Monday, August 31, 2009

An Entirely Selfish Choice

This weekend, I've finally been doing my duty -- a bit of it anyway -- and have now read at least thirty pages out of more than a dozen books sent to me for consideration by the committee on which I so happily serve. I was pleased to have found, in at least two or three, something well worth reading more of. My reluctance then, to again take up this task, has had less to do with reading books I would never choose to, had it not rather unexpectedly become my responsibility to do so, than with reading good books when I might be reading a great one. Now that, is about as snooty as I choose to ever admit to being, here. I've tried very hard not to use this space as an abattoir. I can say what I please here, but having this opportunity hasn't altered my position relative to literature or bookselling; I love the former, but earn my living from latter. I am not myself a professional writer. l am not now nor have I ever made any claim to being a novelist or a journalist or anything else much connected to either the creation or promotion of literature. I wrote a novel once. It was bad. I don't regret the attempt, I even enjoyed the doing of it, but neither do I much mourn my failure. I have not been made bitter by what I do not do, as I've found greater satisfaction than I might otherwise have imagined in doing the little I do for literature by working in a great bookstore. And as a bookseller, I wouldn't want to actively discourage anyone from reading even the worst books, so long as the reader buys them first, and from me. When I have allowed myself, just here, a discouraging word or two or two hundred about a particular book or contemporary author, I have tried consistently immediately thereafter to recommend something better. That, it seems to me, is very much in keeping with the way in which I earn a living. I am not a critic. I am not paid to make evaluations of the relative merits of this, as opposed to that, book, in any context other than customer satisfaction. That I do happily. It is my job. And even when I am not on the job, I do try to be a little circumspect. There are, for example, any number of perfectly respectable contemporary writers, some of them even rather beloved by the reading public, I would never again willingly read, writers whose success frankly baffles me, or whose reputations I might personally find grossly inflated. Well, who cares? I might happily trash such people with my friends, but I don't think, my credentials as reader being no better than they are, that I really need to nominate myself as the St. George to take on such dragons, or this little blog, as the best means to defeat them. Do you? No. There are critics, literary, journalistic, academic, and popular, and more than enough of those, whose job, it would seem to me, is to do exactly that. Instead, in my cranky, rather inconspicuous way, I feel free to swell the occasional chorus of decent, or add my small voice to a more general ballyhoo, but otherwise, I prefer to express only my own, entirely eccentric opinion here, for whatever it may be worth in the way of endorsement, amusement or warning to only the warm but narrow circle of my friends and few readers. And so I feel safe in allowing myself this confession, as it can harm no one much but me, and that only in reinforcing my reputation as a blatant fogey, and state flatly, whatever the quality of the books sitting in my stack for review by the committee, I would rather be reading Stendhal.

I made the mistake this morning, in the midst of my assigned reading, of picking up The Red and the Black, without really meaning to, and taking it with me on an errand of nature. Having read no more than the first, short chapter, I was reminded of just how great this novel is; how rich in character and politics, in atmosphere and history, and of just how funny Stendhal can be. He's ruined me, at least for today. The thought of turning now off the wide provincial avenue leading me again through Verrieres, to the old Abbe Chelan and on to Abbe Pirard, and to Julien Sorel and the rest, seems impossible. What, after all, is my assigned direction for the day, what are the charms of my original slog, with such a happy alternative already in my hand? With whom ought I to spend the evening? The unaffected, if rather meandering poet, in her surprisingly lengthy memoir, shedding metaphors like so many sunbeams on the hard, white, winter beauties of Alaska? That has always been a place I hope never to go, even before they loosed their favorite daughter on the national scene. Or should I read another fishing story? Should I have another go at one of the boating books? Or should I reconsider my initial judgement, perhaps too hasty, all but certainly too harsh, of the book about the remembered excitement of local football, as it used to be played, back in the glory days? Setting aside all the nonfictional celebrations of rugged outdoorsiness and endangered slugs and the like, perhaps I ought skip past all the heartwarming stories of heroic pets, and go straight to the independently published fiction by local authors. This is, after all, just the sort of thing amidst which I had hoped to discover something so original and quirkily, if brilliantly written as to justify, in my mind if nowhere else, the whole purpose of our review committee. Last year, I found one or two very good books, short story collections rather than novels, admittedly, that I thought well worth championing, if to little or no effect on my committee, then at least, in a modest way, in the bookstore. But of the fiction I've started from my stack of nominated books, from small and large presses alike, I have, to date, this year not found a single one that was not already better written, by the late John Gardner for instance, or experienced already as a television movie on Lifetime, ("television for women!") or read a hundred other times, and more happily, in short stories, twenty years ago, in a collection from Pushcart.

No. I'm afraid, having allowed myself even so much as a taste of a real masterpiece, the idea of going back to common grub, however nutritious or lovingly made from scratch and scraps, makes me more than a little queasy just now. It is like discovering champagne in a juice bar! It's like finding foie gras on a table of Denny's. Who has the stomach for a half eaten Grand Slam, after even a nibble of real French cuisine?

So there it is and here I am. Why anyone should think of putting such a horrible little snob onto anything as democratic as a working committee, I can't quite imagine. As I've said, I can't even justify my position by insisting I was meant for better things. I'm not. Nothing good can come of my reading Stendhal again, instead of reading the books I agreed to read. Nothing good. I can't even dare to suggest that in reading The Red and the Black, again, that I'll have anything intelligent or original to say about it afterwards, if only here. I don't know that I will. It's more than a little embarrassing.

And now, if you will forgive me, if you can, I'm going to go eat leftover biscuits and gravy and read Chapter Seven, "Elective Affinities."

Daily Dose

From The Grand Inquisitor's Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God, by Jonathan Kirsch


"Unfortunately, the human genius for both art and invention can be found even in the inquisitorial torture chamber."

From Chapter 4, Crime and Punishment

Sunday, August 30, 2009

A Box Without Hinges, Key, or Lid

I've mentioned before, my father's retirement career, reselling collectibles, junk and the like in a kind of perpetual yard-sale, is not so much a hobby as a sadly necessary feature of my parents' Golden Years. It pays for my parents' prescriptions when their paltry insurance fails them and their coverage, under the Republican prescription plan, leaves them to fend for themselves for weeks or months at a time. ("Compassionate conservatism" and pure market capitalism in practice, that. Lest we forget, lest we forget.) As neither of my parents is eager to die just yet, they have had to improvise a supplementary income from auctions, estate sales and the like. Dad's good at selling things, and at finding things to sell among the stuff other people discard. This is not something that will ever do much more for him than pay for some of his blood-pressure medication, but at least it can do that.

A trip home for me now would not then be complete without an hour or so spent poking among the bits of chipped crockery and repaired furniture, looking for small treasures to take away as keepsakes of my visit. This isn't as ghoulish as it might sound. I'm not grabbing up family heirlooms or stuffing my luggage with swag. A review of my father's "finds" has become an established ritual when a guest stays over. And to admire anything in my parents' possession is to risk being given it on the spot. It's just their way, and may explain, in part, my father's failure to become a millionaire. Therefore, one has to be cautious about complementing my father's choice of tie, or admiring my mother's collection of ice-box storage containers, unless one wants to see these things in a Christmas box, or find them carefully wrapped in reused tissue papers, and secreted in one's suitcase, under the socks, with a loving note attached. I've learned to scope out some small thing, suitable for carrying through the airport. Having studied the the thing carefully, and having speculated on its relative value, after noting the actual price tag my father has put on it, and having expressed a delighted surprise in finding just such a long-desired item in, of all places, a box in my father's garage, the object is then put back where it was found. Returning to admire it again, just before leaving, clinches the deal. The transaction invariably concludes like this:

"You ought to take that. Take that. Take that with you, if you think you'd use it."

"Well, I just might. Thank you."

In this way, I've been able to leave after a week's visit, without a collection of men's sports coats in various, unsuitably bright colors and patterns, complete sets of china service for twelve, and or a selection of antique kitchen tools, including a twenty pound, cast-iron meat-grinder, standing three foot high, still in its original box, unused. As you might imagine, I have made a few mistakes over the years, and ended up hauling all sorts of good stuff I didn't really need, three thousand miles across the country. These days, I have the sense to confine my comments to portable goods, preferably small enough to fit in a rolled sock. Live and learn. Material expressions of affection are best when they don't require additional fees or postage.

This time, Wilkins Mcawber caught my eye. That's not a name my father would be likely to recognize. Neither's Sairey Gamp. I saw them both, together nestled amidst a whole host of salt & pepper shakers on a shelf in my father's shed. I recognized old friends. There's nothing to show that these little stoppered busts are officially sanctioned reproductions from the estate of the great man. There are no maker's marks or inscriptions. Nothing about them suggests anything but mass production and the unlicensed use of likeness. I knew them though, as soon as I saw them, for who they were. An unlikely pair, may I say, but I thought them handsome, and familiar enough, to think they might look well on a bookcase in my library. I told my father a bit of the history of either character, even made so bold as to comment that he might find he had no little in common with Mr. Mcawber, should he happen on him. My father took this all in without much curiosity. Having put them back and picked them up a second time, according to the established ritual, as expected, I heard my Dad behind me:

"You ought to take them. Take 'em. Take 'em with you, if you think you'd use 'em."

"Well, I just might. Thank you."

And so now Wilkins and Sairey now sit, each not quite before the appropriate volume, yet smiling benignly down on me as I write. Like most of the other small, decorative touches in my library, they represent more than just a bit of bright fancy on my bookshelves. There, for instance, is a miniature teapot, made from old English penny pieces, that I got in London on our only trip abroad to date. And there's the broken pipe I pretended to smoke in a high school play of The Hobbit. There, just above my desk, is the beautiful box that my dearest friend R. made for me one Christmas. On a shelf behind me sits a little brass Korean gentleman, smoking a long pipe. This is actually an incense burner that my father dug out of a foxhole in Korea, during his service in the "conflict." I asked for that. And now, just in front of Dickens, are two old friends, just recently had from the hand of my father as well. This room is full of such things, gifts, stuff. The value of most of it, no one, just looking at it, would ever guess.

Daily Dose

From Mrs. de Peyster's Parties and Other Lively Studies from The New Yorker, by Geoffrey T. Hellman


"Knopf does not always show the utmost sensitiveness in relating the appearance of a book to its contents. Some of his volumes have been dressed beyond their station in life."

From Durable Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Cheyenne Territory

The husband is in the other room watching a DVD of "Cheyenne," waiting for Clint Walker to take his shirt off, again. I quite understand. See for yourself. I do wonder if Mr. Walker, still very much alive, evidently, has had occasion to consider the number of times he performed this particular service for his many gay fans in the course of his film and television career. As he is alive, let me thank him here, on behalf of us all. Thanks, Clint. You were awesome. Our continued attention, to his once quite remarkable good looks, if not to his career, isn't meant to be demeaning. I only bring it up because I'm curious to know if, even at the time, when stripped to the waist, he didn't find the admiration of gay men flattering. I've no reason to think he was necessarily even aware of it, or us, but then, I have no reason to assume otherwise either. It was, as so many like to imagine, a more innocent time, or rather, it was certainly a less open-minded atmosphere in Hollywood, forty or more years ago, if no less queer. One might safely assume, even then, Clint caused something of a flutter in the hair and make-up trailer, or among the less convincing cowboy extras. There must have been someone along the way, some powerful admirer in the studio, or even just a fan on set or at the beach, who asked him to flex a bicep, or asked about his work-out routines without really listening to his answer. It's possible, I suppose, that Mr. Walker mistook their curiosity for genuine interest in his diet and the like, but he did work in the entertainment industry after all. But however innocent Clint may once have been of the prurient nature of our interest, he has by now lived long enough to know something of the world, I should think, and I imagine, whatever his feelings on the subject of marriage equality and the like, he might by now be grateful to know there are still admirers, admittedly of a certain age, willing to watch hours of black & white westerns, just for a glimpse of his tits.

That's immortality, of a kind.

Before the introduction of legal pornography, video cassettes, and the innovation of Internet exhibitionism, the sexually deviant, among whom I proudly stand or stretch out, as the occasion might demand, had fewer options. Should any of my readers be so young as to not remember the time of which I write, you will simply have to trust me when I tell you, there was a day in America, not all that long ago, when not every male of legal age masturbated on camera for the delectation of friends, lovers and strangers. Hard to imagine, but quite sadly true. In those far off days, the sight of, say, Clint Walker without a shirt, in ridiculously tight jeans, chopping wood, as it were, constituted something of the same thrill our even more remote queer ancestors must have had the first time they stood in mute admiration and fiddled with their own, or if they were very bold and very lucky, their neighbor's codpiece, while staring up into the magnificent, larger than life, perfect marble ass of Michelangelo's David. Clint Walker's ass, whatever it's present state of dignity, was once every bit as magnificent, hard and larger than life. And Clint had the better of David, even at only life size, when it came to the magnificence of his junk, let me just say, at least to judge from still photographs of the period of Clint's greatest exposure. (Poor David.)

More than reminding everyone of the darker days of our collective sexual history though, I decided to pay tribute, just here, to the glory that was Clint Walker's ass, not only because it is the least his ass deserves, but also because I am genuinely curious that a television star from before even my time, could still have such a hypnotic effect on my husband. He has the same access now that I do to more explicit celebrations of masculine pulchritude. One has only to see his shocking slide-show of thoroughly filthy screen-savers to know that he has taken full advantage of the opportunities presented, free, by our friends in the amateur porn community. (Common interests make a marriage work, by the way, they really do. A bit of free advice.) So how is it, that Clint Walker, or Chuck Connors in "The Rifleman," can still displace in his dirty mind the more obvious charms to be encountered on "The Bait Bus" or "His First Time"?

The answer, to the extent one is either needed or all that interesting, may well be lost in the mists of autobiography and popular culture. The fact however remains. Given the chance to watch Clint Walker dismount a horse or to see two, or more, beefy boys from Venice Beach wrestle nude in baby-oil, my husband will gladly watch both. Sensible fellow. But he will still find Clint Walker, shirtless, at least as, if not more, thrilling.

Ya gotta love the guy.

Daily Dose

From It All Adds Up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future, by Saul Bellow


"One semester I registered for a course in Money and Banking and then concentrated my reading in the novels of Joseph Conrad. I have never had reason to regret this."

From his Nobel Lecture

Friday, August 28, 2009

But Beautiful

Why did I take to jazz? I didn't hear it growing up. It's true, my father was something of a fan in his youth. But I only learned this fact in my adolescence, when I found and listened to some of his old LPs: Cannonball Adderley with Nancy Wilson, Coleman Hawkins, Sinatra. I grew up with country music. I loved musicals almost from birth. But I came to jazz pretty early, and it has never left me. Those singers, that music, became mine at some point. Maybe it was when I listened to my father's abandoned jazz records. The one that got me, the one I first really connected to, from the minute I dropped the needle, was "Basin Street East Proudly Presents Miss Peggy Lee," recorded in 1961, two years before I was born. This is of course the famous live recording of "Fever," among other things, including Peggy's tribute to Ray Charles. One of his songs, "Just for a Thrill," is so painfully good, sung by Miss Lee in an achingly earnest drag, the band muted, glasses clinking in the opening, one can smell the cigarette smoke in the club, and feel the lady's pain. She goes straight through the applause for this one, into "Yes Indeed," and rocks it. It is great record. The band swings. Peggy is just bubbling with sex, fast and slow, throughout the set. She is just so damned good. Peggy Lee was a revelation. I listened to that record, memorizing the songs, for a month or more. It seemed so adult, which I think meant it suggested a wonderful, utterly alien sophistication, an urbanity I knew otherwise only from old movies on the late night television. I wanted that. I wanted to be in a city, listening to cool music, smoking a cigarette, having a cocktail, wearing French cuffs -- something else I'd just decided I needed desperately to do. That record, and jazz, I think, represented the kind of kitchy, retro cool, which I was sure would suit me down to the ground, so clearly incapable was I of any other kind of cool. Peggy made me dream.

Like a lot of of the "live" recordings of that era, there's a number that is actually a studio recording grafted onto the playlist, applause added at either end. The one on this record still slays me. Peggy Lee singing "But Beautiful" is the sound for me of a starry summer night, not a breeze stirring through the window screen, my first serious crush on a man, for so the boy seemed to me then, making me moony and sad, and strangely happy, laying there naked but for headphones, staring out into the dark, dropping the needle back to that song, over and over again...

He was the friend of a friend of a friend, to get the linkage just right. He had already graduated high school before I could start, was off at college, studying art. Very glamorous, that. I met him at a New Year's Eve party, having heard about him for some time before that as an almost mythic figure from just the recent past: cute and obviously talented and openly gay. Teachers I had then still talked about him. Adults I respected respected him. Those of his friends I'd already met, all still talked about him too. I'd seen photographs of him from previous parties. He had a dazzling smile, thick brown curls, a slim figure, good hands. I'd heard story after story about his happy disposition, his charm, his wit.

There was something about that time, the sixties were long gone, it was after the Vietnam War, after Watergate, the Bicentennial, something that felt like everything interesting, everything important, had already happened, largely before I could appreciate or understand it. My generation missed everything, or so it seemed, really until AIDS. That we came to well in time, unfortunately. But we didn't really anticipate much, and certainly not that. Instead, everything seemed retrospectively more interesting than we were or could possibly grow up to be. The adults nearest to what I hoped one day to be, the mild, country radicals I'd met, the survivors of communes and acid and protests, were all of them, already nostalgic, and disillusioned. It was a little discouraging. Even those who had come up just before me, seemed, at least to me, to be so far ahead, so much less indefinite, so experienced, so knowing, even cynical, as to be tinged with whatever was left of that earlier excitement. The people I'd met that year, through the friends of my friend, were all of them still lovely and young, but never the less enviably past innocence, touched with the very adult glamour of having just made it in before the gate closed again, and everything went back to being, if not Eisenhower, then something sadly like. I suppose any high school freshman might feel this, meeting people already in college, but I could not help but feel I'd missed the only party I might ever have enjoyed.

The party where I finally met my crush was an annual affair, hosted by the aunt of my friend. A woman my mother's age, this was someone to whom I was instinctively drawn. She was tough, self sufficient, unmarried, terribly clever. She and her sister, my friend's mother, stayed up all night, watching old movies, drinking black coffee, smoking, entertaining themselves and a host of unlikely friends, some nights, bantering and laughing ruefully -- something I very much thought I ought to learn how to do. One cast horoscopes, and the other, the aunt, listened, quite closely, even to me. They were wise women in their way, almost witches, though in the best sense, who understood not just the wider world they heard about on the radio and read about in books, but, in the case of the aunt, the way the earth worked, as she lived from her garden, and the way the town worked, as it had been quite cruel to her, years before I was even born, and she'd borne it bravely and survived. Wonderful women, Pepper, my friend's mother, and Buff, her sister and perhaps my first real adult friend.

I was thrilled to be invited to her New Year's Eve party. Besides the large, and somewhat disreputable collection of relations that came every year, there were Buff's friends, nearly all of them younger, nearly all of them having somehow found their way to her warm kitchen, over the years, and to her good counsel. She had an open heart. She loved easily, forgave easily, and she enjoyed life. I learned a lot in that house, sitting in that kitchen after midnight, listening to that woman laugh, making her laugh.

Her party was about the only time one saw her in anything but old dungarees and man's old cotton shirt. Her clothes were so old and so often laundered that, like everything in that old place, from the worn floors to the weathered walls, what she wore seemed somehow to have been made from the same faded stuff as the drapes, the tablecloth, the curling smoke from her ashtray. Once a year though, she wore a ruffled pink blouse and a floor-length, red velvet skirt, wore heels and put up her long black hair. I can't say which way I found her more beautiful.

She was a marvelous hostess. The food, as I remember it, wasn't much, and the champagne was inexpensive and domestic, but everything was gloriously good that night, because she insisted it was so and I believed her. I always believed her. I think she understood, before I did myself, the effect on me of all the stories I'd heard, from her and from others, about this boy Brian. She was his friend, as she became mine, as she was a friend to my friend, her niece. I think, the night of her party, the first time I would get to meet this boy so much older and more attractive than I was, she kept an eye on me. She introduced us, in the kitchen, in a crowd of people, and I think she knew just what I would make of him, and she didn't worry about me so much as make sure I did not make too much of our meeting.

He was awfully handsome, not large or butch, but rather androgynous, very much in the style of the time; with beautiful long hair and tight clothes, and, as I remember it now, suspenders and saddle shoes? He was just as charming as I'd always heard. He smiled easily. He met my eyes at some point, though we'd barely spoken, despite my sitting as close to him as I could respectably get, and he gave me a sip of his beer. I hated beer. Still do. But that sip was ambrosial. I'd had a little champagne earlier, at midnight, from Buff's glass, and my friend and I had spent most of the night happily together, talking as we always did, with great seriousness about everything. But for me, that sip of Brian's beer was the magical, new moment.

And that was it. From that moment, I imagined myself in love. Later, it was arranged, perhaps by Buff, that I should get a ride home from one of Brian's friends. I remember scraping the ice from the inside of the windshield, as the beetle was unheated. I think something might have been said to Brian, before I left, presumably by Buff, because rather than kiss me, as he seemed to have done with everyone else as they left, he shook my hand, and squeezed my shoulder, but that was all. It didn't matter.

I took the cap from his Rolling Rock beer. I took it home and glued a safety pin to the back of it. I wore it every day for ages. I still have it.

Buff was very understanding and let me talk as if I knew her friend as well as she did, as if we had somehow become friends through her. And I did see him again, after that party. I can't say he even remembered me. Buff let me talk through other, subsequent crushes, and even a boyfriend with her. She lived to see me with my lover, and met him, as I felt she must. She approved I'm sure. And Brian? I shouldn't think my name would mean anything to him now. I never did get so much as a kiss from him. I've no idea if he's even still alive. I sincerely hope so, and I assume he is, but I don't know anything more of him now than he knew of me then. Buff is gone. My friend, her niece, left my life years ago, convinced that her lesbian feminism could not quite accommodate me and my penis.

Listening tonight to Miss Peggy Lee, singing over and over again, that great, sentimental song by Sonny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen, I remember why I listen to jazz. Jazz is cool, cooler still than I ever grew to be: poetic, rhythmically timed and yet unexpectedly phrased, emotional and easy and true, calculated and still astonishingly free, never unresolved or awkward or less than adult. It's cool. It works. And this song, for me, happily, is my past. I remember every word.

"Love is tearful, or its gay,
Its a problem, or its play.
Its a heartache either way,
But beautiful..."

Daily Dose

From Glinda of OZ, by L. Frank Baum

"'What do you think of all this, Ozma?' Dorothy anxiously inquired when they were alone.

'I'm glad we came,' was the reply, 'for although there may be mischief done to-morrow, it is necessary I should know about these people, whose leaders are wild and lawless and oppress their subjects with injustice and cruelties.'"

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Slightly Pruddish Gay Clerihew


I'm rather stuck
With Robert Glück,
Avoiding this time,
The obvious rhyme.

Daily Dose

From Denny Smith (stories), by Robert Glück


"We didn't grow old and night never fell. I didn't write about us."

From Denny Smith

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

On the (Yellow Brick) Road Again

The greatest difficulty of being a fan, is that in admitting as much, one forfeits any pretense of objectivity forever. It is one thing to admire, or even adulate a star, a movie, an author, a book, but to go further, to acknowledge the irrational, compulsive curiosity with which the fan must pursue any avenue that might seemingly bring the object of fascination closer, is to admit a preoccupation hardly becoming in a grown person. There is a humane indulgence extended to the teenager whose ecstatic screams make a singer inaudible, in whose room a shrine rises, or who, annoyingly but endearingly, insists on expressing an enthusiasm so entirely disproportionate to the relative cultural value of what is assumed will be a passing obsession, as to make both more than a little ridiculous. The collecting of information, however trivial, of memorabilia however trite, would seem an appropriate occupation for someone still so young as to be not entirely answerable to adult responsibilities like budgeting one's income and time responsibly, someone young enough to still be in search of self definition and identity. To be an otherwise respectable gentleman of middle years who goes all giddy at just the sight of, say, Johnny Depp, is to confess a serious failure in having put away childish things. Harmless it may be, one would hope, but hardly admirable, save, I suppose, in the very harmlessness of the pursuit; presumably keeping the adult fan, so long as the subject is kept from overwhelming unrelated conversation and confined to bumper-stickers and a dream otherwise indulged only in solitary or like-minded company, largely off the streets. Hardly a recommendation of one's seriousness, potential for serious discourse, or general gravitas then, at my stage of life, to admit that I am a fan of OZ.

Now I don't subscribe to any societies, attend conventions, or decorate my house with posters. I do not dress up as Dorothy or the Tin Man, have a dog named Toto, or celebrate, or even exactly remember the birthday of L. Frank Baum. I am not so far gone as to imagine The Wonderful Wizard of OZ, as a work of fiction, to be the equal of, let alone superior to the greatest masterpieces of either the American or European novel. I am not even prepared to defend my favorite children's book as anything other than that. I love it, that's all. Have done, since the first time a copy was lent to me, well after the first time I'd seen the great MGM musical film, on a sorry black and white television, and loved that. (The movie musical is something of a gay gateway drug, isn't it? From thence, Judy queens, Musical queens, OZ fanatics, etc.) Having gone on then to read all of Baum's OZ books, and a number of the inferior, if still charming, inventions of his many successors, and nearly every book published subsequently about Baum, OZ, the film, Judy Garland and even the memoirs of a peripheral Munchkin, I can only say, again, by way of justification, I'm a fan.

If you are not, then what follows will be meaningless. This being exactly the kind of thing from which fans, deservedly, get a bad name, there is really no reason for anyone not already interested to read any further. I wish I could say I intended to make of my avidity something so interesting or inspiring as to communicate some new insight applicable beyond this small context, or endow a new appreciation of Baum's little book among the skeptical or the bored, but I can't make any such claim without disappointing even the kindest indulgence. Instead, I here simply address such among you who might be curious to know my thoughts, as an already confessed OZ nut, on the new book I felt compelled to read straight through today.

In the jacket copy of the latest biography of The Royal Historian of OZ, The Real Wizard of OZ: The Life and Times of L. Frank Baum, by Rebecca Loncraine, the claim is made that this is "the first major literary biography." I realize the author need not be, and in all likelihood may not have been, responsible for this claim, but it does an obvious disservice to the critics, biographers, fans, and literary historians who preceded her, if, as in fact proves to be the case here, there's blessed little to suggest that Loncraine's book is either better written or more scholarly than those that came before it, some quite recently at that. Actually, there have been at least two generations of serious writing about Baum and OZ, and much, if not all of the original research the author has used in this latest book, was done by the scholars --and fans -- who came before. While Loncraine makes a cursory acknowledgement of this, in her all too brief "Notes on Sources," she does not use any footnotes or endnotes. With no way then to distinguish what may or may not be hers, the whole enterprise becomes frankly suspect, at least as an original or scholarly interpretation of Baum's much storied life. In fact, her surprisingly casual, and frequent, use of all but unattributed quotation throughout, makes the pretensions of either the publisher or the author or both to having produced "the first" of anything, risible. Without direct reference to her sources, it is impossible to judge what if anything beyond emphasis is original to this author, and while she has not told the story badly, it is difficult, if not impossible, to accept Loncraine's interpretation as either definitive, or particularly new, when she provides no means of fair comparison.

Is the reader to assume Loncraine's researches were somehow better or more extensive than any of her predecessors? How would we know this? In her thin notes, Loncraine states, "The vast majority of my research material on Baum's life, his family, publishing history, and early writing came from The Baum Bugle, a journal of OZ and Baum matters published since 1957 by the International Wizard of OZ Club." Fair enough. Names? Dates? Issues? Loncraine, having consulted the collection of the New York Public Library, evidently made no notes. Who found the newspapers Baum edited? Who conducted the interviews with, or edited the letters of his survivors? Did most of the biographical and critical material in the book then come from The Baum Bugle? Surely not, but how to know? It is not enough to be provided a suggested list of further reading, after the fact. That isn't scholarly, that's just chatty. I could do as much.

As for Loncraine's critical command of Baum's creation, she seems to be no better informed than his previous biographers, and considerably less original than many of his previous critics. Again, her emphasis is all, and it is not enough. She makes much, for instance, of having talked to a surviving direct descendant of Baum, a Jungian. Weirdly though, this interesting opportunity results in little beyond anecdote, unrelated to OZ. Can anyone so described really have had so little of interest to say about OZ, of all places? For Loncraine, Baum is American, even down to his sins, and so his descendant, in a surreal scene, is brought on to apologize to some very polite Native Americans for the inexcusable racism of editorials Baum wrote,after the massacre at Wounded Knee, calling for the extermination of the Indians, more than one hundred years ago, in his already all but unread and soon to fail newspaper. Jung might well have approved of this apology, or not, I've no idea, and so might have Baum's evidently more enlightened wife, and his famously feminist mother-in-law, -- seems a touchingly weird, if slightly inadequate gesture to me -- but what has any of this to do with L. Frank Baum? And how are we know what the Indians themselves might have made of it, since our only source is the good Jungian lady herself? That Baum could have been so shockingly, if perhaps predictably, of his time, is something worth exploring, say within his books, and his biographer does just that, a bit. But there would seem to me to be little justification, at least on the evidence Loncraine actually provides, for having made so much of this ugly business, unless some conclusion is intended other than the obvious one, that Baum suffered, if briefly and only in passing, from that most American affliction, unthinking racial stupidity of the bloodiest, if only abstract variety. Shameful, but hardly characteristic, as even Loncraine seems to admit.

In the end, L. Frank Baum seems a largely agreeable man otherwise; kind-hearted, if incompetent with money, a loving husband and parent, if perhaps a little too lost in his own fancies, something of a humbug himself, etc. Nothing terribly new in any of this. Baum failed at everything he ever did, except his marriage, and in creating OZ. How and why he did just that one truly magical thing, is better understood, I think, from better books than Loncraine's, for instance, Evan I. Schwartz's charmingly enthusiastic Finding OZ: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story, or the definitive, Centennial Edition of The Annotated Wizard of OZ, edited with an Introduction and Notes by Michael Patrick Hearn, which is perhaps the greatest book on OZ since Baum "discovered" it. (Schwartz, probably the greatest living scholar of OZ, is still expected to produce what may be hoped will be the definitive biography of Baum. Can't wait.) Both are better, more scholarly jobs, let me add, than Loncraine's book. And, it is also worth noting, neither fellow, unlike Loncraine, went to Oxford, curiously enough.

Oh, and for any novice OZ fans -- the rest surely know this already, -- among the books used by Loncraine, let me offer just one more example of how this kind of thing ought better to be done. It's out of print, but I must recommend Aljean Harmetz's The Making of the Wizard of Oz: Movie Magic and Studio Power in the Prime of MGM,as rather a must for fans of the movie. (See? Chatty isn't a bad thing, but then I don't make much claim to any literary importance for what I'm doing here.)

I would hope my frustration with this latest biography of Baum doesn't suggest that I'm entirely sorry to have read it. I'm a fan, remember? I kinda had to. And if Rebecca Loncraine hadn't insisted so on claiming more than she delivered, I might have thanked her as such. As it is, even so lax, if loyal a subject of Ozma as me must shake my head a little at her hubris. And so the first, and greatest Royal Historian of OZ, must remain, for now, still something of a mystery. But then, that's usual in Wizards, isn't it?

Daily Dose

From The Marvelous Land of OZ, by L. Frank Baum


"It seems strange, that my left leg should be the most elegant and substantial part of me."

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

One in the Hand

Reading through my dinner break this afternoon, I remembered almost too late that I had intended a visit to the barber. I'd already eaten and had no excuse but my book. By scrambling up and out of the gyro shop, I managed to trot -- I do not run these days unless chased -- the two blocks to my barber, have my head buzzed and my eyebrows trimmed, and still make it back to the store in a timely enough way to punch the clock and be at the desk as scheduled. However, I had to go back to the barbershop and retrieve the book that I'd had with me. Somehow, even though I had held it in my lap throughout, I'd left it behind. I have no idea when I might have set the book down and left it. Now what I was reading does not, just here, much matter. What matters is that I always have a book. Wherever I might be, at home or abroad in the wide world, I have a book. More usually, if I'm carrying my bag, I have at least two. My husband has long since ceased to question why I might need a book with me when we go to the movies, where it is now too dark, and too loud, to read, even before the previews start. Even if we are only going to the grocery store, should he notice me without one, he will ask me if I've forgotten my book. As above, the title does not much matter. It certainly doesn't matter to him. He is now just so used to me, at rest or in motion, with a book in my hand as to find the sight of me without one unnatural.

In the early days, he might have wondered aloud, why I felt the need of a book when we went to a restaurant together, or when on an errand of less than a mile, or when we went to bed. We have been together many, many years now and I wonder if he wonders about much anymore. He had cause back then, as I was, if anything, even more forgetful than I am now. Many books were left behind as the credits rolled, or with my umbrella after the check had been paid, or in our car. His frustration with me was not so much then that I felt the need of a book no matter where I went, but that I left them behind so often. If I'm to be honest, he did not ask why I brought a book as frequently as he had to ask where I had left it and should we go back to retrieve it. Once, on being taken back to a movie house, I asked the manager politely if anyone had found a book after the last show. There was a sudden interest among the ticket takers and popcorn baggers as the manager walked slowly to his office and returned with my book, which he then wordlessly handed back to me. Only when I was back in the car did I notice the Christian tract he had slipped into my copy of The Best of Gay Fiction Three.

For most of the years I've had with my husband, I did not drive. This meant that we went nearly everywhere together, which is a nicer, more romantic way of saying he took me nearly everywhere we went. In those days, if I went anywhere after work or on my day off, to a bookstore, say, as I seldom even then went anywhere else, I very well might have walked, taken the bus, or ridden my bike. Never the less, dear A. came to count on being called to come and fetch me, and all the books I'd bought. When we lived in exile, in Southern California, I often braved the oppressive heat, setting off on my bike on my day off, determined, for the day, to be wholly independent, to not so load my handlebars with books as to be unable to come safely home. Just out for a ride, as I'd insisted I only intended to go, I somehow would find the road led inexplicably to The Book Baron, or some other scene of temptation. I might even tell myself I'd intended only to stop for lunch nearby, I might even eat my lunch first, and I might even go into the used bookstores, convinced that as I had no money to spend on books and had already spent the little money I had on lunch, that I would do no more than browse a bit, perhaps put something on hold, and then bike home. You know, of course, how this story ended.

Often as not, dear A. would simply gather up his geometry books, or whatever he was studying, or the papers he had brought home from his job, and rather than indulge the pretense that I was going out for either the exercise or to enjoy the blistering sun, he would simply put my bike away, ask me if I had my shopping list, and start the car. Having sternly warned me "not to be all day," he would then sit in his car, the air-conditioning blasting and the radio tuned to one of the smooth jazz stations I refused to listen to when riding with him, and then, while I wandered the aisles hurriedly -- I felt -- checking titles against my lists and examining new arrivals, he would either review his work, entertain himself with pencil and graph paper, or doze quietly until I stumbled out, canvas bags full of bargains I would then insist of showing him, as if to prove his patience fully justified. Usually, he would just roll his eyes at this and ask where I wanted to stop on the way home to get dinner.

Now that I've had my own car for some years and can go where I will, when I choose, I can even sneak the books I buy into the house without the need of any explanation being offered. (These tend to end on the disordered piles either in my office or on my nightstand, and are thus cleverly hidden, though I'm not sure why I think he will never notice them, or why I still feel, each time, as if I'd gotten away with something, but I do.)

Truth be told, I rather miss those hurried expeditions to the bookstores, dear A. waiting in the car while I ran the aisles. The only time this really happens nowadays is when we go to a suburban multiplex. He knows there's a little bookstore on the way home. He seldom even asks. He just pulls in automatically, turns off the engine, turns on the smooth jazz, and warns me that he's going to be hungry again in an hour or so. Happy days, revisited.

As for leaving the books I carry behind, I seem to do so rarely now. Perhaps I've become less scatterbrained over the years. Perhaps I carry more valuable books and so remember them better. Umbrellas I still forget, but books, not so much.

And as to why I can not leave the house, or even any room I happen to have been in, without a book a book in my hand, like my husband, I no longer even question this behavior. The opportunities to read seem not so abundant as they once were, or perhaps the reading still left for me to do would seem to require more time than I can imagine myself having hereafter. As I say, I don't know why I do this. I only know I have always done it. I always will. My hand is empty without a book in it. I don't think that that is such an unusual feeling. If it is, pray don't bother to point this out to me.

Daily Dose

From The New Oxford Book of Romantic Period Verse, edited by Jerome J. McGann


"Such is giddy FASHION's son!
Oh! wou'd their reign had ne'er begun!
And may it soon be OVER!"

From Modern Male Fashions, 1814, by Mary Robinson

Monday, August 24, 2009

Back Again

This time "back to home," in the phrase from my childhood, I insisted on not being entertained by my elderly parents. When I've been back in the past few years, it has been in the company of my sister's family, up from Texas, and or, with the crowd of my brother's more recently acquired step-family. Sister stayed in Texas this year, travel home to Pennsylvania being beyond her means just now. My brother's new grandchildren, sadly, were lost to us in his recent separation from his wife. (They are much missed.) Without grandchildren to be entertained and indulged, I saw no purpose in having any elaborate outing included in the week's agenda. My folks are getting old. Better we simply planned on going almost daily out to eat.

At some point in the late 70s, right around the time I became the last child left at home, my mother announced that she would no longer be cooking on Fridays. This was her none too subtle way of telling my father, after twenty some years or more together at the time, that he'd better get used to the idea again of taking the lady out. Not quite the kind of date they went on while courting, which would probably have meant a coke and a ride in the car, ending in a bit of parking -- which meant more in that generation than it does now -- but out instead to a proper dinner, in a nice change of clothes, to someplace with an actual menu rather than a board above the counter. He didn't kick. I went along.

In those early days, we went to places like the restaurant downstairs at the big J. C. Penney's, in I think, Sharon, PA. This place featured an "all you can eat fish fry" on Fridays. It made up for a certain lack of atmosphere by serving good fish, and even better french fries. That was a popular choice with me, at the time.

After our meal, we were likely to wander the mall, still something of a retail innovation in those parts back then, and I was happy being dropped off until called for at the little B. Dalton bookstore. I'd never seen so many new books in my life! I remember the excitement of selecting a new paperback from the rows and rows of mass market fiction, of browsing the tables full of big, bargain picture books, and boxed sets of paperback trilogies. It was a wonderland.

I remember once being sternly warned by a clerk that I was to put back "and let alone" the big book of Bridget Bardot photographs I'd innocently opened. No idea who she was at the time. I need hardly add, the poor blushing clerk had quite misjudged the browser's interest. I did think she's made those peignoirs look awfully glamorous, working with very little material, at that.

Going out to eat with my parents now, we are as likely as not to go after for a drive. Neither walks as well as they did. But we did, just once, almost by chance, go again to the little mall in Sharon. At last, there, I had the common experience of seeing a scene from childhood reproduced, as it seemed, in miniature. What an unimpressive, even shabby little place it was! Even my parents could walk from end to end of it before they had to sit. And I went back into the little chain bookstore as well. It was small enough almost to fit behind my buying desk on the sales floor of the bookstore where I now work. The endless rows of mass market paperbacks are largely gone now, replaced by the larger, more expensive "quality paperbacks" that have done so much to undermine the reading of contemporary fiction. (What kid has sixteen dollars to spend on a new novel? Disgraceful greedy shortsighted and snobbish -- that just about summarizes my opinion of the "upgrade" to "quality.")

The bookstore, like the mall, like not a few of our meals out, was a dispiriting occasion. So much that once seemed expansive and new, now seemed rather tired, cramped and just not very good. I could not bring myself to buy a single book from that store, despite being determined to do so, for old time's sake, when I went in.

But I did not leave the place entirely discouraged. While I turned the sad, sparse spinner of Dover Thrift Editions, a small, bespectacled boy of eight or nine, rather shyly interrupted my gloomy meditations, and plucked both Treasure Island and Kidnapped from the rack. Forgetting for a moment both my resignation to the decline of western civilization and the contemporary rule that single gentlemen are never to speak to unaccompanied minor children in public, I asked the kid if he intended to read both books this summer.

"Won't take me that long!" he piped, before taking his books and his rather wilted cash to the register, paying me not the slightest mind thereafter. I watched him carry his books, without even a bag, out into the mall, where he dropped down on a bench, presumably to wait for his parents, and opening Treasure Island, began to read.

Best evening out I had this trip.

Seems you can go home again, after all.

Daily Dose

From Poems by John Wilmot Earl of Rochester, edited by Vivian De Sola Pinto


"So when my Days of Impotence approach,
And I'me by Love and Wines unlucky chance,
Driv'n from the pleasing Billows of Debauch,
On the dull Shore of Temperance."

From Satires, The Maim'd Debauchee

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Kindling an Old Enthusiasm

Modern Library made a mistake, back in the 70s, when it was decided that what was needed to really sell the series was a major make-over. The format got bigger. The jacket design went to grocery bag brown without decoration, and the bindings just went all to hell. An old Modern Library edition will, in all likelihood, outlast a new hardcover published this year. The dustjackets don't tend to survive, which is a pity, because they were often quite handsomely illustrated. Finding an old Modern Library, with it's dustjacket intact, is still a pleasure. Finding a box full, now that it cause for genuine celebration.

I started collecting Modern Library editions in the eighties, when the publisher rather came to their senses, and started reprinting the books with better production values again, this time in a uniform gray-green, but with the author's likeness at the top of the spine, and usually the same covering the front jacket. And the binding got better. I still think the books were better in their original, smaller format, 7 by 4 1/2, with Modern Library Giants, some of the clumsiest classic volumes ever produced, at 8 by 5, and usually inches thick. Still, even the Giants had their charms. One of my first editions of Charles Lamb was just such a bulky one. Still have that.

Nowadays, I've noticed that the publisher is reprinting some of their titles in reproductions of their original jackets, if in bindings not quite so sturdy. Additionally, as new titles and translations are added, these all seem to be coming out in bright, colorful new designs, clearly meant to evoke the glorious past, and that go a long way toward correcting the memory of the muddy seventies and eighties.

I do like a uniform edition on a shelf, but it doesn't sell books by disparate authors quite the way it once did, not without a less loose theme than that which covers the, shall we say, eclectic? range of the Modern Library. The Library of America, the unofficial canon of American letters, in either their collector's editions in slipcases, or with the uniform black dustjackets I like and collect, are printed in a ranger of cloth covers; blue, buff, green and wine, on good acid free paper, and stitched. They are the model of how best now to do this sort of thing.

My affection for the older Modern Library books has grown. It's true, they have reprinted lots of forgettable books, but they did a pretty good job overall of predicting what would survive. To hold an original, Modern Library of Zola's Nana, with the handsome jacket still on it, is to be seduced, which seems the right word, into thinking one really ought to give Zola another try.

Everyman's Library has likewise begun to undue some of the damage they did themselves when they decided to first, put all their books out with just a clear plastic cover and a kind of title card on the front cover, and then with no dustjacket at all. This only looks good so long as the books themselves have never been touched. Sooner rather than later, the gilded lettering on the spines wore away, and the whole series looks shabby before anyone had read a single book. Stupid, stupid design economy resulting in unsalable, unattractive stock. The buyer had to already know not only the title and author, but why to read it. Everyman's Library provided few clues. Now they begun adding good titles with thoughtful, uniform jackets, not unlike, but brighter than the middle Modern Library books I collect. Sadly, some of the Everyman's feature movie tie-in covers that look dated within a year of the movie or television broadcast, but even these, it is to be hoped, will eventually be replaced.

I'm nattering away about this because we recently did in fact buy quite a haul of good old Modern Library books, all or nearly all with original dustjackets in very good shape. I priced them quite reasonably -- there are booksellers who simply charge ridiculous prices for these little books, even the most common titles -- and I've had the satisfaction of seeing most of what I bought and priced already sell. This, to my mind, is a vindication of the original premise of the Modern Library, Everyman's Library, and the other, hardcover reprints of classic literature. If the publishers make attractive, well made and inexpensive hardcover editions of the great books, there will always be an audience looking to buy them. Changes in technology, or the culture or the economy be damned. So long as publishers resist the urge to be either greedy or lazy in their designs, readers will want their best books.

Those who live in fear of the gray, gray Kindle, please take note.

And just look at that copy of Nana! Wouldn't you read such an attractive little book? I couldn't resist it.

Daily Dose

From The Poems of Richard Lovelace, edited by C. H. Wilkinson


"Arise thou rev'rend shade, great Johnson rise!
Break through thy marble natural disguise;
Behold the mist of Insects, whose meer Breath,
Will melt thy hallow'd leaden house of Death."

From On Sanazar's being honoured with six hundred Duckets by the Clarissimi of Venice, for composing an Eligiack Hexastick of The City. A Satyre.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Mind Your Manners, Girls

I'm just coming to know, via the Internet, a good woman and mother, younger than her husband, and unlike her husband, straight as a dye. Unlike also the other women I've known in similar circumstances, my new friend went into her marriage, eyes wide open. They began, as I understand it, as friends, then became lovers, and despite his self-identification as gay, they've married, happily, and have had a handsome baby. There's another now on the way. I congratulate them both, for having made together a family from such an unlikely pairing. Both seem not only happy, but almost unreasonably so, such being the effect of true love, and I can think of few couples, judged admittedly at some distance, who seem more likely to continue so. The husband, my contemporary, I think I understand. What I now know of his biography does not preclude the expectation of contentment with so special a woman as his wife. The wife, I should think, is in a position complicated not so much by her husband's sexual history, -- she has I think the liberal imagination of her generation and the rare gift of a truly generous and open mind, as well as as a bountiful heart, -- but rather her life, to me, seems unduly, if lightly burdened by the anachronisms of a gay subculture, into which she has unwittingly, if willingly, married. It is not her husband's queerness then that troubles either of them, but only the occasional intrusion into their happiness, not of her husbands men, an accommodation long since made, but of his friends, or rather, as even these have been made welcome, of their only occasional, if ill-considered, ill-mannered, and ultimately unkind camp.

I don't mean to make too much of this. It is not as if my friend, her husband, invites unexpected drag queens to crash her Mommy-and-Me play-dates. My friend is, if anything, so wholly respectable to all outward appearance as to be too shockingly staid, at least in his public life, for such an unconventional marriage. Had I predicted any partnership and parenting for him, I might have pictured him hitched to a judge, a man at least, of some years and seriousness himself, and quietly raising, between then, some adopted delinquent, perhaps with a nanny. But then, one tends to misjudge one's friends as easily as anyone else. Life does not so often conform to one's assumptions as we might like, and people, almost never. If they did, where would be the fun in having friends? And yet, among his friends, in our community as a whole, the accommodation of difference still constitutes, for too many, a demand made of the wider society, and that quite loudly and rightly, but too seldom considered as a responsibility to see to our own prejudices, question our own assumptions, or accommodate and welcome, within our own community, such of our friends who might themselves be straight, or even if gay, those who may happen to have found an unlikely, if lasting love with a woman. And even if, to all outward appearance, such an accommodation has long since been made, by such good, traditional and engaged liberals as we queers tend to see ourselves as being, almost to a man, such actual nonconformity as a woman married to a gay man would still seem to threaten some of us, unduly. In the fragility of our identities as proud and rebellious pioneers of the sexual frontiers, we forget, it sometimes seems, that the revolution was intended, as all such upheavals have been, and as all such revolutions ultimately fail to be, for everyone. Ours, it seems, being still so new, has left an unbecoming allowance for the kind of slack, unthinking, vicious bitchery with which we once had to protect ourselves from the judgement Our Fathers and the rest, by assuming and lampooning the misogyny of the society that condemned and criminalized us. As if women had not led us! As if women were not us! As if we men did not owe our movement, our liberty and our lives to the women among and of us. It's a shameful thing, to still hear gay men talk about our sisters as if we were no better than other men.

We shouldn't therefor call women "fish," without, by now, I should hope, expecting and deserving a kick in the balls.

I had a friend in college, himself as extravagantly gay as the bow on the neck of a French bulldog, a good and kind friend, who never the less remonstrated with me, on at last meeting my lover and seeing that my lover was not white, that I had not "warned" him of this before they were finally introduced. He accused me, in having neglected to mention my lover's race, of having "embarrassed" them both. I was deeply shocked, and offended in turn. My lover had felt no such embarrassment. I checked. So, I could neither accept nor understand this position, taken by a man I considered a friend, someone himself so seemingly liberated, himself a victim of prejudice. How could such a man be shocked by a fact I had not withheld but which I had simply, honestly neglected to mention? I had to consider, at that moment, for the first time, that my friend could be racist, that a good, gay, liberal fellow could actually object to an interracial relationship. He did. It took some time before he could be brought to say so, or to see that he had said as much already, but eventually, between us, we talked the misunderstanding through, and continued to talk about this issue with some uncomfortable regularity, on both our parts, thereafter. We stayed friends until his untimely death. I can not say I ever felt quite so sure of his good opinion again, or that I trusted him as I had. He taught me a valuable lesson though, about assuming the experience of oppression as automatically producing a corresponding expansion of empathy, when this has, historically, not been the most common or even likely response, even among my own friends, even in the community I'd come to as my own, to the prejudice and persecutions we ourselves have commonly experienced. I still find this shocking.

If racism, even twenty odd years ago, was already at least cause for some embarrassment, even to those still suffering it's stain, certain grotesque expressions of distrust and disdain for women are still, alas, so much a part of how we have defined ourselves within ourselves and in defense of ourselves in the wider society of men, as to still go largely unchallenged, except as has been done by that small, somber body of the politically watchful bluestockings collectively dismissed as the "politically correct." That such a phrase, originating among the worst reactionary intellectual element of our avowed enemies should have been adopted and used amongst our own, suggests both the ease with which we still allow ourselves to be defined by our enemies, and our unwillingness to assume full responsibility, even now, for inclusion, rather than the exclusion we ourselves have suffered, as our fundamental difference with the majority society. Not only do we not always practice what we preach, we stigmatize even the most obviously well meaning among us for suggesting we might do better than we have. It is, I must admit, an all but irresistible temptation, to poke at the prudes now and then, to use the forbidden words, to mock the modern pieties just as we so easily now mock or ignore the old. But whatever fun there is in this, and however often I myself have to indulged in offending against the new proprieties, I will not have the whole effort to modify our most unthinking insensitivity to persons in some way unlike ourselves dismissed, out of hand, as the same impulse to enforce conformity that once and for so long held us all down. It is not the same. It does not originate in hatred and distrust of the other. It is not all but so much fuss. I've certainly known more than a few humorless, dogmatic busybodies within our community who, being self appointed censors, would have us all be not simply more sensitive to difference, but unvaryingly deferential to any and all in anyway unlike ourselves. Such people anticipate every touch as a potential bruise. They make themselves, and our common cause, ridiculous by insisting on such extravagant gentility as has not been seen since the last royal luncheon served at Versailles. Not every act of congress is a rape. Not every interaction between the sexes is an unequal contest. Not every joke requires review. Such tiresome preachers of bland inoffensiveness would have the whole world not just at peace, but as flavorless as a Vegan Christmas dinner. And those on our right, as much or more than those of us on the left, need not crow too loudly their superiority to such considerations. In my experience, there is no one more likely to insist on his absolute right to say and do just as he pleases, in whatever company, than the man -- for so he seems always to be -- without an original or interesting thing to say on any subject. It seems what they are most insistent on being allowed to continue to say is usually neither true nor admirable. And they are almost never actually funny, have you noticed? One wonders why they are so proud of sounding stupid. In truth, our own ragtag band of queer rightists, always louder than their actual numbers would seem to allow for, for all their insistence on rugged individualism, are actually but so many Baptists and Republicans outside the bedroom; conformists in everything else but cocksucking. They are a pitiable lot of vulgar bores, just so many Log Cabin chickens; for all their crowing, tame and fenced, easily frightened, and laughably eager for every kernel they can scratch out of the dirt, or catch falling from the table of their owners. I have no patience for such quislings. They deserve their friends. Let 'em cluck. I wish they would shut up, but I wouldn't think of wasting my time chasing them down with a hatchet.

But just between ourselves, if we might at least consider the possibility that we can still be silly amongst ourselves, mess about with gender and sex, femininity and masculinity, without invariably reducing any woman who might be present to a "fish," we just might be worthy of her good company. We owe her that, I should think, don't you?

And if we forget, darling, you know what to do.

Daily Dose

From The Poetical Works of Robert Herrick, edited by F. W. Moorman


"All things subjected are to Fate;
Whom this Morne see fortune,
The Ev'ning sees in poore estate."

From Hesperides

Friday, August 21, 2009


Like most, most of my assumptions about just what constitutes a canonical work of English literature have been based, not so much on what I've read, but what I haven't. There seems no way, short of perpetual, leisured study, to ever read all that might matter, or even, according to the best available authorities, all that ought. I've known and worked with and befriended enough true scholars to know that higher education, even at its best, can do but so much. The opportunities to survey open ground, end, or are expected to, in what I assume is still called a "concentration," which, in the course of things, then settles into some specialty, which in turn, if one is clever and academically successful enough, then narrows to a tillable patch, fertile enough to sustain, and if one is very lucky, even nourish, in some rare cases, even produce salable goods. But what's required for such husbandry, beyond the tools provided, and an instinct for the arable, is a predisposition to the work I never had. I can not think or work that hard, or sweat so much, just to root a cutting or see a graft bear fruit. I haven't the patience required. Perhaps I haven't the smarts either. Entirely possible, even likely, I am just too lazy. I'll be honest, I'd rather wander. There may well still be a place there for the wanderer as well, in a kind of hired work, but I don't know any now employed in these fields who do not bitch about both the resulting neglect of their private holdings, of the duties and distractions they owe their landlords, and of the remembered pleasure of a doze with a useless book under a tree.

As I'd rather just work, as it were, in the market stalls, I've no one to blame but myself for all I've yet to see by just selling, and sampling. To one of my indolent disposition, until it is on offer where I work, and by that means, all but dropped in my lap, there's little chance I'll ever pick up what others, presumably, already know the value of. Mine is a tradesman's eye for quality.

Like anyone in trade, I've learned a little of the look of a good book. Curiosity and predisposition, as well as pride, have led me to study something of the origins of what I sell, to recognize a like virtue between two books, to know not only what I might sell, but what would be a pleasure to move. What I put out to tempt the passing buyer, I need not always taste to know the nature of, but I do try as much as may be stomached, even of the cheap stuff. And so I know my lines; the perennials and seasonal goods, the quick to wilt, the curiosities and hybrids, the rich and the thin, and so I've come to recognize both what might be the best of what's on offer, and what is likely to sell. I'm not ashamed to recommend anything, for what it is.

But my preference is naturally for the better stuff, not just the high-end, but the best, and ripest in the shop. And for that, one does not so much need money -- though more of that, as always, would help, -- but expertise, and as mine is of a sorry, grubbing sort, I've come to trust certain brands, specific producers, for their imprint. Pure snobbish faith, I know, but there it is. One does with what one has, and I have, where classic English poetry is concerned, the Oxford Book of English Verse, and the Oxford Standard Authors.

Dear Helene Hanff, in her book, Q's Legacy, detailed how the great anthologist became her teacher, if only through his books. From Arthur Quiller-Couch, Hanff, unable to afford a higher education, learned how and what to read. Both she and he have been among my own most beloved teachers. I trust them, and from them I have come to trust Oxford University Press, at least as it used to be, to help me to the books and poets I ought to know.

After all, that is what the canon is, or was, the invention, and a pretty recent one at that, of Dons. Who better then, to teach the likes of me?

And so I've just bought and added good, used copies to my library, of Richard Lovelace, and Robert Herrick, and even Sir Thomas Malory, though nothing ever bored me more than noble knights in pursuit of virtue. Of Lovelace I know only what everyone does:

"Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage."

Of Herrick, perhaps I know a dozen lines, beyond, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, old Time is still a-flying. And this same flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying,” and those only because of repeated quotation and, again, anthologies.

But when such rarities as these happen across the desk, in good dustjackets, unspoiled by pencil or pen, I indeed must gather them while I may. Time is indeed "a-flying," and there is still so much I've yet to read, even just among what falls in my lap.

Daily Dose

From The Best Beast, by Stevie Smith


"What care I if Skies are blue,
If God created Gnat and Gnu,
What care I if good God be
If he be not good to me?"

From Egocentric

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Sweet Dreams

Dinner home, a day or two ago, or thereabouts, being so much among my favorites, I've kept the scraps too long. Spare ribs and sauerkraut, served with mashed potatoes, green beans and cornbread, how could that have been bettered?! Now of course the last sad rib sits in the casserole with too much sauerkraut, and no sign of a potato by, mashed or otherwise to soak up the remaining juices. I can't quite bring myself to let the leftovers go, but neither have I yet been bothered making them up into so much as a serviceable lunch. Instead, I eat saltine crackers, and drink black tea, and don't budge from my bed.

Some sorry kind of cold, or nasal infection, has felled me again. I am not usually so concerned with my health as to do anything much in the way of its maintenance. When I am sick, I wonder at the occasion, rather like some superstitious farmer, undone by unseasonable weather he hasn't the sense to remember coming as sure as it did so often before. I ascribe illness then to bad magic, a neighborly grudge, the wrath of the Gods, the mysterious workings of Fate. I might know better, but I don't. No point in arguing with me then. I will not be harassed, as I'm ill and not up just now to a fight, and I won't like you any better for waiting to correct me when I am again in rude health. (It's called so for a reason, so be warned.)

What I choose to do then is sit in bed and dream of better feelings, better moods, better meals. I refuse reality today. I close my eyes and remember... chocolate.

In my home town, there was a candy shop, called Costello's. This was an old fashioned sort of place, where chocolates were still hand-dipped and where the brittle in the jar was made from butter that came not so long since from a cow one might have passed on the way into town. Everything about my memories of Costello's Candy is sweet with nostalgia, and so not now to be questioned too closely. To my mind, the counter inside was marble, the cases impossibly long, each shelf segmented, dark chocolate and milk, in infinite variation from creams to nuts to fudge and taffies. This was no ordinary store, the sweets packaged in foil and wrappers and arrayed on common racks. This was a place reserved for celebratory occasions, where splurges were made, where one felt proud to take away a dozen of something as otherwise common as carmels, each imperfect cube, dipped and dipped and dipped again in such velvety chocolate as to be, of itself, an example of confectionery art and the perfect expression of love.

As a child, I did not have access to the like of Costello's more than once or twice a year -- say Easter and Christmas -- and had to content myself with more common sweets, had from home or the grocery. But now and then, either of my good grandmothers might have a box, as ladies then saw nothing wrong in giving such treats as gifts among themselves, or receiving such from husbands or admirers. But men tended to eat what they bought, as I remember it, whereas ladies, at least the ones I knew, displayed what they received, and left themselves thus open to the decimating visits of greedy grandchildren, neighborhood playmates of same and, yes, the unthinking men who happened in after supper, with room yet for another sweet.

Oh the rapture of finding any but either the detested maple or coffee flavored creams, unprotected on a coffee table or a sideboard! The luck of such a thing! And to find a butter cream, the best of any variety box, still nested in it's brown cup, unclaimed, that was heaven.

Costello's is gone. In it's place though there is still a candy shop, though with goods manufactured from the far off county seat, some few miles away. Happily, the recipes are as like as I remember the originals, so whenever I go back home to visit, I can not but hope to find, if nothing else, at least the butter creams unchanged. And now, as I am a grown, fat man, I can make pilgrimage without so much as a by your leave from any of the surviving, respectable adults, and buy a whole box of these to eat on my own. I was not raised by wolves, so I always buy two boxes, one, as it were, for company, meaning mostly my brother and father, as my mother does not eat such things herself. But my box is mine. I can't eat more than a piece or two at a time, the candy being almost too rich even for me, but eat the whole box I am always determined to do. The only real privilege of being an adult, I find, is in being largely unmolested while overindulging. Others may shake their heads, seeing me parked in a lot, eating butter creams, but no one may take them from me. (Just you try.)

This last visit, tragically, I left the last of my chocolates behind in my emotional departure. All departures from the company of my now elderly and far off parents are more difficult than not. I know I had need thereafter of the comfort I might have had from just that little box.

I wouldn't much mind, right now, a butter cream, as I'm already feeling sorry for myself. Instead, I'll simply have to eat my crackers, drink my tea, and dream of better things, like dinner home, and butter creams, and peanut brittle, and carmels in dark chocolate and...

Daily Dose

An Ordinary Story, by Ivan Goncharov


"Within him his soul was as untended and empty as a neglected garden. Not much more was needed to make it a total wilderness. A few months more -- and farewell! But here's what happened."

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

And Then There's... Bill Macy

One of the more enjoyable aspects of renting entertainment via the mails has been having little or no idea what, in the way of movies and television shows, will be in the mailbox. I've been very lax in reviewing our rental lists online. Dear A. signed us up for Netflix, after I refused all further business to Hollywood Video, whose rental policy recently went from being exceptionally good to impossibly bad. The afternoon we canceled our membership with the rental place, we spent quite a long time together at A.'s desk, making lists, reviewing these, and looking at every GLBTQ listing on the Netflix website. It was fun. Haven't really thought much about it since. Movies come in the mail, we watch some of them together, others, A. watches on his own. If anything, A. rather loves movies even more than I do. He has the added advantage of age and so, not quite remembering that he's already seen a particular film, he often watches things again, for the first time, as it were. He also has an affection, that I don't entirely share, for television shows long off the air and only now appearing on DVD. Many's the weekend morning, while I'm still abed, snoring away, or reading, or some combination thereof, that he has already come down to his desk, where he sits, contentedly watching what used to be called reruns, on his big, new computer screen, either on DVDs or online. He's specially fond of westerns, more often than not, because he still finds the sight of a youthful Clint Eastwood in tight blue jeans, and the like, awfully exciting, even in black and white. He watches old episodes of the Alfred Hitchcock show, "The Outer Limits," and who knows what all.

A.'s affection for old television is usually something I leave him to explore on his own. Coming home rather late from my book club the other night, and finding him dozing, as always, with the television on, I happened to notice a familiar theme song. I got no further than taking off my shoes before I found myself sitting in the chair, laughing merrily along with the "live studio audience." I'd assumed the television was tuned to one of his nostalgic broadcasts, but actually, he had rented the whole first season of Norman Lear's "Maude." No idea just how many episodes he'd already watched before he'd drifted off. Eventually he woke up, to the sound of me laughing out loud, and then we watched, I don't really know how many more episodes, until the end of one of the three DVDs. It was great fun.

I should, just here, review all the innovations and culturally significant moments from Lear's sitcoms. I grew up with these shows, benefited from the changes in society that they not only reflected, but to which they contributed. Among others the other night, we watched the two-part episode, "Maude's Dilemma," in which, at 47, she decides to have an abortion, which had, in 1972, only just become legal in the state of New York. It was remarkable, seeing that again, and seeing the unapologetic way in which the subject was treated as a decision ultimately to be taken without the interference of mobs, fanatics and without even once mentioning Bronze Age theology.

Whatever the decline in both liberalism and the sitcom in my lifetime, I really don't want to use this space to revisit the controversies of thirty seven years ago. Should be fairly obvious from my comments above what I think of the progress we have and have not made since. Instead, I just wanted to pay brief tribute here to the late Bea Arthur, and to Bill Macy, her costar. Arthur starred on two of the best American sitcoms, the other being "The Golden Girls," and with her recent death has come much belated recognition of her truly amazing talent. No one in the whole history of television had a better "take" than Bea Arthur. However funny she could make the best joke or even the least inspired line, it was her magical gift for the perfect pause that made her so dazzling. Watching "Maude" again for the first time in years, if not decades, I was struck by how unlike her two most famous television characters were: Maude Findlay all furious, pompous liberality and surprisingly fragile self assertion, very much a woman of her time, but bigger than either her surroundings or her role, and then, on "The Golden Girls," Dorothy Zbornak, the butt of endless wallflower jokes, a divorced substitute teacher dependent on an unstable income to see to herself and her elderly mother, sarcastically self defensive, but easily deflated. What both characters had in common, of course, was the actress who played them so distinctly, and so well, between the spoken words, who understood not only all the possibilities of the unexpected inflections of a sharp line and a dropped octave, of speed and tempo, and the full physicalities of comic reaction; often throwing her whole, tall, rather surprisingly graceful form into motion, arms flailing, back bent as if by the resulting resistance of wind as she sailed across a room, but, more rare in a comic performer even of her caliber, Bea Arthur knew exactly when to stop. Watching her in either show, it is actually her economy of reaction that is so satisfying. Having established the volatility and power of both her amazing voice, -- surprisingly, hilariously shrill in "Maude," then more consistently contralto, if no less capable of trumpeting outrage or pain in "The Golden Girls," -- and her commanding physical presence as the biggest dame in the room, the great fun in watching Bea Arthur is in the control with which she reserved this explosive power. Not a clown or a comic, but an actress is what she so superbly shows herself to be in such moments. She does not play the jokes, she plays the scenes, and rather than milking the laughs she seems so easily to get, she builds them, in character, by letting every emotion play out as written, allowing the audience time -- her absolute slave -- to work each thought out through her reactions as much or more than the words, she makes every moment funnier by making nearly every beat honest, plausible, true. She's funniest when she is most recognizably vulnerable, most human, her face rigid with disdain or dismay, her body arching with tension or bluntly incapable of any effort but staying upright. When Bea Arthur lets loose, she is a comedic hurricane; all whirling, destructive confusion and belligerent indifference to dignity, but when she is still, she is so intensely so as to be a perfect study in shock, resistance, resentment and defeat, even emptiness. Those long takes: the hooded looks and slow turns, the tight mouth, all express a weary resignation which, unlike the power let loose the moment before, a power one might only wish one had, is instantly recognizable, almost embarrassingly familiar. One knows, just then, exactly how she feels.

I could not write about watching "Maude" again after all these years, without a word, in closing, about Bill Macy. In a role that was doubtlessly written as just a foil; the fourth husband, a little man married to a big woman, a suburban nebbish, a little randy, but far from equal to the task at hand, Macy made of Walter an equal to Bea Arthur's Maude. How? I can't help but think, watching them play together, that Macy, being an established character actor himself, rather refused to be intimidated by the star. I know nothing of the personal relationship between the two actors, if they were friends or not, but within the context of the show, their affection seems absolutely genuine, and that would seem to have been something the actor played no matter how the scene was written, choosing to play not just the husband, but the lover. It is a brilliant choice. No matter how broadly their scenes together are written, no matter how much yelling and fighting and storming off, Macy uses every every opportunity to reinforce his equality in the partnership by beaming at Bea Arthur. It is irresistible, for her and for the viewer. Even when he is most ridiculous, even when she is most impossible, Bill Macy refuses to concede romantic defeat. It is equal parts Rock Hudson and Groucho Marx, this comic male egotism. His Walter may not be the world's greatest lover, but Walter doesn't know that, or if he does, he's convinced, with Maude, to never be less than the leading man. This choice makes even the scenes of Walter's ridiculous and, already in 1972, anachronistic assertions of male privilege not just funny, but touching; the man wants to be "the man" because he wants this woman to want him. It is a fascinating and unlikely expansion of what could have been an embarrassingly dated cliche, the adjunct husband, into a star turn. Macy earns every laugh, even the ones he had no right to expect, even the ones he picks up from where Bea Arthur left them, and he does it with a twinkling wit that can't have come from the page. His is as much a masterful performance as hers, and in a less obviously funny part! It is reminiscent of the old saw about Ginger Rogers and Astaire; Bill Macy did everything Bea Arthur did, only backwards, and in Florsheims. Again, this is a lesson in acting that any of the subsequent generations of hen-pecked sitcom husbands ought to have studied more closely and for which they should be grateful.

Bill Macy, whenever confronted by the full force of both Bea Arthur's outrageousness and her reserve, matches her, point for point, in volume and kinetic recklessness, and in deadpan. Their scenes together are unmatched, in my experience as an observer, in the kind of sustained, delightfully extended interplay, of play, between two true professionals, two truly exceptional actors, neither willing to be the first to blink or break. It is a contest of equals. When their respective characters make the inevitable and necessary concessions to the format; making up after a fight, admitting at last a weakness in argument or failure, it is never a forgone conclusion that he will fold, and that makes Bill Macy one of the best, most inventive, and least appreciated comic actors in the genre. One of the delights of "The Golden Girls" was watching such superb actresses playing off one another, clearly enjoying the fun of working with such knowing partners. I'd forgotten just how lucky Bea Arthur had been, in having had just such an experience before with the great Bill Macy. No wonder she knew exactly when to stand still. She might have been lost in admiration. I was. She must have understood how good her costars were. I can see it now, myself. Lucky woman. Lucky us.