Beat poet Michael McClure, RIP

Esteemed Beat poet Michael McClure has died of complications from a stroke he suffered last year. He was 87 years old. A key figure in the 1950s San Francisco scene that formed around Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter Martin's City Lights Bookstore, McClure was a contemporary of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Philip Lamantia. Along with his ecstatic, rhythmic poems, McClure also penned plays, songs, novels, and journalism for the likes of Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair. Above, McClure reads his poetry to lions in 1966 for the USA: Poetry television series. From the New York Times:

A then 22-year-old McClure helped organize the famous Six Gallery beat poetry reading on Oct. 7, 1955, and later read at the Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park that launched the Summer of Love in 1967 and at The Band’s “Last Waltz” concert at Winterland in 1976[...]

In McClure’s 1982 nonfiction account of the Six Gallery reading, “Scratching the Surface of the Beats,” he set the stage for the revolution that was to follow in the mid-1950s:

“The world that we tremblingly stepped out into in that decade was a bitter, gray one," he wrote. “We saw that the art of poetry was essentially dead — killed by war, by academies, by neglect, by lack of love, and by disinterest. We knew we could bring it back to life.”

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The sexy medical researcher in this bestselling 1991 romance novel was based on Anthony Fauci

Journalist and novelist Sally Quinn's bestselling 1991 novel of romance and intrigue, Happy Endings, is about fictional presidential widow Sadie Grey who falls for a sexy medical researcher working for the National Institutes of Health on a new AIDS treatment. Yes, the alluring government scientist with the "low, melodious, sexy, almost hypnotic” voice, as Quinn described the character, is none other than Dr. Anthony Fauci. From Benjamin Wofford's article in Washingtonian:

Part searing romance, part roman à clef, “Happy Endings” made the bestseller list during a year when HIV-related deaths were then the highest ever recorded in the United States. By then, Fauci was the government scientist best known for combatting the virus’s spread as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

It was around this time that Quinn first encountered the real-life Fauci, at a Washington function where the two were paired as dinner partners. With his tie askew and from behind enormous glasses, Fauci left an impression of earnest brilliance, enough to inspire the main character of Quinn’s upcoming novel.

“I just fell in love with him,” Quinn told me recently, recalling their evening together. “Usually those dinners, you make polite conversation, and that’s it. But we had this intense conversation, personal conversation. I though, ‘Wow, this guy is amazing.'” [...] “He was so different from most Washington people, because he’s so self-effacing. He’s not in it for the glory or the name recognition,” Quinn recalled. She decided to have Grey “fall in love with this doctor who does this amazing work, and doesn’t get a lot of publicity.”

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Podcast interview Maureen Herman, former bassist of Babes in Toyland

I really enjoyed this episode of Coffee or Suicide with my friend Maureen Herman. She was the bassist for Babes in Toyland, and is a writer and a frequent contributor to Boing Boing. In this episode, she "talks about the need for access to mental health care services, her experiences with addiction and trauma, and why she never called herself a riot grrrl." Read the rest

Ray Bradbury's captivating explanation of his Mr. Electrico character's uncanny origins

As Ray Bradbury fans know, there's a curious minor character named Mr. Electrico who turns up in his creeptastic 1962 novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. Bradbury always insisted Mr. Electrico was real but scholars never could confirm that. Then in a fantastic interview from 2010 by Sam Weller in The Paris Review, Bradbury tells the uncanny story of how he met the real Mr. Electrico:

...He was a real man. That was his real name. Circuses and carnivals were always passing through Illinois during my childhood and I was in love with their mystery. One autumn weekend in 1932, when I was twelve years old, the Dill Brothers Combined Shows came to town. One of the performers was Mr. Electrico. He sat in an electric chair. A stagehand pulled a switch and he was charged with fifty thousand volts of pure electricity. Lightning flashed in his eyes and his hair stood on end.

The next day, I had to go the funeral of one of my favorite uncles. Driving back from the graveyard with my family, I looked down the hill toward the shoreline of Lake Michigan and I saw the tents and the flags of the carnival and I said to my father, Stop the car. He said, What do you mean? And I said, I have to get out. My father was furious with me. He expected me to stay with the family to mourn, but I got out of the car anyway and I ran down the hill toward the carnival.

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What's in author Richard Kadrey's bag?

Richard Kadrey is a novelist and screenwriter living in San Francisco. His books include Sandman Slim, The Everything Box, Butcher Bird, and the forthcoming, Ballistic Kiss. Cool Tools asked him to describe four things he keeps in his bag, which include a Roku streaming TV player, a portable hard drive, Ultimate Ears MEGABOOMs, QuietComfort 35 Bluetooth headphones, and Pocket Travelers notebook. Read about them here, or better yet, sign up for the weekly What's in my bag? newsletter. Read the rest

Monty Python co-founder Terry Jones's last major project was this Canterbury Tales app

Monty Python co-founder Terry Jones who died last month was also a scholar of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, having penned two books about the great English poet. Before Jones's death, he was collaborating with an international team of Chaucer geeks on a Canterbury Tales app called "General Prologue." It is the first in a series.

“We want the public, not just academics, to see the manuscript as Chaucer would have likely thought of it—as a performance that mixed drama and humor,” said University of Saskatchewan English professor and project leader Peter Robinson.

“We were so pleased that Terry was able to see and hear this app in the last weeks of his life. His work and his passion for Chaucer was an inspiration to us,” Robinson said. “We talked a lot about Chaucer and it was his idea that the Tales would be turned into a performance.”

From the University of Saskatchewan:

The app features a 45-minute audio performance of the General Prologue of the Tales—the masterpiece work by the most important English writer before Shakespeare—along with the digitized original manuscript. While listening to the reading, users have access to supporting content such as a translation in modern English, commentary, notes and vocabulary explaining Middle English words used by Chaucer.

The app, an offshoot of Robinson’s 25-year work to digitize the Canterbury Tales, contains key new research work. This includes a new edited text of the Prologue created by USask sessional lecturer Barbara Bordalejo, a new reading of the Tales by former USask student Colin Gibbings, and new findings about the Tales by UCL (University College London) medievalist professor Richard North.

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Cormac McCarthy on how to write a scientific (or any kind of) paper

For twenty years, novelist Cormac McCarthy (The Road, No Country for Old Men) has been an unofficial "editor-at-large" for the Sante Fe Institute, where he is a trustee. McCarthy has helped numerous scientists improve the writing in their technical papers about theoretical physics, complex systems, biology, and the like. In the new issue of Nature, theoretical biologist Van Savage and evolutionary biologist Pamela Yeh present a distillation of McCarthy's advice on "how to write a great scientific paper." I think the suggestions are applicable to any kind of non-fiction writing. Here are a few of the tips, from Nature:

• Use minimalism to achieve clarity. While you are writing, ask yourself: is it possible to preserve my original message without that punctuation mark, that word, that sentence, that paragraph or that section? Remove extra words or commas whenever you can.

• Decide on your paper’s theme and two or three points you want every reader to remember. This theme and these points form the single thread that runs through your piece. The words, sentences, paragraphs and sections are the needlework that holds it together. If something isn’t needed to help the reader to understand the main theme, omit it.

• Keep sentences short, simply constructed and direct. Concise, clear sentences work well for scientific explanations. Minimize clauses, compound sentences and transition words — such as ‘however’ or ‘thus’ — so that the reader can focus on the main message.

• Don’t over-elaborate. Only use an adjective if it’s relevant. Your paper is not a dialogue with the readers’ potential questions, so don’t go overboard anticipating them.

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For rent on Airbnb: Hunter S. Thompson's Woody Creek guest cabin

Now on Airbnb: gonzo journalism master Hunter S. Thompson's guest cabin on his infamous Owl Farm compound in Woody Creek, Colorado. Eventually, the late writer's wife Anita intends to turn the property, including their living quarters, into a museum and writer's retreat. For now, you can rent the two-bedroom guest cabin for $550/night. According to the listing, Anita Thompson "will try to be available at least once per visit depending on circumstances." HST fan Kevin EG Perry spent a night at the cabin and wrote about it for The Guardian:

It is 4.30 on a Thursday morning and I am writing these words on the big red IBM Selectric III that once belonged to Hunter S Thompson. Owl Farm, Thompson’s “fortified compound” in Woody Creek, Colorado, is dark and silent outside. Even the peacocks he raised are sleeping. The only sound anywhere is the warm hum of this electric typewriter and the mechanical rhythm of its key strikes, as clear and certain as gunfire.

In April, Thompson’s widow, Anita, began renting out the writer’s cabin to help support the Hunter S Thompson scholarship for veterans at Columbia University, where both she and Hunter studied. It sits beside the main Thompson home on a 17-hectare estate marked with hoof prints and elk droppings that gradually rises towards a mountain range. A short walk uphill is the spot where Thompson’s ashes were fired into the sky from a 153ft tower in the shape of a “Gonzo fist”, a logo he first adopted during his unsuccessful 1970 campaign to be sheriff of nearby Aspen...

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Patti Smith has a new memoir on the way

The inimitable Patti Smith will release a new memoir, Year of the Monkey, on September 24. A blend of reality and dreams, illustrated with Smith's Polaroids, the book captures her experience of a single year, 2016. From the publisher:

Following a run of New Year’s concerts at San Francisco’s legendary Fillmore, Patti Smith finds herself tramping the coast of Santa Cruz, about to embark on a year of solitary wandering. Unfettered by logic or time, she draws us into her private wonderland with no design, yet heeding signs–including a talking sign that looms above her, prodding and sparring like the Cheshire Cat. In February, a surreal lunar year begins, bringing with it unexpected turns, heightened mischief, and inescapable sorrow. In a stranger’s words, “Anything is possible: after all, it’s the Year of the Monkey.” For Smith – inveterately curious, always exploring, tracking thoughts, writing – the year evolves as one of reckoning with the changes in life’s gyre: with loss, aging, and a dramatic shift in the political landscape of America.

Smith melds the western landscape with her own dreamscape. Taking us from California to the Arizona desert; to a Kentucky farm as the amanuensis of a friend in crisis; to the hospital room of a valued mentor; and by turns to remembered and imagined places, this haunting memoir blends fact and fiction with poetic mastery. The unexpected happens; grief and disillusionment set in. But as Smith heads toward a new decade in her own life, she offers this balm to the reader: her wisdom, wit, gimlet eye, and above all, a rugged hope for a better world.

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Inside Roald Dahl's backyard writing "hut"

"It may not be pretty or tidy, and it certainly hasn't been cleaned and the floor hasn't been swept for five years at least..."

In this 1982 interview, Roald Dahl, author of James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, takes us inside his backyard writing hut in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, England. The hut is now part of the Roald Dahl Museum.

Dahl modeled his hut on Dylan Thomas's own writing shed in Carmarthenshire, Wales. From BBC News:

Although Dahl based the design of his hut on Thomas's shed, there was one major difference - the lack of natural light. He often kept his curtains drawn (10) to block out the outside world and was dependant on an angle-poise lamp for light....

Dahl's widow Felicity said: "He realised he had to have a space of his own in the garden away from the children and the noise and the general domesticity and he remembered that Dylan had felt the same.

"And so he went down to Wales to look at Dylan's writing hut and, like everybody, fell in love with it."

Built to the same proportions, with the same angled roof - the similarities could be a coincidence. But according to his widow it was built in a similar design by Dahl's builder friend Wally Saunders, who the BFG was based on.

"He built it exactly to the same proportions as Dylan's hut, the same roof, one skin of brick," said Mrs Dahl. "Of course Dylan's hut was a garage originally, whereas Roald had nothing, it was an empty space that he built on."

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The New York Public Library's curious collection of authors' personal items

From Gareth Smit's article in The New Yorker:

The Berg Collection’s roughly two thousand linear feet of manuscripts and archival materials were donated to the library, in 1940, by two brothers, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg. The brothers, both doctors who lived on the Upper East Side, were avid collectors of English and American literature—and of literary paraphernalia.

The library categorizes these items as “Realia”—objects from everyday life. The Berg Collection includes Charlotte Brontë’s writing desk, with a lock of her hair inside; trinkets belonging to Jack Kerouac, including his harmonicas, and a card upon which he wrote “blood” in his own blood; typewriters belonging to S. J. Perelman and Paul Metcalf; Mark Twain’s pen and wire-rimmed glasses; Vladimir Nabokov’s butterfly drawings; and the death masks of the poets James Merrill and E. E. Cummings.

Although the Berg Collection is intended to cater to researchers, curators are always keeping an eye out for items that complement the existing archive. Virginia Woolf’s cane may be of little interest to scholars, but it’s an important artifact that was likely the last thing she used before her death.

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Tom Wolfe, pioneering "New Journalist" and novelist, RIP

Tom Wolfe, the highly influential journalist at Rolling Stone and Esquire and author of such fantastic works as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Right Stuff, and The Bonfire of the Vanities, has died at age 88. From the New York Times:

In his use of novelistic techniques in his nonfiction, Mr. Wolfe, beginning in the 1960s, helped create the enormously influential hybrid known as the New Journalism...

His talent as a writer and caricaturist was evident from the start in his verbal pyrotechnics and perfect mimicry of speech patterns, his meticulous reporting, and his creative use of pop language and explosive punctuation.

“As a titlist of flamboyance he is without peer in the Western world,” Joseph Epstein wrote in the The New Republic. “His prose style is normally shotgun baroque, sometimes edging over into machine-gun rococo, as in his article on Las Vegas which begins by repeating the word ‘hernia’ 57 times.”

William F. Buckley Jr., writing in National Review, put it more simply: “He is probably the most skillful writer in America — I mean by that he can do more things with words than anyone else.”

Image: White House Photo by Susan Sterner Read the rest

Interview with Daniel Mallory Ortberg

One of my favorite writers has a new book out and was interviewed by The Cut. He talkes about his transition, gender identity, bylines, and the new context of his past work. Read the rest

RIP Kate Wilhelm, science fiction great and co-founder of the Clarion Workshop

Kate Wilhelm, author of many of science fiction's seminal books and stories (e.g. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang), would have been a titan in the field if she had only written; but Wilhelm's prodigious authorly accomplishments are matched by her influence on the generations of writers trained in the Clarion Workshops, which she co-founded with Robin Scott Wilson and her husband Damon Knight. Read the rest

Australian TV host disgusted at Daily Mail's misogyny

Karl Stefanovic: "The Daily Mail has a long, despicable track record of denigrating women, of ridiculing women, of objectifying women."

A London tabloid, the Daily Mail has become wildly successful on the web over the last decade. Beyond the bigotry, its practices (nakedly untrue and plagiarized stories, amateurish editing of photographs, comical yet effective exportation of British tabloid stock stories to new markets) put it at the heart of everything that's gone wrong with news, yet place it almost beyond criticism.

It revels in the fact it has no real credibility, because that sort of thinking only matters to people who remember. But the magic of Daily Mail content is that it's about the world it creates for readers to sink into now, the drug of gossip without the moderation of truth or memory. Today water causes cancer. Tomorrow it cures it.

Most tabloid writers I've met hate their audience: think of the empty, smirking contempt of a character from a Richard Curtis comedy. I'd say it was a British thing, because it's the sneer talk that the marginally middle-class have for working-class people who make more money than them (think: drunks writing for plumbers) but the formula was internationalized so fast and so well it can hardly be that.

Stefanovic famously revealed in an interview that he wore the same suit every day for a year without anyone remarking upon it, unlike female colleagues who receive criticism if they repeat an outfit even twice. Read the rest

Umberto Eco, 1932-2016

Umberto Eco, the Italian philosopher, writer and semiotics professor, is dead at 84, reports the BBC.

Eco is most famous as the author of elaborate historical novels such as The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum, but my favorite is his book of shorts, Misreadings.

From it, here is his summary of the Bible, presented as an internal memo at a publishing house written by an editor rejecting the manuscript.

The Bible:

I must say that the first few hundred pages of this manuscript really hooked me. Action-packed, they have everything today's reader wants in a good story. Sex (lots of it, including adultery, sodomy, incest), also murder, war, massacres, and so on.

The Sodom and Gomorrah chapter, with the tranvestites putting the make on the angels, is worthy of Rabelais; the Noah stories are pure Jules Verne; the escape from Egypt cries out to be turned into a major motion picture . . . In other words, a real blockbuster, very well structured, with plenty of twists, full of invention, with just the right amount of piety, and never lapsing into tragedy.

But as I kept on reading, I realized that this is actually an anthology, involving several writers, with many--too many--stretches of poetry, and passages that are downright mawkish and boring, and jeremiads that make no sense.

The end result is a monster omnibus. It seems to have something for everybody, but ends up appealing to nobody. And acquiring the rights from all these different authors will mean big headaches, unless the editor takes care of that himself.

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Florida Man crowned winner of 2015 Ernest Hemingway lookalike contest

A retired air traffic controller won the "Papa" Hemingway Look-Alike Contest on his 15th attempt.

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