Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

New York City

The Burroughs Brothers and the Plastic People of the Universe

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, September 26, 2007 08:27 pm

1. As promised, I went to see Augusten Burroughs and John Elder Robison, who read from Look Me In The Eye. The elder Burroughs/Robison brother has a good sense of humor and an appealing lack of self-consciousness on stage. He's almost as big a ham as Augusten, in fact, and that's a good thing. I recommend this book to anybody who enjoyed Running With Scissors and also to anybody interested in learning more about Asperger's syndrome.

2. Blogger Marlon James says "My seer/creepy dreadlocked guy quotient increased dramatically last year when I predicted that Orham Pamuk would win the Nobel Prize" [via Maud]. Dude, relax. I picked Pamuk too, rather smoothly I may add, but I don't think that makes me suddenly Nostradamus. For the record, I'm picking New Jersey's own Philip Roth for this year's Nobel Prize, just because I'm getting this vibe about it. And I'm expecting to see the New York Mets and the Boston Red Sox in the World Series.

3. What? The Plastic People of the Universe are going to be playing Joe's Pub in Greenwich Village? Now that is something to go to.

4. You've seen my father's cartoons, right? I think writers and editors will especially relate to this great series of clippings from the 1950's, How Not To Get An Okay.

My dad has been around LitKicks before, but next week I hope to bring you something else special: a essay on Franz Kafka and Paul Auster by my very-own mom (who, by the way, knows her stuff). It's always a family affair over here in LitKicks-land.

5. Bat Segundo interviews Norma Klein. Klein's new book has an important message about the intersection of big business and war, and this interview is worth your time.

6. So, now that James Frey has just rehabilitated himself to the tune of a million smackeroos and Kaavya Viswanathan just got compared to S. E. Hinton by Dale Peck in the New York Times Book Review, do you think we can all reach down deep and find some love in our hearts for Tim "Nasty Nas" Nasdijj Barrus, and Laura "JT Leroy" Albert? Yeah, people, I think we can.

Nasdijj has been putting up some truly artistic video work as "cinemathequefilms" on You Tube, including this self-referential piece called Name Thief. Well worth visiting if you like this sort of thing.

As for Laura Albert aka J. T. Leroy, she is trying to marshall her resources for a new legal defense, and she has now created a blog. And why the hell shouldn't J. T. Leroy have a blog if J. T. Leroy wants to have a blog? It's called a pen name.


by Levi Asher on Saturday, September 22, 2007 06:17 pm

Me and Ed at the Bowery Poetry Club last Thursday night. Here's Richard Grayson's report, Caryn's pix. Thanks to George Wallace for arranging the event, and to everybody who came out to enjoy the show!

Back To The Bowery

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, September 12, 2007 07:36 pm

1. It's been a long time since I've performed at the Bowery Poetry Club. I'll be doing a quick happy-hour show at 6:30 pm next Thursday, September 20, arranged by Long Island poet George Wallace and also featuring Donald Lev, Barbara Southard and Elliot Pepper on bongo drums. There's a $6 cover charge, but it'll be worth it. I'll be doing a fast fifteen minutes, and I may even have a special guest (if you read the litblogs, it's someone I bet you know and love) jump onstage with me for a bombastic duet.

2. Okay, so. My entire life I've been going to Mets games, and all these years I've watched foul balls go to the right of me, to the left of me, below me, above me. When I was a kid I brought my mitt to Shea Stadium; now I don't carry a mitt but I'm always ready. Even though I never thought it would happen.

Well, I took Daniel to Monday night's game against the Atlanta Braves, and Yunel Escobar hit a tall foul ball off Oliver Perez's pitch that went way above our heads and bounced off the mezzanine wall. The ball then baubled down the loge level, hopping from one set of clutching fingers to another, till it fell again to our level, the field boxes, and rolled under a row of seats where Daniel dove for it, elbowed a few people out of the way, and grabbed the ball, as he tells it, from between the shoes of a guy who was trying to grip it with his feet. So, yeah. We got the ball. And the Mets won, 3-2.

3. It's the Brooklyn Book Festival! I had a nice time last year and I expect I will again this Sunday, September 18.

4. Sarah Weinman, longtime half of my favorite dynamic duo over at Galley Cat, has written a poignant farewell. But somehow I think we'll be reading more of her, not less, in years to come.

5. Matthew Bruccoli's analysis of the errors in Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby is fascinating (via Newton). But I am disturbed by the idea that editors might doubt even for a moment that, when Fitzgerald creates a character named Biloxi who is from "Biloxi, Tennessee", that geographic absurdity is a joke and not a mistake. How could anyone possibly imagine otherwise? Fitzgerald's sweet tones should not hide his natural acerbic irony. This is the writer who told us with a straight face about a diamond the size of the Ritz, after all.

6. Chad Post and Mark Binelli are in the middle of a lively chat about George Simenon's The Engagement at Words Without Borders.

7. I like Ed Champion's writing best when he gets philosophical.

8. This is really cute.

9. Scott Esposito asks: Kanye or 50? Mr. Esposito, the answer is Kanye. And I say this as a person who admired the hell out of 50 Cent's first album, Get Rich or Die Tryin'. That CD was a novel. Listen to it cover to cover and see what I mean. But his new and third CD Curtis Jackson is even worse than his second. The beats on "Straight to the Bank" and "I Get Money" are terrible, and the lyrics are even worse. Yeah, 50, you got a Ferrari, it's not that exciting anymore.

Kanye West, on the other hand, has never served up a stale dish of anything. He's a satirist, a wordsmith, and his new CD Graduation is as fresh as tomorrow's newspaper. Here's your sample Kanye West lyric of the day:

don't ever fix your lips like collagen
then say something where you gonna end up apolog'ing

I remember when 50 Cent's rhymes made me laugh like that.

If I Invaded It

by Levi Asher on Friday, August 24, 2007 10:13 am

1. Enough with the outrage about O. J. Simpson's If I Did It. The book will be dead on arrival anyway, so who cares about it? What's really obscene, I think, is that some publisher will probably pay Donald Rumsfeld a million dollars for If I Invaded It.

2. Garth Risk Hallberg caught the new A Midsummer Night's Dream at New York City's great Shakespeare in the Park. I am upset that my late August schedule of mini-vacations, Mets games and U. S. Open tennis games leaves me no time to catch this production, which also got a nice review in today's New York Times. Midsummer Night's Dream is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, and at least I can take comfort in the fact that I already saw it at Shakespeare in the Park, many years ago, with William Hurt as Oberon. If you can catch this new (and free) production, though, what are you waiting for?

3. I'm not completely down with the selection of Jamestown, Matthew Sharpe's comic-apocalypse novel, as the Litblog Co-op's Summer 2007 pick, though I do admire this hilariously anarchic book. The author's skill is beyond question, and so is his intelligence (as is revealed in this perceptive post about Don Delillo). The book's best achievement, in my opinion, is the dizzy voice of the character called Pocahontas.

But the book reads like a string of one-liners to me. Brilliant one-liners, yes, but with no believable characters and a plot too far-fetched to be gripping, I could not enjoy sludging through all these 320 pages. Sharpe reminds me of certain comedians who specialize in twisted koans, like Steven Wright or Demetri Martin. For fifteen or twenty minutes, these performers are a revelation. But would you want to listen to a 15-hour Steven Wright or Demetri Martin show? That's what 320 pages of Jamestown felt like to me.

Maybe I also think the Litblog Co-op (a group I belong to, by the way, and of which I'm very fond) tends to favor postmodern marvels over readable works of fiction. Michael Martone and Skinny-Dipping in the Lake of the Dead were also impressive experiments, but I bemoan the lack of realistic characters and engaging plots.

4. Speaking of postmodern marvels who I admire but don't personally read, here's Ed Champion on John Barth. I don't have to agree with Ed to appreciate his enthusiasm for this writer.

5. With this post, Mark Sarvas singlehandedly persuades me to try The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt. I haven't been in the habit of reading David Leavitt, but any novel with a cast of characters like this is worth a look.

6. This article follows Jonathan Franzen in dividing readers into two categories: "modeled-habit" readers learned to read from their parents, whereas "social-isolate" readers did not. As much as I love to think of myself as a "social-isolate" in every sense, I have to admit I fall into the first category, because my parents did enthusiastically teach me to love books. I guess it worked.

7. Some recent tributes to Grace Paley have made me realize I barely know her work, outside of an anthologized short story or two. I'm going to remedy that situation now.

My Sopranos Predictions

by Levi Asher on Friday, June 8, 2007 09:29 am

As has been well established, The Sopranos is a highly literary show, and as far as I'm concerned that case is closed. So, let's talk final episode predictions.

Everybody's got a theory. Some people I work with think Janice is going to kill Tony, but I can't agree with this. I think Janice and Tony's brother-sister bond goes deep, and I believe they truly like each other. You don't kill someone you've sung karaoke with. This ending would not make sense to me.

Others are saying Tony will kill himself, but I don't see that happening at all. Or Tony might actually pull his resources together and prevail over the Leotardo gang. But a surprise "happy ending" would not mesh with this season's ominous forebodings, and it would also fail to provide any real sense of closure. Phil Leotardo only recently emerged as Tony's key nemesis, and it's hardly satisfying to end a show's entire run with a surprise victory against an enemy who wasn't even around during the show's formative years. This ending is not good enough; we have to dig deeper for something that would make sense.

My friend John at work made an apt observation that resonates with me: the show's finale might finally give the series title a double meaning if Tony Soprano decides to sing. I think this will happen. He's already been getting chummy with a federal investigator, and he's got few options left. After much thought, I'm going with this theory: I predict that Tony Soprano will attempt to save himself and his family by turning government witness in the final episode.

But he won't get off that easy. Sopranos auteur David Chase will have made the decision as to the final disposition of his beloved characters according to his own ideals about what the modern mafia lifestyle means, and the Sopranos basic moral outlook is very much in line with that of the two previous masterpieces of this genre, Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather movies and Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas/Casino twofer. Chase certainly has earned the right to stand next to Coppola and Scorsese, and it's not for nothing that he's been dropping references to The Godfather more than ever lately.

This season's opener delivered a big hint when we saw Tony puttering around in his tomato garden (a sure nod to Marlon Brando's great death scene in One). Let's face facts -- before this season, Tony didn't even have a tomato garden. You better believe this means something. You don't open a season with a Godfather reference unless you're going to close it with a Godfather reference, and since the season began with a nod to One I am guessing the season (and the series) will end with a sad reference to Three. Which means that, at some point in his flight to federal protection, Tony is going to watch in horror as poor Meadow gets gunned down. Maybe even on the steps of an opera house.

That's my prediction. Tony will survive, but without his honor or his family intact.

By the way, Yahoo slipped up in its story about the the upcoming last episode, saying Bobby Bacala was murdered in "a toy store". Wrong, yahoos, it's a train shop (but what the hell do they know in California?). Bobby was shot to death in Trainland, a famous store in lovely Lynbrook, Long Island, which happens to be just about a block away from where I punch the clock every day at my day job. I took the picture at the top of this page just a few minutes ago.

Poor Bobby went down in style. I have a feeling the whole show will go down in style too, but it won't be a happy ending.

On To The Crystal Palace

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, May 29, 2007 04:08 pm

BookExpo America, a gigantic annual convention for publishing professionals, is coming to New York City at the end of this week. It's all going down at the Jacob Javits Center, a cavernous glass building on Manhattan's west side that was architecturally inspired by London's legendary Crystal Palace. The Crystal Palace burned down in 1936, but it once stood as such a symbol of modernity that it was mocked by Fyodor Dostoevsky in his Notes From Underground (despite the fact that Dostoevsky never saw the building).

And if it seems like I'm stretching for a literary reference here, maybe that's just because I've been to the Book Expo before and I know how completely insignificant a devotee of fiction and poetry can feel at this convention, which is most definitely not called the Literary Expo. It's called the Book Expo, and most of the attention goes to books that sell: cookbooks, celebrity tell-alls, sudoku puzzles, how-to manuals, self-help guides, movie tie-ins, gimmicky pop-culture fads, airport bestsellers. It's a rough but informative confrontation with reality for anybody who thinks the book publishing business revolves around its most original literary voices.

That's not to say alternative fiction and poetry won't be represented (it just won't be emphasized). At past Book Expo gatherings, I've chatted with the likes of Chuck Palahniuk, met numerous small-press masterminds, and collected far more loot, yo-yo's, frisbees, pens, buttons and galley copies than I really needed. I'm not going to wait on line for anybody's autograph this year, but I do hope to attend some great panel discussions, go to some trendy parties (yeah, I usually hate book parties, but that doesn't mean I won't show up) and meet a lot of interesting and smart people.

Speaking of parties, the Litblog Coop is hosting a casual hangout at the historic Kettle of Fish in Greenwich Village, on Thursday night from 8 to 11. Whether you're attending Book Expo or not, please come down on Thursday night and say hi if you can.

2007 has been a controversial and somewhat crazy year so far for the book biz. Bonfires are being lit, innovative publishers are closing up shop, newspaper book critics are being fired, bloggers are getting more and more uppity by the minute. And every once in a while this dysfunctional industry even manages to turn out a fresh and important new work. The 2007 gathering may turn out to be the most lively Book Expo of all time. And people in glass buildings shouldn't throw stones, so I'm going to try to keep my expectations in check, enjoy myself and hopefully learn a few things I didn't know.

William Low’s Old Penn Station

by Levi Asher on Friday, May 11, 2007 07:11 am

I wonder how many people who walk through New York City's Pennsylvania Station every day know that this was once one of the most beautiful and famous train stations in the world?

The cavernous beaux-arts building, clad in stone, steel and glass, was demolished in 1964 to make room for a plain modernist complex including an underground train station, a skyscraper and Madison Square Garden. The travesty of this loss is the subject of a heartfelt children's book, Old Penn Station, written and illustrated by William Low. The author's lush and warm paintings pay tribute to the lost architectural masterpiece by imagining them back into being. I got a chance to ask William a few questions about Old Penn Station recently.

Have you gotten a good response to this book? Are you surprised by any of the reactions?

I've had a terrific response to the book, especially with the artwork. The book took over three years to complete, so I am naturally proud of the way that it came out. However, I am surprised by the emotional response to the book. The building was torn down forty years ago and yet the outpouring of sadness and anger continues to amaze me.

Do you think this book appeals differently to New Yorkers and non- New Yorkers?

At first, I'd say yes, especially if the reader is a New Yorker who remembers the original Penn Station or has visited its crowded, underground replacement. For non-New Yorkers, I hope that the art will draw them into the story.

But I hope that this book will not be perceived as a New York book, because Penn Station really is a symbol of a broader change in America. Many believe that the destruction of Penn Station was in part, a result of changing times and attitudes during the 50's and 60's. During this age of the suburban house, many cities suffered when its middle-class residents moved out of the city. Long distance rail travel also suffered when travel by plane became affordable. This had a direct effect on cities and railroad terminals on a national scale.

What words would you use to describe the architectural vision of the old Penn Station? (note: I know you describe it in "kid-speak" in the book, but how would you describe the visual/artistic appeal in "grownup-speak"?

Grandeur comes to mind. That's something that adults can understand. But my focus is really on the child's perspective, and I would imagine that the station must have been an imposing, scary place because of its size. Converting this massive architectural space into a kid friendly place was tricky ... and I decided to focus on light and the effects of the changing light instead, to make it less imposing, more magical.

Are you a "train freak"? Do you find that trains and train stations have always been a big part of your sensibility, or is it just that there is something special about Penn Station?

My father had a Chinese hand laundry in the Bronx next to the elevated number 6 Pelham train. I used to sit for hours by the front of the store reading comics, drawing and watching the train go by. I guess that makes me a "train freak." When I was in high school, I had a part time job in a store in Grand Central Terminal and I fell in love with this space.

This was during the mid-70's, when the homeless slept in the Terminal's waiting room and it was a pretty scary place at night. The financially strapped Penn Central Railroad wanted to overturn the Terminal's Landmark status, to clear the way for its development and possible demolition. Protestors (including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) stopped traffic on Park Avenue South, determined to save Grand Central Terminal from the fate of Penn Station. That was the first time that I heard about this station and upon further research, I rediscovered the original Pennsylvania Station and my heart was broken by its loss.

Do you think the proposed relocation of Penn Station in the Farley Post Office across the street will be a success? Are you excited about it, or do you have mixed feelings about this attempt to replace what was lost?

I have mixed feelings about this project for a number of reasons. I don't know if the new station will ever be built, given the cost and size of the project. Of course, I welcome any change and I would even tolerate the inconvenience during this new construction. But the Farley Bulding is on Eighth Avenue; the station will go further west. That extra block makes a big difference in terms of accessibility, convenience and ease of use.

What are some of your favorite works of classical architecture in New York City that have not been torn down?

Grand Central Terminal is at the top of the list. I just love the restoration and the attention to detail. As a Long Island commuter, I am jealous that we do not get to pass by this incredible station on a daily basis.

What are some of your favorite train stations in cities other than New York?

I've been to the magnificent Amtrak station in Philadelphia and the Union Station in Washington D.C. is also terrific. One day, I'd love to visit the large train stations in Europe.

You can see more of William Low's work at his website. You may recognize his richly expressive painting style if you've ever seen the classic Penguin paperback series of John Steinbeck novels for which he once painted a series of evocative and memorable covers.

But it's his own city that brings out this author's deepest convictions, and Old Penn Station stands as a personal statement about the importance of great public artwork for young growing minds. William Low will be signing copies of this book at Books of Wonder in New York City on Saturday, May 19 (information can be found on on the store's website).

PEN World Voices: Saturday Night Spoken Word

by Levi Asher on Sunday, April 29, 2007 09:46 am

Saturday night at the Bowery Ballroom brings another sell-out PEN World Voices crowd, this time in a party mood. Nadine is in the house. Salman is in the house. Anne Waldman is in the house too, and slam poet Gary Mex Glazner is whooping it up somewhere in the back. We're psyched for a rare appearance by playwright Sam Shepard, and we're wondering if Sam and Salman and Nadine are Saul Williams and who-knows-else are going to join headliner Patti Smith for a big "People Have The Power" singalong, which actually doesn't sound like a bad idea.

This is the same nightclub where Patti Smith does a raucous New Year's Eve show every year. But we're at a PEN reading now, so there's a two-hour time limit, and the audience is a little itchy after five days of festival cheer, so I'm not sure what to expect. A costumed comedian named Nona Appleby opens the show and bombs badly. We've already been told that this is New Yorker cartoonist Victoria Roberts in disguise (which kind of ruins the whole joke), and Nona's "weird old lady" outfit makes her look like a Dame Edna impersonator. The material is not fresh enough for this crowd, though a few members of the audience attempt to chuckle in sympathy for a few minutes until poor Ms. Appleby has the good sense to run off stage and let the poetry begin.

It gets better fast. Free-jazz musician Oliver Lake and Chinese poet Huang Xiang deliver a captivating short set of untranslated poems accompanied with blurts of saxophone and flute noise. Huang has a distinct style: he shouts, pleads, contorts, screams, or emotes every word, twisting his face into exaggerated masks of expression. I don't know what he's talking about (translations of his poems are on every chair, but the room is so dark they're impossible to read). I don't need to read the translations anyway, because primal screams are pretty much a universal language. I like this Noh-theatre-inflected style of performance poetry very much, though I'm sure it's not to every one's taste.

Mexican writer Guillermo Arriaga follows Lake and Huang with a straight reading, a scene from a novel, but I'm still tingling from Huang Xiang's set and don't find any traction here. Clearly, this night is going to be a fascinating mixed bag.

Spoken-word hero Saul Williams comes up next, decked out in a rock star jacket and sporting some odd sort of mullethawk hairstyle (Travis Bickle up top, Kim-Jong II in back). Saul proceeds to kill the crowd with a ferocious and totally on-spot performance. I've caught Williams at group events before, but this is the first time I see what all the fuss is about, and I am now a Saul Williams fan. He's angry at the government, he's angry at hiphop, he's angry at placid people everywhere. His rhymes are impeccable, his voice loud and strong. He goes on too long, but I really don't mind.

Sam Shepard doesn't do many live readings, and I'm more eager to see him than anybody else here (I've caught a couple of his plays, Curse of the Working Class and True West, and have always liked his sinewy, minimalist approach to drama). He comes up to the mic, tall and rangy and plain-spoken, and begins reading quietly from his Motel Chronicles, not attempting to compete with Saul Williams' previous theatrics. The crowd is with him, eagerly applauding prose selections that hint at social satire and political disaffection. His style is all masculine reserve (remember, this is the guy who played Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff) and zen cool. He doesn't wow anybody, but Sam Shepard has never been a "wow" kind of personality. It's simply good to hear his words in his own voice.

Patti Smith is the big closer this night needs, but she looks surprisingly subdued and reserved as she hits the stage. Now, let me make it clear that Patti Smith has done enough amazing things in her career that she can do any kind of show she wants and I'm not going to criticize her for it. I also know that she's not a performing monkey and can't reach the heights of exstatis every night. But, I am very disappointed that she chooses not to bless this audience with the kind of performance I've seen her deliver many times before. Where's the laughing warmth, the climaxes upon climaxes, the sense of risk and adventure? She starts with "Dylan's Dog" (dedicated to her former live-in lover Sam Shepard, who she says told her to write down the dream that became this poem), then follows with another great oldie, "Piss Factory". She complains that the mic stands aren't the kind she likes, offers a short intro to a long poem about the Iraq War, and then finally picks up her acoustic guitar and sings a song about William Blake. It's nice, it's poetry, but I was hoping for some major punk-rock tension and release (and, honestly, I was hoping to see Lenny Kaye join her on guitar). I leave disappointed, because this is the first time I've ever seen Patti Smith turn in only half a performance. Maybe she thought a PEN poetry crowd wouldn't want or couldn't handle the Full Patti, but if so she's wrong.

I head home, facing up to the fact that I am too exhausted to go to the PEN event I was hoping to attend on Sunday, featuring David Grossman and Nadine Gordimer (who never got to sing along with "People Have The Power"). Saturday night was a good show, but overall it was a GREAT festival. Let me sum up as simply as I can: major, major props for Caro LLewellyn, Francine Prose, Salman Rushdie and all the other good people who organized this amazing series of events. PEN World Voices is absolutely *not* just another literary show-and-tell to fill up the readings calendar. It's one of the most comprehensive and progressive happenings I've ever witnessed, and I've witnessed a lot. I'm already looking forward to 2008.

PEN World Voices: The Africa Track

by Levi Asher on Saturday, April 28, 2007 07:33 am

Devoting my PEN World Voices Friday to modern African literature, I grab a seat at the Instituto Cervantes near the United Nations where Dedi Felman is moderating a panel of four diverse writers representing Algeria, Nigeria, Cote D'Ivorie and Zanzibar. There's a good crowd of fifty or so eager listeners, and many of us feel confused when the panelists enter and a male writer occupies the seat behind the name plate for Yasmina Khadra. Introducing each writer, Dedi Felman explains that Khadra's real name is Mohammeed Moulessehoul but that he was able to avoid censorship during his country's civil war by writing under a woman's name.

Khadra then immediately catches the crowd's interest by declaring that he does not agree with the basic premise of the panel, because, he says, he spent his life trying to rise above the perceived limitations of being "an African writer", only to find that he is now "stuck back in Africa". He states that this type of categorization amounts to "intellectually subcontracting". Since we're only about two minutes into the panel at this point, it's clear that Yasmina Khadra is here to make his presence felt.

As the panel progresses, in fact, it becomes more generally clear that Yasmina Khadra has got an attitude a mile wide. But I don't mind, since these festival panels often suffer from over-politeness, and it happens that Khadra is capable of delivering eloquent, poetic answers to questions about the concept of home, about language, about the importance of place (though he has to scoff at each question first). By the end of the event, Khadra reveals that it's not this panel but the American war in Iraq that makes him angry. He succeeds in making a very positive impression on the crowd, and I'm going to read his The Swallows of Kabul (I am worried, though, that he's going to beat up a cabdriver or a waiter before the night is over).

American-born Nigerian Uzodinma Iweala, author of the acclaimed Beasts of No Nation, is as placid as Khadra is rude, speaking of his unique use of "pidgin English" in his work, and reading from a new work in progress (directly from his laptop computer) that will prove, he hopes, that he is capable of writing about something other than child soldiers.

Abdulrazak Gurnah, born in Zanzibar and currently living in England, is soft-spoken and thoughtful and doesn't mind trying to speculate about how Africa's unique history and frequent civil turmoil affects its literary identity.

Young graphic novelist Marguerite Abouet has a warm and unpretentious style, and she begins her self-introduction by marvelling at the fact that she is here on this panel when only two years ago she was living an obscure life as a legal assistant. Her Aya is yet another book I'm looking forward to checking out.

I race out of the Instituto Cervantes to get to the Donnell Library where Dave Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng are speaking about their book What Is The What, which Eggers composed from Deng's experiences in Sudan. Obviously unaware of Eggers' star power (or is it Deng's?), I'm surprised to find a nearly hysterical crowd scene outside the library as non-ticket-holders jockey for standing-room positions. I can't generalize about all the events in this festival, but every one I've been to has been surprisingly well-attended.

The Eggers/Deng presentation gets off to an exciting start when Valentino Achak Deng proudly announces his news: he became a citizen of the United States of America just yesterday. He shows the crowd his new certificate of citizenship (to happy applause) and quizzes us with the questions he was asked, like "When was the Constitution written?" (most in the crowd say "1776", I try "1789", but Deng informs us it was 1787).

Unfortunately, though, it's all downhill after this exciting beginning, because Eggers and Deng seem a bit tired of their ongoing road show, and fail to light any literary sparks. The problem here is structural: Dave Eggers is playing the role of moderator, prodding Deng to tell stories, but it's clear that Eggers already knows the answer to every question he's asking (e.g., Eggers asks "Was it hard to leave any of your family members behind in Sudan?" so that Deng can tell the story of how it was hard to leave his family members behind in Sudan). Like the Beatles in 1970, this team needs to be broken up, and I have no doubt that either Dave Eggers or Valentino Achak Deng could do a better presentation on his own than they are currently capable of doing together.

Moderate complaints aside, my Friday sessions at PEN World Voices leave me feeling excited about the state of African literature and eager to read every one of these writers more. Based on the evidence presented today, contemporary African literature is thriving, and there's a lot I want to dig more deeply into.

My festival-going today will include a rare appearance by Patti Smith and Sam Shepard together at the Bowery Ballroom (the fact that Smith and Shepard are not only former artistic partners-in-crime but also former lovers may provide some extra chemistry at this event). I'll certainly be writing a report on this tomorrow.

PEN World Voices: Words Without Borders at Columbia University

by Levi Asher on Friday, April 27, 2007 11:10 am

Thursday at PEN World Voices brings me uptown to Columbia University, which I don't visit often enough, to catch a variety of international writers associated with Words Without Borders or the new Words Without Borders anthology. There's a nice turnout and a feeling of excitement in the room, because the combination of diverse talents and histories represented by the writers sitting patiently in the front row is truly something special.

After a quick Russian-doll-like unpacking of introductions (Esther Allen introduces Dedi Felman who introduces Margo Jefferson) we hear Marilynne Robinson recite Children of the Sky, a dreamily tragic prose poem by Seno Gumira Ajidarma of Indonesia. This contrasts nicely with the irreverent next piece, an excerpt from Revulsion by Horacio Castellanos Moya of El Salvador in which a couple of citizens critique their nation's grand monuments (one of which looks like a giant urinal).

I'm not sure of the title of Haitian author Dany Laferriere's story, which he reads in a deep gravelly rumble (he finally gives up on his attempt to read in English, and Dedi Felman gamely joins him to complete the reading). We then travel to China, where the esteemed Ma Jian and his interpreter treat us to a Where Are You Running To?, first in Chinese and then in English (interestingly, as his interpreter notes, the English version of the same piece somehow adds up to a much longer text). I'm intrigued enough by this piece, and by Ma Jian's soulful countenance, that I can't help buying a copy of his book Stick Out Your Tongue (I'll let you know how I like it later). I'm also intrigued by Jian's comment that he did not know, until he arrived in America, that there was such a thing as a "live reading" in which an author recites from his or her own work. The concept, he says, does not exist among Chinese writers.

The globe-trotting continues as Heidi Julavits presents a very affecting and lyrical piece, Vietnam. Thursday. by Johan Harstad of Norway, followed by a performance of the first few pages of African Psycho by Alain Mabanckou (who I also enjoyed hearing at the Town Hall event yesterday). I'm not sure how to place this powerful and sinister novel (about a wannabe serial murderer who idolizes a more famous murderer who once terrorized his city) in the context of African literature, but I catch top and bottom notes of Camus, Dostoevsky and Edgar Allen Poe in these clever words. I get a chance to chat with Mabanckou after the event, and I ask if he's aware of Bret Easton Ellis's similarly-titled American Psycho. Mabanckou smiles conspiratorially and says that, yes, he is fully aware of both the book and the movie.

Indonesia to El Salvador to Haiti to China to Norway to Congo-Brazzaville -- not bad for an hour and a half! You can't help but feel enriched after an event like this.


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