Here's some stuff I've checked out and liked lately:
It's annoying that Keith Richards is more widely known today for his long-past hard-partying rock star excesses than for being (still) a world-class musician and songwriter. I almost didn't want to read his extensive, acclaimed new autobiography Life because I'm not interested in hearing "the stories", and I certainly don't care about the legend. But I do care about the great music and career of the Rolling Stones, so I dove into the book, and was immediately captured by the author's warm, thoughtful voice.
Life is at its best when Keith Richards talks about the music, about rhythm guitar, about the wisdom of Chicago blues (as he understood it growing up in Dartford, a suburb of London). There are brilliant passages about the lazy guitar tricks used by Jimmy Reed, about the difference between six-string standard tuning and five-string open tuning, about what it's like to collaborate with the talented but egotistical Mick Jagger. Richards is laying down an ethical point of view in this memoir: he values friends (male and female) and close family (his parents and his children) above all else, he laughs at the trappings of fame (his disgusted reaction to Mick Jagger's recent knighthood is fun to read), he reads avidly and keeps a vast library in his own house, he works hard as hell to make every Stones record and concert as good as it can be. He also gave up heroin thirty years ago, and I hope this book will help people realize that junkie-hood was never the most interesting thing about Keith Richards.
It's almost 2011, and the Beat Generation is as hot a topic as ever. Especially when it comes to new movies. Here's the rundown:
1. Way back in 1952, long before Howl, long before On The Road, the phrase "Beat Generation" appeared for the first time in a New York Times Magazine Article by an up-and-coming New York City writer, John Clellon Holmes. Holmes, a good friend of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and a founding member of the original Beat circle in New York City, also wrote several novels that were respectably reviewed. But he lacked the charisma and theatricality of the later Beat writers, and struggled for literary success even as his friends reached explosive levels of fame.
It's only because of these legendary friends, and not because of his own fiction, that John Clellon Holmes merits an extensive literary biography by Ann and Samuel Charters today. Brother-Souls: John Clellon Holmes, Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation is unusual among literary biographies because its hero never had a breakout success. Instead, he filled out his career with dead end manuscripts, odd magazine assignments and college teaching jobs. In this sense, Brother-Souls is actually a more accurate glimpse of how most writers live than any typical biography of a famous writer. Still, mostly due to Ann and Sam Charters' obvious affection for their subject (who was their close friend), a poignant and meaningful storyline emerges. The most surprising chapters take place during the 1960s, when Holmes and his wife Shirley attempt to find their own inroads into the swinging counterculture by experimenting earnestly (and at a very intellectual level) with free love and group sex. These experiments failed more often than not, sometimes leaving deep psychic wounds behind, and the chronicles of these failures (which Holmes himself later tried to publish a book about) provide a new angle -- an Updikeean angle, surprisingly enough -- on the famous legend of the Beats. Brother-Souls, though clearly a labor of love by the Charters team, is a nice addition to their body of work (Ann Charters wrote the first biography of Jack Kerouac, many decades ago).
1. This rather remarkable painting, titled Hansel and Gretel, was painted by Zelda Fitzgerald in 1947.
2. Speaking of difficult literary ex-wives: earlier this year I wrote an article about T. S. Eliot's Possum's Book of Practical Cats and the Broadway show Cats in which I suggested that the authors must have invented the character of Grizabella to represent Vivienne Eliot, the great poet and critic's first wife, whose life ended in a quiet mental institution. A strongly-worded comment has been posted to my blog article by an anonymous person who appears to be familiar with the T. S. Eliot estate. This person agrees with my conjecture about Grizabella, and points out that a controversy remains over the Eliot estate's attitude towards Vivienne Eliot's legacy. If you're interested in this topic, please read the long comment by "Coerulescent" and judge for yourself.
3. The Moth, an excellent literary storytelling revue, wanted to hear stories about "transformations". I don't think they could have chosen a much better participant for this challenge than Laura Albert, who delivered a moving piece about becoming and unbecoming J. T. Leroy, and about the ridiculous hassles that followed her "exposure". I'm proud to say I stood by Laura even when few others did. Congrats to Laura for finding her way back as a writer; watch the video!
The last decade has brought a massive infusion of new talent to crime fiction and its sub-genres. Brilliant young writers all over the world are brushing off stale literary conventions and using their formidable skills to write stories in which things actually happen. And with these guys – they’re usually very bad things.
Carrying the torch are James Ellroy, Dennis Lehane, and Ken Bruen – the unholy trinity of modern crime. But coming up fast from the shadows is a fierce new breed of gifted writers. They’re bringing a new level of violence and linguistic excellence to the craft and giving life to some of the darkest visions put to paper since Poe was found floating in a Baltimore gutter.
These are the 10 to look out for the next time you’re out after dark:
1. Charlie Huston writes ultra-violent pulp so fluid it cuts out the middleman and projects itself straight to your brainpan in digital HD. Huston always delivers, but the 3-part Henry Thompson series is a great place to start. It starts when Henry, a typical NY bartender with a coulda-been-a-contender story stumbles into the crosshairs of the Russian mob. By the end, he’s a rusty, pill-popping hitman submitting to indentured servitude to keep his parents alive. Along the way, he discovers a knack for killing and leaves a trail of bodies leading to a Grand Guignol finale that kicks like a tweaker on Cops. Warning: Don’t start a Huston book unless you’re ready to forego unessential activities (like bathing and sleeping) for days. His work is best described as paper crack.
The San Francisco Chronicle said John Reed "excels in the realm of the strange". Reed is the author of four previous books, including Snowball's Chance and All the World's a Grave: A New Play by William Shakespeare. He teaches creative writing at the New School and Columbia University and is on the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle.
His most recent title is Tales of Woe, published by MTV Press. The book is a compendium of true-life tragedies. However, Reed has done something subtly yet artistically important: instead of choosing tales that have a redeeming moral message or happy ending, he has deliberately chosen ones that do not. And he has done so for a morally serious reason: he wants to underline that life is sometimes brutally unfair. Justice, in other words, can be the result of how human beings do (or do not) organize their affairs as much as it can be the result of providential "forces".
I spoke with Reed by email and phone in August of this year.
FINN: Is the book partly an antidote to the Pollyanna-ish "arc" of so much contemporary culture? In other words, was it written in part to say, this is part of the truth of life on earth?
JOHN: That's it, exactly. Sin, suffering, redemption. That's the news, that's the movie, that's what they tell you to keep your hope alive, to keep you from accepting how much unhappiness there is, not only in your life, but in the world. It's not an accident, that story, it's a convenience of the class that own us. You'd think that model -- sin, suffering, redemption -- would make you feel better about life. Maybe it does for a few minutes, but it can't really help; you try to apply that model to your life, you'll meet with misery and resistance, because that model is bullshit.
Sometime during the crazy mid-1990s, young graffiti artist and Chicago activist William "Upski" Wimsatt wrote Bomb the Suburbs, one of the quintessential early Soft Skull books. The title was an attention grabber, though of course to "bomb" a place is to spray-paint your tag on a wall, and no call to violence was ever intended.
But a few more crazy years have passed since the mid-90s, and some places around the world really have gotten bombed -- Oklahoma City, New York City and the Pentagon, Iraq and Afghanistan -- and the title of Wimsatt's new book Please Don't Bomb The Suburbs (published, this time around, by Akashic) deals with these changes head-on. The author's introduction explains the conundrums he's faced:
I had nothing to do with the Oklahoma City bombing. It was 180 degrees opposite of my values and worldview. Yet suddenly, the title of my book wasn't so cute anymore. After September 11, it became even less cute.
Fast-forward to 2008. A lot of my friends were involved in the Obama campaign. I had been campaigning for social change for twenty years. This was the most exciting and important campaign of my lifetime. I was already volunteering. And one of my friends asked me to be on an advisory committee. Exciting. *Just send me your resume, you'll be vetted and then* --
Whoa, vetted. Forgot that part.
The minutes get shorter, the walls start to close in
Feels like the brain is hanging on but with clothes pins
I've hidden in the darkness for too long
I make it look all right but in the inside its so wrong
I want life to change but I don't know if it can
for a man or machine or whatever the fuck I am
I stand alone burned every bridge over the troubled water
No longer hiding from my personality disorder
-- Even Shadows Have Shadows
1. I first heard of Eyedea a couple of years ago from my son (who also tells me about Cage, Aesop Rock, Yak Ballz, Slug, etc.). The talented rapper from St. Paul, Minnesota suddenly died this weekend, at age 28. There's still no word about how it happened.
2. I really don't know what it means, probably nothing, that Eyedea was from Franzen country.
3. Was the Cadbury factory in Birmingham, England an inspiration for Roald Dahl's Wonka works?
"This is the best part of the trip, this is the trip, the best part" -- Jim Morrison, “The Soft Parade”
The final volume of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, Time Regained, opens with a visit M. pays to newlyweds Gilberte and Robert de Saint-Loup at Tansonville, their estate in Combray. He takes long walks around the village with Gilberte, following the same paths that he took as a boy. Although Combray has remained unchanged, he is unable to recapture the pleasures of his childhood strolls. Then Gilberte astounds him by telling him that he can get to the Guermantes’ manor by taking the route that passes Méséglise – Swann’s way. M. has always believed the Guermantes way and Swann’s way to be irreconcilable; now he finds they are connected. His world is about to change, and many of his boyhood assumptions will be shattered.
M.’s interlude at Combray is brief. During his stay, Saint-Loup is away most of the time, ostensibly on business, but actually pursuing Morel; Gilberte makes herself up to look like Robert’s old mistress Rachel, in an attempt to win him back; and M. bemoans his lack of talent for literature. There is then a gap of several years, which M. spends in a sanatorium for his health. The story picks up again in Paris during World War I.
"Why the hell do I want to see a movie about Facebook?" a friend said about The Social Network, the new film about the geeky young entrepreneur who created Facebook. "Don't I get enough of it everywhere else?"
That might be the best reason not to see the movie, but it's quite a film, and possibly even a future classic (I bet it will get nominated for a few Academy Awards too). It's a serious movie that revolves around a moral question: what does it mean that everybody's favorite social network was built by an awkward, alienated college student who had lots of trouble making friends?
Those who resent Facebook's intrusion into our common privacy can enjoy some zuckerfreude here, because young Mark Zuckerberg's personality is splayed out in the most unflattering poses -- and yet he remains, in Jesse Eisenberg's deft impersonation, mostly charming and lovable. Unlike many of his fellow nerds who haunt the social circles around Harvard University during the movie's early scenes, skinny nervous Zuckerberg is naive but never quite shy. He has strange reservoirs of confidence, rooted perhaps in his mastery of Linux and Apache. He tries boldly to puzzle out the social codes -- attitude, style -- that lead to popularity on campus. But these are puzzles he can't seem to solve, and he is forced to face this uncomfortable truth repeatedly. The long journey of coding that ends with the creation of Facebook begins in a desultory dorm-room cloud of romantic misery after Zuckerberg's semi-girlfriend unceremoniously dumps him. Thus was Facebook born.
1. After a whole lot of passionate (and incorrect) guessing, Mario Vargas Llosa has won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature (the dapper fellow above just announced it on a live webcast from Stockholm). I must admit that, while I once enjoyed hearing from this Peruvian novelist at a New York reading with Umberto Eco and Salman Rushdie, I don't know much about his work as a whole. I'm looking forward to learning more. And, yeah, I do wish Ngugi wa Thiong'o had taken it. Maybe next year.
2. A Ted Hughes poem dealing directly with his wife Sylvia Plath's suicide has been revealed for the first time.
3. I like Julie Taymor and I really like William Shakespeare's The Tempest, so I'm pretty psyched about a new Julie Taymor film of The Tempest, starring Helen Mirren as a female Prospero, along with the likes of Russell Brand and Alan Cumming in various roles.