Entries from November 2010

Garrison Keillor: Advice to writers

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11.22.63

JFK in Ft. Worth, Nov. 22, 1963

November 22nd, 1963: President Kennedy reaches out to the crowd gathered at the Hotel Texas Parking Lot Rally in Fort Worth, Texas. (Cecil Stoughton, White House / John F. Kennedy Library) (via)

Categories: Odds & Ends    Tags: · ·

Quote of the Day

A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.

William James

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Boston, February 1944

Boston cops 1944

Photo by Walter Sanders for Life Magazine.

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Shoes

This video made the rounds on the web a while ago, when Converse announced the latest reinterpretation of its sneakers by designer Ryusaku Hiruma, but I only discovered it the other day.

Fashion clod that I am, I had never heard of Hiruma or his Converse shoes. For the uninitiated: Ryusaku “Sak” Hiruma is a Japanese designer who has been studying traditional shoemaking techniques in Florence for almost a decade. Over the last few years, Sak has applied old-world craft to produce chic, luxurious handmade versions of Converse’s classic Jack Purcell, Chuck Taylor, and One Star models. The latest Sak/Converse shoe, a design based on an old basketball shoe called the Star Tech, features fine leather and hand-stitching throughout. Only 64 pairs will be made, in natural shades of tan, off-white and black leather. Retailing for $600, they will be available only in New York, Boston, and Costa Mesa. (Costa Mesa?) If you’re into shoe porn, details are here and here.

I loved this video. I found it oddly touching and romantic, not just for Sak’s dedication to craft and tradition but for personal reasons. My own family was in the shoe business for several generations. Growing up, I assumed I would be too. There were no writers or artists of any kind in my family or anywhere else in my world. Even now I think I might have been very happy making shoes.

Maybe that is why I have a nagging sense that, as a writer, I don’t really “make” anything. A book is an ethereal creation, a non-object. It exists as a chain of words, separate and apart from the paper-and-ink thing we call by that name. Book publishing is only now transitioning to digital, permanently alienating the idea of a “book” from a physical object, but writing made the leap decades ago. In my own daily working life, paper plays no part. Over the two years or so it takes me to produce a novel, I never print out a hard-copy manuscript. And when I am done, I simply email a digital file to my editor. There is no object to hold, really, until I receive bound copies from the publisher, long after the writing is done. Even then, the physical books do not feel like my creation. Only the words do.

Contrast that with the intensely physical world of traditional shoemaking in this video. The materials are so lush and sensuous. Even the tools have a gorgeous patina. That the shoemaker’s artistry is lavished on such a low, practical object — when you step in shit, it is not your hat that is ruined — only makes the concrete physicality of the whole thing that much more real and authentic. Only 64 pairs of these shoes will be made, and Hiruma will touch every one with his own hands. And, poignantly, every one one of those shoes will wear out.

Novels, of course, are theoretically immortal precisely because they are insubstantial. My books can be reprinted and rescreened into infinity, and each copy is no less my creation than any other. Maybe that is what makes the shoemaker’s art so poignant to a writer: he cannot give you his creation without surrendering it himself.

Categories: Books · Writing    Tags: · · ·

Kanye West: Power

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Eddie Coyle comes to the stage, almost

Saturday afternoon, a new stage play of “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” was unveiled at the Burren in Somerville. The little theater at the back of the bar was packed. I’d guess there were 150 or so people there. There was a wonderful excited mood in the room. This was a one-off performance of a work in progress, a peek into the process of how a play is shaped. It was only a staged reading — actors reading from scripts, no costumes or sets — so it is obviously too early to comment on the production itself, but so far it looked very promising.

The difficulties and pleasures of staging “Eddie Coyle” are about what you’d expect. Higgins’ wised-up streetcorner dialogue begs to be spoken aloud, and a lot of the novel’s best riffs are recited seemingly verbatim. The hard part is compressing the story onto a small stage, especially on a limited budget. The novel includes scenes in cars, a bank robbery, a home invasion, a trashy trailer home, a supermarket parking lot, a Bruins game at Boston Garden. Worse, in the book the plot itself is shadowy. Higgins does not spell out what is happening to Eddie. He lets the dialogue swirl around and around, and it is up to the reader to piece the story together, just as it is up to Eddie. On a first reading, the book can be confusing. Obviously that won’t work on stage. So playwright Bill Doncaster has altered a few scenes and dropped others to streamline and clarify. The results were mostly good. Some incidents (the arrest of Jackie Brown, the invasion of a banker’s home in Lynn) were hard to follow if you didn’t know the story beforehand. But, again, this was only a walk-through on a bare stage. The play is a work in progress. When it is properly staged and after some tinkering with the script, these things will become clearer.

More important than all these technical things, the play is true to the spirit of Higgins’ novel, truer even than the 1973 movie starring Robert Mitchum (which I love). Mitchum gave a great performance as Eddie Coyle, but to me he was miscast. Mitchum was a leading man, big, charismatic, cool. Eddie Coyle is none of these things. He is a loser at the bottom rung of semi-organized crime, past his prime, used by everyone around him from the guy who hires him to drive a truckload of stolen booze to the FBI agent who squeezes him for tips. It would have been a good role for a “Midnight Cowboy”-era Dustin Hoffman rather than Mitchum. Eddie is Ratso Rizzo with a Boston accent and a few extra pounds. Doncaster’s play gets this bottom-feeding world just right.

The three lead actors are wonderful. Eddie is played here by Paulo Branco, a local actor who reminded me of the film actor Dan Hedaya. Branco plays Eddie as an anti-Mitchum: desperate, whiny, weak, dense, a loser just smart enough to know how much danger he is in. Great casting, great choices by the actor. To watch Branco cheer like an exuberant little kid for Bobby Orr gives you a completely different Eddie Coyle than Mitchum’s cool, heavy-lidded portrayal. (And if you have to ask why those 1969-70 Bruins would make a grown man cheer like a kid, you are either too young to remember or you aren’t from Boston. I know where I was on Mothers Day in 1970.)

Rick Park as Dillon is the other cornerstone of this production. I chatted with Bill Doncaster yesterday, and he mentioned that he saw Dillon as a sort of Iago, a perspective that really sharpens this character. Dillon is even more important here than in the book or movie. Rick Park brings some of the heaviness and watchful intelligence that Peter Boyle brought to the role in the film. His Dillon is older, wiser, wearier than Boyle’s, a sharper character even than Higgins drew in the book.

The other standout in the cast is Peter Darrigo, who makes a completely convincing Boston tough guy in the role of Coyle’s associate Jimmy Scalisi. On the down side, Tom Berry seems to be searching still for how to play the FBI agent Dave Foley. Foley comes off here as just another wiseguy rather than a button-down Fed who works in an office, not on a streetcorner. In the story, Foley uses Eddie and betrays him without a second thought. That requires a more complex character than Berry has managed to capture so far. But this is a work in progress — it is too early to criticize a performance. It is hard to hold back, though. I am rooting for this production, so I want Berry to succeed.

So far the play looks great. Doncaster tells me he is still searching for a theater to stage it. Here’s hoping he finds one. It is hard to believe that after all these years there could be a fresh take on The Friends of Eddie Coyle, but this could be one. If you’re a Bostonian, you should be rooting for this play to make it.

More info from the Boston Globe here. You can also join a Facebook page for the production here.

A kiss in the dark

A short story is like a kiss in the dark from a stranger.

Stephen King

Categories: Books    Tags: ·

Fly

Dolichopodid sp. (fly) eyes

Magnified 10 times, a view of Dolichopodid sp. (fly) eyes made by Laurie Knight of Tonbridge, Kent, UK.

“The Nikon International Small World Photomicrography Competition recently announced its list of winners for 2010. The competition began in 1974 as a means to recognize and applaud the efforts of those involved with photography through the light microscope.” (via)

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“Best Society” by Philip Larkin

When I was a child, I thought,
Casually, that solitude
Never needed to be sought.
Something everybody had,
Like nakedness, it lay at hand,
Not specially right or specially wrong,
A plentiful and obvious thing
Not at all hard to understand.

Then, after twenty, it became
At once more difficult to get
And more desired — though all the same
More undesirable; for what
You are alone has, to achieve
The rank of fact, to be expressed
In terms of others, or it’s just
A compensating make-believe.

Much better stay in company!
To love you must have someone else,
Giving requires a legatee,
Good neighbours need whole parishfuls
Of folk to do it on — in short,
Our virtues are all social; if,
Deprived of solitude, you chafe,
It’s clear you’re not the virtuous sort.

Viciously, then, I lock my door.
The gas-fire breathes. The wind outside
Ushers in evening rain. Once more
Uncontradicting solitude
Supports me on its giant palm;
And like a sea-anemone
Or simple snail, there cautiously
Unfolds, emerges, what I am.

(1951)

Categories: Poetry    Tags: ·

Zadie Smith on Facebook

It feels important to remind ourselves, at this point, that Facebook, our new beloved interface with reality, was designed by a Harvard sophomore with a Harvard sophomore’s preoccupations. What is your relationship status? (Choose one. There can be only one answer. People need to know.) Do you have a “life”? (Prove it. Post pictures.) Do you like the right sort of things? (Make a list. Things to like will include: movies, music, books and television, but not architecture, ideas, or plants.) But here I fear I am becoming nostalgic. I am dreaming of a Web that caters to a kind of person who no longer exists. A private person, a person who is a mystery, to the world and—which is more important—to herself. Person as mystery: this idea of personhood is certainly changing, perhaps has already changed.

Link

Categories: Internet    Tags: · ·

Still lifes by Christopher Stott

While stumbling around the web the other day, I came across the still-life paintings of Christopher Stott and was instantly smitten. Stott’s compositions are very sparse, usually just two or three ordinary objects grouped together against a neutral white background, drenched in sunlight. I have not seen them in person, but to judge from the images on the web his technique is very precise, almost photographic. He handles light beautifully. Even from a distance you can tell that much. But these are so much more than technical exercises or pretty pictures. The paintings I like best are little stories. They show ordinary objects with the patina of age and long use — battered old books, chairs, alarm clocks, suitcases — suggesting the rich stories and lives they have led. The painting above, “Three Vintage Fans” (2010), reminds me of a family — a father and two sons, say. The father is turning to share a moment with his mischievous younger son while the oldest boy looks straight into the camera, dutifully holding his pose. Obviously I am projecting my own life onto these inanimate things; that’s the magic of it. That is what the best still lifes do. They help you see the things around you in a new way. They make you stop and really look.

Chris has graciously allowed me to use one of his paintings to illustrate the home page of this web site. It is a lovely, inspiring invitation to the writing life. Until I sell a few more books, I will have to settle for “owning” one of his paintings this way. (But you don’t have to, I hope.)

Check out Christopher Stott’s paintings at his web site or Flickr feed.

Categories: Art    Tags: ·

No such thing as a bad review

A study uses negative book reviews to test the old saw that “all publicity is good publicity.” The result: for the most part, it is better to be trashed by the Times than ignored by it.

A crucial factor, they concluded, is how familiar a brand or product or other entity was before the negative publicity. Crunching data that cross-matched book sales against critics’ appraisals in The New York Times Book Review, they found that negative reviews of a new book by an “established” author hurt sales. “For books by relatively unknown (new) authors, however, negative publicity has the opposite effect,” increasing sales by 45 percent over their expected sales trajectory, they write. Evidently this boils down to increased awareness: the mere act of introducing something to a broader public — even by saying that it stinks — increases the chances that more members of that public will want it anyway.

Follow-up studies pointed out that as time passes, we may not remember the context in which we heard of something (a pan); we just know it’s familiar.

Categories: Book Reviews · Books    Tags: · ·

Voices in Our Heads

This afternoon at a crowded Starbucks in Back Bay — where I was writing furiously to finish my latest rewrite while gorging myself with pumpkin scones — there was a homeless man sitting alone in one of the burgundy plush chairs. He had the typical homeless look: scraggly hair, sunken eyes, windburned skin, ragged army jacket, patinaed head to toe with dirt. But he was also handsome in a down-and-out way. He had a thin face with dignified features. His nose was as narrow as a shark’s fin. When he smiled, his teeth were very straight and white. There were laugh lines around his eyes and mouth which, if he were a banker or lawyer, would have seemed very distinguished.

This man was carrying on an animated conversation with an imaginary friend, who seemed to be sitting by the man’s left knee. The man would turn to his invisible friend and say, “It was a gentleman’s agreement.… Spartacus was the leader of the Anatolians.… It was Johnson was the leader then.… I told him, ‘Don’t do it,’ but he wouldn’t listen.” As I was only hearing half of the conversation, I can’t say what tied these sentences together. He kept repeating the phrase “it was a gentleman’s agreement” over and over; he seemed to be telling his friend a story about how he’d been stiffed somehow. (What part Spartacus and his brave Anatolians played in the whole thing is anybody’s guess.)

What set this man apart from the usual crazy, murmuring homeless guy was how well he acted the part of a man in conversation. He listened attentively while his imaginary friend spoke. He nodded and smiled. When his friend made a joke (apparently), he pointed and grinned appreciatively: good one. He spoke in an ordinary, natural conversational tone, with the sort of expressive gesturing you see in a lot of hand-talkers. And he did all this without acknowledging the crowd of customers on every side of him.

I watched this performance furtively, avoiding eye contact, ducking down behind my laptop, and I thought, How sad, a crazy homeless guy talking to himself.

Then it occurred to me that I was writing dialogue, too. Specifically, I was imagining a conversation among four fictional characters, all of whom I have described in elaborate, fastidious, lunatic detail over the course of five hundred or so double-spaced pages, a project that has taken me the better part of three years now.

Then the homeless man left, and I was the only crazy one.

Categories: Writing    Tags: ·

George Orwell Writes a Novel

Via. (Click image to view full size.)

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