March 29, 2006
West End Wilson

Lincoln Park, Chicago. From the Parkway Hotel in Chicago, Lincoln Park, for all its black winter trees, seemed shadowy and soft under the snow and in the light of the lamps that hung everywhere like great round pearls. Occasionally, a taxi would thread its deserted ways.
--From The Twenties, Edmund Wilson

I must confess that I bought To the Finland Station, Edmund Wilson's history of Marxism, for not-very-Wilsonian reasons: Because of the Pet Shop Boys (back in 1986, the heyday of "West End Girls," I did not know what the Finland station was, but I remembered the song). Even worse, I realized that despite my English-major background, I was not really sure I knew the difference between Wilson and Lionel Trilling, and this seemed like something I ought to remedy.

Having then bought the book, I forgot about it for a while until I stumbled upon Wilson's journals at the library. I dug into The Twenties (Wilson handily segmented his journals into decades) hoping for some good '20s-era literary gossip. I was not disappointed, but neither was it quite what I expected.

What I found:
While there is gossip (Wilson was friends with Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dos Passos, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others) there is less narrative and more snippets of talk and anecdote interspersed with descriptions of the scenery. This has its appeal, although it makes it hard to piece any kind of story together (though this shouldn't daunt blog readers, who have to put up with this kind of thing anyway).
Some seemingly random reflections of city life, primarily New York but also with jaunts to New Orleans, Boston, California, and Europe.
A great deal of skirt-chasing, a la Henry Miller but with more class issues.
Odd pop culture references (likely to provoke a few "so that's where that comes from!" from readers, even today).

What I didn't find:
Autobiographical detail; accordingly, this chronology is a useful tool.
Discussion of his own works, except in the most backhanded of references. He didn't seem to bring the experience of writing them into his diary-keeping.
Discussion of others' works, by and large--no reactions or responses, although he was a well-known critic.

Although this book had some rewards in terms of the quality of the writing, I found myself hankering for a plot. It will be some time before I return for The Thirties, but I may try something else ahead of time, perhaps Finland Station or perhaps Axel's Castle or Patriotic Gore, surely a title for our times.

A little reading shows I may be more in tune with the times than I believed, as a new biography of Wilson, A Life in Literature, has just come out and everyone is writing reviews. ) The fun began late last year with this New Yorker review, which had this interesting insight into Wilson the writer:
Wilson was opinionated and arbitrary about the subjects he covered because he was a writer, not an expert. He was not obliged, as professors are, to pick out a single furrow and plow it for life. His whole career was devoted to the opposite principle: that an educated, intelligent person can take on any subject that seems interesting and important, and, by doing the homework and taking care with the exposition, make it interesting and important to other people.

Bookforum also recently published a good article, noting as an aside that "it is my impression that he is not much read today, especially by the young, who seem to regard him as a patriarchal bore" which probably explains why despite a master's degree my grasp of Wilson was a bit shaky. Rounding out the critics, the TLS has a nice overview of Wilson's life and literature.

Could there be a less fashionable topic than Wilson in the blog world? Actually, he comes up a few times. Here are some recent cites:

Coudal Partners highlights this Wilson quote on Ulysses.

Wilson on American plumbing.I must say I am with him here.

Quote from Hyman, a critic Wilson disliked, on medical materialism and Finland Station.

Posted at 07:10 PM
March 25, 2006
Cheese is a Deal Breaker

If you're going to eat cheese, take it out on a picnic, cut it up carefully, and really taste it -- with wine or something. ...Don't eat cheese. There are a million things to eat that are not cheese."
---Courtney Love, early 1990s, in Rollerderby

Legions (or, perhaps, dozens) of B&W readers will be relieved to know that this is one of the few times I ever agreed with Courtney Love on something. (And there's been a huge rift between us ever since, believe me.) In that spirit, here is an open letter to local restaurants, particularly the upscale grocery store/cafe near Navy Pier that was mysteriously "unable" to make a panini without cheese last night:

Folks, I appreciate economies of scale as much as the next person, but if you are running a restaurant, for the love of God try to offer things that people want to eat! I just don't do cheese. Understand? Try to see your way clear to offering a sandwich without cheese. Or at least be flexible to make a sandwich that usually comes WITH cheese, WITHOUT. Do not look stunned when I ask if a sandwich can come without cheese. Do not assume I can "just scrape it off" because if it's come to that point, it's already too late and I'm wishing I had gone to Subway. Put bluntly, cheese is a deal-breaker, folks! I am putting my foot down on this one.

Thanks. And have a great weekend!

Posted at 10:44 AM
March 18, 2006

We at have been blanketed with mailings and phone calls for the upcoming primary election. Our elected officials even call us, or at least, prerecorded messages do. I suppose it beats talking to them on the phone in person ("Honey? Dick Durbin's on the phone again." "Can he call back? It's dinner time."). At any rate, the primary is next week and it will be a relief, at least for a little while. This link is probably only of interest for those in the Chicagoland area, but the GB political columnist's endorsements for this year's primaries are entertaining.

And another thing, Ed. ... Your family has sick money. We're talking, you know, Giannoulias ducats. What the hell took you so long to go into your own kick? What's the fun of having millionaire outsider candidates if they're not going to spend their money like M.C. Hammer? Remember Blair Hull? Guy outspent all the other candidates by December. That was a millionaire candidate. And he didn't show himself standing in his cavernous Gold Coast loft apartment, either, by the way. What the hell was that!? It looked like you were filming your campaign commercial on the set of a '90s NBC sitcom. You might as well have put a bumper sticker across your chest that said, "My Track Lighting Cost More Than Your Roof."

Posted at 04:17 PM
March 16, 2006

My train reading this week has been the latest issue of The Big Takeover, which includes a nice essay on the end of New Orleans. The essay isn't available online so here are a few supplementary links about the author, who it turns out used to be in '80s band Hugo Largo. He has had a varied career and continues in a "no-wave, krautrock, ambient and drone" band has some interesting (and sort of depressing) ideas about why aging college rockers will embrace "ambient music that has texture and tension and density of emotion and feel." See if you agree:

The most recent Moby CD is an ambient record. It's a great time because the original 1980s and 1990s college demographic is getting older. They never imagined that this would happen. They never imagined themselves getting older. They thought they'd be listening to cool music their whole lives. And they want to listen to cool music, but maybe they're not listening to the same kind of music they were listening to 20 years ago before they were married.

He also says my generation all drives Lexuses and should give props to Enya, so be advised. But he has a point. If I must choose between Moby and seeing the best minds of my generation destroyed by the ilk of, say, Norah Jones, I guess I know what I'd choose.

Posted at 06:53 PM
March 14, 2006
Rock & Roll High School Reunion

Every once in a while I feel I should tell a personal story, so that you know that I am, shall we say, a person and not, for example, a well-trained hermit crab. So here is a story.

The strangest thing that happened to me at my high school reunion was a conversation we had at dinner. We ended up sitting with a random high school classmate who had not been a particular friend of mine back in the day, but who was putting on a certain amount of charm for the occasion. Somehow the conversation worked its way around to the Live 8 concert and how my classmate claimed to have met Bob Geldolf in person and, indeed, to have tuned Paul McCartney's guitar.

I was having a hard time believing this. I don't like name droppers, for one thing; it seems almost in bad taste to mention that one is friends with celebrities, should that be the case, even in such desperate circumstances as a high school reunion. Besides, Paul and Bob are not exactly in our demographic. It seemed to me that this person was perhaps a) making this up out of the whole cloth, b) high or c) nuts. I almost hoped the answer was A, because being a fabulist probably requires a certain amount of resourcefulness and imagination that might make for interesting conversation, at least for an evening.

Then we somehow worked our way around to talking about Bloomington, and scarily enough, this same classmate claimed to know that city very well, including the names of several favorite restaurants and their proprieters. (This part, at least, is easily checked, but I haven't verified that any of these people actually know him, because the story is so tortuous.)

Shortly after this the dinner broke up, and we never saw this person again. And yet months later this conversation still gives me pause. Which parts were true, if any? I suppose there is really nothing that can be done to convince me one way or the other at this juncture, unless Bob Geldof shows up at our next reunion as a guest, say, or perhaps a member of the reunion committee.

Posted at 07:03 PM
March 09, 2006
Cubism Revisited

As a tireless modernist, I've always been fascinated by some of the avant-garde movements of the early 20th century, like Cubism, surrealism, and Dada. Though I learned about them all well before the heyday of the Internet, I am curious to see how they are represented in the virtual world. So I have started with Cubism.

Generally speaking, on the Web Cubism is most often a favored word for puns about office life or ruminations about the Rubik's cube. There are some good histories and, of course, lots of places to buy posters. What I like best, though, are the sites that are revisiting Cubism or doing anything interesting with its ideas:

First, an overview.

In the spirit of Dali: this blog, which features musings on modernists and surrealists. Fun to read, but I could do without the animated flying tadpoles, or whatever they are, that run across the screen.

See also Cubistro, The institute of Applied Cubism, which includes a visual Cubist timeline in progress.

Further afield, Cubism in Asia is currently at the Singapore Museum of Art.

This blog details the author's "life in Prague and my dissertation research on early Czech surrealism."

Oddest find of all these examples of "Landscape found art and origins of cubism." That is to say, Edward Tufte highlights found rocks that look like cubist art (or, as one commenter to the site has wittily put it, "brick-a-Braque").

Check out the nifty Soviet propaganda-style design and typography in this blog about art and culture, with a special interest in Cubism.

Nice. Educational, even. But was being nice and educational ever the point of Cubism? Not really. So it is appropriate that the word seems to be a favorite in comment spam and weird nonsensical fake blogs (sample: "Mp3 ringing tones l'observe travelled from the slieveen to Leith and back, again to the cubism as if he was trying to irresolute a criminal poussant between the two.") (I have heard these kinds of sites called both "splogs" or "zombie blogs." Either way, this article says they are evil.)

Strangely, this usage seems fairly organic, although the Cubists themselves might not have liked the thought of serving as product placement on bot-generated advertising blogs no one reads. Oddly, I found trying to read this one a lysergic joy, so I will close with an appreciation (but not a link). I enjoyed this sentence particularly: "I toss'd tusked to Lympne because I had rosated it the most uneventful place in the accusavit." I mean, haven't we all been there? Best of all is this image: "Then a inseparability crawled clear of the undergrowth, rose up, and tyrannised over the lariat with a sleepest in his scolopendria." I, too, want to tyrannize over the lariat. But please stay out of my scolopendria.

Posted at 08:54 PM
March 08, 2006
A Word About Comments has been bombarded with comment spam over the last 48 hours or so, from an abundance of IPs and addresses all flogging the same bogus URL. As a result I intend to use an iron hand in comment-closing for a while. Entries older than a week will be closed promptly. So if you have something to say, don't dilly-dally! (Unless you are our lowlife comment spammer, in which case you can put a sock in it.)

Posted at 08:40 PM
Lost Arts

What do artists do when their body of work is destroyed?

I have been wondering about this in the last week, after a conversation with my dad. In recent months, my parents have been occupied by renovating their house, which was damaged by Hurricane Wilma. They didn't lose a lot of belongings, but his watercolor paintings--an avocation taken up 10 years ago or so--suffered greatly in the aftermath's dampness and humidity. Last week he decided that most of them are now so bendy, moldy, smeary, and so on, that they can't be saved. Conserving each one, he says, takes hours and he doesn't feel like doing it. So most of his paintings--the work a decade--will be destroyed.

Certainly the destruction of an artistic body of work happens more than we realize. For most artists, professional or otherwise, I think it would be a huge loss. But in my dad's case, I think I felt worse than he did. In some ways the paintings of sights in my hometown had a pleasant familiarity and zing of recognition. And since he doesn't live there any more, they are sights he is not likely to paint again.

Thinking about those paintings, I feel like I have lost a friend. But at the same time, I wonder if in mourning this loss, I am too hung up on artifact. Perhaps it's liberating to walk away from the false starts and early, shaky beginnings. And maybe it's the process, not the paper, that matters.

At least it seems to be the case with my dad. He is forging on. Re-working his old subjects doesn't seem to appeal. He is painting what he sees now, even downed trees and hurricane-ravaged buildings. Surely others are doing the same.

Much has been written about the practical aspects of disaster recovery. But how does the artistic process recover? We are about to find out.

All the same, perhaps it's time to persuade Dad to invest in a digital camera.

Further reading:
Paintings destroyed by the Asian tsunami disaster, now on virtual exhibit.
Current exhibition of New Orleans artists, in exile.

Not directly related, but still interesting: musings on artistic journeys by artists here.

Posted at 08:25 PM
March 01, 2006

E. has written about how much we enjoy the eVerse newsletter. He pointed me toward an interview with the editor recently. I note it here because it had a certain resonance this week:

In most cases one will find a number of aspiring authors who should simply be medicated. Others might do with a jab to the kidneys. Others would be better suited to a regular job in the suburbs. Some are charming but untalented. Some are moody and behave badly. This is because they are sociopaths. That is why they are writers. Charles Bukowski has a wonderful poem about a writer's conference in which he explains that once you take a writer's typewriter away all you are left with is the mess that got him or her writing in the first place.

For a while this magazine also covered music: see 2003 interviews with Yo La Tengo and I Am Kloot.

Posted at 08:49 PM