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.
Zazen by Vanessa Veselka is an amazing novel, easily one of the most exciting books of the year.
The story is narrated by Della, a recent college graduate with a degree in paleontology, who kills time learning yoga and working in a vegan restaurant while her country, a slightly twisted mirror reflection of today's United States of America, slips into chaos amidst the failures of War A and War B. Della lives with her brother Credence, with whom she shares the disconcerting memories of extreme hippie parenting, and wanders her city (which resembles Portland, Oregon) wrestling with her anxiety, imagining acts of violence and developing desperate crushes on anyone who reaches out to her with a kind word. She's a wry, sarcastic narrator and a troublemaker, and the best thing about Zazen is the chance to see the world through this funny, brainy character's eyes.
As a bittersweet snapshot of a deeply confused alternative hipster counterculture, Zazen is reminiscent of Justin Taylor's The Gospel of Anarchy, another recent book I liked. But Gospel of Anarchy is about post-collegiate anarchists and punks, while Zazen is about post-collegiate anarchists and vegans, and Zazen is about ten times more manic. The comic prose recalls Matthew Sharpe's Jamestown, while the book's sense of traumatic disorientation and social disconnectedness calls to mind Tom McCarthy's Remainder. With all that said, Zazen is like nothing but itself -- a simply original story, emotionally resonant and crammed with nuggets of delightful observation.
This novel is one of the kickoff publications from a new publishing house, Richard Nash's innovative Red Lemonade, which invites you to read the entire novel online. But you may want to buy a copy of this book, or give one to an anarchist/vegan friend. I was very happy to have had a chance to ask Vanessa Veselka some questions about her brilliant work. Here's the conversation we had.
The epicenter of the earthquake that devastated northern Japan last Friday was just off the islands of Matsushima. This coastal wonderland, dotted with jutting rocks and picteresque islands, had been the chosen home of Basho, one of the greatest Haiku poets, in the later years of his life. This article by Hari Kunzru provides some context about the region, and the influence it had on the great nature poet.
When we talk about philosophy, we should have some idea what we're aiming to achieve.
There's a popular misconception that philosophy has no purpose, other than perhaps to exercise and train the mind. If this were all it was good for, I wouldn't bother much with it. When I read or write or discuss ideas, I am always hoping for satori, an event of understanding. This Japanese word can sometimes be used to refer to a specific kind of understanding, and it can also be used to describe the sensation and experience of this understanding, which can be so sudden and surprising as to resemble a lightning bolt, or a smack in the head.
But descriptions of satori may over-emphasize its instantaneous nature, because it's actually not the quickness of satori but rather its permanence that matters most. It's a popular mistake to think that a lightning-bolt realization must be an ephemeral or elusive thing. Satori can be made of concrete, and can be a sturdy and reliable building block to place further ideas upon. The theory of evolution was Charles Darwin's great satori, and is satori as well for everyone else who learns and comes to understand the theory. Sigmund Freud's discovery of dream analysis was also satori, and Einstein's theory of relativity. Buddha's moment of enlightenent under a Bodhi tree may be the most singularly celebrated satori in history, but that's only because there is no biblical record of the specific moment when Jesus of Nazareth realized that the meek would inherit the earth, or Abraham that there is one God. Jack Kerouac once wrote a poignant novel called Satori in Paris, though this is one of his least-loved works, probably because it's about a guy who goes to Paris looking for satori rather than about a guy who finds it. Sometimes, as in this book, satori makes its presence felt most when it can't be found
But we yearn for it often, and luckily we find it often as well. What could be more depressing than an entire day without a single moment of enlightenment? We should never let that happen. When we work on crossword puzzles or sodoku games, we may think we're passing the time or training our minds, but in fact we're sustaining ourselves with little, constant doses of satori.
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.
1, Prompted by Tom McCarthy's trendy new novel C, AbeBooks presents a tableau of one-letter (or two-letter) books. It's a lot of fun to look at. Of course, I'm an old school techie, so to me C will always be the title of a classic book by Kernighan and Ritchie.
2. Those are the 26 letters of the alphabet in books, and here's the 50 states of the United States in movies. Some of these choices are superb, like Gummo for Ohio, Napoleon Dynamite for Idaho, The Wizard of Oz for Kansas, October Sky for West Virginia, Bull Durham for North Carolina and The Ice Storm for Connecticut. Taxi Driver is not a bad choice for New York, though I would prefer Goodfellas or The Godfather. But the map also misses a few. River's Edge is a better choice than First Blood for Washington, Angel Heart is better than Southern Comfort for Louisiana, Porky's is better than Scarface for Florida, and Ferris Bueller is better than The Blues Brothers for Illinois. I can think of plenty better choices for California -- I saw Fast Times For Ridgemont High, and didn't even know it was a California movie. Finally, Deliverance for Georgia? Nothing wrong with Deliverance, but there's this flick called Gone With The Wind ...