Bob and Ray! (And Chris, and Keith Olbermann)

1. Keith Olbermann of MSNBC is my favorite TV news reporter, not just because he was among the first newscasters to bravely speak the bitter truth about the incredible ineptitude of our current national leadership, but also because he always delivers his strong words with such a likable smile.

I’d always imagined his good-humored style to have originated in his early years as a football commentator, following in the witty tradition of Howard Cosell and John Madden. But I was pleasantly surprised, upon attending an event at the Paley Center for Media in midtown Manhattan and chatting with a curator named Ron Simon, to learn that Keith Olbermann cites early-television personalities Bob Elliot and Ray Goulding as his formative influences, and that Olbermann will be appearing at the Paley Center with Bob Elliot and his comedian son Chris Elliot to celebrate the Bob and Ray legacy on March 31.

This is bound to be something special, and I wouldn’t miss it for the world. Ron Simon explains more, and offers a good video sample, on the Paley Center’s blog. Literary content? Well, hmm, Chris Elliot is a writer. The Paley Center, formerly the Museum of Broadcasting, has great literary material in its media archives (at the event I mentioned above, we screened the classic Dick Cavett/Gore Vidal/Norman Mailer television dust-up). And whenever I think of Bob and Ray, I think of the first time I encountered them — it was inside a book.

2. Other New York stuff I’m going to? I’m not sure but I’ll try to catch Tom Wolfe at Barnes and Noble “Upstairs in the Square” Thursday night. And the Happy Ending show on March 26 features Tod Wodicka, Fiona Maazel and Samantha Hunt.

3. My verdict is finally in on Jennifer 8 Lee’s cultural history of chinese food. Here’s a typical sentence from this book:

General Tso’s Chicken is probably the most popular chinese chef’s special in America. What’s there not to like? Succulent, crispy fried chicken is drenched in a tangy, spicy sauce and sauteed with garlic, ginger and chili peppers until it bursts with flavor.

This is utterly conventional writing. And the book’s beginning sequence, which goes into way too much detail about a lottery won by a large number of people who’d taken the numbers from a fortune cookie, will similarly turn off anybody looking for in-depth coverage of this interesting topic. There are good ideas in this book, but the level of cuteness is fatal. Too bad.

Something good has come from this exercise, though. I mention in the blog post above that I first heard of this book while chatting with a Psychology Today writer on a train a year ago, and since posting that last week I heard from this writer, Jay Dixit, who recently wrote about his friend’s book himself on the Psychology Today blog. Naturally Jay likes the book more than I do, but that’s besides the point. I’m happy to learn that a Psychology Today blog exists (as my mother is a psychologist, I grew up reading Psychology Today magazine), and it’s now in my RSS reader.

4. Some have asked me: when am I going to complain about dysfunctional book pricing and promote alternative publishing/packaging ideas again? Soon, soon. Till then, here’s Evan Schnittman on a real-life success model, and here’s an argument that books should cost more, not less.

5. The Filthy Habits Human Smoke roundtable continues, and you’ll notice I managed to shoot my mouth off in every installment of this conversation so far. Meanwhile, the book has been harshly slammed by William Grimes in the New York Times and referred to as “bad”, “delusive” and “stupid” by Adam Kirsch in the New York Sun. Both adopt a condescending tone towards Baker, who they depict as a playful postmodernist out of his depth in the fields of war. William Grimes dismisses Baker’s sense of history entirely, citing the Holocaust as the clearest reason World War II had to be fought.

Did the war “help anyone who needed help?” Mr. Baker asks in a plaintive afterword. The prisoners of Belsen, Dachau and Buchenwald come to mind, as well as untold millions of Russians, Danes, Belgians, Czechs and Poles. Nowhere and at no point does Mr. Baker ever suggest, in any serious way, how their liberation might have been effected other than by force of arms.

This doesn’t hold up, since Baker is clearly not trying to explain how millions of starving concentration camp prisoners might have been liberated, but rather how they might never have been put there in the first place. Grimes takes comfort in the idea that the Allies fought to liberate persecuted minorities, even though this cozy bedtime story has never corresponded with historical fact. USA and Great Britain never made it their policy to combat Hitler’s openly racist domestic regime, instead standing by as Germany established and enforced horrifying racial laws several years before World War II began. Both nations refused frantic pleas to allow Hitler’s victims refuge. Once World War II began, the Allies did not make liberation or protection of oppressed minorities any part of their strategic agenda, and in fact Allied starvation blockades designed to frustrate German citizens unfortunately claimed oppressed minorities as unintended victims. When an enemy government is already intent on oppressing its minorities, are long-term starvation blockades really the best way to fight this enemy? Think about it.

I don’t usually quote myself, but I’d like to refer to a post I wrote a few months ago on a similar subject:

The hyperbole that surrounds America’s glory in World War II was really made clear to me when I was recently arguing with a friend about why I should love the American military unquestioningly. “The American military saved your ass in World War II!” he said. “The Jews would have been slaughtered if it wasn’t for us!”

I had to remind him that actually the Jews were slaughtered.

6. How do you segue from that? You don’t. Here’s a Moby sighting. Okay, it’s an orca, not a sperm whale. But it is an albino sea mammal, and that’s rare enough.

7. Speaking of white whales … Melville House is publishing a third Tao Lin book! Tthis time it’s a poetry textbook, whatever exactly that might mean. We’ll find out soon.

7 Responses

  1. Great post!

    I also am a fan
    Great post!

    I also am a fan of Keith Olbermann. He can really rip people apart with his style of talking. I also love the features on his show like “Worst Person in the World” (usually Bill O’Reilly).

    BTW, great blog, I read it regularly from my Google Reader feeds. Keep up the good work!


  2. I woke up the other day
    I woke up the other day thinking about the book Smoke in the context of Literary Kicks and your Sunday Review of the Review. Literally. And then I saw it was the topic of your post that morning.

    How this came about is that the LA Times book review melds the opinion section with the book review and publish both in tabloid or broadsheet format like an Ace double. So when you read one, you flip it over and read the other.

    Human Smoke was the cover featured book reviewed. On the other side the opinion section had an incredible cover essay for the LA Times. It was a forthright argument that the problem with Iraq and the war in general is that we do not use enough deadly force and that Clinton and Bush have sought to use special forces and highly technical weapons to focus on specific tasks or targets. This is to minimize deaths of our personnel and also civilian casualties. This is over concerns that too many deaths is perceived to be a domestic politics liabilty. So Presidents don’t want to go there and opt for war lite.

    The article is here.

    I can’t do justice to his argument and his own rhetoric so here is an excerpt to get the flavor.

    Unwilling to apply full conventional military power against our enemies, American officials instead hope that light forces, counterinsurgency tactics and precision weapons will beat our foes with few casualties, little or no collateral damage — and no bad publicity.

    Well, bunk. Victory is not possible if only covert forces are employed, and presidents from both parties have lied about their effectiveness because they will not tell Americans the politically incorrect truth. The fact is that in this global war against non-uniformed, religiously motivated foes who live with and are supported by their civilian brethren, and who are perfectly willing to use a nuclear device against the U.S., victory is only possible through the use of massive, largely indiscriminate military force.

    I say this was incredible to see as the on-the-cover featured essay for the LA Times because seldom will they print anythings this conservative and never as featured op-ed.

    I woke up realizing that the opposite cover’s review of Human Smoke was to balance this out. Put the polar opposites on either cover.

    And then I thought if this Smoke book had been reviewed in the NY Times and if Levi would comment on it.

    I personally think it should be called Smoke and Mirrors from what I read in the glowing review in the LA Times.

    It’s premise seems ludicrous, that Roosevelt started WWII in Europe and Asia by his policies and that he was a Nazi-sympathizing anti-semite seems rather ludicrous. It’s intellectual dishonesty of presenting things out of context to fit a pre-determined polemic makes it inconsequential. It definitely appeals to a small but fervent and influential sub-group.

    Olbermann? I remember him and his moustache when he was the sportscaster on Channel four when I was a kid. From what I have seen or heard, I can’t take him seriously. All those shows, O’Reilly, Matthews, Olbermann all seem equally pathetic. Olbermann seems to want to be O’Reilly Jr but can’t even pull it off. O’Reilly strikes me as a carnival barker. Olbermann tries to imitate him but goes to more extremes to be sensationalistic because he’s not quite as good at it as O’Reilly. I’m Bill O’Reilly and you’re in the no spin zone. I’m Keith Olbermann and you’re the worst person in the world. Come on, it’s schtick, it’s vaudeville.

    But Bob and Ray. Now there is a classic. These guys are among the great ones, genius at times.

    Now I have to be off to a meeting of my local chapter of the slow…talkers…of…America.

  3. Thanks for context on LA
    Thanks for context on LA Times, TKG. Very interesting, and I think you’re right that the LAT editors must have desired a strong contrast.

    Olbermann, well, I think he wants to be the anti-Bill-O’Reilly, which isn’t that different from what you’re saying. Of course I agree with Keith often and with Bill, well, never, but I do appreciate that both newscasters reveal their opinions openly. Like what you describe with the LA Times, you can get a great study in contrast by watching how Keith Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly will report the same story.

    About Human Smoke — well, I’ve already said what I think. It’s not surprising that many people will object to this book for various reasons.

  4. Tom Wolfe over William Gass
    Tom Wolfe over William Gass (on Thurs and Fri!)? No! I wish I was in NYC

  5. I read Human Smoke and find
    I read Human Smoke and find it useful and truthful. Until now, I have admired Grimes’s reviews. And until now, I have not read Nicholson Baker, except for a few pages in “Vox.” He has been called the best writer in the country, so I’ve asked myself from time to time why I don’t read him. I found three typos–“Heyndrich” for “Heydrich” and “thermate” for “thermite”; well, two typos but feel that A. Phillip Randolph should not be called Phillip Randolph but suspect that Baker knows that he was called Phillip and I don’t–and sent a postcard to South Berwick with no street address with those concerns and with the only Rufus Jones anecdote that I know.

    The critic assumes you have read the book or seen the movie or the play; the reviewer assumes you haven’t.

    I would like to thank Mr. Asher for his comments on the review.

    Without rereading, I think that Grimes writes as if Baker’s book is an essay and ignores the vignette method. Yes, he indicates that the book is vignettes, but no, he does not acknowledge that this is a different kind of book.

    I came to this review today, Thursday the thirteenth of March, still trying to get a handle on the Kakutani condemnation of Faludi’s book and my horror over the 1862 Minnesota story, Chaksa and other Indians hanged even with pardons from President Lincoln, etc., and with Fred Douglass’s 1892 plea for anti-lynching in Harvey Wish’s collection fresh in mind–and surprised that in 1922 the House passed an anti-lynching bill and the Senate committee reported it out for approval, and it took a filibuster to kill it.

    My father said that but for the Civil War, the South would have expanded slavery, etc. After reading Human Smoke (and, years ago, Patricide and the House Divided, plus a word or two on the political genius and slavery hater Lincoln), I incline to believe that we could have done without the Civil War. I don’t like it, the idea of doing without the Fourteenth Amendment, but it appears that for decades we came close to doing without it, thanks to the Supreme Court.

    After reading Baker (whom I keep wanting to call Blake), I incline to accept Grimes if he says that to Baker, Roosevelt and Churchill were in some sort of equivalency with Hitler, and, I add, Stalin, the greatest mass murderere in human history. And Lincoln, whom I will die admiring–incidentally, come April 13 or 14, the anniversary of the assassination, is a good time to read “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”

    I don’t know how much space is allowed or whether any is allowed–I’m not registered.

    Yes, the British blockaded and bombed, yes, we provoked the Japanese so that we could get in, no, nobody wanted the Jews–so my hero Orwell comes in and says, when you gotta fight, you gotta fight, and the war geniuses Lincoln and Churchill say, when you gotta mobilize your people, you gotta mobilize the part of them that is capable of being mobilized.

    Yes, Jews and other Germans were interned.

    It is a fine book, and Grimes does not make it clear that you go from the title page to the first vignette and you read vignettes or whatever they are called in plain English, anecdotes, STORIES for four hundred pages, and then you stop. Then Mr. Baker makes a couple of pages of comments and says how he feels. Grimes calls his reportage “affectless.” I doubt it, but have always remembered the story in Life of Andrew Wyeth taking weeks to paint all the gray blades of grass in “Christina’s World” before he put the first red on the canvas and “IT KNOCKED ME ACROSS THE ROOM.”

    What does Grimes want to contradict? Has Baker written another Fragebogen that requires the same kind of review–“This guy is pretty convincing, but watch out, he’s a WRITER and will fuck up your mind if you are not careful.



  6. I too am a fan of Keith
    I too am a fan of Keith Olbermann — have been since he started the Countdown format on MSNBC. Knowing he was influenced by Bob and Ray, I did find a website that has free Bob and Ray audio downloads (or you can just listen to them) at

    Levi, I found this page around 1994 and have often visited because you offer such a great service to those of us who love the poets.

    If anyone watched the Ovation channel night before last, there was a great documentary (newest I’ve seen) on Ginsberg. There is also an upcoming documentary “The Source” on Ovation, Tuesday the 18th @ 8pm. It is about the Beats and is something I thought I’d share with everyone if the didn’t know about that already.

    btw, I think Keith Olbermann is about the biggest rating show on MSNBC just because you know he does “deliver” with that smile that cannot be mistaken for anything other than “this is the truth and ain’t it great!?”


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