The remarkable novelist Katharine Weber has published her sixth book, her first work of non-fiction. The Memory of All That: George Gershwin, Kay Swift, and My Family's Legacy of Infidelities is a memoir with a subtitle that evokes the great Broadway composer George Gershwin, who played a key role in Weber's family past.
But Weber is a novelist, and her faithful readers will not approach this new book as a diversion but rather as the sixth entry in a series marked by creative and stylistic variation. None of her previous five novels resemble each other in terms of storytelling approach, tone or setting; she has reinvented her mission as a novelist with each work, and the memoir is clearly the latest step in this progression.
The notion of a Katharine Weber memoir raises immediate questions, because she has always played with real life and fiction in her novels. Her characters play with real life and fiction too. Her well-loved first novel Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear presents a young female narrator so full of verve, affection and enthusiasm that she has to constantly contain herself and rein in the power of her imagination. The tension between Harriet's beckoning sense of romantic possibility and her impulse to control herself and appear polished to others supplies the core of this character's voice. Weber's second novel The Music Lesson offers a heroine who willingly falls for a charming criminal's thin veneer of lies, preferring not to abstain from the great sex that accompanies the story. Her third novel The Little Women, a jaunty comic tableau, then presents an entire family of incorrigibly fanciful souls, spinning together in the whirlwinds of their half-composed psychological theories and illusions. Her powerful fourth novel Triangle also explores what it means to live a life defined more by fiction than by reality, and her fifth True Confections, her broadest comedy, takes the form of a legal affadavit by a woman who is obviously straining at the boundaries of truth.
Many of these works capture the voice of a child's mind, though the "child" may be in the body of an adult. Some writers eschew parent-child relationships (Charles M. Schulz of "Peanuts" comes to mind, since he never drew a parent or an adult in a "Peanuts" comic strip). Katharine Weber is his opposite, as far as subject matter is concerned. Without a parent or grandparent to defy, disappoint, become enraged by, look up to, accept gifts from or give help to, a Katharine Weber character wouldn't know how to live.
Rock biographies and memoirs don't have a lot of literary cachet, though I seem to keep reading them. If I believed there was anything for me to feel guilty about (I don't), I'd call this my guilty pleasure. It's more accurate to say that, as with any literary format, books like Does the Noise in My Head Bother You?: A Rock 'n' Roll Memoir by Steven Tyler and Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock by Sammy Hagar bring pleasure to the degree that they are authentic, surprising and truthful.
The fact that both of these memoirists are well-known for loud, brash personalities and stadium-level exuberance (Steven Tyler refers winningly in his book to an affliction of the ego known as "Lead Singer Disease") should not disqualify their books from thoughtful literary consideration at all. Steven Tyler and Sammy Hagar may feel comfortable juicing up gigantic, cheering crowds, but they must each overcome the same creative anxieties and moral doubt as any other writer when they stare at themselves in the mirror and try to describe what they see. Sure, celebrity memoirists have ghostwriters (David Dalton for Tyler, Joel Selvin for Hagar), but that may not help as much as we think. It's worth analyzing how both Steven Tyler and Sammy Hagar measure up to the memoirist's moral challenge with these books.
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.