Some of you have seen my wife Caryn's amazing work as a photographer before. She has a taste for surprise and a sharp sense of humor (and if you ever saw a good photo of me on Litkicks, she probably took it). Caryn's participated in some creative community projects on Flickr and elsewhere, and apparently the latest meme in online photography is to do a "365" -- to take an artistic photograph of yourself every day for a year.
Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, the novel on the cover of today's New York Times Book Review, has a hell of a back story. The author was decorated for extreme bravery in combat as a Marine in Vietnam, and then spent 30 years composing a fictional representation of his experience. Reviewer Sebastian Junger is obviously impressed by the back story -- who wouldn't be? -- but I can't help reading between the lines of his article and wondering if the book's main value isn't in the simulated suffering it provides:
The truth about war is that it contains nearly unbearable levels of repetition, boredom and meaninglessness. To write honestly about war, you should make readers feel they have endured those things as well. Yet no sane novelist wants to inflict that much discomfort on the audience.
Ron Hogan -- media journalist (GalleyCat, Beatrice), marketing strategist and the only literary blogger I know who's been doing it as long as I have -- has just published an unusual book: Getting Right With Tao: A Contemporary Spin on the Tao Te Ching.
It happens I share Ron's fascination with the Tao Te Ching, an ancient Chinese religious/philosophical text ascribed to a mysterious author named Lao Tzu, and with the set of ideas and traditions known as Taoism. The original Tao Te Ching is unquestionably a masterpiece, and the strong philosophy it presents has much in common with later movements like Buddhism, Transcendentalism and Existentialism. I still have my beloved, very beat-up Penguin Classic copy I bought in college; like Thoreau's Walden or Emerson's essays, this is a book you can pick up and return to often when you need inspiration or advice.
(There are many, many books about the literary Beat Generation, but Alan Bisbort's guidebook Beatniks: A Guide to an American Subculture offers a freahly anthropological look at the same old crowd, rich in detail and enthusiastic about far-flung cultural connections. I asked Bisbort, author of books like When You Read This, They Will Have Killed Me”: The Life and Redemption of Caryl Chessman, Whose Execution Shook America and Rhino’s Psychedelic Trip, how this new work came to be, and here's what he wrote.-- Levi)
In 2008, my friend Sharon Hannon was contracted by Greenwood Press to write Punks, part of a reference book series called Guides to Subcultures and Countercultures. As a talented writer, dogged researcher and former punk rocker who cut her teeth in Washington, D.C.’s hardcore punk scene, Sharon was imminently qualified to undertake the volume. She sent me an email to thank me for putting her in touch with Greenwood Press, for whom I had written a book the year before (Media Scandals, part of their Scandals in American History series). Sharon mentioned in passing that she thought Greenwood was also planning to publish separate volumes in the Guides to Subcultures and Countercultures series called Hippies, Goths, Flappers and Beatniks.
I've been feeling down about literary fiction lately, so I'm glad I checked out an unassuming novel called Buffalo Lockjaw by Greg Ames, a Brooklyn writer who grew up in Buffalo, New York. With a frothy winter beer on its cover and a title that recalls Vincent Gallo, the novel appears on first glance to be about the quirky people of a small cold American city. In fact Buffalo Lockjaw has a different purpose, though its Buffalo charm is a hit as well.
We glimpse the purpose on page 4, when the book's slacker hero reveals that a copy of Assisted Suicide for Dummies is in the back seat of his car. He's returned to Buffalo (from Brooklyn) to spend time with his family and with his mother, whose mind has been completely destroyed by early onset Alzheimer's disease.
I spent some time in a bookstore yesterday deciding whether or not to buy The Bridge, the first major biography of Barack Obama, written by David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker. I'm eager to learn about Obama's background, but a cruise through the pages failed to motivate me towards the checkout counter.
I adore a good exploratory biography, one that meanders through its subject's past to tap into the richness of a solitary human life tinged with destiny. I like and respect David Remnick, but I quickly gathered that The Bridge takes a Bob Woodward-esque approach, chronicling not the private but the public aspects of Obama's life, primarily through an immense series of interviews. In today's New York Times Book Review, critic Garry Wills refers to The Bridge as an "exhaustively researched" life of Obama, and by this he means that David Remnick probably exhausted himself talking to Obama's peers and old friends, gaining every possible vantage point from which to see him. But I prefer biographies that aim, more riskily, to get inside their subject's minds (like, for instance, this one, which I recently praised). The Bridge appears to lack the novelistic blush that enlivens a great work of biography. It seems rather to be a work of professional journalism, a 656-page magazine piece, more topical than existential.
I'm a bit overworked, and I'm taking a Litkicks vacation day. But here's a nice song for you to listen to: "Hesitation Blues" by Hot Tuna, recorded somewhere in 1970. Jorma Kaukonen is one of the best (and most underrated) guitarists of the rock era, and Jack Casady is not too shabby on the Guild hollow-body bass.
Enough with all the literary deaths and shootings. The green and idyllic small town above, captured in an aerial shot via Google Maps, once nurtured a writer currently acknowledged as one of the greatest of all time. This writer is both wildly popular with bookbuying audiences and highly respected by the most severe literary critics. Unfortunately, the writer did not live long enough to enjoy this universal acclaim.
This article is part of the Litkicks Mystery Spot series. The next post in the series is Steventon, Hampshire, England: Where Jane Austen Grew. The previous post in the series is No. 1 Rue Des Brasseurs: Verlaine and Rimbaud.
The Litkicks Mystery Spot #3 is: Steventon, Hampshire, England, the town that gave Jane Austen to the world.
This brilliant comic novelist was very much a product of her village, and of her large, loving family. Her father was a pastor and a popular figure in town, and he along with several of her older siblings, cousins and neighbors had literary connections in nearby Oxford and London that helped to make her unlikely career possible. When Jane was 21 years old, her father sent an early version of Pride and Prejudice to a London publisher on her behalf (it was rejected, but his belief in her must have given her confidence).
This article is part of the Litkicks Mystery Spot series. The next post in the series is An Epic City: Litkicks Mystery Spot #4. The previous post in the series is A Little Country Village: Litkicks Mystery Spot #3.
Walter Kirn is back. Owner of the strongest voice among the regular New York Times Book Review fiction critics, he's returned from his Hollywood sojourn to review the latest novel by another confident writer, Ian McEwan (who, for what it's worth, also wrote a book that became a hit movie that didn't win the Academy Award for Best Picture).
But while Walter Kirn seems to be hitting his stride as a novelist, the superb Ian McEwan (whose best books, like Atonement, The Innocent and On Chesil Beach, are worth cherishing) seems to be in that familiar dreaded late phase of literary success, the phase in which an author stops giving his readers what they like best about his work but challenges them to love him anyway. What we love best about McEwan is his gift for excruciating psychological plots in quaint or dramatic historical settings (a grand English mansion in the 1930s, a seedy Berlin apartment in the late 1940s, a disconcerting British beach in the early 1960s). His new Solar deals with climate science and takes place in the unromantic present, and not one of the several reviews I've read has been remotely positive.
1. Beat poet Michael McClure's new book of poetry is called Mysteriosos. In his long and exciting career McClure has collaborated with Janis Joplin and Ray Manzarek, written influential plays like The Beard, and appeared as a character (a voice of sanity, strangely enough) in Jack Kerouac's novel Big Sur. He's also, in my opinion, a better nature poet than W. S. Merwin, and a whole lot more fun to read.
Mysteriosos is a wildly adventurous (typographically and otherwise) romp through existence and language. Characteristically for McClure's work, the consciousness of the poetic narrator is not restricted to the human species, and instead generally aims for a universal or animal awareness. Sometimes this is even achieved. Check out this good book (an earlier version of which was previewed temporarily on LitKicks during our 24 Hour Poetry Party in 2004).
Why, in our web-connected age, do we still exist in information silos defined by nationality and language?
This is, for me, probably the greatest disappointment of the Internet era. (Okay, the fact that I didn't get to keep my million dollars of dot-com stock was my biggest personal disappointment, but that's a different kind of disappointment). An incredible technological unity has been established all over the world -- from my office computer to Africa and Asia and South America and everywhere on this planet, we all speak HTML and Unicode and TCP-IP and HTTP. So why isn't there more global cultural interchange going on?
Wednesday's post about the lack of international/intercultural communication on the Internet got my wheels turning. I think there's more to this topic.
Cultural insularity is the world's status quo, and there is currently no momentum at all towards a global language. Sure, the Esperanto organization still runs annual conferences, but we all know Esperanto was a well-intentioned dud. It was founded in 1887 with the publication of a book called Lingvo Internacia by Lazar Zamenhov, a Polish Jew. The movement was a hit, but the language never took root, and by the time Zamenhov died in 1917 Europe was in its worst depths of violence. The Great War provided insurmountable proof that Zamenhov's ideas about global peace through global communication were naive. (His children were then persecuted and murdered during World War II for being Jewish, being Baha'i, and being related to Lazar Zamenhov).
It's not widely known, but Bill Keller's name means a lot to New York Times watchers like me. He's the paper's Executive Editor, an abstract title that might or might not carry power but in this particular case carries a lot. He appears to be the newspaper's top hands-on manager, its chief day-to-day decider, and he's also Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus's boss.
I recall Keller's byline showing up exactly once before in the New York Times Book Review, on a minor sports piece too diffuse to allow readers to form any real opinion of him at all. He makes a much more pronounced appearance in today's Book Review with a signature piece on Alan Brinkley's biography of Henry Luce, the dynamic founder of the Time magazine empire, an influential publisher until his death in 1967.
"Our reason is quite satisfied, in nine hundred and ninety-nine cases out of every thousand of us, if it can find a few arguments that will do to recite in case our credulity is criticised by some one else. Our faith is faith in some one else's faith, and in the greatest matters this is most the case.
Our belief in truth itself, for instance, that there is a truth, and that our minds and it are made for each other, — what is it but a passionate affirmation of desire, in which our social system backs us up?"
- William James, 'The Will to Believe', 1896.
Strip down any of the hot political debates of the day -- health care, Wall Street, global warming, Afghanistan -- and what you'll find at the center is not principle but willful desire. We prove that we know this when we criticize our opponents for their shallow, self-serving views. We'll say, "they just believe that because they want to believe it". It's sometimes the only explanation that makes sense. Alas, the criticism holds up equally on all sides, as our own opponents will also be happy to point out.
A few years ago I was bowled over by Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Wizard of the Crow, a bitter satire about an African dictator whose corruption has reached surreal heights and a few ragtag rebels who combat his regime. I joined in an extensive discussion of Wizard of the Crow at the Litblog Co-op, which chose the novel as its Winter 2007 selection.
Dreams in a Time of War, Ngugi wa Thiong'o's new memoir, shares an attractive cover concept with Wizard of the Crow, but otherwise could hardly feel more different. Sarcastic anger was Wizard's top note, but Dreams captures the author as a child, observant and innocent, devoid of hatred even as the emerging independent nation of Kenya dissolves into civil war around him.
(Some of you may remember my Mom, whose first Litkicks piece was about Paul Auster, Franz Kafka and a doll. Lila Lizabeth Weisberger is also renowned in the field of poetry therapy (and whether or not there is any connection between Litkicks Action Poetry and the Poetry Therapy movement remains an enduring mystery). I asked her to write a piece explaining what "poetry therapy" means and how she became involved in the organizations that are trying to spread the word about it. Thanks for sending this, Mom. -- Levi)
When I worked as a school psychologist, I used creative arts therapies with elementary through high school age children. Poetry was an integral part of the group work I did with parents and teachers. I determined to increase my ability to use poetry and writing effectively and to train to become a poetry therapist.