New York City
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.
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.)
An NPR review by Jessa Crispin alerted me that a book I'd been awaiting with some dread is now published.
Janet Malcolm's Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial is about the trial of Mazoltuv Borukhova, a young woman who arranged the murder of her ex-husband Daniel Malakov, a young orthodontist in Queens, New York, in an attempt to gain full custody of their 4-year-old daughter. The reason I've been awaiting this book with some dread is that, a couple of months before this murder, I met the victim.
This is the song that made me take Yoko One seriously as an artist, as a genius. "Don't Worry Kyoko" is a 16-minute blast of noise that appeared on John Lennon and Yoko Ono's 1972 album "Some Time In New York City". It's a musical tour de force that manufactures a primal scream, intended to represent Yoko's agony over her separation from her daughter, and it's also a howl for the Vietnam War, for a once-celebrated death penalty victim named James Hanratty, and for the plight of every human being on earth. Yoko mainly intones "Don't Worry" over and over, fast and slow, loud and soft, sometimes saying "worry, worry, worry" instead of "don't worry, don't worry", maintaining throughout a measured, controlled but near-hysterical intensity. Listening to the song can be a drenchingly emotional experience.
Yoko One has been made fun of through most of her career, and when comedians make fun of her primal scream schtick they are often making fun of "Don't Worry Kyoko". Despite the mockery, the song is a masterpiece, and it has more structure than its detractors admit. John Lennon was the co-author, after all, and John Lennon knew a bit about writing songs.
1. Scientists have discovered linguistic signals indicating that sperm whales may refer to themselves by names when they speak. Sounds like the kind of fact Herman Melville would have been interested to hear. It also makes me think of T. S. Eliot's cats with their "ineffable, deep and inscrutable singular names".
2. Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet, a tremendously popular book of philosophical poetry first published in 1923, will be adapted into a film, apparently with a series of directors contributing interpretations of separate chapters.
1. A Stanford University "Digital Humanities Specialist" named Elijah Meeks has created a series of rich visualizations based on the email archives of poet Robert Creeley. The lines describe connections and context, with frequency mapped to vicinity. We can glean interesting discoveries from the diagrams, such as the fact that the tech-savvy Black Mountain/Beat Generation's poet's BFF was clearly his fellow poet (and one-time Warhol scenester) Gerard Malagna. I wonder what the two poets emailed about so often? Anyway, before Robert Creeley died in 2005, he was kind enough to put in a few appearances on Litkicks, so it's exciting to think that a couple of emails from us must be represented in that pink jellyfish above.
The name Denys Wortman (1887-1958) doesn’t roll off the tongue or out of the memory banks quite as readily as the contemporaries with whom he was most kindred: Reginald Marsh, Art Young, Alice Neel, Thomas Hart Benton, Ben Shahn and, to some extent, Ashcan School artists John Sloan and Robert Henri (under whom he studied). Nevertheless, a new collection of his work, rescued by James Sturm and Brandon Elston from an archive of 5,100 long-neglected works, should restore his place in the pantheon of Gotham’s artists.
Denys Wortman’s New York: Portrait of the City in the 30s and 40s, edited by James Sturm and Brandon Elston, has the look and feel of a lost archeological treasure, a trove of images that genuinely re-create what it was like to live, work, dine, drink, love and hate in the nation’s most exciting city at a time when the national economy was, as it is today, in a prolonged slump. Using little more than a few lead pencils and some sketch paper — and the blacks, whites and myriad shades of gray he could coax from his lead and eraser — Wortman created nothing less than, as the book’s subtitle accurately touts, “a portrait of New York City during the 1930s and 1940s”. He was the city’s virtually unsung visual chronicler during these years in the way that, decades earlier, Eugene Atget had obscurely wandered the streets of Paris with his camera equipment to amass his now legendary photo archive. Or, closer to home, Wortman depicted in pencil drawings and cartoons what writers like Joseph Mitchell, A.J. Liebling, Max Bodenheim and Kenneth Fearing captured in words, or what Walker Evans and Berenice Abbott captured in black and white photographs.