Wednesday May 31, 2006
My friend James Beaudreau has recorded and released a collection of acoustic guitar improvisations that has received the “highest recommendation” from the jazz authorities at the Downtown Music Gallery. You can read the review here (keep scrolling) and download samples here. … My friends Makar, who are entirely responsible for coaxing me onto MySpace, are playing the Knitting Factory on Saturday. … Speaking of MySpace, my friend and comedian Charles Star has gotten into the act and has plenty of upcoming appearances to promote (not to mention twice as many friends as I have.) … And, finally, Voodoo Heart, the debut short story collection by Scott Snyder—who I met via our mutual association with One Story and who I’ve read with on one occasion—hits stores today.
Monday May 29, 2006
To mark the official onset of summer, here’s a little flash fiction/fake history from my archives. It’s an entry about the (entirely imaginary) inventor of the heat index, from a volume titled The History of Modern Meteorology, which (as far as I know) does not exist.
GUILLERMO PIZARRO (1885-1951). Few figures in the history of modern meteorology have been as influential as Guillermo Pizarro. Informed by a keen analytical wit, Pizarro’s rejection of Enlightenment notions of temperature in favor of more subjectivizing measures—summarized in his concept of tempidité, a precursor of today’s “heat index”—represents the cornerstone upon which meteorology still rests.
Born in Barcelona to Cuban parents, Pizarro attended the National Meteorological Academy in Madrid, where he studied briefly with Pablo de Nuñez, an academic forecaster of the 19th century realist tradition, who came to represent everything he rejected about climatology. Later, at the Institut Météorologique in Paris, Pizarro was exposed to the work of Teurais and Frambeau of the so-called Kinesthetic school, a group of avant-garde weathermen then experimenting with the effects of relative humidity on perspiration and bodily perception. In 1910, he also took part in the demonstrations of the August Secession, a group led by Teurais that aimed to reproduce the physical sensations of a Parisian summer by immersing themselves in fluids of various temperatures and consistencies.
Pizarro quickly rejected such exercises in verisimilitude, however, and began working toward representing these sensations mathematically. He was no doubt influenced in this endeavor, despite his objections, by the work of Jan Ensor, the Dutch inventor of the wind-chill factor, who lectured at the Institut in the fall of 1911.
The following year, Pizarro’s bold calculations of tempidité or “tempidity,” became the succès de scandale of the 1912 Exposition Internationale de Sciences Météorlogique in Paris, where his impressionistic combination of temperature and humidity into a single measure was both lauded as revolutionary and condemned as anti-scientific. “Tempidity is a wholly imaginary number that exists one knows not where,” shirked one hostile critic, while others, such as the prominent Kinesthetic meteorologist Robert Derain, applauded Pizarro’s success at “taking God out of the weather and putting the body back in.”
The onset of World War I had a chilling effect on meteorological experimentation in the French capital, but Pizarro continued to hone his technique, which would eventually have a profound influence on the “heat index” calculations of television weathermen later in the century.
After the war, however, Pizarro found himself increasingly estranged from the meteorological avant-garde. Now centered in Zurich and the raucous atmosphere of the Cabaret Barometrique, radical young experimentalists, led by the charismatic Heinrich Bölz, had taken to determining the temperature randomly—via lottery or the casting of lots, techniques that Pizarro condemned as reactionary.
Late in life, Pizarro returned to his native Spain and began experimenting with various forms of meteorological minimalism, culminating in “The Weather Rock”—an installation consisting of a piece of granite hanging from a length of rope—which was completed just months before his death. Its accompanying inscription well captures the Spaniard’s keen sense of whimsy and the absurd:
If the rock is wet, it’s raining.
If the rock is moving, it’s windy.
If the rock is white, it’s snowing.
If the rock is hot and dry, it’s sunny.
If you can’t see the rock, it’s foggy.
With minor variations, editions of Pizarro’s Rock are still popular with collectors, particularly in rural parts of the American southeast.
Friday May 26, 2006
Toby Barlow, a friend of mine who is an emissary for The Plimpton Project, sends word of yet another George Plimpton-related contest. (Listen up. Last time I tipped somebody to one of these, he won the whole damned thing.) This time around, it’s a haiku challenge.
Write a standard 5/7/5 haiku “somehow related to or inspired by the life or work or philosophy of George Plimpton,” send it to firstname.lastname@example.org by September 15, and you could win $200.
The entries will be judged by actual, real-life poets Billy Collins, David Lehman, and Denise Duhamel. Adds Toby: “Do not be fooled by the seemingly whimsical nature of the contest, haiku of serious and thoughtful tone will be weighed with the utmost respect.”
Thursday May 25, 2006
I have no idea when it was adopted, but Alexandra happened to notice that The Hilton Family (“of Hotels” presumably, but it works on many levels) has a new slogan: “Be Hospitable.” I’m guessing this policy does not extend to Lindsay Lohan.
Wednesday May 24, 2006
Susan Henderson has posted a nice interview with Corey Mesler of Burke’s Books in Memphis. Burke’s has fallen on hard times, which is a shame. I worked there for a time more than ten years ago, and it was the best job I ever had.
A lot of interesting firsts and signed editions passed through the store, like the day Faulkner paramour Joan Williams came in to have all her association copies from “Bill” wrapped in acetate dust jackets. The copy machine was right there, and I often wish I’d taken a shot of the inscriptions.
But Williams was not the most famous person to come to the store. Shelby Foote, Richard Ford, and George Saunders also made appearances, and John Grisham drew crowds around the block every time he put out a book. And, although I’ve lived in New York for six years, my best celebrity sighting (by far) still happened at Burke’s. That was the day Michael Jackson came into the store.
It was a slow Sunday afternoon, and he was preceded by an advance man—a body builder in a plain dark suit—who came in and asked when we closed. He left, then in came Michael, along with Lisa Marie Presley—they were married at the time, and in town for some Elvis tribute—and a small entourage. They shopped for children’s books for more than an hour, then left the advance man behind to pay the tab. The first credit card he presented—which said “Michael Jackson” right on it—was declined, but a backup made it through fine. That night on the news, I saw Michael and Lisa Marie passing the books out to sick kids at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. Nice, charitable, but still kind of creepy in retrospect.
Tuesday May 23, 2006
Or did we learn everything? I can just imagine the syllabus for this MediaBistro course on memoir writing, especially “Week 3: Creating Characters,” where students learn the ins and outs of fabricating such crowd-pleasers as the wise cellmate, the suicidal girlfriend, and—of course—the college town desperado. At the last class, everyone gets humiliated by Oprah. Real world stuff, not that crap they teach you in j-school.
Friday May 19, 2006
I went to Gay Talese’s book signing last night at the Barnes & Noble in Union Square. The crowd did not quite fill the two hundred or so chairs laid out—perhaps because of the rain or fading memory or poor reviews of Talese’s latest book, A Writer’s Life. The majority of the audience was closer to the author’s age than to my own, which I thought was a shame. Along with the screenwriter Paddy Chayefsy and the filmmaker Errol Morris, Talese is someone who doesn’t write fiction but who has nonetheless shaped my ideas about writing and story. I’ve often thought that magazine writing would have gone in a much different (and better) direction if my generation had learned the lessons of Talese, rather than those of Thompson and Wolfe.
If you ask most people what “New Journalism” is all about, they will say that it is about the author putting himself or herself into the story. While this is one technique—and unquestionably the most popular, for obvious reasons—employed by so-called New Journalists, it is not a requirement, even by Wolfe’s definition. Rather, New Journalism is simply the use of novelistic techniques to tell true stories, and not all novels are written in the first person. As Talese wrote in the introduction to his 1970 collection of magazine writing Fame and Obscurity, “The new journalism allows, demands in fact, a more imaginative approach to reporting, and it permits the writer to inject himself into the narrative if he wishes, as many writers do, or to assume the role of detached observer, as other writers do, including myself.”
In hindsight—or by picking up almost any magazine—we can see, however, that the self-injectors have won. Even Wolfe, who often plays the detached observer, produces prose that drips with his persona and has been instrumental, along with Hunter S. Thompson, in creating the impression that literary journalism is all about self-absorbed bursts of expression. (See for example, Wolfe’s creation myth.)
This makes it all the more breathtaking to read Talese’s magazine writing and observe the lengths to which he goes to stay out of his stories. “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” gets all the glory, but I think “The Loser”—Talese’s profile of the just recently departed boxer Floyd Patterson—is a better piece. Talese cites it early in A Writer’s Life, quoting in full a passage where Patterson describes the momentary bliss of being knocked out. Talese never appears in the piece, and he resorts to the passive voice to remain invisible. He does not ask; Patterson “was asked.” The technique reflects restraint and humility almost unthinkable in our Age of Memoir.
That said, Talese is not at his best when talking about himself—are any of us?—in print or in person. Last night’s talk seemed to be addressed to an unseen interlocutor (Kurt Andersen, perhaps?), as Talese attempted to reveal the continuous thread that runs through all of his books, including A Writer’s Life. According to him, that thread is the telling of untold stories, although what I’ve read of the latest book so far has been mostly about him. I am inclined to agree with Andersen that it doesn’t really work. Robert Boynton offers a more charitable spin, suggesting that what makes Talese such a keen observer—and self-effacing writer—is what makes him such a bad memoirist. (Boynton writes: “The thing that most puzzles me about the book, I confess, is how someone so devoid of introspection would write a memoir in the first place.”)
Which is why it’s a shame that more young people didn’t show up last night and that Fame and Obscurity, which was long out of print, isn’t as widely read as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. A writer whose most spontaneous gesture isn’t memoir? Impossible! But that’s what Talese is, and he’s created some timeless writing as a result. My favorite piece in Fame and Obscurity—and one of my favorite pieces of writing by anyone—is an unassuming profile of Alden Whitman, an obituary writer for the New York Times, called “Mr. Bad News.” Its tempo and arc is as perfect as any short story, and this how it ends:
“But what will happen to you then, after you die, Mr. Whitman?”
“I have no soul that is going anywhere,” he said. “It is simply a matter of bodily extinction.”
“If you had died during your heart attack, what, in your opinion, would have been the first thing your wife would have done?”
“She would first have seen to it that my body was disposed of in the way that I wanted,” he said. “To be cremated without fuss or fanfare.”
“And then what?”
“Then, after she’d gotten to that, she would have turned her attention to the children.”
“Then, I guess, she would have broken down and had a good cry.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I would assume so,” he said finally, puffing his pipe. “This is the formal outlet for grief under such circumstances.”
If you’ve seen the June issue of Vanity Fair, you know that Deirdre Sullivan has won the magazine’s second annual essay contest. Sullivan’s piece, a meditation on Generation X, is titled (in about 24-point type) “Another Feitelberg Against the War”—so named after a personalized message the author sees on a sign at an antiwar rally. As it turns out, the sign in question belonged to our good friend Amy Feitelberg. How do I know this? Because my
non-Platonic roommate wife Alexandra was there, as you can see in this picture. Alexandra is the WASP and Feitelberg is, well, the Feitelberg.
Monday May 15, 2006
The New York Times is the latest to get behind the cloying “My” meme with a forthcoming customization feature dubbed “My Times.” I have noted before that the marketing “My” ran its course almost ten years ago before its recent revival. Next thing you know, we’ll all be putting our navigation into big ugly frames. (God, how proud I was of those frames.)