Browsing the blog archives for January, 2009.

Vonnegut motivational posters

art/graphics, humor


A dozen motivational poster spoofs featuring the words of Kurt Vonnegut. Ah, if only they were real and being hung up in workplaces around the world….

[via Readerville]

The nuclear “Letter of Last Resort”

govt documents, history, politics/current events, war

Ron Rosenbaum (The Secret Parts of Fortune, Explaining Hitler, The Shakespeare Wars) is working on a book about “the new face of nuclear warfare,” which is cause for excitement.  In his Slate column, he writes about the deeply hidden nuclear “Letter of Last Resort”:

At this very moment, miles beneath the surface of the ocean, there is a British nuclear submarine carrying powerful ICBMs (nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles). In the control room of the sub, the Daily Mail reports, “there is a safe attached to a control room floor. Inside that, there is an inner safe. And inside that sits a letter. It is addressed to the submarine commander and it is from the Prime Minister. In that letter, Gordon Brown conveys the most awesome decision of his political career … and none of us is ever likely to know what he decided.”

The decision? Whether or not to fire the sub’s missiles, capable of causing genocidal devastation in retaliation for an attack that would—should the safe and the letter need to be opened—have already visited nuclear destruction on Great Britain. The letter containing the prime minister’s posthumous decision (assuming he would have been vaporized by the initial attack on the homeland) is known as the Last Resort Letter.

The old-fashioned, pen-and-ink-on-paper quality of it all (quill pen, perhaps?) somehow makes the system seem like it emanated from a 19th-century madhouse out of Wilkie Collins. Which makes it even more profoundly shocking that the system is still in place.

Rosenbaum also gives us a glimpse of his research for the book:

In 1997, the U.S. Navy discovered that there was a “backdoor” electronic entrance to the nuclear missile submarine launch control system, according to Bruce Blair, head of the World Security Institute, a Washington think tank. Blair told me the “backdoor” entrance would have allowed a diabolically ingenious hacker to insert a launch order into the system.

Liz Cheney’s senior thesis - a chip off the old block

history, politics/current events

cheney-lizWhen he worked in Colorado College’s library, Zac Frank found Elizabeth Cheney’s 1988 senior thesis in the trash bin. For her bachelor’s in poli-sci, Dick Cheney’s elder daughter had written “The Evolution of Presidential War Powers.” Frank gives us the scoop:

The 125-page treatise argued that, constitutionally and historically, presidents have virtually unchecked powers in war. Thirteen years before her father became vice president, she had symbolically authored the first legal memorandum of the Bush administration, laying out the same arguments that would eventually justify Guantanamo and extraordinary rendition, wiretapping of American citizens, and, broadly, the unitary theory of the executive that shaped the Bush presidency.

Time and again, Cheney contends that in times of war, presidents since Washington have justifiably redefined their authority to preserve the country, and she is scornful of any who challenge that authority. As Congress challenged presidential authority toward the end of Vietnam, she casts them as scapegoating the executive. “As public support dwindled so did congressional willingness to accept responsibility,” she writes, “Congress set about to blame the only two men who couldn’t escape responsibility.” For someone who has vested so much faith in executive wisdom, she is surprisingly unwilling to hold it accountable.

Do people read the books they buy?

reading, the book biz

In this weak, unfocused Slate article that’s kind of about bailing out the publishing industry or the future of publishing or something, there is a fascinating nugget:

In the mid-1980s, before he founded Slate, Michael Kinsley came up with an ingenious scheme to …  stimulate the purchase of books and verify that buyers actually read them. Kinsley went into bookstores around Washington and inserted coupons redeemable for $5 in the back pages of trendy political best sellers. No readers ever claimed the prize, which he took as proof that people in Washington buy books to say they did rather than to read them.

An emoticon from 1862?

history, media

The City Room blog at the NY Times discusses what looks like a winking emoticon in an 1862 NYT transcript of a speech by Lincoln:


The post goes on at some length. Experts are called in to dissect the space/semicolon/parenthesis - is it a typo, an actual emoticon, or archaic punctuation with a space added to make the line right-justified? There are some interesting reader comments, with the best being:

Ah, if only the Times would go to this length and depth of inquiry when investigating WMD claims.

Get a free copy of New Yorker’s Obama-Washington cover


CV1_TNY_01_26_09.inddThe New Yorker will mail you a free copy of its inauguration issue cover by Drew Friedman, but you have to sign up by Saturday ( January 31). Sign up here.

Penguin Classics to publish Steal This Book

canon, politics/current events, subversive lit


Penguin Classics is going to publish Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book in June.

Yes, Penguin Classics, home of Shakespeare, Milton, and Melville.

Hey, I’m tickled pink about this. I’m all for expanding the canon with classic radical and outsider works. (My very first published writings (book reviews for Factsheet Five) and my first two books (containing over 2,000 capsule book reviews) were all about promoting radical, subversive, and small-press books.)

Then again, this always leads to the same dilemma: When the mainstream embraces/commodifies something radical, is it really radical anymore? Or has it been defanged?

Then again again, and this is a point I make on a regular basis, classic literature is a lot more radical than our culture thinks it is. So many of the masterworks of literature caused a furor when they were first published - hated by the literary establishment of the time, attacked by the religious, and/or prosecuted by the state. We forget this because our culture views the canon as boring fossils - and this is because of the crummy way almost all of us were introduced to literature - as a school subject, with no bearing on the real world, filled with details to memorize and be tested on.

You could make the argument that age has made Steal This Book toothless, a quaint relic of late Counterculture, but I’m not so sure. The general idea - giving specific instructions for beating or blowing up the system, fighting in the streets, armed revolution, etc.  - is still radical, even though - with the rise of the Net - it’s not exactly hard to come by anymore. Yes, much of Hoffman’s information is hopelessly dated (”On the West Side, there’s a poet named Delworth at 125 Sullivan St. that houses kids if he’s got room.”), but quite a bit of it still holds.  And squatting, shoplifting, gas-syphoning, and Molotov cocktails and pipe bombs remain illegal. Plus, repeatedly referring to cops as “pigs” is still highly frowned upon.

It’s funny what time and success will do, considering that Penguin - like all the other corporate publishers, and many independents - rejected Steal This Book when Hoffman was originally trying to get it published in 1970-1. He ended up self-publishing it under the imprint Pirate Editions, and it became a surprise New York Times bestseller, prompting him to say: “It’s embarrassing when you try to overthrow the government and you wind up on the Best Seller’s List.” I wonder what he’d say about this. “It’s embarrassing when you try to overthrow the government and you wind up enshrined as canonical literature.”

In other words, never mind what Homer, Dante, and Woolf would think about Hoffman joining their ranks - what would Hoffman think about it?

[Steal This Book is available in its entirety here.]

Comics come to the Louvre



For the first time, the Louvre is exhibiting comics and graphic novels. The museum commissioned five artists to each create a graphic novel centered around the Louvre. Giant reproductions of some of the panels are on display, and two of the graphic novels have already been published (with the others on their way).

The two that have been published:

Museum Vaults: Excerpts from the Journal of an Expert by Marc-Antoine Mathieu (excerpts here):


Glacial Period by Nicolas de Crécy (excerpts here):

glacial_periodThe other three artists are Éric Liberge (”Odd Hours”), Hirohiko Araki (”Rohan at the Louvre”), and Bernard Yslaire. Yslaire gave a live performance during the opening, according to this not-always-clear AP article:

In the hazy lighting and hollow stone walls of the Louvre’s Medieval hall, Bernar Yslaire brought the latest character from his comic strip “The Sky above the Louvre” — a tempestuous young revolutionary — to life.

The Belgian cartoonist, 52, invited the live audience into his digital world of comics, where images are created not with a sketchpad and crayon, but at the click of a mouse.

“My comic strip is done exclusively on a digital screen, there is no paper at all,” Yslaire says. “We are in the 21st century of communication.”

Using his “electronic pencil,” each carefully poised click slowly revealed his protagonist: first the raging, raven eyes, then a sharp, angular nose, unkempt curly hair and finally the broad shoulders.

Jeff at Crushing Krisis blog attended the opening day and gives his thoughts here.

The Louvre’s page about the exhibition.

[ADDED:] It’s great that the world’s most famous museum has finally allowed comics into its hallowed halls, but did they have to do it in such a half-assed, self-serving way? To get into the Louvre, these artists had to create new art … about the Louvre. It’s as if the museum is assuring people that comics artists can address serious topics like … the Louvre.  Never mind that they’ve been covering the Holocaust, Israel and Palestine, cancer, the Bible, 9/11, and other weighty topics. Weren’t the existing works of Eisner, Miller, Crumb, Ware, Barry, et al good enough? How about Maus, The Sandman, Watchmen, Lost Girls, Sin City, Love and Rockets, and the wordless graphic novels from the first half of the twentienth century, not to mention comic strips like Little Nemo, Prince Valiant, Peanuts…. Hopefully, this is just the first step. Once the Louvre’s gatekeepers see that this exhibition didn’t cause the walls to cave in, they’ll put together a serious exhibition, and maybe add comic art to their permanent collection.

Mengele’s twin experiments in Brazil?


mengeleArgentine historian Jorge Camarasa says that after WWII Josef Mengele kept up his genetic research into twins in a small Brazilian town. Unfortunately, it looks like his book, Mengele: The Angel of Death in South America, isn’t available in English.

He claims that Mengele found refuge in the German enclave of Colonias Unidas, Paraguay, and from there, in 1963, began to make regular trips to another predominantly German community just over the border in Brazil – the farming community of Candido Godoi.

And, Mr Camaras claims, it was here that soon after the birthrate of twins began to spiral.

“I think Candido Godoi may have been Mengele’s laboratory, where he finally managed to fulfil his dreams of creating a master race of blond haired, blue eyed Aryans,” he said.

“There is testimony that he attended women, followed their pregnancies, treated them with new types of drugs and preparations, that he talked of artificial insemination in human beings, and that he continued working with animals, proclaiming that he was capable of getting cows to produce male twins.”

Upcoming book from Vonnegut’s 40-year mistress & friend


Professor Loree Rackstraw has written a book, Love as Always, Kurt (due in March), about her 40-year relationship with Kurt Vonnegut. From the Times of London:

When Slaughterhouse-Five was eventually published, in early 1969, it was hailed as an antiwar masterpiece and became a Bible for Vietnam war protesters.

As Vonnegut basked in new-found wealth and celebrity, he wrote to Rackstraw: “This hilarious rise in my spirits, originating from a deep purple depression, began with loving you.”

Much of her book charts Vonnegut’s literary progress, from battling with his personal demons – his mother committed suicide just before he departed to war – to suddenly finding everything very easy.

“One thing that troubles me is that anything I write now sells like crazy and my publishers won’t tell me honestly what they think of my work, since their opinion doesn’t mean a damn thing commercially,” he wrote to her.

Floating down the Mississippi, Huck style



So, late last year I read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: The Only Authoritiative Text Based on the Complete Original Manuscript (Mark Twain Library edition), and as always, Huck got me daydreaming about rafting down the Mississippi River. Of course, On the Road makes me want to jump in my car and take off across the country, and I still haven’t done that, so there’s no way my ass is going to float down the Mississip on a homeade raft. But still … I wondered how I’d go about it, if it’s still possible/legal, etc.

A couple of weeks later, I was reading Esquire (which is a much better magazine than you might think it is), and their profile of novelist John Wray had a single sentence - can you sense the synchronicity coming here? - that I had to immediately read over and over:

He promoted Canaan’s Tongue by using his $5,000 publicity budget to build a raft and float down the Mississippi, giving interviews and readings along the way.

After just a little Googling, I found this 2005 NY Times article written during Wray’s adventure:

The first night out was fitful, scary even. After putting in at Helena, Ark., the homemade raft got caught up in the wash of the massive towboats that surrounded it on the Mississippi. The craft bounced along in the inky black, and then searing beams of light from the towboats began to strafe it, the captains wanting to see what manner of contraption was before them. The ragtag crew slept in terrified shifts, dodging the tugs and avoiding a ledge formed by a dike that threatened to pitch them into the mud, water and mayhem.

Maybe I’ll just stay on land.

{Photo of John Wray on raft by Lori Waselchuk for The New York Times}

Painting books

art/graphics, books as objects


Poets & Writers magazine highlights the work of artist Richard Baker, who paints still-lifes of books.

“As physical objects they are powerful fetishes, icons, containers of every conceivable thought and/or emotion,” Baker writes. “We cart them from home to work on our commutes and they accompany us on vacations. We move them carefully packed in boxes from one domicile to another, from one phase of life to another.”

“As our personalities are changed (or not) by them, so too do they absorb impressions of our lives,” Baker writes. “Each book becomes its own unique individual, most especially true of the lowly paperback.”

Over at GOOD magazine’s blogs, Anne Trubek ponders what they mean.

Onion article close to reality - Erik Harris’s short story


One of the difficulties in writing parody is that it’s hard to exaggerate how bizarre the world actually is. Case in point: Bookninja directed me to yet another great article from the masters of dark humor at The Onion:

This Short Story About A School Shooting Is Actually Pretty Good

Being a 10th-grade English teacher can be frustrating. I work hard to help my students improve their writing, but when it comes time to sit down and grade their assignments, I’m often left wondering why I bother. Once in a while, though, a student hands in something that is an absolute delight to read.

A student like Brian Petersen, who wrote an incredible short story about a deadly school shooting and how nobody picked up on all the warning signs until it was too late.

It’s just fantastic!

So here’s the thing. Three months before he took part in the Columbine massacre, Erik Harris turned in a short-short story about a massacre. And his teacher liked it. Not as much as the fictional teacher in the Onion article, but she did have kind words for it.

The story was part of the 10,000 pages of documents about the school shooting released by the sheriff’s department in 2003. It describes the aftermath of an alien invasion of a moonbase manned by marines (it’s based on a videogame - Doom or Quake, I think). Harris describes the scene:

Bullet shells sprinkled the floor, on top of a carpet of blood.

Arms, legs, and heads were tossed about as if a small child turned on a blender with no lid in the middle of the room.

Harris’s teacher gave him a C+ (apparently averaging an A- for the content and a D+ for the mechanics of the writing). The teacher’s comments are priceless:

Yours is a unique approach and your writing works in a gruesome way.

Good details and mood setting.

Good ending.

The story, as released, is below. (I originally posted the story on The Memory Hole in January 2003. You can see a larger version there. An article about the story is at the Rocky Mountain News, and the 10,000 pages of documents are posted here.)


Dylan Klebold wrote a story for school about “a man walking into a town and ‘blowing away’ all the popular kids” (according to a post-massacre statement from his creative writing teacher), but the story itself has never been released, as far as I know. This story did upset the teacher, as her statement shows:

I told Dylan the story was violent and unacceptable - viscious [sic]. Indeed I made a copy for his counselor (Brad Butts). I also talked it over with his parents. Dylan simply remarked , “It’s just a story.”

Hemingway reassures Fitzgerald about his great gatsby (Or: That’s why they call him Big Papa)

Uncategorized, canon, periodicals, sex

laphams-erosThe winter issue of one of my all-time favorite magazines, Lapham’s Quarterly (”Finding the present in the past, the past in the present.”), came out last month, and the theme this time is “Eros.” As usual, there are close to 100 text pieces from literary types, historical figures, and the occasional unknown - the contrib list this time includes Ovid, Flaubert, Goethe, Rumi, Nabokov, Nin, Dickinson, Henry VIII, a courtesan in India circa 1550, Aristophanes, Roth, Duras, David Foster Wallace, Foucault, Leonard Cohen, St. Augustine, Sappho, Aphra Behn, Kinsey, and Charles Mingus.

For an eclectomanic like me, each heavily illustrated 224-page issue (each one is really a square-backed softcover book) is an embarrassment of riches - a smorgasbord of ideas, insights, and experiences from across the millennia in one package for convenient mainlining into my brain.

Lapham’s posts only a fraction of each issue, apparently holding the strange belief that if you want to read a magazine, you should actually buy the magazine (I wonder if this approach will catch on).

hemingway_gunOne of the pieces they’ve posted for their sex issue is an extract from Hemingway’s memoir of 1920s Paris, A Moveable Feast. Papa is reassuring F. Scott Fitzgerald about his penis size after Zelda has attempted to psychologically destroy him. Here’s a portion:

“Zelda said that the way I was built I could never make any woman happy and that was what upset her originally. She said it was a matter of measurements. I have never felt the same since she said that and I have to know truly.”

“Come out to the office,” I said.

“Where is the office?”

“Le water,” I said.

We came back into the room and sat down at the table.

“You’re perfectly fine,” I said. “You are okay. There’s nothing wrong with you. You look at yourself from above and you look foreshortened. Go over to the Louvre and look at the people in the statues and then go home and look at yourself in the mirror in profile.”

Poe stamp


For all your purloined letters, the Edgar Allan Poe stamp, which went on sale Friday.


This isn’t the first Poe stamp issued in the US - he graced a 3-cent stamp issued in 1949, which can be viewed here.

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