Stone Arabia is a new novel by Dana Spiotta, a writer from California. It's about a sister and brother, fast approaching middle age, both grappling with the failures of their once-bright artistic dreams. They are mutually supportive opposites. She's an earthbound, discouraged office worker (who narrates this story in a series of sardonic fits and starts), while he carries on a bizarre habit that provides the koan at the center of this strange book. Having failed as a rock star during the late 1970s, he began a lifelong construction of a fantasy career as a rock star, complete with homemade CDs, extensive bootlegs, memorabilia, fan mail, good and bad reviews. This is his life's work, even if nobody but his sister, his niece and a few assorted ex-girlfriends ever see it. As he nears his fiftieth birthday, impoverished and nearly friendless, he begins to face the fact that this made-up world has gone as far as it can go.
I'm still on vacation. But here are some links:
1. The image above is from a teaser promo for a new movie based on Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis. I don't know what to think. You be the judge.
3. Words Without Borders' July issue is about The Arab Spring.
Since I began publishing e-books three months ago, I've discovered that the most annoying part of the process, hands down, is marketing and publicity. The most fun part? Easy: cover artwork. I love designing covers, and I love working with artists like Vince Larue and Goodloe Byron (who's working on a cover for a new book I'm particularly excited about, which is coming out in August). For my latest book Chiaroscuro: Assorted Literary Essays I went digging into my own archives, and I thought I'd share with you what I found. You see, when I was a teenager I spent a whole lot of time doing pen and pencil sketches of my favorite rock stars.
1. I'm just curious: is this subway ad trying to imply that subscribers to the New York Times online payment plan will get some kind of special access to Jay-Z? If so, I'd really like them to substantiate this. If not, why is he on this poster?
2. I still love the New York Times, even though I hate their payment plan. This weekend's New York Times Book Review includes a satisfying knockdown by Christopher Hitchens of a dumb new book by David Mamet.
3. Also in the New York Times: the inspiring story of 26-year-old Amanda Hocking, who shook off years of rejections and invented herself as a very successful writer.
4. "A direct line to the planet of fear and the imp of the perverse ... the desire to do that which we know is wrong". Lou Reed is channelling Edgar Allan Poe again, this time in a book with illustrations by Lorenzo Mattotti.
Two philosophical entertainments for a pleasant summer weekend:
1. I'm intrigued by a new novel called The New Moscow Philosophy by Vyacheslav Pyetsukh, originally published in 1989 and translated into several languages, but only now available in English in a new edition translated by Krystyna Anna Steiger and published by Twisted Spoon Press of Praque.
I'm only a few pages in, but am already impressed to find in this book a rich, obsessive look at the whole meaning of Russian literature. The endpaper copy explains:
... As two tenants engage in an extended debate over the nature of evil, the take it upon themselves to solve the mystery and nail the culprit, and it becomes clear that the entire tableaux is a reprise of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. Displaying a sharp with and a Gogolian sense of the absurd, Pyetsukh visits anew the age-old debate over the relationship between life and art, arguing that in Russia life imitating literature is as true as literature reflecting life.
Rock biographies and memoirs don't have a lot of literary cachet, though I seem to keep reading them. If I believed there was anything for me to feel guilty about (I don't), I'd call this my guilty pleasure. It's more accurate to say that, as with any literary format, books like Does the Noise in My Head Bother You?: A Rock 'n' Roll Memoir by Steven Tyler and Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock by Sammy Hagar bring pleasure to the degree that they are authentic, surprising and truthful.
The fact that both of these memoirists are well-known for loud, brash personalities and stadium-level exuberance (Steven Tyler refers winningly in his book to an affliction of the ego known as "Lead Singer Disease") should not disqualify their books from thoughtful literary consideration at all. Steven Tyler and Sammy Hagar may feel comfortable juicing up gigantic, cheering crowds, but they must each overcome the same creative anxieties and moral doubt as any other writer when they stare at themselves in the mirror and try to describe what they see. Sure, celebrity memoirists have ghostwriters (David Dalton for Tyler, Joel Selvin for Hagar), but that may not help as much as we think. It's worth analyzing how both Steven Tyler and Sammy Hagar measure up to the memoirist's moral challenge with these books.
My Infamous Life, the new memoir by classic rapper Prodigy of Mobb Deep, kicks off with a surprise: Albert "Prodigy" Johnson carries an amazing musical legacy in his genes. His grandfather Budd Johnson was a bebop saxophonist who worked with Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie, Ruth Brown, Gil Evans, Count Basie and Quincy Jones. His grandmother Bernice Johnson created an influential dance school in Jamaica, Queens and hung out with Lena Horne, Ben Vereen and Diana Ross. Prodigy's mother Frances Collins was a replacement member of the 60s girl group the Crystals. This gangsta rapper has some major musical roots.
But he struggled as a kid with sickle-cell anemia, a painful condition that helped him develop a stoic sense of life and a fervent, straight-edged drive. He and his high school buddy Havoc were still teenagers in 1993 when they put out the first Mobb Deep album. They were unknowingly at the vanguard of hiphop's greatest age, born in Queensbridge and the Lefrak projects, where Prodigy crossed paths with A Tribe Called Quest, Nas, the Large Professor, Onyx, Cormega and Capone-N-Noriega. The new gangsta sound spread through New York City, where the Queens rappers were joined by Jay-Z, Biggie Smalls, Lil Kim, Busta Rhymes and M.O.P. from Brooklyn, Mase, Big L and Cam'ron from Manhattan, Big Pun and Fat Joe from the Bronx, DMX and the L.O.X. from Yonkers. Mobb Deep fans, all of them.
When life gets dreary, there's always Gilbert and Sullivan. This British duo's creative track record is almost as impressive as that of the Beatles, who took over the world in similar fashion three-quarters of a century later. They left us three masterpieces: HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado, and a giant body of lesser-known excellent work that somehow never drops too low in quality (though it does drop, sometimes, in accessibility).
Accessibility is often an issue with Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operas, which were written wholly with contemporary interests and sensibilities in mind. As with Shakespeare or James Joyce (also from the British isles, interestingly), when you enjoy a Gilbert and Sullivan work you can't ever feel confident that you're getting more than half the jokes. Both Gilbert's lyrics and Sullivan's melodies contain intricate layers of ironic reference to the hot topics of their day. Even though you can appreciate Pirates or Mikado just for the bouncy tunes and funny plots, you can appreciate them a lot more if you put some effort into decoding their cultural context.
YES! Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong (and Why It Matters), the first Litkicks Kindle book, is generating some heat, climbing up the Amazon Political/Ideologies chart to number 21, which I am thrilled to note is two higher than Mitt Romney's No Apology, clearly a less exciting work.
Thanks to my swell friends who tweeted me up and Facebook'd me up, and to Conversational Reading, Literary Saloon, Lightning Rod's The Poet's Eye and the great Maverick Philosopher for posting blog notices. (If you blogged about the book and I missed it, please send me the link).
One person (who I do not know) has already reviewed the book on Amazon. This is a lukewarm but well-written and thoughtful review, and I'm sorry the reviewer feels I "didn't do my research" because I didn't know that Ayn Rand had addressed the validity of psychological egoism. I know Ayn Rand has addressed this, but I believe she's done so only superficially, and not satisfactorily. Indeed, that is the entire substance of my book: a critique of Ayn Rand's ethics on the basis of her reliance on the (weak) scientific doctrine of pscyhological egoism. However, I do appreciate the fact that this Amazon reviewer named "poem2poes" took the time to read and understand my book, and I am happy to have survived my first Amazon bad review. (May the next one please be better.)
1. Billy Joel had a contract to write a memoir, but got cold feet. Too bad. We know this Long Island boy can write, and I bet he had some stories to tell. The alleged book (my personal guess is that he never began it, though the cover artwork was finished and released) was supposed to have been called The Book of Joel.
2. You know I've been wanting to read this Long Island boy's life story. Jay-Z's recent semi-memoir Decoded had its moments, but Jay hardly dug deep. Good hiphop memoirs or biographies are rare, but I eagerly snapped up Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office, a new unauthorized biography by business writer Zack O'Malley Greenburg, who has covered hip-hop culture and money for Forbes magazine. I suppose it works as a business book, but I found it very disappointing. This white boy, unfortunately, does not know hiphop. The author also seems to think Jay-Z's best years must be right now (naturally, because this is when he's making the most money) which proves, once again, that he doesn't know anything about hiphop.