New York City
I have been a McEwan fan since reading his Atonement, but I had no idea how popular he was until I found myself at the very back of a crowded room where at least 150 New Yorkers, mostly eclectically-dressed Hunter College students, sat and listened attentively to the author's every word.
He picked a great passage for this crowd: a sex scene in separate male and female voices featuring a British couple on their wedding night. It's 1962 and both Edward and Florence are nervous virgins. They struggle to get their clothes off, and then finally reach a small sensual epiphany together, even if it's not exactly sex. McEwan first presents her side of the story, then his. Their private metaphors cross and complement each other: as they caress each other she hears Mozart quartets, while he has a vision of farming equipment.
The audience loved the piece, and I enjoyed it too. McEwan answered a few questions after the reading, and mentioned that the nuclear crisis of October 1962 was an underlying theme in the sex scene with Florence and Edward. He also spoke of Atonement's upcoming film interpretation, which will star Keira Knightley and James McAvoy. He mentioned that filming was finished, and said that he'd found his participation difficult because the medium of film does not capture the interior worlds of its characters as easily as fiction.
This was the first time I'd seen McEwan in person, and he made a very good impression on me. His demeanor is polite, detached and rather coolly droll, as when he answered a student's long, convoluted question about the process of writing about sex in literary fiction with a single sentence: "Well, there are many positions to take". That was McEwan's whole answer, and a pretty clever one at that.
2. I have a feeling I'll be talking about Sam Savage's wonderful first novel Firmin a lot here too. This fable about a bookstore rat is the Litblog Co-op's new READ THIS! selection, and it's a damn good choice. I love this book. It's a much shorter and looser read than Richard Powers' brainy Echo Maker, and I recommend that you consume both in combination: Echo Maker for dinner, Firmin for dessert.
3. Richard Ford has a new book out too, The Lay of the Land, his third novel about a ponderous adult male named Frank Bascombe. I've read The Sportswriter, the first novel in this series, and I tried to love it but ended up struggling to turn the pages. Ford's an undoubtedly smart and confident novelist, but his style is a bit dry and plain for my tastes. I may give him another shot with this new one, though.
4. I'm not impressed with Stephen Metcalf's Charles Frazier-bashing at Slate. I started the new book and didn't love the first two pages, but I liked Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain enough to know that this author wouldn't serve us up a complete turkey for a follow-up. I'm also guessing that Metcalf wouldn't have massacred a good writer like Frazier if Frazier hadn't famously gotten paid a lot of money for this book, and I don't think that's fair. This topic will have to wait too -- I've got to finish a couple other books before I'll have time to get back to the new Frazier. But I'll let you know what happens once I do.
5. I interviewed Poe Shadow and Dante Club author Matthew Pearl here a couple of months ago, and I'm now looking forward to meeting him in person at a special Poe-themed event at New York University tonight (Tuesday, October 17). Pearl will be sharing the stage with Louis Bayard, author of Pale Blue Eyes.
Gotham Book Mart is (I still hope for the best and I can't say "was") a masterpiece of a bookstore. Rare first editions gleam like Tiffany diamonds in its front window, photos of Jazz Age literati line its walls, the staff is warm and friendly, and the book selection is everything you'd hope it would be. Gotham Book Mart has run its own publishing imprint, and they published Patti Smith back before she became a rock and roll star. May this great store reopen soon, and may wise men and women fish here forever ...
Coliseum Books is another NYC institution with its own enthusiastic supporters, but I've got nothing but gripes with this bookstore. Here's the biggest one: they shrink-wrapped their books. I have no idea why they did this -- perhaps they were losing a certain amount of inventory to grubby-fingered candy-bar eaters? But other bookstores manage to survive without wrapping their books in plastic, and this inexplicable practice made it no fun at all to visit Coliseum, despite their excellent selection.
My second Coliseum gripe has to do with an eminence of downtown alternative poetry, Ron Kolm, the long-time manager of the store (I don't know if he worked there recently or not). Kolm was a leader of the poetry group "The Unbearables", and back when I was a fledgling NY poet desparate for attention (before LitKicks took off and my need for attention became saturated) I used to chat with Ron at poetry readings and I thought we were tight until one day I asked him if I could hang up a poster for a gathering of web-based poets on the store's bulletin board. Apparently Kolm had a major attitude problem regarding the concept of poetry on the web, and he handed me back my poster with an expression on his face that said "take your trash elsewhere, internet boy".
Gotham Book Mart, on the other hand, always let me hang posters on their bulletin boards, and were always very nice about it.
One thing dies, another is born. Coliseum Books' final resting place is right across the street from the New York Public Library, where an enthusiastic Director of Public Programs named Paul Holdengraber is knocking himself out to promote a great ongoing series of live events, Live From The NYPL. You gotta love this guy's energy level. I've been to several events there already, including a very fun evening with The Moth last Friday night. The Moth is a "storytelling" group -- every reader gets ten minutes, the stories are supposedly true, and a very talented violin player interrupts you with a fiddle solo if you dare to overstep your time.
Friday night's Moth event featured the hilarious Jonathan Ames as well as a special appearance by journalist Carl Bernstein, who told a quick anecdote about a race horse named Carl Bernstein before launching into an even better anecdote about his days as a newspaper copy boy. Bernstein's old partner Bob Woodward is still raking muck in Washington D.C. these days, but I think it's cool that Carl would rather spend his Friday night chilling with a bunch of storytellers in a library.
One thing is born, another dies. I hate the idea of losing the Gotham Book Mart (and I still can't believe it won't be rescued -- somebody, please) ... but the saddest loss of all for New York City is CBGB's, the wonderful, wonderful punk club at the corner of Bleecker and Bowery in the East Village that is closing this month. I'm not going to bother spouting cliches about the birthplace of punk rock, but I would like to point out that one of the most beautiful sights in New York City is the silver awning of this humble club at the butt end of Bleecker Street.
Future generations will be denied this vision, but I'm sure CBGB's will be remembered and memorialized, and the timing couldn't be better for a new art book called CBGB: Decades of Graffiti by Christopher D. Salyers with an introduction by Richard Hell. Check out some of these great photos (of course, if you were browsing this book at Coliseum Books you wouldn't be able to, because it would be shrink-wrapped in plastic).
One final New York City note: LET'S GO MOTHERFUCKING METS!!! I swear Jose Reyes is the second coming of Len Dykstra, and that's a good thing. What a series, what a series ... I'll be at game two of the National League Championship Series this Thursday night with my kids. Look for us on TV when the camera scans the cheap seats -- we'll be the ones wearing black, orange and blue.
And, Katharine Weber, author of the superb novel Triangle, held down the evening's anchor spot with a stunning rendition of the last pages of Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun. Weber is a powerful reader, and the large crowd at the bookstore was ready to storm some barricades and find some walls to tear down by the time she slammed the Trumbo book shut. But this was Soho, so we had wine and cheese instead. This was an inspiring event, and a damn good idea.
2. The supersonically satiric George Saunders has won a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant. Once again, moans of "why not me" are now rising into the nighttime sky of Park Slope, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill and Brooklyn Heights. (By the way, why the hell not me?).
The Macarthur Grant is an unusual prize in that one cannot apply for it. One is simply "chosen", which lends the award a certain aura of majestic inevitability. Our opinion on Saunders' apotheosis? Well, Genius is a big word, but Saunders is just original enough to make the cut. If I could award this prize to anybody, Nicholson Baker would be living large very soon.
3. Lev Grossman and Ed Champion are finally duking it out on the back page of this week's Time Magazine. I'm happy to say I know both men (though I haven't run into Lev for years) and it happens they're really just two swell guys.
4. Jeff has joined the one album club! Are you next?
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.