Archive | October, 2012

“Death Mettle”

Howard Hampton’s review of Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace in this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review is pretty great, as this sample demonstrates:

The importance of friendship for the man who wrote and personified “The Loner” can’t be overstated. Many chapters are really extended thank-you notes, or heartbroken goodbyes to so many comrades in arms who have died. Mortality hangs over the happy wanderings and family gatherings, which is nothing new. Even when he was in his 20s, a refugee from both Canada and Buffalo Springfield, death loomed in his music like a silent partner. It might be the catalyst behind his long, off-and-on collaboration with Crazy Horse, the source of the band’s gravedigger doggedness, burrowing into the earth with single-minded, liberating purpose. With Young, Crazy Horse amounts to an ancient-modern tradition unto themselves: death mettle.

October 26, 2012 at 12:58 pm

Is Genre Fiction Second-Rate?

One reads Conrad and James and Joyce not simply for their way with words but for the amount of felt life in their books. Great writers hit us over the head because they present characters whose imaginary lives have real consequences (at least while we’re reading about them), and because they see the world in much the way we do: complicated by surface and subterranean feelings, by ambiguity and misapprehension, and by the misalliance of consciousness and perception. Writers who want to understand why the heart has reasons that reason cannot know are not going to write horror tales or police procedurals. Why say otherwise? Elmore Leonard, Ross Thomas, and the wonderful George MacDonald Fraser craft stories that every discerning reader can enjoy to the hilt—but make no mistake: good commercial fiction is inferior to good literary fiction in the same way that Santa Claus is inferior to Wotan. One brings us fun or frightening gifts, the other requires—and repays—observance.

— Arthur Krystal, in It’s Genre Fiction. Not That There’s Anything Wrong With It!

Krystal’s graceful, highly intelligent, and blithely condescending and snobbish (get Maggie Smith for the audio version!) post at The New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog is a bracing blast of reaction against the current perceived ascendancy of genre fiction. And it’s a naive and provincial symptom of one of the great absences in literary discourse: Northrop Frye’s, especially the Frye of Anatomy of Criticism. Krystal shakes his head at Ursula K. Le Guin’s dictum that literature “is the extant body of written art. All novels belong to it” — which is exactly right, and periodically needs to be re-argued and re-learned, although Frye proved it.


[N.B. The title of my post is a shameless instance of Betterridge’s Law of Headlines: “Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word ‘no.’”]

October 24, 2012 at 9:21 pm

New Orleans Bump

Memo to David Simon and Treme: Turn it up!

Turn it the fuck up.

I’m loving more or less every second of the second season of HBO’s tortured love song to New Orleans music, cooking, African-American genius, cultural gumbo, and much else, and the successor to Simon’s transcendent Baltimore epic, The Wire. Among other things it’s the best portrait of jazz and jazz musicians and the glories of musical miscegenation in the history of television. (I bet even David Simon is getting tired of the phrase “in the history of television.”)

My one giant peeve about the show is that whoever’s doing the sound recording and mix is failing miserably when it comes to serving up presence and punch. I’d almost swear that the frequent anemic-sounding musical interludes are set at a lower volume than the spoken dialogue. I’ve got my TV sound running through a receiver and feeding Epos speakers and a big, fat subwoofer, and I watch the entire show gripping the remote in order to drastically crank up the sound during the music, and then instantly tone it down when the dialogue resumes to avoid having the voices blare. Even at high volumes there’s a notable absence of low-end and mid-range muscle when the music’s playing.

There was a recent joke on Glee about “hate-watching” Treme. I’d never go that far, but Treme‘s sound design is (softly) begging for a severe ass-whupping.

October 20, 2012 at 2:43 pm

Quammen in a World of Wounds

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The sometimes under-lionized natural-history journalist David Quammen is reaping some fantastic reviews and writerly canonization for his new book, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, in which he busts a Richard Preston/Hot Zone move by merging stylish non-fiction storytelling with a horror-movie promise to scare the shit out of readers. This weekend in the New York Times Charles McGrath bestows a well-deserved major-writer treatment on Mr. Quammen with “The Subject is Science, the Style is Faulkner.”

I’m looking forward to reading Spillover with, as always in the case of Quammen, a bit of trepidation. My professional experience with David has been a somewhat melancholy one. When I arrived at Outside as features editor at the end of 1996,  he was winding up a decade-and-a-half championship run as the magazine’s Natural Acts columnist, and Outside never quite recovered that brainy, crunchy, opposite-of-extreme-sports corner of its soul after his departure. As a columnist, he was like some updated manifestation of the heroic naturalist Dr. Stephen Maturin of the Patrick O’Brian novels, alternately courtly, clinical, and besotted with the amazing systems and architecture of living things.  (Quammen’s collections Natural Acts, Wild Thoughts from Wild Places, and The Flight of the Iguana are simply wornderful.)  I felt like I’d arrived on a baseball coaching staff on the eve of a Hall of Fame hitter’s retirement. He subsequently contributed only a few more features to Outside before beginning a distinguished affiliation with National Geographic.

I’m more ambivalent about the big-picture Quammen, in The Song of the Dodo (1996) and now, presumably, in Spillover. About his accuracy, narrative skill, and sense of big, important story there is no doubt. My problem with David is that he has an essentially pessimistic and tragic vision of environmental issues, and declines to be any kind of crusader or hopeful advocate. His view is probably far saner and more realistic than the evangelizing stance of someone like Bill McKibben. But after all the cool science and alarums, David Quammen tends to leave me with a counsel of despair. When The Song of the Dodo, his magisterial epic of conservation biology and extinction, was published, he did an Op-Ed piece for the Times about why national parks are “nature’s dead end,” far too small and isolated to function as tools for wildlife conservation. And…? “This approach won’t do” — the end.  “Lively writing about science and nature depends less on the offering of good answers, I think, than on the offering of good questions,” he writes in Natural Acts. His sensibility inclines him to lead us through the jungles and thickets and swamps of a dilemma, and then part company with us on the brink of the place where solutions and amelioration  might begin. My worry about the new book is that it brilliantly portrays how the damage that’s been done to the borders between the wildlife kingdom and humanity, and how lethal threats are crossing from animals to people, but that it also leave us with a implicit message that wildlife are vehicles of contagion — our enemies, not our victims.

Aldo Leopold’s famous, very Quammenesque formulation comes to mind:

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds… An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.

The analogy implies that a search for cure must follow diagnosis.

October 20, 2012 at 12:45 pm

How to Restart a Blog

Rebooting a blog isn’t easy, but it’s more psychologically challenging than technically daunting. A lot of people have done it, so there’s some good, hard-won wisdom on how to pull it off floating around out there. I’ve been contemplating some of this advice over the past few weeks while working on the relaunch of this blog. Always a late adopter, I started this site two years ago with a flurry of enthusiastic posting, but went on to make an epic number of mistakes and missteps on my own downward spiral toward distraction, discouragement, and finally letting my blog languish.

A famous 2008 survey by the blog-indexing service Technorati reported that 95 per cent of blogs are sooner or later abandoned. This vast winnowing stands in sharp contrast to the hundreds of millions of users who plant their flag in the thriving realms of Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest and Foursquare and all the other social sites and services. Meanwhile, the blog/social hybrid that Tumblr offers and the various instant blog hosting services like Squarespace have blurred the distinction between the kind of writing that blogging entails and the short-sharp-link-and-quip posting that characterizes tweets and Facebook updates. In certain respects, blogs have become the new business card, or a brand-of-you storefront, or a backdrop for macro-tweets, not a revolutionary publishing medium where a billion new Boswells and Dorothy Parkers craft gemlike essays and stylish memoir.

In 2009 the New York Times Style section diagnosed an epidemic of exhaustion that strikes “when the thrill of blogging is gone,” ensuring that “blogs have a higher failure rate than restaurants.” People with big dreams of monetization and glory — “to build an audience and leave their day job, to land a book deal, or simply to share their genius with the world” — were having their hopes dashed. Also, tl;dr: “You want to write, like, long entries, and no one wants to read that stuff,” one downed blogger said. And to think that all of this disillusionment was already a done deal by the time I first started this blog.

I, too, suffered the heartbreak of “blogathy” — yep, it’s a word. Well, I’m back, unbowed and with the wind at my back, and ready to stand up for old-school blogging. One of the topics I’m going to be exploring in upcoming posts is the thoughtful, long-form, un-weblike counterforce that is pushing back against the ephemeral, bite-sized, salty-snack model of social posting that leaves souls and minds hungry for perspective and satisfaction. The “dark social” underground is the new vanguard! Or something. Stay tuned.

For now, however, I’ll offer a few words of reassurance and inspiration and a few therapeutic links.

1) Don’t waste emotional energy staying embarrassed about the stagnant, non-updated, stale blog you’ve neglected for so long. Keep your eyes on that shiny new blank slate, and embrace your archive for its strengths and achievements.

2) You’re now a smarter and much more savvy veteran. Lots of blogs bog down because the learning curves and demands of design, webmastering, tweaking, and bug-fixing took their toll. The bright side is that after a break, you’re no longer a rank beginner, and you can move much faster and with less friction toward the actual work of posting.

3) Consistency, dedication, and discipline will make any gaps in your past blogging irrelevant.

4) Relax and take your swings while no one is paying much attention, and it’ll be much easier to gain loyal readers and keep them when you’re in the groove.

Lastly, here are a few posts that I found helpful to one degree or another:

Guide to Restarting Your Blog

How to Restart Your Blog After a Long Break

How to Restart a Dead or Dormant Blog

The Blogging Dip

4 Biggest Blogging Myths That Lead to Bloggers Giving Up


UPDATE:

10-22-2012: I found another useful post on Deborah Ng’s insightful blog, Kommein, offering a proactive argument for a healthy and positive sabbatical from blogging.

In 5 Reasons to Take a Break From Your Blog, Ng observes:

 I’m now of the mindset that a blogger needs to take a break now and then to keep fresh, stay sane, and not have to resort to posting the same dang things everyone else are posting to their blogs. Just as we need a break from our jobs, our homes and our kids, we also need a break from our blogs.


Photo: the caped author at bat sometime in the 1960s


October 19, 2012 at 8:19 pm

Circumnavigating Neil Young

Alec Wilkinson has a post up on The New Yorker site about reading Neil Young’s new memoir, Waging Heavy Peace, and about interviewing Young a few years ago:

Young’s book…is a strange, rambling, cramped, sometimes goofy, sometimes sentimental, and sometimes moving document. It consists mainly of talk about cars and advanced audio equipment, episodes of his childhood and life as a young man, a couple of medical emergencies, his working practices, and recollections of people he knew, some of whom he has outlived.

My longest encounter with Young was several years ago, when I wrote about him for another magazine. I had read “Shakey,” the fanatically specific biography of him written by Jimmy McDonough, and had encountered the remark made to McDonough by Young’s manager when McDonough had asked to spend time with Young. Neil doesn’t hang, McDonough was told. The magazine I was writing for had arranged for me to receive the engagement Young offers to journalists. A driver delivers you to the parking lot of a restaurant in the hills south of San Francisco. (The restaurant, when I arrived, was closed for the season.) Redwoods surround the parking lot and tower over the restaurant. Shafts of light come through the tops of the trees, and the trees are so tall that the scale of what you can see seems altered, so that you feel the disproportion of size that a child feels in a room where a table, occupied by adults, seems to loom above him or her. Eventually an old jalopy shows up with Young, who collects and restores old cars, especially cars from the period of his childhood, at the wheel. Over the course of about two hours, he drives you in a circle that goes down to the Pacific and along it, through a couple of small towns and back up into the hills, past the house where Ken Kesey lived in La Honda and the early acid tests were held and the sixties began, and a bar where Young used to play with his band Crazy Horse, where he would announce to friends in the afternoon that they would play that evening, and the place would fill up mostly with people the band knew. What Young is doing is driving you around the borders of his ranch, which run from the redwoods down toward the water.

On the ride Young told me that he didn’t read, but I might have guessed anyway. He was a reserved and slightly grave figure, and talking with him was like being trapped with someone whose mind had no reach.

He goes on to portray Neil as an incurious, narcissistic, extremely limited idiot savant. Which feels partially true — this is a rock star we’re talking about, and a famously ruthless egotist — but also like an exaggerated literary conceit  and something akin to  a strange act of psychological projection by a journalist who succeeded only in getting Neil’s interview schtick in a two-hour encounter. But still a fascinating review/essay.

Photo by Henry Diltz


Update 10-24-2012:

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October 19, 2012 at 1:34 pm

Bluestem Wolf Howls

Another beautiful field recording — this one of the ethereal howling of the Bluestem Mexican wolf pack, near the west fork of the Black River in the White Mountains of Arizona, on October 7, 2009, by John and Mary Theberge. Despite innumerable setbacks and constant illegal killing of the reintroduced Mexican wolves in New Mexico and Arizona, the Bluestem pack, with five of its members wearing radio collars, was reported to be still traveling through its traditional territory last month with at least four pups.

Image: Canis lupus, circa 1819-22, by Titian Ramsay Peale, National Museum of Wildlife

October 15, 2012 at 2:56 pm

The Sounds of Shangri-La

In October 2000, a reporting team from the NPR-National Geographic program Radio Expeditions traveled to the high mountains of western China, near the Tibetan border, to document the Yunnan Great Rivers Project. NPR engineer Bill McQuay roamed the region for two weeks by car, horseback and on foot, through 12,000-foot passes and forests of giant rhododendron, recording villagers herding yak and cattle, Buddhist pilgrims offering prayers to mountain gods, and musicians performing on traditional instruments.


October 12, 2012 at 2:26 pm

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