The Paris Review

The Paris Review, which I’m told is the literary journal everyone respects but no one reads, has special holiday offers. They proudly note the words of William Kennedy, “Aspiring writers should read the entire canon of literature that precedes them, back to the Greeks, up to the current issue of The Paris Review.”

They have also reprinted the first of three volumes of The Paris Review Interviews, which they say contains the “most essential interviews” from their collection. If you are unfamiliar with these interviews, you can get a taste for them here.

Happy Thanksgiving

from the Academy of American Poets, At the Common Table: Poems for Thanksgiving.

Oh, greenly and fair in the lands of the sun,

The vines of the gourd and the rich melon run,

And the rock and the tree and the cottage enfold,

With broad leaves all greenness and blossoms all gold,

Like that which o’er Nineveh’s prophet once grew,

While he waited to know that his warning was true,

from “The Pumpkin” by John Greenleaf Whittier

Author Asks for Stories about Vonnegut

Author Charles J. Shields, whose book on Harper Lee was well-received last summer, wants to hear from you on your experiences with Kurt Vonnegut. “Now I’m beginning work on the first authorized biography–the first biography at all, actually–of Kurt Vonnegut. I’d like to hear from any of your readers about their experiences with Vonnegut, either personally or with his novels.”

Vonnegut is the author of A Man without a Country, Timequake, Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle, and a few other books.

I asked Mr. Shields how he gained the opportunity to write Kurt Vonnegut’s first authorized biography. He replied:

Many years ago when I was a little boy wearing thick glasses, baggy pants, and Hush Puppy shoes, I realized I wasn’t the brightest star in the heavens, but I could compensate for that by being persistent. That’s really the story behind MOCKINGBIRD, which Harper Lee didn’t want me to write and tried to dissuade her friends from helping me with. But four years of research and hundreds of interviews produced a portrait of her. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s done in watercolors, not oils, but it will be valuable to biographers of hers who will come later.

Mr. Vonnegut turned me down at first, but when I pointed out the number of ways our lives connect—-we’re both Midwesterners; both humanists; he’s a veteran, so was my father; both men worked in public relations for large corporations—-I convinced him that I’m the guy for the job. He still remained skeptical for awhile, I think, but I kept up a regular stream of chat via phone and mail and I seem to have won him to my side. He’s a generous man, anyway. This biography will be the obverse of the one about Lee, in a sense. Vonnegut is an extrovert with many friends and a large body of work. His papers going back to the 1950s are on file at Indiana University. I was Philip Marlowe on the case of “Harper Lee, Recluse.” This time I get to be Boswell!

Aruging Against the False or the Evil

Is it worse to be accused of believing something false or to be accused of believing something evil? Christianity isn’t true? That’s so last-century. G.E. Veith writes, “It is one thing to oppose religion, but now we have arrived at the marks of dangerous religious bigotry: spreading sensationalistic lies, instigating fear in the public, and promoting paranoid conspiracy theories.”

This reminds me of a radio report I heard several weeks ago on a Christian outreach to a homosexual community. One young man said he felt uncomfortable with the group of Christians, because he sensed negativity from them. He had read the Bible, he said, and there’s no negativity in it.

More Coffee Geeks Are Home Roasting

As I brew some coffee to take to work this morning, let me pass on the news that roasting coffee beans at home is on the rise, according to this report from AP writer Brad Foss. He writes about coffee lovers who want the freshiest cup they can get, even if that means they have to buy the beans green and roast them over a gas grill at home.

It doesn’t require a lot of time, money or equipment to roast coffee beans at home — less than 10 minutes in an air popcorn popper does the trick — but enthusiasts devote plenty of each to the craft.

Home roasters congregate at Web sites such as coffeegeek.com, where they exchange techniques; they get together in person to sample, or “cup,” each other’s beans; and many maintain log books, where they record details such as the amount of time and heat applied to each batch they roast.

“Some guys are over the top,” said Dave Borton of Monroe, Wis., who has been roasting at home since January, belongs to an Internet-based bean buyers club and gives away about two pounds of freshly roasted beans every week to co-workers and members of his church. “My wife would tell you I am over the top.”

And I will tell you this is over the top for me, but in case you are interested in roasting your own beans, you can look for “countertop electric roasters” for $75-$500. Invite some friends over when you do it, and don’t complain if they want their drinks weaker than yours.

Important pumpkin pie news

I don’t think I’ve mentioned it, but I’m hosting my brothers and their families for Thanksgiving (no doubt there will be much slapstick to report once the smoke has cleared).

Anyway, tonight I’m baking pumpkin pie, using the Sacred Walker Recipe. I shall share this recipe with you now, for the betterment of the commonwealth.

I learned it from my mom, who for all her faults was a pretty good cook. It’s also really simple. If you can make a pie from canned filling, you can make this adjustment.

Here’s the secret:

However many eggs your recipe calls for, increase the quantity to 7 (seven).

Otherwise do everything the same, except that the makings will have to go into two deep dish pie pans. Bake as instructed.

That’s it. The result is two lovely, delicate, custardy pumpkin pies. Your family will love them, unless they’re jaded or Swedish or something.

I’m sure there’s a theme here somewhere

Expect this post to be a mess. Several things to write about, without any unifying theme of which I’m aware.

The project of cataloging our archives continues apace in the library. We’re into the B’s. (We catalog the old books by authors’ names.) But lots of books have been mislabeled, since previous librarians have lacked my magisterial knowledge of Norwegian.

One such book I looked at today was a compendium of Lutheran theology, translated from German, printed in Stavanger in 1856. That nearly took my breath away. Publishing in Norway doesn’t go back much farther than that. It was increased literacy, largely sparked by the pietist movement with which I still identify, that made such things possible in that poor country, at the time a province of Sweden.

Another was a book from the 1860s, a small collection of poems by Peder Dass, a pastor-poet who worked in the north of Norway in the 17th Century and became a genuinely mythical figure, endowed with magical powers in the eyes of the common folk. He wasn’t a magician, but he was a pretty good poet.

I also looked at a bundle of much more recent books sent by one of our pastors. One is the highly disjointed autobiography of a pastor who used to be prominent in youth ministry in a Lutheran church body that no longer exists. When I saw the name of the church he served for many years, I began to wonder if I knew this man. Then I saw a picture of him with his “collection of pictures of John the Baptist,” and I knew it was the same guy.

Flash back to the summer of 1970. The Christian musical group for which I was lyricist was traveling around the east coast region. We were three guys and three girls. I’d made the major mistake, months before, of falling—well, I won’t say falling in love, because once I got some distance on the thing I realized my motivation had originated about a foot and a half south of my heart—developing a crush on one of the girls in the group. A few weeks before I’d made the further mistake of telling her how I felt (which she already knew all about, needless to say). I’d gotten the response I knew in my heart I’d get.

In retrospect it was a good thing she turned me down. She was a fairly neurotic girl, and between our mutual dysfunctions we’d have made a marriage that would have lasted, at best, about half an hour if she’d been insane enough to encourage me. But at the time my world was landfill. I became a walking shadow, a memento mori in flare jeans. Since I’m no hogshead of laughs at the best of times, I think I probably served as a negative witness for Christ that summer.

Finally we came to that pastor’s church. Well, most of us came. Our group leader, fed up to here with me, and with the couple in the group who had gotten together (and who spent quite a lot of time making out), announced that he had business to tend to at home and left us on our own that particular week.

So we showed up at the church of this prominent pastor, one who (we learned later) was in a position to do much good or much harm to our sponsoring organization’s reputation with his denomination. We were missing a leader. We had one couple with hands all over each other, and another couple who barely spoke to each other. And me with a rain cloud over my head, like Joe Bfxztplk (I’m not sure of the spelling) in the old Li’l Abner comic.

I was going to reminisce some more about that week, but you know… I’d just rather not.

Good news—the guy who looked at my rental room yesterday says he’ll move in. Probably this weekend. I’m saved, financially.

Cloud gone, for now.

Secularists Broad-brush Faith Again (It’s That Thing They Do)

In today’s NY Times, author Sam Harris (The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason; Letter to a Christian Nation):

By shying away from questioning people’s deeply felt beliefs, even the skeptics, Mr. Harris said, are providing safe harbor for ideas that are at best mistaken and at worst dangerous. “I don’t know how many more engineers and architects need to fly planes into our buildings before we realize that this is not merely a matter of lack of education or economic despair,” he said.

Dr. Steven Weinberg, who famously wrote toward the end of his 1977 book on cosmology, “The First Three Minutes,” that “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless,” went a step further: “Anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization.”

True, it is “not merely a matter of lack of education,” though I wonder about the secularists so uneducated on faith matters. Why are these anti-religion activists content to broad-brush the world’s religions? Do they believe all atheists and secularists act the same, all in a clear-headed, beneficent manner? Have we forgotten the motives of the murderous leaders from the twentieth century? [via Books, Inq.]

Movie Review: Stranger Than Fiction

Brother Moloch arrived Sunday afternoon. All is well. He observed more than fifty baptisms and three exorcisms in Tanzania.

I had two calls from prospective renters over the weekend. One left his work number on my machine, then never returned my messages. The second left me a number that doesn’t work.

However: A young man came to see the room this evening. He is alleged to be a handyman. Might be good.

Once Moloch was gone on Sunday, I found myself at loose ends and remembered I’d been wanting to see “Stranger Than Fiction.” So I did that. Short review—I have lots of quibbles, but it was the most enjoyable film I’ve seen in some time. I do enjoy these existential fantasy movies, like “Groundhog Day,” “Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind,” and “Bruce Almighty.”

Will Ferrell stars as Harold Crick, an IRS agent who is obsessed with numbers. He counts the strokes as he brushes his teeth, and can multiply large figures in his head. His life is barren emotionally. He lives in an apartment that looks like a motel suite, except that the suite would be homier.

One morning as he’s counting out his brushing, he begins to hear the voice of author Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) narrating what he’s doing. The narration isn’t constant, but he finds it distracting when it’s there. He sees a couple counselors who tell him he’s going schizophrenic, but he rejects that explanation. Finally, on the theory that he’s involved in somebody’s story, he goes to see a literature professor, played by Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman sets about analyzing what kind of story Harold is part of, and has him journaling his experiences to see if it’s a comedy or a tragedy.

Meanwhile Harold is auditing a charming baker, Anna Pascal, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. I was ambivalent about her character. First of all, she’s a tax protestor who refuses to pay the portion of her taxes earmarked for National Defense. Secondly she’s fairly heavily tattooed, which just creeps me out. On the other hand she has a very sweet smile, which was enough to get me over the rough spots.

As you’d expect, Anna starts out hating Harold, but gradually warms to him, and they end up sharing a bed.

Harold’s story is intercut with scenes where we see author Eiffel, who is fascinating (but then all authors are, aren’t they?). She thinks like me and walks around half-dazed, drinking and smoking like… well, like somebody I knew well at one time. When Hoffman’s character (sorry, I’ve forgotten his name) finally figures out that Harold is in a Kay Eiffel novel (she always writes tragedies), Harold sets about finding her to beg for his life.

I can quibble with the movie all night. Are we supposed to believe that Kay Eiffel created Harold Crick, or did she just somehow commandeer his life narrative? Various authorial comments suggest that Harold’s watch has something to do with his ability to hear Kay’s voice, but how that might work isn’t explained (or else I missed it).

And why must it be taken for granted that people immediately go to bed with each other the moment they fall in love? I know lots of people do, especially nowadays, but there must be a few exceptions. And why does Harold have to approach her with the words, “I want you,” instead of “I love you”? Is that supposed to make him authentic?

But for all that, it was a very good movie. I thought its portrayal of writer’s block was pretty authentic (how many of us have been stopped in our tracks by a reluctance to hurt a character we liked?). And there’s a theme of selflessness and laying one’s life down that did my heart good.

There’s some bad language and a little nudity (though it’ll only be prurient if old guys in a health club shower room get your motor running), but it’s fairly unobjectionable by contemporary Hollywood standards.

I recommend “Stranger Than Fiction” highly, for smart grownups. Especially ones who like books.

O.J.’s Book, Interview Pulled

Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corp. which owns the Fox Network (TV interview) and ReganBooks, an imprint of HarperCollins (tasteless book), has announced the company is dropping O.J.’s book and television appearances.

“I and senior management agree with the American public that this was an ill-considered project,” said Rupert Murdoch. “We are sorry for any pain that this has caused the families of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson.”

David Bauder, AP, writes, “For the publishing industry, the cancellation of ‘If I Did It’ was an astonishing end to a story like no other. Numerous books have been withdrawn over the years because of possible plagiarism, most recently Kaavya Viswanathan’s ‘How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life,’ but a book’s removal simply for objectionable content is virtually unheard of.”

John Wilson on Evangelicals in Literature and Life

Glenn Lucke points out the NY Times article written by John Wilson, editor of Books & Culture, on evangelicals. In fiction, Wilson says the evangelical is a dope. He continues, “A reader who moves from the fiction shelf to the stacks of reportage and commentary may experience cognitive dissonance. The evangelical buffoons who populate so many novels these days seem hardly capable of organizing a local witch-burning, yet their nonfictional counterparts are said to be on the verge of turning these United States into a theocracy.”

Maybe the French Should Be Speaking German

We’ve been Europe’s security blanket for six decades. We are Japan’s security blanket. We are South Korea’s. It’s been said that were it not for us, the French would be speaking German and the Germans would be speaking Russian. In 1938, the West decided it couldn’t be Czechoslovakia’s security blanket and sold out that country in Munich, Germany. The rest, as they say, is history.

This comes from Investor’s Business Daily by way of the Instapundit by way of Books, Inq.

The Iranian Threat

Did you see Glenn Beck’s CNN Headline News show last Wednesday, “Exposed: The Extremist Agenda.” I believe it will air again this Sunday at 7:00 p.m. It’s on YouTube too. It doesn’t seem to be causing much of a stir, and as Benjamin Netanyahu says on the show, “It makes you understand how the `30s happened, because Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, is openly saying, while he denies the original Holocaust, he`s openly saying that he`s preparing another Holocaust to wipe Israel off the face of the earth with Iranian atomic bombs.”

The messages Beck collected are simply evil, but let me start with one that’s funny. From an investigative report on Iranian TV:

The Zionists are the largest shareholders of the world`s drink manufacturers. Coca-Cola, besides its clear continuous support of the Israeli government, had announced its willingness to invest billions of dollars to topple the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran. . . . Take for example the Pepsi drink. You know what the name of Pepsi stands for? “Pay Each Penny Save Israel.”

Beck adds, “Coca-Cola wants to topple Iran. Obviously ridiculous. But the average Iranian citizen has no reason not to believe these claims.”

One analyst speculates this kind of wild propaganda comes in part from never having a free press. I guess Iranian Michael Moores run all the stations and newspapers. For my part, I don’t care for Pepsi, but if buying a few will help save Israel–well, I’ll consider it. Continue reading The Iranian Threat

Book Reviews, Creative Culture