My latest e-book, the third in a series of twelve, is out, and this one means a real lot to me. Chiaroscuro: Assorted Literary Essays is my own selection of the best literary essays I've written on this blog since 2004.
I wanted this to be a short book, so I forced myself to choose only ten pieces (and, in a Spinal-Tap-like moment, ended up choosing eleven). You can see the table of contents if you click through to the official book page, where you can also read the blurb I solicited from my good buddy Ed Champion (hey, what are friends for?).
I'm being flippant, but the truth is that the eleven pieces in this book mean more to me than I can say; they are my gems, my blows against the empire, my big fish, my keepers. This book is also arranged to represent a progression of ideas and literary notions -- transgressive visions, comic visions, great writers, overrated writers -- that encapsulates something I believe about the meaning of literature in all our lives. Mostly, this book contains the eleven essays that moved me the most when I wrote them, and I hope you'll give the book a chance and see if they move you too.
The time is 1985, one year before Ronald Reagan’s massive Tax Reform Act began a sweeping overhaul of the federal government's byzantine Internal Revenue Code.
The place is Peoria, Illinois, a gritty blue collar and farming town in America’s heartland.
In David Foster Wallace's The Pale King, Peoria is home to the IRS’s Midwest Regional Examination Center, or REC. The IRS, of course, is the bureaucracy of all bureaucracies, or as a character in the novel describes it: “arguably the most important federal bureaucracy in American life”.
The mission of the IRS is to administer the income tax code, one of the most staggeringly complex pieces of legislation ever stitched and bolted together by the U.S. Congress. As the novel unfolds, the IRS is in the throes of change.
1. Lint, a novel by Steve Aylett about a famous but nonexistent writer that we told you about a few years ago, is now a movie! The trailer features supportive words from the legendary Alan Moore (Watchmen), Jeff Vandermeer, Mitzi Szereto and our own Bill Ectric, so you know there must be something special going on here.
2. Marty Beckerman has written a book inspired by Ernest Hemingway called The Heming Way: How to Unleash the Booze-Inhaling, Animal-Slaughtering, War-Glorifying, Hairy-Chested, Retro-Sexual Legend Within... Just Like Papa!.
I've just spent three days at the biggest and most glorious nerd convention in New York City: the annual BookExpo America, or BEA.
This nerd convention is different from other literary nerd conventions like DragonCon and ComicCon in one major way: there, people dress up in costumes to try to look weird, while here editors, publishers, agents, writers, distributors, bookstore owners, librarians, critics and bloggers dress up in American Apparel or Urban Outfitters and try to appear normal for three days in a row. We're not fooling anyone: we're book professionals, and we're all obsessed.
The great thing about this gathering is the wide, unabashed enthusiasm for books. From 9:30-in-the-morning panels to 2 am Soho parties, BookExpo is an intense, highly social experience. But even if the passions are highly individual, much of the constant shared buzz is about business, about the hot titles coming out from the big publishing houses. I noticed a somewhat strained effort to manufacture the word that a new novel called The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach is "getting a lot of buzz", though the book looks a bit stiff to me, and I think some people may be getting it confused with last year's Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.
Back when reading was the most popular form of entertainment, scores of pulps competed to feed the demands of a fiction-hungry populace. Outside the literary establishment, the pulps provided a place for up-and-coming writers to hone their skills, eventually giving birth to some of the most enduring offshoots of American lit. Among them, perhaps the most emulated around the world is the great tradition of the American crime novel.
The genre writers like Hammett and Chandler created and defined in the pulps of the 30’s and 40’s has become one of the most universally adored American exports. While the pulps that gave birth to American crime have been extinct for decades, the tradition has been kept alive by hundreds of independent publishers.
Over the next few months, we’ll introduce some of these indie crime presses and highlight some of their most innovative titles. We hope you’ll give them a chance. There’s no better way to keep fiction alive.
1. I've read a few good tributes to the late Beat/hippie poet Ira Cohen, a good guy I used to see around the East Village a lot. I did a poetry reading with him at the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus in 2002, but I never knew that Ira Cohen invented the 70s-era headshop art trend known as Mylar painting. (Photo of Ira Cohen from a video by Laki Vazakas).
2. You may have heard the news: e-books are hot. This time around, I'm on the bandwagon. I'll be attending the BookExpo gathering next week in New York City, and I'm sure electronic publishing will be the biggest buzz there. I'm a few days behind schedule with my new Kindle book ... the title and cover will be revealed soon. I'm very happy with the ongoing sales figures for my first Kindle book, Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong (and Why It Matters), and I'm proud that this book has remained in the top 100 Kindle bestsellers in the Politics->Ideology category for the entire month, and was #40 on the list this weekend.
"It's about persevering." These words appear in a funny short video about the life of a writer starring Kristen J. Tsetsi, who proudly lives up to that spirit. Her novel Pretty Much True ..., scheduled for publication in September, tells the story of a young couple separated by a military deployment to Iraq. This is the story she is most eager to tell, and I first wrote about Pretty Much True ... in 2007 when it was a self-published book called Homefront. Kristen has also published a Kindle collection called Carol's Aquarium, and edited the anthology American Fiction, Volume 11: The Best Previously Unpublished Short Stories by Emerging Authors. I got a chance to ask Kristen a few questions about the life she has chosen and the work she devotes herself to.
Levi: Your novel Pretty Much True ..., previously published as "Homefront", is about soul mates separated by military deployment: the narrator is at home while her lover fights in Iraq. According to your author bio, your husband went to Iraq with the 101st Airborne. How did you handle the boundaries between fiction and autobiography when you wrote about this obviously personal subject?
Kristen: Everything I've ever written creatively (not counting a couple of essays) has been fiction, but -- and this is probably true for most writers -- based on personal experience in one way or another. Non-fiction storytelling has always been a problem for me. I get too hung up on the details, and I forget the feeling.
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.
Mexico. The land of intrigue south of the border. The place where Dean and Sal headed for ultimate kicks. The destination of choice for taking it on the lam, as in “I’m goin’ way down south, way down to Mexico way” in the Hendrix reading of “Hey Joe”. So many images of Mexico, most of them on the dark side. Think back to the opening scene of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, where Humphrey Bogart is down and out in Tampico.
I wanted to get away from the endless Chicago winter. I wanted to feel sun on my face and soft breezes blowing through my hair. I wanted to go to Mexico. So I booked a flight to Querétero, a colonial town in the central highlands, and packed my bags. What to read, though? Graham Greene? Not in the mood. I wanted something dark that penetrated to the heart of my image of Mexico, but I wanted a writer other than Greene. Browsing through the stacks at the library, I found it. Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry.
We'll always circle back to our Beat roots around here. Here are a few things that've been going on.
1. I spotted the artwork above, a tribute to the epic poem BOMB by Gregory Corso, on a website by a young French artist named Vince Larue, which is mostly dedicated to 1960s culture and the Grateful Dead.
3. The Norman Mailer Center in Cape Cod, Massachusetts is presenting a workshop on the legacy of Hunter S. Thompson, featuring Doug Brinkley.
5. Jerry Cimino of San Francisco's lively Beat Museum is having a great time being an unofficial consultant (on Neal Cassady's dance moves, among other things) for the upcoming On The Road movie, which will be coming out later this year.