Alchemy, schizophrenia, witchcraft, and religious fanaticism, all leavened with a knowing wink of humor, Inferno, by Swedish author August Strindberg is an early example of the “unreliable narrator” literary device, in which the reader learns that the storyteller is seeing things from a distorted perspective. It is also deliciously macabre, if you like that sort of thing.
The Inferno is far from Strindberg’s most famous work. In 1879, he became famous in Northern Europe with the publication of what is often described as the first modern Swedish novel, The Red Room. Set in Stockholm, The Red Room is a satire dealing with compromise and corruption in politics, journalism, and business in general. Strindberg wrote over 60 plays and is probably best known for his 1888 play Miss Julie, which told a tale of power and sex within high and low social classes. Other plays include The Father, Creditors, and The Ghost Sonata. He was also an essayist, a painter (two of his friends were Edvard Munch and Paul Gauguin), and based on at least one photograph, a guitarist.
My Infamous Life, the new memoir by classic rapper Prodigy of Mobb Deep, kicks off with a surprise: Albert "Prodigy" Johnson carries an amazing musical legacy in his genes. His grandfather Budd Johnson was a bebop saxophonist who worked with Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie, Ruth Brown, Gil Evans, Count Basie and Quincy Jones. His grandmother Bernice Johnson created an influential dance school in Jamaica, Queens and hung out with Lena Horne, Ben Vereen and Diana Ross. Prodigy's mother Frances Collins was a replacement member of the 60s girl group the Crystals. This gangsta rapper has some major musical roots.
But he struggled as a kid with sickle-cell anemia, a painful condition that helped him develop a stoic sense of life and a fervent, straight-edged drive. He and his high school buddy Havoc were still teenagers in 1993 when they put out the first Mobb Deep album. They were unknowingly at the vanguard of hiphop's greatest age, born in Queensbridge and the Lefrak projects, where Prodigy crossed paths with A Tribe Called Quest, Nas, the Large Professor, Onyx, Cormega and Capone-N-Noriega. The new gangsta sound spread through New York City, where the Queens rappers were joined by Jay-Z, Biggie Smalls, Lil Kim, Busta Rhymes and M.O.P. from Brooklyn, Mase, Big L and Cam'ron from Manhattan, Big Pun and Fat Joe from the Bronx, DMX and the L.O.X. from Yonkers. Mobb Deep fans, all of them.
1. Billy Joel had a contract to write a memoir, but got cold feet. Too bad. We know this Long Island boy can write, and I bet he had some stories to tell. The alleged book (my personal guess is that he never began it, though the cover artwork was finished and released) was supposed to have been called The Book of Joel.
2. You know I've been wanting to read this Long Island boy's life story. Jay-Z's recent semi-memoir Decoded had its moments, but Jay hardly dug deep. Good hiphop memoirs or biographies are rare, but I eagerly snapped up Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office, a new unauthorized biography by business writer Zack O'Malley Greenburg, who has covered hip-hop culture and money for Forbes magazine. I suppose it works as a business book, but I found it very disappointing. This white boy, unfortunately, does not know hiphop. The author also seems to think Jay-Z's best years must be right now (naturally, because this is when he's making the most money) which proves, once again, that he doesn't know anything about hiphop.
Here's some stuff I've checked out and liked lately:
It's annoying that Keith Richards is more widely known today for his long-past hard-partying rock star excesses than for being (still) a world-class musician and songwriter. I almost didn't want to read his extensive, acclaimed new autobiography Life because I'm not interested in hearing "the stories", and I certainly don't care about the legend. But I do care about the great music and career of the Rolling Stones, so I dove into the book, and was immediately captured by the author's warm, thoughtful voice.
Life is at its best when Keith Richards talks about the music, about rhythm guitar, about the wisdom of Chicago blues (as he understood it growing up in Dartford, a suburb of London). There are brilliant passages about the lazy guitar tricks used by Jimmy Reed, about the difference between six-string standard tuning and five-string open tuning, about what it's like to collaborate with the talented but egotistical Mick Jagger. Richards is laying down an ethical point of view in this memoir: he values friends (male and female) and close family (his parents and his children) above all else, he laughs at the trappings of fame (his disgusted reaction to Mick Jagger's recent knighthood is fun to read), he reads avidly and keeps a vast library in his own house, he works hard as hell to make every Stones record and concert as good as it can be. He also gave up heroin thirty years ago, and I hope this book will help people realize that junkie-hood was never the most interesting thing about Keith Richards.
(As a longtime Ramones fan, I was very moved by Mickey Leigh's memoir about growing up as the younger brother of Joey Ramone, who died tragically of cancer in 2001. The book has just come out in paperback with a new epilogue. I was thrilled to have a chance to ask Mickey Leigh a few questions. -- Levi)
Levi: Though it has a sort of jokey title, I sense that I Slept With Joey Ramone is meant to be a serious entry in the field of punk rock literature, along with many other good books like Rotten by Johnny Rotten, Go Now by Richard Hell, Poison Heart by Dee Dee, Please Kill Me by Legs, the new Just Kids by Patti Smith, even And I Don't Want To Live This Life by Deborah Spungen. Why do you think punk rock has become so literary, or has it always been so?
(Whenever a book about classic cartooning comes in, I ask my father Eli Stein to review it. This time I bought him a copy of the book as a birthday present -- I wanted to keep my own copy -- to help seal the deal, and he came through. Enjoy! -- Levi)
Al Jaffee's Mad Life is Mary-Lou Weisman’s heartfelt biography of her friend of many years, cartoonist Al Jaffee. Jaffee, now 89 years old, is still going strong, still producing his famous “Fold-In” page for MAD magazine and still coming up with “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions” and other humorous features.
Ms. Weisman devotes about two-thirds of her book to Jaffee’s childhood, roughly from when he was six years old to his high school days. And what a dysfunctional childhood it was! (More about this later). I only bring up this fact because, in choosing to read this book, I was hoping to learn all about Jaffee vis-à-vis the glory days of MAD magazine and William Gaines, Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder et al.
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.
Reality Hunger is a book-length essay about literature and culture by David Shields that's getting a lot of attention for its provocative key argument: we are wrong to think of fiction as the most exalted form of literature, because as readers we mostly value writings that bring us reality and truth -- which are, by strict definition, beyond the scope of fiction. Shields presents today's literary community as blind and confused, trained to pine after the ideal of the perfect novel, the sublime work of art, when in fact we crave something more primal than artistic excellence when we read.
Here's the first great book of the new decade. Just Kids by Patti Smith is a major work, an act of creative discovery, and a surprising new step in its author's riveting career.
Was there every any doubt that Patti Smith could write? She wrote before she sang, actually, publishing rock criticism in Crawdaddy, Creem and Rolling Stone and several poetry chapbooks before ever entering a recording studio. But it's rare for a musical artist to master the memoir format, and when I heard that Patti Smith's first book would focus on her early friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS in 1989, I was worried she'd phone in a Valentine.
Nineteen years ago, a French translator and one-time publishing industry insider began writing a memoir of her time as Jack Kerouac's girlfriend in the mid 1950s. Helen Weaver had been affectionately immortalized by Kerouac (who, of course, wrote about every significant person in his life) as Ruth Heaper in Desolation Angels. Weaver spent a long time preparing her side of the story, and in the meantime many of Jack Kerouac's other lovers published memoirs: Off The Road by Carolyn Cassady, Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson, You'll Be Okay by Edie Kerouac-Parker, Nobody's Wife: The Smart Aleck and the King of the Beats by Joan Haverty Kerouac.
But The Awakener by Helen Weaver turns out to be worth waiting for. When the book begins, Weaver is a cheerful editorial assistant at Farrar Straus whose parents wanted to spoil her with luxury and good manners, but who instead chose to spoil herself with wild experience, cheap wine and bohemian style. She meets Jack Kerouac about a year before On The Road made him famous, and is immediately knocked out by his good looks. They bond easily but she can't endure his alcoholic inconsideration and eventually kicks him out of her apartment, at which point he hooks up with Joyce Johnson and the book's direct connection to Kerouac ends. But the story goes on: Weaver becomes briefly involved with Lenny Bruce, works with Susan Sontag on a groundbreaking edition of Antonin Artaud's poetry, finds peace as an astrologer, Buddhist and occasional activist. A smart confidence underlies her bemused feminine understatement, and this book is a summation of a deeply thoughtful life.
Some facts that surprised and pleased me as I read this book: that the original Broadway cast recording of Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady played a big role in Weaver and Kerouac's romance; that both Kerouac and Lenny Bruce, despite their much-documented excesses, managed to be sensitive and tender in her presence; that as a respected literary translator Weaver made it a game to find a way to place the title of a rock and roll song into every book she produced. The primitive rock and roll scene of the mid-1950s is a touchpoint for Weaver's life, and for her book: she was in her early 20s when Elvis Presley hit the scene, and most of her peers were too sophisticated for the new fad. Weaver, pointedly, was not.
The Awakener includes a funny later scene at Allen Ginsberg's apartment with ethnomusicologist Harry Smith, and an enjoyable account of the 1994 Beat Conference at New York University, where she reunited with many of her former friends and rivals for the last time. There's also much commentary on Buddhism, the Beat religion, which she only comes to accept later in life but seems to understand well.
The Awakener (the title refers indirectly to Kerouac's posthumously published Buddhist text Wake Up) is also valuable for calling attention to the often forgotten novel in which Weaver is fictionalized. The five Jack Kerouac novels that form the great core chronology, in my opinion, are On The Road, Subterraneans, Dharma Bums, Desolation Angels and Big Sur. Desolation Angels may be the most life-affirming of all Kerouac's works, and The Awakener nicely echoes this all-embracing and positive tone.