Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Events

Tools of Change

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, February 10, 2009 01:56 am



1. It's fitting that O'Reilly's electronic book publishing technology conference Tools of Change is happening at the Marriot Marquis in swirling Times Square, still the publishing bellybutton of this city, with the New York Times toiling down the street, Conde Nast fretting across the block, Simon and Schuster, Time Inc. and Random House not far away. Well, are the smartest people in publishing here on the 6th floor at the Marriot Marquis today? Time will tell.

The big news at the conference when I arrived at noon was the earlier nearby Amazon Kindle 2.0 announcement, complete with an amusing Stephen King fly-by. The buzz about the Kindle is not positive among this crowd (closed single-vendor technologies do not play well here in O'Reilly country). My afternoon session turns out to be a grueling but satisfyingly information-packed three and-a-hour introduction to E-book formatting specifications and methods. Many of the attendees were sweating or looked pale by quitting time at 5 pm, but we all felt smarter. I was most impressed by Garth Conboy's evangelism for the open EPub format, which seems to be emerging as the much-needed industry-wide digital publishing format. I enjoyed Keith Fahlgren's helpful real-world tips for E-book publishing, as well as his Kindle-bashing. One of the three speakers, Joshua Tallent, was a Kindle expert, and I enjoyed his presentation as well, though it seemed like divine justice for the Kindle's intrinsic isolation model that his presentation on Kindle publishing crashed halfway through. Why? The projector didn't have the Kindle-specific fonts. Ah ha haaa ... anyway, it was a moment of levity that this audience of tech-exhausted publishers and technologists didn't mind.

Tools of Change goes into full swing tomorrow with presentations by Bob Stein, Jeff Jarvis, Cory Doctorow, Laurel Touby, Kassia Krozser and Jason Epstein.

2. Chasing Ray tells us about a children's book about Gertrude Stein, Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude by Jonah Winter.

3. Bad news in the magazine biz as a major distributor ceases operations.

4. Are the creators of Twitter living in the last Dreamworld?.

5. Three Percent is getting angry about funding cuts.

6. Will Self ponders W. G. Sebald.

7. Let xkcd explain the mysterious base system. Funny.

8. Like many a Long Island kid, I grew up listening to Jackie Martling on Bob Buchmann's morning show on WBAB. He was always terrible, but in a really good way.

9. My old boss's boss Walter Isaacson has written a rather surprising article about micropayments for online content, and he's on Jon Stewart right now speaking about this same proposal. There may be long-term possibilities here, and I like it that Isaacson is thinking outside the box. However, his proposal lacks immediate appeal, especially since online advertising remains a perfectly viable support system for many content websites. If Isaacson thinks this idea is ready to take off right now, I think he may be reading too many books by Bruce Judson (but that's an inside Pathfinder joke).

10. Saturday night's benefit for humanitarian aid in Gaza at McNally Jackson was a surprisingly moving event, featuring readings from Mary Morris, Wesley Brown, Alix Kates Shulman, Elizabeth Strout, Dawn Raffel, Melody Moezzi, Beverly Gologorsky, Chuck Wachtel, Leora Skolkin-Smith, Robert Reilly, Jan Clausen, Barbara Schneider and Humerea Afridi, and I was proud to be a part of it. I also heard an exciting update from organizer Leora Skolkin-Smith (reading, below), whose novel Edges: O Israel O Palestine will soon begin film production in (remarkably enough) Jerusalem and Jordan. Tools of change? We can hope.






Angry Whopper

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, February 4, 2009 12:24 pm




1. I like Burger King's weird Angry Whopper thing. As far as anthropomorphic fast food goes, this is far more interesting than, say, McDonald's Hamburgler. It also involves onion rings and I want one.

2. I love everything O'Reilly does (I was just reminiscing about one of their early books) and will be attending most of Tools of Change, their three-day conference on publishing and technology in New York City next week. I'm looking forward to hearing from Kassia Krozser, Jeff Jarvis, Laurel Touby, Bob Stein, Peter Brantley, Cory Doctorow, the distinguished Jason Epstein (author of Book Business and a great choice for this conference), the equally distinguished Tim O'Reilly himself, Joe Wikert, Kevin Smokler, Ron Hogan and Chris Baty on topics like e-books, XML, digital convergence, Kindles, Stanza, and survival techniques for writers in the digital age. It's a big agenda, the timing is right, and I will certainly be filing a report or two from this conference.

3.I'm looking forward to participating in a benefit reading for humanitarian aid in the Gaza Strip this Saturday, February 7 at 7 pm at McNally Jackson bookstore in Soho. This is to raise funds for the International Red Cross, though I'm not kidding myself that we're going to raise Warren Buffett/Bill Gates money in a downtown Manhattan bookstore on a Saturday night. I think the real value of an event like this is that it gives a chance for angry and concerned people to share ideas and express hope together.

4. On Friday, February 13 at 7 pm McNally Jackson is also presenting How History Was Made: Books That Inspired A President, a panel discussion about the admirably literary roots of our current President, featuring Laura Miller, Colm Toibin and Eric Alterman.

5. The February Words Without Borders features graphic fiction from around the world. WWB is also sponsoring a discussion of Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote this Thursday, February 5 at Idlewild Bookstore in New York City, featuring translators Edith Grossman and Eduardo Lago.

6. I get interviewed by Finn Harvor at Conversations in the Book Trade.

7. TRUTH FAIL. I am being very careful to keep my memoir entirely truthful, but I've already had to fix two minor mistakes after searching through old paperwork to verify my facts. I confused my salary and job title in 1994 (after I got a big promotion and raise) with my salary in 1993, and I also confused two book publishers I worked with in the 90s -- it was McGraw-Hill who offered me a contract to write a book on client-server programming with Sybase SQL Server, not Manning (which would eventually publish my book Coffeehouse: Writings From the Web).

The first mistake was caused by rewriting: I had originally set a scene in 1994, and after I decided to reset the scene in 1993 I failed to adjust certain details accordingly. The second mistake was simple confusion: my friend Len Dorfman had been the book scout responsible for both this book contract and my later one with Manning, and I remembered incorrectly that he only scouted for Manning, when in fact he also worked with McGraw-Hill. This truth stuff is harder than I thought! Interestingly, author Tim Barrus (a friend of LitKicks, who got a lot of attention after publishing an award-winning memoir as a Native American named Nasdijj) has posted some provocative comments to one of these posts about the ideal of truthfulness in autobiography. This a complex and fascinating topic (I've also written about it with regard to Bob Dylan, JT Leroy and Ishmael Beah), but I pledge to uphold simple and strict standards with my memoir, and am embarrassed to have had to fix mistakes so quickly after beginning the project. I hope this disclosure is sufficient punishment.

8. I didn't realize that Sara Nelson, the highly-regarded but laid-off recent chief of Publisher's Weekly, came up at Inside.com. Inside.com is one of the Silicon Alley companies that will show up in later chapters of the above-mentioned memoir, since I had many conversations about content management technology with Deanna Brown when she was founding the company at the height of the dot-com boom in late 1999 and early 2000. I almost joined the Inside.com team but, as strange as this sounds, I was too busy. I probably would have made more money if I had gone, and I would have gotten to work with Sara Nelson too. Hmm!

9. Yahoo music blogger Rob O'Connor's attempted put-down of Bruce Springsteen's Super Bowl performance is weak. "You may find this hard to believe," he begins before letting the insults roll, "but I am a Bruce Springsteen fan." Yet this "fan" is surprised that Bruce cajoles the audience, slides into the camera, pulls hokey comedy routines and "kills us with show-biz overkill". Actually, overkill is the essence of any Bruce Springsteen/E Street Band concert. He's an extremely dynamic and energetic performer, which is one reason he can sell out stadiums for dozens of nights in a row. Rob O'Connor was apparently expecting Bruce to stand still and whine into a microphone while fondling a guitar like Jason Mraz, which only proves that he has never been within fifty miles of a Bruce Springsteen and E Street Band concert and should stop lying about being a fan.

10. Popular author Jennifer Weiner would like to freshen up literary coverage in newspapers. Here's just a sample of her good suggestions:

As matron of the arts, here are some things I don’t want to read about: new books by Philip Roth (I prefer the old ones, which were funny). New books by Cormac McCarthy. New books by any male writer prone to complaining about the indignities of old age, either general or prostate-specific, or or having his male protagonists do the same.

New short-story collection by Alice Munro. Instead of wasting eight hundred words, just say it’s every bit as wrenching and finely wrought as the last short-story collection by Alice Munro, and be done with it.

11. The politically conservative Pajamas Media blog ad network has gone out of business, and is falling over itself on the way down. Just in case anybody thinks this means the blog ad format is to blame, I'd like to point out how happy I am with BlogAds.com, the company that sells ads for LitKicks. I make a couple hundred dollars every month via BlogAds -- sometimes more, sometimes less, but the business model appears to work just fine when sensible and realistic expectations are applied.

12. Tom Stoppard on his Cherry Orchard (via Maud).

13. Justin Taylor of HTML Giant appreciates a George Saunders short story, and explains exactly why.

14. From Boing Boing, this is your brain on fiction. Or maybe on an angry whopper.





Stories To Tell

by Levi Asher on Thursday, December 18, 2008 12:29 am



I'll be appearing at an exciting storytelling event this Friday evening at Bar Matchless on 577 Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, starting at 8 pm. We've been asked to come up with stories upon the theme "gift", and I'm puzzling over this right now (I bet the other storytellers -- Tao Lin, Justin Taylor, Starlee Kine, DJ Dolack and Mac Montandon -- are too). There will also be music by Prince Ruperts Drops, The Joints and (this should be cool) Alana Amram and the Rough Gems, self-described as "Patsy Cline fronting the Stones". The "Vol. 1" event is a benefit for 826NYC and Books Through Bars, and is sponsored by Hexedjournal.com and WORD bookstore.

Live storytelling events (like the popular Moth series) are a nice twist on the traditional literary reading tradition. Because there is a theme, writers are forced to come up with something fresh (unless they happen to be O. Henry and have a great story about gifts lying around), and this adds to the spontaneity of the evening. The notion of "storytelling" also has a homespun feeling to it, which helps to alleviate the existential artistic tension that often hangs overhead at these literary events. Party atmosphere and music also help to improve most live readings, and could probably have saved a few dreadful ones I've been to.

Speaking of storytelling, I'm working on a different kind of writing project that I plan to launch here on LitKicks in January, 2009. Regular readers of this site know that I have been working on a non-fiction book proposal, which is currently in my agent's capable hands. This proposal represents what I have described as my secret "M" idea, one of four great non-fiction book ideas that have been obsessing and possessing me, all of which I hope to eventually publish.

The "M" idea remains the most commercially viable of my four, which is important since I have no track record as a non-fiction author and must prove myself with a truly winning proposal. Being a popular litblogger doesn't get me very far (it gets me in the front door, basically), and the few literary bloggers (Ron Hogan, Mark Sarvas, Lizzie Skurnick) who manage to get significant book deals do so entirely on the strength of the work, not the blog. So I'm sticking with my "M" idea, which is on a wildly popular topic and has an excellent chance of selling a hundred thousand copies. I am an eternal optimist, so I will keep awaiting an email from my agent telling me he's found a smart publisher who sees it the same way.

However, I am aware that publishing companies are now in cost-cutting mode, and that this is a bad time to try to sell a risky concept. So, I keep waiting for that happy email from my agent, but I'm not holding my breath.

So what do I do with my non-fiction ideas? I did a bunch of writing for other venues last year, and I would like to do more. But the competition at these publications is now tighter than ever, so this is not a great outlet either for my desire to stretch my writing skills.

So I've made my decision: while I wait to hear from my agent on the "M" book, I am going to begin writing one of my other three big ideas, and I will do it right here on LitKicks. I will compose the book in blog-post-sized sections, and I will try (no promises, till I find my rhythm) to post one new entry each week. I don't know how long I'll keep doing this, but by the end of the experiment we will have hopefully witnessed the creation of ... something. And we'll take it from there.

You know I love doing projects here on LitKicks, and this may turn out to be my most ambitious project yet.

So, which idea? I've got my "I" idea, "P" idea and "Q" idea to work with. "P" is my most ambitious concept, but I don't think I'm ready to write it yet, and I couldn't even write a summary that would make sense.

The "Q" book is the one I could write most easily, because it's material I know so well. I could narrate this entire book start to finish in a week. However it has a regional audience, and I don't think it'll be my breakthrough book. I'd like to keep the "Q" idea in my back pocket for now, and I'll have fun writing it someday.

So that leaves the "I" idea, and so the "I" idea it is. This is the most personal of the four, the topic most rooted in my own life experiences. I will begin the first installment in the first week of the new year. And, as a special preview, please tune in next week to find out what the book is about, and what the "I" stands for.

That's all I can say right now. More to come, very soon.

And in the meantime, I better get busy thinking up a good story to tell for Friday night. Hmmm, gift, gift, gift ...





Eat the Viscera

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, December 10, 2008 07:02 pm




1. Chicago activist and former Weatherman Bill Ayers has written a post-election apologia for the New York Times. I find his position reasonable enough, though Little Green Footballs is characteristically unimpressed. A belated thought occurred to me: Bill Ayers may have been one of the models (the Weathermen were certainly the aggregate model) for Eat The Document, Dana Spiotta's 2006 novel about 1960s fugitives co-existing with younger hipsters in Seattle. I liked this novel when I first read it, and have come to like it even more in retrospect.

2. You're getting tired of hearing about Roberto Bolano? Imagine how Gabriel Garcia Marquez feels. Bolano's "visceral realism" appears to mock Marquez's magical variety, but the elder statesman will be bouncing back with a new novel. Meanwhile, here's Bud Parr's report on last week's Words Without Borders event honoring Bolano (who, truth be told, is good enough to earn most of the hype).

3. Maud Newton considers recent developments in e-books for handheld devices. Myself, I just want Stanza to become available on iPhone wannabes like my own Verizon LG Dare. Lexcycle, please stop believing that the iPhone is the only handheld that matters.

4. Ed says stay writing. Correct.

5. Neil Gaiman is concerned about legal culpability for fictional characters.

6. Laura Albert will be making a rare appearance, along with Janice Erlbaum, at a benefit for exploited and homeless young women at Under St. Marks Theatre in New York City this Sunday. Info at Janice's blog.

7. I'll be making a not-so-rare appearance myself at a music/storytelling event in Greenpoint, Brooklyn on Friday evening, December 19. More details to come!

8. Friend of LitKicks John Freeman has been named the US Editor of the British literary journal Granta.

9. Daily Routines: How writers, artists, and other interesting people organize their days. The eclectic selection of writers represented here includes Franz Kafka, P. G. Wodehouse, Toni Morrison, John Updike, Gertrude Stein, J. M. Coetzee, Orhan Pamuk.

10. The Village Voice presents favorite obscure books.

11. I'm amazed at how much attention our (losing) Literary Trivia Smackdown got. There are soundbites and photos at WYNC radio, and here's a write-up at the New Yorker's Book Bench, which goes into some detail about a question involving Algonquin regular and drama critic Alexander Woolcott.

Just for the record: I did think of Alexander Woolcott (I once read an entire biography of the man) but for some incredibly dumb reason I didn't think it would be the right answer.

As for WNYC's mention of litbloggers "trying to cheat" -- well, we asked politely if we could break the rules, which isn't really the same thing as trying to cheat. Rest assured, if I ever really try to cheat at something, you won't read about it on a blog, because I'm pretty sneaky and I won't get caught.





Black Wednesday in Publishing-Land

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, December 3, 2008 09:52 pm


1. It won't make the evening news, but this was a rough day of historic proportions in the book biz. Random House, Simon and Schuster, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Thomas Nelson all announced layoffs, top-level firings or, in the case of Random House/Doubleday/Alfred A. Knopf/Dial/Bantam Dell/Crown/Nan Talese/Broadway, major consolidations that will affect the future of book publishing in America.

In the midst of this mayhem, it's interesting to read in GalleyCat that a paperback trend is sweeping publishing. We've only been yelling for this sweep for years, but despite GalleyCat's optimism, there is evidence of an opposing trend: book prices are getting higher. Like malnourished children whose bellies grow, new hardcover prices are swelling -- $40, $45 -- even as retail spending drops. Affordable (paperback, small) book publishing is the right answer, yes -- but I am not as confident as GalleyCat is that publishers are moving towards this trend anywhere near as quickly as they should be.

2. The great folksinger Odetta has died. I've seen her in concert twice, once at a Gerde's Folk City reunion where she was stunning, and once at a strange Greenwich Village event called the Microtonal Festival which celebrated experimental musicians and vocalists who used tones between the twelve notes of the scale. It might surprise those who think of Odetta as a traditional folksinger to know that she was considered by experts in the field to have a rare way with microtones, and that she delivered the best performance of this night, belting out a few old spirituals and showing us all how much room there really was between a C and a C#. I don't know if that show was recorded, but here's Odetta singing "Rock Island Line" and here's her "Water Boy".

3. Natasha Wimmer, translator of Roberto Bolano, will be appearing with Francisco Goldman at a very special Words Without Borders event Thursday night, December 4, at Idlewild Books in Manhattan.

4. Also at Idlewild, apparently a new hot spot: Ben Greenman celebrating Correspondences on Friday, December 5.

5. And then comes the big Literary Trivia Smackdown 2.0 this Sunday at 4 pm, and you better believe I'm studying up on my American Lit. Our opponents at PEN America have been announced: David Haglund, Meghan Kyle-Miller, Larry Siems and Lilly Sullivan. They sound smart, so please come to the Small Press Indie Book Fair and cheer your favorite lit bloggers on! For real.

6. New Nixon tapes! Choice bits:

"Never forget: The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The establishment is the enemy. The professors are the enemy. The professors are the enemy."

All your base are belong to us, Nixon.

It's a happy Christmas for Watergate buffs like me, what with the new tapes and the release of the film version of the play Frost/Nixon. Haven't had this much fun since Mark Felt turned up.

7. Christopher Hitchens points out that the widespread decision to use the city name "Mumbai" rather than "Bombay" actually carries an implicit political message, and possibly a fraudulent one. I was not aware of this, though I remember hearing similar things at a panel discussion regarding the recent attempt to replace "Burma" with "Myanmar". Since many of us are in the dark about this, it seems that major news organizations like the New York Times (Clark Hoyt, are you out there?) ought to address the significance of these name changes directly.

8. Dewey, a litblogger, dies.

9. Frank Wilson remembers the once-popular novel Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac's affectionate tribute to the fashionable Buddhism of the Beatnik era, on its fiftieth birthday. This is one of my favorite Kerouac novels.

10. Jay-Z gets typographical.





Literary Trivia Smackdown and Other Things

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, December 2, 2008 03:24 am



1. I'm very excited to be competing with a team of litbloggers in a Literary Trivia Smackdown against four honorable representatives of PEN America this Sunday at 4 pm at the 21st Annual Indie Press and Small Books Fair in New York City. The other members of the Litblog team are Ed Champion, Sarah Weinman and Eric Rosenfeld.

Ed, Sarah, Eric and I are competing this year as a result of a challenge we offered to MC and host Tim Brown after watching the New York Review of Books beat A Public Space in last year's contest. Brown accepted our challenge in sporting spirit, though apparently the New York Review of Books ran when they saw us coming. We are looking forward to challenging our worthy fellow lovers of literature at PEN to see who takes the title for 2008. The subject, I understand, is "American Literature". Please come to cheer us on if you can! Other worthwhile events at this weekend-long Indie and Small Press Book Fair include Lizzie Skurnick interviewing Kelly Link and a conversation between Arthur Nersesian and Kate Christensen.

2. It's nice to be noticed sometimes, like when you get included on a list of ten best literary blogs by David Gutowski. Hey, everybody else on the list posted about it too, so why shouldn't I? Other good literary blogs that should be on any list (ten just isn't enough): Conversational Reading, Jacket Copy.

3. "The point of terror is both to terrify and to polarize". Mainly, to polarize, and it works way too well. Look at pictures like these from Boston.com and it's hard not to get polarized.

4. From the ridiculous to the sublime, here's a charming new cover of Wind in the Willows, drawn by a 12-year-old kid. Nice.

5. The Book Design Review's Favorite Book Covers of 2008.

6. Stephen Fry on Oscar Wilde, the meaning of imagination, Anton Chekhov.

7. A very thorough Thoreau site, though they missed me. Doesn't everybody.

8. I have mixed feelings about Kanye West's new album 808s and Heartbreak. It's his first "sad" album -- his Plastic Ono Band, his Street-Legal, his Berlin. But while these albums are all masterpieces, Kanye's mournful new work feels more frustrating on first listen. Where's the humor? Where's the kick? I respect Kanye West's artistry so much, though, that I will give this album at least ten full listens before I complete my judgement. I'm on listen #5 for Axl Rose.





Umberto Eco, Salman Rushdie and Mario Vargas Llosa at PEN World Voices

by Levi Asher on Saturday, May 3, 2008 11:28 am


"You'll notice an empty chair has been placed next to the podium on stage. This is to symbolize those writers who could not be here today due to political oppression."

Thus intoned Leonard Lopate at New York City's uptown 92nd Street Y, introducing a major PEN World Voices event featuring Salman Rushdie, Mario Vargas Llosa and Umberto Eco. Ironically, at just this moment I was caught in a chaotic crush in the back of the auditorium along with several other late arrivals and second-tier press-pass attendees who couldn't find a seat in the packed house. A particularly stern usher was hissing at us to leave, another was telling us to walk forward, and I was starting to wish I had the nerve to walk onstage and sit in the damn empty chair myself.

Yes, there was a big sellout crowd for the "Three Musketeers", and in fact it's encouraging to realize that New Yorkers will pack a room just to hear a postmodernist from Bombay and London, a postmodernist from Italy and a postmodernist from Peru read stories to us, and despite the clumsy start the Rushdie/Eco/Vargas Llosa reading delivered rare literary pleasures in a sophisticated, harmonious arrangement. It was a reading to remember.

Umberto Eco read a passage from Foucault's Pendulum in original Italian as the words scrolled on a screen behind him. While this may have made some attendees feel they were at the New York State Opera and others wish they had worn their contacts, I personally found it easy enough to follow and enjoy the text's cosmic psychological wanderings as Eco's gravelly voice rumbled in sympathy. I tried to follow along and transliterate (not that I know Italian, of course, but I can always try) and then gave up when it became clear that the text scrolling had lost track of the live reading. No matter, I loved hearing the piece.

Salman Rushdie was next, reading a passage (in English) about an Indian commoner in audience with the Mughal emperor Akbar from the new novel The Enchantress of Florence, just released in the UK and scheduled for release in the USA soon. I could not get a good sense of Rushdie's overall intention with this novel, though descriptions of the book suggest a scope similar to Orhan Pamuk's great My Name Is Red. Rushdie didn't "wow me" like he did last year, though I am intrigued by this new novel's historical setting.

Mario Vargas Llosa read from his latest novel The Bad Girl, again in the original language, though this time the text scrolled in perfect time with the author's reading, and the audience responded with much enthusiasm. The three eminences then gathered for a loose and lively chat about why they liked to call themselves the "Three Musketeers" (Rushdie even mulled over "The Three Tenors", which I had suggested in a blog post on Thursday, and I was also starting to think up other alternatives including "The Traveling Wilburys" and "Velvet Revolver"). With Alexandre Dumas pere now in play, Rushdie, Eco and Vargas Llosa now began batting The Count of Monte Cristo back and forth, debating whether or not such "bad writing" as this can also be great writing. All three seemed to agree that bad writing could be great writing and that this often happens (it's not hard to guess that all three authors were thinking of their own excesses here, as well as those of Dumas pere).

The panel was great fun to listen to because the writers were loose and rambunctious, eagerly speaking over each other at times, fully devoid of the stiff politeness that too often mars these gatherings. An after-event hangout with several bloggers and book critics and one photographer (Mary Reagan's photos of Eco, Rushdie and Vargas LLosa should be up soon) suitably capped the evening.

* * * * *

Earlier on Friday, I enjoyed a lunchtime reading with Peter Carey, Halfdan Freihow, Janet Malcolm and Francesc Seres, hosted by Rachel Donadio, and I'm looking forward to a conversation between Ian McEwan and Steven Pinker later today. I won't blog about that, though; there's a New York Times Book Review that needs attending to, and I'm on the case.

Congrats again to the energetic and hardworking folks who put together PEN World Voices, a literary festival worthy of the name.





A Glimpse of Burma

by Levi Asher on Thursday, May 1, 2008 05:30 pm


A lunchtime PEN World Voices panel with global journalist Ian Buruma, Burmese author Thant Myint-U and Words Without Borders editor Dedi Felman today offered a look at the modern history and current politics of Burma, the Southeast Asian nation that all three panelists agreed was little understood around the world. I arrived at this panel discussion knowing almost nothing of this nation's culture and society (and not for lack of interest), so I believe they're right.

I didn't know, for instance, that Burma has been suffering in a state of civil war since 1948 (the longest civil war in the world today), and I didn't know the nation's army is one of the 10 largest in the world (Wikipedia here lists them as 12th, but the difference is negligible while the fact remains quite surprising). Dedi Felman, moderating the panel, placed Burma's endless crisis in context with the more widely known Darfur crisis by pointing out that there are more child soldiers in Burma today than in Sudan.

One of the very few things I knew about Burma before arriving today is that a Burmese statesman named U Thant had been a well-liked Secretary-General of the United Nations during the dynamic years from 1961 to 1971, and I was pleased to discover that Thant Myint-U, author of The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma is his grandson. I'd like to read Thant's book, and as he spoke today I noted his sincere concern for a troubled nation caught since the 19th Century in the net of worldwide power struggles (between Britain and India during the colonial era, between Japan and the Allies in World War II, between China and Western democracy today) and gripped by internal power-hungry ideologies.

Thant advocates a careful approach to Western intervention (as he wrote in a London Review of Books article last year), though Ian Buruma warned that, in his observation, the USA war in Iraq has significantly harmed our ability to be accepted as credible do-gooders around the world.

This event left me hungry for more, and this is the same hunger (and satisfaction) that many New Yorkers and visitors attending this exciting five-day gathering must be feeling as we float from one international meeting to another. This was my second event so far, and while I can't tell if this is a trend or just a coincidence, I have noticed that both today's Burma session and Wednesday's Darfur session presented stark political discussion with a minimum of purely "literary" sensibility. There was a symbolic empty chair at today's panel, as there had been at the Darfur event, and both times it was explained that this empty chair represented authors around the world who could not be present due to oppression in their home countries. I'm starting to wonder if these empty chairs should be filled by poets or fiction writers, just so we don't forget to keep the "literature" in PEN World Voices.

But I think there will be plenty of literary sensibility at the Three Musketeers event with Salman Rushdie, Mario Vargas Llosa and Umberto Eco (Michael Orthofer calls it "The Three Tenors", which is much funnier) tomorrow night. On with the festival!





Mark Vonnegut in Tribeca

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, April 2, 2008 02:26 am


Mark Vonnegut's new edition of previously unpublished Kurt Vonnegut writings, Armageddon in Retrospect, is out today, and I caught Kurt's son at a reading/book signing at the Barnes and Noble in Tribeca, New York City a few hours ago tonight. Because I've read the book Mark Vonnegut had written himself in 1975, The Eden Express: A Memoir of Insanity, I was as interested in hearing from him as I was in seeing this book of new material.

Eden Express described the turbulent mental landscape Kurt's son travelled during the hippie era, joining a commune, watching his father get famous, and ending up in a mental hospital. When Eden Express was published in 1975 it was billed as "a memoir of schizophrenia", but the current edition explains that the diagnosis of schizophrenia is more strictly defined today, and that Mark Vonnegut's illness would now be classified as manic-depressive (which is less severe).

He's now sixty-something, a medical doctor, with a bright and sincere speaking style that easily wins over the large Barnes and Noble crowd. He seems highly contented, proud of his family, and proud of his career as a medical doctor. He shares his father's thickly hooded eyes, though he is clean-shaven and his slicked-back hair bears no resemblance to Kurt's curly Aryan-fro.

The words he read tonight were heartfelt -- you can read them in the new book -- and there were a few moments when he suddenly maniacally laughed and we got a glimpse of the unhinged protaganist of Eden Express for a moment or two. And, certainly, a glimpse of the enigmatic son of Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five as well.

I've said before that you may be able to judge a writer by his or her children. If so, then this modest literary son is yet another credit (as if more were needed) to the great career of Kurt Vonnegut.

(I'll be reviewing Armageddon in Retrospect soon for another publication. And, once again, I apologize for my continuing work as the worst cell-phone photographer in New York City.






Mysterious Strangers

by Levi Asher on Thursday, January 24, 2008 11:12 am


1. When a friend pointed me to The Mysterious Stranger, I could make no sense of what appeared to be an odd piece of animated YouTube weirdness involving Mark Twain and Satan in a "Davey and Goliath" version of "The Devil Went Down To Hannibal" ... until a trip to Wikipedia cleared things up. The Mysterious Stranger is based on a unfinished story Mark Twain worked on for twenty years, and the story catches Twain in an uncharacteristically stark, allegorical (and perhaps even Kafkaesque) mode. Now that I understand the background to this animated short film, I'm rather impressed by it.

2. I just attended the New York City reading debut of Mark Sarvas's upcoming novel Harry, Revised at Jami Attenberg's Boxcar Reading with Michael Dahlie, Lynn Lurie and Ceridwen Dovey. Harry, Revised is about a young widower embarking on an apparent search for self, and I cannot help imagining that there must be a lot of Mark Sarvas in the character of Harry, who (in the chapter Mark read last night) attempts to anchor his self-image by purchasing a French literary classic.

One special thing about Harry, Revised is that readers of Mark's Elegant Variation blog have been able to watch and enjoy its process of creation, and this is certainly a unique and effective way to build up anticipation for an upcoming book release. Harry, Revised hits the stores in April.

3. Earlier in the evening, before the Boxcar reading, Ed Champion and I formed an electronic mob to crash Against the Machine author Lee Siegel's conversation with John Freeman at the McNally Robinson bookstore in Soho (though we were well-behaved and unfortunately had to leave after only 20 minutes to get to the Boxcar in time). Lee Siegel's new book aims to be a rabble-rousing cry of protest against the looming evils of internet culture, though many of us who dwell happily online won't let Lee forget that he only began to develop this hatred of the internet after getting caught in a buffoonish attempt at dominating it.

Lee Siegel has had an acclaimed career as a pugnacious cultural critic (though the above-mentioned "sprezzatura" incident didn't help his reputation), but my encounters with his writing in the New York Times Book Review have revealed an ambitious but intellectually careless writer. He reinforced this impression last night with wild statements like "the internet is 80% porn". Siegel seems to lack the restraint and sense of balance that any cultural critic ought to have. He'll probably sell a lot of copies of Against the Machine -- blunt rhetoric does sell -- but I feel sorry for anyone who wastes their time reading it.

4. "A New Cultural Revolution" may not be the best title for this encouraging survey of the state of popular literature in China, since the actual phrase "Cultural Revolution" was used as a guise for Mao Zedong's brutal crackdown on personal, social and artistic freedom in the 1960s and 70s. But this is an important article, and I'd love to learn more about China's vast book industry.

5. I don't love being greeted with a plea for my email address, but I like everything else about PublicIntegrity.org, a public repository of government documents relevant to current political issues. The new exhibit "Iraq: The War Card" offers a simple and effective search engine documenting the Bush administration's justification for the war in Iraq.

6. Action Poets -- thanks for your patience with the new software, which is (obviously) still in beta. Coming soon: monthly archives, a better response system, other stuff. It's also a little slow, and I can fix that too (my MO as a software developer, as you may have noticed, has always been "launch first, fix later"). Hang in there, everybody ... and it's good to see old friends popping back in.





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