A Broken (Family) Tree

A friend (Rick) was telling me last night about some genealogical research he’s been doing.

My understanding is that he may be writing up his findings himself. If so, I won’t steal his thunder by relating my (no doubt incomplete and/or flat-out wrong) version of the details. Just wanted to report one laugh-out-loud item.

Basically, Rick believes — or believed — himself to be a descendant of a branch of a sect known as the Harmonists (which, I am pretty sure, are covered here on Wikipedia). Why is this at all funny? Because among the principal beliefs of this sect was…

…celibacy.

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Sing, Sing, Sing

Happy Father's DayThis Sunday is Father’s Day in the US. Last week, 20 years ago, my Dad died. I thought a fitting tribute to both of these occasions would be to post here a short story which was, in many ways, a story of my Dad (although none of the actual events described in it occurred to him). That’s Dad in the photo at the left, circa 1943-44, when he was in training for a while at Texas A&M.

Below, I’ll excerpt the first couple-three pages of the quite old-fashioned story, whose title is “Sing, Sing, Sing.” It’s gone through many versions by now, the earliest written in the autumn of that year of 1988. The version which appears here is simply the most recent.

If you like that much of the story, feel free to download the complete version, in PDF form (146KB); a link to that appears at the end of the excerpt.

(Note: For what it’s worth, there has never to my knowledge been a newspaper named the New York Messenger. Should you go on to read the whole story, there’s never been a book called The Big Hall: The Good Times of Benny Goodman, either, or an author named Robert G. Ehling.)

Update (2008-08-07): I’ve done a more complete breakdown of the “Sing, Sing, Sing” performance, including full-length clips of the three main segments (which together make up a “triptych,” as the fictional Big Hall calls it).

[Read more…]

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The Imprint of Books, One Life at a Time

The Editorial Ass blog is running a fascinating series of posts. Collectively referred to as “Celebrate Reading Month,” each post in the series is written by a guest blogger, each describing a book which had an impact on the blogger’s life, understanding of books, reading habits — whatever.

MoonRat, who runs the blog, has made it convenient to see all the current posts at once, using a “celebrate reading” tag.

Of many interesting things about the series, there’s this, completely coincidental: it acts as a counterweight to those who might despair at the state of reading. (Including many of those reading and participating in Nathan Bransford’s current discussions, and subsequent comments, about e-readers, e-books, e-publishing, e-authoring and -agenting.)

Update: The sensory experience of reading — feel, smell, and so on — is one thing which people say holds them back from considering an e-reader. You might be interested in seeing this gallery of Kindle users’ photos of their new toys, many in quite inventive (and no doubt sensorily satisfying) covers.

Update 2: My contribution to Moonrat’s “Celebrate Reading Extravaganza” is up.

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Another Reason to Reconsider One’s Publication Ambitions

I’ve seen the idea, or ones like it, expressed in various forms. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen it expressed so… succinctly. It’s from Edna St. Vincent Millay (found on the DIESEL Bookstore site):

A person who publishes a book appears willfully in public with his pants down.

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Forty Years On

Portion of artwork by Tina Berning, for the NY TimesFrom the NY Times, RFK’s kids remember him:

Kerry Kennedy

But most of all, he believed it imperative to question authority, and those who failed that lesson did so at their peril.

Joseph P. Kennedy II

Robert Kennedy had a wonderful way of allowing others to tell him how the world looked through their eyes.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend

The long table was set with linen, silver and crystal. Painted portraits of my brothers and sisters hung on the walls. And suddenly, my father entered. He looked haunted and started talking to me, shaking his head in distress as he described the people he’d met in the Delta. “I was with a family who live in a shack the size of this dining room,” he told me.

And yeah, I know: ANYBODY’s kids tend to look at their parents in a manner that’s biased, one way or another. And yeah, I know: children of privilege, easy for them to say, etc. etc.

But there was no one like him. I bet his kids would have had these kinds of memories no matter what station in life he and they had been born to (or how he exited).

(Also from the Times, here’s the obituary (1.2MB PDF).)

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Oh, Great. That’s Just GREAT.

With the help of the New York Times, neuropsychologist Katherine P. Rankin dissects for us what it means to recognize sarcasm.

In one videotaped exchange, a man walks into the room of a colleague named Ruth to tell her that he cannot take a class of hers that he had previously promised to take. “Don’t be silly, you shouldn’t feel bad about it,” she replies, hitting the kind of high and low registers of a voice usually reserved for talking to toddlers. “I know you’re busy — it probably wasn’t fair to expect you to squeeze it in,” she says, her lips curled in derision.

Although people with mild Alzheimer’s disease perceived the sarcasm as well as anyone, it went over the heads of many of those with semantic dementia, a progressive brain disease in which people forget words and their meanings.

“You would think that because they lose language, they would pay close attention to the paralinguistic elements of the communication,” Dr. Rankin said.

To her surprise, though, the magnetic resonance scans revealed that the part of the brain lost among those who failed to perceive sarcasm was not in the left hemisphere of the brain, which specializes in language and social interactions, but in a part of the right hemisphere previously identified as important only to detecting contextual background changes in visual tests.

“The right parahippocampal gyrus must be involved in detecting more than just visual context — it perceives social context as well,” Dr. Rankin said.

Well then. That just explains everything, doesn’t it? I hope the very important Dr. Rankin knows how much we all appreciate her contribution to civil discourse.

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Voices of the Dead

I don’t know if you’ve ever read any of Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology, a 1915 collection of about 250 (mostly short) poems. If not, here’s a quick-quick summary: Over 200 “permanent residents” of a cemetery speak their own epitaphs/obituaries, in plain free-verse language.

If you’d like more information, there’s always Wikipedia, as well as lots of other sites on the Web.

One of those sites, “the definitive online edition,” offers some cool features for wandering through the book’s contents either as published or grouped, e.g., alphabetically, or “dead people who are talked about most.” One of these cool features is the ability to subscribe to a daily-epitaph feed via RSS or email.

I really liked today’s “edition,” in which one Hannah Armstrong speaks. I offer it to you here without the obvious political commentary (but boy, is it tempting…).

I wrote him a letter asking him for old times’ sake
To discharge my sick boy from the army;
But maybe he couldn’t read it.
Then I went to town and had James Garber,
Who wrote beautifully, write him a letter.
But maybe that was lost in the mails.
So I traveled all the way to Washington.
I was more than an hour finding the White House.
And when I found it they turned me away,
Hiding their smiles.
Then I thought: “Oh, well, he ain’t the same as when I boarded him
And he and my husband worked together
And all of us called him Abe, there in Menard.”
As a last attempt I turned to a guard and said:
“Please say it’s old Aunt Hannah Armstrong
From Illinois, come to see him about her sick boy
In the army.”
Well, just in a moment they let me in!
And when he saw me he broke in a laugh,
And dropped his business as president,
And wrote in his own hand Doug’s discharge,
Talking the while of the early days,
And telling stories.

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Mr. Excitement

So, The Missus indulged herself by going on a beach mini-weekend with a girlfriend.

Of course I pounced on the opportunity for a hedonistic erstwhile-bachelor weekend of my own.

And before you get your collective backs up (or, alternatively, let your collective imagination run riot): no, I didn’t do anything that a stereotypical bachelor does. Even an erstwhile stereotypical bachelor. Here’s how I spent the last couple days:

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Keeping Myself in Suspense

Man at WorkOver in the list of this blog’s categories, in the sidebar at the left, you will see “Writing” as a main category and — now, finally — a sub-category called “Merry-Go-Round.”

Actually, that sub-category has always been there. But in a WordPress blog, apparently, a (sub-)category doesn’t show up in the list until there’s an actual post assigned to it. So this is that first post.

Alas, it’s not the “Merry-Go-Round” post I would have preferred to lead with.

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Thinning the Herd

The blog known as Editorial Ass (which is short, of course, for “Assistant”) is written by an anonymous editor in NYC who identifies herself only as MoonRat. It’s linked over in the “Touchstones” category.

A recent post there, on the surface, was stimulated by a lecture, which MR attended, given by one Jonathan Karp, one of those uber-powerful “publisher/editors” who have been given their own imprints; his is called Twelve. The hook for Twelve — what distinguishes it from nearly all other publishers nowadays — is its emphasis on quality over quantity. The imprint’s name highlights the main rule: it publishes exactly twelve titles a year, one a month, and since publishers’ catalogs are issued to book buyers every quarter, this means that each new catalog from Twelve features exactly three books.

This is both exhilarating and scary as crap.

Exhilarating, because — although unlikely to become a widespread trend — the focus is great for readers.

And scary as crap because — although unlikely etc. — the focus means that only the very best writers and books (at least in a given editor’s eyes) can “make the cut.” No slacking. No room for “good enough.”

Of course, we now live in a world (e-books, print-on-demand, and so forth) where the barriers to entry for a new book in some form are lower. So — even if likely etc. — the “good enough” work will still have an outlet.

Still… If you’re a writer, you don’t even have to think twice about the answer to these questions: are you good enough for a highly selective publisher? if not, why not? are you satisfied with a “good enough” publisher? why?

See what I mean? Scary.

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