New York City
I often hear people complain about "dirty hippies". Well, cleanliness is a virtue. But I've never understood why anybody would hate hippies. Is it that their exuberance is embarrassing? I like hippies, and I also like several writers identified with the post-Beat/hippie literary tradition of the 1960s and 1970s, many of whom are still active (or being remembered) today.
1. Johnny Depp is the star of a new film based on Hunter S. Thompson's novel of sin and excitement in Puerto Rico, The Rum Diary. Haven't seen it yet, but early indications are encouraging.
2. The late-career writings of the once-acclaimed novelist Ken Kesey were scant and unimpressive, but I recently wondered if this only indicated that Kesey had lost interest in the book format, and if there might be more substance to Kesey's later collectivist theatrical experiments than is commonly thought. Mike Egan's new book Ken Kesey and Storytelling as Collaborative Ritual asks the same question, examining group works like the play Twister with a Jungian point of a view and a fresh eye.
3. Karen Lillis has written a memoir, Bagging the Beats at Midnight, about her years as a bookseller at the endangered St. Mark's Bookshop (which remains one of the best places in New York City, and I hope it will never go away). Bagging the Beats includes chapters with titles like "Susan Sontag Wants The Manager & Richard Hell Wants the Bathroom Key".
I hung around the Occupy Wall Street protests in downtown Manhattan last week for a couple of days. Here are a few things I saw that I liked:
- a quiet meditation circle, just a few steps from noisy Broadway, where about 60 people sat in peaceful contemplation
- a great march that proceeded west on Wall Street, north on Broad Street, up to the Federal Reserve Bank, and back to Wall
- cops that were mostly friendly
- cheerful rapport between protesters and Wall Streeters at work ("join us!" "yeah, whatever")
- well-organized free food for those living in Zuccotti Park
- a vast do-it-yourself protest sign-painting operation
- a few highly active drum/dance circles and horn jams
- various informal information stations where tourists could ask questions
- an open performance spot, where a young girl sang a song and a poet read a poem
- a small group earnestly discussing techniques of non-violent resistance
The best moment for me came Friday night just after dusk, when I began hearing that a general assembly was about to take place somewhere nearby. Curious as to what exactly an #occupywallstreet general assembly would consist of, I asked around and got pointed to a spot in the middle of Zuccotti Park. There seemed to be nothing going on at this exact place, so I hopped up to sit on a wall and wait. A few minutes later a group of people who turned out to be the regular facilitators of each evening's general assembly began to gather around me. I had picked the right place to sit, and was now in the center of the action.
Soon somebody right next to me yelled "Mic check!", and a group of people milling around us yelled back "Mic check!". At this call, others began to melt into the group, and people began to sit down on the park's paved floor. Soon there were about 250 people gathered around. Four of the facilitators sitting next to me stood up and introduced themselves, and one of them explained how the communication in this large group was going to work.
I did not find myself on Wall Street by accident; I had graduated from a state university with a computer science degree six years earlier, and had taken a series of jobs that each brought me closer to the top of my field. I wasn't particularly interested in high finance, but I was ambitious for an exciting career, and the financial industry was considered the most prestigious place for a techie to work in New York City at this time. I did not find what I hoped for there. My two year adventure at JP Morgan left me deeply disappointed on many levels, and I consider myself lucky that I was able to leave the financial software marketplace for better work elsewhere (I never looked back, except sometimes in anger).
Ahh, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg! They must be the best hiphop duo of all time (or, at least, they're tied with these guys), although both rappers refuse to call themselves a duo and insist that A Tribe Called Quest has always been four people: Q-Tip the Abstract, Phife Diggy, mixmaster Ali Shaheed Muhammamed, and not-quite-into-it but real-good-buddy Jarobi, who may or may not be in the group at any time (nobody ever seems to know for sure).
The Tribe circle has also included De La Soul, Queen Latifah, Jungle Brothers, Afrika Bambataa, Charlie Brown and Busta Rhymes (who was introduced to the world on "Scenario", from Tribe's second album). It was a social movement for sure, with clear political and spiritual intent. "That's why they call it a tribe", somebody says in a superb new movie about A Tribe Called Quest, Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, which I recently caught in a New York City theater.
I was concerned, when I first heard about this film, that it might focus on dull music-industry hype or downward-spiral drama, instead of simply celebrating the sense of sheer fun and artistic freedom that this Queens hiphop outfit represented during the old-school days. I needn't have worried: director Jonathan Rapaport gets the Tribe, and gets why they called it a tribe.
1. Look at this beauty. It's a new facsimile edition of a past illustrated premium of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, known as the Splendid Edition. Oxford University Press has published it as a replica of the original object, and it's attractive enough to get me started reading the book for the first time. The first few pages present a witty tale of manners and intrigue among Southern gentleman, in a tone somewhat reminiscent of Dickens or Thackeray. Good enough to keep me reading.
2. Augusten Burroughs's beleageured mother Margaret Robison has written her own side of the Running With Scissors story, a book called The Long Journey Home.
I'm very sorry to hear that all the Borders bookstores in the world may close their doors very soon. This is not, apparently, because the book business is slowing down (Barnes and Noble and Amazon are still viable) but because of specific business decisions that turned out badly. I hope there will be a last-minute salvation, and if there's not I will certainly grieve this loss. Say what you want about massive book super-stores; they are great places to buy books, hang out and hear author readings. And we need the restrooms.
There's one Borders bookstore I specially remember, my favorite Borders in New York City, though this store closed nearly ten years ago. It was one of the flagship Borders locations in Manhattan, and it was a particularly good one because the vast building that housed it gave it the space of a barn.
This Borders had three floors -- a small one, a big one, and a very big one. The lowest, smallest floor let out on a subway/PATH train concourse, and so it held mystery and romance bestsellers, comic books, magazine racks, bubble gum, CDs and playing cards. It was good that all this stuff cluttered up the lower floor, because it freed up the first floor to be something special.
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.
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.
This is the first time and hopefully last time I'll ever review a true crime book in which I've met the victim. This unique viewing angle added a cutting edge to my reading experience, but Janet Malcolm's Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial needs no added edge; it's a crisp, tight little marvel of a courtroom drama, and a great demonstration of Malcolm's potent journalistic technique.
Janet Malcolm writes odd books with small narrative footprints, deliberately structured to deliver unexpected, even eccentric opinions. Her literary biography Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice scours the Gertrude Stein/Alice Tolkas love affair for signs of dysfunction, then examines the improbably friendly relationship the two Jewish-American women maintained with a vile French Nazi collaborator, Bernard Fay, who allowed them to remain in their idyllic French countryside home throughout the Second World War. Malcolm writes and argues with such skill and confidence that her conclusions often feel unimpeachable, though its not clear what we are supposed to do about them.
Iphigenia in Forest Hills follows a recent murder trial in central Queens, New York. A once-promising marriage between Daniel Malakov and Marina Borukhova, two attractive young ethnic New Yorkers (she a doctor, he an orthodontist, both members of the tight-knit Bukharian community in Forest Hills and Rego Park, Queens) took a wrong turn once they had a daughter. They fought over how to raise the child and caromed suddenly towards a nasty divorce and custody dispute. It got much worse when Marina accused Daniel of sexually molesting their toddler. Her accusation was highly unconvincing, a transparent effort at gaining an upper hand in the custody dispute, and a disgusted public official decided that the child should live with Daniel. Marina then hired an older family relative to shoot and kill Daniel. At the end of the trial observed in this book, both Marina and the hit-man Mikhail Mallayev are convicted and sentenced to life in jail.
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.