I wrote an article this week for Jewcy, a new online magazine devoted to Jewish culture in all its shapes and forms. It's about being a Jewish-born Buddhist, and it's called Speaking Up For The Bu-Jus.
I've been fascinated by religions -- all of them -- since I was a little kid. I guess that's why I now claim two, not one, for myself. I've also been very influenced in my life by the great teachings of Jesus, who was every bit as powerful a philosopher as Buddha. But the historical trappings of Christianity don't please me much (I don't think they'd please Jesus either), whereas nearly every aspect of the Buddhist religion appeals to me. I guess a guy ought to have the right to choose his religion, and that's why I wrote this short article.
2. I've always been interested in the real-life stories behind great works of fiction, so this Jezebel gallery is up my alley. Most of these are familiar, but I didn't know that Humbert Humbert's road trip with Lolita Haze was based on a real news story.
It's easy to misunderstand a book about religion. My first impression of Stephen Prothero's God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run The World -- And Why Their Differences Matter was not good; I read a summary of the book he wrote for the Boston Globe that seemed to strain for Tea Party relevance by mocking the popular idea (attributed to the likes of the Dalai Lama) that all religions are the same, and hinting that this had something to do with national security:
... this lumping of the world’s religions into one megareligion is not just false and condescending, it is also a threat. How can we make sense of the ongoing conflict in Kashmir if we pretend that Hinduism and Islam are one and the same? Or of the impasse in the Middle East, if we pretend that there are no fundamental disagreements between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam?
I went to hear him speak two months ago in New York City, and happily found Stephen Prothero to be more subtle and moderate in person than his publicity department probably wants him to be. HarperCollins may be trying to ride God Is Not One on the coattails of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great. They even swung him an appearance on the Colbert Report, where, again, he came across as thoughtful and knowledgeable, and clearly no firebrand.
1. Sixty pianos have been placed around various New York City parks and plazas, providing a nice summer surprise. During the last five days I heard a soul ballad at Grand Army Plaza, Doo-wop in Washington Square, a klezmer melody at St. Mark's Place, and, at Fort Greene Park, an unusual performance of a classical piece by a young kid who was either using Schoenberg's twelve-note system or had his left hand in the wrong position. I also banged out some blues riffs of my own at Fort Greene Park before visiting the nearby Greenlight Bookstore. These pianos are part of a multi-city "work of art" called Play Me I'm Yours. I'm not sure exactly what it means to classify these pianos as an "artwork", but they sure are pleasing the people of New York City (I especially notice a lot of parent/child interaction at these pianos) and I hope they'll repeat it every summer.
2. "I do like a very quiet life," says W. S. Merwin, who has just been appointed the new U. S. Poet Laureate. What a boring choice. Well, I haven't felt a U. S. Poet Laureate since Donald Hall. The most interesting thing I know about W. S. Merwin is that he once got into a terrible battle with Allen Ginsberg and Ginsberg's Tibetan guru over an episode of forced nakedness at a poetry party (this weird history is chronicled in a previous Litkicks article, When Hippies Battle: The Great W. S. Merwin/Allen Ginsberg Beef of 1975). Beyond this, I just see Merwin as a poet who wins a lot of poetry awards without (as far as I've ever known) personally touching many people. And I can't help think of a recent article by Anis Shivani that eviscerates David Lehman's annual poetry anthologies, and says something about our contemporary academic poetry scene as a whole, a scene more obsessed with status updates than Facebook.
I've read a lot of T. S. Eliot in my life, and I write about him rather often too. But I'd never seen the musical Cats, based on his whimsical late work Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, until last week when Caryn took me and my stepdaughter to see a regional production in Northern Virginia.
The fact that I've avoided this extremely popular musical for so long is especially surprising since I also enjoy the work of Andrew Lloyd Webber, who wrote Evita and, a real old favorite of mine, Jesus Christ Superstar. I suppose I was put off by the proposition of watching grown men and women writhe pretentiously in cat costumes while calling each other Rumpleteazer and Rum Tum Tugger. The play was aggressively marketed as a lush visual marvel when it originally opened in the early 1980s. I disdained it as a sort of feline "Nutcracker Suite" -- precious, pretty and not for me. I suspect that many other T. S. Eliot aficionados out there have avoided the show for the same reason.
Screw stuff white people like. This is stuff I like:
1. With Amazon Crossing, the well-funded online bookstore is taking an active role in publishing international authors across boundaries. Good move, Amazon. Speaking of international authors, a fifth Words Without Borders anthology, Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East, is coming out. Way to be productive, WWB!
2. Something else we like: Ghostbusters invade the main branch of the New York Public Library to protest library budget cuts. What's really interesting about this latest effort by Improv Everywhere is that the apparently desperate New York Public Library actually allowed it to take place (though they don't seem to have warned the people in the library). Nice! We've gone way beyond "ssssssh!" by now.
North of the Liffey River in the center of the city, across the street from a large hospital, you can still find 7 Eccles Street, where the novel's optimistic everyman hero Leopold Bloom lived with his wife Molly, his enigmatic cat and (presumably) an icebox full of kidneys, giblets and other strange foods which he ate with relish. Here's the house in a 1950 photo, and here's the the Google map itself.
Ron Hogan -- media journalist (GalleyCat, Beatrice), marketing strategist and the only literary blogger I know who's been doing it as long as I have -- has just published an unusual book: Getting Right With Tao: A Contemporary Spin on the Tao Te Ching.
It happens I share Ron's fascination with the Tao Te Ching, an ancient Chinese religious/philosophical text ascribed to a mysterious author named Lao Tzu, and with the set of ideas and traditions known as Taoism. The original Tao Te Ching is unquestionably a masterpiece, and the strong philosophy it presents has much in common with later movements like Buddhism, Transcendentalism and Existentialism. I still have my beloved, very beat-up Penguin Classic copy I bought in college; like Thoreau's Walden or Emerson's essays, this is a book you can pick up and return to often when you need inspiration or advice.
Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, the novel on the cover of today's New York Times Book Review, has a hell of a back story. The author was decorated for extreme bravery in combat as a Marine in Vietnam, and then spent 30 years composing a fictional representation of his experience. Reviewer Sebastian Junger is obviously impressed by the back story -- who wouldn't be? -- but I can't help reading between the lines of his article and wondering if the book's main value isn't in the simulated suffering it provides:
The truth about war is that it contains nearly unbearable levels of repetition, boredom and meaninglessness. To write honestly about war, you should make readers feel they have endured those things as well. Yet no sane novelist wants to inflict that much discomfort on the audience.
Why is there so little good old-fashioned literary satire on the scene today? Reviewing Sam Lipsyte's The Ask in todays New York Times Book Review, Lydia Millet examines:
Literary satire has become a rare form in America over the past three decades. When it does make an appearance, it almost passes for a nostalgic gesture despite its typically cutting-edge content. As a result, Lipsyte is one of a handful of living American satirists (and when I say “handful” I mean a very tiny hand, with three fingers at most, including the thumb) who can tell a traditional story while remaining foul-mouthed and dirty enough to occupy the literary vanguard. This stuff wouldn’t play well at, say, meetings of the D.A.R. — too bad in a way, because it might not hurt them to hear it. Lipsyte is not only a smooth sentence-maker, he’s also a gifted critic of power.