1. I've read a few good tributes to the late Beat/hippie poet Ira Cohen, a good guy I used to see around the East Village a lot. I did a poetry reading with him at the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus in 2002, but I never knew that Ira Cohen invented the 70s-era headshop art trend known as Mylar painting. (Photo of Ira Cohen from a video by Laki Vazakas).
2. You may have heard the news: e-books are hot. This time around, I'm on the bandwagon. I'll be attending the BookExpo gathering next week in New York City, and I'm sure electronic publishing will be the biggest buzz there. I'm a few days behind schedule with my new Kindle book ... the title and cover will be revealed soon. I'm very happy with the ongoing sales figures for my first Kindle book, Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong (and Why It Matters), and I'm proud that this book has remained in the top 100 Kindle bestsellers in the Politics->Ideology category for the entire month, and was #40 on the list this weekend.
When life gets dreary, there's always Gilbert and Sullivan. This British duo's creative track record is almost as impressive as that of the Beatles, who took over the world in similar fashion three-quarters of a century later. They left us three masterpieces: HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado, and a giant body of lesser-known excellent work that somehow never drops too low in quality (though it does drop, sometimes, in accessibility).
Accessibility is often an issue with Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operas, which were written wholly with contemporary interests and sensibilities in mind. As with Shakespeare or James Joyce (also from the British isles, interestingly), when you enjoy a Gilbert and Sullivan work you can't ever feel confident that you're getting more than half the jokes. Both Gilbert's lyrics and Sullivan's melodies contain intricate layers of ironic reference to the hot topics of their day. Even though you can appreciate Pirates or Mikado just for the bouncy tunes and funny plots, you can appreciate them a lot more if you put some effort into decoding their cultural context.
The name Denys Wortman (1887-1958) doesn’t roll off the tongue or out of the memory banks quite as readily as the contemporaries with whom he was most kindred: Reginald Marsh, Art Young, Alice Neel, Thomas Hart Benton, Ben Shahn and, to some extent, Ashcan School artists John Sloan and Robert Henri (under whom he studied). Nevertheless, a new collection of his work, rescued by James Sturm and Brandon Elston from an archive of 5,100 long-neglected works, should restore his place in the pantheon of Gotham’s artists.
Denys Wortman’s New York: Portrait of the City in the 30s and 40s, edited by James Sturm and Brandon Elston, has the look and feel of a lost archeological treasure, a trove of images that genuinely re-create what it was like to live, work, dine, drink, love and hate in the nation’s most exciting city at a time when the national economy was, as it is today, in a prolonged slump. Using little more than a few lead pencils and some sketch paper — and the blacks, whites and myriad shades of gray he could coax from his lead and eraser — Wortman created nothing less than, as the book’s subtitle accurately touts, “a portrait of New York City during the 1930s and 1940s”. He was the city’s virtually unsung visual chronicler during these years in the way that, decades earlier, Eugene Atget had obscurely wandered the streets of Paris with his camera equipment to amass his now legendary photo archive. Or, closer to home, Wortman depicted in pencil drawings and cartoons what writers like Joseph Mitchell, A.J. Liebling, Max Bodenheim and Kenneth Fearing captured in words, or what Walker Evans and Berenice Abbott captured in black and white photographs.
"The girl in the apron turned out to be the totality of the catering by Federico's. By the time she brought in the snacks Alan had downed two glasses of champagne, and that set the pattern for the evening. I stopped drinking early, and Senor C. hardly drank at all; but over supper (roast quail with baby vegetables followed by zabaglione, except that Senor C. didn't have the quail, he had a butternut and tofu tartlet) Alan made serious inroads into the shiraz."
J. M. Coetzee, a Nobel-prize winner and one of my very favorite living writers, is not known for his funny side. A video went around the Internet recently mocking the dignified South African writer's demeanor at a ceremony when Geoff Dyer dared to make a joke about Nadine Gordimer only to receive the stoniest of reactions from the guest of honor (it's still fun to watch).
Coetzee's earliest major novels are also very low in light humor. Waiting For The Barbarians and Life and Times of Michael K., for all their moral excitement, are tough, sinewy, dreary narratives about martyrdom and suffering. It's hard to laugh about characters who are being tortured, humiliated and ostracized (usually all at once). But a few sly chuckles starts to peek through in Coetzee's best mid-period books, like the great Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello and the memoir installments.
A link on Terry Teachout's blog to a super-rare full-length kinescope recording of The Fantasticks from 1964 brought back lots of memories for me, and not just ancient ones, because I've seen this great Off-Broadway musical at least eight times, most recently only a few years ago with my kids. It's a musical comedy about two young lovers whose fathers pretend to be in a bitter feud (they secretly like each other a lot) so their children will want to rebel against them and marry. The ruse works, until the young lovers find out they'd been set up, at which point a whole lot of romantic confusion and angst ensues, followed by a happy ending. The moony overtones of the story are nicely undercut by a deliberately frothy, self-consciously aesthetic staging: there is a character known as the Mute; sets and props are minimal; the orchestra consists of a piano, a small drum kit and a full-size harp.
I saw the play most often at the Sullivan Street Theater in Greenwich Village, New York City, where it ran for four decades. The 1964 kinescope now viewable for the first time is an abbreviated version shown only once on Television. Cut to an hour, the show omits a few characters and at least two songs "It Depends On What You Pay" and "This Plum Is Too Ripe". Still, I watched the whole thing with joy and appreciation, especially relishing the chance to see the two great comic stars Bert Lahr and Stanley Holloway harmonize as the two fathers (Lahr was the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz and Holloway was Doolitle in My Fair Lady).
1. Okay, enough of that French stuff. A recent link on Books Inq. reminded me of one of the funniest books I've ever read, the neat, smoothly vicious British satire from 1888 and 1889 called Diary of a Nobody by George Grossmith.
Diary, originally published as a serial in Punch Magazine, is the fictional record of a humble but optimistic middle-class man who keeps house in the suburbs north of London. The parody of his provincial mind has a sharp, bitter sense that may remind you of P. G. Wodehouse, Noel Coward, the Marx Brothers or Monty Python (it predates all of them). This excellent article about the book from the Dabbler draws an original analogy between the character of young Lupin Pooter, the rebellious son of our respectable diary-keeping hero, and the later character of Jimmy Porter, the Angry Young Man invented by John Osborne.
It's easy to draw connections from Charles Pooter. When I read Diary I always think of the beautiful songs Ray Davies wrote for the Kinks. The character that emerges from many of these Kinks songs is Pooter:
I like my football on a Saturday
Roast beef on Sunday -- all right!
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.