Jul 18 2013

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher

Short Nights of the Shadow CatcherOne should certainly read Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, if only for the sheer color and adventure of the story. Timothy Egan’s biography of the man responsible for most of the portraits of Native Americans we think of today as “iconic” is a wild wild west tale of the wildest kind. But it would be helpful to be armed it with a good collection of Curtis’s work by your side as you read, because while the book does include some of the photos, they are reproduced on the text paper, not glossy paper, and there are quite a few pictures Egan describes in detail that aren’t reproduced.

It’s really the biography of a book…a series of books…as much as it is the biography of a man. Curtis was a man who lived in pursuit of–really, enslaved to–a vision. What he called his “big idea”; to photograph every Native American tribe in America. So it isn’t surprising that it becomes hard to disentangle the man from the work. Especially since in pursuit of the work, Curtis sacrificed many of the things we would normally look for in the biography of a man: his marriage, his career, his friends and family. 20 volumes… it staggers the imagination. Curtis original told JP Morgan, who he was hitting up to finance the project, that it would take 5 years and cost $75,000. It took more than 30 years and cost a quarter of a million, of which not a dime went to Curtis himself.

Oddly enough, although this is a book about a photographer, “photography” is not the biographer’s strong point. His descriptions of the processes Curtis used — he insisted on old fashioned glass plate negatives and a variety of developing processes, some of which involved printing onto gold — are utilitarian and conscientious, but do little to bring a real “feel” for the work of the photographer to the reader. Egan is on stronger ground, though, when he talks about the photographs themselves as art, and his sense of Curtis the artist is a good one. One gets the feeling that although Egan doesn’t quite understand how to take a good picture, he knows when he is looking at one. And his grasp of how Curtis was drawn to this or that subject is very strong, beginning right at the start of the book with the story of how Curtis convinced “Princess Evangeline,” last surviving daughter of Chief Seattle, to sit for a portrait. His first Indian picture.

Where the book really shines, though, is in an unexpected area: Curtis the self-taught anthropologist. In order for Curtis to get some of the iconic photographs we now treasure today, he had to be accepted into the community, the tribe. And not just one tribe, but EVERY tribe he dragged his camera equipment to see. He often returned to the same tribe year after year, building his rapport with elders and medicine men and tribal leaders. He became so integrated among the Hopi he actually became a snake priest. It was the only way they’d let him watch…much less photograph, some of the rituals he wanted to document.

It meant that Curtis’s understanding of Native American life, and especially Native American spirituality, was profound. At a time when government policy (backed by Christian missionaries) was to suppress the “savage rites” of a basically godless people, Curtis understood that the internal life of the Indian was deeply, profoundly spiritual. (“They worship the sun,” he said in a letter to a friend, “in the same way that a Christian worships the Cross.”)

Not many people realize that Curtis wasn’t just taking photographs. He was conducting full anthropological expeditions. He dragged around a wax-cylinder recording device and recorded songs and chants. He hired a writer and an editor and the group of them would work 16 hour days getting down vocabularies and making language notes for languages that are now lost to us today. And although his lack of a university degree meant Curtis was often looked down on in his own time by the academic echelon ensconced in places like the Smithsonian, nowadays his reputation is almost solid gold. And his 30 year mad dash around the country to document and preserve what could be preserved about what Curtis called “the Vanishing Race” is the only reason we have much of what we do know about traditional Native American life. In fact, when Native Americans began to reclaim their heritage and revive the practice of old languages, customs and rituals, they often relied on the material that Curtis had collected to help them.

It’s hard not to be aware of how much might have been lost forever, if not for the great lucky chance of this one, driven man. Such a fragile thread upon which to hang the history of an entire people.

Apr 7 2013

Thomas Jefferson: On the Art of Power

Thomas Jefferson, on the art of power

On the whole, Meacham’s approach is very well done, a remarkably equitable account of a man who tends to bring out the fanatic in both his admirers and his detractors. It’s nice to have an attempt at a sober view of Jefferson, the politician. Meacham’s is the first biography I’ve read of the man that really makes an honest attempt to look at what the man did, not just what he said. And Meacham is more concerned with the actual results of Jefferson’s actions than with the apparent conflict between the man’s idealism and his day to day actions.

As a result, the case he makes for Jefferson as a pragmatic and even savvy politician is a strong one. But it hangs on a couple premises–most notably that Jefferson had a distrust of the British that bordered on paranoia. So most of Jefferson’s political decisions–especially the controversial ones–are viewed through this lens. The result is that sometimes, what Meacham attempts to present as an explanation (Jefferson’s implacable enmity towards Hamilton, for example) ends up sounding more like an excuse.

Still, even with that kind of caveat in mind, I found the book a rewarding read. And I have a much better sense of Jefferson, the leader, than I have found in other books more centered on his philosophical and idealistic stances.

Aug 21 2011

morning spam (reprinted in its entirety)

ba salam o ehteram
omid varam haleton khob bashe

man karatono didam , vaghean mahsharan !
ehtemal dare ye order pisheton dashte bashim !

mikhastam ghablesh gheimate 2 chizo bedonam
tarahi psd hosting ( only psd va bedon code )
tarahi kol ( graphic o code )

lotf konid ba takhfif begid hatman !
chon karaye ziadi darim age ke enshalla biaym mozahemeton shim
pas rah biayn :)



(via email, in comic sans)

Jan 8 2011

Winter is a strange thing in the south, where we can have days that feel like summer, followed by weeks that certainly donít. After starting the New Year with bright, warm weather we are now back to bright and cold winds. It is exhilarating to walk with the dog, but Iíve put my gloves on.

Iím still reading about Victorian women tramping in exotic deserts in search of antiquities to crate up and ship back to their ďcivilizedĒ countries (where most remain to this day, but only the citizens of the original countries will call it ďlootingĒ). But in the meantime, in honor of the winter winds:

Avoid the month Lenaeon, wretched days, all of them
fit to skin an ox, and the frosts which are cruel when Boreas blows over
the earth. He blows across horse-breeding Thrace upon the wide sea and
stirs it up, while earth and the forest howl. On many a high-leafed
oak and thick pine he falls and brings them to the bounteous earth in
mountain glens: then all the immense wood roars and the beasts shudder
and put their tails between their legs, even those whose hide is covered
with fur; for with his bitter blast he blows even through them although
they are shaggy-breasted. He goes even through an ox’s hide; it does not
stop him. Also he blows through the goat’s fine hair. But through the
fleeces of sheep, because their wool is abundant, the keen wind Boreas
pierces not at all; but it makes the old man curved as a wheel. And it
does not blow through the tender maiden who stays indoors with her
dear mother, unlearned as yet in the works of golden Aphrodite, and who
washes her soft body and anoints herself with oil and lies down in an
inner room within the house, on a winter’s day when the Boneless One
gnaws his foot in his fireless house and wretched home; for the
sun shows him no pastures to make for, but goes to and fro over the land
and city of dusky men, and shines more sluggishly upon the whole
race of the Hellenes. Then the horned and unhorned denizens of the wood,
with teeth chattering pitifully, flee through the copses and glades, and
all, as they seek shelter, have this one care, to gain thick coverts or
some hollow rock. Then, like the Three-legged One whose back is
broken and whose head looks down upon the ground, like him, I say, they
wander to escape the white snow.

–Hesiod, from Works and Days (via Project Gutenberg).

Jan 2 2011

Tacitus, when you feel like hacking away at things with a sharp object

January 2 2010 Warm, in the mid sixties, with an unsettled sky.

Itís my favorite kind of skyóthe kind that blows dark clouds across slanting sunlight and you can just feel the rain coming on. Itís hard to do anything but walk and look, so that is mostly what Ray and I did, with Tacitus in the earphones as a kind of sound track to the weather. Iím coming back to Tacitus, actually, having gone through the Histories at some point last year. I think when I was trying to come to terms with Shakespeareís Titus Andronicusówhich was a struggle. Tacitus was among his source materials, and therefore I decided to read him. Because lately Iíve been reading with the idea that context is everything, and because Iíve always been willing to be blown (like the clouds above me this afternoon?) across literature from book to book to book.

Tacitus, it turns out, is better than Hesiod for gardening. Especially the kind of gardening that requires attacking last yearís recalcitrant weeds and clumps of grass and digging them out of the beds with nothing more than a hoe and a pair of hedge clippers. Heís all mutinies and violence, murder and machinations and dreadful punishments, is Tacitus. But he still manages to bring out the character and the nature of the men he writes about. It sounds like absolute madness from my perspective (as I hack hack hack away), but there is virtue there. And I can almost believe it when Edith Hamilton writes that the great gift of the Romans to civilization was the rule of law.

Jan 1 2011

Work and days

January 1 2011 Sunny and 68 degrees.

Iíve been in the garden, obviously. Sawing up old trees with the pruning saw mom and dad bought me, and feeling profoundly grateful for the leather gardening gloves they bought me as well. The beds are laid out, now I just need the extra dirt and compost.

The garden, january 1 2011I was listening to Hesoid, Work and Days, while I raked, sawed, hoed, pruned, clipped and cleared. I thought it would be appropriate. I went through it twice, but I think Iím going to give up on him. I like the notion of these long poetical works on practical and scientific subjectsóHesiod on farming, Lucretius on science (ďthe nature of thingsĒ), Virgilís Georgics. But while Virgil is very beautiful, filled with vivid pictures of working the lands in season, and while Lucretius still manages to sing-song his way to a theory of an infinite universe (I love that his ďproofĒ that all matter contains empty space is contained in the fact that you can hear sounds in another room, even if the door is closed), Hesiod is none of these things. His poem is pedantic and dry. It may be the translation that is wanting, but since the translator of the version Iím listening to is Richmond Lattimore, I think not. Mostly it isóat least on agricultureóa collection of directives: ďOn this day, sow your corn. On this one, harvest your grapes.Ē Useful, no doubt, but a far cry from Virgil, who tells us how birds fly up all of a sudden when they sense an oncoming storm, and how the light from the oil lamp in front of the girls working at their looms will gutter without warning, in portent of the same. Or how to tell if the soil of the land is light and good, or sour, by filling a leaky basket with the dirt and pouring water through, so that you can taste the run off for bitterness or salt.

If I had an ounce of poetry in me Iíd write something like Georgics for my garden, which is, at the moment, a collection of raked and empty beds. Like my empty bookcases from last week, they are all potential and possibility.

Oct 7 2010

A Reader’s Manifesto?

Exactly a year ago the Atlantic Monthly ran an article by an anonymously-styled writer B.R. Myers, called ‚ÄúA Reader’s Manifesto: An attack on the growing pretentiousness of American Literary Prose.‚ÄĚ In its rather lengthy 8 pages, he- or she- complained that much of the so-called literary fiction sweeping the awards and monopolizing the reviews are convoluted, obtuse, and well-nigh unreadable to everyone except a few rarefied literary critics. Even worse, writers who deserved to be called literary are scorned as genre writers merely because they have written a page-turner of a book with an actual plot. Myers then went on to discuss why such prize-laden books as The Shipping News, All the Pretty Horses, and Snow Falling on Cedars were tedious, repetitive and poorly written, and to lament the fact that a fine writer like Stephen King will never win a Pulitzer prize.

As was intended, the article provoked a storm of response. A few people hotly defending the books and authors (and critics) in question, and many more saying ‚ÄúAmen!‚ÄĚ Now, a year later, A Reader’s Manifesto has been released as a book, and the controversy is starting to kick back in. B.R. Myers, who turns out to be a man, has expanded his list of pretentious writers to include Jonathan Franzen, and Don Delillo. He also gives a tongue-in-cheek list of ‚Äú10 Rules for ‚ÄėSerious Writers‚Äô‚ÄĚ which includes the ever-useful “how to write a sex scene badly.”

It is all very amusing, but in the end one wonders if what was worth an eight page article can justify a 160 page book.

Besides, he’s wrong.

I will acknowledge that Stephen King, John Grisham and Jackie Collins are unlikely to ever win a Pulitzer. I will even agree that they are all very fine writers (or were, anyway). Stephen King has written some of the most horrifically frightening stories ever conceived by a demented imagination and I give him full credit it for it. But the Pulitzer, the National Book Critics Award, the Pen Faulkner Award- none of these are popularity contests. They are awards of literary merit.

The Pulitzer, for example, is given “For distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.” What exactly constitutes ‚Äúdistinguished‚ÄĚ is left up to the jury, but by and large the award is given to a book that represents both excellence in its literary style, and helps the genre as a whole progress. (See- even fiction is a genre). In fact, it is ironic that Myers chose Stephen King as a writer wronged by the literary establishment. King is a master at manipulating his standing in the ratings. When his novel The Green Mile was released it was done chapter by chapter, so that he could honestly say that he had seven books on the bestseller list at the same time. And at $3.99 per chapter, readers spent $21 for what should have been a $6.99 paperback.

Myers takes each of his pretentious authors in turn and cites examples of what he considers bad writing. In most cases I found it hard to agree with his choices, and in the case of Don Delillo- a writer I don’t like at all, I found that Myers was not only unfair, but he didn’t even prove his point.

The truth is, all the writers Myers cited have evoked strong reactions from their readers- not always positive, but always memorable. Which is more than you can say for the last Jackie Collins novel. If Jonathan Franzen’s book The Corrections made you want to throw it across the room in frustration, if Annie Proulx’s Shipping News made you want to close the book rather than face more of the characters’ torment, then those writers are doing their job- and doing it far better than your average book-a-year contract bestselling author.

The fact that these authors prompted Myers to write first and eight page article, and then a 160 page book in response to their books only proves how good those writers really are.

May 16 2010

thoughts on Shakespeare’s King John

(After seeing the BBC production on DVD)

Oddly enough, King John is nearly the least interesting character in it. He doesn’t really come into his own until Acts IV and V, when things are going seriously downhill for him. But I suppose that’s par for the course in Shakespeare. It is our disintegrations that most interest the Bard.

IShakespeare's King John performed at Drury Lane Theatren the BBC production, the show was stolen by Mary Morris (Queen Elinor), Claire Bloom (Constance) and the guy who plays Philip Faulconbridge, also known as Richard, “the Bastard.”† In fact, in terms of roles he’s the most interesting guy in the play. He’s kind of a running jester/cynic/commentator on what’s going on, although his cynicism gradually gives way to actual sense of purpose. He’s the only person in the whole play who develops as a character.

Mary Morris did a great job as Elinor, coming across as self-possessed and ambitious, and a bit scary–not above using seduction if the occasion calls for it. (Some really strange scenes there between her and the Bastard, who becomes, in effect, her knight). Shakespeare has a knack for writing impressive older women.

So the play was fascinating and frustrating by turns. The best parts and best lines went to characters who just vanish between one Act and the next. Through all of Act III Elinor and Constance rail at each other (and its a thing of beauty), then suddenly, they’re gone. Died, off stage, erased from the story. And suddenly too, the Dauphin–when introduced one might think a wet blanket had more personality than he–suddenly he’s front and center, leading invasions into England, sneering at all and sundry.

I know alot of my complaints are based on a modern sense of narrative and character development, but really, the whole story is so fractured, it’s hard to think about it in its entirety. I keep focusing on small scenes and actions instead. Lovely little bits like Hubert’s description of the civil unrest–of a tailor, in such haste to tell the news to his friend the smith that he put his shoes on the wrong feet before he ran out into the street:

I saw a smith stand with his hammer, thus,
The whilst his iron did on the anvil cool,
With open mouth swallowing a tailor’s news;
Who, with his shears and measure in his hand,
Standing on slippers, which his nimble haste
Had falsely thrust upon contrary feet,
Told of a many thousand warlike French
That were embattailed and rank’d in Kent

I love stuff like that in Shakespeare. It makes you realize that he must have absorbed life like a sponge. Nothing seems too small to be unworthy of notice or comment.

King John, then, is a drama where the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. In this play, the men are mostly foolish, the women mostly wise, and the children all are sacrifices.

Oct 28 2009

Conversations with Trees

So one day North Carolina poet Laura Hope-Gill was wandering around the Internet and she came across the Blue Ridge photographs of Asheville photographer John Fletcher.† She was so moved by what she saw she sat down and wrote poems about each of them, right then and there. Then she emailed the poems to Fletcher (and what a gift that must have been to find in his inbox the next morning). He sent her more photos. She wrote more poems. And naturally, like grass growing tall in the summer, the poems and the photos came together to become a book.


The tree said to the sunlight:
How is it I do not grow tired?

The sun said to the evergreen:
You are what I turn into

When I want to touch the earth.

The Soul Tree ended up as an Okra Pick from Southern indie booksellers, despite its list price of $49.95. (We used soy ink and environmentally-friendly printing methods, said the author, because we couldn’t do a book celebrating nature and destroy it in the process). But what I like about the poems is their immediacy, against the eternal feeling of mountains and old trees.

Jun 14 2009

A comedy of errors

comedyoferrorsSo at the beginning of this year I made a new year’s resolution to myself to see each of Shakespeare’s plays at least once during the course of the year–either live or on dvd.† It’s the kind of resolution that has been tons of fun to pursue, an exercise in self-indulgences, rather than self-restraint.

Some of the plays, however, are proving elusive. As it turns out, Pericles is not high up on anyone’s list of Shakespeare-that-must-be-performed. So to help keep my resolution, I procured for myself a copy of the Arkangel Shakespeare, a massive box of full audio productions of each play on CD.† And I’m going through them one by one, approximately in order of when they were written.

I’ve already written about some of them:

Henry VI, parts i, ii, and iii

Richard III

Richard III may well be my favorite Shakespeare play, my distressing introduction notwithstanding.

But now I am onto A Comedy of Errors, which after Richard seems positively fluffy.† And I made several discoveries:

First, in the Arkangel production David Tennant plays Antipholus of Syracuse, and even just listening to the performance, without actually seeing it, it was awfully hard not to think “That’s the Doctor!”† For a few scenes I amused myself with wondering where they would put the TARDIS in the set.

More importantly, though, was the discovery that Comedy of Errors relies heavily on visual cues and mistaken impressions and what my friend Lev calls “smart staging.”† I had already had trouble deciphering the fight scenes in the Henry VI plays, so you can imagine my confusion here.

Nevertheless, the play had its moments–the point where Dromio (of Syracuse) is describing to his master the “beauties” of a kitchen wench that is convinced they are to be married is pretty hilarious:


Then she bears some breadth?


No longer from head to foot than from hip to hip:
she is spherical, like a globe; I could find out
countries in her.


In what part of her body stands Ireland?


Marry, in her buttocks: I found it out by the bogs.

Antipholus finds this a great joke, and goes on to name all the countries, to which Dromio responds with some awful insult against the lady’s looks for each.† America, “…embellished with/ rubies, carbuncles, sapphires, declining their rich/aspect to the hot breath of Spain; who sent whole/ armadoes of caracks to be ballast…” is to be found on the poor woman’s nose. I’m sure by the end of the bit Shakespeare’s audiences were howling.† (You can read the full exchange here)

I did get to see an actual production of the play, put on by our Youth Shakespeare Company for our local outdoor “Shakespeare on the Green” festival. Everyone in the company is under 18. The actors playing the two Dromios were around 12. This took some getting used to–especially since the actors playing the two Antipholus’ were closer to 16 or 17. (And the girl playing the ugly kitchen maid was at least this old). So the physical comedy was a little strange. And the play had been edited slightly to get rid of some of the more salacious inuendos (including the entire exchange above), which did little to alleviate the oddity of the scenes in any case. But perhaps it was in keeping. Certianly in Shakespeare’s time many of the parts–especially the female parts–would have been played by young pretty boys.

In any case, I was glad to actually see the performance, and to have a visual in my mind for when I listened, for the second time, to the audio.† After becoming so involved with Richard III, Comedy of Errors was perhaps doomed to pale. But the ready wit, and the clever, playful language was still very much in evidence. I was not moved, but I was certainly entertained.