This isn't widely remembered today, but for about fifteen years Patti Smith was nearly as reclusive as J. D. Salinger. First she helped invent punk rock and released four superb albums in the 1970s, then she disappeared to marry fellow musician Fred "Sonic" Smith and live quietly as a mother and wife on the shores of Lake St. Clair in Michigan. She magically reappeared and resumed her transformative performance art in the mid-90s after her husband's sudden death, and now can be spotted happily walking around the vicinity of McDougal Street and Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, as natural as if she'd never left.
All of which is to say that there are many reasons why it would have been hard to believe several years ago that a memoir by Patti Smith would ever appear on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. One reason is that it's still hard to believe that Patti would ever write a memoir; another is is that, until fairly recently, the New York Times Book Review was rather too stodgy to have put her on the cover if she had. And when did the NYTBR stop being so stodgy? I've met editor Sam Tanenhaus, who has built his career upon "stodgy". This cannot have been his idea, so one of his deputies must get the credit.
Patti's memoir is called Just Kids and it's about her early years in the Warholesque New York City/St. Marks Place scene with her BFF Robert Mapplethorpe. Of course I'll read the book, and I don't really need to consult Tom Carson's mostly positive review to know there's a 99% chance I'll love it. Maybe someday she'll write about her 15 year seclusion and her return to live performance as well.
Candy Slice naturally eclipses the rest of this weekend's publication on first glance, though there's much else good here. Young novelist Wells Tower appraises his elder T. Coraghessan Boyle's Wild Child: Stories and delivers a carefully reasoned verdict: Boyle pulls off the title story (about the Wild Boy of Aveyron) but is elsewhere too haphazard, too careless with his ambitious plots. I'm impressed by Tower's analysis, though it's strange that he spends a full page describing Boyle's handling of the Wild Boy of Aveyron story without mentioning that Francois Truffaut made a great movie about the same subject, also titled Wild Child in English. Was Boyle's story inspired by Truffaut's film? Does Tower even know that this film exists? I'm sure I'm not the only reader stopped short by this question.
Liesl Schillinger frames Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's 36 Arguments for the Existence of God attractively, and I'm glad to learn that this book is a novel. I had seen its title but understood it literally; I'm glad it's a fictional treatment, because I already sat through Philosophy 101. Kaiama L. Glover introduces us to the main topics covered in Chinua Achebe's essay collection The Education of a British-Protected Child, and Amy Bloom steps us through some familiar but still important questions about the nature and sustainability of happiness in an endpaper that sweeps through a few recent books promising to help us attain it.
I'm sure a memoir by Patti Smith will bring more happiness than any self-help book, and on the Patti account I have only one slight complaint: several mentions in this Book Review might lead a Patti neophyte to think that her fame is based on her 1978 hit single "Because the Night". That song was a chart success, but I have one word to say to anybody who wants to know what the fuss was really about. Horses.
Nineteen years ago, a French translator and one-time publishing industry insider began writing a memoir of her time as Jack Kerouac's girlfriend in the mid 1950s. Helen Weaver had been affectionately immortalized by Kerouac (who, of course, wrote about every significant person in his life) as Ruth Heaper in Desolation Angels. Weaver spent a long time preparing her side of the story, and in the meantime many of Jack Kerouac's other lovers published memoirs: Off The Road by Carolyn Cassady, Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson, You'll Be Okay by Edie Kerouac-Parker, Nobody's Wife: The Smart Aleck and the King of the Beats by Joan Haverty Kerouac.
But The Awakener by Helen Weaver turns out to be worth waiting for. When the book begins, Weaver is a cheerful editorial assistant at Farrar Straus whose parents wanted to spoil her with luxury and good manners, but who instead chose to spoil herself with wild experience, cheap wine and bohemian style. She meets Jack Kerouac about a year before On The Road made him famous, and is immediately knocked out by his good looks. They bond easily but she can't endure his alcoholic inconsideration and eventually kicks him out of her apartment, at which point he hooks up with Joyce Johnson and the book's direct connection to Kerouac ends. But the story goes on: Weaver becomes briefly involved with Lenny Bruce, works with Susan Sontag on a groundbreaking edition of Antonin Artaud's poetry, finds peace as an astrologer, Buddhist and occasional activist. A smart confidence underlies her bemused feminine understatement, and this book is a summation of a deeply thoughtful life.
Some facts that surprised and pleased me as I read this book: that the original Broadway cast recording of Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady played a big role in Weaver and Kerouac's romance; that both Kerouac and Lenny Bruce, despite their much-documented excesses, managed to be sensitive and tender in her presence; that as a respected literary translator Weaver made it a game to find a way to place the title of a rock and roll song into every book she produced. The primitive rock and roll scene of the mid-1950s is a touchpoint for Weaver's life, and for her book: she was in her early 20s when Elvis Presley hit the scene, and most of her peers were too sophisticated for the new fad. Weaver, pointedly, was not.
The Awakener includes a funny later scene at Allen Ginsberg's apartment with ethnomusicologist Harry Smith, and an enjoyable account of the 1994 Beat Conference at New York University, where she reunited with many of her former friends and rivals for the last time. There's also much commentary on Buddhism, the Beat religion, which she only comes to accept later in life but seems to understand well.
The Awakener (the title refers indirectly to Kerouac's posthumously published Buddhist text Wake Up) is also valuable for calling attention to the often forgotten novel in which Weaver is fictionalized. The five Jack Kerouac novels that form the great core chronology, in my opinion, are On The Road, Subterraneans, Dharma Bums, Desolation Angels and Big Sur. Desolation Angels may be the most life-affirming of all Kerouac's works, and The Awakener nicely echoes this all-embracing and positive tone.
1. A Gulliver playground in Valencia, Spain.
2. Beat poet Andy Clausen on YouTube.
3. Amazingly, the Velvet Underground will be reuniting at the New York Public Library, though I'm not clear if this will be a talk, a musical performance or both. It's sad that late sweet-toned lead guitarist Sterling Morrison will be missing, but it's a nice surprise to see the reemergence of Doug Yule, who is widely disliked for replacing the great John Cale on bass after Reed kicked Cale out, but who helped them record their best album.
4. Jerome's Niece, a Buddhist poetry blog.
5. Onetime Heeb writer Jason Diamond offers a "Kaddish for Jewish Zines".
6. In the end, after a sluggish start, Electric Literature's much-discussed experiment with Twitter fiction turned up an excellent Rick Moody story about relationship anxiety, thwarted love and people who cling to their phones on dates. An excellent Rick Moody story, that is, but not necessarily an excellent Twitter story. Moody focused on the 140 character limit, but I think Twitter's most distinguishing feature is not its character count but its pacing and easy interpersonal immediacy (note: you can follow me on Twitter here). It became clear why Moody missed this when he revealed in an interview that he'd taken on this project because Electric Literature had asked him to, not because he had any actual interest in Twitter. There are many writers who do get Twitter -- say, Colson Whitehead, who is marvelous at it -- and I hope Electric Lit will turn to one of these writers for their next foray. Overall: great publicity, moving story, well done all around.
7. There will not be a Literary Kicks Best Books of 2009 list. Please excuse my grumpiness, but I mostly find these aggregate lists annoying and unremarkable. I do like to read personal lists of lifelong favorites by smart readers, but I don't care for annual lists or lists put together by groups.
8. Henry Rollins visits Bhopal, site of a chemical plant disaster 25 years ago.
9. For database techies, here's NoSQL. Elsewhere, here's just plain No.
10. I don't agree with this. I'm amazed at how good "The Office" manages to be, season after season. Sure, there are ups and downs, but this is one of those rare shows -- like "Twin Peaks", like "The Honeymooners" -- that represents television's ascent to the realm of literature. I will watch it until Jim and Pam drop dead.
1. This expressionist portrait of Joyce Carol Oates is one of many interpretations of modern authors by Swedish artist Carl Kohler, who died in 2006.
2. If you prefer cute to modern expressionist, here's John Pupdike on Etsy.
3. Sarah Palin's new memoir appears to be a hit, enraging many Americans who dislike her, but I think it's time for many of us to lighten up about this clever charmer. Palin is clearly not qualified to be President -- but then neither was George W. Bush and he actually got elected, whereas Sarah Palin does not seem interested in playing it safe and is really very unlikely to even get her party's nomination in 2012. I strongly disagree with almost everything she stands for, but I think it's a waste of effort for liberals to focus their anger on the one funny and brash big talker in the conservative gang, instead of on the countless bland mumbling nobodies selling similar platforms, like Mitt Romney, Joe Lieberman, Mitch McConnell, John Boehner and Dick Cheney.
I do thank God that John McCain and Sarah Palin did not win the last election, but I honestly believe that Sarah Palin was the less dangerous part of that ticket, if only because she appears to have no foreign policy agenda at all, unlike John "blood and guts" McCain, who wanted to be a war hero so bad he probably stormed the beaches at Normandy every night in his dreams.
Anyway, I do think a Jonathan Safran Foer vs. Sarah Palin cage match is great idea. And Tom Watson also semi-defends Sarah Palin here.
4. The American Library Association is looking for your essays about libraries.
5. Electric Literature will be tweeting a new work by Rick Moody. I have watched a few "tweeted novels" fly by, usually in disjointed reverse-chronological sentence fragments that repel any attempt at reading. Will these apparently clued-in folks find the formula that works? Hint: we write our tweets forward, but we read them backwards. Hint #2: if you're tweeting a novel and you can't make your sentences work at 140 characters or less, you're really not tweeting a novel.
6. I like these classic British rock stamps a lot.
7. A robotic version of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, on the other hand, just creeps me out.
8. Despite being billed as "best writing tips ever", Allen Ginsberg's newly published writing tips aren't quite as great as his friend Jack Kerouac's. But they are pretty good.
9. Maud Newton is related to Pretty Boy Floyd.
10. Was Nietzsche pious? Maybe so, maybe so.
11. Frequent LitKicks contributor and Proust expert Mike Norris on being an ESL teacher in Paris.
12. Some good literary agents who are looking for new writers.
Some of my literary/blogger friends have taken to tweeting their literary links. Not me -- I'm holding out for the blog format, just like McSweeney's is holding out for newspapers. Here's another roundup involving great writers and other finds ...
1. Nature magazine goes way back.
2. Orhan Pamuk's real-life Museum of Innocence.
3. The many facets of Roberto Bolano.
4. The many quirks of William Golding, who originally wanted Simon the Christ symbol to actually witness the arrival of God in his great Lord of the Flies.
5. PopMatters interviews Nicholson Baker.
6. Gregory Maguire, whose Wicked novel is much better than the Broadway musical created from it, joins in on an open publishing experiment.
7. Holocaust victim Horst Rosenthal had the idea for Maus before Art Spiegelman.
8. Jessa Crispin tells it like it is.
9. I had no idea that Stanley Kubrick got "Daisy" from a real singing computer.
10. In my opinion Nick Cave sang the best "Stagger Lee".
11. Bill Ectric presents an excerpt from Tamper.
12. Probably inspired by Clarence Clemens's enjoyable and funny new book Big Man, Bruce Springsteen may write an autobiography. All the newspapers are blubbering about the size of his advance, but why shouldn't he get $10 million? He's that good, and I would love to read this book.
Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky's Memories of the Future is a tougher call for me. Liesl Schillinger invokes Gogol and Kafka (three separate times) in her account of this long-dead early Soviet-era modernist's career collection, but I find myself reading between the lines to detect a strong note of weariness in this putatively positive review. Krzizhanovsky clearly likes to explore the fictional boundaries between surreal dreaminess and reality, and personally I know I can live without a lot of fiction that covers this territory. I always like Liesl Schillinger's sympathetic reviewing style, but at times I wonder: is she capable of actually panning a book she doesn't like? That's not to say that she doesn't like this one as much as she claims to, but after finishing her review I know that I never ever want to read this book.
It's more fun when a critic just goes apeshit on a respectable book he doesn't like, as Tom Shone does with Jan Kjaerstad's The Discoverer:
Reviewing books doesn't often feel like real work -- not the kind of work that makes you break a sweat or join a union. So when an editor from the New York Times calls you up and asks if you want to review a new novel from Norway, and the nmovel turns out to be not only over 400 pages long and largely set in a fjord, but also Part 3 of a trilogy, Parts 1 and 2 of which ran to over 1,000 pages, with multiple narrators and a nonlinear time scheme -- yeesss -- then you jump at the chance to take your place as a worker among workers.
This is only one of several funny sequences in which Shone demolishes this book. I know little about Kjaerstad and have no idea whether this assault is deserved or not. But I did have fun reading it.
Further brainy material in this Book Review includes Josh Emmons on The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?, which apparently is constructed mainly from questions, David Hajdu on Robert Crumb's illustrated Genesis and Gaiutra Bahadur on Amit Chaudhuri's The Immortals, which seems to have something to do with the Bengali raga scene. Less brainy material includes Mary Duenwald on Juliet, Naked, the latest Nick Hornsby book I won't be reading.
Speaking of books I won't be reading, Gregory Cowles is very kind to Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City in a lush cover piece. I've expressed my lack of affection for Lethem's fiction enough elsewhere, so I'll just keep quiet about this one. Whatever you like, Book Review.
I respect book reviewer and Internet-culture critic John Freeman, author of The Tyranny of Email -- in fact, I've exchanged emails with Mr. Freeman (true to his dislike of the form, his email style is very brief). I would be excited to read nearly any book by John Freeman, so I'm disappointed to find he's got nothing better to do than join Lee Siegel and Andrew Keen on the bash-the-Internet bandwagon. These kinds of books feel simplistic and obvious to me, and future generations are sure to laugh at them all. At least Ben Yagoda seems to get it, and takes Freeman's book convincingly to task for assuming that technological innovation can only have a destructive, never a constructive, effect on human creativity.
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 ...
Is it a smart editorial strategy for the Book Review to unhinge itself from its Sunday roots, to dissipate its articles amorphously and asynchronously into the "cloud" so that a Book Review article is just another distinct blip, another node? If the Book Review loses its lazy weekend aura and its collective identity, what of it will be left? I'm not sure. I hope the Times knows what it's doing here.
With that said: Maureen Dowd's review of The Lost Symbol is a disappointment. She mocks Dan Brown for writing about a subject as silly as the Masons, which means she is apprehending this book on the most superficial possible level: embarrassment. She won't even enter its world, won't even suspend disbelief, because there might be men with funny hats in this book. Her wisecracks about the Masons are weak and predictable, as when she refers to a famous painting of George Washingon "wearing full Masonic regalia, including a darling little fringed satin apron". Right, and in India they wear towels on their heads. As silly as it may seem today, the Masonic movement has a serious intellectual past, and it's a shame that Maureen Dowd's article refuses to rise above the level of smirking condescension at the very idea of the topic:
In interviews, Brown has said he was tempted to join the Masons, calling their philosophy a "beautiful blueprint for human spirituality." In the next opus, Langdon will probably be wearing a red Shriner's fez with his Burberry turtleneck and Harris tweed.
Maureen Dowd risks nothing in this review, but Nicholas Wade dares to challenge the blustery popular athiest Richard Dawkins in his review of The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution. The book claims that Darwinian evolution should no longer be called a theory, since it has been proven to be fact. Wade corrects him: evolution can never be anything but a scientific theory -- a very good one, but still a theory -- though historians can rightfully consider evolution a historical fact. Wade parses a difficult argument skillfully here.
There's a riveting piece by Joshua Hammer on Francine Prose's new study Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, which finds in Anne Frank's diary not a random case of "found art" but rather a carefully constructed memoir by a very young "genius" who understood that she was doomed and wanted to leave a testament behind. Elizabeth Samet comes up with an arresting thesis in her review of William Styron's Suicide Run: Five Tales of the Marine Corps: Styron's military career never brought him into combat, and he therefore suffered from a literary equivalent of survivor's guilt.
A. S. Byatt's latest novel The Children's Book sounds like a real corker, as described by Jennifer Schuessler, as does A Bomb In Every Issue, Peter Richardson's history of Ramparts magazine, reviewed by Jack Shafer. Bruce Handy hits at least one nail on the head in his satisfying endpaper about the upcoming Spike Jonze/Dave Eggers film version of Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are: there is not much in this book to hang a movie on to, and a lot of kids never liked the book to begin with. Handy's article helps me understand my own lack of interest in seeing this movie, even though I'm happy to look at the dreamy film stills and previews. But Handy also writes:
Having now cheerfully dumped on a bunch of classics, I feel better.
Hmm. Was that really the best choice of words?
Elsewhere in today's New York Times, Oxford University Press linguist Ben Zimmer offers a nice tribute to William Safire in the Magazine, on the page where Safire's column used to be found.
My great-grandfather Elias Trichter was a Mason, a member of the Cambridge Lodge 622 of the Free and Accepted Masonic Guild of Brooklyn, New York. He died before I was born, but I inherited an elaborate plaque, titled MASONIC HISTORY and signed and stamped to commemorate his initiation as a Master Mason on February 21, 1910, witnessed by brothers Mortimer Carman, Howard J. Fitzpatrick and James A. Nixon.
The plaque is decorated with biblical scenes and scientific and engineering symbols, all revolving around a large illuminated letter "G" (said to stand for either Geometry, God or both). The Masons are known to be a quasi-religious organization that respects all religions, and the fact that my great-grandfather, an Orthodox Jew, congregated here with fellow Brooklynites named Carman, Fitzpatrick and Nixon proves this to be more than an empty claim. I'd love to know what they did at this lodge, though I imagine it was more recreational than mystical. Perhaps joining a lodge was the social networking of its time.
Today, it's easy to make fun of Masons and Shriners and the International Orders of the Friendly Sons of the Raccoons (as the fake Masonic Lodge in Brooklyn that Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton belonged to in The Honeymooners was called). A condescending New York Times article by Maureen Dowd about Dan Brown's popular Masonic-themed novel The Lost Symbol (also known as the book that will save publishing) is fairly sarcastic about Dan Brown's interest in the Masonic tradition:
During the five years he researched this book, did Brown begin to believe those sensational stories about how, if you expose the secrets of the Masons, they will slit your throat? Did he discover that the Masons are not merely a bunch of old guys dressed up in funny costumes enjoying a harmless night away from the wives? Could they really be, as a recent Discovery Channel documentary on the ancient order wondered, "Godless conspirators bound to a death pledge who infiltrate institutions and run the world"?
It's also easy to make fun of Dan Brown's novels. Like The Da Vinci Code, which it resembles closely, The Lost Symbol is shamelessly over-plotted and requires a willing suspension of disbelief. However, readers of "fine literature" should not necessarily stay away.
For all Dan Brown's excesses, his books are undoubtedly intelligent -- not in a "correct" way but in terms of historical ambition and research. In The Lost Symbol we are pounded with surprising facts about the history of several buildings in the Washington DC area. We are introduced to Albrecht Durer, Ben Franklin and Isaac Newton. Several puzzles involving ancient religious and mathematical symbols are introduced, and in the end everything fits together like the gears of a handmade clock.
As in Da Vinci Code, the intricate detail work involved in plotting this phantasmagoria is hard to imagine. I know a lot about history, but I cannot imagine the amount of research Dan Brown must have done to have been able to make this book as satisfying as it is. It took him five years to write The Lost Symbol and I bet he worked every day of these five years.
The Lost Symbol is more philosophically ambitious than Da Vinci Code, and after the primary conflicts are resolved Brown tips his hand with a multi-chapter coda that reaches almost preachily for a big message. Religious truth that transcends petty rivalries between debased human religions is part of this message; Brown also invokes Carl Jung and Albert Einstein in positing a collective human consciousness, and urges us to believe that in their purest forms religion and science must converge. These are progressive and revelatory messages, and I'm glad millions of people are reading this book. I wonder if my great-grandfather Elias Trichter would have enjoyed it as much as I did.
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.