(On the forgotten 50th anniversary of a once-controversial convict's execution, Beat historian and Library of Congress archivist Alan Bisbort provides a sweeping summary of the prison-writing genre, and the therapeutic invention that once supported the genre. -- Levi)
Fifty years ago, on the morning of May 2, 1960, the State of California executed Caryl Chessman in the gas chamber at San Quentin Prison.
For more than a decade prior to that date, Chessman had been a thorn in the state’s side, as well as a pinprick at America’s conscience and an international cause celebre. His case drew support from all corners of the globe and all areas of human endeavor, from the sacred (Pope John, Albert Schweitzer) to the profane (Marlon Brando, Steve Allen, Shirley MacLaine), from the literary (Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood and, yes, William F. Buckley, Jr.) to the mundane, with petitions to the California governor to spare Chessman’s life coming from millions of people around the world who’d been touched by his case and his writings. From Brazil alone, a plea for Chessman’s life sent to Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown in March 1960 contained 2.3 million signatures, as well as offers from forty Brazilians, many of them women, to die in his place. And when he was finally killed, after 12 years on death row and eight stays of execution, riots broke out in European and Latin American cities.
(Some of you may remember my Mom, whose first Litkicks piece was about Paul Auster, Franz Kafka and a doll. Lila Lizabeth Weisberger is also renowned in the field of poetry therapy (and whether or not there is any connection between Litkicks Action Poetry and the Poetry Therapy movement remains an enduring mystery). I asked her to write a piece explaining what "poetry therapy" means and how she became involved in the organizations that are trying to spread the word about it. Thanks for sending this, Mom. -- Levi)
When I worked as a school psychologist, I used creative arts therapies with elementary through high school age children. Poetry was an integral part of the group work I did with parents and teachers. I determined to increase my ability to use poetry and writing effectively and to train to become a poetry therapist.
I'm thrilled that the Library of Congress (basically, the literary arm of the United States government) will be archiving all of Twitter. And I'm surprised that several smart people out there are mocking or complaining about this announcement. Most of the conversation is on Twitter, of course.
1. Natalie Merchant has recorded a double album, Leave Your Sleep, containing her own musical settings of classic poems by Mervyn Peake, Gerard Manley Hopkins, e. e. cummings, Charles Causley, Rachel Field, Robert Graves, Edward Lear, Jack Prelutsky, Arthur Macy, Ogden Nash, Charles E. Carryl, Nathalia Crane, Robert Louis Stevenson and Christina Rossetti. I haven't heard it yet but definitely want to. Natalie will be at the Union Square Barnes and Noble in New York City on April 14 for a talk with Katherine Lanpher.
Strange currents in the hometown rag today.
When I saw a book called The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter on the cover of this weekend's New York Times Book Review I figured it was a new McSweeney's book or some photoblog tie-in. It turns out to be a serious 500-page study, not of white people per se but of the concept of "whiteness" as it has rippled through history. The author is an African-American professor (and also, it turns out, a good artist), which gives the title some edge. The author of this article is Linda Gordon, also a professor and, based on the "Up Front" sketch of her face, a white person. So Nell Painter is talking about Linda Gordon's people here, and Linda Gordon also seems to have a lot to say about white people. Sounds like an okay book, though unfortunately a photoblog tie-in would probably sell better.
There are biographies, and then there are psychological biographies. The fallacies and hazards of the psychobiography form are easy to name, but the form can produce miracles when used well. Donald E. Pease's Theodor Seuss Geisel, a brief, spirited new study of the life and work of the great Dr. Seuss, provides a satisfying and surprising look at the motivations and half-hidden meanings behind classic children's books like Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham and How The Grinch Stole Christmas.
The biographer brings out the heavy psychological equipment to analyze the first Dr. Seuss children's book, And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, published in 1937 when the author was 33 years old. The book depicts a child with a vivid imagination facing off against a stern father who rejects his son's artistic spirit. Pease argues convincingly that young Theodor Seuss Geisel's moral battle with his strict father shaped everything about his work, and that it was the very intensity of this father-son battle that gave the early Dr. Seuss books their power and energy.
James Parker definitely appears to be blown away by Stephen King's ambitious Under The Dome, a 1074-pager that seems to recall his classic The Stand in imagining the United States of America in the throes of a slow-motion metaphorical apocalypse. Parker's review starts at the boiling point and never cools off:
Now that the town halls have blazed with vituperation, and fantastical patriots are girding themselves for fascist/socialist lockdown, Americans of a certain vintage must be feeling a familiar circumambient thrill. Boomers, you know what I’m talking about: cranks empowered, strange throes and upthrusts, hyperbolic placards brandished in the streets -- it’s the '60s all over again! Once more the air turns interrogative: something's happening here, but we don’t know what it is, do we, Mr. Jones? Stop, children, what’s that sound?
That's a lot of big words and at least two song references. I'll probably never read King's book (1074 pages? Has he been hanging around with Vollmann?) but I enjoyed this review.
John Irving is one of a handful of contemporary authors who've written books I dearly and obsessively love (in this case, the great, great World According to Garp) but whose new novels I never read. Joanna Scott's dismissive review of Last Night in Twisted River, Irving's latest shaggy bear story, quickly convinces me not to make an exception of this one. I'm sorry, John. That was a hell of a book you wrote in 1978, but sometimes lightning strikes exactly once.
I will, however, look up poet Amy Gerstler's Dearest Creature after enjoying David Kirby's rave on her behalf, and I'm also interested in Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna, which fictionalizes scenes involving Leon Trotsky and Frida Kahlo, even though it's no surprise that Liesl Schillinger likes the book (I'm still waiting to read about a book she doesn't manage to like).
This weekend's richly packed issue includes two psychological pieces: Hanna Rosin on Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided, a critique of positive thinking, and Nicholas Thompson's consideration of socio-quant Bruce Bueno De Mesquita's The Predictioneer's Game. There's also a short appreciation of David Nokes' Samuel Johnson: A Life by the esteemed Harold Bloom that somehow escapes being annoying or stuffy.
Finally, a long letter by author Mark Danner about the harsh review George Packer gave to his Stripping Bare the Body: Politics Violence War three weeks ago has quickly gotten attention in the Huffington Post and elsewhere. I did not know that Packer and Danner had a long history together, but when I wrote about that article I did sense something strangely personal, and definitely out of place, in the piece. Here's what I wrote:
Packer is impressed by Danner's hands-on reporting but can't stand his writing and even, strangely, accuses him repeatedly of being "erotically" attracted to the horrors of war and political terrorism. I suppose Packer's got to call the shots the way he sees them, but the evidence presented here does not strongly back up the rather shocking charge, and by the end of this review I simply wish another reviewer had explained the book better.
I'm glad Danner wrote a letter; I've often heard that a shunned author should never write to a publication objecting to a bad book review, and I never understood why. If an author has a legitimate gripe, why not get it out there? It's not like the extra publicity isn't going to help the book's sales.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
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.