Monday, February 20, 2006
Book critic Gail Caldwell describes her move from idyllic Amarillo to the white-hot cultural ferment of 1970s Austin.
By Edward Nawotka
SPECIAL TO THE AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Sunday, February 19, 2006
In 1973, when Gail Caldwell was 22, she and her friends hatched a plan to kidnap the feminist author Gloria Steinem. The occasion was the National Women's Political Convention in Houston, and Caldwell's all-girl honky-tonk band, the Soeur Queens, had driven in from Austin to play the gig. Fortunately, the plot was short-lived. Still, Caldwell writes in her memoir "A Strong West Wind," "a few of us did go so far as to join Steinem in an elevator and serenade her with 'Glo-o-o-o-o-o-o-r-r-ia, in excelsis deo.' "
It was just the kind of madcap plan a college drop-out living in Austin and casting about for direction would concoct in the '70s. Caldwell wasn't just a musician — she was an anti-Vietnam War protester, a cashier at Grok Books (which eventually morphed into Book People) and a paralegal for a lawyer more fond of drinking at Scholz Garten than preparing for court. She served as confessor to "Gay Place" author Billy Lee Brammer and peer-counselor to the distressed at Womenspace. "Austin in those days," she writes, "had the casual habit of setting itself on fire."
That was Gail Caldwell then. Today, she's the chief book critic at the Boston Globe, where she won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001. Her tough-minded opinions helped shape my ideas of what constituted a good book and offered a thoughtful counterpoint to the diet of academic theory I was fed as an undergraduate at Boston College. For that, I will always be grateful. My mother, on the other hand, can't stand her reviews, which she finds far too grumpy.
So how has Caldwell done in her first foray into book-length writing? Wonderfully. Texans — especially Austinites — will likely regard "A Strong West Wind" as an instant classic of the state's literature.
Born in Amarillo in 1951, Caldwell was "a shy girl in glasses in a do-nothing town" who limped from polio. After her sister taught her to read at age 4, she sought refuge in the library, "where you could lose yourself for hours in sanctioned daydreams." This is a typical creation myth for a writer, but Caldwell invests it with genuine poetry. When she discovers the meaning of the word "the," she imagines it as a "fencepost along the road of text, connecting the stories that seemed to go on as far as, and even beyond, the north Texas plains."
Unlike many memoirists, Caldwell describes a relatively uneventful and happy childhood. "My pleasures remained pensive or interior," she writes, "fishing with my dad, climbing trees with my sister to our fort (in actuality, a neighbor's forbidden flat-topped garage roof), where we read and ate pimiento-cheese or butter-and-sugar sandwiches."
The tempests of adolescence brought this idyll to an end, prompting Caldwell to revolt against the Panhandle's conservative values. She protested the Vietnam War, creating a wedge between her and her father, a World War II veteran nicknamed Wild Bill. She dated an ex-University of Texas quarterback who dropped acid and lost his scholarship. She traded in her George Jones records for Joe Cocker albums.
Caldwell enrolled at nearby Texas Tech University in Lubbock, but she was so confused about her ambitions that she declared seven majors in seven semesters — before getting arrested for marijuana possession. And so she moved to a part of Texas where such behavior might be indulged. "However much the notion might have horrified my preacher ancestors," she writes, "Austin was to be my city on a hill: the little utopia where my best self might emerge."
She made the move in 1970. By 1981, aged 30, she was looking at Austin through the rearview mirror of an old Volvo, "leaving behind a decade of idealism and excess — and a city whose casualties of history had convinced me not to be one of them." The intervening years had been filled with radicalism, consciousness-raising and, eventually, undergraduate and graduate work at UT.
Chapters describing academic studies might sound like a sure-fire interruption of what Caldwell calls the "temporary fugue state that every reader knows." But Caldwell manages to convey the excitement she felt during watershed moments in her intellectual awakening. She writes of an American studies professor whose handwritten comments on her papers "coax(ed) me into the light like some feral creature in the woods." Other professors, such as the one rumored to open a doctoral orals exam with the question, "Why is 'Jaws' a better book than 'Moby-Dick?' Defend," were the sort of people who "lived for the scent of graduate student fear."
Though Caldwell dropped out before taking her oral exams, she managed to get a master's degree in 1980 and in 2002 was named an outstanding alumna of the university.
"A Strong West Wind" doesn't venture far into Caldwell's post-collegiate life — perhaps that's grist for a second volume. Instead, she recalls the yearning that Amarillo evokes in her: "My sister drew and sketched her horses, my mother fussed over her roses in the barren Texas soil, my father drove around town on Sundays at twenty miles an hour, his left arm hanging out the window. These were the activities not just of semi-small-town innocence, but of another age, when daydreaming was a necessary and legitimate activity."
The second half of the book is mostly a paean to the enduring love among the members of her family, especially the women in her life — her sister, mother and Aunt Connie who suffered from depression and was married three times, an archetype who gave Caldwell a "weakness for dogs, novels and bourbon." The details in these final pages are a bit more diffuse than the harder edged early chapters, but they're no less heartfelt.
The white-hot core of this book is the political and social upheaval that Caldwell experienced during her years in Austin. These chapters, as intense as the early autobiographical essays of Joan Didion, are notable for their clear-eyed perspective and a distinct lack of nostalgia for the hippies and hijinks that Caldwell — and Austin — have clearly outgrown.
Wednesday, February 08, 2006
But at the ripe age of 33, Cox is leaving the blog behind to focus on writing books, and adopting the mantle of “Wonkette Emeritus.”
A photogenic strawberry blond, Cox has become well known for her looks and the smattering of star-spangled tattoos on her right arm--usually prominent in her publicity snaps—as her trenchant observations about Beltway society.
She is touring the country to promote her first novel “Dog Days” (Riverhead Books, 274 pages, $23.95), a political satire about a Democratic presidential campaign run amok. Cox spoke with Edward Nawotka by phone while in-between tour stops in California.
Nawotka: How do you succinctly describe your novel to people who haven’t read it yet?
Cox: It is a fantasia of the Kerry campaign and takes a fun house mirror view of the last election and looks at it through the eyes of a young communications worker. Two aspects of her life begin to be threatened: She has an affair with a married man and her candidate is attacked by a Swift-boat style campaign. So she and her friend come up with a “Wag the Dog”-type distraction. Chaos and hilarity ensue.
Nawotka: Since you’ve been on book tour, have people been more interested in asking about the blog or the novel?
Cox: I’ve been lucky and most people have been genuinely interested in the book. Questions have ranged from my favorite brand of gin to “When do you think America might lose its foreign policy dominance?”
Nawotka: Gin? That’s not the type of question that Paul Bremer is getting on his tour.
Cox: Bremer is definitely getting the question about foreign policy. But I also write a lot about drinking. Because I did a blog for so long people seem to think that I know something about politics.
Nawotka: Were you able to do things with your characters that you hoped people in real life would do?
Cox: They definitely had better conversations. They’re wittier. But they have just as dirty lines. There’s a lot of ham-fisted flirting that happens, which I think is an accurate reflection of Washington.
Nawotka: You’ve said that D.C. is “the only city in America run by nerds.” But Silicon Valley is also full of nerds, and you don’t get the sense the people out there are having a lot of sex.
Cox: I don’t think people there have the same fate-of-the-free-world sense of purpose. That can be a real aphrodisiac.
Nawotka: You also write that Washington D.C. is a lot like high school. How so?
Cox: Well, it’s very cliquish and status oriented. People are really insecure and ambitious. Who you have lunch with matters, a lot. There is a prom, which is the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. Finally, there is no such thing as having a separate life from Washington. It’s all consuming in the same way life was in high school, when everything matters so much all the time.
Nawotka: Do you have the same kind of break downs that you had in the movie “The Breakfast Club,” with the jocks, brainiacs…
Cox: There are not the jocks, but I think there are probably nerds of the nerds. But I haven’t met them. There are very deep in the bowels of some think tank somewhere.
Nawotka: If you could go back and spend any time with any politician from the last 100 years, who would it be?
Cox: Lyndon Johnson. He was a heck of a guy who was willing to cut a lot of corners to accomplish something he thought was ultimately a moral good. He was also a big fan of bourbon, as am I.
Nawotka: Any particular brand?
Cox: Maker’s Mark is my default choice.
Nawotka: Now that you’re Wonkette Emeritus, what’s next?
Cox: I’m writing an anthropological study of young conservatives. It’s a culture I don’t understand and is very important in this country. I plan on studying it without bringing a whole lot of judgment to it. Although, I plan to mock for mocking’s sake.
By Edward Nawotka
Jan. 20 -- In the 1998 movie ``Enemy of the
State,'' Will Smith portrays a Washington lawyer eluding goons
from the U.S. National Security Agency. In scene after scene,
NSA high-tech wizardry tracks the attorney, keeping him under
surveillance and on the run.
What seemed like a paranoid Hollywood fantasy at the time
has come much closer to reality since the terrorist attacks of
Sept. 11, 2001, writes James Risen in ``State of War: The Secret
History of the CIA and the Bush Administration'' (Free Press,
240 pages, $26).
Risen is the New York Times reporter who disclosed in
December that U.S. President George W. Bush had authorized the
NSA to eavesdrop on the international phone calls and e-mail
messages of American citizens and foreign nationals. The purpose
of that spying was to search for what Risen calls the
``potential evidence of terrorist activity without search
warrants or any new laws that would permit such domestic
The NSA report forms just one chapter in Risen's book,
which discusses half a dozen episodes of alleged intelligence
blunders and deceptions going back to the administration of
President Bill Clinton. Risen's main focus is the Central
Intelligence Agency, which he dubs ``the government's equivalent
of Enron.'' Highlights include a CIA operation in 2000 that
Risen says slipped blueprints for a nuclear weapon to Iran.
In places, Risen makes alarming suppositions. He quotes an
unidentified source, for example, who says Bush asked then CIA
director George Tenet why an imprisoned al Qaeda member, Abu
Zubaydah, had received pain medication. Then Risen asserts:
``In many ways, the Abu Zubaydah case was the critical
precedent for the future handling of prisoners both in the
global war on terrorism and in the war in Iraq.''
(Tenet will this year publish his own memoir, tentatively
titled ``At the Center of the Storm,'' according to a statement
from his publisher, HarperCollins.)
Risen also asserts that Bush allowed Vice President Dick
Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to create an
atmosphere of intimidation that prevented U.S. generals from
requesting more troops in Iraq.
`My Year in Iraq'
One man who says he wasn't cowed by the likes of Cheney and
Rumsfeld is L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator of Iraq
following the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003.
Before heading to Iraq, Bremer sat down to lunch with Bush
to make it clear that he was ``the president's man,'' not a
servant of Rumsfeld or former Secretary of State Colin Powell,
he writes in his memoir, ``My Year in Iraq: The Struggle to
Build a Future of Hope'' (Simon & Schuster, 417 pages, $27).
Bremer's book describes his work at the Coalition
Provisional Authority from May 2003 until sovereignty passed to
the Iraqis in June 2004. Written almost like a diary, the memoir
shows how Bremer collaborated with the U.S. military, the United
Nations mission and various Iraqi factions to fill ``the chaotic
power vacuum'' with something resembling law and order.
On his arrival in Baghdad, Bremer says he felt as if he had
landed in ``a postapocalypse Los Angeles.'' His headquarters in
one of Hussein's former palaces smelled of ``diesel exhaust and
overloaded portable toilets.'' He ditched his dress shoes for a
pair of Timberland boots, which he wore with blue suits.
`Revolt on the Tigris'
The book unfortunately bogs down in blow-by-blow accounts
of diplomatic exchanges and bureaucratic maneuvering. Bremer's
days are long, hot and frustrating. While Bremer supported the war, he is concerned about being abandoned to become a fall guy for controversial decisions, such as his disbanding of the Iraqi army, an order he says came down through the political chain of command.
In the end Bremer, who survived numerous assassination attempts and had a bounty of 10,000 grams of gold on his head offered by Osama bin Laden, expresses little regret about the job, only wishing he’d done more to bolster the economy by limiting subsidies and improving overall security. Though short on startling disclosures, ``My Year in Iraq'' will be essential primary reading for future historians.
A more absorbing account of the occupation comes from Mark
Etherington, a U.K. diplomat who acted as governor of southern
Iraq's volatile Wasit province from October 2003 to May 2004. He
describes this stint in ``Revolt on the Tigris: The Al-Sadr
Uprising and the Governing of Iraq'' (Cornell, 252 pages, $25;
published in the U.K. by C. Hurst, 15 pounds).
Garrisoned in the town of Kut, Etherington and his U.S.
deputy, Timm Timmons, were charged with administering a
region that included about 1 million people and a stretch of
border with Iran running 145 kilometers (90 miles) long. The
group was initially protected by a modest contingent of
Ukrainian soldiers and later by an Abrams tank nicknamed ``Be
Wasit province was home to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr,
who was fomenting a rebellion. The diplomat's limited defenses
proved inadequate when the cleric's Mehdi army attacked in April
2004, temporarily forcing him to flee the region.
Etherington displays the expected stiff upper lip under
pressure, yet manages to communicate the pathos of daily
civilian life in Iraq. Just before leaving al-Kut, Timmons says
something that sums up the whole occupation of Iraq:
``You know -- it just could have been done a lot better.''
Q&A with Julian Barnes, author of "Arthur & George"
By Edward Nawotka
Julian Barnes is a quintessential English novelist, albeit one who is also an unrepentant Francophile. It's only appropriate that he of all the writers in the U.K. would come across a British equivalent to the infamous 1896 Dreyfus Affair in France and make it the pivotal event in his new book: "Arthur & George" (Knopf, 386 pages, $24.95), Barnes' tenth work of fiction is a densely detailed historical novel that re-imagines an obscure episode from the life of Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, when in 1903, George Edalji, a half-Indian lawyer was tried and imprisoned for mutilating farm animals in Great Wyrley, Staffordshire. Doyle, sensing a miscarriage of justice, investigated the accusations and eventually secured Edalji's release and pardon.
The echoes to the Dreyfus Affair, in which writer Emile Zola rose to the defense of the Alsatian Jew Alfred Dreyfus who'd been mistakenly convicted of treason, are unmistakable.
"Arthur & George" was last year shortlisted for the Booker Prize -- Barnes's third time on the shortlist -- but lost out to John Banville's "The Sea."
Barnes, whose Oxbridge accent makes his speech sound as if his vocal chords have been marinating in cognac, spoke with Edward Nawotka by phone as he began his North American book tour. Barnes will read at
Nawotka: How did you find this story that seemed to have been lost to history to all but avid Sherlockians? Were you much of a Sherlockian to begin with?
Barnes: I came to it from a different direction: by reading about it in a book about the Dreyfus case. I began investigating and Conan Doyle came attached to the case. I read Sherlock Holmes as a boy and didn't know much about his life at all, so in writing the book I was discovering Conan Doyle as much as I was George Edalji. Had Kipling come attached I would have been just as happy.
Nawotka: Have you gotten a blizzard of letters from Sherlockians critiquing your portrayal of their hero? They tend to be fanatical about detail.
Barnes: True. Conan Doyle is the only writer that I know of who has three different literary clubs devoted to his memory. And there is a radical difference between the Sherlockians and the Doyleans. Some believe that Doyle was only the literary agent and Sherlock wrote the stories. Other true believers won't even mention Watson's name in public. It's all a form of literary fundamentalism. But this is not one of those books that has subtle allusions to Holmes or Doyle and I haven't heard from a single Sherlockian...perhaps they are the reviewers that didn't bark in night?
Nawotka: Why did you choose to write the story as a novel instead of a nonfiction account?
Barnes: The problems of doing it as a nonfiction book were twofold. First, very little is known about George and his family background. There are some photos and he wrote a couple of articles himself, but his character and nature are lost. As to what his life was like, I had to invent 95% of it.
Likewise, the period I'm covering in Conan Doyle's life is an emotional black hole, one which he lies about in his autobiography. I could have done it as nonfiction, but I would have had to say things like, "At this point in his life, Conan Doyle must surely have felt..." I hate the conditional tone. Prose fiction is the best way to describe how people think and feel.
Nawotka: Were you pleased to discover that Conan Doyle had a robust life outside his study? It makes him a more dynamic character.
Barnes: That, and he was also a very admirable man, generous and chivalrous. He believed action should be taken and wrongs be righted. Conan Doyle came from that generation of publicly involved writers who had influence with politicians. That has disappeared. If you ask Tony Blair who he rather be photographed with, Ian McEwan or Bob Geldoff, I doubt he would choose McEwan.
Nawotka: Are you envious of that time when writers had more influence?
Barnes: If you're asking if I'm a frustrated man of action, I'm not.
Nawotka: Why is it that interest in Conan Doyle, who was a lesser writer than some of his contemporaries, has endured?
Barnes: He created an archetypical character in Holmes. Mostly, I think people are intrigued by the idea of using the power of the intellect to work out crime. There's also a sort of nostalgia for that late-Victorian world, which translates so well into television.
Nawotka: It's something you can see by the popularity of the various BBC adaptations of Dickens novels and the like. The serialization of "Bleak House" has just started running on public television starring Gillian Anderson from the X-files.
Barnes: Ohhh, I thoroughly enjoyed that one! It's one of the best adaptations from Dickens I've ever seen. That woman really can act.
Nawotka: Though the true story of "Arthur & George" is over 100 years old, there are significant contemporary echoes. In particular, the case is largely about racism. Why has it largely been forgotten until now, while the Dreyfus case remains well-known.
Barnes: The Dreyfus case was about bigger issues and was about treason. French anti-Semitism was stronger than the Henny-penny racialist feelings in
Nawotka: It's been nearly a year since the book was published in
Barnes: I look forward to meeting readers. I like going to cities where I've never been, such as
Nawotka: Are you a collector?
Barnes: I'm a wine drinker. Collector is a dubious term. It usually means you just sit around and stare at the labels. I'm a collector of what's inside the bottles.
Sunday, February 05, 2006
Eve vs. eye
In his third book of popular art history, Ross King chronicles a radical shift in the way we see the world.
By Edward Nawotka
SPECIAL TO THE AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Saturday, February 04, 2006
On September 19, 1870, the Prussian army of Kaiser Wilhelm I began bombarding Paris with long-range Krupp cannons. Within two weeks, the painter Édouard Manet, who was serving as a lieutenant in the National Guard responsible for defending the city, acknowledged the situation was desperate: "We can no longer get cafe au lait," he wrote in a letter to his wife. In November, he wrote that "there are now cat, dog and rat butchers in Paris. We no longer eat anything but horsemeat."
The resolution to turn horses into food would have been particularly unsettling to Manet's rival Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier, the most celebrated painter in late 19th-century Paris, and a man known for his precise depictions of horses. As befitted his higher status, Meissonier served as a lieutenant colonel in the Guard. For a short time, Manet worked on Meissonier's staff, where he mocked the older painter's habit of doodling during staff meetings, much to the amusement of their colleagues.
Within a half century, Meissonier would be reviled by art historians and Manet revered. How this reversal of fortune came about is the story Ross King tells in "The Judgment of Paris," his third work of art history.
King, a former Canadian academic who now lives near Oxford, England, began his writing career by penning a pair of historical novels. Accordingly, he brings an instinct for storytelling to his nonfiction, which features strong narrative arcs and a surfeit of historical detail. He first came to the attention of American readers six years ago with "Brunelleschi's Dome," a compelling book about the construction of Florence's Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral. The follow-up, 2002's "Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling," had an even more mainstream subject, the painting of the Sistine Chapel. It hit the New York Times best-seller list and was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.
"The Judgment of Paris" tackles a somewhat more esoteric topic: the Paris art scene from 1863-1874, when Manet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Paul Cezanne and others challenged the establishment with their radical visions.
In the 1860s, the French art world was dominated by academic painters who rejected contemporary subjects in favor of romantic images of classical Greece or the Renaissance. Meissonier, their champion, favored miniaturized portraits of "silk-coated and lace-ruffled gentlemen" and photorealistic scenes of Napoleon's military victories.
The period itself favored what King calls "gauzy nostalgia"; the fashions of the court of Napoleon III mimicked the bicorn hats and silk stockings of previous centuries. The rest of French society dressed more practically, with the men in top hats and black frock coats. King notes that Manet's first act in defiance of convention was to depict Parisians in this contemporary style, earning him the moniker of a "realist" painter and the unflinching support of the writer Emile Zola.
King structures his book around the annual Paris Salon, "a rare venue for artists to expose their wares to the public and ... to make their reputations." It often attracted a million visitors — more than half the population of Paris.
Manet first submitted a painting to the Salon in 1859, entitled "The Absinthe Drinker." It depicted a drunken "rag-and-bone" man, and, as he expected, it was rejected. What dismayed the judges, even more than the debauched subject matter, was Manet's thick application of paint, broad brush strokes and suppressed details. Another Manet painting, "Music in the Tuileries," offered "a chaotic-looking blaze of figures painted with a smeary lack of fine detail." It so incensed the public that "they threatened violence."
The problem, writes King, was that the painting literally forced a viewer to look at it in a new way:
The viewing public was accustomed to standing close to paintings, studying them minutely and marveling over the delicacy of the handiwork. The work of a master like Meissonier even repaid, as John Ruskin would discover, the scrutiny of magnifying glass. But Manet's apparently clumsy brush strokes and lack of clarity in "Music of the Tuileries" did not lend themselves to this sort of appreciation.
During the next decade, though Manet endured still more critical ridicule, he forged a new direction in art that culminated in his masterpiece, "Olympia," a picture of a nude prostitute staring directly at the viewer. It appropriated the establishment icon of the classical nude and modernized it.
At the same time, Meissonier was mired in his own personal Waterloo, a painting called "Friedland, 1807." The painting, which depicted Napoleon's eponymous military victory, showed hundreds of horses in military formation, some at full gallop. Meissonier's painstaking technique required that he took almost a decade to complete the work. Typically, he built wax dioramas of the scene and made dozens of studies. He even went so far as to build a small railroad in his garden that enabled him to ride alongside galloping horses so he could accurately sketch them.
In "The Judgment of Paris" all this foment takes place against the backdrop of Napoleon III's Paris, a place awash in booze and sex (King estimates some 13 percent of the population was involved in prostitution) that eventually succumbs to the Prussians, the short-lived establishment of the Paris Commune and the adoption of la vie moderne. The painters themselves might admire King's skill in using this backdrop to highlight the artists in the foreground.
Though reading a book about 19th-century art-world politics may sound like a chore to some, King rarely descends to the level of pedagogy because he treats his story like a horse race between two very different artists. Meissonier sought to represent an idealized past as agreed on by all. Manet sought to represent the world around him through the haze of his own individuality.
By the end of the book, it is clear who has run the better race. Manet has finally won the favor of the Salon, where in 1873 his painting "Le Bon Bock" created a sensation. It inspired a restaurant in the Latin Quarter to change its name and helped turn Montmartre into a cultural center. Meissonier, for his part, has finished "Friedland, 1807," which was shown at an even bigger exhibition in Vienna, Austria. Today, it hangs in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art — just outside the "Manet Room."
"The Judgment of Paris" might not be as immediately accessible as King's previous books, but it offers a clear sense of how the politics and personalities of late 19th-century Europe fused to push art in a new direction — and, at least as far as the impressionists are concerned, onto the dorm room walls of college girls everywhere.
Austin writer Edward Nawotka is a book critic for Bloomberg News.