1. A creepy publicity stunt involving flies carrying little paper advertisements at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Doesn't this make you feel bad for the flies?
2. San Francisco Beat/hippie poet Lenore Kandel has died at the age of 77. Here's an appreciation of her work by John Yates.
3. Carl Jung's awesome visual side.
4. A detailed financial biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald. (And why not? Money was certainly among his major themes).
5. East Village poetry legend and perennial Presidential candidate Sparrow and LitKicks poet Mickey Z. are creating a poetry anthology together and they say:
Calling all feminists, wizards, Queer theorists, ex-Black Panthers, Christians, Green activists, avant-gardists, Kabbalists, vegans, Hawaiian nationalists, kickboxers, Punks, Hip Hop evangelists, New New Leftists, pink-haired emo warriors, organic gardeners -- submit your work for "The Big Book of Revolutionary Poetry," edited by Sparrow and Mickey Z. Send up to 3 poems to: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Go for it, I say.
6. Guernica Magazing is turning 5! Jonathan Ames, Howard Zinn, Katie Halper, Mia Farrow and David Byrne will be joining the party this Wednesday, October 28. Wish I could make it (but I can't).
7. The eternal philosophical battle over the real-life ethics of German intellectual Martin Heidegger goes on. Personally, I don't agonize over Heidegger's Nazi past, because I never thought much of his work. You can find the same message -- the utter immediacy of existence -- in Nietzsche or Kierkegaard or Sartre, and with a lot more finesse and humor.
8. Building a brain inside a supercomputer. And here I am just trying to get Drupal to work.
9. I recently posted about Fall 2009 books I'm looking forward to; little did I know that Orhan Pamuk and Kurt Vonnegut books were coming out too ...
10. Jeff Kinney's Wimpy Kid is rocking the cash registers. My stepdaughter reads these books and I think they're hilarious.
11. I love this, from McSweeneys: YouTube Comment, of e. e. cummings?.
12. HTMLGiant on Glimmer Train: "Winning one of their ubiquitous contests is like winning $2 on a $2 scratch ticket or a free small soda during McDonald’s Monopoly promotion." They also admit that Glitter Train was once "a decent, if not rather traditional literary magazine". I used to read them, but I don't read print literary journals much at all anymore.
13. If you've been reading my memoir, some of these events will be familiar: A History of the Internet from 1969 to Today.
14. Speaking of bygone times, one-time high-rolling community website GeoCities is shutting down. Caryn is sad about this, and xkcd posted a tribute.
1. I've seen a lot of things in my life, but I've never before had the pleasure of watching a bookstore get born. I met blogger/bookseller Jessica Stockton Bagnulo three years ago when we both joined the Litblog Co-op at the same time, and I noted it here in January 2008 when she was awarded seed money to start her own bookstore in Brooklyn. The store is now about to open and looks just great. I hope to make it to the opening day party this Saturday at 7 pm, and you're invited too ...
Yeah, we've heard the story of our victory over the Soviet Union a thousand times. Sheehan's book focuses on the internal Pentagon battle between proponents of airplane-based vs. missile-based nuclear weaponry (missiles held the day, and apparently this was the right decision). But Beschloss's review reads like a love letter to nuclear weaponry, and the deeper sadness of a world under permanent threat of nuclear destruction is not acknowledged here at all. Listening to old-school conservatives reminisce -- over and over and over -- about how we beat the Soviet Union with our big weapons is like listening to a poker player talk about his big winning hand -- over and over and over. The problem with this kind of nostalgia is that the stakes are still high, and we may not always pull out the winning card. Instead of rhapsodizing about how great nuclear missiles were in 1989, I'd love to hear Neal Sheehan, Bernard Schriever and Sam Tanenhaus tell us how we're going to deal with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's nuclear program in Iran tomorrow. That's a cover article I'd love to read.
Ross Douthat, another of Tanenhaus's conservative favorites, reviews Karen Armstrong's The Case For God in today's Book Review. I wish a more creative thinker had been chosen for this task: Douthat dutifully covers the controversy between literal and metaphorical approaches to religion in newsy, topical terms -- how are the voters feeling about it? -- but offers neither artistry nor personal engagement. So, does Ross Douthat believe in God? Has Armstrong's book changed his feelings about religion in any way? You'll never find out by reading this sterile summary.
The Book Review covers several interesting non-fiction books today; I just wish the coverage were better. I'd like to know more about Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler's Connected, a surprising study in social psychology that posits the intriguing (and somehow believable) idea that "getting a $10,000 raise is less likely to make you happy than having a happy friend is", but the book's thesis barely survives Scott Stossel's dense explanation. Here's how the review begins:
For those of us not actively toiling in a university, most modern writing in the social sciences can be placed into one of three categories. The first category, which is vast, consists of the arcane and the incremental -- those studies so obscure, or which advance scholarship so infinitesimally, that they can be safely ignored by the general reader. (Not that this work isn’t important; it keeps academic publishing in business, and significant knowledge accretes in tiny drips on the way to tenure.) The second category consists of statistical proof of the obvious. (Some actual study findings published recently: "the parent-child relationship ... commonly includes feelings of irritation, tension and ambivalence"; women are more likely to engage in casual sex with "an exceptionally attractive man"; and driving while text-messaging leads to "a substantial increase in the risk of being involved in a safety-critical event such as a crash." Thank you, social science!) And in the third category, which is surely the smallest, are works of brilliant originality that stimulate and enlighten and can sometimes even change the way we under stand the world.
Do you want to keep reading this article? Me neither. Stossel hasn't even begun to tell us about the book he's reviewing yet.
Then, Pamela Paul mocks Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman's Nurtureshock: New Thinking About Children for containing nothing new. But young parents who read a book about the psychology of child-raising today may not care if a book contains something new -- they care if it contains something true.
Let's move on to fiction, where the offerings are slightly better. Christopher Hitchens is amusing but harsh on Nocturnes, Kazuo Ishiguro's new book of short stories taking place at night. Hitchens hates the book. He tosses wise guys like me a softball here:
It's the time of day that isn’t quite day when some people — such as myself — start to feel truly awake.
I'm not even going to crack the obvious joke and ask whether Hitchens is having it on the rocks or neat when this time of day makes him start to feel truly awake. Too easy.
The best article today is Jay McInerney on Richard Powers' Generosity: An Enhancement, a book I'm about to read. McInerney spends too much time obsessing over Powers' nerdy scientific focus, but rises like a Coma Baby to a deeper appreciation of the book's value by the article's end. I expect I'll be writing about this book myself here soon.
So, granted, Roman Polanski will rot in hell -- either in jail or in a fancy French villa. But what about the rest of us? What I'm finding surreal about the media circus following Polanski's arrest is the idea that we need to extradite a Polish/French film director from Switzerland to find a case of child rape to discuss in the United States. Why doesn't Kate Harding's much-praised and much-linked Salon condemnation mention that similar crimes to Polanski's are committed constantly, frequently, unceasingly every day right here in America? Why the sudden intensity of news coverage about this one case? Do we really need a celebrity to be arrested to understand how prevalent sexual abuse is in all our lives?
This is where I'm sensing hypocrisy -- and a disconnection from reality -- in much of this coverage. Think of your loved ones, your friends and family. Look around you on a busy street. It's a good bet that somebody here is a victim of sexual abuse. And here's the harder pill to swallow: it's also a good bet that somebody here is a perpetrator of sexual abuse -- in many cases, unlike Polanski, a perpetrator who will never be caught and stopped. Coercive rape and abuse of children happens all over, from Hollywood to every small town.
What disturbs me about the rabid invective being poured out from all sides about Roman Polanski is the idea that evil is something external, something exotic. "Put him in the cage, lynch him." Point your fingers: there he is, there's the bad man -- over THERE. I'm not buying it.
I am truly at a loss how to think about this. I had a conversation with my wife Caryn about it last night, after I posted a line from the Bible on Twitter:
Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.
"Do you really have to bring Jesus in to defend Roman Polanski?" Caryn said. She has a good point ... though on the other hand it's a fact that Jesus talked about forgiveness a lot. Again, though, none of us really care very much about Roman Polanski, and it's no big concern of ours whether or not he ever gets forgiven.
Forgiveness may be a difficult step, but beyond forgiveness is an even further goal, something harder to attain: understanding. What is it within human nature that makes presumably decent people like Roman Polanski do evil things? I would really like to understand.
We can lynch this one poor sorry fool, but I don't think that brings us any closer to an answer.
1. Catholic boy to the end ... from Cassie Carter's long-running fan site, here's Jim Carroll's funeral card.
2. Hemingway does Hemingway: actress Mariel Hemingway intends to create a movie based on her grandfather's gossipy classic A Movable Feast (via The Millions).
3. St. Francis College in Brooklyn is hosting a conference on Walt Whitman and the Beats and has issued an open call for papers.
4. I don't know what to expect from the new film version of J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace. I hated John Malkovich's overacting in A Portrait of a Lady, and I'm concerned that he'll turn this book's blank narrator into a volcano of emotion, as is his way. Still, I am looking forward to seeing the film and I hope for the best. Here are some reactions via Literary Saloon.
5. I'm skeptical when everybody gets excited about a newly found lost work by a great author, especially when very few of these people have read any of the already-published works by said great author. Still, Carl Jung's "Red Book" has a hell of a back story. Jung is a LitKicks favorite and I recommend him highly, though I think newcomers are better off jumping in with The Undiscovered Self or Memories, Dreams, Reflections rather than this new apparent beast.
6. Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, Eve Ensler and Art Spiegelman will appear at a PEN America event to read from recently released USA government memos about torture.
7, Aquinas (via Books Inq.).
8. If Charles Bukowski were Charles M. Schulz.
9. A new book provides a sideways glance at Moby Dick by including only the parts a different "easy version" of the book left out. Let's just hope nobody gets a brilliant idea for "Moby Dick and Zombies".
10. Maud Newton gathers expressions.
11. Jamelah Earle evaluates words.
12. A new Jason Reitman/George Clooney movie called Up In The Air is based on a novel by Walter Kirn, one of the better regular critics at the New York Times Book Review.
13. Interesting thoughts about how a book's intended level of sophistication may affect its chosen point of view.
14. Like Fire is a new literary blog created by Lisa Peet and other refugees from Readerville.
15. Two months ago I wrote a post titled "Not the Jack Kerouac Estate Battle Again". If you didn't catch it the first time, I wrote this because a new court ruling has upset a long-running dispute about the Kerouac archives, and I just knew we'd be getting into it again. Since then, many interested parties have responded to this article's comments thread, including several notable individuals connected to Jack Kerouac in one way or another.
As I've said before, I don't take this battle as seriously as many of the principals do. With Jack Kerouac long safe-in-heaven dead, the battle has narrowed to a catfight over the disposition of his relics, and I've never been particularly interested in any writer's relics. Some observers locate the blame for Jack's daughter Jan Kerouac's troubled life and early death on this mess, but I don't see a clear connection there. Anyway, the conversation in this comments thread are fascinating in their own way, and I wonder if someday somebody will write a book about the Jack Kerouac estate battle. If they do, the discussion in this thread may provide some raw material. It's not a book I'd want to write, though I probably wouldn't be able to resist reading it.
The punch line of the book is that we are, each of us, battling back against our innate kindness, with which we are fairly bursting, at every turn. Why? Because "kindness is an exchange with essentially unpredictable consequences. It is a risk precisely because it mingles our needs and desires with the needs and desires of others, in a way that so-called self-interest never can ... By involving us with strangers ... as well as with intimates, it is potentially far more promiscuous than sexuality."
They may be on to something there. I plan to read the book and find out.
This odd non-fiction title doesn't take the cover of this weekend's New York Times Book Review, which is instead occupied by a much more well-worn topic: Middle East politics (a favorite subject of NYTBR chief Sam Tanenhaus). I can't say I think much of Fouad Ajami's feature article on Christopher Caldwell's Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, another book about the "Muslim threat", this time described in terms of European immigration demographics. One might expect a writer named Fouad Ajami to bristle at this book's obsession with the preservation of European ethnicity, but he loves the book. Googling the critic, I find Fouad Ajami is an American conservative scholar of Lebanese origin who made himself unique by enthusiastically supporting George W. Bush's rush to invade Iraq in 2003.
I really wish Tanenhaus would reach further beyond his usual conservative cocktail party circuit and try to find more representative international voices to review books like these, don't you?
I also think Fouad Ajami is borderline offensive with formulations like this:
A departure and a return: In the legend of Moorish Spain, Boabdil, the last Muslim ruler of Granada, is said to have paused on a ridge for a final glimpse of the realm he had just surrendered to the Castilians. Henceforth, the occasion, and the place, would be known as El Último Suspiro del Moro, The Moor’s Last Sigh. The date was Jan. 2, 1492.
More than five centuries later, on March 11, 2004, there would be a “Moorish” return. In the morning rush hour, 10 bombs tore through four commuter trains in Madrid.
I don't think it's right to refer to an act of terrorism as "Moorish". And I thought Ajami's type of divisive mind-set went out of style with Dick Cheney.
Today's Book Review gets better when Jonathan Mahler praises Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin. I liked McCann's last book about gypsies, and I'll give his novel about a striving wire-walking New Yorker a try (though I am getting a little sick of novels about Gatsby-esque New York City strivers).
I also plan to look at The Teeth May Smile But the Heart Does Not Forget: Murder and Memory in Uganda by Andrew Rice, reviewed today by Howard W. French.
And whatever risk there was that I would attempt to read William Vollman's latest unbearable hair shirt Imperial is gone now that I've read Lawrence Downes's amusing and politely mocking account of the 1,306 page dreadnaught.
Between the new Vollman and the latest puzzle book by Thomas Pynchon that just came out, I just can't decide which one I'm more excited to not read. I think it's a tie.
(This is chapter 25 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
Monday morning, February 15, 1999, first day at my new job. I stand outside a slender homey townhouse on the corner of 22nd Street and Fifth Avenue in the tony section of lower midtown Manhattan that likes to call itself Chelsea even though Chelsea is two blocks west.
I'm looking up at the iVillage main office, a converted residential space with a gilded dome and a bright yellow flag hanging over Fifth Avenue: "iVillage.com: the #1 Women's Network". Across the street, the breathtaking Flatiron building looms over Madison Square, harmonizing with the faux-Venetian Metropolitan Life tower on the far side of the park.
IVillage.com awaits me, but I like it better out here, because I know I'm in for a crazy first day once I walk in this door and report for duty. I let the Nas track on my Sony Walkman play to the very end. Squeeze out every last second of freedom before I start meeting people and getting drawn into the drama.
(Please welcome a new Litkicks writer, Willa A. Cmiel, who recently graduated from New York University, lives in Brooklyn, and runs a pop culture/literary blog called Look Out Now -- Levi)
Everyone's got an amusing, self-deprecating tale of failure. After all, quirks and idiosyncrasies solidify our status as mortals and determine us sure-fire constituents of the human condition. If not prone to journalistic tendencies, these inescapable tales of woe and wonderment might go undistinguished, as they are par for the course. In order to grow, we must make mistakes and then learn to fix them. Rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat. So, when exactly do your personal oddities translate to a published memoir? When is such a quest for personal development relevant to the rest of the world, or at least the rest of the book-reading population? In the case of Mara Altman and her new memoir Thanks for Coming: One Young Woman's Quest for an Orgasm, the answer seems to be "When you're already a journalist". Too often it is not a question of relevancy, but one of means.
Mara Altman is twenty-six and has never had an orgasm. She's had boyfriends and sex, and her parents were hippies. But she can't figure out why she's never experienced that momentous "O". Altman, who attended Columbia University's Journalism School and wrote for the Village Voice under the wing of former editor David Blum, is media-savvy; journalism is what she knows. It is only natural, therefore, that Altman, in researching her memoir, spoke to every living expert on the female orgasm, as well as some not-so-experts. Altman, though, is too thorough and too journalistic for her own good. Rather than just getting on with it -- because it's not that hard, objectively, to have an orgasm -- she seeks out tirelessly a new expert, therapist, or researcher with every chapter. Her determination is impressive and her prose, if overly precious, is cohesive and clever. But there is something constantly hanging me up. To be frank, it's just not that hard, objectively, to have an orgasm.
During her search, Altman gets her toes sucked at a foot fetish party, visits an S&M basement, an orgasm ranch, air-humps God in Israel, forgets completely about human-to-human sex, and makes routine visits to the vegan-muffin-man at the Union Square Greenmarket for yogi-like advice. Her book is overflowing with conflicting advice from such a plethora of sources, including Zola, a "pussy professional," and Eric, Altman's hotter-than-Hercules "sacred whore" who is obligingly the un-monogamous boyfriend of the "Mother of Masturbation" (and impetus of the sexiest and most amusing passages in the book). The state of free-world female sexuality might be a stirring talking point, but why then trivialize it with such an overabundance of facts? (Not to mention an even more overabundant collection of cutesy nicknames for female genitalia). Since Altman under this format could not possibly hope to probe at a greater truth, what exactly is she doing? Is Thanks for Coming supposed to be funny? Cute? Helpful?
In reality, Altman exploits herself. She takes comfort in her naivete and her awkward ignorance, playing up the role of the career-driven, hardworking-thus-sexually-repressed female. After all, a man who couldn't orgasm wouldn't get an advance, he'd get a prescription and a hard dose of alienation. And for most of the book, Altman gets caught up in her own gimmick. This natural journalist is so exhaustive that it is difficult to remember what she is trying to achieve. Is it an orgasm or a book deal? If the answer is "book deal" -- an event which, fittingly, is often understood as the climax of a writerly vocation -- then Altman's memoir is a fallacy and her sexual "issue" a gimmick. Altman's orgasmlessness is her own funny, self-deprecating tale of failure, of which each of us have in one mortal form or another. It's like a fill-in-the-blanks and Thanks for Coming is Altman's version of this life-sized Mad Libs.
On Amazon.com, for example, Thanks for Coming is coupled with a book called Take Your Shirt Off and Cry: A Memoir of Near-Fame Experiences. In this case, a young woman discusses her failure at making it in Hollywood, although she certainly has a few close calls. She is intelligent, well-trained from her "glory days at NYU's theater program", and oh-so-hardworking. By all accounts she should be successful by now. But dammit she's still failing! And it's funny! Sound familiar? Like self-help books and fad diets, the gimmick memoir is a child born of market-driven publishers, many now floundering, more than ready to fit any proposal they can into an already distinguished, even mildly successful, cookie-cutter mold.
This memoir, of course, is not truly about the search for an orgasm. If it were, the book would have been one third shorter. When she finally comes, Altman can't figure out why she isn't satisfied. As a result, she begins a search for ... herself. "For Mara," reads the back cover, "orgasm was connected to a part of her that no vibrator could reach." Well, Ms. Altman, join the club. At this point, the purposelessness of such tireless research reveals itself. It's no wonder Altman is desensitized: these sex experts have jobs that rely on their ability to objectively examine the female orgasm without those emotions from which the rest of the world can't separate or don't care to. It surely isn't news that most women and many men equate, confound, or enmesh sex and emotions. Whether Altman's shortcomings can be pinned upon upbringing, societal repression, or the pressures faced by ambitious females in New York, an isolating city where vaginas already have the majority, it's difficult to say. Altman tries to. The question is, do you care? After all, it's not that hard, objectively, to have an orgasm.
I've been working hard, and I really need this three-day weekend coming my way. Hell yeah!
Another surprise guest will be writing this weekend's review of the New York Times Book Review. Check back on Sunday for, I hope, a wholly new perspective.
Till then, just a few links for a happy Spring day.
1. I've always thought Henry David Thoreau's Walden could be the basis of a great play or film. Robert E. Lee and Jerome Lawrence (Inherit the Wind) tried something like this with The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, though this play did not place the center of action in the cabin by the pond. A new play called Walden: the Ballad of Thoreau is making the rounds, and may be showing up on public television/radio as well as on stages around the world.
I don't know anything about this actual play, but I know it's a good idea. A lot of drama took place in that little cabin, and I hope this play captures the essence of the work as well as it should. I assume that the actors in the image above are portraying Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thoreau.
2. Fordham University in Manhattan (NOT, as previously reported, Fordham's campus in the Bronx) will be hosting "Woolf and the City", a Virginia Woolf conference, featuring insights from Anne Fernald, Roxana Robinson and many others.
3. Also at Fordham, Ron Hogan and the Mercantile Library have put together quite a lineup for a fiction writer's conference.
4. The long-anticipated film based on Leora Skolkin-Smith's novel Edges now has a title and a website. I thought Edges was a fine name for a story about Jews and Arabs in Israel and Palestine, but the film will be called The Fragile Mistress, and that sounds fine too. Can't wait to see this one.
5. A website about the psychology of fiction. Oh, is that ever fertile territory ...
I left the banking industry to join Time Warner's new media division, where I played an integral role in the now-famous disaster known as Pathfinder. I also launched my own website, Literary Kicks, was hired to build Bob Dylan's website, and had my own first taste of creative satisfaction and personal success. In 1999, I finally struck it "rich", cashing in on one of the biggest IPOs in stock market history, just as my marriage broke up and my workaholic tendencies reached a hysterical peak. A year later, the high-flying dot-com stock market began to crash. My paper wealth disappeared along with my job and much of my remaining sanity. I was beginning to gather my resources back together in 2001, only to face new shocking events of a completely unexpected kind. This is the memoir of a software developer who learned how to be a survivor, and a record of the life lessons learned along the way.