New York City
I'm psyched to hear from Borough President Marty Markowitz that the festival will be a two-day affair next year. But I also feel ambivalent about the increasing use of Brooklyn as a catch-all literary symbol of some kind of "character" or mystique. I live in Queens, but my family's roots in Brooklyn go back at least 150 years, so I feel I have some right to complain just a little bit when writers show up in Brooklyn and immediately start jumping the shark.
For instance, Paul Auster is truly a great modern author, but his two best works (New York Trilogy and Moon Palace) are set in Upper West Manhattan. Then Auster (a New Jerseyite) moves to Brooklyn and suddenly he goes all mushy and starts turning out awful stuff like the screenplays for Smoke and Blue in the Face, two films which in my opinion capture the meaning of the phrase "cute overload" better than all the kitten photos on the internet put together. These films were so bad, they made Harvey Keitel look lame, and that's not easy to do. I'm deeply embarrassed that Brooklyn takes the blame for this kind of stuff, and I just want to point out again that the guy is from Jersey.
Then there's Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn, an alleged mystery that tries to glide by on smooth Brooklyn mystique just as Paul Auster's two bad screenplays tried to glide by on cozy Brooklyn charm. These works fail to realize that a good work of art can't get by on just Brooklyn. It's got to have something else, like a plot, or memorable characters, or good jokes. At least that's what I think -- the world is full of Lethem fans, and some people even liked Smoke, so what the hell do I know, right?
Just as I hate mediocre works that take the borough in vain, I love the breakthrough works that get it right, like Spike Lee's brilliant and beautiful She's Gotta Have It (just think of that scene where Fort Greene Park bursts into color) or his Do The Right Thing, or Jackie Gleason's Honeymooners. Neil Diamond, Jay-Z, The Cosby Show, Barbra Streisand, Welcome Back Kotter. Did you know that Bugs Bunny was born in Brooklyn? (Just watch the episode where he tells his life story).
In the end, what is Brooklyn? Like Queens and the Bronx and Staten Island, the outer boroughs are where the service industry lived, and still lives. Plumbers, cab drivers, teachers, factory workers, receptionists, tailors, fry cooks, executive assistants -- it's this economic sector that makes Brooklyn Brooklyn. If you come out to visit Brooklyn, here's what you're going to find: a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot of apartment buildings. That's really what Brooklyn amounts to, in the end. It's residential through and through. Brooklyn doesn't have "character" -- it has a few million characters. Some of these characters don't even live near a Starbucks.
Enough of my noise about this. Congrats to Marty Markowitz, Johnny Temple and everybody else who worked to make the Brooklyn Book Festival such a promising start. I have a feeling next year will be even better.
Here's something everybody in Brooklyn (and Queens) can agree on: the New York Mets clinched at Shea Stadium tonight, for only the fifth time in the team's history (there was 1969, 1973, 1986 and 1988; they rode a wild card to the World Series in 2000), and it's a very happy night for all of 718. Yankers, bring it on.
2. I like Ed Champion's description of Katie Couric's unfortunate new blog, which he says reads like "a chipmunk on methadone". The first entry really is that bad. Listen:
"Okay, I've been waiting to exhale for some time now...and I finally have!!! Last night was my one week anniversary...and the good news is, I'm still employed! (I think) I've had no problem sleeping in until 7 every morning ... and I'm really really enjoying my new gig."
Katie, Katie, Katie. MySpace is down the block. This is the blogosphere, where people are actually smart and write well. We're happy to have you here, but please cut the triple-exclamation points, okay?!?!?! You can talk like a normal person here -- really, just try it.
3. Conversational Reading, which has an appealing habit of delivering one in-depth column every friday, offers some thoughts on Nicholson Baker's classic Room Temperature today.
4. CBS's Survivor always tags the professions of its participants, and for the second year in a row one of the cast members is billed as a writer. But unlike last year's Austin Carty, who turned out to be a decent player though a highly unproven author, this year's Jonathan Penner has a Hollywood background and a resume that includes writing and acting stints on many TV shows including Seinfeld and some film festival awards. Note, to anyone who's wondering: Jonathan is one of the whiteys.
Novelist Jonathan Lethem interviews Bob Dylan in the latest Rolling Stone, but it's a mediocre and attenuated effort. Bob Dylan is a great bullshitter who can spin out long sequences of nonsense and make it all sound important; this is the game he's played in a long career of interviews. A good Dylan interviewer must anticipate this and aim to get past Dylan's basic bag of tricks, but Lethem's interview (erroneously billed as "an intimate conversation") simply solicits familiar stock answers from the old guy and goes no further than that. It's a disappointingly short piece, and I wish Lethem had reached harder and asked some more unusual questions.
2. Some live events coming up in the New York City area: Ted Pelton, author of Malcolm and Jack, will be reading at Night and Day in Brooklyn on September 7 at 7 pm. A large contingent of writers concerned about the wars in the Middle East, including Diana Abu-Jaber, Edith Chevat, Robb Forman Dew, Masha Hamilton, Binnie Kirshenbaum, Bernie McFadden, Jim Sheperd, Joan Silber, Leora Skolkin-Smith and Katharine Weber, will be gathering at McNally Robinson Booksellers at 50 Prince Street on September 18th on behalf of Seeds of Peace (info here). Finally, USA Poet Laureate Donald Hall will be performing Sept 19 at City University of New York.
3. Goodbye to The Beiderbecke Affair, a worthy and well-illustrated blog that's published its last post.
1. Sander Hicks, my favorite political rabble-rouser and coffeeshop proprietor, has launched a new print -- yes, print -- muckraking publication with the appealing title of The New York Megaphone. Last I heard, Sander was running for Governor of New York, and then he was running for Senator. He might not win either, but I won't fault a guy for trying. Once again, go Sander!
2. Some people have let me know that I should clamp down on poets who over-post to our Action Poetry page, but I like what Nasdijj is doing with his SEXWORK series too much to be the bad cop. In fact, I like everything that's been posted on this forum recently very much -- am I wrong or is Action Poetry on a major roll lately? If I were slightly more insane, I'd start thinking about another book. First, I've got to take a few more vacations.
3. According to Syntax of Things, the much-wondered-about new film of Bukowski's Factotum may actually exist, and might even hit theatres sometime this millenium.
4. I missed the chance to beat up on Lev Grossman's Time Magazine article, "Who's The Voice of This Generation?". I guess there's little point to doing so now, as several other people have already handled this task. But I must wonder: why do people write articles like this? Why, why, why? Generations are not real things.
4. I'm not the type who gets my picture taken at chic art gallery openings, but I did turn up at the Jen Bekman Gallery where a series of artworks inspired by Frank O'Hara's Meditations in an Emergency are on display. I'm the big lug in the khaki shirt in this photo.
5. I'm going to try to catch Cynthia Ozick, whose visage I have never apprehended within the plane of reality, Wednesday at 7 pm at the Barnes and Noble on 86th Street. I'll be sure to file a report if I get there.
In fact, I gave Lethem's open letter to Frank Gehry a fair read -- and I disagree with him, not automatically but completely nonetheless. He is concerned about a loud, ambitious new real estate project designed to change the landscape of downtown Brooklyn. Lethem thinks it's a bad idea and wants the acclaimed architect to pull out. Not in my backyard, huh, Lethem?
Brooklyn was never designed to be a quiet paradise for millionaires, which is what the neighborhoods that surround downtown Brooklyn are now. Brooklyn is a city, and skyscrapers are what happens to cities. We can only hope that the skyscrapers turn out to be good ones, and since Frank Gehry happens to be the most exciting architect in the world (the amazing Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain is his signature work) I think this new project might turn out quite well. The fact that it includes a major sports arena won't hurt Brooklyn's pride (or it's economy) either.
Until just over a century ago, Brooklyn was a separate city from New York (the five boroughs of New York City did not combine until 1898). Downtown Brooklyn was once a top commercial and social center with its own daily newspapers, its own theatre district, its own baseball team. It competed for business and attention (and usually lost) with "New York", which was the name of the larger city across the river, at the lower tip of Manhattan Island. Midtown Manhattan gradually began to supplant lower Manhattan as the center of the New York metropolis, and as the city's commercial core shifted north away from the bay and the harbors, Brooklyn faded from predominance. Downtown Brooklyn has since struggled to find its identity: as a site for cheap warehouse and factory space, a strip mall of government buildings and cheap clothing stores, a locale for Spike Lee movies. The homey neighborhoods around the downtown streets, meanwhile, have become wealthier and wealthier as Manhattan commuters continue to convert former slums into expensive co-ops.
My grandparents and parents were raised in Flatbush, Stuyvesant, Borough Park. Ironically, I live in Rego Park, Queens now. I can't afford to live in Brooklyn, unlike Jonathan Lethem (but then I didn't win a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant, did I?). I go down to Montague Street and Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Heights Promenade all the time, though, and I'd like to live there if I could. I wouldn't mind a big Frank Gehry building as a neighbor either.
I somehow think the precious rows of brownstones that Jonathan Lethem loves so dearly -- with their quaint names like Pineapple Street and Pierrepont Street and their flower gardens and cozy corner cafes and their $2,000,000 plus price tags -- will survive Frank Gehry too. The project is designed to increase Brooklyn's visibility as a destination and a commercial core, rather than a residential suburb of Manhattan. We should not support this blindly -- but we should not reject it blindly either.
Lethem's article (which is not badly written -- I like phrases like "a gang of 16 towers") lists seven points against the continuation of the Frank Gehry/Bruce Ratner project, which I would like to briefly address, one by one.
1. Okay, so one of the buildings will be really big. Again, that's what skyscrapers generally are. That's sort of the whole idea.
2. I'm not convinced there's a smoking gun here. So the Ratner firm printed up some cheezy brochures. They are in the real estate business, after all. Brochures aren't usually expected to uphold high editorial standards.
3. MetroTech is just fine.
4. "What's saddest is how this lousy proposal exploits Brooklyn's residual low self-esteem, its hangover of inferiority. Does anyone doubt that in Manhattan such a thing would be shot down in a hot minute?" Umm ... again, Frank Gehry is the most original architect in the world. Lethem points to mockups and design projections that make the building look shoddy, but it seems these specific illustrations were chosen to serve that purpose. I challenge Jonathan Lethem to look into Frank Gehry's catalog and find examples of buildings Gehry has done that have not improved their surroundings.
5. Okay, I'll give Lethem that one. Eminent domain does not sound fair. However, this has always been a necessary part of urban planning.
6. Oh my god, whatever! We all love the Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower, Jonathan. The tower will be just fine with its new neighbor. Maybe they will even play together.
7. It figures that Lethem disses one of my favorite movies, Renaldo and Clara. What can I say? I just don't see eye to eye with this guy on anything.
At least Lethem's article keeps a lively pace and stakes a strong opinion. I think it's a better read than The Fortress of Solitude.
I don't usually feel awestruck when I hear a famous writer speak. But I'll make an exception for John Updike, who faced a packed house at the Celeste Bartos Forum in the New York Public Library on Thursday night, because I have enjoyed so many of his books for so long, and because I've never had the chance to see this author in person before.
He saunters onstage to mild applause, slender and now thoroughly white-haired, but thankfully not wearing the bright white shirt he was recently seen with in San Francisco. He's here to talk about Terrorist, a new novel that examines the inner world of a teenage Islamic terrorist-in-training in a depressed New Jersey city. The evening's moderator is Jeffrey Goldberg, a political correspondent for the New Yorker, who begins by pointing out that Terrorist is one of the most political novels of Updike's career. He asks the author to tell us about his experience on the morning of September 11, 2001, which he spent on the roof of his son's Brooklyn Heights apartment watching the twin towers burn and fall.
So, I'm now too exhausted to post anything literary, but here are a couple of cellphone photos. I have no idea why Abby is eating the bag of Cracker Jacks instead of the contents. And that's the Cowbell Man, a local legend, in the last photo.
I'm not sure why I like reading Jay McInerney. He's a moderately popular novelist with a shallow intellectual range and a level-headed narrative tone, and yet I felt inexplicably excited to read his new The Good Life, which is about two married Manhattan couples before and after September 11, 2001. As I waded through the first chapters I wasn't sure why I was reading it at all.
Most novels are about people with big problems, but a typical Jay McInerney character has far less problems than, say, me. The Good Life is about four New Yorkers with fabulous careers, trendy hobbies and great real estate. One couple has a treasured Tribeca loft and expects Salman Rushdie for dinner (he's a no-show), and that's the less wealthy pair. The display of vapid values, famous names and expensive logos in the first few chapters is almost over the top, and I nearly tossed the book aside in a pique of Marxist disgust at that point. But I decided to stick around, to see where Jay was going with all this.
In fact, McInerney knows how to engineer a story, and it was clear that these early displays of jaded prosperity were a setup for the obvious pivot. It's September 10 2001, and a character steps out of a cab:
"... pausing to look up at the huge monoliths looming above her ..."
Tribeca is only blocks away from the World Trade Center, and this neighborhood has been McInerney's literary backyard since the young magazine yuppies of Bright Lights Big City snorted coke in the bathroom at Odeon. Now his characters are older and attending more sophisticated parties, and we leave one of them off at the dregs of an awful society ball on the evening of September 10. Then it's September 12, and the same man wakes up outside, injured and caked in dust, desperately trying to dig a dead friend out of a mountain of burning rubble.
This is Luke, once an investment banker. He begins volunteering at a ground zero food relief station, along with Corinne, a modern downtown mother living inside a poundingly dull marital tableau. Luke and Corinne need each other, they fall together, and in the last few pages they blast back apart.
The ending is powerful, and justifies many flaws in the lazier pages that precede it. Overall, I enjoyed reading the book, but I am far from sure if it has what a book needs to be read by future generations or not. The writing is sometimes witty but never brilliant, and as always Jay McInerney's literary influences seem to range all the way from Hemingway to Fitzgerald. A Good Life feels much of the time like a good article in a toney magazine. That's what I didn't like.
What I did like is the quiet conviction and honesty of the story, and the humanity McInerney invests in his characters. It's hard to believe McInerney every wrote a book about yuppie coke fiends, because these characters are all paragons of responsibility and maturity (or three of the four main characters are, anyway, and the fourth, Luke's rich bimbo wife, shows up mostly as a comic foil for the other three).
I also liked the truths revealed at the sad but uncertain ending. I was expecting a happier resolution, but I'd forgotten that McInerney's favorite book is The Great Gatsby. Two boats against the current; two buildings down. A Good Life doesn't fully justify itself until the ending of the love affair, which reveals itself as both surprising and inevitable.
Some other opinions on this book can be found here, here and here.
Don DeLillo has written a movie about baseball, Game Six, which is strange for several reasons.
First, DeLillo is a novelist, not a screenwriter, and he's not a particularly accessible novelist at that. He's known for taut, bone-clean postmodern prose about helpless, well-meaning adults facing the fear and anxiety of modern life. He sometimes brings in real-life characters like Lee Harvey Oswald or Chairman Mao, and he sometimes tilts the story towards the surreal, a la Harold Pinter, just to keep us guessing. His stories always maintain a hard, cold surface, never fully allowing the reader inside, and rarely delivering climactic moments. How this was going to translate into a baseball flick seemed not at all clear.
Game Six stars Michael Keaton as a nervous but brash playwright who loves the Boston Red Sox. He's feeling a bit nervous because his new play is opening on Broadway the same night the Red Sox face the New York Mets in the sixth game of the 1986 World Series. Keaton's character seems to enjoy life, though he's struggling to juggle a vivacious girlfriend (Bebe Neuwirth), a moody teenage daughter and a bitter soon-to-be ex-wife. He takes solace in his hopes for a Red Sox World Series victory (not knowing, of course, that the Red Sox are about to lose badly in one of the most suspenseful baseball games of all time) and he frets over the possibility that a hip new drama critic played by Robert Downey Jr. will savage his new play.