Saturday, August 25, 2007


In Search of the World's Most Boring Book Title

Round 1


Saturday, August 18, 2007


Well, People Say a Lot of Things...

This month's Harper's excerpts a 1986 interview with Thomas Bernhard that is probably one of the most hilariously foul-tempered things I've read in ages. But there's one passage, when he snaps at the interviewer recalling one of his theoretical statements, which really does hit home. Bernhard essentially disowns the remark the interviewer has cited, remarking:

Well, people say a lot of things in fifty years of life. If a reporter is sitting in a restaurant somewhere and hears you say the beef's no good, then he'll always claim you're someone who doesn't like beef, for the rest of your life. You go for a walk in the woods, someone takes a photo of you, and then for the next eighty years you're always walking in the woods. There's nothing you can do about it.

This actually goes to the heart of the reductionism and the deterministic interpretation of source material -- this is the material I have, therefore this is what my subject must have been like -- that I fear in biographical writing. (And not least, I might add, in my own.)

A couple years back on this blog this exact problem came up in a slightly different form; to save you the clicking, I'll paste that entry in here with this added note: Ross McElwee's Six O'Clock News is now available as part of 5-DVD set, and you most certainly should beg, borrow, or Netflix it.

Here's the 2005 entry:

Today's Oregonian reviews The Sixteenth Minute: Life in the Aftermath of Fame :

The book's editorial premise is simple: What happens when a person's Andy Warholian 15 minutes of fame are over? What does that person do when the media attention has vanished? Can the person adjust to not being famous?

Written by Jeff Guinn, the books editor for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and Douglas Perry, a features editor at The Oregonian, "The Sixteenth Minute" profiles seven people who were once very famous at some point between the early 1960s to the late 1990s and are now semi-famous for once being fully famous....

In most cases, the tour isn't pretty. In some places, it's like watching a small woodland creature agonizingly expire after being hit by an automobile. There is Cara of "Fame" and "Flashdance" theme song fame ignored at an industry party as she tries to interest anyone in her new record. There is Cooney still insisting he could have beaten Michael Spinks for the heavyweight championship instead of suffering a beating. There is Wills, embittered because he'll never make it into the Hall of Fame because he was the most hated ballplayer of his era. And there is Foley, a professional wrestler well past his prime, who takes insane physical risks in the ring to stay in the spotlight . . . and be taken seriously as a novelist!

Hey, it's hard for anybody to get taken seriously when breaking into fiction.

But really, I have to take issue with this review's conclusion: that Fitzgerald was right about there being no second acts in American lives. Nonsense. Nonsense. American lives are nothing but second, third, and fourth acts. The very mobility of our society and permeability of our class structure has long held out the possibility of being able to move on.

Look, I think Guinn and Perry have a great idea here, and I wish more people would do this kind of follow-up. But did it not occur to the reviewer that perhaps the authors chose these subjects not because they were representative cases, but because they are dramatically pathetic ones? I mean, "Former Heavy Metal God Lives Boring Home Life, Works at Post Office" isn't much of a headline, is it? And for that matter, mightn't the authors be choosing incidents rather selectively -- as authors must do -- from perhaps otherwise mundane and even contented lives?

The longer I write biography, the more hesitant I become to use standard bio segues like "He was a broken man now." Broken to who?... To you? ... To him? Is he broken every minute of the day? The formulation is a specious one.

For a thoughtful meditation of how life goes on, even after it's "over," I implore everyone to check out Ross McElwee's much-overlooked 1997 documentary Six O'Clock News. It's available on VHS, but there's no DVD yet. It's messy and exasperating, as all McElwee films are. It is also one of the most honest works on the subject that I have ever seen.


The Other Victoria

Here's an unusual item up for auction:

Victoria Woodhull published it as part of her 1872 bid for the presidency -- the first ever by a woman -- running as a candidate of the Equal Rights Party. As a magazine editor she advocated free love, suffrage, and was behind the first US publication of the Communist Manifesto.

It is, I'm guessing, rather less wishy-washy than your average campaign hack job.

Sunday, August 12, 2007


Big Box of Old Weirdness

I love this idea: the Big Box of Old Paperbacks Book Club. Over at the Onion A.V. Club, Keith Phipps has been reviewing his way through a lot-box of random pulp paperbacks, with a great cover from this week's entry:

While idly googling the guy, I found that Barbet was a actually a French pharmacologist who, in his spare time, experimented with nailing cadaver hands in order to test his physiological theories on Christ's crucifixion.

Saturday, August 11, 2007


Book Title of the Week

Passed along me by bookseller Nathan Pederson at The Americanist (thanks!), it's:

Seven Wives and Seven Prisons:
Or, Experiences in the Life of a Matrimonial Monomaniac.
A True Story, Written by Himself.

Nathan pointed me to this great write-up by Garrett Scott, who's selling an 1870 1st edition:

The misadventures of a homeopathic doctor turned serial bigamist, on the run in upstate New York and New England. Despite Wright's classification of this work as fiction, the recurrent episodes of matrimony (varied with the occasional forged bank note or prison-bound son) have enough clumsy detail to ring true--an assessment evidently shared by Kaplan. In any event, despite Abbott's legal setbacks, with each chapter one happily anticipates a sentimental renewal from our tender-hearted narrator: "From the day, almost, when I began to board with this farmer there sprung up a strong attachment between myself and his youngest daughter [wife number two] which soon ripened into mutual love."
The Gutenberg project has it online, and as one reader/volunteer puts it, the "twists and turns of the plot resemble a snake orgy."

Sunday, August 05, 2007


Goodbye, Cruella World

A great weird link turned up in passing this week at Onion A.V. Club -- one of Walt Disney's own Mickey Mouse strips from 1930, in which the despairing helium-voiced rodent repeatedly attempted suicide:

You can see the entire sequence of strips here...


Ingmar Bergman Films His Bris!

This week Slate ran a narrated video segment on the soap commercials (!) that Ingmar Bergman made during an early 1950s Swedish film strike. I decided to cut out the middleman and found that, sure enough, a couple months ago someone posted 8 of the original Bris ("Breeze") Soap commercials in their entirety on Youtube. They remain pretty unknown, too -- some have hit counts still in the hundreds.

You don't need any translation, because they're plenty weird in any language:

Check out his truly awesome homage in this commercial...

And finally, I would be remiss to not add the finest Bergman parody ever. (Note the wheeze on the 1970s ad slogan, "When you're out of Shlitz, you're out of beer"):

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?