1. I've seen a lot of things in my life, but I've never before had the pleasure of watching a bookstore get born. I met blogger/bookseller Jessica Stockton Bagnulo three years ago when we both joined the Litblog Co-op at the same time, and I noted it here in January 2008 when she was awarded seed money to start her own bookstore in Brooklyn. The store is now about to open and looks just great. I hope to make it to the opening day party this Saturday at 7 pm, and you're invited too ...
1. In between making videos for LitKicks and arguing with me about Roman Polanski, Jamelah Earle asked me to write a piece commemorating the 1000th front page feature for the wonderful "tribal photography" website Utata. I was honored to do so. I am not much of a photographer myself, but I recommend this vibrant and friendly community to anybody who is.
2. New York spoken word poet Lemon Anderson, who you might have caught if you ever watched Def Poetry Jam, is starring in his own autobiographical play at the Public Theater, County of Kings. This play is a Spike Lee joint.
3. My buddy and former co-author Christian Crumlish has just published his latest book: Designing Social Interfaces. This book is an O'Reilly joint.
4. Blues expert and ethnomusicologist Sam Charters has a new book, A Language of Song: Journeys in the Musical World of the African Diaspora, and describes how he helped unearth the recordings of Robert Johnson recently on the New York Times Paper Cuts blog. When Sam Charters talks about music, listen.
5. Fictionaut is a beautifully designed online writing community, just out of beta. Let's see where this one goes.
6. Naked poets in Canada.
7. Vol 1 Brooklyn presents Battle of the New York Nerds.
8. Simon Owens on xkcd and what newspaper cartoonists can learn from web comics.
9. Wrestling poems. I don't really get it, but maybe John Irving would.
10. "And there's one kind favor I'll ask of you
and there's one kind favor I'll ask of you
and there's one kind favor I'll ask of you ...
See that my grave is running Solaris."
1. If you're in Chicago next week, you may want to join a 50th birthday party for Naked Lunch, the novel by William S. Burroughs that invented trippy postmodern noir way before Thomas Pynchon had the same idea. The Chicago birthday party (featuring folks like John Giorno, Bill Ayers, Penny Arcade, Peter Weller and James Grauerholz) is tied in to a new documentary movie, William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, directed by Yony Leyser that looks quite good.
2. I'm also really looking forward to a documentary film called One Fast Move and I'm Gone about Jack Kerouac's crack-up novel Big Sur. The film's original soundtrack ought to be something special: a series of original compositions based on Kerouac's Big Sur by Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard and Son Volt's Jay Farrar. Song titles include "California Zephyr", "Breathe Our Iodine", "Final Horrors" and "The Void".
3. Charley Plymell on S. Clay Wilson.
4. Bill Ectric interviews poet and lyricist Pete Brown.
5. Paul Krassner writes about Woodstock in the Huffington Post.
6. Boing Boing on Alan Turing.
7. Kevin Birmingham's upcoming book about the writing of Ulysses sounds quite good.
8. You're a Good Man, Gregor Brown.
9. Xkcd ponders the Kindle.
10. Beauty Road-Test: KO Nailpolish by Laura Albert.
11. Fernando Pivano, the translator who introduced Beat literature to Italy, has died.
1. I'm glad to hear the New York Times will probably not put its core news content behind a payment wall after all. Instead, they're test-marketing some extraneous "gold" and "silver" plans that I hope New York Times loyalists will pay up for, though the author of the article linked above is skeptical that such loyalists exist.
But the comments to my previous posts on this topic indicate that the Times does have its loyal enthusiasts. Meanwhile, one of these posts is apparently causing John Williams to wear out his neck muscles shaking his head in disagreement. He quotes novelist Katharine Weber's response to me, as follows:
But Levi. Could you have reasonably refused to read the NYT twenty years ago if you had to buy it at a newsstand or pay for home delivery instead of just having free copies handed to you on the street or dropped in your driveway? ... Much has changed, yes. But has the economic rule which used to be as certain as the laws of gravity, the rule of paying for things of value, really begun to vanish? How is this not a zero sum game?
Williams calls Weber's comment "succinct and totally sensible", and says:
I'm still waiting for a substantive response to this line of thinking. There have been plenty of cultural developments that I love in the past 10 years: Netflix, iTunes, The Wire. One way or another, I pay for all of them.
I can't turn down a direct challenge, so I'll try to offer a substantive response to the idea that we must pay for things of value. However, I find the idea almost too childish to entertain. First of all, just as we can name things of value that we pay for, we can also easily name things of value that we don't pay for. The Office. Music on the car radio. Outdoor sculptures and great urban architecture. Oh yeah, and then there's free news and commentary on the Internet which, plain and simple, we are already not paying for.
If we want to examine this classic "rule of paying for things of value", let's consider one of the many masterpieces of nature: the orange. This weekend I bought an entire bag of delicious fresh Florida oranges -- marvelous, ingenious, healthy and beautiful things, really -- for about two bucks. Taken purely for its value, a single orange could easily be worth five dollars. Likewise, taken purely for its value, a bottle of corn-syrup-flavored orange soda shouldn't cost more than ten cents. But these hypothetical prices don't correspond to the real world. We never actually pay for things according to their value. We pay for things according to the law of supply and demand.
When John Williams declares that we pay for things according to their value, he is doing no more than expressing a keening wish. Declaring that we pay for things according to their value is like declaring that we will stay young forever, or that there will be no more crime. It's nice to think such things, but they never were true and they're still not.
I wonder if John Williams will consider that a substantive response. If he does, maybe he should pay me.
2. Here's a really sweet story about the married couple on the 'Woodstock' album cover.
3. Speaking of the New York Times, Gregory Cowles has uploaded a particularly good essay on Nabokov's Lolita to the Paper Cuts blog.
4. Scott Esposito on Intense First Person (a narrative stance I tend to use a lot myself).
5. Way back in 1935, Walter Cronkite interviewed Gertrude Stein.
6. Basil Wolverton was okay, but if you're talking about classic Mad Magazine you're talking about Harvey Kurtzman.
7. Nicholson Baker ponders the Kindle in the New Yorker and, not surprisingly, the essay soars above most of the other commentary on this hot topic. "I changed the type size. I searched for a text string. I tussled with a sense of anticlimax." It's no surprise to anyone who's read Baker's previous works on library science and antique newspapers that he will ultimately not choose to embrace the Kindle.
8. Speaking of the New York Times (and their home delivery problems) again: hah.
1. For your Bloomsday enjoyment: comic strip artist Robert Berry is visualizing James Joyce's Ulysses. This project appears to be off to a great start.
2. More Bloomsday action: Dovegreyreader on a new book called Ulysses and Us by Declan Kibberd.
3. Farewell to poet Harold Norse.
4. It must be a good sign that somewhere inside the giant paradox that is the nation of Iran, they are loving the inventive and hilarious early writings of Woody Allen.
5. I did not know that novelist Roxana Robinson was a member of the Beecher family. But what's this about Lord Warburton being the man Isabel Archer should have married? I was rooting for Ralph Touchett.
6. The word technology is derived from the same root as textile.
7. We need a poetry reality show right here in the USA.
8. A digital Gutenberg would be nice to look at.
9. What could it possibly have been like to be married to Harold Pinter? Fortunately claims Antonia Fraser, it was not a Pinteresque experience.
10. "What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?" (Or, I'd like to add, one man).
11. Eric Rosenfeld appreciates Thomas Pynchon's use of description.
12. Kafka Tribute in New York
13. Michelle Obama reads Zadie Smith, a better choice (in my opinion) than her husband's Joseph O'Neill. (Barack is also cited as reading What is the What?, a good choice though not exactly fiction).
14. The Who's Quadrophenia GS Scooter has been sold at an auction. (Though it's from the movie, not the record album photo shoot).
15. Via Bookninja, what the book you're reading really says about you.
(Today's guest review is by Jay Diamond, whose latest blog is These American Roads).
On a day like any other, I'm walking in the NYU village past all the advertisements -- pasted, posted, and painted to walls, trash-cans, and even the sidewalk -- that lure unsuspecting undergraduates into schemes, scams, and sales. It's an interesting juxtaposition, the Madison Ave. machine next to the D.I.Y. aesthetic, both (illegally) posting their brands on public and private property. I turn off Broadway past a building undergoing another facelift in order to entice the high schoolers considering New York as their college destination, and possibly to convince their parents this isn't the urban war-zone that popular culture portrayed it as many years ago. And while seeing a building being renovated is common for any walk that lasts for more than two-blocks, something about this particular job catches my eye. More precisely, on the side of the dumpster collecting the scraps from the workers above, spray-painted in neon green, I notice a familiar phrase: "Who will watch The Watchmen?"
Ten seconds after the tinge of curiosity wares off, I think to myself that this tag is either the work of some wanna-be vigilante who plans to emulate characters from the graphic novel Watchmen, some over-zealous fanboy of said book, or a guerrilla-marketing campaign cooked up by an advertising firm trying to do something "edgy" to attract attention to the then-upcoming film-adaptation of the above-mentioned Alan Moore graphic novel. My best guess was one of the latter two, and it seemed like a sad fate for such an edgy piece of work.
Something tells me that while the comic Testament, whose 22 issues were recently condensed into the fourth and final part of a collection, comes from the same school of subversive thought as many of Alan Moore's works, it is, in its disgust for the state of our culture and humanity, much more of a morality tale. That isn't surprising considering the fact that the writer of Testament, Douglas Rushkoff, juxtaposes stories from the Old Testament with a narrative that takes place in a near-Orwellian future. Whereas Moore's work holds out little to no hope, for Rushkoff it's precisely his optimism -- the desire for his characters, and humanity as a whole, to better themselves -- that is one of the series' greatest strengths.
Abraham, Joseph, Job, and some other familiar stories are delivered alongside the tale of a modern group of malcontents struggling to fight a government controlled by corporate interests. Told alongside correlating biblical passages, Rushkoff illustrates history's curious disposition to repeat itself. But through this repetition, there is room for change. And while taking artistic cues from The Bible is not a new idea, it's Rushkoff's comic book medium sets it apart (even though much of the Superman story could be seen to have many religious parallels), but also places it alongside films like Strange Days, and of course The Matrix might be the best comparison, with its story of renegade cyberpunks fighting against an army of robots that has rendered mankind into docile state through a simulated reality. Due to greed, it isn't machines needed for human energy. In Rushkoff's vision, though, this seems to be the long march humanity is headed down.
Aside from the obvious fact that Testament is a comic book and The Matrix a film, one huge difference is that the latter calls upon a multitude of different philosophies from various cultures and religions to weave the tale of a human exodus that stems from an atheist prospective, whereas Testament relies on an ongoing dispute between several Hebrew, Egyptian, and Phoenician deities, and portrays this as the cause of many of humanity's problems. To his credit, Rushkoff never seems to get into a "right or wrong" argument (even though it's pretty easy to find oneself siding with the Judeo-Christian figures opposed to the aliens requiring child sacrifices), but does rely too much on the individual messianic approach that is obviously thrust onto main character Jake Stern from the very beginning of the series. I suppose as this is a story of the power of the human spirit to overcome evil, a savior figure is about as necessary as it is the cornerstone of The Bible's Old and New Testament.
Aided by artist Liam Sharp, Rushkoff strikes an extremely careful balance between his own intellectual background and the role of storyteller. As a fan and admirer of Mr. Rushkoff's many books and regular contributions to Arthur Magazine, I can't help but notice that the series Testament works as just that: a testament to the canon of ideas and subsequent writings that have flowed from the fertile mind of the man. In putting forth those ideas in the colorful panels of comic books, Douglas Rushkoff has not only given us a great work that is an extremely entertaining morality tale with sociopolitical themes that have been relevant for thousands of years, but is also one of the smartest comic book series that should be mentioned alongside the works of Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and of course, Alan Moore.
There’s a certain kind of author whose cool sneaks up on one so quietly, hastily, and tardily that the only legitimate response for the (otherwise) well-read savant may be to reject this problematic writer, now the ne plus ultra of the literary set, out of hand.
If you’ve been "in" on said raconteur from their fledgling steps into the raw publishing world, it's a different tale. When one's own anointed few break out to the big time, it's like hitting the trifecta on Derby Day. "Ah, yes," you airily proclaim, "I’ve been reading Ian McEwan since The Cement Garden." ("Say what?" retorts the late-to-the-party Atonement fan.) Or "Yes, yes, I saw the NYTBR, but haven’t you read Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist? But you must. It was clear way back when that with a quick wit like that, he’d soon be on to ever more dazzling things."
1. According to Rolling Stone, Gus Van Sant's film version of Tom Wolfe's 60s-culture classic The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test will start shooting soon, and may feature Jack Black (bad idea) or Woody Harrelson (slightly better) as novelist and psychological adventurer Ken Kesey. Woody Harrelson might actually make more sense in the role of Beat legend Neal Cassady, who drove the bus called Further during the real-life cross-country journey chronicled in Wolfe's book. He seems too old to play then-young Ken Kesey in this story, while Jack Black would have to severely rein in his comic instincts to avoid overpowering the role. I hope Gus Van Sant knows what he's doing here.
2. Meanwhile, George Murray of BookNinja gives a hopeful nod to Steve Jacobs' soon-to-be-released film version of J. M. Coetzee's powerful Disgrace, starring John Malkovich.
3. A Bertrand Russell comic? Okay, though Russell was mostly bested by his star student Ludwig Wittgenstein.
4. The story of William Warder Norton, founder of the influential book publishing firm that bears his name.
5. Philip K. Dick and Jack Spicer.
6. Denis Johnson's newest novel is called Nobody Move.
7. The earlist known dust jacket for a book has been found.
8. New Directions has a blog.
1. Beat poet Gregory Corso has made the cover of this week's Economist. Some clever illustrator has formatted the opening of a recent Barack Obama speech about nuclear disarmament as an homage to Corso's great 1958 poem Bomb (though I couldn't find a Gregory Corso credit anywhere in the magazine). Also, I bet you anything the Economist illustrator cribbed the layout from this LitKicks page, though I couldn't prove this in court. Via Stop Smiling.
2. Amazon.com made a really stupid decision to de-rank books with gay/lesbian content, and suffered through an Easter Sunday twitter tornado for it. Can you imagine what our great literary legacy would look like if all gay/lesbian-related books were subtracted? Forget about it. Amazon has apologized for the "glitch", but the success of the spontaneous #amazonfail movement on Twitter will certainly inspire other protests to come.
3. The unforgettable Beverly Cleary just celebrated her 93rd birthday!
4. When the Flock Changed is an excerpt from Maud Newton's upcoming novel.
5. Jay Thompson on Marcus Aurelius and Stanley Kunitz at Kenyon Review blog.
6. Mike Shatzkin on a racial showdown at circa-1950s Doubleday.
7. Yeah, I post about John Updike a lot. More to come. Via Books Inq, here's On Easter and Updike by David E. Anderson.
8. The Onion on Beckett.
9. Bill Ectric attempts to singlehandedly resurrect the career of Charles Wadsworth Camp, author (and father of Madeleine L'Engle).
10. A celebration of the chapbook.
11. Carolyn Kellogg on John Fante.
12. City Lights (a bookstore that would never de-rank books with gay/lesbian content) has published Days I Moved Through Ordinary Sounds, the record of a creative writing program for "juvenile detention facilities, homeless shelters, inner-city schools and centers for newly arrived immigrants" (more here).
13. Okay, real quick, here are a few things I don't like about The Beats: A Graphic History by Harvey Pekar, Paul Buhle and Ed Piskor. Pekar's drawings are rather ugly; I yearn instead for the affectionate emotional shadings of Robert Crumb. The section on Jack Kerouac seems to be based on a close reading of Ellis Amburn's biography Subterranean Kerouac, the only major biography that claims to find closeted homosexuality at the center of Kerouac's life and work. As I wrote when Amburn's book was published, this interpretation really doesn't illuminate the work very well at all. Conversely, the biographical section on Allen Ginsberg all but ignores the crisis Ginsberg endured as a child when his mother went insane, which actually does illuminate the poet's work considerably. The book also suffers from chronological problems and all-out mistakes, as when the book claims that the Jewish Torah is equivalent to the Christian Old Testament (actually the Torah is only the first five books, the books of Moses). However, The Beats: A Graphic History does have some excellent material on lesser-known Beats towards the end.
14. What the hell is up with a cheezy-looking book called City of Glass (by Cassandra Clare)? We already had a perfectly good City of Glass.
The New York Times Book Review keeps a bench of dull and competent specialists like Alan Light, including John Leland, who gets called up whenever there's a Beat Generation-related title to review. I don't know why they can't find a writer with some panache or maybe an original viewpoint to review these books instead. Leland's summary of The Beats: A Graphic History by Harvey Pekar, Ed Piskor, Paul Buhle and others in today's Book Review could not be more rote and mechanical. He hits all the standard points in the standard history, and even dishes up Kerouac's quote about "the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live". But there are no new ideas or angles in this article; it may as well have been generated by an algorithm. I read the Pekar/Piskor/Buhle comic-format book myself, was pleased by a few of the tangential chapters towards the end but disappointed by the flat aspect at the book's core. Leland doesn't even touch on the book's real deficiencies, instead delivering a sniffy complaint about clunky prose before winding up for a weak conclusion: "Here was a group of writers who hoped to change consciousness through their lives and art ... They rocked."
Supposedly every snowflake in the world is unique. Can't the New York Times Book Review find writers who will make sure their reviews maintain the same standard?
The problem may be intrinsic to the Book Review, because even the thoughtful Walter Isaacson seems to strain for insight in his review of Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution by Richard Beeman. He points helpfully to the book's new emphasis on the role played by a South Carolina politician, Charles Pinckney, but even so his article feels surprisingly conventional (a little pun there, if you think about it). The drafting of the US Constitution is not exactly fresh material, so the main thing the review needs to do is explain why this book is important enough to deserve a full page in this publication. After finishing the article, I'm barely convinced.
Luckily, there are several examples of excellent writing and original thought in today's Book Review. Arthur Phillips' novel The Song Is You is on the cover, and here's reviewer Kate Christensen first sentence:
If novelists were labeled zoologically, Arthur Phillips would fall naturally into the dolphin family: his writing is playful, cerebral, likable, wide-ranging and inventive.
Now we're getting somewhere. Christensen's intense level of engagement gives this article life, and so does David Kirby's in his consideration of poet Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno's Slamming Open The Door. Michael Meyer's endpaper essay about how book publishing advances have evolved over the centuries is extremely informative and useful, but a strong point of view also buttresses the piece, conveying a sense of relevance and conviction that makes the piece not only useful but memorable. I hope the Book Review will run more examinations of book publishing practices (a hot topic that gets much better coverage in the blogosphere) in the future.
I always like anything Liesl Schillinger writes, even though she unwisely kicks off today's review of A Fortunate Age by Joanna Smith Rakoff with an utterly pointless generalization:
Do you remember how bored we all were a decade ago? The cold war was over; the stock market surfed a rising wave; President Clinton had announced a national budget surplus; and good fortune was so rampant that rich neurotics paid therapists to be reassured that it was O.K. to be happy. Belatedly, we've learned how lucky we once were to live in uninteresting times.
Hmm, well, as my memoir-in-progress will shortly show, I was personally going through a terrible divorce and a painful work crisis a decade ago, so "uninteresting times" is hardly the phrase I would use myself to describe 1999. I imagine many other readers of this article will react the same way, since we do not measure out our memories by news headlines but rather by events of personal importance, making generalizations like this one rather silly. Still, I would read a Liesl Schillinger review over an Alan Light or John Leland review any day, and her coverage of A Fortunate Age gets better when she explains the novel's intriguing parallel to Mary McCarthy's The Group.
The Great Weaver from Kashmir by Halldor Laxness and Leaving Tangier by Tahar Ben Jelloun get some attention from Alison McCulloch in a fiction roundup, and Michael Beschloss offers fresh thoughts following Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy. This all adds up to a satisfying Book Review in a Sunday New York Times that also includes a Deborah Solomon session with Joyce Carol Oates and a Wyatt Mason profile of poet Frederick Seidel in the magazine. There's also a searching piece by David Barstow on the mystery of Sylvia Plath's son Nicholas Hughes's suicide on the front page of the news section.