Klezmer Party, The Worm Ouroboros, & Sondheim
: Proving that any three subjects will fit together in one newsletter, no matter how disparate, if the need be great and the will be strong enough
As soon as I get this written, I’m going back to doing what I’m actually meant to be doing this weekend, which is writing the introduction to the new French translation of one of the greatest and weirdest fantasy novels of all time: The Worm Ouroboros, by E. R. Eddison, published in England in 1922. If you’ve read it, it was most likely when the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series initiated the U.S. paperback printing in 1970. That series was created in a hurry: The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s history-changing trilogy, was a bestseller 1960s - the Harry Potter of its day, in that people of all ages, including the vast tribe of those who “never read this sort of thing but I loved this” took it up - and were naturally asking, “What else can I read that’s like this?”
The answer, at the time, was Not much.
So Ballantine started putting out whatever adult fantasy already existed, giving it a cover like the Tolkiens, no matter what was inside it.
My essay is going to cover how I found the book impossible to read, until my college friend Caroline Stevermer showed me how. Before you mock me, here is a brief excerpt:
"Write thou," said Corund to Gro. "To write my name is all my scholarship." And Gro took forth his ink-born and wrote in a great fair hand this offer on a parchment. "The most fearfullest oaths thou knowest," said Corund; and Gro wrote them, whispering, "He mocketh us only." But Corund said, "No matter: 'tis a chance worth our chancing," and slowly and with labour signed his name to the writing, and gave it to Lord Brandoch Daha.
fool man who has chosen to translate this into French is a brave man. I can’t wait to see how he handles what is basically straight-up Elizabethan prose! Will he use the diction of French Renaissance poet Ronsard? Or seek the abundant formalities of the classical playwright Corneille, as being more suited to the work?
Actually, I can ask him, because he is M. Patrick Marcel, who did the superb French translation of Swordspoint - and is even now waiting for me to finish the Ouroboros intro for Editions Calidor.
Quickly, then, a final roundup of The Golden Dreidel celebrations, before Chanukah ends on Sunday night with the lighting of the 8th candle!
First and foremost: JOIN THE PARTY YOU MISSED!
WATCH & LISTEN to Klezmer musician Michael McLaughlin & me in this recording of our online launch party for THE GOLDEN DREIDEL, hosted by the delightful & soothing Rachel Jaffe. Michael plays! Ellen reads! We tell funny stories - and Delia Sherman remembers that we need Percy Peacock (who’s been living in her study) :
This all went so much better than I expected it to. Even my parents liked it! My friend Greta Ward, a Tucson artist who brightens my life, wrote:
Ok. I finally listened to/ watched this. And I know I’m slightly biased, but I would listen to you read the phone book. Your story is wonderfully engaging and, for those of us who know little about Judaism, educational in a fun way. You’re a fantastic interview, and your radio roots are showing…. Do you miss radio? Because I think radio misses you.
I seriously do miss being up in front of an audience, a fact that doing that event, and a school presentation the next day, really brought home to me - so much so that I’m going to write about it in a future letter.
The next night (Nov. 16th) was perfect bliss at Rooftop Readings at Ample Hills (Gowanus), and ice cream joint that also hosts reading series in Brooklyn. Readings by Chandler Klang Smith & John Foster absolutely blew me away—I felt like the comic relief coming after two such powerful writers.
I was honored by the number of NYC friends showed up for this. I love you all. (We all wore masks when we weren’t eating our ice cream, performing, or having our pictures taken, I promise.) We brought Percy along, and while I read, Delia did an amazing job of working him. Here is a still picture - but Randee also recorded about a minute of video of this! You can watch it here, on my Instagram page.
In fact, I’d like to offer you a challenge: If 25 people go over to the Instagram video and just leave a comment (“Nice!” will do), I’ll run a bit of the Work In Progress in the next newsletter.
Books of Wonder!
As soon as we got back from our Thanksgiving Writing Retreat, I hastened down to New York’s celebrated children’s bookstore, to sign copies of The Golden Dreidel. I found this incredibly moving: to be signing my own little book, surrounded by all the classics I grew up with.
Books of Wonder has a robust online shipping department, and if there are signed copies left, they will send you one. Order here - but take a look around while you’re there - it’s a real cornucopia of children’s books! Including Sale titles.
While I was signing, one of the sales staff came up to me, and said she wanted to thank me for writing it, because she was Jewish, and there were so many Chanukah picture books, but not that much for elementary school readers. I was touched—I never expect things like this to happen. Her comment also weirdly echoes the reaction to my first novel, Swordspoint, which is still in print: I wrote it just to please myself, and people are still telling me how important it was to them to read a book in which being queer was normal. I guess following my heart is the way to go, and damn the torpedoes.
And then, as if that weren’t enough, when I was done signing I obsessively checked my phone, and there was this new review, and I got choked up all over again -
My deepest thanks to every single one of you who bought the book, boosted it on social media, mentioned it to friends, or simply put up with me writing so much about it here. May your year be filled with light, joy, and satisfying books.
I don’t have a specific question for you this time, but if you have any thoughts on The Worm Ouroboros, Stephen Sondheim or The Golden Dreidel . . . I’ll take ‘em!
The sudden loss of Stephen Sondheim was a shock. But in its wake, the world seems to be holding a giant Sondheim festival: listening to music, sharing memories. . . .
The actor & singer Anne Bobby, a longtime friend and amazing human, posted this poignant reminiscence on Facebook:
In 1994, Steve threw a party. I was doing [his musical] “Merrily [We Roll Along]” at The York and we were all invited. I remember a lot of great things about that night - his amazing music library (he had Szymanowski’s “Stabat Mater”s in English, Latin *and* Polish!), *that* art collection in his bathroom, his wonderful poodle.
What I remember most fondly, though, was asking him if I was indeed on the block where I suspected E.B. White’s tree was hiding. His eyes lit up, and he said, “Come on”, leading me to a back door that opened to the gardens of himself and his neighbors.
There it was - the tree that had captivated me from the moment I’d first read about it at the end of White’s love letter to the city, “Here Is New York”.
“A block or two west of the new City of Man in Turtle Bay there is an old willow tree that presides over an interior garden. It is a battered tree, long suffering and much climbed, held together by strands of wire but beloved of those who know it. In a way it symbolizes the city: life under difficulties, growth against odds, sap-rise in the midst of concrete, and the steady reaching for the sun. Whenever I look at it nowadays, and feel the cold shadow of the planes, I think: "This must be saved, this particular thing, this very tree." If it were to go, all would go -- this city, this mischevious and marvelous monument which not to look upon would be like death.”
The next year, that wonderful dog would perish in the fire that caused so much damage to Steve’s home and collections. In 2009, that willow tree - battered to exhaustion - was taken down.
And now Steve’s gone. But he was here - mischievous, marvelous and a totem in his own right to his city, his art, and countless lives. Including so many of ours.
We were all here together. What a time to be alive.
Michael Chabon wrote a fine one, too - if you missed it, worth reading here.
D & I watched a video of Sondheim doing a masterclass with students on his song “I’m Not Getting Married.” Which made me remember this video, a take on that Sondheim called “Stop Playing with COVID!” It was written & performed by a NYC healthcare worker we know and admire. A tour de force!
This video was made in June 2020. A Twitter follower commented: “I can't believe this is still around 90% accurate, staring down the barrel of year three of this. Fuck everything.”
OK - but wear a mask!
And that’s a good place to stop.
We finally met Chabon this summer up in Maine - in fact, Delia fed him dinner! - and it was like meeting a cousin. He’s a mensch, as well as a brilliant writer.
"I guess following my heart is the way to go, and damn the torpedoes" is my new manta.
Do please share your Worm Oroboros introduction for us! Love that book. There's certainly no way you're not familiar with Ursula K. Le Guin's discussion of it in "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie", but I mention it in case you want to remind yourself of it as you write the intro.