Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations


Reviewing the Review: October 4 2009

by Levi Asher on Sunday, October 4, 2009 11:58 am

I thought New York Times Book Review chief Sam Tanenhaus said conservatism was dead? He's written some smart things about the wrong turns of the Bush/Cheney area, but his publication still worships -- absolutely worships -- the memory of Eisenhower-to-Reagan era foreign policy conservativism. Today's cover article is Michael Beschloss's review of Neil Sheehan's A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon, a book about the senior bureaucrat in the US Air Force who shaped the aggressive nuclear missile weapons program that eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet Union's military strategy and the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe.

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.

On The Roman Polanski Grandstand

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, September 29, 2009 08:45 pm

I'm having a tough time with a lot of the grandstanding I've been hearing today about Roman Polanski. Certainly what Polanski did 32 years ago was monstrous, horrible -- he has been suffering for his crime, and he will continue to suffer for it, whether or not he is ever sent to jail. Certainly, also, his talent as a filmmaker and his sad personal history do not excuse his crimes in any way.

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.

Reviewing the Review: June 28 2009

by Levi Asher on Saturday, June 27, 2009 10:21 pm

A dustup is always fun. Caleb Crain basically murdalizes a non-fiction book called The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton in today's New York Times Book Review. It's an exciting article, but after examining the plays in detail I'm not quite sure who wins.

A critic who sets out to write a strongly negative review ought to open with a powerful point, but Caleb Crain actually punches himself with the opening paragraph, which posits many doubtful assertions as fact:

Work is activity that earns money. Lucky people enjoy their work, but even they might not do it without pay. To the extent that pay motivates, people work for the sake of something else -- so they can buy food, shelter, clothing, security, luxury or leisure -- and against their inclinations. Now, to do anything against one’s inclinations is to put one’s dignity at risk. It is fascination with this cold truth that draws children to blend sludge out of refrigerated leftovers and then dare one another: "Would you drink it for a hundred dollars? For a thousand?" Everyone has a price in theory; a worker is someone who has agreed to a number. He is exposed as someone under constraint, like a prisoner in a stockade. To mock him for being less than perfectly free in his thoughts and actions is easy.

This is some dense prose, and it expresses a surprisingly shallow point. Our connections with our jobs go much deeper than money. For many people, work is identity. It gives us our pride, our sense of self. Certainly work is a key part of who we are, not an activity we engage in with calculated detachment. I really don't know where Caleb Crain is coming from with this opener. He also doesn't mention the book he's reviewing.

He's better when he gets to the book, which, in his opinion, reeks of condescension. Crain finds de Botton a highly unreliable and capricious journalist, and he scores one killer punch here, describing de Botton's account of a dull interview with a bureaucrat in London:

De Botton decides that he pities the man for his hollowness. But it is evident that he was outplayed -- that he wasn’t prepared with questions detailed or insightful enough to oblige the executive to take him seriously. It shouldn’t have surprised him that the head of an accounting firm would know well how to keep his cards to himself while going through the forms of transparency.

Crain's point about de Botton's unconscious snobbery is a serious one, but interestingly Crain's prose has a snobbish undertone too, as when he drops a reference to the classical music term "ostinato" into a sentence. I can't stand that kind of pretension -- if I want to read about classical music I'll read a damn book by Alex Ross (and, to be honest, I don't want to read about classical music).

Crain's review also fails to connect the book to the long tradition of non-fiction literature about Americans at work: The Organization Man by Wiliam Whyte, Working by Studs Terkel, Gig by John Bowe and Marisa Bowe. All in all, I'll hand this match to Alain de Botton. Caleb Crain does not have a strong enough offense to pull this bad review off.

That's about as exciting as this weekend's NYTBR gets. Paul Bloom's meditation upon The Evolution of God by Richard Wright is meant to be a rave (he calls the book brilliant) but the points I manage to glean from this review are wishy-washy. Speaking of condescension, both Bloom and Wright seem to assume that only monotheistic Western religions deserve our awe, and I don't think much of the attitude expressed by this:

In fact, when it comes to expanding the circle of moral consideration, he argues, religions like Buddhism have sometimes "outperformed the Abrahamics." But this sounds like the death of God, not his evolution.

It's strange to imagine that anyone would want to read a modern history of religion that doesn't take Buddhism seriously; this book is called The Evolution of God and in my observation the Eastern religions have a more highly evolved sense of God than the Western ones.

Today's NYTBR also features David Gates on Love and Obstacles by Alexsander Hemon and Jeremy McCarter on a new biography of playwright Arthur Miller by Christopher Bigsby.

Sacred Cows and Graphic Novels

by Jay Diamond on Monday, May 18, 2009 06:56 pm

(Today's guest review is by Jay Diamond, whose latest blog is These American Roads).

On a day like any other, I'm walking in the NYU village past all the advertisements -- pasted, posted, and painted to walls, trash-cans, and even the sidewalk -- that lure unsuspecting undergraduates into schemes, scams, and sales. It's an interesting juxtaposition, the Madison Ave. machine next to the D.I.Y. aesthetic, both (illegally) posting their brands on public and private property. I turn off Broadway past a building undergoing another facelift in order to entice the high schoolers considering New York as their college destination, and possibly to convince their parents this isn't the urban war-zone that popular culture portrayed it as many years ago. And while seeing a building being renovated is common for any walk that lasts for more than two-blocks, something about this particular job catches my eye. More precisely, on the side of the dumpster collecting the scraps from the workers above, spray-painted in neon green, I notice a familiar phrase: "Who will watch The Watchmen?"

Ten seconds after the tinge of curiosity wares off, I think to myself that this tag is either the work of some wanna-be vigilante who plans to emulate characters from the graphic novel Watchmen, some over-zealous fanboy of said book, or a guerrilla-marketing campaign cooked up by an advertising firm trying to do something "edgy" to attract attention to the then-upcoming film-adaptation of the above-mentioned Alan Moore graphic novel. My best guess was one of the latter two, and it seemed like a sad fate for such an edgy piece of work.

Something tells me that while the comic Testament, whose 22 issues were recently condensed into the fourth and final part of a collection, comes from the same school of subversive thought as many of Alan Moore's works, it is, in its disgust for the state of our culture and humanity, much more of a morality tale. That isn't surprising considering the fact that the writer of Testament, Douglas Rushkoff, juxtaposes stories from the Old Testament with a narrative that takes place in a near-Orwellian future. Whereas Moore's work holds out little to no hope, for Rushkoff it's precisely his optimism -- the desire for his characters, and humanity as a whole, to better themselves -- that is one of the series' greatest strengths.

Abraham, Joseph, Job, and some other familiar stories are delivered alongside the tale of a modern group of malcontents struggling to fight a government controlled by corporate interests. Told alongside correlating biblical passages, Rushkoff illustrates history's curious disposition to repeat itself. But through this repetition, there is room for change. And while taking artistic cues from The Bible is not a new idea, it's Rushkoff's comic book medium sets it apart (even though much of the Superman story could be seen to have many religious parallels), but also places it alongside films like Strange Days, and of course The Matrix might be the best comparison, with its story of renegade cyberpunks fighting against an army of robots that has rendered mankind into docile state through a simulated reality. Due to greed, it isn't machines needed for human energy. In Rushkoff's vision, though, this seems to be the long march humanity is headed down.

Aside from the obvious fact that Testament is a comic book and The Matrix a film, one huge difference is that the latter calls upon a multitude of different philosophies from various cultures and religions to weave the tale of a human exodus that stems from an atheist prospective, whereas Testament relies on an ongoing dispute between several Hebrew, Egyptian, and Phoenician deities, and portrays this as the cause of many of humanity's problems. To his credit, Rushkoff never seems to get into a "right or wrong" argument (even though it's pretty easy to find oneself siding with the Judeo-Christian figures opposed to the aliens requiring child sacrifices), but does rely too much on the individual messianic approach that is obviously thrust onto main character Jake Stern from the very beginning of the series. I suppose as this is a story of the power of the human spirit to overcome evil, a savior figure is about as necessary as it is the cornerstone of The Bible's Old and New Testament.

Aided by artist Liam Sharp, Rushkoff strikes an extremely careful balance between his own intellectual background and the role of storyteller. As a fan and admirer of Mr. Rushkoff's many books and regular contributions to Arthur Magazine, I can't help but notice that the series Testament works as just that: a testament to the canon of ideas and subsequent writings that have flowed from the fertile mind of the man. In putting forth those ideas in the colorful panels of comic books, Douglas Rushkoff has not only given us a great work that is an extremely entertaining morality tale with sociopolitical themes that have been relevant for thousands of years, but is also one of the smartest comic book series that should be mentioned alongside the works of Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and of course, Alan Moore.

Corso Makes The Cover

by Levi Asher on Monday, April 13, 2009 06:56 pm

1. Beat poet Gregory Corso has made the cover of this week's Economist. Some clever illustrator has formatted the opening of a recent Barack Obama speech about nuclear disarmament as an homage to Corso's great 1958 poem Bomb (though I couldn't find a Gregory Corso credit anywhere in the magazine). Also, I bet you anything the Economist illustrator cribbed the layout from this LitKicks page, though I couldn't prove this in court. Via Stop Smiling.

2. made a really stupid decision to de-rank books with gay/lesbian content, and suffered through an Easter Sunday twitter tornado for it. Can you imagine what our great literary legacy would look like if all gay/lesbian-related books were subtracted? Forget about it. Amazon has apologized for the "glitch", but the success of the spontaneous #amazonfail movement on Twitter will certainly inspire other protests to come.

3. The unforgettable Beverly Cleary just celebrated her 93rd birthday!

4. When the Flock Changed is an excerpt from Maud Newton's upcoming novel.

5. Jay Thompson on Marcus Aurelius and Stanley Kunitz at Kenyon Review blog.

6. Mike Shatzkin on a racial showdown at circa-1950s Doubleday.

7. Yeah, I post about John Updike a lot. More to come. Via Books Inq, here's On Easter and Updike by David E. Anderson.

8. The Onion on Beckett.

9. Bill Ectric attempts to singlehandedly resurrect the career of Charles Wadsworth Camp, author (and father of Madeleine L'Engle).

10. A celebration of the chapbook.

11. Carolyn Kellogg on John Fante.

12. City Lights (a bookstore that would never de-rank books with gay/lesbian content) has published Days I Moved Through Ordinary Sounds, the record of a creative writing program for "juvenile detention facilities, homeless shelters, inner-city schools and centers for newly arrived immigrants" (more here).

13. Okay, real quick, here are a few things I don't like about The Beats: A Graphic History by Harvey Pekar, Paul Buhle and Ed Piskor. Pekar's drawings are rather ugly; I yearn instead for the affectionate emotional shadings of Robert Crumb. The section on Jack Kerouac seems to be based on a close reading of Ellis Amburn's biography Subterranean Kerouac, the only major biography that claims to find closeted homosexuality at the center of Kerouac's life and work. As I wrote when Amburn's book was published, this interpretation really doesn't illuminate the work very well at all. Conversely, the biographical section on Allen Ginsberg all but ignores the crisis Ginsberg endured as a child when his mother went insane, which actually does illuminate the poet's work considerably. The book also suffers from chronological problems and all-out mistakes, as when the book claims that the Jewish Torah is equivalent to the Christian Old Testament (actually the Torah is only the first five books, the books of Moses). However, The Beats: A Graphic History does have some excellent material on lesser-known Beats towards the end.

14. What the hell is up with a cheezy-looking book called City of Glass (by Cassandra Clare)? We already had a perfectly good City of Glass.

Reviewing the Review: March 29 2009

by Levi Asher on Saturday, March 28, 2009 12:44 pm

It can't feel good to go to work in the morning and find out you got a 5% paycut. So I'll be extra nice to the folks at the New York Times Book Review, which is easy to do because this weekend's issue is pretty good.

I'm often unimpressed when a hot new writer gets big front-page treatment on the cover of the NYTBR and everywhere else (I still have bad memories of last year's "Joseph O'Neill is the new F. Scott Fitzgerald" craze). Today's up-and-comer is Wells Tower, the book is called Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned (which sounds a bit Jonathan Safran Foer, but okay) and the reviewer is Edmund White, who does fairly convincing work. I'll spend some time giving this book a chance. White's closing paragraph is especially nice:

I once wondered why Surrealism never really caught on as a literary strategy in America. Wells Tower makes me think that nothing bizarre someone might dream up could ever be as strange as American life as we live it. The "beyond" that the Surrealists talked about so much, the au-dela, is America itself.

Here's a nifty surprise: graphic novelist Alison Bechdel has written (drawn?) a review of Jane Vandenburgh's autobiographical A Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth Century as a comic strip. The Book Review is clearly embracing the comix-lit form with open arms (they began running a bestseller list for graphic books last week), and it's a very refreshing touch. Does the format actually serve the medium well? In Bechdel's capable hands, it does, though the cartoonist's pleasing work inadvertently upstages the book she's reviewing. Also, it's a bit shameless for the NYTBR to go on and on about the originality of this concept in an "Up Front" editor's note, when in fact this is a straight-up Ward Sutton bite. The Book Review gets points for trying this experiment, but they shouldn't act like they invented the idea.

Other good articles today include a memorable consideration of Anne Carson's casual/contemporary translation of a newly arranged Oresteia (a trilogy custom-assembled from Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripidies) by Brad Leithauser, who contrasts Carson's colloquial work with Richard Lattimore's dignified classic 1953 translation and concludes that poet Robert Lowell struck the best balance of all.

More pleasures of the canon are found in Rich Cohen excellent evaluation of David Plotz's Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible, a collection of blog posts originally published on Slate. And Charles McGrath fills us in Michael Holroyd's A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and Their Remarkable Families (I've been interested in 19th Century celebrity/actor Henry Irving since reading about him in George Grossmith's hilarious Diary of a Nobody).

There are other articles that appear worthwhile today, but I have a very busy weekend planned and will have to skip a few. Consider it my 5% attention cut.

Rotten to the Core

by Levi Asher on Thursday, March 26, 2009 08:49 pm

1. I applaud former AIG executive Jake DeSantis for having the nerve to whine in public about having to give back his bonus. But DeSantis misses the larger point: the era of bloated multi-million dollar bonuses for financial firm executives must end -- not just temporarily, but permanently.

There's a popular misunderstanding that big bonuses were a symptom of the problem at companies like Lehman Brothers and Citibank and AIG. In fact these bonuses were not a symptom but a cause of the problem. How can a financier justify a seven-figure salary/bonus every year? Not with honest investment in honest business, not year after year -- that's not how honest business works. The system of hedge funds and risk management and credit default swaps grew to support the illusion that high finance could produce infinite wealth and infinite growth, and this system was not rotten at the edges but rotten to the core. A bank or insurance company that pays large numbers of employees millions of dollars a year will inevitably have to resort to deceptive or dishonest practices to maintain that excessive level of reward.

Personally, my private prescription for our sick economy can be found in the book Walden by Henry David Thoreau. But it's hard to translate this into public policy, so on a more practical level what I want is strong permanent salary caps for executives who manage companies our government considers "too big to fail". If they're too big to fail, then they're too big to be entrusted to high-rollers with dollar signs in their eyes.

2. I've been spending a lot of time in Washington DC lately, and may have to miss PEN World Voices in New York City this year. If so, I'll be missing a really good lineup including Paul Auster, Lou Reed, Muriel Barbery, Mark Danielewski, Neil Gaiman, Paul Krugman, Michael Ondaatje, Parker Posey (?) (okay), Francine Prose, Laila Lalami, Esther Allen, Daniel Mendelsohn, Jonathan Ames, Roxana Robinson, Niall Ferguson, John Freeman, Richard Ford,Wesley (John Wesley Harding) Stace, Philip Gourevitch, Lynne Tillman, Bob Holman, A. M. Homes and a whole lot of international authors I've barely or never heard of but would probably benefit from hearing from. If you can go to this, I urge you to do so.

3. Speaking of Thoreau: "Henry David Thoreau is one of those authors that readers think they know, even if they don’t." I agree with that. I haven't yet seen Robert Sullivan's The Thoreau You Don't Know, but the basic idea as described on this website sounds good to me.

4. According to GalleyCat, Robert Crumb's next masterwork will be an illustrated Book of Genesis.

5. I'm the kind of guy whose idea of fun is to sit around talking about the meaning of postmodernism (which I feel I understand perfectly). But this article by Andrew Seal (via Scott Esposito, who liked it) is terribly written: At any rate, de Onís also theorized a bifurcation in the set of reactions to modernism: 'postmodernismo' was "a conservative reflux within modernism itself: one which sought refuge from its formidable lyrical challenge in a muted perfectionism of detail and ironic humour, whose most original feature was the newly authentic expression it afforded women" (4). Postmodernism was a fading light, however, to be succeeded quickly by 'ultramodernismo', its opposite, an intensification of "the radical impulses of modernism to a new pitch" (ibid.) Anderson returns frequently to this basic division. That ain't postmodern.

6. Bob Dylan's new album is apparently inspired by the fiction of Larry Brown, an author I've never read. I best get reading.

7.. Appreciating Edgar Keret.

8. I got your Wild Things right here.

Lonely Highways

by Levi Asher on Monday, January 26, 2009 09:26 pm

I stopped paying attention to run-of-the-mill Beat Generation product years ago, but every once in a while something truly original breaks through. Below are three excellent new Beat-related works that recently crossed my path.

It took about two seconds for me to fall for De Eenzame Snelweg, a paperback chronicle of an American journey by two young Dutch Kerouac aficionados, writer Auke Hulst and artist Raoul Deleo. The book Hulst sent me has not been translated into English (the title apparently means The Lonely Highway), but it's enough to scan and enjoy the sensitive and funny continuous cartoon strip that runs across the entire text, following a journey from New York City to San Francisco by way of Nebraska and Denver and the other usual Keroauc stops from On The Road (though, unfortunately, Hulst and Deleo don't make it to New Orleans, an essential corner in On The Road). These tourists have fun with their Kerouac -- a "Bear Crossing" road sign inspires an artistic examination of God as Pooh Bear, and I bet Jack himself would have loved the jazzy drawing of the Lombard Street Shuffle ("the world's crookedest dance") in San Francisco, where they also visit the Beat Museum. The book smoothly captures and transmits the excitement Hulst and Deleo feel as they travel in Kerouac's path. And, as the photo of the artist's rig above shows, the artwork is a scroll.

I first read Jack Kerouac's Wake Up when it was serialized in the Buddhist magazine Tricycle over ten years ago. This is an earnest, almost artless biography of Siddhartha Guatama, the sheltered prince who left his comfortable palace and became the Buddha 2500 years ago. Buddhism clearly brought out Kerouac's most reverent instincts, as the prose appears to have been carefully written and bears few marks of his signature "spontaneous" style. It's clear that Jack Kerouac felt a strong personal connection to the story of the once-spoiled wandering prince who struggled so hard to understand the meaning of desire in human existence. Wake Up, unpublished during Kerouac's life, has finally been released in book form, and seems to be more valuable than many other recent releases of unpublished Kerouac work. The book may surprise or enlighten readers who are not familiar with the spiritual aspect of Kerouac's literary mission.

The sympathetic and peace-loving Buddhist religion was always essential to the Beat Generation mindset, and it was a strong influence in the life of the magnetic and eclectic New York City semi-Beat, semi-Warholian poet John Giorno. Subdoing Demons In America: Selected Poems 1962-2007 is one of the more appealing poetry books I've seen in a while. Giorno's very approachable and casual verses remind me of the best of the short poems that often show up here on LitKicks Action Poetry. Urbane, experimental and user-friendly, they are often grounded in day-to-day experience. One poem simply contains the lyrics to the chorus of the Rolling Stones song "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" (a Buddhist plea, of course) and others seem to transcribe subway signs or the directions on a tube of suntan lotion. Unlike much of what passes for poetry these days, these sensitive, crafty verses will never leave you mystified or bored.

Three new and worthwhile Beat Generation books! 2009 is shaping up well. I'm also looking forward to catching a rare East Coast appearance by poet Gary Snyder at the New York Public Library this Saturday, January 31 at 3 pm. Gary Snyder's career is celebrated in another new book, the Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, which I haven't yet had a chance to read.

Kate and Leo in Suburbia

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, December 24, 2008 02:52 am

1. I attended a preview screening of Revolutionary Road, the new Kate Winslet/Leonardo DiCaprio film based on a highly regarded 1961 novel by Richard Yates, along with a few friends who'd all loved the Richard Yates novel. They all hated the movie. Myself, I haven't read the novel yet, so I can tell you how the film stands on its own. (I'm also reading the novel right now, so I may sound off on this topic again once I finish.)

Revolutionary Road is the tragedy of a marriage that starts off shaky and ends worse. Kate Winslet and Leo DiCaprio play two earnest and artistic New Yorkers who find themselves living a conformist lifestyle in a fashionable Connecticut suburb (with a street called Revolutionary Road) even though they have strong Bohemian yearnings and can't stand their neighbors. The only neighbor they like -- in one of the film's best scenes -- is a literal madman, played by Michael Shannon, in whom they find a kindred alienated spirit.

The fiesty lovers fight constantly, humor and ignore their children, dream of solving their problems by moving to Paris, all the while descending into greater and greater miseries. I can see why my friends who are familiar with Yates's novel consider the movie a simplistic and commercial betrayal of the source material, but even so, the film packs a punch. It's a bleak and unblinking stare at a troubled modern family, and Kate Winslet's performance helps carry the message. Leo DiCaprio, unfortunately, still can't act -- he sure can emote and yell, and he has a craggy face you could carve into Mount Rushmore -- but he can't act. Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) is also fond of an artificial and histrionic style of acting (Winslet somehow manages to appear natural even in Mendes's hands), and it's frustrating to realize how much better this film could have worked in subtler hands.

Yet Revolutionary Road is worth catching, if only to see the stars of Titanic gloriously reunited. I was surprised that the preview audience didn't gasp during the scene where Kate Winslet fingers a brochure for the Cunard Cruise Line as she makes plans to sail with her family across the Atlantic Ocean. Once again, Kate and Leo don't make it to the other side.

2. The new Pal Joey ended up getting trashed in the New York Times. I think the show deserves a more sympathetic review, even with its many problems. It's still about a hundred times better than Little Mermaid or Legally Blonde.

3. Maud Newton introduces Iceberg, an exciting new iPhone e-book approach pioneered by ScrollMotion. In other e-book news (and there seems to be a lot of e-book news lately), Project Gutenberg is going mobile.

4. Heartbroke Daily is about one writer's persistent lovesickness.

5. I told you last week that I am going to begin an extensive writing project here on LitKicks in January. I first conceived this as a book idea, but since I am already working with an agent on a different book proposal I am going to begin writing this one right here on LitKicks in occasional blog-post segments, not necessarily chronological, and I will continue until I either tell the entire story or decide to stop.

The story is about me, specifically about my work in the internet industry in the last fifteen years. I have seen a lot -- and survived a lot -- since launching LitKicks in 1994 and leaving my job in the financial software industry to work for Time Warner's first internet startup in 1995. In the years to follow I became a spoken-word poet, helped to launch one of the web's first advertising networks, insulted Bill Gates in person, published a book, built, drank too many martinis, became a paper millionaire, went completely broke, got a divorce, watched my kids grow up, endured a year's employment in what must have been one of the most dysfunctional technology departments in the history of mankind (at A&E Network/History Channel), fell in love, and found a new footing online in the age of blogs and Web 2.0. I watched the birth of the dot-com industry, the birth of Yahoo, the birth of Amazon, the birth of Java, the birth of XML, the birth of Google, the death of the sock puppet, and the incredible hair of Rod Blagojevich (okay, Blagojevich's hair isn't in the book, but everything else is).

I have been burning to tell some of these stories for a long time, and I hope to do so in a way that is both entertaining and intellectually stimulating. I'm not a big Ernest Hemingway fan, but my method in telling this story will be to follow his advice in what must have been one of his best lines: "Write the truest sentence you know."

Truth? That's a tall order, but these stories need to be told. Some former Silicon Alley colleagues of mine may not like some of the things I'll say. Hell, I may not like some of the things I'll say. But in my opinion the only reason to write a memoir (James Frey notwithstanding) is that you want to tell the truth, and that's exactly what I plan to do. I hope you'll check out the first installment, which should appear just after New Years Day.

We'll be closing down (and putting up our annual Action Poetry retrospective) between Christmas and New Years. Yesterday I posted a video from Godspell, and in the same spirit, here's an even better random video I found on YouTube, an extremely intense version of Gethsemane from a Peruvian production of Jesus Christ Superstar. This is my idea of a good Christmas video. Enjoy, and see you in January!

Reviewing the Review: December 21 2008

by Levi Asher on Sunday, December 21, 2008 08:22 pm

I don't know if the intense Jeanette Winterson has written much book criticism before. But her review of Forrest Gander's As a Friend in today's New York Times Book Review reads like it's her first time, and I mean that as a compliment. Rarely does a critic seem so eager to drink a book in, as when she tells us that Gander:

... returns words as meaning instead of blurring them as data. So much writing is just about conveying information, using words that are readily interchangeable, underpowering language so that it never reaches the point of calibration; the right register of what we feel, or of how it feels to feel.

She seems to be reviewing not just one captivating book but literature itself. She echoes Kerouac (perhaps a bit too closely) here, describing a character in the book:

So it is with anyone real, unlike the measured platitudes and balanced phrases that hallmark the increasing army of unreal people, who never want to risk a wrong word and so speak only in cliches.

This level of excitement could be hazardous, but Winterson has the skill to make the piece work. I think many NYTBR readers will join me in checking out Gander's book as a result.

This is another skinny (24 pages) issue of the Book Review, but it manages to cram in a decent amount of literary and intellectual material. Kathryn Harrison teaches me a new word in her review of Acedia and Me by Kathleen Norris (I've suffered occasionally from "paralysis of the soul", but I didn't know there was a six-letter term for it). Liesl Schillinger describes two newly translated German novels, Settlement by Christop Hein and New Lives by Ingo Schulze. I don't love the way Charles Taylor hints at the identity of the real-life model for a celebrity writer character in Bruce Jay Friedman's Three Balconies. I assume the "wildly charismatic, self-destructive, marginally crazy" 1960s writer is meant to be Norman Mailer, but either way I don't think a reviewer should hint that a book is a roman a clef and then leave us guessing about the identity of the target.

The "humanities" quotient today is through the roof: Scott Stossel discusses American Therapy: The Rise of Psychotherapy in the United States by Jonathan Engel, Anthony Gottlieb walks us through Giordano Bruno: Philosopher, Heretic by Ingrid D. Rowland, and Kenneth Woodward sniffs at Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America by Gustav Niebuhr (Woodward, who also writes about comparative religion, seems annoyed that Niebuhr didn't write the book Woodward would have liked to write).

There's also an enthusiastic full page on poet Jeffrey Yang's abacedarian Aquarium and a Gregory Maguire piece on Laura Miller's The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia.

With so much high-minded content spread among 24 pages, who can possibly complain? Well, that's what they pay me for. I can't stand fatuous superlatives, as in Alex Wichtel's glossy cover piece on actor Christopher Plummer's autobiography In Spite Of Myself, which assures us that Plummer is the "finest classical actor of North America". I have nothing against Christopher Plummer, but in fact I once long ago trucked my sorry ass all the way out to Stratford, Connecticut to see him play Iago in a lavishly over-praised Othello featuring James Earl Jones in the title role. Joe Papp's humble Public Theater/Shakespeare in the Park has always been my local playing field for Shakespeare, and over the years I've been privileged to enjoy William Hurt as Oberon, Raul Julia as Macbeth, Kevin Kline as Hamlet, Diane Verona as Ophelia, Raul Julia as Prospero, Kevin Kline as Lear and much more. Midsummer Night's Dream with Hurt and The Tempest with Julia (and Barry Miller as Caliban) are the two productions I remember most fondly, and I also remember leaving Stratford, Connecticut after the wildly over-praised Othello wondering what the hell the big deal about Christopher Plummer's Iago was and why I had bothered to leave New York City just to see it. I'm sure In Spite Of Myself is a fine book, but I wish Alex Wichtel had spared the usual hyperbole, and I also wish everybody would admit that the only reason this is a "big book" is that Plummer played the nice-guy husband in The Sound of Music. It's not going to make the bestseller list because of his classical work.

Today's issue also contains a typically bland and predictable Henry Alford endpaper that I'd like to complain about. However, this is overall a worthwhile and well-intentioned Book Review.

I'll be on vacation by the time next weekend's NYTBR appears, but I'll be back working this beat again on the first weekend of 2009.


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