Arkansas Times Recommends is a weekly series in which Times staff members (or whoever happens to be around at the time) highlight things we’ve been enjoying (or, in Max’s case, not enjoying) this week.
Before I had a kid, I expected, as an avid reader, that reading to him would be one of the great pleasures of fatherhood. It is often. But it can also be drudgery. There are a lot of terrible childrens books out there. Even classics that I’d argue deserve a place in the pantheon of great children’s books like Richard Scarry’s “Cars and Trucks and Things That Go” grow tedious after the 100th read. Not so, at least after about 50 reads, with Maurice Sendak’s “Nutshell Library.” This isn’t a novel recommendation, I realize. It’s a classic. But I suspect that there are a lot of folks, like me, who didn’t grow up with it because maybe their parents thought the collection of four tiny (4 inch by 2 inch) books were too weird and dark. There’s one about a boy who threatens to eat a menagerie that’s taken over his room. One about alligators who pretend to be lions and do other strange things. One is a fairly psychedelic ode to chicken-soup. And one is a morality tale about an apathetic boy and the lion who eats him. Of course that’s the sort of stuff a lot of kids like. And it’s definitely what I like. Also, Sendak’s sense of rhythm is so good. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of reading lines like, “as night began to fall, a hungry lion paid a call. He looked Pierre right in the eye, and asked him if he’d like to die.” — Lindsey Millar
You know Hattori Hansu, the guy in “Kill Bill” who Uma Thurman goes to see so she can talk him into making her a sword that can cut God for her roaring rampage of revenge? If you ever need a sword like that, save your money for a ticket to Okinawa and go see Jerry Fisk over near Nashville. Jerry might, in fact, be the world’s greatest maker of edged weapons. He’s surely the world’s greatest at Damascus steel.
Here’s how you make Damascus steel: standing before a roaring blast furnace on the very doorstep of hell, you take a bunch of layers of various plain ol’ steel, and then you heat ’em red hot and hammer them together until they are welded into a solid bar. When you have whupped it down to half the thickness it was when you started, you fold the bar in half and you do it again. Red hot, hammer down, fold. Red hot, hammer down, fold. You do that 500 times — along with some other tricks and secrets that only the Master knows — and you’ve got Damascus steel, which looks like frozen moonlight on water.
What I’m recommending today isn’t a trip over to Nashville to buy one of Jerry’s knives. Being the best in the world has its privileges and drawbacks, and Jerry’s waiting list for a knife, last I heard, is seven years long. Get on Jerry’s naughty or nice list today, and Santa will make delivery in 2021 (unless you’re active-duty military, in which case you get bumped to the top of the list). What I’m recommending, instead, is the gallery on his website. In particular, I’m recommending that you go look at this chef’s knife, which is in a Damascus pattern called “Tears of the Wounded,” and which I find it so goddamn beautiful it makes me want to cry just looking at it. That an object like that was made by a plain ol’ human being instead of Hephaestus at the forge should give all of us hope that — whatever you’re trying to do — perfection, or dang close to it, is possible if we just keep going through the parts when we aren’t doing so hot. — David Koon
In the fall of 1982, the writer Ian Frazier moved from New York to Montana, where he didn’t know anyone or have any connections or roots whatsoever. He was trying to write a “novel about high school,” and instead wrote “Great Plains,” a travelogue-history-memoir hybrid about the broad, empty, flat region at the center of the country, a place he describes as being “like a sheet Americans screened their dreams on for a while and then largely forgot about.” He spends most of his time driving — going to tourist spots and reading local newspapers and meeting interesting people. The historical research must have been staggering, but it’s well hidden: Chapters are personal stories that alternate between, say, a hitch-hiker Frazier picks up in Wyoming and a reconsideration of Sitting Bull’s legacy, and it’s seamless. No sections could be described as “detours” because every section is a detour.
I bought it over the weekend at Fayetteville’s cavernous Dickson Street Bookshop and am not very close to finishing it, which is nice. In an interview with The Believer ten years ago, Frazier said, “I really like pieces where you start at the beginning, and as you get farther and farther you realize this person has no idea what he’s talking about. It’s a defining kind of moment as a reader. It’s like you’ve gotten in the back of a taxicab and you realize the cab driver is completely lost and is just driving. It’s that kind of helpless but thrilling feeling. You’re being taken somewhere.” That’s what it’s like to read “Great Plains.” — Will Stephenson
Two years ago this Monday I got married in New Orleans to Grace (featured in this week’s Arkansas Times). Lots of stuff happened but one of our favorite moments during the ceremony was singing “Want You to Know” — the best song by the best psychedelic soul supergroup you’ve maybe never heard of, the Rotary Connection. “Want You to Know” is just about the perfect song and features one of my all-time favorite performances by the one-of-a-kind force of nature Minnie Riperton. My recommendations: 1) listen to “Want You to Know” over and over and sing along with folks that you love and 2) when you go down the Google/YouTube rabbit hole with Rotary Connection and Minnie Riperton (and that is definitely something you should do) make sure not to miss the time Minnie got attacked by a lion (see below — 1:10 mark, but the whole interview is great). Also, 3) if you get married, get married to someone who can play “Want You to Know” on trombone still wearing her bride’s dress. Worked for me. — David Ramsey