Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Well, now I have a man crush on David Mamet.

By Charlie Kondek

Well, now I have a man crush on David Mamet, because of this Journal piece. I knew Mamet was a martial arts enthusiast but I didn't know he actually trained.

Don't get me wrong, I like his work. I just think it sometimes feels forced and unnatural. Take Glengarry Glenn Ross, for example. Great, fun movie that maybe goes a little too far in pushing its theme: business as an arena in which men are measured by their sales acumen; commissions as testicles, etc.

Whenever I get too down on Mamet, though, I can always play this card: this is the guy that wrote The Untouchables, a near-perfect tough guy movie.

Anywho, this WSJ piece simply makes me all kinds of happy.

Plato and his teacher Socrates moved fluidly from the gym to the agora. Mr. Mamet, his revered jiu-jitsu mentor Renato Magno, and his circle of bouncers, cops, stunt men, body guards and former soldiers seem to live on tracks between the gym and the nearby restaurant where they regularly congregate for an afternoon repast.

"When I have a problem I will sometimes take it to the group," confessed the natural-born alpha male. Mr. Mamet, who is also an ardent student of the Stoics, elaborated: "For instance, someone who I thought was a friend did something rather traitorous. I asked the guys how they would handle the situation. My teacher Renato, of course, came back with 'Don't carry someone else's weight. Let him carry the weight; let it come back to haunt him.' This is one of the central tenets of jiu-jitsu. When you carry the other person's mass you tire yourself and so lose your ability to think clearly. That was the group's way of telling me to let the situation go, to walk away -- which I did."

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Manival at A Good Husband

By Charlie Kondek

Virile Lit. made A Good Husband's editor's picks at the Manival, a blog carnival of posts from around the man-blogosphere. A lot of great writing over there from interesting bloggers. Reading all this could kill my morning. I'd like to buy a round for all of 'em.

Start Your Engines (Just in Time for Father's Day)

By Charlie Kondek

The Garage Blog has got some posts up featuring the race car art of Paul Chenard. Not only can you get this attractive "wall candy" in prints but you can get them on greeting cards or a t-shirt. Is there a racing fan in your life that would appreciate one? Maybe someone we celebrate on, oh, I dunno, June 15? Click on over to The Garage and invest.

What I like about these is the muted colors and clean, soft lines, the overcast 1950s and 60s mood of them. (Shown here: Chenard's Talbot-Lago T26C.)

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Wrong Stuff vs Ball Four


I read these two book consecutively. Ball Four by Jim Bouton is “the” baseball classic. The ultimate insiders look at what really happens in the clubhouse. Maybe it was controversial in 1970, but today, it all seemed pretty tame. Baseball players cheat on their wives and drink too much. Big news there eh? What I did find very interesting in this book was the average players struggle with money. Getting traded was a hardship not because of the move or inconvenience, but because you lost the deposit on your apartment. These guys were really hurting for money a lot of the time.

The Wrong Stuff by Bill Lee is frigging hilarious. There are more than a couple of laugh out loud moments. Bill played right around when free agency became a reality, so the before and after perspective is quite interesting. His stories are much funnier than Bouton’s. In fairness, Lee has an entire career to choose from, Bouton wrote about one season. Bouton also stuck to booze, while Bill seemed willing to inhale or ingest just about anything. David Wells may claim to have pitched while drunk, but Bill talks about pitching while tripping on psychedelic drugs.

Both books are must reads for any baseball fan.

Somerset Maugham Was Queer

By Charlie Kondek

I have a very smart friend named Jerry, a poet and musician from New England who is older than me and is well read and educated and knows books and music and art very well. I used to see Jerry quite a bit when I was waiting tables and he would come in to drink coffee, work and smoke his pipe. Once I asked Jerry why Somerset Maugham’s work was not considered canonical literature, and Jerry said, “Cuz he was queer.”

Jerry was being flippant but he may have accurately summed up a large body of opinion. But what “they” have really got against Maugham is that he was not a pretty writer, nor a writer accomplished in symbolism, allegory, metaphor, or other tools of high art. He was, rather, a plain writer who used plain, economic language and told plain stories. The fact that they are interesting stories invested with Maugham’s unique character is, at least it seems to me, overlooked, especially by more recent generations of readers.

I first encountered Maugham, as many people my age seem to, through his novel The Razor’s Edge, which is a book beloved by many expats and spiritual seekers. I got my copy of the book from just such a person – I was working in that same restaurant and spied it among a customer’s artifacts, and when I mentioned to him that I had always wanted to read it, he gave it to me on the condition I give it to someone else when I was done. It’s that kind of book.

I read it and loved it and gave it away and got another copy years later and read it again and finally got around to reading more Maugham recently. I dove into a collection of his stories – probably a great way to encounter Maugham – then read his masterpiece, Of Human Bondage and his favorite, Cakes and Ale. Next up for me will be some of his travel writing if and when I get my hands on it and more stories. I really should track down his plays.

I can’t tell you anything about Maugham that isn’t better told elsewhere, but I can tell you what I like about his stuff. Maugham was unique in that he experienced a great deal of European history. He came of age in the Victorian period and blossomed in the turn of the century and traveled and had adventures during and in between the great wars and enjoyed theatrical success in the 20s and 30s and lived til the 1960s. So he was able to write with clarity about each of these eras and also about a great many environments, from battlefields to English drawing rooms, colonial outposts to saloons. Of Human Bondage is about a Victorian doctor. Cakes and Ale is about an English writer. The Razor’s Edge is about an American expatriate and mystic. His stories are about Englishman, Jews, Malays, Chinese, crooks, gentlemen, ladies, whores, lawyers, artists, sailors, spies.

Maugham, it seems to me, is a strong writer equally capable of setting down an adventure tale and a pastoral soap opera. His stories are frequently about crime, my favorite genre, whether it is real crime or quasi crime or emotional or social crimes. A typical Maugham character is, like Maugham himself, a man of the world such as they don’t make anymore because the colonial days as we once knew them are long gone (good riddance). It is a man equally adept at navigating a train timetable and a lawn party, a man at home in polite society but, like Maugham’s stand-in in The Razor’s Edge, capable of showing a highborn crowd “the tough joints and the rough trade.” Sometimes it is a rough man and sometimes a smooth man, sometimes it is a man in the very grain of the law and sometimes it is a man who dabbles at the law’s fringes.

I enjoy Maugham’s writing in part because he creates characters I’d like to know in worlds I’d like to inhabit or at least visit. His echoes can be heard in the works of other great English writers that appreciate plain language, like George Orwell, who turned his admiration for Maugham to such great journalistic and political ends, and Ian Fleming, who was influenced by Maugham beyond just the great Ashenden stories. I recently re-read Fleming’s story “The Quantum of Solace” and realized it could easily be, word for word, a Maugham story.

The fact that he was queer doesn’t bother me or interest me in the least. In fact, it rather pleases me that a gay man can be, in my reckoning, among literature’s most virile writers.

Square America

By Charlie Kondek

I've been loving Square America for some time now and want to urge you to check it out. It's a web site wherein the curator chronicles the history of the U.S. in snapshots he has obtained by combing resale stores, estate sales, and other dusty archives for random, found photographs he then assembles into themed web-based exhibits. The results are simply fascinating. Text doesn't even enter into it, only the images and you.

Do check out the site. Perhaps you might start with Smoke or On Beauty (And Its Discontents).

Friday, May 2, 2008

The Sweats

By Charlie Kondek

I was explaining to someone what "the sweats" were and I came across a good write-up of men's magazines at this site. Apparently, Jahsonic is no more; they are now The Art and Popular Culture Wiki, but the archives are online.

The sweats, as you may or may not know, refers specifically to the postwar crop of men's magazines that replaced "the pulps," and took on a different character because the reading audience that grew up on Doc Savage in the 1930s was now adults in the 1950s. This genre of men's mags, which covered sex, crime, war, spy stories and adventure, got it's name from the images on the covers of unshaven - and sweaty - men in action poses.

You can read some of the more lurid examples of this stuff at Java's Bachelor Pad, which is a great site. It's the web presence of a lounge music show and podcast out of Champagne, Illinois (am I spelling that right?) and has, in addition to the men's magazine samples, articles on burlesque, music, clothing, coffee table books, etc. For example, from "The Girl Watcher," 1959:

Nary a male eyeball wavered as five foot and a half inches of cool blonde female wow, glided across the sun drenched small town street.

Her lemon yellow skirt fit like a sausage skin and she expanded a red silk blouse in a manner that would rate her a traffic menace violation ticket from any police department.

"That's a Pittsburgh Blonde Flipper," said the ardent Girl Watcher, with mounting interest.

"Don't hand me that jazz," the second Girl Watcher glowered, "that's a Philly Floozie! I'll bet my membership card on it."

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Josh Wilker Interviews Cait Murphy on Crazy '08

By Charlie Kondek

Josh Wilker, the scribe of Cardboard Gods, has an interview with Cait Murphy about her book Crazy '08.

Q: Besides the details, the most arresting feature of the book is the authoritative, salty, funny voice, which helps bring the past alive in ways that few historical books are able to. Did you have the voice for the book from the start of your work on it, or did you discover it gradually as you went along? Also, was this voice inspired in any way by the entertainingly colorful sportswriting style of the early twentieth century?

A: Well, my family says that when they were reading the book, they laughed because it sounds very much the way I speak; so I think I came by the voice honestly. I very much wanted to stay away from the hushed-reverence school of baseball writing.

Wilker's interview is here. I really wanna read this book now. By the way, Josh, what are your top ten - now eleven - baseball books? Addendum: Wait! He lists them in the comments under the interview. Follow the link.