Archive for March, 2009


“Businessmen, they drink my wine…”

The following is an open letter to the Sci Fi Channel people.

Dear Sci Fi Channel People:

I write to you with the dogged affection of a spurned but hopeful suitor. Your Sci Fi Channel Original Movies have long provided me with superb background noise for otherwise dreary weekends of writing. I admired Sharks in Venice, I thought Dragon Dynasty was a hoot, and SS Doomtrooper more than satisfied my nostalgia for the entirely unrelated video-game franchise I’m sure you didn’t intend it to resemble at all. You even made an awful sequel to the awful Dungeons and Dragons movie! I should be grateful.

Instead, like the Mansquito tending the juice bar at a Dracula family reunion, I sense a distinct lack of opportunity, and the only sound I hear is forlorn and fruitless sucking.

Let facts be submitted to a candid world: Battlestar Galactica has ended, your parent company is unsteady, and your new name sounds like a social disease. I get that your monster-and-disaster B-movies turn a profit, but when even I can no longer distinguish Croc from Supergator or Frankenfish from Snakehead Terror, then your future is bleak.

With fingers bloody from clinging to the bottom of the midlist, I’m writing to offer two magic words that will rescue your faltering network:

Becoming Charlemagne.

We’ll start, as Battlestar Galactica did, with a miniseries—but unlike effects-driven productions that require custom sets and scores of Canadian character actors, Becoming Charlemagne: The Miniseries will be a model of parsimony. Given Sci Fi’s substantial catalog of wholly owned intellectual property, we can easily edit and re-dub scenes from Minotaur, Ogre, Gryphon, Grendel, Wyvern, Dragon Sword, Dragon Storm, and Hammerhead: Shark Frenzy to craft a Charlemagne narrative that is as entertaining as it is astonishingly thrifty.

After the miniseries proves viable, we’ll frugally film the resulting Becoming Charlemagne: The Series on location in the Balkans. My contacts in the Belgrade suburbs can ply our army of extras with homemade moonshine, perhaps in lieu of pay. To ensure a smooth transition, the miniseries should establish the existence of Brutalist architecture in ninth-century Aachen, an anachronism that only inflexible purists will decry.

I understand that television executives don’t leap gaily into edgy, cerebral projects—so if it helps, think of Becoming Charlemagne: The Series as “Battlestar Galactica in the woods.” The parallel with Charlemagne’s legendary Twelve Peers speaks for itself (“there are many copies, and they have a plan”), but if medieval jargon leaves you cold, feel free to substitute more familiar language. A Saxon, for example, might profitably be thought of as a tree Cylon. An angel in a hot red dress is hardly out of the question.

While you ponder my proposal, I’ll continue my vigil outside the bedroom windows of Sci Fi executives, raising my boom box aloft in an attempt to sell you on my other marketable idea: a starkly “reimagined” version of the failed 1992 series Covington Cross. Graphic medieval violence is, I believe, the resolution of all your fruitless searches, and while there are certainly worse shows we could remake, market research proves that the smart money flocks to projects in which the Skye is always the color of Ione.

Yours in sacré Charlemania,

Jeff

cc: Steven Spielberg; Peter Jackson; Christopher Tolkien; Rosamund McKitterick; Pierre Riché; John Rhys-Davies; Mirek Topolánek, President, European Union; Steve Voigt, President, King Arthur Flour Company; Coolio

“I need a phone call, I need a raincoat…”

Stuck inside? Bummed out by a rainy weekend? Here are some links to get you through a damp and dreary Sunday.

Steven Hart appreciates Ian McKellen’s Richard III.

Bibliographing ponders “the reader in exile” and the supposed end of the literary niche.

Eternally Cool finds seafood wearing medieval armor.

Ducks and Drakes picks apart the latest op-ed defending the humanities and celebrates 100 posts with a “best of” compilation.

Jake Seliger interviews T.C. Boyle. Part one is here; part two is here.

Lingwë has more on the new Tolkien translation.

Michael Drout connects Beowulf, Walter Skeat, and ornithology.

Scott Nokes posts the video of his lecture “Beowulf vs. the Nazis.”

Ephemeral New York has photos of the time the Nazis paraded in Manhattan.

Steve Muhlberger ponders the eternal question: should you go to graduate school?

Open Letters reviews the new bio of Philip of Macedonia.

Finally, here’s Leroy Powell singing Roger Miller’s “River in the Rain.”

“Well and I, could trace your private number, baby…”

No one has ever asked me how I celebrated when my agent sold my book, but if someone did, I’d answer, “by eating an ostrich in the Philippines.” In August 2004, I was visiting friends in Manila, and getting the good news was just part of a strange and memorable trip. I took a ferry to Corrigedor and watched nearly a hundred people get seasick, I shopped at one of the big Muslim pearl markets, and I dined at what was, during its brief existence, the world’s only all-Spam restaurant. The landscape was beautiful, the poverty was palpable and sad, and the people were quirky—and I fondly remember it all once a month, when a Filipino telemarketer leaves me an answering-machine message praising my book and offering to help me promote it.

BookWhirl may have a Wisconsin mailing address, but they’ve told as least one blogger that they’re in Iowa, and the small print on their Web site attributes copyright to Yen Chen Support, an outsourcing firm with a call center in the Filipino province of Cebu. From their island stronghold in Southeast Asia, BookWhirl minions have pestered such authors as Piers Anthony, Lee Goldberg, and April Henry, but all in vain. Their questionable services include a press release campaign; the “Online Directory Listing,” which involves posting advertisements “to various sites that have high traffic rates”; and the “Email Marketing Advertisement,” which should settle any remaining concern about the need to secure honest employment for exiled Nigerian princes.

Oddly—or perhaps not—the BookWhirl site lists not a single endorsement, ringing or otherwise, from any of the 130 mostly self-published authors who’ve used their services, and the professional qualifications of the BookWhirl staff are an enigma coated in ube and wrapped in the deep-fried milkfish of mystery. The company touts its “experienced team of online marketing strategists, ad copywriters, graphic artists, and web designers,” but neither their Web site nor any of their tiresome press releases list the name of anyone with publishing or marketing experience. In fact, the Web site lists no employee names at all.

I haven’t the foggiest idea why BookWhirl thinks they can help me. Their unsolicited calls probably violate federal law, and I don’t support their efforts to profit from the gullible. Still, the next time I get that call from Cebu, I’ll enjoy hearing someone who hasn’t read my book tell me how thrilling he found it. He’s just doing his job, and he can’t possibly know how silly he sounds, but aspiring writers can learn from his folly: empty praise is a service you don’t have to pay for.

“Take your shoes off, and throw them in the lake…”

[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]

When you know an author only through his novels for children, reading his nonfiction for adults—his first published books—is as strange as it is illuminating. Lloyd Alexander was a bestselling author by the age of 40, but in the years leading up to his success he was a frustrated bank messenger, an occasional translator, husband to a woman he’d met in France after World War II, and a budding nonfiction author. His books from that period are entertaining, comic, and oddly personal—although they’re most revealing for the experiences they omit.

Published in 1959 to a mostly positive review in the New York Times, the memoir Janine is French is one of Alexander’s more obscure books, and it only occasionally turns up secondhand. For adult readers who tire of Alexander’s stock characters but enjoy his sense of whimsy, this rare book stars a more improbable heroine than anyone found in his fiction:

Janine, my wife, is French. Slight and brunette, she walks with the tiny, hurried steps of Parisian women. On a crowded street, I can distinguish her at any distance by this quick, decisive gait that makes her seem to be following an invisible thread. She is fascinated by Indians, by animals, and Martians. She collects rusty nails for good luck and hoards them in a little wicker basket. She detests ice cream and ice cubes. She is small but determined; I have seen her demolish a chimney, using a bread knife and a tack hammer. The only period in my life when I believed I understood Janine completely was in Paris, a dozen years ago, before I had known her very long.

The first chapter of Janine is French is a fine example of light comic writing, largely because Alexander sketches two characters: his eccentric wife and, by inference, himself, the most bemused of narrators:

In France, marriage is still contracted under the Napoleonic Code, and the husband is specified as master of the house, with the right and privilege to select the place of residence, to control the budget, and to exercise final authority in all domestic matters. During my life with Janine, I admit that my claim to the benefits of this arrangement has been for the most part theoretical.

Struggling to maintain calculated befuddlement across 226 pages, Alexander leads readers on a rather mundane mystery: Can the young couple save enough money to return to France? Along the way, he punctuates the quasi-plot with funny anecdotes about Janine’s conflicts with her conservative in-laws, her attempts to become a dressmaker and hairdresser, and her lurid first encounter with scrapple. Eternally good-natured, Alexander taps his wife’s bad English for easy laughs—when stuck in the cold, she complains that she is “frizzing to deaf”—but his affection is obvious even when showing how alien she seems in the Philadelphia suburbs. “She was,” he writes of Janine on her first American Halloween, “the only ghost I had ever seen who walked with a Parisian accent.”

As Alexander sketches Janine’s terrible homesickness, darker moments push aside the comedy, and chapters about vacations, home repair, and driving lessons feel forced. The problem, of course, is that the obscure author of Janine is French went on to become an enormously successful children’s novelist, so his well-known biographical details are at odds with the life he describes in this book. Janine is French tells the story of a young, childless couple, but in 1959, Janine was 42 years old, and when Lloyd Alexander married her, he also adopted her daughter, a child who never appears in this book. Her omission is conspicuous; even the dust jacket copy describes Alexander as “now living near Philadelphia with his Parisian wife and five cats.” Renowned for his decency, Alexander was, I imagine, either forced by his publisher to redact his stepdaughter for marketing reasons or eager to protect her from embarrassment.

Unsurprisingly, there is no malice in this gentle book, but Janine is French demonstrates how a memoir can be both true and incomplete. Later in his career, Alexander commented that writing fiction for children let him express his deepest feelings in far more satisfying ways than writing for adults ever did, and this book makes clear what he meant. Seeing 1950s America through the eyes of an eccentric Parisian is a treat, but Lloyd Alexander is never fully present in the telling. Read with a fresh sense of how many of his heroines must have been based on his wife and stepdaughter, Janine is French suggests that writing fiction really did let him tell the whole story at last.

“Fortune prevailing across the western ocean…”

On St. Patrick’s Day, my block is a riot of counterfeit green. My neighbors, the locals, and crowds of outsiders embarrass and degrade themselves, and the sidewalks are rampant with bellowing drunks: “I’m not Irish, but I’m Irish today! Wooooo!” As the Irish economy continues to shrink, an international day of blarney may be unseemly, but there’s no better time to fall back on the Pogues.

With their drinking songs, tin-whistle ditties, and rousing odes to old-school Irishness, the Pogues are the sons of a more squalid age. Shane MacGowan, their lead singer and most prolific lyricist, has long exemplified the beer-blasted Irishman: profane, incoherent, staggering, sad, by turns violent and wistful, poetic and crass. By mumbling through lines like “Jimmy played harmonica in the pub where I was born,” MacGowan reinforced the image of a culture of cackling, chaotic brawlers whose sole goal in drinking themselves to death was to get in on the first round in Hell.

So yes, the Pogues have cultivated a cartoonish image, but they deserve credit for a more profound accomplishment: they were the unlikely vanguard of Irish internationalism before all that “Celtic Tiger” hype took hold. You can see it in their lyrics, which include references not only to Cuchullain and Cromwell but also to Rhineland mythology, the works of Jean Genet, and, in a funny folk cover, Jesse James. Sure, the Pogues eulogize Irish novelist Christy Brown as “a man of renown from Dingle to Down,” but they also sing about Gallipoli, they invoke Gericault’s “Raft of the Medusa,” and they even flirt with Coleridge. They croon about being lost in Louisiana, they bemoan being down and out in Nepal, and they dabble in Spanish history, offering the only ode to Federico Garcia Lorca in which a crass reference to “the faggot poet” could possibly be seen as sympathetic.

Often, the Pogues depart from folk ditties to dabble in tunes that evoke Guinness-flecked spaghetti Westerns or Celticized Bernstein soundtracks, and they throw themselves into the Cole Porter songbook without explanation or apology. Listen to “House of the Gods” and you’ll get a sense of how much thought goes into making such clangy, boisterous, intoxicating music. MacGowan’s goofy song about meeting a transvestite hooker on a Thai beach includes an opening and closing flourish that’s wonderfully wry: it’s a high-strung, ironic rendition of the melody from “You Still Believe in Me,” a sincere love song by—who else?—the Beach Boys.

Of course, the Pogues can be plainly sincere, especially when singing about squandered dreams. “Fairytale of New York,” MacGowan’s duet with the late Kirsty MacColl, has become a lachrymose Christmas favorite, but its popularity overshadows the superior “Thousands are Sailing,” guitarist Phillip Chevron’s bittersweet tale of Irish immigration:

In Manhattan’s desert twilight,
In the death of afternoon,
We stepped hand in hand on Broadway
Like the first men on the moon,

And “The Blackbird” broke the silence
As you whistled it so sweet,
And in Brendan Behan’s footsteps
I danced up and down the street.

Chevron’s characterization of the Irish as both celebrating and fleeing their “fear of priests with empty plates, from guilt and weeping effigies” combines regret, wistfulness, superstition, and self-loathing; that’s the sort of artistry that makes the Pogues more than a novelty band with a repertoire of drinking songs. Only a lyricist who’s seen the rest of the world could think so clearly and write so eloquently about Ireland’s place within it.

Granted, the Pogues are improbable spokesmen for Irish internationalism—and not only because half the band is actually English. Watch the documentary If I Should Fall From Grace and marvel at footage of Shane MacGowan—drunken, petulant, rotten-toothed, and suicidal. Could this incoherent bum really be the literate soul who wrote the Pogues’ most poignant songs? Did he really go to Thailand, Nepal, New York, and Mississippi? Is there really a Rain Street where he observed Ireland in all its Chaucerian glory, or was the whole business born of drugs and booze?

Who knows? Today, raise a few pints to the Pogues. When a world full of expats looked back with nostalgia, the Pogues looked beyond Irish shores. If you just need to drink and be raucous and weepy, they gave you a suitable soundtrack. If you aspire to be worldly and wise, they gave you good songs for that, too.

“…so you run down to the safety of the town.”

In 825, when Walahfrid Strabo was a teenager at the monastery of Reichenau, he started a notebook. The notebook went with him when he left to study at Fulda, and it followed him home when he came back to Reichenau as abbot. Walahfrid wrote a lovely poem about gardening, so it’s tempting to think that even when the abbot was traveling on a royal mission or tutoring the emperor’s son at Aachen, his heart was deep in the weeds—but his notebook, now in the abbey library at St. Gall in Switzerland, offers a sense of the learning that ran through his mind as he tended his wormwood and fennel.

Across 394 pages, Walahfrid copied mathematical tables, medical texts, and excerpts from chronicles and calendars. He transliterated runes, and he doodled a labyrinth, but he filled nearly half of his notebook with grammatical texts: examples of Latin usage, excerpts from the works of great writers, and guides to poetic meter. Many of these texts were centuries old, but Walahfrid copied them into his vademecum and went about his business, presumably delighted by the access to education and technology that allowed him to take Priscian, Seneca, Isidore, and Bede with him wherever he went.

I thought of Walahfrid’s notebook when Books, Inq. pointed readers to “Resisting the Kindle,” a piece by Sven Birkerts in The Atlantic. Birkerts imagines printed books disappearing, which I don’t think will happen, and he describes the advent of e-books as “apocalyptic,” which I don’t think it is. Although he makes a reasonable case, Birkerts can’t help but panic about the impending “decimation of context”:

So if it happens that in a few decades—maybe less—we move wholesale into a world where information and texts are called onto the screen by the touch of a button, and libraries survive as information centers rather than as repositories of printed books, we will not simply have replaced one delivery system with another. We will also have modified our imagination of history, our understanding of the causal and associative relationships of ideas and their creators. We may gain an extraordinary dots-per-square-inch level of access to detail, but in the process we will lose much of our sense of the woven narrative consistency of the story. That is the trade-off. Access versus context. As for Pride and Prejudice—Austen’s words will reach the reader’s eye in the same sequence they always have. What will change is the receiving sensibility, the background understanding of what this text was – how it emerged and took its place in the context of other texts—and how it moved through the culture.

The change Birkerts predicts isn’t “apocalyptic,” nor is it even new; multidisciplinary conversations about context occur every time someone studies or teaches a medieval work. When medievalists read a text, they often don’t know who wrote it; its original audience may be unknown; and it may be an edition based on a manuscript that was decades or centuries older than any copy the original author saw or touched.

Birkerts frets that e-books “will also have modified our imagination of history, our understanding of the causal and associative relationships of ideas and their creators,” but this semester, my bright students discerned, all on their own, that layers of context support the translations we read. They grasped that the Penguin Classics Mabinogion is a translation of an edition of a copy of a manuscript that the anonymous author or authors may never have handled or seen—and that the translation is also a conscious response to earlier translations, which are themselves products of their times. What Birkerts finds so terrifying—authors “no longer cohering in historical imagination but fragmented into retrievable bits of information”—is already a normal part of dealing with the ambiguity of any pre-modern work.

Twelve centuries ago, Walahfrid himself faced the question of context when he came across a copy of Einhard’s biography of Charlemagne. He didn’t panic; instead, he wrote a prologue that offered his own take on the historical background, and he alerted posterity to the handy section headers he’d inserted. In Walahfrid’s day, monks were copying texts in an innovative new handwriting, saving ancient works like Cicero’s Philippics for future scholars to contextualize—while happily copying, and thus making portable, the texts they also found vital for personal use.

My hunch is that the young abbot of Reichenau would have been more confused by our modern cult of the author than by devices like the Kindle, which promise to be a fancy codex, scroll, reference library, and vademecum all packed into one. Of course, Walahfrid knew what medieval monks knew, and what medievalists have learned from them: that the uncertainty ahead of us is nothing compared to the fog that we face when we turn to the past.

“I was filled with creative desire, I set my mommy’s house on fire…”

Every so often, I bump into aspiring writers who say they can’t imagine why anyone would read or write a blog. Me, I don’t understand why anyone would pay to fill their shelves with books about writing when a host of smart journalists, novelists, professors, and other pros have moved much of the conversation online. It’s never been easier to gab about the creative process or to learn about writing as a business, and folks are just giving away the wisdom. Behold…

Literary agent Nathan Bransford descends from the mountaintop with the Ten Commandments for the Happy Writer. (The smartest one is number five: “Don’t quit your day job.”)

Writer C.M. Mayo compiles a list “to all the many people who ask me to read their manuscripts.”

Novelist J.A. Konrath outlines the differences between a confident writer and a delusional writer. (Link via Steven Hart, who has some pithy advice of his own: read, study, understand.)

Margaret Soltan ponders why writing is often “acutely unpleasant.”

Novelist Leslie Pietrzyk spends a day “writing uncomfortably.”

Olen Steinhauer wonders how other writers find the time and notes that the day his new novel came out was not “particularly raucous.”

“Eating with a spoon, they don’t give you knives…”

Many English translations of the sagas mention “sour curds,” but Icelanders know the stuff by its proper name, skyr. Shortly before medieval outlaw Egil Skallagrimson got into a famous drinking-and-barfing contest at the home of Armod Beard, he downed a hearty bowl of skyr, and his descendants still enjoy the thick, sour, yogurt-like cheese curds:

When the farm laborer rises in the morning he expects his allowance of skyr as a matter of course, along with his black bread and coffee. And when the chance visitor from town drops in, he welcomes a plate of skyr, along with cakes and coffee, as the most satisfying form of refreshment. Nor is the taste unpleasant, but one needs practice in order to empty a soup-plate full of it with good grace.

One brand of imported skyr has been available in parts of the U.S. for several years, but I was stunned today to stumble across Siggi’s Skyr, every six-ounce cup of which is made in America by an entrepreneurial, homesick Icelander who refined the recipe in his TriBeCa apartment and set up a skyr operation on a farm in upstate New York.

Skyr is an acquired taste, and Siggi’s Skyr isn’t cheap—it’s around $2.50 for six ounces, as opposed to $1.99 for the same quantity of the imported brand—but it’s powerful stuff: no fat, 16 grams of protein (which makes it more protein-rich than an entire chicken thigh), 13 grams of carbohydrates, and the calcium of two-thirds of a cup of milk.

Of course, the American who wants to eat like a Viking faces hard questions: Should one buy the imported skyr and support Iceland’s cratered economy? Should one buy the domestic stuff and support a very weird small business? And for crying out loud, with flavors like “pomegranate and passion fruit,” why doesn’t it come in galangal?

“Er war ein Punker, und er lebte in der großen Stadt…”

Charlemagne is everywhere—he’s in real-estate stories, cigarette advertisements , and quite possibly in your shower—and this week he popped up again in the news.

The “Charlemagne” columnist at The Economist now has a blog, “Charlemagne’s Notebook”:

At a European Union summit not long ago, a visiting reporter from Poland saw “The Economist” on my press accreditation, and asked: “Oh, are you Charlemagne?” When I nodded, and said that I did write that column, her face fell.

“You should be taller,” she said, with feeling.

Meanwhile, the science blogger at the New York Times offers up a mathematical puzzle attributed to Alcuin. You really never know when you’ll need to get across a river with a wolf, a goat, and a head of cabbage…

“You were there at the turnstiles, with the wind at your heels…”

Tonight, I found myself explaining orcs to a four-year-old. As snow falls on Washington, take comfort in knowing that somewhere out there is a kid who thinks an orc is a mean, pig-faced creature who uses the word “stupid,” calls other people “blockheads,” and sometimes hits his fellow orcs.

What do orcs have to do with the following assortment of Monday links? Nothing; I just couldn’t leave this introductory section blank, for heaven’s sake.

Last year, I heard from a reader in British Columbia who was planning to walk the Via Francigena, the old pilgrimage route to Rome. I knew too little about the route or its history to offer much help, but I was delighted to learn that he and his wife did it: they walked the stretch from Switzerland to Rome. They’re telling their story here.

What do you get when you combine the Ramayana with 1920s jazz songs? Sita Sings the Blues.

Natalia wants her students’ essays to look her in the I.

Eternally Cool finds The Aeneid on Facebook.

Cinderella says I’m “excessively diverting.” Thanks!

Steven Hart says that some blog-posts last.

Unlocked Wordhoard wonders: What are medieval barnacle geese?

When the BBC ran a silly story about computer models of English past and future, Got Medieval was there to give it a deserving kick, and Language Log was there to demolish it.

Finally, this video from a couple years ago plainly demonstrates why learning a foreign language can be pretty useful.