Thursday, July 31, 2008

Atomic Batteries to Power...Turbines to Speed...

. . . and over we go to the Hudson Valley Blog, where I'm very pleased to have them reprinting my "Antient and Renowned City of Gotham" piece from early last week.

Even if you read it here, swing by HHV and have a look by clicking here.

While you're there, poke around on their website and learn about some of the terrific historic properties they own and manage. You'll be so impressed you'll want to suppport their organization right then and there.

More Library Talk

Continuing our discussion on libraries from yesterday, there is some good news: libraries are working hard and doing some creative things to bring in new readers, especially younger readers. I point you toward this article in the Maryland Gazette on the libraries in my area hosting video game competitions -- specifically, Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero.

According to the article,
"The video games are part of a larger effort by libraries across the county to get more teenagers involved. Kathie Weinberg, the teen librarian at the Bethesda Library, said the libraries have recently planned a number of events geared toward teens, including coffee houses, forensics sessions, and concerts. The Bethesda library brought in two representatives from MAC Cosmetics who did makeovers for more than 40 teens."

That sort of thinking, however, led to a snippy editorial cartoon captioned "These Days At The Library," making fun of the library as catering to game players at the expense of books. That, in turn, prompted this letter to the editor from two library employees, including the Young Adult librarian. I'll quote them in part:

"These programs in no way diminish the importance of someone 'just want[ing] a book.' Yes, we have dramatically increased our teen programming this summer, but we have also increased our teen user base and their leisure and academic reading. In fact, circulation of teen books has increased more than 50 percent in the past year."

More young people using our libraries? Circulation of teen books up 50 percent? Sounds like a win-win situation to me.

I'm was planning to head to the library this week as it was -- but while I'm there, maybe I'll also see if they'll let the head librarian and me play "Sweet Child of Mine" together on Guitar Hero 2. I call the bass part!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Library System We Deserve?

According to this article in today's Washington Post, budget reductions have prompted the D.C. public library system to propose cutting back its hours -- including the closing of all branches on Fridays.

I wish this wasn't a common occurence. Even in my neck of the woods -- up in Montgomery County, Maryland, where we have a fairly healthy budget -- our libraries aren't open every day, either. Even more frustrating, the local library two blocks from my house is closed on Sundays. I can almost understand closing on a Tuesday, or even on Friday. But closing on weekends, when it's easier to find the time to visit the library -- and when students often need their resources the most -- is teeth-gnashingly exasperating.

The thing is, Americans have a shaky relationship with their libraries. Like an aging or senile parent, we love them in concept, but don't want to visit them. When that new David Baldacci or Stephen King or David McCullough book comes out, we don't run for the library, we head for Barnes and Noble instead. We'd rather purchase it new in hardback and read it when we have the time, rather than read a loaner which we only have a certain amount of time to read before it's due back.

I've heard plenty of reasons offered for why we don't visit libraries as much any more. Germphobes don't like the thought of reading a book that plenty of others have touched or (*shudder*) may actually have read in the bathroom. Others cite the inconvenience of having to return the book after a certain number of days or weeks (though some of these are no doubt the same people who have no problem returning a movie or video game to Blockbuster after three days). Researchers say the availability of materials on the internet has removed the need to run to the library for the Encyclopedia Brittanica or a newspaper from 1972. Some point out that libraries, in their rush to acquire as many copies as they can of the latest bestseller, often give short shrift to older books -- making the library a great place to read books published after 1990, for example, but not much else.

There's something to be said for all those arguments, but it doesn't change the fact that we're all finding reasons to stay away from the library. It's like public transportation: everyone wants government to invest in more buses and mass transit for someone else to ride. We like the idea of libraries more than the libraries themselves.

I've been fortunate enough to visit and speak at a number of fantastic libraries up and down the Atlantic Coast -- the Redwood Library and Athenaeum, the New York Society Library, the Philadelphia Library, and even my local library in Damascus, Maryland -- and if there was one thing they all had in common, it was readers and librarians who were passionate about them. Unfortunately, passion alone doesn't keep the doors open on Sundays, when I've got my nose pressed up against the glass front door wondering if they've got a copy of Ted Widmer's Martin Van Buren so I can look something up. Our libraries need more than our passion and affection; they need our support and patronage.

If you haven't been to a library in ages -- for any number of reasons -- visit one again. You'll find it's still the best form of entertainment around, and librarians are still some of the most helpful people on the planet, always ready to help you find anything you're looking for -- and maybe even recommend something you don't know you're looking for yet.

Go on. You deserve it.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Catching Up with the Pope of Prose and the Wizard of Northampton

First, there's this news straight outta San Diego: Neil Gaiman is writing a two-issue Batman arc -- running through Batman and Detective Comics -- for 2009. Pardon me while I say Zoinks! You can read about it here and here and here.

And then there's this interview with Alan Moore, over on L'Essaim Victorieux des Mouches D'Eau. Moore discusses writing, working, and politics -- and when the Wizard of Northampton talks, it's always worth a listen. I mean, where else are you gonna get advice like this:

"If I ever write a book on writing it will probably be called Real Men Don't Use Thesauri, because no, don't touch ‘em, I think they're cheating. What's wrong with having an enormous vocabulary? What's wrong with thinking, 'Oh, there should be a word that means this or that, could it be this, could it be...,' then making up a word and checking in the dictionary and seeing if there is such a word, and if it meant what you thought it did. That's better, and all right, you can waste an hour trying to get the exact right word that's got the right kind of sound, the right flavour, the right colour…that fits just perfectly....

"The thing I'd grab if there was a fire is my Random House Dictionary, which is an etymological dictionary which tells you where the words come from so you actually know what you're talking about. If you use a word like ‘fascism' you can actually have a look and see: 'now where does that word come from, what does it actually mean?' That'll save you a lot of embarrassment. It's also got a great Encyclopaedia function . . . it's a biographical dictionary, it's got all famous names and obscure names and dates . . . it's fantastic. And that is my best Grimoire if you like, my best magic book, because it's got all the words in the English language and where they come from and what they mean.

"If you're gonna be a writer, you'll cover all this territory, from the broadest categories down to, like I say, the sub-atomic detail of words and syllables."
Read it. Learn it. Live it.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Gonna Keep On, Keep On, Keep On Groovin'...

We've all got them in our CD collections: those discs we're embarassed to own and will either make excuses for ("I got it for a buck!") or outright lie about ("Er, that's not mine...") if anyone finds it in the CD cabinet.

I've got quirky enough tastes in music that I'll even 'fess up to purchasing -- and enjoying -- CDs like Neil Sedaka's The Hungry Years or Toto: Past to Present (1977-1990). Even something like Orleans' Waking and Dreaming is a keeper -- after all, it's got "Still the One" on it -- once you get past the worst album cover of all time.

Still, there are some discs that I love but can't help making up some excuse for why they're in my collection. Usually it's my wife who gets splattered by the shrapnel of the cover story. "Best of Barry Manilow???" my friend will say incredulously, holding up a CD with Barry staring androgynously outward, eyes heavy with glittery eyeshadow. "Uh . . . that's Barb's," I'll reply, despite the fact it's been in my collection since 1990.

Anyway, here are three more discs that I love, yet will completely disavow:

First, there's It's A Sunshine Day: Best of the Brady Bunch. Oh yes, it's as dumb as you think it is. Naturally, it's got the Bunch singing "Keep On," "It's A Sunshine Day," and "Time to Change." But it's also got some unappreciated gems like "Candy (Sugar Shoppe)" (with Barry Williams trying -- and failing -- to rock out) and "Merry-Go-Round." And what's not to love about a Brady Bunch version of Don McLean's "American Pie"? Classic.

Next, it's K.D., er, k.d. lang's Ingenue, an album I purchased not for the single "Constant Craving," but rather for the retro-campy "Miss Chatelaine." And only k.d. lang would describe her look in the song's video -- in which she wore a classy 1930s-era frilly ball gown -- as "dressing in drag." Say what you will, it's still a terrific album, though one I always try to hide by mixing it in among my Jonny Lang discs.

Finally, there's the self-titled Buster Poindexter, the retro-cool persona of New York Dolls front man David Johansen. Buster was several years ahead of the swing revival of the early 90s and therefore never really got the play he deserved, though he's now made a comeback, of sorts, as "jump blues." "Hot Hot Hot" may have been the hit single (it was sort of the "Macaraena" of the late 1980s), but there were also a killer versions of "House of the Rising Sun" and "Smack Dab in the Middle." How you feelin'? Why, hot, hot, hot, of course.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to listen to the Little River Band's Greatest Hits. It's Barb's. Really.

Friday, July 25, 2008

He Sings! He Dances!

This only just came to my attention: the New York Society Library has posted video of the talk I gave on April 19 for National Library Week. So if the audio itself isn't enough, and you wanna feel like you were really there, you can check out the video right here. I'll also hardlink it over in the right-hand column, in case you feel the urge to watch it over and over again...

Thursday, July 24, 2008!

Looks like it's Batman Week here at Literary Conceits, as we dip into the mailbag for a question from Rich in Ocala, Florida:

"Found your page through your review of the Ten Cent Plague, and I really liked your recent posts about Batman. As a fellow comics nerd, I've gotta ask: What do you collect, and how big is your collection? Any particular favorite Batman writers, artists, or stories? Always glad to read a fellow Batfan. Keep up the good work!"

Thanks, Rich. Let me see if I can cover all your questions:

The bulk of my Batman collection consists mainly of three titles: Batman, Detective Comics, and the first incarnation of Brave and the Bold. My Batman run is probably my most impressive, as I've got a straight run from issue #120 (December 1958) to #555 (June 1998), with a good number of issues from the 1940s and early 1950s, including this gem from 1957, featuring Batman Jones, who is not me:

My Detective run covers much the same period, though with a few gaps early in the run. As for Brave and the Bold, I was only interested in it once it became the regular Batman team-up book at issue #75 (October 1967). You had to love B&B -- only there could you see such bizarre team-ups like this classic from March 1974:

As far as favorite Batman writers, artists, and stories, I've always been a sucker for the art of Jim Aparo, who did nearly every issue of Brave and the Bold (as well as most Batman covers in the late 1970s/early 1980s) and for the stories penned by Steve Englehart for Detective Comics in 1977-78. When I wrote for a Batman fanzine back in the late 1980s, I actually had the chance to interview Steve Englehart, and he was still pretty proud of his run on Detective Comics (though even a decade later, he was still annoyed that writer Gerry Conway had brought back the character of Hugo Strange after he had done a thorough job of killing him off).

What's that you say? Geek check?

Oooh, busted.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

"The Renowned and Antient City of Gotham"

Batman fans owe a debt of gratitude to Washington Irving. Why? Two words: Gotham City.

In 1806, 23-year-old Washington Irving was New York City's worst attorney. Bored with his legal practice -- he would allegedly abandon the only client he ever had -- Irving persuaded a close friend, James Kirke Paulding, to join him in launching a literary project. The object of this self-published effort, as Paulding would put it, "was to ridicule the follies and foibles of the fashionable world."

The result of this collaboration, the satirical magazine Salmagundi (a 19th century dish equivalent to today's chef's salad), made its first appearance on January 24, 1807 -- and it was an immediate smash. Writing under a variety of disguises -- Will Wizard, Anthony Evergreen, Pindar Cockloft, Mustapha Rub-A-Dub Keli Khan -- Irving and Paulding poked fun at New York fashion, politics, society, and culture. More than anything, it was a 19th century Mad magazine, and at the time, no one had seen anything quite like it.

Despite its popularity at the time, Salmagundi might be a mere literary footnote, a blip in Irving's writing career, had Irving not inadvertently created a brand name in its seventeenth issue.

Appearing in the November 11, 1807 issue was a piece by Irving describing a (fictional) library full of rare and out-of print books. Among those books was one particular volume—"a literary curiosity"—from which Irving now reprinted a chapter for his readers:


Over the next few pages, in a mock history of New York, Irving related how the "thrice renowned and delectable city of GOTHAM did suffer great discomfiture, and was reduced to perilous extremity." "The antient and venerable city of Gotham," Irving continued, "was, peradventure, possessed of mighty treasures, and did, moreover, abound with all manner of fish and flesh, and eatables and drinkables, and such like delightsome and wholesome excellencies withal."

While the word "Gotham" had appeared in the pages of Salmagundi before—Paulding had made a passing reference to a musician, “a gentleman amateur in Gotham” as far back as issue two—Irving was the first to explicitly attach the name to New York, and to refer to its citizens as "Gothamites."

The word, which in Anglo-Saxon means "Goat’s Town," came from a real English town in Nottinghamshire, near Sherwood Forest. According to English fable, the King’s Highway would be built wherever the king set foot—and if the king walked through your town, you were sunk, for the throne would then perform a royal taking and construct a highway right down Main Street. To prevent King John from entering Gotham, its citizens -- displaying a NIMBY mentality remarkable for the 13th century -- pretended to be crazy, behaving so oddly that snickering scouts advised the king to steer clear of the town. "More fools pass through Gotham than remain in it," the English said, and New York readers grinned in appreciation. The name stuck.

So, there you go. Two hundred years later, Bill Finger and Bob Kane poached Irving's nickname and grafted it onto their own dark and highly-stylized vision of New York City. In a way, that makes Irving -- who created his own iconic American heroes in his own time -- one of the grandfathers of the Batman legacy. And Washington Irving -- that great lover of pulp novels and secret identities -- would probably be pretty proud of that.

Monday, July 21, 2008

First Books: Limited Collector's Edition C-37 (1975)

In honor of the release of The Dark Knight -- which broke all kinds of records this weekend -- I wanted to share with you My First Batman Comic.

I first became a Batman fan not because of the comic books or the TV show (which was off the air before I was a year old), but rather because of the Super Friends cartoon, which premiered on ABC when I was six years old. It may have featured a somewhat emasculated version of the Dark Knight Detective (Hey criminals! Wanna make Batman cower? Take away his utility belt!), but, hey, it was still Batman. He was super cool, and I was completely smitten. My life as a fanboy had begun.

But I didn't actually have any Batman comics until this one -- with the clunky official title of Limited Collector's Edition, Vol. 4, No. C-37 -- which my mom ordered through the mail for my brother and me in 1975. Back in the early- and mid-1970s, DC was publishing collections of Golden Age comics in oversize editions, including reprints of the first appearances of Batman and the Flash, which still confound some rookie collectors to this day. This particular issue -- under a terrific Jim Aparo cover -- was touted as the Batman Special All-Villain Issue!

Needless to say, I read this thing until the cover fell off of it.

The first story, "The Cross Country Crimes!" (a reprint of Batman #8 from 1941) pits Batman and Robin against the Joker, who leads the Dynamic Duo on a murderous chase across the United States. It contained a great hook (the Joker is actually using the first letter of each state he visits to spell out his name), some scary Joker moments (Joker forces a jeweler's bus off a cliff), and a thrilling fight in a swaying cable car. And check out this great splash of the Clown Price of Crime (complete with that iconic 1940s Batmobile at the bottom):

Next, the Penguin gets his shot at the Dynamic Duo in "The Blackbird of Banditry," a 1947 story from Batman #43 in which Penguin declares he will "use fictional birds you've read about in books ... and commit real crimes!" Penguin manages to stay one step ahead of Batman, and at one point even gets the drop on the Dynamic Duo by puffing on a pipe full of popcorn, which explodes into Batman's unsuspecting face. Then, displaying a mentality that could only belong to a comic book villain, he chains the captured Robin to a wall (with a tightly drawn bow-and-arrow pointed directly at the Boy Wonder's heart), locks Batman in a nearby cage, and (wait for it) . . . leaves to allow Batman watch Robin face an almost certain Death by Clever Trap.

Naturally, Batman uses a discarded umbrella to make a bow and arrow of his own, and as the Penguin's arrow screams toward Robin, Batman intercepts it by firing an umbrella handle-arrow into its path -- a drawing that always baffled my eight-year-old brain, as it looked to me like Batman had fired a pickle to block the Penguin's arrow:

But maybe that was just me.

Anyway, Batman eventually nabs the Penguin, and can't resist taunting him in his jail cell by reminding him of another famous fictional bird. "Quoth the Raven, 'Nevermore!" Batman guffaws. Hilarity ensues.

The last three stories in the issue featured Two-Face (who meets his demise via accidental hanging at a drive-in movie theater, an image that horrified me), the Scarecrow (captured by an old vaudeville trick in which he's smacked on the fanny by a see-saw), and Catwoman (who models her crimes on famous women criminals like . . . er, well, the wicked queen from Snow White). And if all that weren't enough, there was even a four-page spread featuring a map of the Batcave (circa 1968) and diagrams of Batman's equipment, including this sneak-peek at the contents of his and Robin's utility belts:

I stared at those pages forever, trying to figure out how Batman could get those smoke capsules out of his belt so quickly, or how that laser torch really worked. When you're eight years old, it doesn't get much cooler than that.

Come to think of it, it still doesn't.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Translation: Who watches the watchmen?

I do. And now you must, too.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Library Blogging

A quick post today from one of the truly great buildings in the United States. I'm sitting at a computer in Alcove 3, just off the Main Reading Room at the Library of Congress, where I'm doing a bit of research on several potential projects. I'm waiting for the librarian to drop a book off for me at desk 191, which I can see just over the top of this computer, peeking around some of the construction that's going on in here.

It's my intention to some day take readers of this blog on a brief photo tour of the library, so you can see what it's like where you first walk in, check your bags, then make your way down the dark corridors leading to the small anteroom just outside the Main Reading Room. That moment when you walk out of the anteroom into the enormous Main Reading Room -- with its soaring, ornate dome and circular rows of old wooden reading tables -- is, for bibliophiles, probably the same feeling art lovers get the first time they enter the Sistine Chapel. It's huge and awe-inspiring, yet somehow cozier and more intimate than you thought it might be from staring at it in pictures for so long.

Ooop, there's my book being delivered now! See you later.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Waiting for the Cool

Had a nice breakfast with Jonathan over the weekend, complete with great conversation covering everything from baby names and vampire novels, to publisher habits and works in progress. Always a pleasure. (And yes, I had eggs benedict. With crab cakes.)

Two things I'm anxiously looking forward to:

First, there's this:

And then, of course, there's this:

Don't get between me and a movie theater on July 18. Because I will knock you down. Really.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Saturday Benedict

Happy 7-11! Have a Slurpee.

Looking forward to tomorrow, as we're having breakfast in DC with Agent J*. Jonathan is in town mainly for pleasure, but is willing (and foolish enough) to let Barb and me join him for breakfast at Luna Grille in Dupont Circle, where everything on the menu has the word "benedict" after it. And we love anything with benedict in it. Except Benedict Arnold, of course.

Have a great weekend!

* Bonus points to anyone who can name that reference. My brother is not eligible. Yes, I am talking to you . . . Mr. Cutter.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

More (Somewhat) Clean, (Somewhat) Well-Lighted Places

Courtesy of a heads-up from Pat McNees at the Washington Biography Group, I point you to a terrific piece in the Guardian on writers' rooms. Click here to go get it. I'll wait.

I talked about this a while back, how a writer's space is, more often than not, his or her sancto sanctorum. And while I continue to admire -- and slightly envy -- those who have the Dickensian ability to work almost anywhere, I tend to agree with John Banville, whose own workplace is featured in the piece:

"How I envy writers who can work on aeroplanes or in hotel rooms. On the run I can produce an article or a book review, or even a film script, but for fiction I must have my own desk, my own wall with my own postcards pinned to it, and my own window not to look out of."


What's really interesting about this assortment of rooms is how normal they look. None of them look like stage sets; there are very few mahogany desks or oak bookshelves sagging under the weight of uniform leather volumes. Most of them are filled with unmatching furniture and pressboard bookshelves, while some desks are simply pieces of wood laid across filing cabinets. The only common denominator seems to be books -- as Simon Armitage notes, "Writers need to be more interested in wall-space than square footage," so they can fill the walls with bookshelves.

Other than that, rooms are crammed with assorted piles of stuff -- boxes, scrap-metal robots, Fellini movie posters -- and lots of other items that make the spaces intensely personal. I think Simon Gray sums it up best: "This is my room and I can do what I bloody like in it."

Amen, brother.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Stuporman To The Rescue

From the Here's Why I'm Not A Superhero File:

Years ago, I was walking east on East Capitol Street -- almost literally within the shadow of the dome of the Capitol Buidling -- when I spotted a woman about block in front of me running frantically in my direction, chasing after a large golden retriever. The dog was running at full speed, its leash trailing along behind it, visibly delighted in that Whoopee! I'm A Dog On The Loose! way.

Because I'm always willing to help, I stepped over into the grass on the lawn of the Library of Congress to put down my shoulder bag, then moved back onto the sidewalk in a wide stance, bracing myself to take the full impact of the speeding golden retriever, hoping to stop it from its flight of fancy and earning, I was certain, the gratitude of the damsel in distress who was chasing after it.

As the dog careened toward me, I grit my teeth and, with an atypically-elegant move, all at once snagged the leash and shouted "Whoa!" at the dog. The dog pulled up short, ears up and alert, staring at me with a hurt look that all but screamed Why would you DO that?. I stood there with the leash in my hand, waiting to hand the dog over to the running woman . . .

. . . and she jogged right past me, frowning. With a short whistle, she called the dog back over, and the two of them turned left across the front of the Library of Congress, continuing on their evening jog, which had been only briefly interrupted by the Crazy Guy in the Suit Who Had Jumped At Her Dog.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Too Many Notes!

So I finally caved in and bought a new cell phone. Hardly an exciting or life-altering moment, I know, but you have to understand: I can't stand cell phones. Yet, I know I need one, so I keep trying to skate by with the simplest phone I can find. I don't need a phone that takes pictures and video, or plays music, accesses the internet, has GPS capability, or converts into a Transformer-like robot with fist-fighting action (. . . er, though that actually would be pretty cool). All I really need is your basic phone with a decent template for my contacts, so I can store several numbers under each name. The rest is all fancy bells and whistles and waaaay too much phone for me. So I had a dopey, simple, dumb guy phone. And I was happy with it.

And then our daughter turned twelve.

For Madi's Big One-Two, Barb and I decided to get her a cell phone of her very own. It was an easier decision than we thought; not only has Madi shown herself to be incredibly responsible (she's taken good care of her iPod nano for two years, for example), but we've arrived at the point in her life where her calendar of activities is so much easier for all of us to manage if we know we can always reach each other at any time.

We took her to the Verizon store to let her choose her own phone, and she decided on a Verizon Alias, a phone with way too many features, most of which require the dexterity of a 12-year-old to operate properly. To our 12-year-old, however, the most important feature is its microscopic-sized, full QWERTY keyboard.

The texting began. Lots of it. Tons of it. All written in that abbreviated language that, remarkably, still accurately conveys meaning and intent. My phone beeped regularly with short messages informing me of her schedule, her whereabouts, her mood, her menu, and all usually in ten letters or less.

I tried my best to respond on my archaic phone, but it was a losing battle. Understand, I'm terrible at texting to begin with. First of all, it's almost impossible for me to text with a standard telephone keypad -- I'm forever passing the letter I need, then have to circle around again for it, at which point I usually pass it again -- and secondly, I don't like to abbreviate or intentionally misspell words. I know, I know -- completely anal, but it's the way I'm wired. I'll take the extra keystrokes to spell out "great!" rather than simply write "GR8!" which makes me an irritatingly slow texter. So in the time it takes for me to slowly spell out "Please meet me at the front door of the recreation center," my daughter has already written 237 messages to friends across the United States, as well as to several astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle.

So I finally caved in and bought a new cell phone. It takes pictures and video, has GPS capability and internet access, plays music, and converts, I'm told, into a Shogun Warrior. But I wouldn't know anything about any of that -- all I care about is it also has a full QWERTY keyboard so I can much more quickly type out messages like "Move over and give me a bit more room on the couch," and "Stop texting me while I'm driving."

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Sou*kaff!*d of Sil*cough!*nce

Why is it that when you take 500 otherwise perfectly healthy human beings and put them within the confines of a theater, that suddenly half the room develops some sort of respiratory disorder that causes them to cough incessantly?

You know what I'm talking about: you sit down in a theater, read through your program, and all seems well . . . until the lights go out, and suddenly, the Sickness Symphony begins. The coughing fits start first, like an overture played on trombones. Then someone sneezes, near the back, four or five times -- each one a stifled sneeze (more like a "guh-TEW!") that makes it all the louder. A hard candy is unwrapped slowly somewhere, the crinkle of the wrapper crackling like a fire. And the quieter the action on stage, the more people begin coughing, as if the silence in the theater is a blank canvas that simply must be painted on.

On Saturday night, Sainted Wife Barb and I attended a performance of Antony and Cleopatra at the new Sidney Harman Hall in DC -- a theater I'm already disenchanted with because of acoustical problems -- and Cleopatra's "salad days" speech sounded something like this:

My salad days,
*KAFF! ACK!*een in judgment: cold in b*snuf*od,
To say as I said then! But,
*SCHNORT!* way;
Get me ink and paper:
He shall have every day a several greeting,
Or I'll unpeople

For this and various reasons, we did the virtually unthinkable: we left at the intermission. We went home and watched The Muppet Show on DVD instead.

And we didn't cough once.

Footnote: Apparently, I'm not the only one annoyed by this phenomenon. Read Why Coughing Brought Down The Curtain on Our NSO Years in The Washington Post.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

My Five Favorites

As I promised yesterday, here's a rundown of my five favorite biographies. I should probably qualify this by adding the disclaimer " this particular moment", as my list might very well be different, depending on when you ask me. Yeah, I'm a noodge that way.

Anyway, here they are, in no particular order:

Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (Peter Guralnick)

There's a moment from the film Pulp Fiction that ended up on the cutting room floor in which Mia Wallace asks Vincent Vega whether he's an Elvis man or a Beatles man. "You might like both," she tells Vincent, "but you always like one better." If you've been reading this blog even casually, you know I'm a hardcore Beatles fan. But I'm still fascinated by Elvis -- especially the post-GI, bad-movie making, white jump-suited, bloated karate Elvis. And that's why I bypassed completely Last Train to Memphis -- the first book in Guralnick's two-part Elvis bio, which tells the story of Elvis' meteoric rise -- and headed right for the good stuff.

Guralnick tells Elvis' story in a clear-eyed manner, spinning a story that's almost Shakespearian in its tragedy. And it quickly gets ugly, as Elvis corrodes into a lazy, strung-out fat kid, distracted by go-carts, badge collecting, and playing cowboys and Indians with his sycophantic Memphis Mafia, all the while derailing his own career, despite an incredibly forgiving fan base. From one oh-my-gosh, no way! moment to another, Guralnick delivers the goods, careening like a barely-controlled jalopy toward the decidedly non-glamorous ending we all know is coming. Look away? Heck no. Cringe-inducing? Heck yes. Awesome.

Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate (Robert Caro)

Think the legislative process sounds boring? Think again. Using the crafting and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 to frame the story of Johnson's Senate years -- during which he practically invented modern Senate procedure -- Caro makes lawmaking look downright dramatic. Which it is, especially when the stakes are so high.

Johnson doesn't come across as a hero in the practical sense -- he's a boor, unfaithful to his wife, an opportunist, and, at times, doesn't appear to have any real core beliefs. Whether it's speaking to Southern senators with a deep drawl before turning around and talking to New England progressives without a hint of an accent, or kissing the appropriate backsides to secure plum committee assignments and roles in the Senate leadership, Johnson appears to bend his own personality -- as well as the personalities of others -- to fit his own purposes. But whether you like him or not, he understood politics, and process, like no one else before him (and perhaps better than any since). And once he became committed to a cause, he was a dangerous man to cross; no one could kick your teeth in quicker using parliamentary procedure than Lyndon Johnson. You'll genuinely cheer when he finally steers the Civil Rights Act to final passage.

Caro ends the book with a cliffhanger, as Johnson angles toward the Vice Presidency -- and Caro's next book will take things from there. Don't rush things, Caro, but really, hurry up, won't you?

The Lives of John Lennon (Albert Goldman)

If I had to choose my all-time favorite book -- biography or otherwise -- this would probably be it. Certainly, the fact that it's about a Beatle automatically moves it toward the front of the line. But why choose this particular book -- which I've re-read more times than I can count -- when there are so many other Beatle bios out there? Simple: this one's terrible.

No, really. This is a train wreck. Goldman has a major axe to grind, and over the course of 700-plus pages, he grinds his axe to iron powder. Lennon comes across as a mainly lucky, mostly untalented, naive bisexual musician with serious mother issues. It's Character Assassination to the Extreme -- of Lennon, Yoko Ono, and almost everyone but Paul McCartney -- and you'll find yourself marveling at the body count Goldman leaves behind. Every page contains one cynical, sneering appraisal of Lennon and his work after another, with Goldman trashing Lennon's motivations and so often rooting for him to fail that it begs the question of "Why in the world would you devote 700 pages and seven years of your life to a subject you obviously can't stand??"

I don't know the answer, but I'm glad Goldman did it anyway -- because this one is so gawdawful that it's terrific.

Oscar Wilde (Richard Ellmann)

Richard Ellman won the Pulitzer for his work on Oscar Wilde, and with good reason: it's not only the definitive look at the Irish poet, playwright, critic, and martyr, but it's also a ripping good read. Wilde was a movie star in a time before movies, a tabloid staple, and a constant bestseller, and Ellmann makes him -- and his work -- come alive.

Following Wilde's rise to literary and theatrical fame, a series of colossally bad decisions lead to his imprisonment and disgrace -- another ending we know is coming and want desperately for our subject to avoid. In Ellmann's capable hands -- especially as he traces the poet's final frustrating years -- Wilde emerges not so much a victim of Victorian morals but rather of his own ego and genius. And we're more than ready to forgive him for it.

John Adams (David McCullough)

Sure, it's an easy choice -- the Citizen Kane of biographies, universally admired, and perpetually in print. But it deserves every word of praise that's been written about it. And if you say you didn't enjoy it, you're just trying to buck the trend, mister.

McCullough originally set out to write a book about the relationship between Adams and Thomas Jefferson, but worried (he said later) that Adams might get lost in Jefferson's shadow. But the more research he did, the more he began to wonder whether Jefferson could truly stand up to Adams -- and changed the focus of the book to turn the spotlight solely on the second president.

It was a shrewd decision, and the right one. John Adams -- heck, all of McCullough's work -- is not only a great piece of storytelling, it's a user's manual for How To Do Biography Right.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Five Favorites

In the past few issues of The Biographer's Craft newsletter, editor (and pal o'mine) James McGrath Morris has been asking biographers to list their top five favorite biographies. This month it's two authors of books on biographies, Carl Rollyson (of Biography: A User's Guide) and Nigel Hamilton (author of How to Do Biography: A Primer), along with Mr. Morris himself. It's always a fun piece, so check it out.

And while you're there, sign up for the monthly newsletter, mailed promptly to your inbox the first of each month--as an added bonus, this month's issue even contains an article on the upcoming Chaplin bio that I mentioned back here. The Biographer's Craft home page, which includes links to all the back issues, is hardlinked over there in the right hand column on this page. Or you can just click here.

Reading through this month's list of five favorites got me thinking about which five bios I would pick as my own five favorites. And because I know you can't wait, I'll write about them here tomorrow.

Oh, and finally, just because I'm always a shameless shill, here's a piece I wrote for Biographer's Craft several months ago on the advantages of keeping misspelled words and botched grammar from your original source materials intact in your final product.