Tag Archives | books

“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

Quammen in a World of Wounds

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

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

Riding the Groove

My all-time favorite explanatory passage from the literature of hi-fi appears in Laura Dearborn’s sadly out-of-print 1987 guide to audio, Good Sound. In it, she contrives to describe what’s happening when a turntable cartridge’s stylus rides an LP groove, and she pulls it off in a way that makes it sound like a marvel akin to a Star Wars jump into Hyperspace. Now and then, when I’m playing a great-sounding record via my trusty Ortofon Kontrapunkt A cartridge I remember Deaborn’s thrilling explication.

So let’s cue up Good Sound:

Visualize the fineness of a record groove, and then consider that it combines two distinct channels of information, each with completely different modulations. Some of the signal modulations in the groove are on the same order of size as a wavelength of light, which means the stylus has to “read” a signal as small as a millionth of an inch…

For the half a mile or so of record groove per LP side, the stylus must precisely trace abrupt changes in the direction of the undulating groove, sometimes traveling at speeds several times the acceleration of gravity, without ever losing contact with either wall or blurring together the modulations.

Groove friction heats the stylus up to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and the groove vinyl momentarily liquefies each time the stylus passes over it. (This is why one should let a record rest for at least 30 minutes before replaying it, and preferably for 24 hours.)

Even though the cartridge tracking weight is commonly set at only about 1.5 grams, the entire weight is supported on the minute edges of the stylus. As a result, the downforce applied to the groove on a per-square-inch basis is several TONS.

Combine these extreme conditions of weight, heat, speed, and need for exquisite maneuverability, then add in the scale of environmental vibrations that interfere with the stylus as it retrieves the music from the groove, and it’s extraordinary that ANY music (as opposed to noise) is heard through an audio system.

For the grand finale of her bravura account of LP playback, Dearborn gets all Brobdingnagian, blowing up the stylus-and-groove action to outsized gynormousness. Technology as minute as an LP record groove is typically measured in microns. One micron equals 0.0039 inch. Dearborn walks us through what would happen if you could convert the micron scale upward to inches, borrowing a thought-experiment originally devised by the Boston Audio Society’s magazine, The Speaker.

Using the inch scale, a stylus is 30 feet long, affixed to a cantilever 50 feet thick and 275 feet long, which extends from a cartridge body 2,000 feet long, sitting 80 feet above the record. The tonearm, 450 feet in diameter, crosses 1,500 feet above the record from its pivot point four miles away… The stylus downforce temporarily deforms the vinyl by as much as an inch (20 times the size of a violin harmonic), leaving a stylus footprint on the groove wall measuring 10 inches long and 4 inches wide. A typical midrange signal demands that the stylus move 16 inches from peak to peak of the wave form. A deep bass note 10 dB louder requires the stylus to move 10 feet 6 inches whereas for a high-frequency harmonic at a very low sound level , the stylus must move only 0.68 inch. Even the simplest piece of music is likely to contain, at any one time, enormous numbers of frequencies at different levels.

The next time you hear someone try to dismiss vinyl as a primitive, antiquarian, and thoroughly Luddite approach to sound reproduction, just remember that analog vinyl sound reproduction is, and always will be, miraculous. Perfect Sound Forever, suckas!

Electron microscope photograph by Chris Supranowitz / Institute of Optics, University of Rochester

October 27, 2010 at 6:56 pm

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