I recently enjoyed two new novels, The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen and Innocents and Others by Dana Spiotta, that left me thinking about the shimmering surfaces of everyday life, and the interwoven meshes of secrecy and guilt that ripple beneath. One novel is about a clever and bookish Vietnamese refugee college student in California who is really a Communist spy. The other is about a lifelong friendship between two filmmakers, one of them more commercial than the other. I recommend both for anyone in search of existential summer reading.
" ... Then the weekdays would come again and the parties were over and Japhy and I would sweep out the shack, wee dried bums dusting small temples. I still had a little left of my grant from last fall, in traveler's checks, and I took one and went to the supermarket down on the highway and bought flour, oatmeal, sugar, molasses, honey, salt, pepper, onions, rice, dried milk, bread, beans, black-eyed peas, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, lettuce, coffee, big wood matches for our woodstove and came staggering back up the hill with all that and a half-gallon of red port. Japhy's near little spare foodshelf was suddenly loaded with too much food. "What we gonna do with all this? We'll have to feed all the bhikkus." In due time we had more bhikkus that we could handle: poor drunken Joe Mahoney, a friend of mine from the year before, would come out and sleep for three days and recuperate for another crack at North Beach and The Place. I'd bring him his breakfast in bed. On weekends sometimes there'd be twelve guys in the shack all arguing and yakking and I'd take some yellow corn meal and mix it with chopped onions and salt and water and pour out little johnnycake tablespoons in the hot frying pan (with oil) and provide the whole gang with delicious hots to go with their tea. In the Chinese Book of Changes a year ago I had tossed a couple of pennies to see what the prediction of my fortune was and it had come out, "You will feed others". In fact I was always standing over a hot stove.
— Jack Kerouac, Dharma Bums
There have been times in my life when I would read the Beat classics — Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Snyder, Corso, McClure — in hope of a lightning bolt. There have been times when I found that lightning bolt.
In other phases of my life, I feel distant from that source of inspiration. But I can still grab a chunk of it, a bite, a nibble, not necessarily to change me but to nourish me, to fill me up, to keep me going. I think that'll be the mood I'll be in when I attend a few cool New York City events kicking off this Friday, June 3 and going on till Wednesday, June 8 at new downtown gallery called Howl! Arts. The festival is called Beat & Beyond: A Gathering and it will feature a lot of great writers and happeners: Michael McClure, Anne Waldman, John Giorno, Steve Cannon, Peter Stampfel, the Last Poets, Hettie Jones, Ann Charters, Bob Holman, Margaret Randall, David Amram, Ed Sanders and the Fugs.
A few weeks ago I showed up for a cool poetry reading at a dive called Gunther's in Northport, Long Island, a bar famous for being Jack Kerouac's favorite drinking spot when he'd lived nearby. This reading was significant to me because something was happening for the first time. When I was called to the mic, I was introduced as Marc Eliot Stein.
Marc Eliot Stein? Who the hell is that? It still jars me, three months after announcing my decision to dispose of the pseudonym I had used for over 20 years, to remember what name I'm going by these days. I had been performing spoken word poetry as Levi Asher for over 20 years by now, so I felt a bizarre disassociation as I began to perform. What does Marc Stein know about poetry?
Well, the reading turned out fine: I found my voice inside Gunther's welcoming walls, and by the time I stepped down from the mic I felt like Marc Eliot Stein had made his debut.
And now in two weeks ...
Here I am again, now appearing at an extremely exciting event. The Left Forum has been holding annual gatherings in New York City since Ronald Reagan was President, and this year's event has an absolutely amazing lineup including Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, Medea Benjamin of Code Pink, and one of my favorite living political philosophers, Slavoj Zizek. So I'm very psyched to be doing a panel discussion at this event, and I plan to hang around all three days and soak in the good spirit. Come by if you can! As befits a leftist forum, the prices are reasonable.
PARIS - AUGUST, 1870 - An incorrigible, horrible genius. A fifteen year-old! disembarks at Rue de Maubeuge. A concussion of uncombed hair infested with a plague of lice. Soiled clothing. A homicidal cupid with the enormous hands of a strangler. A smarmy smirk, perfect skin, a beautiful terror with cherub lips and a pernicious grin. Paris is about to fall and the air is crisp with revolt like the pit of the stomach before a first sexual encounter. Crackling on the skin is the charged abstraction of rebirth that floods the streets and minds with the absolution of seditious acts. Napoleon III is only days from being overthrown, the empire toppling and Arthur Rimbaud treats the skittish police and then the magistrate with "ironic disdain" and is immediately sent to the prison at Mazas in the eastern district of the city, the officers finding the boy’s poems in his coat completely indecipherable.
Rimbaud is swept up along with the banished rebels and dissidents that have returned to the city for a revolt and subsequent looting. Anyone suspicious is immediately detained. The soil so rich and fuming and moist and ready for the outgrowth of new ideas, new conclusions, new leaders sprung from the spontaneous executions of the authorities, administrative officials and appointees like the upsurge of puberty in the newly crowned youth, and like Rimbaud himself too! described by the prefecture as, “without domicile or means of support.”
Manacled and riding through the old avenues in the back of a police carriage, all that Rimbaud has furiously studied comes alive now as he sees everywhere the Medieval narration of the city of Francois Villon's time. All around too is the contemporary descriptions of Victor Hugo's Paris. Raised in the wilds of the Ardennes, his eyes bulging at the modernity in front of him, hands cuffed behind.
For a long time I thought her name was Beverly Clearly. That's because she wrote so clearly. For real: as a kid I would look at the covers of these wonderfully readable books, and "Beverly Clearly" was the author name I saw.
It's rare that I have a chance to celebrate a favorite author who is turning 100 years old. A couple of months ago I wrote an R.I.P. for David Bowie, who died way too young, in which I named his five most genius songs. Today, I'm going to going to list seven Beverly Cleary genius moments to celebrate her 100th birthday, which is a much happier reason.
To top it off, I'm doing this totally from memory, despite the fact that I haven't actually read a Beverly Cleary book in probably four decades. I remember these seven moments in these books not only because they thrilled me as a reader, but because they inspired me as a writer.
Beverly Cleary's stories are often about crisis situations, and they achieve a considerable psychological depth. She managed to attune her existential awareness to the intellectual level of a kid or a tween or a teen, but that doesn't mean that the crises she describes are not complex, not twisted, not severe. It only means that the words she uses to tell the stories are simple enough for a third grader to understand, even when her observations are sophisticated enough to recall the works of Jean-Paul Sartre.
Phife Dawg aka Malik Taylor, the raspy half of the seminal hiphop band A Tribe Called Quest, has died at the age of 45. The brilliant, funny, wise, immensely talented and lovable rapper from Queens had suffered from diabetes and other ailments for years. Despite his renown as one of the best and most beloved hiphop artists of all time, Phife (like his equally admirable Quest-mate Q-Tip) always respected the music by keeping a low profile, his ego (mostly) in check and his dignity intact.
Linden Boulevard represent represent
Tribe Called Quest represent represent
When the mic is in my hand, I'm never hesitant
My favourite jam back in the day was Eric B. for President
Rude boy composer, step to me you're over
Brothers wanna flex, you're not Mad Cobra
MC short and black, there ain't no other
Trini-born black like Mia Long's grandmother
Tip and Sha they all that, Phife Dawg ditto
Honey tell your man to chill, or else you'll be a widow
Did not you know that my styles are top-dollar?
The Five-Foot Assassin knocking fleas off his collar
Hip hop scholar since being knee high to a duck
The height of Mugsy Bogues, complexion of a hockey puck
A favorite novelist of mine, Sam Savage, is entering hospice. According to the Numero Cinq article revealing the sad news of his medical condition, he has suffered for decades with a blood disease called "alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency". It never harmed his ability to write.
Savage was born in 1940 in South Carolina and studied philosophy at Yale and at the University of Heidelberg in Germany before settling into the quaint college neighborhoods of Madison, Wisconsin. The two Sam Savage novels I've read, Firmin and The Cry of the Sloth, are beautiful, tasteful investigations into the lonely tragicomedy of the literary life. They are similar in that they both mercilessly eviscerate the egotism of the neglected genius, the agonized, angry, self-hating scribbler who has suffered the excruciatingly slow death of his innocent dreams of wealth, fame and greatness. The two novels are different mainly because the lonely hero of Firmin is a rat, while the lonely hero of The Cry of the Sloth is a human. In Sam Savage's world, these distinctions blur all too easily under the agonizing stresses of everyday life.