipsistic about linking to a post that links back to my post, but it really is a nice little story).

March 2, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack