Glen Magnuson, Jr.
- A good day begins with the NYTimes, NPR, Arts & Letters Daily, Sacred Space & good coffee; it ends with a Grand Marnier. A brilliant day would be spent in London, New York or San Francisco -- although Sydney would be right up there. Unwinding in Carmel or Antibbes. Daytime spent in library (the Morgan, LOC or Widener) or museum (the Frick, the Louvre, British) with a healthy walk (around Lake Annecey); evening -- theatre (West End), or music (Carnegie Hall). A nice last meal: Perhaps the French Laundry or Fredy Giardet or Quennelles de Brochet from Taillevent, Cassoulet from Cafe des Artistes, Peking Duck from le Tsé-Fung, Lobster Savannah from Locke-Ober, Sacher Torte from Demel and Café Brulot from Antoine. Sazerac as an apéritif, Le Môntrachet in the beginning, Stag's Leap Cabernet in the middle, Veuve Cliqûot to conclude. Desert Island: Imac, Ipod, (I know, generator and dish necessary) Johnnie Walker Blue Label, wife & Adler's Great Books.
|Infamous Players: A Tale of Movies, the Mob (and Sex) by Peter Bart. As Paramount Studios embarked on the filming of The Godfather, the film it was banking on to save the studio, executives were uncertain about whether it was truly comfortable with director Francis Ford Coppola, much less over-the-hill actor Marlon Brando, who corporate head Charles Bluhdorn had labeled 'box-office poison.' Both Coppola and Brando were in financial trouble, and competition for their coveted slots was fierce. Brando's financial difficulty would lead him to make a notoriously bad deal:|
"[To surreptitiously test Marlon Brando,] Coppola tried a shrewd ... ploy. He went to Brando's house on Mulholland Drive, atop Hollywood, with a skeleton crew, telling the actor that he wanted to shoot some trial footage in an effort to get a 'take' on the character of the Godfather. He emphasized that this would not be a screen test: he was testing some equipment and also some character points.
"Brando, attired in a kimono to conceal his girth, welcomed the young director. He had read the book again and felt that, whoever played the part, the actor should speak in a slurred manner -- he had been shot in the throat at one time and his soft gravelly voice would carry more authority.
"The deals that were offered to them by the studio were less than enticing. The movie would be made on a modest budget, they were told. Brando was offered actor's scale up front and 5 percent of gross receipts when the film grossed $50 million. He would also have to put up a bond against any cost overruns caused by his bad behavior. Brando's attorney, Norman Gary, pleaded for at least $100,000 to help the actor avoid tax delinquency. In exchange Brando agreed to return his points in the movie -- a deal which would ultimately cost Brando at least $11 million.
"Even before Coppola's deal could be consummated, Warner Bros, put in a claim that his company, Zoetrope, owed the studio some $600,000 in overhead and development costs. Hence, whatever Coppola received for The Godfather would have to go first to that studio until this sum was paid off."
Rhetorical Gumption Day of Note: On this date Adlai Stevenson II became theDemocratic Party's nominee in the 1952 presidential election.
Over the last few months, I’ve developed a crush on a librarian. He’s not exactly a hottie, but there’s something about him that I find irresistible. Maybe it’s the argyle sweater or the pear-shaped body. It just drives me wild. But I don’t have the guts to ask him out. Do you have any suggestions?
Salt Lake City, Utah
Salt Lake City, Utah
Why not enlist his help on a research project explaining the etymology and implications of the phrase “Adlai Stevenson moment”? This might allow you (a) the hair-sniffingly close physical proximity involved with the presentation of research materials—and here I suggest, assuming his library has yet to transfer its analog collections to digital, that you “accidentally” drop a roll of microfilm, unspooling it across the room so the two of you, on all fours, can rewind it together—and (b) a casual way to assess his position on verbal bravery. Like, if he seems turned on by Stevenson’s rhetorical gumption toward Soviet Ambassador Zorin in 1962, he might be similarly impressed if you ask him out in 2006. If he hesitates to answer, just bark, as Stevenson did so famously and so adorably, “Don’t wait for the translation—yes or no?” He will be very charmed by this, especially if you follow up with black-and-white aerial photographs of possible first-date locations. If you have limited helicopter access, you may simply type in the library’s ZIP code and order one of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)'s photos taken from 20,000 feet. (excerpt)
Maybe no scene from a television series speaks so perfectly to my life as this one from season two of Gilmore Girls:
Like Rory, I spend far too much time debating which books I should bring with me when I leave the house. And like Rory, I always decide that loading up is the safer option than winnowing down. Just last week, I went to the doctor’s office and, before leaving my apartment, convinced myself that I needed to bring a book of poetry (Marie Ponsot’s Springing), a work of nonfiction (Clifford Thompson’s Twin of Blackness), and a novel (Octavia Butler’s Dawn). Rationally, I know that this kind of overpacking is unnecessary, even neurotic; emotionally, I’m panicked if I’m not carrying a library with me.
(For the record, I didn’t end up reading any of the above books in my five minutes in the waiting room. I found another novel, Adam Thirlwell’s Lurid & Cute, in the car and read that instead.)
This tendency to overpack causes a real problem when I go away for vacation. If I need three books for a trip to the doctor, how many do I need for a week away from home? In the hopes of helping out others out who suffer from this very particular literary problem, I’ll list five books that I’ve read so far this year that would be worth the precious space in your suitcase:
- Clifford Thompson’s Love for Sale and Other Essays. Thompson is an occasional contributor to Commonweal and a regular writer for, among other places, The Threepenny Review and Cineaste. This collection, his first, is one of the best I’ve read in awhile. The essays touch on many different topics, from film (reviews of Monster’s Balland Ali) to literature (essays on Zadie Smith and Tom Wolfe) to jazz (Thompson has a lifelong love of the form) to memoir (the first essay begins memorably, “The worst funeral I ever attended, by far, was my friend Gerald’s”). Despite the variety of subjects, though, all of the essays display the same strengths. They are lucidly written, reasonably argued, and expertly shaped. (You can see the influence of jazz in Thompson’s structuring, which relies upon associative leaps and digression but never becomes undisciplined or chaotic.) In one of the collection’s best essays, “Don’t Cry for Me,” Thompson describes what he calls “racial condescension”—the tendency of white liberal critics to “tread gingerly when discussing the work of black artists.” This mollycoddling, Thompson argues, does neither the artists nor the liberal cause any good. Serious black artists should be treated as serious artists, and punches shouldn’t be pulled for the sake of political correctness. This book introduces you to a mind and a sensibility—smart, honest, and judicious—that you’ll want to spend more time with.
- Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light. Smith is best known as a poet—her collection Life on Mars won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize—but this memoir shows that her prose can rival her poetry. Smith’s life hasn’t been the stuff of melodrama: she grew up in a middle-class black family in California, attended Harvard as an undergraduate, and pretty soon thereafter began publishing award-winning verse. So how can Smith maintain the reader’s interest? Primarily through her ability to show that good life-writing does not need melodrama; that a quiet, lovely style reflecting a sensitive, thoughtful mind is more than enough. I’ll have more to say on this book in a future column for the magazine.
- Ali Smith’s How to be both. This is the rare novel that is both absolutely experimental (it’s been compared to the work of Virginia Woolf) and absolutely enjoyable (Smith is one of the wittiest writers of literary fiction around). This novel is really a diptych: two novellas joined together, with each story echoing and enriching the other. One story describes the life of a female Renaissance painter; the other describes the life of a contemporary teenage girl dealing with the loss of her mother. Taken together, the stories investigate the nature of art and the slipperiness of gender. A friend of mine has already read the book four times, and I can see why: its intricacy and comedy reward rereading.
- Joan Chase’s During the Reign of the Queen of Persia. Chase’s novel, recently reissued by NYRB Classics, is narrated in the first-person plural “we,” a strange choice in a novel full of them. This choral voice emerges from a group of young girls—sisters and cousins, actually—living together on a farm in northern Ohio in the 1950s. Early in the novel, one of these girls, Celia, reaches puberty, and this process of sexual awakening is described as “a miracle and a calamity.” Chase follows the miraculous, calamitous nature of female existence over the course of three generations. Chase’s prose style sometimes reads like Marilynne Robinson in its reverence for the particulars of existence; at other times, it sounds like Sophocles in its austere power.
- Jonathan Galassi’s Muse. Galassi is the president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux as well an admired poet. Muse, his first novel, is a song of praise for these two loves, publishing and poetry. This isn’t to say that Galassi is naïve or sentimental: we see poets and publishers acting badly, driven by ego and ambition to act in ways that we’d prefer not to associate with the eternal world of art. But what remains with me the most from this book is how beautifully Galassi represents moments of literary triumph: when the poet finds the words coming just right, the lines breaking as if with a life of their own; when the pristine, unexpected manuscript shows up on the editor’s desk; when the publisher sees a masterpiece he has championed become recognized as such. Many critics have played a “who’s who” game with regards to Muse. The main character, Paul Dukach, shares certain traits with Galassi himself; his boss, the lustful, loud Homer Stern, echoes Roger Straus of FSG; Pepita Erskine resembles Susan Sontag. To me, such real-life parallels are far less interesting than Galassi’s ability to make poetry and publishing feel alive with complexity and drama and feeling.
The Magazine of the Southwest
July 17, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
Nicole’s staff pick from earlier today reminded me: I’ve been meaning to draw attention to the riches of archive.org’s Magazine Rack, a clearinghouse for defunct, forgotten, and abstruse periodicals from decades past. Anyone interested in media and design will find something diverting here. They’ve amassed a stupefyingly diverse collection, including such celebrated titles as OMNI (once the best sci-fi magazine around) and more … specialized fare, like The National Locksmith, Railway Modeller, and, of course, Sponsor, the magazine for radio and TV advertising buyers. All of these have been carefully digitized, and they’re free.
The best discovery I’ve made so far is Desert Magazine, a monthly dedicated to everyone’s favorite Class B Köppen climate classification. A journal of the Southwest with a conservationist bent, Desert dates to 1937 and ran for nearly fifty years, ceasing publication in 1985. Its founder and longtime publisher, Randall Henderson, died in 1970, well before I was born, but I like the cut of his jib. (Probably the wrong metaphor—few occasions for sailing in the desert.) In any case, he sounds like a copywriter from the J. Peterman Company:
My first glimpse of the then dusty streets of Indio was in 1908 when I looked the village over from the top of a boxcar. I was a student in Los Angeles, on my way to Imperial Valley to earn some vacation money as a fruit tramp in the cantaloupe fields, and since it required folding money to make the trip on a cushion seat, I was on the observation deck of those “side-door sleepers.” The Southern Pacific train crews were very tolerant toward Imperial-bound hoboes in those days. The more melon pickers there were in the fields, the greater the pay-load for the outgoing refrigerator cars.
Desert managed, impressively, to publish lively, intelligent writing about a very dry place, month after month. I have never lived in the Southwest—I haven’t even visited—but before a recent nondesert vacation, I put several issues on my iPad and ended up reading them more or less from cover to cover, swooning all the while for more arid climes.Desert boasts excellent photography, buoyant prose, and features on geology, art, wildlife, gardening, mining, camping, et cetera. I won’t pretend that all of this is scintillating—there’s a regular column called Uranium News—but there’s something to be said for the sheer, indefatigable persistence of it. And it could be prescient: a 1962 issue dedicated to the Coachella Valley predicted that it would become “the center of desert vacation life in America and the entire world.” (They could not foresee, alas, that it would become “Burning Man for rich college kids who read Stereogum.”)
But the magazine’s chief asset is its rugged, warm design style, which brings to mind all that great midcentury National Forest signage. Below are some of its finest covers. Yes, they’re disproportionately heavy on cacti and/or buttes. This comes with the territory. Don’t like it? Go read Humid Subtropical or Tundra, then.
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.
| Sapiens A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. According to Dr. Harari in this monumental best-seller, the truly unique thing about human beings -- the key thing that distinguishes us radically from other animals and allows us to create large, complex social organizations -- is our ability to have a commonly held belief about things that do not exist or cannot be empirically demonstrated at all:|
"The truly unique feature of [Homo Sapiens or Sapiens] language is not its ability to transmit information about the [tangible]. Rather, it's the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled.
"Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say, 'Careful! A lion!' Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution (which occurred about 70,000 years ago), Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, 'The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.' This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language.
"It's relatively easy to agree that only Homo sapiens can speak about things that don't really exist, and believe six impossible things before breakfast. You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven. But why is it important? After all, fiction can be dangerously misleading or distracting. ...
"But fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That's why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.
"Our chimpanzee cousins usually live in small troops of several dozen individuals. ... There are clear limits to the size of groups that can be formed and maintained in such a way. In order to function, all members of a group must know each other intimately. Two chimpanzees who have never met, never fought, and never engaged in mutual grooming will not know whether they can trust one another, whether it would be worthwhile to help one another, and which of them ranks higher. Under natural conditions, a typical chimpanzee troop consists of about twenty to fifty individuals. As the number of chimpanzees in a troop increases, the social order destabilizes, eventually leading to a rupture and the formation of a new troop by some of the animals. ...
"Similar patterns probably dominated the social lives of early humans, including archaic Homo sapiens. ... Even if a particularly fertile valley could feed 500 archaic Sapiens, there was no way that so many strangers could live together. How could they agree who should be leader, who should hunt where, or who should mate with whom?
"In the wake of the Cognitive Revolution, gossip helped Homo sapiens to form larger and more stable bands. But even gossip has its limits. Sociological research has shown that the maximum 'natural' size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals. Most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip effectively about, more than 150 human beings.
"Even today, a critical threshold in human organisations falls somewhere around this magic number. Below this threshold, communities, businesses, social networks and military units can maintain themselves based mainly on intimate acquaintance and rumour-mongering. There is no need for formal ranks, tides and law books to keep order. ... But once the threshold of 150 individuals is crossed, things can no longer work that way. You cannot run a division with thousands of soldiers the same way you run a platoon. Successful family businesses usually face a crisis when they grow larger and hire more personnel. If they cannot reinvent themselves, they go bust.
"How did Homo sapiens manage to cross this critical threshold, eventually founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants and empires ruling hundreds of millions? The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.
"Any large-scale human cooperation -- whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe -- is rooted in common myths that exist only in people's collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths. Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe [in a common] God. .. States are rooted in common national myths. Two Serbs who have never met might risk their lives to save one another because both believe in the existence of the Serbian nation, the Serbian homeland and the Serbian flag. Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths. Two lawyers who have never met can nevertheless combine efforts to defend a complete stranger because they both believe in the existence of laws, justice, human rights -- and the money paid out in fees.
"Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.
"People easily understand that 'primitives' cement their social order by believing in ghosts and spirits, and gathering each full moon to dance together around the campfire. What we fail to appreciate is that our modern institutions function on exactly the same basis. Take for example the world of business corporations. Modern businesspeople and lawyers are, in fact, powerful sorcerers. The principal difference between them and tribal shamans is that modern lawyers tell far stranger tales."
With thanks to JD