Monday, September 1, 2014

the last book I ever read (Nicholson Baker's Traveling Sprinkler, excerpt four)

from Traveling Sprinkler by Nicholson Baker:

Roz and I are—I don’t want to say we’re finished, because we’re really not. We’re still good friends and we talk on the phone and I sometimes send her postcards when I’m lonely in hotel rooms. I still hold out hope. She’s promised to make me an egg salad sandwich on my birthday, after all. But it doesn’t look good. She’s very busy with her radio show. She produces a medical radio show called Medicine Ball in the expensive new NPR building in Concord, where everything is carpeted and hushed and all the microphones are state-of-the-art, even if monophonic. It’s a successful show, it’s syndicated, it’s good. Every week they discuss the side effects and potential harmful outcomes of at least one pill or medical procedure. They did an extremely good show on Lipitor. Who knew that Lipitor could be so interesting? A totally useless drug, it seems. You take it for years and it makes you dizzy and forgetful and you fall down and break your hip.



Sunday, August 31, 2014

the last book I ever read (Nicholson Baker's Traveling Sprinkler, excerpt three)

from Traveling Sprinkler by Nicholson Baker:

Now your poem is in trouble. You’ve got wasps in the hose reel, you’ve got the sprinkler twirling at the end of the hose, and you’ve got Debussy’s cathedral sunk under the waves. You’ve got fish, you’ve got tomatoes. You’re starting to get strange purple interference patterns, fringe moiré patterns, at the edges of each metaphor, where it overlaps its neighbor. Photographers call this “purple fringing,” and it’s a flaw. This is the moment when your creative writing teacher may say: “You’ve got an awful lot going on here, Paul. Maybe you need to pare this poem down and pick a controlling image.”



Saturday, August 30, 2014

the last book I ever read (Nicholson Baker's Traveling Sprinkler, excerpt two)

from Traveling Sprinkler by Nicholson Baker:

I drove home and worked through the first few guitar lessons in GarageBand. I practiced chords until the tips of my fingers hurt terribly. You have no idea how sharp guitar strings are. I looked at my fingers and saw deep red grooves. Fortunately the string just missed the numb skin graft on my index finger, where I once cut it slicing bread.

I wanted to play minor chords immediately, but the cheerful, well-groomed instructor from GarageBand was sitting on his stool telling me how to play major chords. They always start you off with major keys even though minor is where you generally end up.



Friday, August 29, 2014

the last book I ever read (Nicholson Baker's Traveling Sprinkler, excerpt one)

from Traveling Sprinkler by Nicholson Baker:

Thirty-five years ago, when I was twenty, I sold my Heckel bassoon. And that was that. Now I’m supposed to be writing a new book of poetry, which I’m calling Misery Hat. I don’t want to work on it. Today, to get inspired, I dipped into an extremely long poem by Samuel Rodgers called Human Life, because I liked the title. It didn’t do much for me, but I remembered that Samuel Rogers was friends with Tennyson and Coleridge, and that made me haul out my old edition of Tennyson and look at his extremely long poem Maud, narrated by an insane person who rambles. Tennyson was very ill if not clinically insane when he wrote parts of Maud, and a lot of it is unreadable. But there is one very nice soaring patch that everyone remembers. It begins, “Come into the garden, Maud,/For the black bat, night, has flown.” There Tennyson has us. Night itself is a black bat. How thrilling and un-Victorian is that? In the same passage there’s a mention of an unusual chamber group that’s apparently been serenading the roses all night long—a flute, a violin, and a bassoon. It’s a bassoon not because Tennyson knew anything about the bassoon, but because he needed an evocative word to rhyme with “tune” and “moon.” And also because he may have been remembering another poetical bassoon passage, from Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner:

    The Wedding-Guest beat his breast,
    For he heard the loud bassoon.

Coleridge didn’t know much about the bassoon either, or he wouldn’t have said it was loud. The bassoon’s liability as an orchestral instrument is that it is quite soft, much softer in volume that its size would suggest. At a wedding reception in 1797, when Coleridge was working on his pem, it might have been used to double the bassline played by the spinet or the cello. But bassoonists the world over are grateful to Coleridge for including them in his stanza.



Thursday, August 28, 2014

the last book I ever read (Shelby Foote's The Civil War, Volume One, excerpt seventeen)

from The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume One: Fort Sumter to Perryville by Shelby Foote:

These words were written in a letter to Carl Schurz, a young German emigrant whom the Republican central committee had sent to Illinois four years ago to speak in Lincoln’s behalf during the senatorial race against Douglas. Grateful for this and later, more successful work, Lincoln appointed him Minister to Spain in 1861, and when Schurz resigned to come home and fight, the President made him a brigadier under Frémont in the Alleghenies. After the fall election returns were in, he wrote Lincoln his belief that they were “a most serious reproof to the Administration” for placing the nation’s armies in “the hands of its enemies,” meaning Democrats. “What Republican has ever had a fair chance in this war?” Schurz asked, apparently leaving his own case out of account, and urged: “Let us be commanded by generals whose heart is in the war.” Lincoln thought this over and replied: “I have just received and read your letter of [November] 20th. The purport of it is that we lost the late elections and the Administration is failing because the war is unsuccessful, and that I must not flatter myself that I am not justly to blame for it. I certainly know that if the war fails, the Administration fails, and that I will be blamed for it, whether I deserve it or not. And I ought to be blamed if I could do better. You think I could do better; therefore you blame me already. I think I could not do better; therefore I blame you for blaming me.” Having thus disposed of the matter of blame, he passed on to the matter of hearts. “I understand you now to be willing to accept the help of men who are not Republicans, provided they have ‘heart in it.’ Agreed. I want no others. But who is to be the judge of hearts, or of ‘heart in it’? If I must discard my own judgment and take yours, I must also take that of others; and by the time I should reject all I should be advised to reject, I should have none left, Republicans or others—not even yourself. For be assured, my dear sir, there are men who have ‘heart in it’ that think you are performing your part as poorly as you think I am performing mine . . . . I wish to disparage no one, certainly not those who sympathize with me; but I must say I need success more than I need sympathy, and that I have not seen the so much greater evidence of getting success from my sympathizers than from those who are denounced as the contrary.”

He closed with a suggestion that the citizen soldier come to see him soon at the White House: which Schurz did, arriving early one morning, and was taken at once to an upstairs room where he found the President sitting before an open fire, his feet in large Morocco slippers. Told to pull up a chair, he did so: whereupon Lincoln brought his hand down with a slap on Schurz’s knee. “Now tell me, young man, whether you really think that I am as poor a fellow as you have made me out in your letter.” He was smiling, but Schurz could not keep from stammering as he tried to apologize. This made the tall man laugh aloud, and again he slapped his visitor’s knee. “Didn’t I give it to you hard in my letter? Didn’t I? But it didn’t hurt, did it? I did not mean to, and therefore I wanted you to come so quickly.” Still laughing, he added: “Well, I guess we understand one another now, and it’s all right.” They talked for the better part of an hour, and as Schurz rose to leave he asked whether he should keep on writing letters to the President. “Why, certainly,” Lincoln told him. “Write me whenever the spirit moves you.”



Wednesday, August 27, 2014

the last book I ever read (Shelby Foote's The Civil War, Volume One, excerpt sixteen)

from The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume One: Fort Sumter to Perryville by Shelby Foote:

As the cheering subsided, the men on the ridge became aware of a new sound: the rumble and boom of cannon, swelling from the direction of Cross Keys. It was Frémont, responding to Shields’ request that he “thunder down.” Going forward, however, he struck not Jackson’s rear but Ewell’s front. The first contact, after a preliminary bombardment, was on the Confederate right, where Ewell had posted a Virginia brigade along a low ridge overlooking some fields of early grain. Frémont came on with unaccustomed vigor, a regiment of New Yorkers in the lead, their boots crunching the young stalks of buckwheat. As they started up the slope there was a sudden crash of gunfire from the crest and the air was full of bullets. A second volley thinned the ranks of the survivors as they tried to reform their shattered line. They fell back, what was left of them. Frémont, reverting to the form he had shown at Strasburg, settled down to long-range fighting with his artillery, which was skillfully handled. Out in the buckwheat the wounded New Yorkers lay under this fire, crying for water. Their cries decreased as the day wore on and Frémont continued his cannonade.

In essence that was all there was to the Battle of Cross Keys. Ewell, fretting because he could not get the Pathfinder to make another attack, at last pushed forward for more than a mile until he occupied the ground from which the Federals had advanced that morning. There he stopped, having been warned not to put too much space between the two wings of the army. Frémont, with 10,5000 infantry effectives, faded back before Ewell’s 5000. It was finished. The North had lost 684 men, nearly half of them lying dead of their wounds in the grainfields; the South had lost 288, only 41 of them killed. Jackson’s trust in Old Bald Head as confirmed. Except for a quick ride out, to see how things were going, he had let Ewell fight his own battle while he himself remained on the heights above Port Republic. Asked if he did not think there was some danger that Shields would advance to help Frémont, whose guns were within earshot, Stonewall gestured towards his batteries and said grimly: “No, sir; no; he cannot do it! I should tear him to pieces.” As he stood there, listening to the sound of Ewell’s battle, intoxicated as if by music, he remarked to his ministerial chief of staff: “Major, wouldn’t it be a blessed thing if God would give us a glorious victory today?” One who overheard him said that as he spoke he wore the expression “of a child hoping to receive some favor.”



Tuesday, August 26, 2014

the last book I ever read (Shelby Foote's The Civil War, Volume One, excerpt fifteen)

from The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume One: Fort Sumter to Perryville by Shelby Foote:

When the six men assembled at the specified hour it was evident that the general had chosen his supporters wisely. Longstreet had won considerable renown as a poker player, but had given it up three months ago, on the eve of his forty-first birthday, when his three children died of scarlet fever, all within a week. Grief had given him a stolid and ponderous dignity, augmented by a slight deafness which he could sit behind, when he chose, as behind a wall of soundproof glass. He chose to sit so now. A large, square-built, hairy man, a native of the Deep South—born in South Carolina, raised in Georgia, and appointed to West Point from Alabama—he left the talking to Smith, who was a year younger but had been trained for disputation as Street Commissioner of New York City. Like Mansfield Lovell, his New York deputy, Smith had joined the Confederacy late, after waiting to see what his native Kentucky would do. Two months after Manassas he made his choice, which Davis applauded by making him a major general and giving him a division under Johnston, who admired him; the two were “Joe” and “G.W.” to each other. A big-framed man with a large nose and firm-set lips, a West Pointer and a Mexico veteran, a former assistant professor of engineering at the Academy, Smith had been a civilian for the past eight years and was quite accustomed to attending such high-level councils as this. With Davis’ and Johnston’s permission, he said, he would like to submit a memorandum he had prepared. Johnston looked it over, then passed it to Davis, who read it aloud.