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April 15, 2005

Short Notes from My Literary Social Diary

by Ron Hogan

  • Met up Wednesday morning for a late breakfast with Diana Abu-Jaber, who was in New York to read from The Language of Baklava at 192 Books. In addition to discovering that we're at the same literary agency, Diana and I both confessed that we were impressed at the literary savviness of the editorial folks at Real Simple; the month after running an excerpt from her memoir, the magazine published an original essay from Jonathan Safran Foer on how he became a vegetarian. (Diana's still on the road, and I think I may be able to get her to send me a report from a major festival soon, so keep your eyes peeled...)

  • Wednesday night, Pearl and I went to the New School to see Amy Hempel and Francine Prose read from their most recent books. Turns out that the reading was on Al Green's birthday, so Hempel read the short story "Jesus is Waiting," in which the eponymous Green song features prominently, from The Dog of the Marriage, while Prose read a scene from A Changed Man in which the reformed neo-Nazi protagonist confesses "Al Green changed [his] life," specifically invoking "Love and Happiness." There were a few minor glitches getting the music tracks to introduce each reading, but otherwise the evening went off fairly smoothly, and the room was packed.

  • Last night, the New York Public Library hosted a conversation between, in the words of events coordinator Paul Holdengräber, "two very naughty boys": cartoonist Robert Crumb and one of his biggest fans, art critic Robert Hughes, who's not just a snob, he joked early on--"I am, as they say in Australia," he boomed, "a fucking elitist." (Crumb, by contrast, described himself as "a total child of popular culture.") I was only able to stay for the first part of their discussion, where Crumb was describing his family background, but I have seen The R. Crumb Handbook, which was the underlying motivation for the event: heady stuff, and the room full of eager fans (the guys behind me in line were close enough readers to make "here comes Crumb's girlfriend" jokes about the thick-legged women in boots walking past us) undoubtedly snagged plenty of copies, as they were hanging on his every word when I ducked out...

  • dash to the 92nd Street Y in order to make it on time for an evening of classical poetry. Rachel Hadas introduced three translators of Latin and Greek verse, beginning with her mentor, Robert Fagles. "Homer is always with us," he told the audience, "especially in times of war," and apparently he was getting a lot of media requests last year as reporters tried to make some connection between the Iliad and the invasion of Iraq. "Is there a Rumsfeld in the Iliad?" one journalist asked, to which he replied, "Not that I know of, but isn't one enough?" But on to the poetry: Fagles read his stirring account of the death of Patroclus, then switched to the Odyssey for the underworld encounter between Odysseus and his mother's spirit, followed by the reunion between the returning hero and his wife.

    David Ferry came up with his new translation of Virgil's Georgics; he skipped around a bit--the passages dealing with disasters and portents particularly stood out in my memory--before closing with the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Charles Martin played off that, as his extract from Ovid's Metamorpheses began with Orpheus telling of Venus and Adonis, with a metafictional interlude in which Venus tries to warn Adonis of the dangers of wild beasts by telling him the story of Atalanta and Hippomenes, whom she turned into lions for failing to show her proper reverence. It was a lively passage; Martin's translation is a thing of remarkable panache, as funny as Fagles and Ferry were moving. (Well, there's probably some moving bits in Martin's Ovid, too, which I'll get around to discovering one day...)

  • And while I'll be running around at a lot of PEN World Voices events this weekend, I wish I could be at Boss Tweed's Saturday night, where Kenneth Ackerman will be reading from his acclaimed biography of New York's greatest political organizer. Apparently there's even going to be nickel beers in Tweed's memory!

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