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.
This week's scary news of a sudden attack on South Korea by North Korea brought North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il into the spotlight again. But, all too often the analysis of this dangerous politician's motivation and character takes a quick dive into comic disbelief. "He's a loon." "He's out of his mind." "Kim Jong-Il is a nutjob."
This material can make good comedy -- and, listen, I don't understand the haircut either. But I sure hope nobody thinks "Kim Jong-Il is a loon" can substitute for real insight. A statement like this is, rather, a display of no insight. It signifies that some logic or explanation for Jong-Il's actions exists, and that we are blind to it. A statement like this is the opposite of insight.
We love comedy and satire in the United States of America, and we often have fun with the shrill, hysterical personalities of our military opponents. There's nothing wrong with this, unless we allow it to become a dead end for our own knowledge. When it comes to understanding North Korea here in the USA, this seems to have taken place. Kim Jong-Il is a Saturday Night Live skit, and as far as most Americans know, that's all he is.
Is Kim Jong-Il actually crazy? The evidence for this is slight, though his embattled leadership position has probably pushed his sanity towards the edges. However, we don't even have strong information about whether or not Kim Jong-Il is the prime decision-maker within the government, so it may not matter whether he is insane or not. Often in history we have misunderstood our enemy's internal workings. (For instance, during World War II it was generally believed among US and British military strategists that the Prussian military leadership was driving military strategy in Nazi Germany, when in fact this took place within Hitler's Nazi Party, a completely different organization. If we had known this during World War II, we could have helped the Prussian military clique overthrow Hitler, as it was desperately trying to do).
Like the government of every nation in the world, North Korea's is run by some kind of hive mind, and if we don't want to blunder our way through the Korean crisis (the way George W. Bush seemed to blunder through every foreign engagement for eight years) we are going to need to dig a little deeper and try to understand this hive mind. We're going to have to challenge our own intellects a little more.
(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?
1. Just Kids, Patti Smith's beguiling memoir of late 1960s New York, the Chelsea Hotel, Robert Mapplethorpe and the early 1970s St. Mark's Church punk poetry scene, has won the National Book Award! Quite impressive. I totally called this back in February, you know. The winner's circle above includes Jaimy Gordon, Terrance Hayes, Kathryn Erskine.
2. Doonesbury turns 40! I grew up with this comic strip. I used to especially love the counterculture literary references: Uncle Duke was Hunter S. Thompson, and several characters lived at the Walden Puddle Commune. (This was probably a reference not only to Thoreau's Walden but also to B. F. Skinner's then-fashionable Walden Two.)
Before I found out Patti won the National Book Award I was going to illustrate today's blog post with a picture I found of Zonker scuba-diving in Walden Puddle. The image is too good to waste, so here it is:
3. Michael Orthofer of the Complete Review has written a book, The Complete Review: Eleven Years, 2500 Reviews, A Site History, about his experience creating and maintaining that website and the accompanying blog Literary Saloon. I've read it, and it's a charming, candid look at the kinds of questions, decisions and private struggles that animate the life of a serious independent blogger.
(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.
1. We told you about artist Malcolm McNeill's Ah! Pook Is Here, a vast extended collaboration with William S. Burroughs, two years ago. Great news -- the work is going to be published by Fantagraphics.
2. Sean Michael Hogan was one of the five winners of a writing contest we held on this site in 2003. He's an excellent writer, and also an opinionated sports nut, and he's combined both inclinations into an e-book, It's Not Just A Ballgame Anymore. Here, also, is a short story by Sean about the frustrations of being a writer.
1. I love it that the "Penguin paperback look" has become a design meme. BoingBoing points out that a set of album covers by Ty Lettau of Sound Of Design resembles the retro Penguin look. This calls to mind a more explicit recent implementation of the same idea by LittlePixel (great work, but there are way too many Simple Minds albums here).
2. Some of my friends in the book business think literary publishing is about to crash like a lead zeppelin. There was a tremendous uproar in the book world today: influential literary agent Andrew Wylie (Philip Roth, Orhan Pamuk, Salman Rushdie, the estates of William S. Burroughs, John Cheever, John Updike and Vladimir Nabokov) has made a bold, unprecedented e-books deal with Amazon that will give Amazon and its Kindle format exclusive access to many important e-book titles. Exclusive access has (thankfully) never not part of the literary publishing industry tradition, and the major publishers don't like being cut out of the profit equation, which is why CEO John Sargent of Macmillan (who is emerging as an unofficial spokesman for the publishing industry when it battles with Amazon) and spokesperson Stuart Applebaum of Random House are planning to put up a fight. Many of my twitter friends seem to be lining up on the Macmillan/Random House side, objecting to Wylie and Amazon's audacious move. Me? I'll walk the line a little longer. I like audacity, and God knows the e-book marketplace can use a kick in the ass.
Worst of all was Jens Von Bretzel, a slim, unkempt guy with an army jacket, a luxuriant chabon of black hair, and a "to hell with this crap" demeanor that he barely concealed as he read from 'The Counter Life', his debut novel about a barista with a girlfriend who was too good for him, a future that was drifting towards oblivion, and a lousy attitude that kept getting him into trouble. The novel was based on the decade Von Bretzel had spent working at a Starbucks in Williamsburg. Von Bretzel's work was so much like the stories I was writing that I half suspected he had hacked into my computer and plagiarized my life. Except that Von Bretzel's work was more confident than mine, as if he considered his life worthy of committing to print, while to me, just about every aspect of my own existence seemed wholly unliterary -- how often had agents told me that my protagonists never did anything, that they always waited for things to happen to them?
Almost every character in Adam Langer's very funny, very expert satire The Thieves of Manhattan is either a frustrated writer or a successful one. The book's likable hero writes sensitive short stories that nobody cares to publish. He's bursting with jealousy over the success of a ridiculously popular memoirist who resembles James Frey, and he's so accustomed to defeat that he's barely surprised when his own girlfriend hits it big with a debut novel and leaves him for the memoirist. But literary striving is a complete, inescapable way of life to this character; even his vocabulary is riddled with references to the pantheon of popular and classic authors he yearns to join. A "chabon" (as in the quote above) is a wavy haircut, a "gogol" is an overcoat, and "franzens" and "eckleburgs" describe two different varieties of eyeglasses.
Bad Marie is a funny yet strangely haunting new novel by Marcy Dermansky. The hero of the book swipes the husband and young child of one of her only friends for a romp in Paris. She meets several movie stars, stays in very fancy hotels, and ends up flying back across the ocean to barge in on a family that hates her in one of the poorest sections of Mexico. Despite the fun Marie's having, the narrative dwells hilariously on everything she encounters that annoys her. Through it all, though, she never neglects to change a diaper that needs changing, and by the end of the book Marie seems to have even grown up a bit herself. I had a chance to ask the author of this enigmatic new hit novel a few questions. Off we go:
Levi: Bad Marie certainly is "bad", at least by any rational standard. She gets fired from her nanny job and then steals the baby, along with clothes, a husband or two and some credit cards. And yet, she is clearly a sympathetic and likable character. Are you trying to deliver a philosophical message about the relativity of good and evil, or what?
Why is there so little good old-fashioned literary satire on the scene today? Reviewing Sam Lipsyte's The Ask in todays New York Times Book Review, Lydia Millet examines:
Literary satire has become a rare form in America over the past three decades. When it does make an appearance, it almost passes for a nostalgic gesture despite its typically cutting-edge content. As a result, Lipsyte is one of a handful of living American satirists (and when I say “handful” I mean a very tiny hand, with three fingers at most, including the thumb) who can tell a traditional story while remaining foul-mouthed and dirty enough to occupy the literary vanguard. This stuff wouldn’t play well at, say, meetings of the D.A.R. — too bad in a way, because it might not hurt them to hear it. Lipsyte is not only a smooth sentence-maker, he’s also a gifted critic of power.