(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.
1. Welcome to Literary Kicks's new look. This latest redesign (the previous version is above, just for old times sake) takes advantage of some cool Drupal capabilities -- real-time tracking of popular and highly commented articles, a custom-built taxonomy-based "Explore Related" box on every article page -- and also includes improvements I've been jonesing for like share boxes and a liquid layout (finally!) that takes advantage of the full browser page size. I also tweaked the design specs a bit (I'm using a custom variant of the Fervens theme), and created a new version of the Paul Verlaine logo (just for fun).
Website redesigns often trigger the "Wow Effect", named after the word people say when a favorite website suddenly changes. This is often followed by the depressing realization that it's the same old website with different colors and fonts. Personally, I like to avoid the whole "Wow Effect" ordeal by releasing changes gradually, and you may have noticed some of the changes leading up to this redesign going up in the past few weeks. I'm still far from done, and will also be experimenting with Semantic Web features as well as some custom database algorithms I've been dreaming up for the various "featured article" lists.
I'm also going to completely reinvent the Action Poetry pages, but that'll take another month. Please bear with me as this proceeds, and please email me or post a comment if the pages do not display correctly on your browser or device -- thanks.
2. J. D. Salinger. Hmm. By any rational calculation, I'd be very drawn to J. D. Salinger, a brainy New York Jew who emerged in the 1950s, became a superstar, became a Buddhist, and retreated from the world. I admire Franny and Zooey, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and most of the short stories, though I never understood the gigantic appeal of Catcher in the Rye. On the other hand, my two daughters both like the book very much, and Elizabeth even wrote about him for LitKicks when she was 15.
Still, his work never fully grabbed me. What I can't relate to about J. D. Salinger is that joylessness, that dread of life. I can't relate to that at all. His Buddhism is clearly very different from mine.
As far as classic writers from the 1950s and 1960s go, I'll take the ecstatic Jack Kerouac over the morbid J. D. Salinger any day. Still, I salute an American original who certainly, if nothing else, stuck to his principles. I'll pay some attention if unpublished manuscripts come out. Till then, the New Yorker has a nice tribute display of several of his short stories originally published in that magazine. The Onion, meanwhile, must have had this ready in advance.
3. Somebody went to an art museum and fell into a Picasso. And not one of those late period Picasso lithograph cartoons that you see all over the place -- this was a serious Picasso, from the "Rose Period" just before Cubism. I always wanted to go to an art museum and do something like that.
4. Words Without Borders, which also has a new look, is highlighting Georges Perec.
5. Bookslut's Michael Schaub on the new Patti Smith memoir, about her friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
7. Sure, I got some Beat Generation links. The movie Howl is coming out soon. This is a big deal and I wish the filmmakers would let me see a preview already. Then: Ginsberg's photographs, Gary Snyder communing with hardware, Jack Kerouac in Detroit, Ginger Eades's blog. Okay.
8. What the Los Angeles Lakers are reading. Nice to see 60s classics Edward Abbey and Eldridge Cleaver on this list!
10. Is somebody making money off of slush piles? Why shouldn't they?
11. Okay, I had something cool planned for today's redesign launch: an interview with Up In The Air novelist Walter Kirn. We talk about technology, careers, literature and how it feels to become a George Clooney movie. I decided to devote the day to Bananafish instead, so I'll be presenting this exciting interview (really) on Monday. Friday is hiphop day again.
1. Forest Hills. I don't know these people but I feel like I do.
There's a short story by Max Beerbohm, published in 1919, that sometimes comes up in philosophy classes. "Enoch Soames, a Memory of the Eighteen-Nineties" tells the story of Max Beerbohm, the author-as-character-within-the-novel, and his encounter with Enoch Soames, an unsuccessful writer and hanger-on in the London cafe scene in the 1890s. Enoch is frustrated that no one recognizes his genius, so he makes a deal with the devil to go forward in time and read about himself in the future where, he is sure, history will vindicate him.
In due course he and Max meet the devil himself in one of the cafes, and Enoch disappears, to pop up in 1997, where he searches the British Library to find out what we've thought of him. Some time later, he reappears back in the cafe, despondent. Before the devil spirits him away he explains to Max that he found only one reference to himself, in a work of fiction -- a short story by Max Beerbohm! And then he and the devil disappear. Max-the-character explains that he feels compelled to write this story about Enoch, as it will be the only way his friend will be known at all, despite the fact that it will be classified as fiction. He begs us to take it as biography.
The philosophical problem is, who and what is Enoch Soames? Within the framework of the story, are we to take him as fictional (as we do, and as the author-as-author does), or as "real," as both Enoch and the author-as-character insist that we should? The logical knots in this seemingly simple puzzle have yet to be fully untangled.
1. A Gulliver playground in Valencia, Spain.
2. Beat poet Andy Clausen on YouTube.
3. Amazingly, the Velvet Underground will be reuniting at the New York Public Library, though I'm not clear if this will be a talk, a musical performance or both. It's sad that late sweet-toned lead guitarist Sterling Morrison will be missing, but it's a nice surprise to see the reemergence of Doug Yule, who is widely disliked for replacing the great John Cale on bass after Reed kicked Cale out, but who helped them record their best album.
4. Jerome's Niece, a Buddhist poetry blog.
5. Onetime Heeb writer Jason Diamond offers a "Kaddish for Jewish Zines".
6. In the end, after a sluggish start, Electric Literature's much-discussed experiment with Twitter fiction turned up an excellent Rick Moody story about relationship anxiety, thwarted love and people who cling to their phones on dates. An excellent Rick Moody story, that is, but not necessarily an excellent Twitter story. Moody focused on the 140 character limit, but I think Twitter's most distinguishing feature is not its character count but its pacing and easy interpersonal immediacy (note: you can follow me on Twitter here). It became clear why Moody missed this when he revealed in an interview that he'd taken on this project because Electric Literature had asked him to, not because he had any actual interest in Twitter. There are many writers who do get Twitter -- say, Colson Whitehead, who is marvelous at it -- and I hope Electric Lit will turn to one of these writers for their next foray. Overall: great publicity, moving story, well done all around.
7. There will not be a Literary Kicks Best Books of 2009 list. Please excuse my grumpiness, but I mostly find these aggregate lists annoying and unremarkable. I do like to read personal lists of lifelong favorites by smart readers, but I don't care for annual lists or lists put together by groups.
8. Henry Rollins visits Bhopal, site of a chemical plant disaster 25 years ago.
9. For database techies, here's NoSQL. Elsewhere, here's just plain No.
10. I don't agree with this. I'm amazed at how good "The Office" manages to be, season after season. Sure, there are ups and downs, but this is one of those rare shows -- like "Twin Peaks", like "The Honeymooners" -- that represents television's ascent to the realm of literature. I will watch it until Jim and Pam drop dead.