catching up on books

Here are two books I’ve read recently that have nothing in common.

From Jeff Guinn, there’s Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, from 2013. The classic book on Manson is Helter Skelter, I suppose. It’s been forever since I read it. My memory is that I preferred Ed Sanders’ book, The Family. I probably thought I knew all that I needed to know about Manson, but Guinn proves me wrong. His book is detailed and heavily researched. You learn about his childhood, you learn about his various stays in penal institutions, and most importantly, you find that he drew quite a bit from Dale Carnegie and from Scientology. With the former, Manson learned techniques for influencing people (he wasn’t as interested in making friends). From the latter, he learned about how cults worked (he didn’t care about the religious angle). He then set out to find people who could give him something. Guinn notes that Charlie couldn’t have found a better place to begin his big project than San Francisco in 1967. Guinn doesn’t blame hippies or alternate lifestyles ... he just points out that people were pretty tolerant of oddball behavior (and Manson had a lot of that). He begins building his family there, but the story soon moves to Los Angeles, where Manson hopes to launch a music career. Again, I thought I knew the basics of the relationship between Manson and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, but Guinn breaks it down, clarifies things. By the time the murders take place, you can believe The Family would kill for Manson (fear was a big part of their actions).

In a timely sidenote, Karina Longworth’s excellent podcast, You Must Remember This, has been focusing on “Charles Manson’s Hollywood” for several weeks. It’s a great pairing with Guinn’s book.

The second book is Molly Knight’s tome on the recent history of the Los Angeles Dodgers, The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers' Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse, which came out a few weeks ago. It was a bit odd for this lifelong Giants fan to read an entire book about the Dodgers, but as I said on Twitter, I liked the ending (the Giants win the World Series, again, while the Dodgers don’t win the World Series, again). Knight doesn’t break new ground with this book, but she doesn’t have to, because she does such a solid, thorough job. She brings a lot to the table: a Dodger fan who, as she says, “grew up in the Top Deck at Dodger Stadium”; an efficient and clear writer; a worthy journalist; an honored stat head. She’s got all the angles covered, and the book benefits from her approach. We get to know Clayton Kershaw, take a peek inside Yasiel Puig, and most importantly, learn what a shitload of money can (and can’t) do for a major league baseball franchise. I got a greater appreciation for Don Mattingly, who maneuvers precariously between rich, antsy owners and temperamental superstars. (Knight doesn’t shy away from the whole story ... more than once, she notes that Mattingly is not known as a great strategist.)

Does Knight make me want to root for the Dodgers? Give me a break. If the Dodgers played a World Series against a team managed by Satan, I’d be cheering on the devil. Perhaps that’s a sign of how good Knight’s book is. Even a hardcore Giants fan will like it.

bruce bochy, a book of walks

While the title may sound like a look at one aspect of baseball from an honored manager, in fact “walks” refers to the basic act of walking. Each short chapter describes a different walk, from walking the dog, to Milwaukee and Arizona and Ohio and Central Park and Chicago, and around San Francisco, to Coit Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge.

The writing is conversational. No ghostwriter is listed ... Steve Kettmann writes the intro, I suppose he might have had a hand in things. It’s entirely possible Bochy wrote it all, and whatever the process, you get the feeling of a real person, “Bruce Bochy”, on the pages, and this adds to the pleasure the book brings.

It’s a slight book by design. You learn about one side of Bruce Bochy, and you get some nice little travelogues of neighborhoods he walks. It may just be me placing people into boxes, but it’s not the kind of book I’d expect from a baseball manager. But then, Bochy isn’t just any manager.

The last paragraph of the book encapsulates its charms. The final chapter is devoted to his “Everest”, a long walk from AT&T Park to the Golden Gate Bridge. It concludes:

That’s a walk I recommend to everyone. If you need to move along at a pretty deliberate pace and stop often to rest, so what. Take the whole day! Make an adventure out of it. Whether you’re a visitor to our city, or you’ve lived here your whole life, that’s a walk that will make you feel good. It will make you feel alive. It will make you feel more like yourself. After that, every time you see a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge or you see it in a movie or out the window of the flight taking you somewhere else, you can kind of smile and remember what it felt l like walking those last steps and being there at the foot of the bridge. I had a feeling I just wanted to walk to the Golden Gate. I thought it would be pretty cool. You know what? It was. It was very, very cool.

live at the apollo

The title of this post refers to the classic James Brown album from 1962. It also refers to a book in the 33 1/3 series, this one written by Douglas Wolk, about that album.

Wolk weaves a detailed analysis of Brown and the album with a narrative describing world events at the time the album was recorded. The concert occurred during the infamous Cuban Missile Crisis. Wolk works at tying Brown's combustible live show with the potential for fireworks happening out the walls of the Apollo, just two days after Kennedy had given a speech to the nation about the crisis:

"It's getting a little cold outside," he declares, and there's a rustling of assent. (It was: the weather on the night of October 24 was nasty, in the mid-to-upper 30s Fahrenheit in Harlem. Brown's staff had gone out and handed complimentary cups of coffee to people waiting in the long line outside the Apollo, making sure they were in a good mood when they got inside.) But then he adds: "I wonder do you know what I'm talkin' about? I said it's gettin' a little cold outside." That's a nudge. He's not talking about the weather. He's talking about the chill everyone in the room has been feeling for the last two days. But that's outside; this is inside the temple of Apollo, where the famous flames burn.

It's an interesting approach, and I do remember my ten-year-old self, aware that something was going on, looking at every plane that flew by wondering if it was from Russia. So sure, missiles were on everyone's minds. But for the most part, I found these sections of the book mostly digressions, and I would get antsy for Wolk to return directly to the album.

Which is where rewards are to be found, for Wolk does a terrific job. He has clearly listened to Live at the Apollo many times, and more carefully than most of us, I suspect.

Turning up "I Love You Yes I Do" as loud as it can go is also a good way to admire the amazing recording quality of Live at the Apollo. You can make out the cries in the crowd, and bits of the Famous Flames' off-mic backing vocals; you can also hear a little squeak right before each beat. Perhaps the drum kit had a squeaky hi-hat, or the organ had a squeaky speaker?

The majority of the book, as with the album, is "Lost Someone". It is to Wolk's credit that reading his writing on "Lost Someone", you want to immediately put the song on. (OK, I pretty much always want to put that song on.)

I can't quote the whole book ... you really need to read it, listening to Brown all the while. But I can't resist a bit more:

[W]hen he recorded LATA, he knew he was being recorded, and he held back, so he wouldn't overload the microphone and get distortion all over the recording, because theyn Syd Nathan would never let him put it out. Live at the Apollo, my friends -- Live at the Apollo is the sound of James Brown holding back. ...

James Brown has been singing "Lost Someone" for almost eleven minutes. Time has bent and suspended under the week's incredible gravity.

Wolk makes a point ... maybe it's one everybody already knew, but it hadn't occurred to me before. Live at the Apollo is one of the greatest albums ever made, a crucial part of the history of James Brown. Yet it comes before the period when Brown changed music, when he had his biggest impact. I might play "Lost Someone" once a day until I die, but in the end, it's just a stunning performance. But with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" as a marker, funk becomes king. There are hints of that future in Live at the Apollo, but only hints.

There are thousands of records that bear James Brown's influence, and a lot of them even namedrop him, but almost all of them take off from his 1965-1974 funk period. You can scarcely hear the echoes of the massively popular Apollo in the music of anyone other than James Brown himself.

throw it back

"When I got home I mixed a stiff one and stood by the open window in the living room and sipped it and listened to the groundswell of traffic on Laurel Canyon Boulevard and looked at the glare of the big angry city hanging over the shoulder of the hills through which the boulevard had been cut. Far off the banshee wail of police or fire sirens rose and fell, never for very long completely silent. Twenty four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him. Out there in the night of a thousand crimes, people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy tires. People were being beaten, robbed, strangled, raped, and murdered. People were hungry, sick; bored, desperate with loneliness or remorse or fear, angry, cruel, feverish, shaken by sobs. A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness. It all depends on where you sit and what your own private score is. I didn't have one. I didn't care. I finished the drink and went to bed."

-- Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye. Chandler died on this date in 1959.

going into the broad city

The city in the title of Robert Christgau's new memoir, Going Into the City, is New York. The television series Broad City, which just ended its second season, is also New York to its core. There is nothing else to connect the two works in any obvious fashion ... in one, a man in his 70s looks back on his life, in the other, two women in their 20s create versions of themselves in something resembling the present. In both cases, though, the presence of New York City goes beyond merely adding local color. Christgau grew up in Queens, and so has greater New York in his bones, but the title refers to his move to Manhattan.  Abbi Jacobson, one of the two creators of Broad City, spent her formative years in Pennsylvania, but met up with Ilana Glazer when both were members of New York's Upright Citizen's Brigade (Glazer's background is a little harder to pin down, but she seems pure New York). What matters, in all cases, is that New York City is a crucial component of the people. I can't really call Christgau a "character" ... while he constructs a "Robert Christgau" for his memoir, the construction is "really" him, while Jacobson and Glazer are based-on-themselves "real" characters in Broad City, as Abbi Abrams and Ilana Wexler.

Christgau admits from the beginning that his memoir might seem different than the norm, partly because other than being a rock critic, his life isn't all that unusual. "Only a teensy bit famous no matter how much of my small pond I hog ... I've had my share of adventures, but nothing all that spine-chilling or at all epic.... As writers go, I'm a fairly normal guy." He quickly adds, "Some might hold that if my life has been interesting enough to write about, it cannot have been normal. As a democrat in all things, I say that's snobbish baloney. All lives are interesting -- how interesting depends on the telling."

Christgau is a fine writer, with a lot to tell, and an audience that is already interested. He doesn't exactly ignore his audience's desires ... he just tells his story in the manner that suits him, and it is largely interesting for the reasons he notes: it depends on the telling, and he's good at it.

I don't know what others expected of the book. Speaking for myself, I was ready for anything, because it was Christgau, which meant I assumed I'd like it. Which I do. There is some name-dropping, but less than you might think. He spends time talking about working at the Village Voice, but as he states, "I didn't want people to think it was about the Voice. That's a book worth writing, but I don't know by who ...." He talks about the members of the first (and to some extent subsequent) wave of rock critics, but I don't think Going Into the City would be the primary text for an historian of the era. We learn which of those critics were his close friends, and get a hint of some of their approaches, but it's a memoir, not an evaluation. What Christgau pulls off is a memoir that might be written by a "regular" person, where the primacy of his experiences is more important than what celebrity he knows.

And the primacy of his experiences includes his intense devotion to the two most important women in his life, his first great love, Ellen Willis, and his eventual wife and life-partner, Carola Dibbell. In his introduction, he discusses this:

The main way marriage impacted my vocation, however, was intellectually. That's why I feel deprived when, for example, Christopher Hitchens or Ed Sanders or Richard Hell -- all of whose recommended memoirs share ground with mine, and all of whom have their reasons -- fail to indicate how their wives changed their lives and I bet their work. My '60s partnership with Ellen Willis ... set me on the path I've followed ever since.... my chief guide has been my legally wedded wife of four decades, Carola Dibbell, who's also a fine rock critic ... No banal bow to discretion or cool could tempt me to minimize the place of these relationships in my life, or to mince words about them either.... Till death do us part, my marriage is my most satisfying achievement.

This is the kind of thing usually dismissed in a brief note about how "I couldn't have written this without the love of my partner". But Christgau wants us to know from the start that his memoir will integrate his important relationships into his discussion of his work as a critic. There is almost no need for an acknowledgements page for Willis or Dibbell ... the entire book acknowledges them.

It also gets to the core of my own relationship to memoirs, especially since, if I ever had the ambition to write a book of my own, it would fall into that category. The motto of this thirteen-years-and-counting blog is the Pauline Kael quote, "I'm frequently asked why I don't write my memoirs. I think I have." To know my take on movies and TV and music is to know me, as well. Christgau goes beyond this, though. His approach is almost the opposite: to know his take on music, it is crucial that you know about his experiences, particularly with the important women in his life.

I accept that it is a stretch to connect all of this to Broad City. But New York is a major character in Christgau's book ... it's a titular character, no less. Part of what sets Broad City apart, though, is that Abbi and Ilana are already in New York ... there is no "going". It's less that New York is a character, and more that Abbi and Ilana have New York inside of them. New Yorkers often assume that outsiders like myself don't "get" the city, that you have to live there, experience it on a daily basis. And I'm sure I miss many nods to locals in Broad City. It is very specific about its New York-ness. But Abbi and Ilana feel universal, despite their specifics as young New York Jewish women in their 20s. I'm much closer in age to Robert Christgau than I am to Jacobson and Glazer ... my kids are a decade older than those two. A typical day for me usually involves doing something with my wife of 40+ years, and while we have memories of the stuff we did when we were young, in honesty, memories are mostly what they are at this point. I don't get high all the time anymore the way Abbi and (especially) Ilana do. I don't have the energy to pursue anything that crosses my mind (Ilana is irrepressible in this regard). But the spirit with which they engage in their world is inspiring, not because I know what it's like to be a young woman in New York, but because that spirit is contagious.

Which is something they share with Christgau. As you read his memoir, you understand better the things that drive him. It no longer seems odd that he listens to music a billion hours a day. He loves to engage with music, loves to keep learning about music, and, of course, he's a master as a critic of writing about these things in ways that engage the reader, and, yes, inspire us in some way.

philip k. dick, the man in the high castle

I thought to reread this book after watching the pilot episode for an upcoming TV series based on the book. If you've read The Man in the High Castle, you know how important a part the I Ching plays. Not only do many characters in the novel consult the oracle, Dick himself used it when writing:

I used it in The Man in the High Castle because a number of characters used it. In each case when they asked a question, I threw the coins and wrote the hexagram lines they got. That governed the direction of the book. Like in the end when Juliana Frink is deciding whether or not to tell Hawthorne Abensen that he is the target of assassins, the answer indicated that she should. Now if it had said not to tell him, I would have had her not go there. But I would not do that in any other book.

It occurred to me that I might fruitfully use the I Ching for this blog post, as a sort of “Play Along with Phil” game. In the book, which is an alternate history where the Allies lost WWII, an author, Hawthorne Abensen, writes a book that tells of an alternate history where the Axis lost the war. Abensen consults the I Ching when writing his book. How much more Dickian could I get, than to replicate that here.

I asked, “What can the oracle tell me that might illuminate The Man in the High Castle?” I got Li, The Clinging, Fire, with a changing nine at the top which leads to F’eng, Abundance/Fullness. (Explaining the I Ching would require a separate post ... what matters is whether I can turn this reading from the oracle into something illuminating about Dick’s novel.)

Here is what Li looks like:


You’ll notice that the top three lines and the bottom three lines are matches: fire on top of fire. The “Judgement”: “The Clinging. Perseverance furthers. It brings success. Care of the cow brings good fortune.” (You can see how the I Ching works ... it never gives a clear reply, which thus allows the reader to basically invent meanings.) Luckily, each Judgement has a “Commentary”. Here, it reads in part, “Human life on earth is conditioned and unfree, and when man recognizes this limitation and makes himself dependent upon the harmonious and beneficent forces of the cosmos, he achieves success. The cow is the symbol of extreme docility. By cultivating in himself an attitude of compliance and voluntary dependence, man acquires clarity without sharpness and finds his place in the world.” Jeff Pike has noted of the novel that “The characters are largely listless and accepting of the world as it is”. Combining this with “The Clinging”, we get characters who find their place through compliance and voluntary dependence. The inner monologues of the characters in the book let us understand that none of these people have actually accepted their place. They are all struggling to get beyond wherever they find themselves. But outwardly, they often feign compliance, because to do otherwise is to risk everything. While this hexagram might offer insight into the characters when we first meet them, it doesn't explain why so many of them take actions to change their situations.

The “Image” here shows “That which is bright rises twice: The image of Fire. Thus the great man, by perpetuating this brightness, illumines the four quarters of the world.” The commentary: “The great man continues the work of nature in the human world. Through the clarity of his nature he causes the light to spread farther and farther and to penetrate the nature of man ever more deeply.” Perhaps Hawthorne Abensen is trying to spread the light in his alternate history; perhaps Philip K. Dick is doing the same with his alternate history.

The changing nine at the top means, “The king used him to march forth and chastise. Then it is best to kill the leaders and take captive the followers. No blame.” Commentary: “Evil must be cured at its roots. To eradicate evil in political life, it is best to kill the ringleaders and spare the followers. In educating oneself it is best to root out bad habits and tolerate those that are harmless.” Note the difference between “political life”, where evil ringleaders must be killed, and personal life, where “it is best to root out bad habits”.

The changed hexagram is F’eng, Abundance. “Abundance has success. The king attains abundance. Be not sad. Be like the sun at midday.”

I can’t say this little experiment did much for me. I can't see anything clearly that takes me places within the novel that I hadn't been before. In my reading of the result of my question, we as individuals are encouraged to find our place via compliance, while looking inwards to root out bad habits. But as a society, we are to eradicate evil by killing the ringleaders. I don’t see how these can co-exist, nor do I see that they have a clear connection to The Man in the High Castle.

[I Ching quotations, from the Richard Wilhelm translation that was the most-used back in my hippie days, are gathered from the website]

carta a una señorita en parís

When I was in grad school, I took two upper-division survey courses in Spanish-American literature to cover the language requirement for my English Ph.D. I was lucky to have two excellent professors, the amazing Francine Masiello, and the wonderful Julio Ramos. I used all of my Spanish classes at Cal to further my understanding of the language, and I have said at times that the one concrete thing I got out of my college education was a reasonable fluency in the language of my grandparents.

For this reason, I was driven to read as much of the literature as possible in the original Spanish. Oh, I’d make sure to have an English translation nearby … reading those diaries from the ships of Columbus wasn’t any easier than reading 15th-century English. But I’d always make the effort.

I remember reading many stories by Julio Cortázar, who qualifies for Throwback Thursday because he died 31 years ago today. One in particular has stayed with me for many years. It was called “Carta a una señorita en París” (“Letter to a Young Lady in Paris”). The story/letter begins with the writer explaining that he didn’t want to come live in the recipient’s apartment, because he didn’t want to “intrude on a compact order”:

[M]e duele ingresar en un orden cerrado, construido ya hasta en las más finas mallas del aire, esas que en su casa preservan la música de la lavanda, el aletear de un cisne con polvos, el juego del violín y la viola en el cuarteto de Rará.

It was slow going, as it always was for me when reading Spanish. Just before the above-quoted segment, the letter read, “No tanto por los conejitos” … I read this as “Not just because of the bunnies”. Didn’t make any sense to me, but I never really trusted my Spanish enough to think I was getting it right, and this odd reference wasn’t enough for me to go running to an English translation.

The rest of the opening paragraph continued further to explain how the writer felt uncomfortable changing the “compact order”. In the second paragraph, we learn what has brought him to stay in the apartment nonetheless: she is in Paris, and he is staying in her apartment until her return. Near the end of the paragraph comes another mention of the bunnies: “esta carta se la envío a causa de los conejitos”. OK, that’s two mentions of bunnies in two paragraphs. I know that “conejito” means “bunny” … it’s just the context that has me inching closer to the English translation at my side.

But in the third paragraph, as he describes moving into the apartment, he explains, “De cuando en cuando me ocurre vomitar un conejito.” I think I’ve got this translated … “From time to time I vomit a bunny.” Much of this paragraph, in fact, is about bunnies and vomiting. At least, that what I think it says. I’m starting to wish I had a better handle on magic realism, but mostly, I’m thinking, man, does my Spanish stink. When I read this, I think it’s about a man who vomits bunnies. That can’t be it … just how bad is my translation?

So I break down and start reading the story in an English translation. And, guess what? The man is indeed claiming to vomit bunnies.

Understand, I know so little about the real world that despite the word “conejito” (bunny), I’m thinking “conejo” (rabbit). That is, I’m imagining full-grown rabbits coming out of the writer’s mouth. And that seems a bit much, even for magic realism (if, in fact, that’s what this is). It was almost a relief when my wife later explained that new-born bunnies were indeed very, very small.

To this day, when I think of Cortázar, I think of the man who vomited rabbits.

katy perry

Katy Perry performed the halftime show at yesterday’s Super Bowl. From what I’ve seen online, she was fairly well-received for the grand flamboyance of the show. At the Super Bowl party I was a part of, though, the general feeling was that the halftime show wasn’t going to be worth watching. Not everyone felt that way, but I’d gauge that more than half of the folks planned to use halftime to check out the food situation and maybe grab a smoke. (Notably, once her show began, people began watching.)

Someone I know posted on Facebook that their partner had asked, “Who is Katy Perry?” I admit to reading between the lines, both at that question and at some of the subsequent comments, but my sense was that not knowing who Katy Perry is was something to be proud of. And I wondered, first, how likely it was that someone wouldn't know who Katy Perry is.

I went to everyone’s favorite research site, Wikipedia, where I found the following information about Perry, some of which I knew, some of which I was aware of in a general sense, and a lot of specifics that were new to me:

Her 2010 album Teenage Dream “became the first by a female artist to produce five number-one Billboard Hot 100 songs”.

“[I]n songs such as ‘Firework’ and ‘Roar’ she stresses themes of self-empowerment and self-esteem.”

“Perry has received many awards, including three Guinness World Records, and been included in the Forbes list of "Top-Earning Women In Music" for 2011, 2012, and 2013. … She ranked fifth on their 2014 list with $40 million. … Throughout her career, she has sold 11 million albums and 81 million singles worldwide, making her one of the best-selling artists of all time.”

“Throughout her career, Perry has won five American Music Awards, five MTV Video Music Awards, fourteen People's Choice Awards, and three Guinness World Records.In September 2012, Billboard dubbed her the ‘Woman of the Year’.From May 2010 to September 2011, she spent a record-breaking total of 69 consecutive weeks in the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100…Perry was declared the Top Global Female Recording Artist of 2013 by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI).She has accumulated a total of nine number-one singles on the Hot 100, her most recent being ‘Dark Horse’. According to Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), Perry is the best-selling digital singles artist in the United States, with certified sales of 72 million digital singles including on-demand streaming.”

I admit that I don’t know a lot about Katy Perry. I like a couple of her songs, and enjoy the “Roar” video. I am also aware that, as is true for many/most top pop stars, there is substantial interest in Perry from culture critics. I don’t think she has reached the level of someone like Madonna, who inspired what was only half-jokingly called “Madonna Studies” as an academic discipline. But it is interesting to think about the level of Perry’s fame, and what that might say about today’s cultural milieu.

My job here isn’t to elaborate on the place of Katy Perry in the world of cultural criticism … I read some of it, I know it’s out there, but in 2015, there is always too much to read and see and experience … we are all, all of us, behind.

Nor am I here to cast aspersions on people who don’t know who Katy Perry is. As I say, it’s 2015 … no one can keep up with everything. Many of us become specialists … when it comes to female pop stars, I’m partial to Pink … I go to her concerts and buy her albums … I know a lot about Pink, and it’s not that she’s a stand-in for all the other female pop stars, but I devote the majority of my pop-star energy to her. There are also people, plenty of us, who throw our hands up and admit we just can’t follow everything. We don’t have a favorite female pop star, because we can’t know about everything. Not knowing of Katy Perry signifies nothing, other than that you have other things on your mind. The number of things I don’t know is pretty immense … I know little about opera, or ice hockey, or reality TV shows. I’m not immune to covering up my lack of knowledge with childish humor … whenever I hear opera, I start singing in ludicrously high and low voices, making fun of the very real talent of the singers because I don’t “get it”. And I definitely indulged in this kind of thinking a lot more when I was younger: if I didn’t know something, it wasn’t worth knowing. In my old age, I’ve hopefully come to realize that you can’t dismiss something until you have a modicum of understanding of that thing.

In general, Katy Perry is not highly regarded by pop critics. Rich Juzwiak’s review of her Super Bowl appearance, “Katy Perry: What Is She Good For?”, was an example of damning with faint praise:

Not that much could be expected of Perry. She is the most underwhelming person to occupy the space of Massively Popular, No-Brainer Hitmaking Pop Diva since Paula Abdul, and at least Paula Abdul could dance. There is no there there with Katy Perry. I don't know if a pop star has ever had less there, in fact. She is superlative at nothing. … If you believe the credits on her songs, she can write a catchy hook. She can carry a tune, sometimes with force. And she can show up to places and do her job without falling on her face or making some sort of career-negating blunder.

But these critics do appreciate that her enormous popularity makes Perry an important subject for examination, if nothing else. And I’m glad for their work, since, as I have noted, I don’t pay much attention to Katy Perry and am glad to have the opportunity to think about her through the eyes of more astute and knowledgeable critics.

Which takes me back to that Facebook exchange. Everything I’m saying falls apart if my “between the lines” reading is off-target, but that reading is based on past experiences. I once taught a course at UC Berkeley on the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer … a common reaction was “that’s not worthy of a course at Cal” (when pressed, they would often admit that they had never actually seen the show). Something that has stuck in my mind for many years was an afternoon when I attended a WNBA game. The giveaway that day was a poster of … well, it was a long time ago and my memory is shot, but I think it was *NSYNC, although it might have been The Backstreet Boys. Anyway, most of the people I was with gave their posters away to kids who might have more interest, which was a generous move. But the gifts were punctuated with prideful statements that “I couldn’t name a single one of their songs”. I knew why they didn’t want the posters, understood that they might not know *NSYNC since they weren’t the target market for the band, but I didn’t get why their lack of knowledge was connected to feelings of pride.

And so, the Facebook post (yes, I’m off on lots of tangents). One of my favorite comments, because of its self-aware sense of humor, read “I miss when the half time shows were semi retired musicians from the 70s.” And I couldn't keep my mouth shut, so I posted the following: “Pop music may be the only place where otherwise intelligent people brag about not knowing something.”

The original poster replied, “I'm pretty sure popular TV falls in the same category. Like me, how many episodes of, say. Friends, have you ever watched?” And that got me inspired. I wrote:

The point isn't how many episodes of Friends you have seen, or whether you know who Katy Perry is. The point is that it's odd when people take pride in not knowing. I can't pass judgment on Friends because I haven't seen it. I can and do recognize it is important; I know what Friends is. I don't often connect with modern sitcoms, which is on me, not on the people who made Friends. But there is a difference between my not having seen an episode of Friends, and someone not knowing who Katy Perry is, just as there is a difference between saying Katy Perry isn't my cup of tea and saying I don't know who Katy Perry is, with a tone that suggests she isn't worth knowing. I'm not saying that everyone should like Katy Perry. I'm saying it's odd to brag about not knowing who she is. It's the pop culture equivalent of saying I don't know who Toni Morrison is, and it doesn't matter anyway.

The reply to that was, “If you're going to compare Toni Morrison to Katy Perry, I'm going to bed. Winking smile“ (Emoticon approximation.)

That was a good line, and I was asking for it, to be sure. But it wasn't just a good line, as I indicated in my reply: “That statement makes my point better than any more blathering of my own.”

And indeed, the comments ended there. But, being a blather junkie, I came to my blog to jabber some more.

Many of the people in the discussion are or were teachers, myself included. We have all had to deal with students who state (with some pride, it must be added) that they never read books. Maybe they read the occasional book, but only current best-sellers. If we assign, say, The Great Gatsby (or, more appropriately here, Beloved), we will always have students who state with confidence that there is nothing in those books that could possibly matter to them. I’ve done the same thing as a student … with a degree in American Studies, looking for a doctorate in English that focused on American Literature, I regularly complained about the requirement that I take a course in Shakespeare or the 18th-century English novel. What could I possibly learn from Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded?

How is this different from saying, “I don’t know who Katy Perry is, and how could she possibly matter?” There is no shame in not knowing. There is no reason why we should seek out every piece of information in the world, even if that was possible, which it is not. It is sufficient to say, “I don’t know anything about The Real Housewives of Orange County”, just as it’s fine when a student says, “I don’t know anything about Toni Morrison”. That student has an entire semester to learn about the author. They’ve only failed if they dismiss Morrison before they have read her. It’s fine if you don’t know who Katy Perry is, interesting if you do know who she is but don’t like her. And there is every reason, in this age of information glut, to admit that you don’t have time to examine Katy Perry, so you’ll be moving on to something you like. You’ve only failed if you dismiss Katy Perry before you know her.


catching up: books

Not sure why I don’t write more about books here. Perhaps it’s that my training is to treat books as something worthy of long-form writing, I don’t know. Whatever, a friend posted a photo of his summer reading, using the usual method of stacking the books in a pile. I realized that I can’t do that kind of picture anymore, because the vast majority of books I read are e-books.

The main book I’m reading right now is A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke by Ronald Reng. Enke was a top German goalkeeper who suffered from depression and committed suicide at the age of 32. It benefits from Reng having known Enke … it’s startling at times when a conversation appears between the two, you’ve been reading along like any other biography and you forget the author was there at times. The pressures of being a goalkeeper are made evident, but what is hitting home for me is the manifestations of Enke’s depression, which are scarily real to me.

Keeping in the pre-World Cup soccer genre, I just finished George Vecsey’s Eight World Cups: My Journey Through the Beauty and Dark Side of Soccer. While Vecsey is known primarily for his sports writing, he also co-wrote Coal Miner’s Daughter with Loretta Lynn. Eight World Cups is an ideal book for Americans new to the sport (there are fewer of them every year) who would like some history in advance of Brazil 2014. While Vecsey has been at this awhile, he was once, like many Americans, an outsider to the world of soccer, which makes his story relatable. He tells stories of the great individuals of the era, gives a full picture of each Cup, and if he spends less time on the “Dark Side” than the title suggests, the Beauty comes through loud and clear.

Rounding out some of the recent sports books I’ve read, there’s The Fight of Their Lives: How Juan Marichal and John Roseboro Turned Baseball’s Ugliest Brawl into a Story of Forgiveness and Redemption by John Rosengren. What Rosengren does well is establish a context for that event, by leading us through the life of a Latino and an African-American in baseball of the 1950s and 1960s. Also, Craig Wright’s Pages from Baseball’s Past, a compilation of pieces from his website of the same name. Wright is a pioneer in sabermetrics who knows how to tell a good story (the first chapter tells us about Babe Ruth’s “mascot”, and fans will look forward to pieces like “The Walk-Off Triple Steal”. Finally, Jonah Keri makes sure you know what his book is about with his subtitle: Up, Up and Away: The Kid, the Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, le Grand Orange, Youppi!, the Crazy Business of Baseball, and the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montreal Expos.

I wrote recently about John Wayne: The Life and Legend by Scott Eyman. And a few months ago, I had a few words about Latinos at the Golden Gate by my friend Tomás Summers Sandoval … yes, it’s true, I actually read a book that wasn’t about sports or entertainment. There was The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture & Style by Nelson George. An old favorite, pilot Patrick Smith, offers Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel: Questions, Answers, and Reflections. I first discovered Smith when he wrote a regular column for Salon … I admit I was delighted to exchange a few emails with him about our shared love for Hüsker Dü. Bill Brown’s Words and Guitar: A History of Lou Reed’s Music was unmemorable, while Winning Fantasy Baseball: Secret Strategies of a Nine-Time National Champion by Larry Schechter was very useful for me back in February when I bought it. The Sabermetric Revolution: Assessing the Growth of Analytics in Baseball by Benjamin Baumer and Andrew Zimbalist must have been good … I don’t have any bad memories … but to be honest, I barely remember the book at all, even as a fan of Zimbalist’s work.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Jennifer Garlen’s second book on movies, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching. When I read her, I often wish I’d written what I am reading.

I just got the latest edition of David Thomson’s mammoth The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, previous editions of which are always stored on my phone for quick revisits. On tap: Robert Zaretsky’s A Life Worth Living, an examination of the philosophy of Albert Camus.

john wayne: the life and legend, by scott eyman

Scott Eyman begins his lengthy, well-researched biography of John Wayne with the following famous quote: “That guy you see on the screen isn’t really me. I’m Duke Morrison, and I never was and never will be a film personality like John Wayne. I know him well. I’m one of his closest students. I have to be. I make a living out of him.”

That quote effectively describes what Eyman is up to with his biography. There are the basic facts. There are the movies, with even the least of them getting a little attention. There is the pop psychology surrounding Wayne’s relationship to John Ford. But mostly, Eyman is telling the story of Duke Morrison, knowing all along that if the name John Wayne wasn’t in the title, no one would read his book.

Opinion about the quality of Wayne’s acting has risen and fallen and risen with the passage of time. Eyman quotes James Baldwin, who wrote about movie stars, “One does not go to see them act: one goes to watch them be.” Wayne was a movie star, and his popularity was not because of his acting skills (although he had plenty of them). It was because of his ability to be John Wayne. At the end of his career, that wasn’t enough. But he was on top for longer than most movie stars, and he remains an iconic figure, decades after his death.

Because of the seeming narrowness of his political views, because of the specific range in which he performed, some people assumed Wayne must have been anti-intellectual at best and a little dumb at worst. Eyman shows how untrue this is. Wayne could quote Shakespeare and Milton from memory … he was president of the Latin Society in high school … he was a masterful chess player. He was not dumb or anti-intellectual.

But I’m talking about John Wayne as if he was a real person. It was Duke Morrison who knew Milton and Latin and chess. And it was Duke Morrison who, gradually, over time, created “John Wayne”.  It helped that directors like John Ford knew what to do with “John Wayne”, but there were no Svengalis in this story. In an odd, artificial way, “John Wayne” was a self-made man, only the self who made him was Duke Morrison.

The book is good on the details of Wayne’s classic films, and Eyman has many of the participants in those films to offer their stories. Almost every actor who worked with Wayne admired his professionalism and found him a good work companion (the ladies in particular found him delightful, it would seem, with Maureen O’Hara at the top of that list). Because he came up through the ranks, and because he was Duke Morrison, Wayne was always respectful of the crew members (if they did their job well). Eyman hasn’t whitewashed Wayne’s story … the Wayne of the book is far from perfect. But he places Wayne’s movie career in a narrative arc that makes sense, and this leads to a bittersweet final few chapters, as Red River and Rio Bravo turn into McQ and Brannigan. Morrison did such a good job of creating John Wayne that he ultimately couldn’t escape his creation. For the most part, Wayne sidesteps self-pity, but the reader understands the difficulties in living up to a fictional character.