If there is such a thing as a typical volume of letters, The John Lennon Letters edited by Beatles expert Hunter Davies is certainly not it. John Lennon didn't write the kinds of letters that Henry James or Vladimir Nabokov did.
Though he wrote many hundreds of songs, John Lennon was not a prolific letter-writer. He tended to keep it short, and his impatient, impulsive epistolatory style, packed with half-puns and gutteral utterances, indicates some proto-form of A.D.D. But Lennon had a strongly visual and artistic mind, and he always took the time to illustrate his chaotic notes and scribblings with cartoons and diagrams. He also wrote in a cheerful, loopy hand, and this is why editor Hunter Davies made a smart decision to create the complete volume of John Lennon's letters (the first serious volume of collected letters, as far as I know, of any rock musician) as a facsimile collection, with high-quality photographic reproductions printed on thick, good paper.
I once had a chance to play a sitar for a few minutes. To a guitar player, a sitar feels like a crazy contraption, a transformed beast. There are strings and frets, but the frets are curved, arching up high from the neck so that the strings can be bent not up or down, as with a guitar, but in and out, leading to a warped, spacy effect. Then there is a second set of strings under the raised strings, which are never touched at all. These are the sympathetic strings, which drone in sympathy with the melody. There is no such thing on a guitar. No wonder sitar masters like Ravi Shankar inspired so much awe when they entered the popular music scene in the 1960s.
Ravi Shankar has died at the age of 92. During one peak of his amazing long career, he collaborated on several projects and concerts with George Harrison of the Beatles, who saw in the subtle, spidery complexity of the sitar's sound a new way to advance the art of pop/rock lead guitar. Promoted to sudden celebrity status by Harrison and others, Ravi Shankar used his fame in the west to serve as as a cultural ambassador for India, for Bengali culture, and for Hindu traditions. He was invited to perform at the most epic rock concerts of his age, including Monterey Pop in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969. In 1971, Shankar and Harrison created together the Concert for Bangladesh, the first large-scale charity rock concert, which featured Leon Russell, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton. Here's his opening number from that concert (as always, when playing for western audiences, Shankar would have to begin by explaining that the sounds the band just played had not been the first song; it is customary for classical Indian musicians to tune up onstage, often producing a hypnotic cacaphony that sounds like strange music).
Mo Yan, a writer from the Chinese countryside with a lurching, sharply whimsical narrative voice that might be compared to that of Kurt Vonnegut or Chuck Palahniuk, has won the Nobel Prize. This news was greeted with some outrage around the world, because Mo Yan is not a Chinese dissident like Liu Xiabo but rather a friendly presence within the Chinese establishment, He has flatly refused to speak out on behalf of dissidents like Liu Xiabo, and recently declared that literary censorship can serve a valid purpose. Nobel laureate has Herta Mueller called the choice of Mo Yan "a catastrophe", and yesterday Salman Rushdie called him a "patsy" of the Chinese government, which remains oppressive to its own citizens as well as long-suffering Tibet. The blog Moby Lives has also taken a few funny shots.
I don't have much sympathy for the government of China, since I've really never stopped reeling from the several books I've read about the long massacre known as the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong's masterwork, a manufactured famine that killed more millions of people between 1958 and 1961 than any of the nearly countless other holocausts of the 20th Century. The immensity of recent Chinese history is so overwhelming, in fact, that I'm sure I can't understand it in any meaningful way. Mo Yan was born in 1955, and suffered as a young child with his family through the notorious famine.
The great recurring topic of Mo Yan's historical fiction, though, is not the famine or the later Cultural Revolution but an earlier holocaust that took place before he was born: the vicious Japanese occupation of China before and during World War II. This is Mo Yan's primary subject, though he has also written about the famine and later Maoist and post-Maoist cataclysms. Mo Yan's pride in China and his refusal to play into Western ideas about Chinese history has clearly dented his popularity in my side of the planet. But when I read his sharp, acidic, furious prose, I sense that we can learn more by reading Mo Yan than by rejecting him, even though we may strongly reject his political stance.
There really is only one literary award that awes me. The Pulitzer prize? Everybody gets one eventually. National Book Award? Too clubby for my tastes. But the Nobel Prize for Literature is usually something special, and has by far the best track record of every major literary award.
J. M. Coetzee. Orhan Pamuk. Isaac Bashevis Singer. Kenzaburo Oe. Mario Vargas Llosa. Seamus Heaney. Derek Walcott. Pablo Neruda. Doris Lessing. Jean-Paul Sartre. William Golding. Jose Saramago. Nadine Gordimer. Albert Camus. Harold Pinter. Gunter Grass. Dario Fo. Toni Morrison. Samuel Beckett. This is a list worth admiring for its originality, its global awareness, its dedication to a powerful standard of greatness. Today, Mo Yan of China joins the list.
Nguyen Chi Thien was born in Hanoi, Vietnam, and struggled for decades to be an honest poet in a totalitarian state. He finally settled in Santa Ana, California, where he died this week at the age of 73. The New York Times tells his stirring story.
Exactly sixty years ago, in May 1952, 81-year-old Zen Buddhist scholar D. T. Suzuki began teaching a regular course at Columbia University. 39-year-old modernist composer John Cage attended a few of his lectures, and this is the electric point of contact that starts everything buzzing in Nothing and Everything - The Influence of Buddhism on the American Avant Garde: 1942 - 1962, a new book by Ellen Pearlman.
Both men were trailblazers. Suzuki is remembered today as a premier ambassador for Eastern religion in the West, and as the author of the influential books Introduction to Zen Buddhism and Essays in Zen Buddhism. But, Ellen Pearlman reveals in the first chapter of Nothing and Everything, Suzuki had not been considered a very "successful" Buddhist as a young Zen student in Japan. He found a far greater calling as a highly visible foreigner in the West than he could have ever found if he'd stayed in Japan, since his idiosyncratic personality rubbed many Zen masters the wrong way. It was Suzuki's ability to translate key Asian texts into English that gave him a foothold in the United States of America, and he eagerly grabbed the opportunity to pursue his own unique vision of a global Buddhist awakening.
John Cage had already earned a reputation as a rule-breaker in the field of avant-garde music by the time he attended the elderly Suzuki's lectures at Columbia, but it wasn't until after he was exposed to Zen Buddhism (from Suzuki and several other sources) that he was able to conceive of his signature work, 4'33, which thrilled and outraged the world of classical music with its unspeakable simplicity. The composition indicated that the performer should sit at a piano (or any other instrument) and maintain four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence.
It's impossible to encapsulate modern, avant-garde and experimental arts within any formula, but Nothing and Everything's purpose is to follow a single thread of excitement among several 20th century innovators within American art, music, theater and literary scenes that was caused by a rising awareness of traditional Buddhist religion and philosophy. The first to follow John Cage were the Dada-inspired innovators of the Fluxus movement in the early 1960s, Alison Knowles, Jackson Mac Low, Num June Paik, Toshi Ichiyanagi and Yoko Ono (who, beyond the scope of this book, would eventually collaborate with John Lennon to present crystalline expressions of Fluxus ideas to the entire world, and become its most famous practitioner).
It's hard for me to describe how big an influence the Beastie Boys have had on my life. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, I found lifesaving inspiration in records like Paul's Boutique and Check Your Head that I could not have found anywhere else. If it were not for the Beastie Boys, I'm pretty sure there would have never been a Literary Kicks.
I know a bit about the Beastie Boys. I've seen them in concert several times, though the live format didn't play to their strengths. The best way to listen to the Beastie Boys is with earbuds in, the world shut out. Their recordings were dense, complex and sophisticated, their rhymes expertly crafted for maximum effect. Each of the three had a highly distinct voice; you can listen to any line in any Beastie Boys song and immediately know whose voice you're hearing:
I waited a couple of months before letting myself open up Walter Isaacson's acclaimed new biography, Steve Jobs. Given Isaacson's known gift for storytelling and my own penchant for computer-age pop culture history, I knew I'd be in for an obsessive reading experience once I cracked it open. This is a book I needed to clear away some uninterrupted time for.
The most enjoyable part of Steve Jobs is the first section, in which two delightful Silicon Valley counterculture tech nerds named Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak grow up and invent the world-changing Apple II, the first commercially viable personal computer, in 1977. Here, the book offers the familiar satisfying thrill we look for in the early pages of every celebrity biography: those achingly pregnant moments in which the players stand at the precipice of greatness ... and then finally step over.
The dawn of the computer age is always a compelling subject, because we can all relate in some way to the feeling of surprise, personal growth and liberation that has accompanied this rapid pace of technological change (this is a dawn, after all, that we are still somewhere in the middle of). Isaacson's Steve Jobs is a classic computer-age tale of transformation and wonder -- from the quaint beauty of the first Macintosh (a wonderful little machine, so efficient that its entire operating system fit along with several applications and free user space on a single one-megabyte diskette) to the wide smiles generated by the Toy Story movie franchise (this is what Jobs worked on in the 1990s, between the Mac and the iPhone), to the invention of the dynamic iPad device, his last offering to the world before his early death.
“Imagine you have a friend name Rob,” says our instructor at the University of North Florida Writer’s Conference. “If you want to ask your friend a question, you might begin by saying, ‘So, Rob...’ and that is how to pronounce my first name.”
Sohrab Homi Fracis (“Fray-sis”) is the first Asian writer to win the prestigious Iowa Short Fiction Award. He received it in 2001 for his collection of short stories, Ticket to Minto: Stories of India and America. He resisted advice from publishers to combine the thematically related stories into a single novel, which they thought would be easier to sell. Fracis believed passionately that the stories stood strong and worked best as they were.
“And I was proven correct,” he says.
India Magazine calls the book, “Stunning in its breadth and scope of language and description ... a fresh voice in South Asian fiction,” and adds, “One can grow tired of Rushdie wannabes, mother-in-law stereotypes, and village parodies. Fracis's writing is brutally honest, exposing sinew and nerves and getting at the heart of the matter.”
(As the English-speaking world eagerly awaits the translation of the newest Haruki Murakami novel, 1Q84, here's Meg Wise-Lawrence's appreciation of the Japanese author's full body of work. Meg teaches English at Hunter College in New York City.)
How often does literature truly transport you?I remember walking out of the theater after first seeing Mad Max in The Road Warrior in 1981. I was shocked to find a sunny day in New Jersey, and not post-apocalyptic outback. When I read Ray Bradbury’s “Rain,” I felt soaked. Usually the transformative effect is more prevalent in movies -- Terry Gilliam, David Lynch and Wim Wenders come to mind.
To read the novels and short stories of Haruki Murakami is to enter an alternate universe that is uncannily similar to your own, and yet different enough that it brilliantly illuminates your own life. To read Murakami -- to engage with art -- is to enter an altered state of consciousness, to experience a reader-writer mindmeld. You don’t want the trip to end, but when it does you know you’ve been transformed -- even if it was just for a few seconds in the bright sun after a good movie.
Murakami’s books pay off. They are the odd friend you can’t explain but you know your other friends will like. Pick any of his works, and you’ll be invited into a semi-familiar, alien world, where his characters are guides. In Sputnik Sweetheart, Sumire is going through a Jack Kerouac phase, carrying a “dog-eared copy of On the Road or Lonesome Traveler” in the pocket of her tattered, oversized herringbone coat. Her passions are literature and music; she’s working on crafting a “Total Novel” but the magic hasn’t happened yet. Murakami’s narrator says, “If she’d been able to grow a beard, I’m sure she would have.” She meets the lovely, older Miu who had “a vague sense that [Kerouac] was a novelist of some kind.” Wasn’t he a Sputnik? She asks.