December 14, 2005

Whiskey Robber Meets Orientalist

Longtime FOB (Friend of Beatrice, not Bill) Julian Rubinstein has lined up an evening of "discussion, music, snacks, booze, [and] bank robbers" with Tom Reiss, who wrote one of my favorite nonfiction books of 2005, The Orientalist. See them in action at Housing Works Café tonight at 7 p.m.

December 12, 2005

Lincoln & Theater: This Time, They Mix Well

goodwin.jpgYou know, I keep meaning to get out to the Miller Theater and its "Theater of Ideas" lecture series, but stuff keeps coming up. So I'm going to miss tonight's conversation between Bill Goldstein (the guy who put the NYTBR online) and Doris Kearns Goodwin about her new book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. I started reading it a while back, and though I really need to find a week or so when I can read nothing else, the opening chapters of her exploration of Lincoln's cabinet were totally fascinating. If any of you go, you'll probably have a great time.

December 07, 2005

Go See My Friends!

Book blogger Lizzie Skurnick is going to be reading from her poetry collection, Check In, at Jen Bekman's hip SoHo gallery early tonight. Admission's free, but you'd better call ahead to see if they'll be able to squeeze you into the little storefront.

And tomorrow night, you can see Diana Abu-Jaber, novelist and Beatrice guest blogger, reading at The Next Stage in Greenwich Village.

December 01, 2005

Literary Comrades

My friends Elyssa East and Suzanne Dottino will be reading with Rivka Bernstein tonight at KGB for "Columbia MFA Night." Suzanne's usually the one setting up KGB readings—she runs the bar's Sunday night fiction series—so this is a chance to actually hear her own work! And another chum, Jennifer Sturman, will be reading from her second novel, The Jinx, tonight at Partners & Crime. Both events start at 7 p.m.

November 17, 2005

An Evening Packed with All-Star Poets

Remember our coverage of last year's reading by the chancellors of the Academy of American Poets? Well, it's time for the latest installment, so get yourself to CUNY's Proshansky Auditorium (34th & 5th) by 7 p.m. tonight for readings by C. K. Williams, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Frank Bidart, Galway Kinnell, Heather McHugh, Philip Levine, Robert Hass, Susan Howe, Susan Stewart, and Yusef Komunyakaa.

November 14, 2005

My First Bookstore Appearance!

Paper has the scoop on tomorrow night's event to celebrate the publication of The Stewardess Is Flying the Plane! at the Borders on the corner of Park & 57th:

"Ron Hogan and Joe Bob Briggs, author of Profoundly Erotic, come together to discuss the golden age of experimental filmmaking in the 1970s. Sure, this creative outburst was probably all fueled by lots and lots of fantastic drugs, but we’re not complainin'!"

6:30 p.m. See you there!

November 04, 2005

From Beatrice to Broadway

Wednesday night, I got to see my friend N.M. Kelby, who you've met on this blog before, make her Broadway debut as her short story "Jubilation, Florida" was read at Symphony Space as part of the Selected Shorts series. On her own blog, she reveals her feelings on hearing Patricia Kalember bring her words to life...and on watching the audience respond.

The rest of the show was pretty cool, too. Eli Wallach read a Simenon story, and Paul Hecht did a great job with an Aimee Bender tale. Plus the crew of One Story, which originally published "Jubilation," were handing out free copies in the back of the theater. Once people figured out that, yes, they were free, and they could take any or all of the six stories on hand, they really seemed to get into it.

October 27, 2005

I Need to Get Out More...

...or I need to call ahead a lot earlier. I'd phoned 192 Books this afternoon about the Frederic Tuten reading tonight, celebrating the reissue of The Adventures of Mao on the Long March, but the man who answered the phone said they'd taken all the reservations they could. Well, perhaps it's for the best; I suppose I could use an extra night to recuperate from the cold I picked up last weekend. Heck, I can even start reading the book!

But I'm also missing out on a KGB reading for Behind the Book, a non-profit "dedicated to developing a life-long love of reading and writing in young people" by bringing authors to schools where they can interact with students. A.M. Homes and Adam Rapp are reading tonight; there will be further readings to come, but you can also donate directly to the group or offer to volunteer.

October 20, 2005

"Cool Customer:" Joan Didion at the 92nd St. Y

Asked whether she wanted an autopsy of her husband, Joan Didion said yes. She also wanted to be there, in the room, though she knows how gruesome autopsies are. Why? To know what happened; to be there; to see. This is also why she writes, and so The Year of Magical Thinking is a book written in order to know what happened, perhaps to absorb and believe it. It is possible that the human need to recite the details of trauma and grief is always a way of making it real. “Later I realized that I must have repeated the details of what happened to everyone who came to the house in those first weeks…I have no memory of telling anyone the details, but I must have done so, because everyone seemed to know them.”

Ms. Didion compared non-fiction writing to sculpture, in which you have a large unformed mass, your notes, your mountain of research, and your thoughts, at which you then chip away to give it shape. With fiction, she said, you have nothing, you have to make it all up. “You wake up every morning only with a smile and a shoeshine… You have to re-animate yourself every morning.” You ask yourself “whether the world really needs another novel, and does it need this novel. After which, you don’t get interested again in this novel until 5 p.m.”

And now I must go back to asking those questions of my novel.

Camaje to Host New Orleans Benefit

If you're reading this from the Beatrice home page, you may have noticed that I've already found an advertiser to take the first of the site's two adspaces. I'm mentioning here because it's actually a free ad that I'm running for a benefit event this coming Sunday organized by Beatrice guest blogger Emily Gordon:

Poetry, music,New Orleans reportage (first look at the forthcoming Harper's essay by contributing editor Matthew Power), and/or spontaneous collaborations by Oni Buchanan, Jon Woodward, Susan Brennan, Jeffrey Paris, Adam Golaski, Brandon Patton, Steve Roberts, and John Cotter; optional eats by oft-applauded naked chef Abby Hitchcock. Every dime of the pay-what-you-want admission, book and CD sales, and bribes goes straight to the MusiCares Hurricane Relief Fund for displaced New Orleans musicians--it buys shelter, food, medicine, new instruments, and other necessities. Location: the celebrated neighborhood bistro Camaje ("cahm-ajh"), at 85 MacDougal St. between Bleecker and Houston (212-673-8184). If you've been reluctantly skipping Katrina-relief benefits because you can't swing the tickets or there's no chocolate soufflé on the menu, this is your chance.

October 17, 2005

Joe Bob Says Check It Out... least I assume he'd say that; I haven't spoken to him personally yet.

Anyway, legendary film critic Joe Bob Briggs, most recently the author of Profoundly Erotic: Sexy Movies That Changed History, has kindly agreed to meet with me at the Borders on the corner of Park Avenue and 57th Street in Manhattan on Tuesday, November 15th at 6:30 p.m. We'll be talking about the sexiest movies of the '70s, but watch out, because we'll probably shift from Don't Look Now to The Harrad Experiment pretty quickly.

October 13, 2005

Words of Awe

I attended the W.S. Merwin tribute at the 92nd Street Y on Monday night (courtesy of and came away with the feeling that I’d heard our prophets speak. Each of the three poets who read, by way of introducing Merwin, has a particular relationship with him and the poems they selected reflected that. Naomi Shihab Nye, whose work I don’t yet know, read, among other poems, a Lucille Clifton poem dedicated to W.S. Merwin; Edward Hirsch, who has an interest in Sufic writings, read some of Merwin’s more mystical work, including one about his black dog Molly, animals being a frequent subject of Sufic poetry; Gerald Stern spoke of and read poems set in NYC, specifically the Waverly Place walk-ups in which he and Merwin once lived. And then Mr. Merwin himself stepped out and read a selection of poems that ranged from his earliest books to most recent, some not yet published. W.S. Merwin’s words, the meanings they made, his quiet attentiveness to the natural world, and most palpably, his celebration of what’s good in this world imparted a numinous quality not often experienced at public events, sitting, as I was, in a near full house at the Y’s Kaufman Hall.

W.S. Merwin’s, Migration: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press), is a finalist for the National Book Award in poetry.

October 12, 2005

Tonight, Tonight...

If you're in New York and in you're in the mood for a reading tonight, swing by the National Arts Club at Gramercy Park, where Mary Gaitskill will read from her newest novel, Veronica, and Christopher Sorrentino reads from Trance. Then work your way a little further downtown to Happy Ending, where NYT favorite Benjamin Kunkel shares the microphone with fellow first-timers Owen King and Marcy Dermansky.

October 05, 2005

Things to Do, People to See

As you all know, I have no problem recommending books by my friends, or readings that involve those books, so you might want to check out Phil Campbell as he reads from Zioncheck for President tonight at KGB. The only reason I'm not going to be there cheering him on in person is that we've got a joint book party coming up in early November--plus you'll undoubtedly be seeing him around these parts soon. You can already catch him at Maud Newton's site.

Also tonight: Paul Berman isn't a friend (because I haven't met him), but he's a great political writer, and he'll be reading at one of my favorite bookstores in New York City, BookCourt of Brooklyn Heights. And Rebecca Godfrey will be at another nifty little place, SoHo's McNally Robinson; I just got a copy of her true crime story, Under the Bridge, and Mrs. Beatrice already called dibs.

October 04, 2005

So Where Did I Go All Those Weeks?

I'll start with the most recent absence first and work my way back. Last weekend, I went down to Richmond, Virginia for the James River Writers festival. The schedule called for me to speak on two panels--a discussion of book reviewing with the staff of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and then a blogging summit with Reb Livingston and Caroline Kettlewell. On her own blog, Reb sums up the wisdom we imparted pretty well: "How does one get and keep readers? Answer: Be interesting. Write stuff people want to read. Update your blog on a regular basis." (At least, we hope it's that simple.)

Speaking was fun, but I also had a great time hanging out at some of the other panels. I listened in on Morgan Entrekin's explanations of how he and the Grove/Atlantic team helped Cold Mountain and Black Hawk Down to perform so well in the marketplace, heard a ton of great stories from Richard Price about his experiences researching in the field, and watched a fantastic interview with Edward P. Jones. Later on in the day, I was honored to have a drink in the hotel bar with Mr. Jones, along with his interviewee, festival co-founder David L. Robbins, and two other visiting writers, Rosalind Miles and Robin Cross. David and I had corresponded by email before the festival, but meeting him in person, and seeing his books on the display table, reminded me that he'd written one of my favorite novels of the late '90s, War of the Rats. It's the story of a duel between Russian and German snipers during the Nazi's siege of Stalingrad, and if that sounds like the movie Enemy at the Gates, well, that's because Jean-Jacques Annaud's screenplay is a blatant--and uncompensated--ripoff of the novel. (Now, granted, both are rooted in historical figure, but Annaud made the mistake of also copying the one major character David invented from wholecloth.) Over the course of the weekend, I also ran into old friends Susann Cokal and Colleen Curran, the latter of whom had her hands full making sure all of us were where we needed to be when we needed to be. And I made plenty of new friends, too, because everybody in Richmond was fabulously gracious and friendly. The panels were all well attended and the questions from the aspiring writers in the audience were for the most part very well chosen, quite a few steps above what I'm used to from sitting through dozens of bookstore signings over the years. (For example, not once did I hear, "Do you use a computer, or do you write on pen and paper?")

Now, JRW was the second time in two weeks I'd gone down to Virginia--the first time, I dropped by George Mason University for Fall for the Book. Again, I was speaking at multiple panels--including another blogging summit with Reb and, on that occasion, Wendi Kaufman. On the strength of The Stewardess Is Flying the Plane, I was invited to address one of GMU's film classes about Jaws and how it fit into the '70s film scene; I also was fortunate enough to be given an opportunity to banter in front of an audience with Mark Winegardner about The Godfather and The Godfather Returns, the authorized sequel which came out in paperback just before the conference. I also ended up in front of an MFA class on magazine writing taught by my friend Mary Kay Zuravleff; that turned into a really great discussion about freelance life and about the realities of becoming a published writer. And I had an extremely brief conversation with Kim Addonizio, whose reading I had just missed. It was a much different scene than JRW--for one thing, it was conducted in rooms scattered throughout an already active student union building, as opposed to a set of library conference rooms--but equally enjoyable. Because when you get right down to it, people basically gave me a free long weekend to do something--namely, talk about my book and my website--that I'm already totally willing to do. And put me in touch with other writers as part of the bargain. Talk about your sweet deals!

September 29, 2005

Hello, I Must Be Going...

Yes, no sooner have I unpacked my vacation suitcase than I'm packing up my business valise to speak at the James River Writers conference in Richmond, Virginia. Friday morning I get to talk about book reviewing with Dan Neman, Melissa Ruggieri, and Jeff Lodge, and on Saturday afternoon I discuss the literary blogging scene with Reb Livingston and Caroline Kettlewell.

The one downside of this travel is that it once again puts me out of the city when exciting things are going on. Packing last night kept me from the Happy Ending reading with various contributors to The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt, but at least I'll be able to see some of them in October. I won't get that lucky with the launch party for Tracy Quan's Diary of a Married Call Girl, or tonight's McNally Robinson appearance by former Litblog Co-op finalist Michael Turner, who'll be reading from The Pornographer's Poem. Or the Books of Wonder event with Allen Kurzweil, Julia Donaldson, and Dale Peck...or the Bloomingdale's appearance by Barrie Dolnick, who I met recently while researching an article on the changing New Age market for Publishers Weekly.

But I'm going to have such a great time, which I'll post about eventually... Until then, I've got some guest items I can post today and Friday, so I should be back into the full swing of things on Monday, when I'll have a rather special announcement to make. Don't worry; it's good news.

August 25, 2005

Ashbery Speaks!

So there's this tribute to Walt Whitman at the Strand tonight (6:30 p.m.), where Frederic Tuten is introducing a bunch of poets--Macgregor Card, Tom Devaney, Marcella Durand, Chris Edgar, Peter Gizzi, Robert Kelly, Lisa Lubasch, Joan Retallack, Lytle Shaw, and Elizabeth Willis--reciting their own Whitman-inspired verse, while Francine du Plessix Gray reads French tranlsations of Leaves of Grass. And that's all fine and dandy, but now word comes in that John Ashbery's joined the lineup as well!

Adjust your plans accordingly. If I didn't have a story due tomorrow...

August 23, 2005

Inner Monologues @ Club Apocalypsee

After getting the first draft of my latest article turned in yesterday, I met up with Nadine at an Alphabet City bar called Club Apocalypse, where her friend Alexis hosts a reading series called Inner Monologues that seems to be centered around young, as-yet-unpublished writers. At many of these events, that means wildly uneven quality, but Alexis put together a pretty good roster of writers dealing with the theme "Before the Fall." Plus musical entertainment from Jessy Delfino, whom Alexis fairly accurately described as "a cross between Redd Foxx and Jewel" (although I would've put Suzanne Vega in the second position, myself). And $3 Rheingolds in cans. So keep an eye on Alexis' blog and when she hosts "Scary Stories" in mid-October, you might want to drop by.

July 28, 2005

Party All the Time, Party All the Time...

I went out to another book party last night--this time for Jennifer van der Kwast's Pounding the Pavement. On the subway ride in, I read the opening chapters, and I'm quite impressed with the voice that van der Kwast establishes for herself; a lot of first-time chick lit writers can come up with plots but fall a bit short on characterization and tone, but she does a pretty good job of getting it right in what I've seen so far.

I had a great time chatting with Jennifer about her plans for next week's reading at the Barnes & Noble in Park Slope (don't be surprised if it turns a bit Andy Kaufman-esque, is all I'm saying), and also ran into fellow blogger Rachel Kramer Bussel and the writing team of Robin Epstein and Renée Kaplan.

July 27, 2005

Loiter with the Intellectuals

The n+1 gang are going to be hanging out in the Brooklyn Bridge Park tonight at 6:30 p.m., so all you struggling young publishing industry professionals can ditch work early and stop by on your way home (follow the link for directions).* Readers include Keith Gessen, Mark Greif, Benjamin Kunkel, Allison Lorentzen, and Marco Roth.

*Yes, I know not everybody in publishing has to live in Brooklyn. Some of us (and I use "us" loosely, given my freelance status) are in Queens!

A Night on the Town

Back in May, I had a delightful interview over ice cream with Jill Kargman, the coauthor of Wolves in Chic Clothing, so when she invited me to a reading last night that the W Times Square was hosting as part of a recurring series of artist events, I was all set to come. (I mean, a book party at a W hotel? Twist my arm already!) Stephanie Lessing and I had been looking for another occasion to get together and chat about writing (since she was understandably distracted at her own party), so I told her to come on down, and she brought along her agent and publicist for good measure, so I had a nice little enclave of people to talk to before and after the actual reading.

haobsh.jpgBut before I'd even snagged my first cocktail, I met up with Nadine Haobsh in the hotel lobby. She and I had swapped a few emails since my comments about her media flap, and I was really glad to meet her in person. As you can imagine, she's been insanely busy since being outed as "Jolie in NYC," but she seems to be handling it all very effectively, and I'm sure we're going to be hearing more from Nadine down the line (and despite my earlier cynicism, I hope she's able to turn this blog thing into a good platform in some alternate media outlet). It was actually kind of neat to stand around with an actual celebrity--she ran into someone from her PR firm at the party, and was explaining her story to his friend, when a woman standing next to us said, "Jolie in NYC!" Plus, I think I may be the first to report that she's with the William Morris Agency as of that afternoon. Take that, Page Six! (OK, so I only beat them by a few hours--but that still counts.)

NYPost photo: Robert Miller

July 22, 2005

Another Night, Another Reading

I'd been hearing a lot about Charlie Huston lately--first about his thrillers for Ballantine, Caught Stealing and Six Bad Things, and how much butt they're supposed to kick, and most recently that he'd added comic books to his repetoire, scripting Marvel's Moon Knight revival. So when I heard Huston would be reading at Coliseum Books last night, I decided to drop by... and let me tell you, the guy knows how to open a story. I'm digging through my to-read stacks for the copies I know I have as soon as I'm done with this post.

Also in the audience: Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime and mystery doyenne Sarah Weinman, who I believe was headed uptown as soon as she'd had a chance to talk with Huston to catch up with Peter Spiegelman, who was reading from Death's Little Helpers at Black Orchid.

July 20, 2005

If You Go, Say Hi For Me!

I can't make it out to Kirby Gann's reading at McNally Robinson tonight, but if you want to support independent bookstores and small presses, you should totally drop by (at 7 p.m.) for the Ig Publishing Outsider Fiction night (which also features Robert Lasner). I met Kirby the last time he was in New York, around the time Our Napoleon in Rags came out, and we had a great lunchtime conversation about novel writing and his day job as the managing editor of Sarabande Books. Keep an eye on Kirby; you're going to be hearing more about him.

July 16, 2005

Things to Do If You're Not Reading Harry Potter

The Speculative Fiction Fair, a monthly Manhattan gathering of fantasy and science fiction fans, closes out its season Sunday with a reading by Hugo-winning author John Grant. They'll also be raffling off (for free!) what appears to be a master class in SF writing with Michael Blumlein. That'll be at the Interborough Repetory Theater in Greenwich Village. Later that evening, at KGB, my friends Robin Epstein and Renée Kaplan will be reading from Shaking Her Assets; I'm hoping I can get enough writing done this weekend to be able to see that!

July 13, 2005

Wonderful Radio, Marvelous Radio

For the next few weeks, Housing Works Café plays host to the "Liberal Arts" show, in which Al Franken's Air America co-start, Katherine Lanpher, talks things out with various authors and musicians for the next few Wednesdays. Tonight it's Chuck Klosterman and Dar Williams; later shows will feature Sean Wilsey and Jeannette Walls trading childhood horror stories and Melissa Bank being peppered with questions about how book reviews make her feel.

And while Housing Works has your attention, congratulations to New York's favorite used-bookstore-as-charity-fundraiser for its recent out-of-court settlement with New York City. (OK, late May's not so recent, but bear with me.) Nearly a decade ago, the Giuliani administration did its best to run Housing Works out of business for daring to publicly criticize Our Fearless Leader's AIDS policies. This settlement, which specifically covers his attempts to cut off the organization's social services contracts, puts an additional $5 million in Housing Works coffers. I mention this because I hope it's the sort of thing that will come up when Fred Siegel, the author of the recently Times-touted* Giuliani bio The Prince of the City, takes part in a public debate with Robert Polner, the editor of America's Mayor: The Hidden History of Rudy Giuliani's New York at the Jefferson Market Branch of the NYPL (6th Ave. & 10th St.). It's just too bad Jack Newfield isn't around to throw a few more jabs at the "C-plus mayor... who has become an A-plus myth" as well.

* Contrary to James Traub's lead-in statement, "we" don't "miss Rudy" with unanimity; some of us are not only happy to see him gone, but take heart in the possible permanent stalling of his political ambitions by Bernie Kerik's chicanery.

July 01, 2005

The Author Is Really Speed's Missing Brother, Rex

helmet.jpgWednesday night, I ignored the rain and went to the National Arts Club to check out the Secret Society of Demolition Writers--or, at least, a few of the contributors to this anthology of anonymously published short stories. The book's conceptual mastermind, Marc Parent, brought along customized crash helmets (click on the blurry cameraphone pic for a larger view, including Anna Quindlen's autograph) for himself and the evening's three other participants: Benjamin Cheever, Jonathan Burnham Schwartz, and Daniel Menaker, the Random House editor who gave the project a publishing home--since his first acquisition as an editor was a little something called Primary Colors, he knows a thing or two about anonymity.

As was the case at an earlier Secret Society event Sarah attended, the authors may or may not have been reading from their own work. Cheever led off with a story narrated by a women's magazine editor, set in her workplace, that led me and at least one other attendee to speculate afterwards that this was Rosie O'Donnell's contribution ("It could have been highly cathartic for her," I proposed), after which Schwartz read from the excellent opening pages of "There Is No Palindrome for Palindrome." Menaker read an anonymous story he said had been handed to him just that afternoon; "Here" didn't impress me all that much, though--just another vaguely surreal story in an Aimee Bender/Kelly Link sort of vein in which the mild fantasy elements are proven to be symbolic of some psychological/emotional condition.

After the reading was over, I jumped in a cab to Greenwich Village, where Sarah Bushweller and Emily Morris, the writing team behind "Libby Street," were celebrating the publication of their first novel, Happiness Sold Separately. As servers passed through the crowd with trays of mini-cupcakes and pink snowballs, I chatted briefly with the crew from Romantic Times, then caught up with Downtown Press editor Amy Pierpont, who made sure I got to say hello to her two authors on their big night. "Libby" was featured in a recent Daily News story about product placement in chick-lit, which also gives a shoutout to Alison Pace.

June 28, 2005

OK, I've Gotten My Bearings Back

It took me a while to fully recover from last night--as it happens, even typing the word "martini" in the previous item's headline was enough to jumpstart my headache--but by this evening I was ready to head over to Black Orchid, where Sarah and I were among those coming by to celebrate Laura Lippman's new novel, To the Power of Three. Fellow writers Lauren Henderson and C.J. Carpenter also came around, and after the signing was over we all wound up walking over to a nearby restaurant for drinks and various antipasti. Back at Black Orchid, I'd gotten into a really interesting conversation with Laura's publicist and agent and one of the shop's co-owners about the sudden success of The Historian, which I really need to read soon, and when Bonnie (the co-owner) expressed her enthusiasm for historical fiction of all kinds, not just mysteries, I was able to plug one of my recent favorites, Mary Gentle's A Sundial in a Grave: 1610, a genuinely weird thriller set in 17-century France and England that has everything from mathematical conspiracies to wandering samurai. And a pretty strong dose of kink, thrown in for good measure. It's one of those 700-page books you keep reading until you've gotten to the end of another big chunk, and suddenly it's two in the morning...I think a lot of you would maybe like it as well.

If I Even See Another Martini, I'll Cry

Last night I got together for happy hour with Sarah Weinman and M.J. Rose. We talked a little bit about how the pledge drive was going (still plenty of books available when you contribute $20 or more), and M. J. filled me in on an idea so clever that if I had a paperback out, I'd do it in a heartbeat: "Is this blog worth $6.99?"

Then it was uptown to David Burke & Donatella for Stephanie Lessing's book party, where apparently I just missed a Julia Stiles sighting. Also celebrating the publication of She's Got Issues was co-founder Carol Fitzgerald, who was once Stephanie's boss back when she was working in magazines.

June 23, 2005

Keeping My Fingers Crossed for 2010!

Despite my best efforts, I couldn't score permission to come help Poets & Writers celebrate its 35th birthday last night; apparently it was the literati event of the season and there hadn't been spare room on the guest list for anybody in ages. Gawker snuck in with a camera, though, and if I play my One Ring Zero CD while I look at the pictures, it's almost like being there--if I were nursing a drink in the corner because I was too shy to engage in literary chitchat, that is.

June 20, 2005

"Gay Vague" Is the New "Metrosexual"

I did some spend some time earlier this morning ragging on the slow book coverage at Salon, but I have to admit that they seem like sprinters compared to the laughably glacial pace exhibited by the NYT Sunday Styles section, which devoted yesterday's cover to the gay vague look, "a new gray area that is rendering outmoded as Windows 2000." What made it truly hilarious, at least for me, was the idea that there was any ambiguity left in the case of E. Lynn Harris.

Anyway, if you want to give your gaydar a good calibrating, or if you want to do something sophisticated with your loved one, Lincoln Center salutes Gay Pride this week, and tomorrow's event will feature readings by Paula Vogel, David Leavitt, and Allan Gurganus that touch upon "evolving concepts of family in literature and society."

Eric Bogosian Live on Stage (After a Fashion)

Anticipating a crowd for Eric Bogosian's reading, the KGB organizers moved the show down to the first floor and the Kraine Theater, but a good-sized crowd was in the bar beforehand waiting for tickets to be handed out. Bogosian came out at 8 p.m. sharp, and though his goatee had me doing a mental doubletake, the familiar voice came out quickly enough. The KGB appearance was the last stop on the tour for his second novel, Wasted Beauty, a tour on which he'd been experimenting by reading from some of his earlier monologues as well. So the first piece was actually the "ceramic tile salesman" from Drinking in America--and he went into character so quickly that, in conjunction with the facial hair, I might almost have been convinced that I was watching Sam Elliott up on that stage. A lengthier extract from Wake Up and Smell the Coffee followed, taking the audience from a failed audition for a wisecracking best friend role in a big-budget comedy to grandiose fantasies of celebritydom to a corrosive critique of society's obsession with the midst of which, somebody's cell phone rang. Bogosian calmly paused, smirking, then broadly opened his own jacket, pulled his own phone out of his pocket, flipped it open, and said, "Hello? Uh huh. Yeah. Yeah. Uh-huh. Right. Uh-huh. OK. Great. Uh-huh," or words to that effect, hung up, and picked up the scene where he'd left off.

"I'm completely subverting the book reading portion of the evening here," he joked after this segment ended, "but they told me you people don't buy the book anyway." Then he gave us a scene of suburban voyeurism from Wasted Beauty, after which he opened the floor to questions, the first one of which was something like "do you remember that poem you read at such-and-such event?" "Yeah," he said, "I think I've got it here. You want me to read it?" And so he did. Subsequent questions reached back to comments he'd made in his opening remarks about why he'd given up solo performing. "Audience is what theater is," he explained, and for him much of the pleasure of performing came from being with a "tribe" whose "shared values" would enable him to speak about specific subjects and have the audience get what he was saying, rather than having to stick to superficial generalities. When the seats started filling up with people who didn't really understand where he was coming from, he continued, the fun went out of it. For that matter, he was pretty down on contemporary theater in general, especially the timidity of most companies to present truly challenging material. Books were so cheap to produce, he mused, that nobody was going to tell him they couldn't afford to potentially offend readers with what happened in the scene he'd read us (I'm being vague to preserve your sense of discovery). Add that to the fact that "something broke inside of me" on 9/11--he lives in downtown Manhattan--and he was simply ready to try another type of writing for a while. So far it seems to have paid off--prose fiction necessarily sets up a degree of remove, so there's slightly less immediacy than in the monologues, but it's also still very identifiably Bogosian's voice coming through.

June 17, 2005

Good Clean Fun on the Literary Circuit

Wednesday night, I made it over to Happy Ending, where Amanda Stern had turned the reins over to the NYTBR's go-to poetry guy, David Orr, for an evening of verse. (Full disclosure: I like David, and David likes me.) It turned out that all three of the poets David had invited were from the Princeton English department, starting with Paul Muldoon, who read a 13-sonnet cycle called "The Old Country," which, he joked halfway through, was "memetic of the very tedium it's embracing." (David quipped afterwards that this was a unique defense strategy he'd never encountered at a reading before.) Next up was James Richardson, who shared a number of short poems followed by a sequence of aphorisms--"the perfect form for people with compromised attention spans." Finally, Susan Wheeler read a poem from her new collection, Ledger, then segued into a poem she'd written about one of the characters in her novel, Record Palace, before giving us a few scenes from the story itself. Afterwards, I caught up with another Princetonian, Beth Machlan, and discovered that she's joined the blogopshere with "Subjective Correlative."

Last night, after birthday dim sum in Chinatown, Mrs. Beatrice and I walked to the Slipper Room where Vintage was throwing a book party for Colleen Curran's Whores on the Hill. I was glad to meet Colleen in person, since she'll be part of next week's Author2Author feature. And let me tell you, this was a party, emceed by Murray Hill with burlesque routines starring the Pontani Sisters. Plus three girls in tank tops and Catholic schoolgirl plaid skirts reading passages from Whores that would no doubt send Colleen's Amazon hate squad--you should see some of those reviews--into a tizzy.

June 16, 2005

Hitting the Lecture Circuit

So Tuesday night I was over at the Explorer's Club to hear ornithologist Tim Gallagher talk about his quest to confirm the survival of the ivory-billed woodpecker, which he's written about in The Grail Bird. The reception before the lecture was packed, and once we all filed into the lecture room, the audience was hooked from the moment Gallagher turned the slide projector on to reveal a gorgeous painting of an adult ivory-billed in flight. For a half hour, he guided us through the bird's 20th-century history--a depressing story of the devastation of acres of Southern bottomland forest by the logging industry and other developers, such that the last recognized sighting of the bird in the United States had been in 1944. Somebody had claimed to see one in 1999, and though there'd be no official confirmation, "I didn't want to give up the dream," Gallagher said.

So when another report came in from Arkansas in January 2004, he went out to investigate and found himself canoeing in the bayou of the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge where, eventually, he and his partner saw an ivory-billed fly right in front of them. One of the final slides was of "our fifteen minutes of fame" at the Department of the Interior conference announcing their findings--where, he joked, he felt "like the Mercury astronauts from The Right Stuff" as he fielded questions from eager reporters. He probably got a twinge of that from the battery of questions the Explorers had for him that night, too; I'd guess that the club allowed for about fifteen minutes of non-stop questioning, and it easily could have gone for another fifteen. I'm a few chapters into the book--it's fast reading, but more importantly, it's fun reading. Gallagher brings a very entertaining personality and sense of adventure to his account, and I think any nonfiction fan would get a big kick out of this.

Last night was a completely different sort of lecture, as I caught up to the release party for Alison McMahan's The Films of Tim Burton. She drew a pretty good-sized audience to the second floor of the Strand, which was decorated with a slew of posters from Burton films (all of which would eventually be raffled off) and though I wasn't completely convinced by her theory about Burton as a creator of "pataphysical films," I figure that any book which places great emphasis on Mars Attacks! as the turning point in his oeuvre deserves recognition.

Actually, it's not so much that I don't think Burton made "pataphysical" movies; my point of contention was with her idea that his influence was such that the pataphysical cinema would include The Mummy and The Day After Tomorrow. While those movies do share an emphasis on the use of special effects to create visual spectacle, I'd argue that they lack the fundamental absurdist attitude that defines Burton at his most "pata." Mars Attacks! mocks apocalyptic anxiety, subverting it at every turn, while The Day After Tomorrow embraces that anxiety. If I were to list films which followed in Burton's footsteps, I'd agree with McMahan on Barry Sonnenfeld's Addams Family, but then I'd probably add Rob Minkoff's The Haunted Mansion and Gore Verbinski's Mousehunt. And maybe the 1996 version of Wind in the Willows directed by Terry Jones, but then I love that film on general principle. Hmm...that's a lot of Disney; interesting coincidence? Perhaps I should add Joe Pytka's underappreciated Space Jam to the list...

June 13, 2005

Real Life Becomes a Rumor

It's been ten years since Mary Karr wrote The Liars' Club, which conventional wisdom tells us jumpstarted the memoir in the modern marketplace. Tonight she'll be sharing a stage (well, more like a row of chairs at the Barnes & Noble across the street from Lincoln Center) with one of her writing students, Koren Zailckas, who has come into praise for her memoir, Smashed, and Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (and, like Karr, an accomplished poet). The subject? "Truth and Life in Memoir."

Speaking of memoirists onstage, stand-up comedian Chelsea Handler has brought her act to New York City, performing a routine which, I'm told, draws upon some of the experiences recounted in My Horizontal Life, a "collection of one-night stands." I almost got to see her at a launch party last week at Club Monaco, except that review deadlines kept me home--maybe I can catch up to her at Henri Brendel's tomorrow. (Between those two pit stops and an upcoming gig at a hair salon, I'm wondering if this is a book tour or a transcontinental shopping spree...)

June 10, 2005

Steve, Dallas and an Opus
(Yeah? You Try Writing These Headlines, Smartypants...)

I ended up in a bit of a blogcluster at last night's Stephen Elliott/Dallas Hudgens reading at Lolita. Of course, there was Lauren Cerand, who's still booking events at the bar in the post-Cupcake era, but Dallas brought along his writing group partner, Wendi, and fellow Elliott fan Maud was accompanied by her friend, Dana. And then I saw New York City Mouse and Jenny, who told me that she'd also spotted Edward and Cheryl Mendelson...but I still trumped her on the celeb sighting front because I saw Sarah Vowell. (After all, the Mendelsons may be all that when it comes to Auden and home comfort, but how many opening weekends have they led the box office?) The basement of the bar was packed as Hudgens read a scene from his novel, Drive Like Hell, and Elliott--acknowledging that many of his friends in the room had already heard him read from Happy Baby repeatedly--shared an essay called "My Little Brother Ruined My Life" that will turn up in the next Best American Non-Required Reading.

Ever since I went to the 92nd Street Y Monday night, I've been meaning to mention that they've just launched their blog. Mostly it's a fun way to find out about upcoming events, but they do have other tidbits thrown in for readers' amusement. Anyway, I went there to see Umberto Eco read from his new novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, which I think may be his most accessible novel ever (although LAT reporter Scott Martell, who I met before the show, assured me that I just hadn't gotten yet to the passage that would require my brain to do some heavy lifting). Eco read from the opening scene, in which the protagonist emerges from a coma with perfect recollection of the books he's read but no sense of personal history, not even his name, then skipped ahead to scenes from later in the story--including the grand climax (portions of which he read in Italian). I don't necessarily think it "gave away" the ending, though, because as arresting as the material was, I don't think it'll really make sense to me until I actually read up to that point. (I did flip ahead to those final pages, though, and the comic book-like collages interwoven with the text are fairly striking...)

After sitting on the tarmac at Logan for four hours, Ren Weschler got to the hall in time to handle some post-reading Q&A, and when he prompted Eco on the obvious surface similarities between author and narrator, Eco smiled and said, "Usually, to provoke my interviewers, I say my previous novels were all autobiographical, but this one..." (at which point the audience laughed heartily). He also revealed that he hadn't struggled to remember the cultural artifacts from his youth that eventually turn up in the novel; he knew exactly what he was looking for, and then it was merely a matter of finding it on the Internet. Weschler asked if he ever felt like "the Internet is your mind writ large." The answer? "Every intellectual, I suspect, thinks the Internet is nearly as large as our brain."

May 25, 2005

How Did I Miss Liesl Schillinger?

So last night I was at the book party for Amanda Filipacchi's Love Creeps, which makes comedy out of stalking by about the only possible means: treating the subject matter so archly that its unreality nearly takes on fairy-tale proportions at some points. The opening chapters read like a cross between Mary Gaitskill and Woody Allen; when the Gaitskillian erotic aura fades, it's to be replaced by extreme, Palahniukian shifts in the storyline. Which makes for a fairly entertaining afternoon's diversion (although I felt the ending could've been a bit sharper).

Apparently, the party was quite the celebrity hotspot, judging by the pictures. And yet I only encountered about half of the people who show up in these photos. I met up with René Steinke almost as soon as I walked in the door, and we talked about an upcoming Author2Author chat she'll do with Susann Cokal. Then I caught up with Wah-Ming Chang and Fran Gordon about some upcoming reading at the National Arts Club, then they introduced me to Paul LaFarge and Sarah Stern, and when I moseyed over to the bar for another martini, I spotted Karen Quinn, then turned around and wound up chatting with David Amsden and Alex Mar. Then, much later in the evening, a mutual friend introduced me to Ben Neihart, who I didn't realize until this morning was the guy who wrote the story on Degrassi High for the NYT Sunday magazine a few months back.

May 24, 2005

All My Rowdy Friends Are Giving Readings Tonight

Well, okay, she's not that rowdy, but Pearl Abraham is part of an all-star lineup at the Brooklyn Public Library, all of whom are featured in the current issue of BOMB. Meanwhile, over at Junno's, Happy Ending host Amanda Stern, who's also not that rowdy but can be pretty feisty, finds herself on the guest end of the microphone for a change as she reads from a novel in progress, while Wendy McClure brings her memoir, I'm Not the New Me, to the Astor Place B&N. And he's not my friend yet, but since I'm told Alexander Parsons likes to walk around in cowboy boots, maybe there'll be a little rowdiness at the Greenwich Village B&N this evening.

May 19, 2005

What I've Learned Lately

  • The other night I attended a Mediabistro seminar on memoir writing moderated by Susan Shapiro, who teaches quite a few journalism workshops for the organization. Her experts included Molly Jong-Fast, who recently published an account of her childhood called The Sex Doctors in the Basement, Simon Spotlight editor Ryan Harbage, and agents Ned Leavitt and Elizabeth Kaplan. The goal of the evening, Shapiro quipped, was to learn "how to finish your damn book and get it published," to which Harbage observed that if you buckle down and write the book, "the business will sort itself out." Kaplan pointed out that she wanted to see somebody's first 30 pages as evidence that they were talented enough to write the whole book, while Leavitt warned that in the proposal, "you don't ever write about what you're going to write" in the memoir, adding that from an agent's perspective, "If you're bored by the letter, you'll probably be bored by the book." (And Harbage added that he almost never buys first-time nonfiction of any kind, let alone memoirs, on proposals alone.)

    When Shapiro described her recent career as "a boring, mundane life where I sit around and masturbate with my past," Kaplan noted that "you may not need a dramatic story" to make a memoir work, "but you certainly need something to say." Molly (who I admit I've known for a while) had some insights into dealing with the reactions of family and "friends" to your writing, as well as the distinction between an "autobiographical novel" and a "fictionalized memoir." She also said that writers should think seriously about the market opportunities for commercial work, even if "everybody wants to be Jonathan Franzen." "Sure, they want to be Jonathan Franzen now," Harbage countered, "but nobody wants to spend eight years in a tiny Harlem studio typing blindfolded."

  • Last night I dropped by the New York Society Library to hear Ellen Feldman talk about why she decided to write The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank, in which she imagines what would have happened to Peter van Pels if he'd survived and fulfilled his vow to reinvent himself, only to confront his repressed wartime experiences as Diary of a Young Girl becomes a literary, theatrical, and cinematic phenomenon. She spoke mainly about the controversies that really did surround the adaptation of the diary into a stage play, particularly Meyer Levin's long-running obsession with being seen as the deliverer of Anne's story to the masses.

  • Monday night, I was at McNally Robinson to hear Unbridled Books authors Edward Falco and Susann Cokal talk about the writing life and the positive aspects of being with a small, independent publisher. Falco observes that the rewards of writing come from the process itself, and that since "you can't control the publishing part," foregrounding it in your writerly life is just "a path to bitterness." He spoke frankly of his experience as a short story writer associated with university presses who tried to upgrade himself to more commercial houses with little success, and how Unbridled eventually wound up with his most recent stories (as well as some of his best earlier work) and even took a novel he'd written when he was trying to "break out" but had shelved--and didn't even necessarily want his new publisher to see at first. Cokal compared the experience of many authors to that of the miller's daughter in Rumpelstiltskin: tortured in spinning gold out of straw, with her final reward being marriage to her torturer. She pointed out, though, that life with Unbridled was completely different.

May 17, 2005

Reading the World: French in Translation

Last week, the French-American Foundation handed out translation prizes to Helen Marx, who published a new English-language version of the Jacques de Lacretelle novel Silbermann through her own imprint, Helen Marx Books, and to Arthur Goldhammer, who re-translated Democracy in America for the Library of America. Now, we've all seen de Tocqueville in a couple of editions, but Silbermann has never appeared in English before.

May 16, 2005

These Can Serve Double Duty:
"Reading the World" And Latino Books Month!

Tonight, Gregory Rabassa will be reading from his memoir at the Instituto Cervantes. This is the guy who brought English-language readers Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude and Julio Cortázar's Hopscotch, and he might read from those or other books that he's translated as well as from If This Be Treason, which NYTBR praised this weekend. Tomorrow, it's Edith Grossman, the acclaimed translator of Don Quixote, speaking at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute.

May 12, 2005

I'm Pretty Sure He Doesn't Mean Me, Darnit

In a PW story, Salman Rushdie attributed the full houses at many of last month's PEN World Voices events to an "enormous amount of blogging." Frankly, I feel like I should have done more at the time; oh, I know I plugged it a couple days beforehand, but I didn't tell you about what it was like to see and hear the events. You can get some feel for it from the pictures and sound bites on their website, but they don't have some of the best bits of "The Power of the Pen: Does Writing Change Anything?", which was the biggest thing I got to see (and I was very lucky that press seats opened up at the last minute). Frankly, I found Margaret Atwood nowhere near as interesting as Ha Jin or Shan Sa--though I am glad to see the archivists preserved Jonathan Franzen's comment that of course writing changes things and not always for the better. "For every Germinal," he pointed out, "there's a Protocol of the Elders of Zion." It's too bad they didn't also include Woye Soyinka's thoughtful reflections on the place of literature in the context of social change; he was one of my favorite commenters that evening. Anyway, if you weren't there, knock yourself out in the archives.

Insert Your Own "15 Percent" Joke Here

By Tuesday evening, I felt like I'd beaten my cold back far enough that I could venture out in public again, so I came into midtown for a panel organized by the New York WNBA chapter (that's Women's National Book Association; this is still a bookblog, after all). Broadway Books editors Beth Haymaker and Sarah Rainone took their first crack at moderating the organization's annual panel on agents, which promised we'd "meet the agents behind the hot deals." So there was Andrea Barzvi of ICM, who came into literary agenting after sports and film didn't work out and snagged He's Just Not That Into You when she was still an assistant (which you can bet she isn't now). Jay Mandel of William Morris boasted a pretty strong literary nonfiction client list, while Sterling Lord Literistic's Jim Rutman had the hottest fiction lineup (including Jon Fasman's recently published The Geographer's Library, about which I've heard some interesting buzz). And David Black was the hardened veteran, having run his own agency for the last sixteen years; he's the guy that brokers Mitch Albom's deals.

Authors who knew I'd been planning on going to this joked that I should take notes for them on what the "agents behind the hot deals" were looking for, but there wasn't really much divulged on that front...and the strong emphasis on nonfiction led to an emphasis on a strong book proposal for the agent to show editors. As Black put it, "a proposal that answers all the questions an editor would ask, before they think to ask them." Somebody wondered aloud if the publicity departments at major publishers were simply "scorched earth" at this point; my notes are sketchy, but I think that was Rutman, because I know he said that in the current situation, it was up to authors to take more responsibility for promoting themselves. Everybody agreed that if you want to be an agent, you should brace yourself for disappointment--not only is it your job to say no to most of the people who ask you to represent them, it'll be the editor's job to say no to most of what you show them. The Q&A period thankfully avoided the usual "how can I get my book sold?" queries--this is a pretty solid audience, most of whom are already industry pros, so they focused on things like whether anything can be done to squeeze more work out of the publicity department and whether you should take the first offer that comes your way. (Both of which, as you might imagine, can generally but not always be answered "no.")

May 10, 2005

Asian Art Museum Hosts Discussion of Novel
Set in Asian Art Museum

I went to the Rubin Museum of Art last week to see Mary Kay Zuravleff read from The Bowl Is Already Broken and then hear what museum curators Amy Poston (Brooklyn) and Joan Cumming (Boston), as well as retired art dealer Peter Marks, had to say about the novel. Moderator Deborah Solomon--yes, fellow bloggers, that Deborah Solomon--started the conversation by asking if curators were really as aesthetically driven and politically oblivious as Promise, one of the main characters in the book; Zuravleff pointed out that Promise was a character, not a type, and the pros let on that political considerations are always part of the equation. (In fact, politics would dominate much of the second half of the conversation, especially with regard to international trade embargos on artistic artifacts and the likelihood of Muslim-themed exhibitions at American museums in the current climate.) Poston, if my notes are accurate, had the evening's most direct comment on the novel itself, when she quipped that the characters all seemed like "thinly veiled" portraits of people over the years--but they were all people she was sure Zuravleff had never met. And there were plenty of great anecdotes about museum life--from the arcane restrictions on displaying items in the Smithsonian's Freer and Arthur M. Sackler galleries to an attempted robbery of priceless gold items from Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.

I have to admit that I was a bit nervous about having Mary Kay introduce me to Deborah Solomon afterwards, and it turned out she did know who I was, but she also remembered that I'd revised my opinions upward after hearing from Christine Schutt. Seeing her interrogatory technique in person added further insights--I could see how many of her questions seemed designed to provoke responses that spelled out all the subtexts that usually go unmentioned in canned answers. Anyway, she and I had a lovely chat about the Jonathan Safran Foer story, and about our mutual admiration of New Yorker staff writer Mark Singer (prompted by my reading of an advance copy of Character Studies, his latest collection of profiles). I just wish I'd gotten to the Rubin earlier: it's a gorgeous museum, but I only had fifteen minutes before the event began. I need to get back and see everything in it soon!

May 05, 2005

The Whirlwind Social Life of the Bookblogger

New York-based publishers, please note: If you're going to throw your authors a book party, I highly recommend The Works. This "non profit, full-service catering and events planning organization" is the latest charitable venture from the folks at Housing Works, and based on the spread they put out to celebrate the publication of Dianne Jacob's Will Write for Food, they've got a good thing going. (I especially liked the skewered guava-lime glazed shrimp with little slices of kiwi, but Gothamist's bar specialist, Martha Burzynski, made sure I tried the cheesecake, for which I am eternally grateful.) The scene turned out very bloggish: At one point I was chatting with both Andrew Hearst and Elizabeth Spiers. And I also ran into Ellen Geiger of the Frances Goldin Literary Agency, who spotted my nametag and came over to tell me how excited one of her authors, Kris Radish, was about having written an essay that will appear on this site next week.

Then I had to dash off to the Bubble Lounge, where Robin Epstein and Renée Kaplan were having a party for their first novel, Shaking Her Assets. I hadn't even made it to the bar to get my first glass of champagne before I ran into a bunch of authors, including Alison Pace and Nic Kelman. Then, on my way to say hello to Robin, I ran into Em and Lo, who I hadn't seen in ages, and they introduced me to Melissa Kirsch, who co-created the "Girls On" website back in the '90s and then went on to Oxygen (which is how she knows Robin); these days she's finishing up what sounds like it'll be an entertaining girl's guide to everything. And then Suzanne Dottino, the director of KGB's fiction night, walked past, which reminded me that she'll actually be reading at KGB tonight with Rivka Bernstein and Mike Harvkey.

I Keep Meaning to Mention...

...that I wound up going to the very end of the Small Press Center's Round Table Writer's Conference, even though I hadn't quite finished the feature story I was working on, because I really wanted to hear what PW's Sara Nelson, Michael Cader of PublishersLunch, and Dennis Loy Johnson of Melville House had to say about "the future of publishing." Dennis says it's an "exciting time" for indie publishers like him, because "the big guys are going to get bigger and bigger, but they're also going to get dumber and dumber." Michael advised writers to "ignore all trend pieces" in media coverage of the publishing industry because there never is an actual trend behind any of them, while Sara ended up talking a bit about the PW relaunch that was still a few days away then, correcting an audience member who had heard about the plans at Kirkus to take money to review people's books and thought it was going on at her magazine, and to point out that the "novels with gimmicks" trend (to which Dennis chimed in with Foer's name) was just the fashion of the moment and reminded us that Dan Brown is "very traditional in form and style." And, as Michael pointed out, the biggest demographic in the bookbuying public is the 50+ crowd.

The Q&A period got a bit silly at times--e.g., "Do you see books becoming shorter because people don't have time to read?"--but it was a pretty lively discussion, and the general consensus seemed to be that we'll have publishing around for a bit longer. Afterwards, I was chatting with Marie Mockett, who introduced herself as a fan of the site (which made me feel very cool), and she gave me some very good scoops on panels from the previous day in which several book reviewers claimed to pull back the curtain on how books get reviewed and on how Dave King's The Ha-Ha found its way from his desk to America's bookshelves. I also ran into Blair Tindall, who promised to send me a copy of her memoir, Mozart in the Jungle, as soon as the next batch of galleys are ready--can't wait to get my dose of "sex, drugs, and classical music."

May 03, 2005

Pages from My Social Diary

  • First of all, I've been remiss in not mentioning this much earlier, but a little over a week ago I went down to Housing Works to hear Mitch Cullin talk about A Slight Trick of the Mind, his fabulous imagining of Sherlock Holmes as an old man. After his former writing teacher, Mary Gaitskill, chatted him up about what she loved about the novel, an audience member asked Cullin how he sees the novel fitting into the whole Holmesian fandom scene--i.e., what will the Irregulars (official or otherwise) make of it?--to which Cullin said that many fans "want Holmes to be flesh and blood," but reject certain re-imaginings of the character because "they don't want him to be human." (So then I asked him what he thought of the flurry of "literary" Holmes books, and he chalked it up to just one of those things; he was a little apprehensive when he first heard about Michael Chabon's The Final Solution, which also features Holmes in old age, but now he's looking forward to reading it.)

  • If you can't have a Joseph Mitchell book party at McSorley's, Shaffer City Oyster Bar's a pretty good substitute, especially when you're celebrating the reissue of Old Mr. Flood. I met up with some of the MacAdam/Cage crew--including one of their contemporary authors, Samantha Hunt, and though I was able to catch a glimpse of Eli Wallach, who had come to read a passage from the book, unfortunately I had to leave before he took the stand...

  • I could get to the New School to see the tail end of the Poetry Society of America's annual awards. Marie Ponsot accepted the Frost Medal with a delightful speech about the roots of poetry in baby talk, then read a selection of works by other poets--from Djuna Barnes to Katherine Jaeger--before closing with two of her own poems. When I got out to the reception area, I found that the evening's other winners included Anne Winters, Lyn Hejinian, and Karen An-hwei Lee. Then I ran into the Unterberg Poetry Center director, David Yezzi, just as Paul Auster was walking away from him, then his wife caught up with us and introduced me to Molly Peacock...and when I went to go get a piece of cake, I ended up chatting with Tree Swenson of the Academy of American Poets--she didn't give up any hints about the site's impending relaunch, but I'm guessing it'll be very cool.

  • And then Sunday night it was another awards show, as the Young Lions of the New York Public Library handed out their fifth annual prize for fiction by a writer under 35. I was fortunate to spy Elissa Schappell early on, so there'd be somebody I knew there, and she introduced me to Siri Hustvedt, who was acting as one of the judges, and then re-acquainted me with Jenny Offill, who I used to meet at my local indie bookshop when I lived in Brooklyn. Elissa and Jenny have an anthology coming out any day now from Doubleday, The Friend Who Got Away. The prize, as you may have seen on some of the other blogs, went to Andrew Sean Greer for The Confessions of Max Tivoli--I was rooting for Stephen Elliott's Happy Baby, but Oliver Platt did such a good job reading from the Greer that now I just want him to go record the whole book. (Other celebrity readers included Josh Lucas for Stephen, Griffin Dunne for Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Joan Allen for Aaron Gwyn, and Ethan Hawke for Marc Bojanowski.)

April 29, 2005

Roxana Robinson on Writing Spaces

Roxana Robinson drops in on the Happy Booker to talk about her writing spaces, including the guilty secret behind the best desk she's ever used. I mention this not just because it's a fun essay, but because she'll be reading from A Perfect Stranger and Other Stories at KGB this Sunday evening. (I don't know if they'll have the paperback of her last novel, Sweetwater, for sale there, too, but if you bring it, I bet she'll sign it.) She'll be joined by up-and-coming young writer Daniel Alarcon.

April 28, 2005

Sorta Like Watching the Detectives

When I got to the 60th anniversary celebration for the Mystery Writers of America, held at the quite fab New York Yacht Club, I kept an eye out for Laura Lippmann, as she's one of the handful of mystery writers I knew reasonably well. (If fellow bookblogger Sarah Weinman had been on hand, she could have guided me through the crowd, but she's unavoidably absent--but she's still got the best roundup of the week's events.) So Laura made sure to introduce me to Dave Walker, then I spotted Alafair Burke and waved her over to say hi, because I've been trying to line up a coffee date with her and Michele Martinez, because I figure you get two former prosecuting attorneys turned crime writers around a table and they're bound to say something entertaining, right? So look for that in mid-May...

The MWA folks (hi, Margery! hi, Carla! thanks for letting me in!) had set up some musical entertainment for the evening: a recital of songs from the murder-themed musicals Something's Afoot and City of Angels (no Nick and Nora, alas). They also auctioned off an autographed print of Gahan Wilson's illustration for this year's program cover, though I missed how much it went for. Ace publicist Shannon Byrne of Little, Brown caught my arm and made sure that I said hello to Michael Connelly, another writer I'd only spoken to over the phone, and filled me in on the novel he's got coming out this fall. I chatted briefly with Chris Freeburn, who told me about some of the great school programs her regional chapter of MWA takes part in, and then at the end of the evening, Michele made sure I met up with Twist Phelan and C.J. Carpenter...who's still looking for a publisher for her first novel, but the word on the street is that she's going to be "the female John Sanford," so if any of you editors reading this are ready to get in on the ground floor...

Mind you, I may be a bit biased in that endorsement, since C.J. invited me and Con Lehane to meet up with Jason Starr and Reed Coleman for drinks as soon as the party was over. (Jason and Reed were coming from the Nevermores party at Partners & Crime, and said it was a blast, the anniversary bash had cut into the usual standing-room-only crowd for the bookstore's mock awards show.) Being a literary crowd, we ended up at the Algonquin, which meant we got to see Karen Akers signing autographs in the lobby after her cabaret show ended. I stuuck around for a martini and some of Reed's stories of horrible mystery conference panels he has known, and then decided I'd better call it a night.

April 27, 2005

Oh You NASTYbook

I showed up at the Slipper Room just as Barry Yourgrau was starting to read the first of several stories from his new collection of twisted tales for children, NASTYbook. They take place in a world where the strange boarder really is a hideous monster, just like the precocious child suspects--and that's too bad for the child. Where a monkey's dreams go unfulfilled, and a bright young detective's career is ruined by a talking octopus with a librarian fetish. So what if you don't have kids: get it anyway, because it's definitely pure Barry Yourgrau, just like Leon and the Spitting Image was a perfect Allen Kurzweil story. (Come to think of it, how does Harper get all these great kid's books out of "adult" authors?)

After Yourgrau left the stage, I chatted up Fran Gordon and Wah-Ming Chang, the directors of the reading series at the National Arts Club--they'll be bringing him over in June, but before that in just a few weeks they've got Elizabeth Gaffney, Samantha Hunt, and René Steinke (so don't miss that). Later, Fran introduced me to former Paris Review editor Brigid Hughes and her friend, Roland Kelts, one of the contributors to Kuhaku, an anthology of essays on contemporary Japan published by Chin Music Press. He's also one of the contributors to the publisher's blog.

April 15, 2005

Short Notes from My Literary Social Diary

  • 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!

Ante Up for Charity

At the risk of seeming blatantly promotional of my friends and their books, I wanted to share the latest news from Toby Leah Bochan even though I just told you about her poker lessons, because there's a good cause involved as well. The Children's Aid Society is holding a Blue Jean Ball Saturday night to raise money, and it includes a Texas Hold 'Em tournament ($500 buy-in) for which Toby is donating lessons and copies of The Badass Girl's Guide to Poker as prizes. (The top five players will win nice long vacations in places like St. Thomas and Sun Valley.) I won't be able to make it, but good luck to any of you reading this who end up at the high-stakes table...

Free Culture Meets Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
(And Other Odds and Ends)

  • I had wished that I was able to see Jeff Tweedy and Lawrence Lessig talk about intellectual property rights and the 'net last week, but a scheduling conflict kept me away. Fortunately, Andrew Hultkrans did go and wrote about the evening for Artforum, as did David Carr for NYT*. And Steven Berlin Johnson, who moderated the talk, uses his blog to point to the webcast of the event, though neither he nor I could actually get the thing to work.

  • When I first saw Poesy Galore, I was psyched...and then I realized that the woman who writes it probably isn't that Emily Lloyd (and whatever happened to her, anyway?), but then I got psyched again because it's a very entertaining poetblog. Springboarding from there, I discovered more poets blogging: C. Dale Young (Avoiding the Muse, Dan Nester (God Save My Blog), and Kelli Russell Agadon (Book of Kells)--among others; start link-hopping and see!

  • Backstory has been running essays from a good mix of writers lately. This week it was suspense guy Joseph Finder talking about how he managed to make his latest novel, Company Man, just different enough from his last one to keep himself excited while staying close enough to it to hang on to the fans it acquired; the week before, Kathleen O'Reilly described how a newfound love of Manhattan led to The Diva's Guide to Selling Your Soul.

  • Everything Terry Teachout says in this post about why artists should take a serious approach to getting themselves online applies to writers, so I hope any writers here who haven't seen Terry's post already will read it.

*Lessig has his own thoughts about that latter article, as it happens.

April 13, 2005

One of the Few Times a New Yorker Can Say
"Liquor Up Front..." With a Straight Face

I've mentioned Toby Leah Bochan and her Badass Girl's Guide to Poker here before. And we know poker's hot now, because even NYTBR tells us so. So if any of the women reading this blog want to improve their games, and you're free tonight, $25 will get you into her "Ladies Only Absolute Beginner" class at the Baggott Inn. (Don't feel left out, guys, there's a co-ed class in two weeks.) I've played in a charity tournament with Toby, so I know how good she is, and I can safely say you're going to come away from the table a lot smarter about the cards than when you sat down.

Also, Proof That Male Librarians Are Attractive, Too

sherman.jpgDayne Sherman is a reference librarian at the Sims Library at Southeastern Louisiana University; he's also the author of Welcome to the Fallen Paradise. (You might remember his holiday gift suggestion from last winter.) He's using a state grant to underwrite a New York City tour--well, actually to visit a lot of bookstores in the area, including a reading at Brooklyn's Freebird Books, and make it possible for him to accept invitations to speak on library science at the Brooklyn Public Library this Thursday and teach a seminar on short story writing at the mid-Manhattan branch of the NYPL library Saturday afternoon. I'm sorry my week's already filled up; I'm sure any of these events will be entertaining and informative!

April 12, 2005

What to Do, What to Do?

There's so much going on tonight in New York from a literary standpoint. A.J. Jacobs and Dave King are reading at The Dekk in Tribeca, while Jorie Graham, Glyn Maxwell, and Charles Simic celebrate the tenth anniversary of National Poetry Month at the New School's Lang Center. Afschineh Latifi and Annie Nigh Ward read from their books at KGB, and René Steinke and Minna Proctor will be at Brooklyn's Book Court. You could also check out the International Center, where novelists Susan Choi and Akhil Sharma will be reading with memoirist Azadeh Moaveni as part of Immigrant History Week. (For starting times, check the websites; the International Center event isn't on their site, but starts at 7:30.)

And tomorrow's going to be just as fabulous. I'm probably going to go see Amy Hempel and Francine Prose at the New School, but Gary Shteyngart'll be taking part in KGB's "Novel Jews" with Joshua Cohen, and Steinke's taking part in Cupcake with Paula Kamen. Meanwhile, the Women's National Book Association has a special panel on book clubs, "the new cottage industry of the book business," with a panel that includes Adriana Trigiani.

April 11, 2005

"We Keep Our Mouths Full and Busy..."

bascove.jpgA few months ago, I mentioned reading Sustenance & Desire, an anthology of poems and essays about food edited by Bascove and illustrated with her paintings. Last week, I went to the New York Public Library on 53rd Street, across the street from MoMA, to meet her in person and hear readings by three poets from the collection.

After an introduction by publisher David Godine, David Lehman began with an excerpt from Nabokov's Speak, Memory, then segued into a Katha Pollitt poem about mandarin oranges. Selections followed from Edna St. Vincent Millay ("a much better poet than some people condescendingly think"), Richard Wilbur ("another poet I think is greatly underrated"), and Jane Kenyon's "considerable" "Man Eating." Lehman then switched to some of his own verse from The Daily Mirror and his new collection, When a Woman Loves a Man.

Next, Vickie Karp read excerpts from Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed; the passages about Ehrenreich's foray into waitressing led into an Ann Caston poem and then some of Karp's own poems. She concluded with part of Margaret Visser's essay, "The Artificial Cannibal," and then Charles Simic came up to read Allen Ginsberg's "A Supermarket in California," followed by work from Nobel laureates Wislawa Szymborska, Pablo Neruda, and Czeslaw Milosz. After a short poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, Simic closed by reading four of his own poems, including "Crazy About Her Shrimp." If all this whets your appetite, an exhibit of Bascove's paintings for this and other recent books will open next month at the Uptown Gallery; who knows but which authors might be showing up on opening night?

The Clues Are There in Black and White

I went out to KGB last night to hear Elizabeth Crane read one of the short stories in her new collection, All This Heavenly Glory, spurred on not just by my enthusiasm for her stories but that of several people I know in literary circles. "Howard the Filmmaker" certainly didn't disappoint--I know it's got to be a thinly veiled portrait of some semi-famous film director who has a reputation for using his oeuvre as leverage to get into women's pants, but since I can't think of anybody who's directed autobiographical stories portraying himself as a pickup artist or documentaries where women talk about orgasms, I guess I'll never figure out who it's supposed to be (shrug). It's a pretty hilarious story, though (and it turns out that if you subscribe to the "premium" edition of, you can read it).

Before Crane, Maggie Robbins read from Suzy Zeus Gets Organized, a novel in rhyme ("Suzy hails from Indiana / land of crops, of Fords and farms / Suzy lives in New York City / land of cops and car alarms"). The audience loved it, with the laughs increasing in volume as Suzy's story unfolded with each couplet.

April 06, 2005

Foer on the Floor

If I were feeling especially lazy, I could simply direct you to the NYT write-up of the Jonathan Safran Foer and William T. Vollmann reading at the 92nd St. Y (surely the only time we can expect to see Vollmann in an honest-to-goodness gossip column!) Monday night. But that would be cheating...besides which, I took all these notes, and I'm darned if I'm not going to put them to use.

It's worth noting that the auditorium was packed with a much younger crowd than I usually see at 92Y; in addition to the hipsters who caught the listing on Gawker's to-do list that afternoon, there were also several rows of high school students. I learned later that both Foer and Vollmann had spoken to the students as part of the Unterberg Poetry Center's Schools Project; I was slightly dubious at the thought of introducing high-schoolers to Vollmann's intense subject matter, but was assured that it all went very well.

So Michael Cunningham introduced Foer with a great story about trying to comfort creative writing students who feel like they've hit a wall by not letting the conversation turn to the "two revolutionary and beautiful novels" Foer's written at the age of 28, marvelling, "I know I could pick a Jonathan Safran Foer sentence out of a hundred others." Foer read from the opening chapter of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, noting that he was reading through his own deletions, which he'd made when he tried to whittle the chapter down to seven minutes to leave more room for the Q&A, before he learned there wouldn't be any audience questions. He had the crowd laughing along quite easily, and it was interesting to gauge their reactions as the chapter turned darker and the young narrator slowly confronted the trauma of 9/11 more directly.

With Vollmann's Europe Central, though, the hard stuff was foregrounded quite heavily. The two stories he read from, "The White Nights of Leningrad" and "Zoya," dealt with the Soviet experience of the Second World War; the second was particularly powerful, dealing with the execution of Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya and her subsequent transformation into a national martyr as seen through the eyes of a Soviet general. Vollmann was introduced by Melvin Jules Bukiet, who was downright enthusiastic about the bulk of Vollmann's tomes, declaring them as evidence of "a vision of enormity" in the tradition of "a literature of excess that seems almost forgotten."

I was chatting with friends afterwards, watching the long line of Foer fans, when one acquaintance commented that EL&IC was "a full-length tribute to Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai." Since I'd just started the Foer and, I admit, never read the DeWitt, I didn't really protest so much as offer an "oh?"; it was then pointed out that Foer himself had told Robert Birnbaum he considered her novel "the best book, for my money, published in the last five years or so." Whether this new theory can be reconciled with the interpretation currently making the rounds, which claims that Foer's novel is almost just like his wife's, remains to be seen.

April 04, 2005

Brooklyn Literati Come Together

PS 107, the John W. Kimball Learning Center, is a target school for math, science, and the arts in Park Slope. It needs a library. So when I met David Grand a few weeks ago, he told me about "Readings on the 4th Floor," a monthly series with some of the borough's best literary talents. Tomorrow (April 5th), for example, literary power couple Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt will be the featured attraction; the month after that, it'll be Jonathan Safran Foer and Jhumpa Lahiri. Tickets are $10 each, and they're for a good cause, so give these readings strong consideration, won't you?

March 25, 2005

A Mini-Domer Reunion in Chelsea

I went out to see my old college classmate Kevin Guilfoile do a reading from Cast of Shadows last night, and ended up running into a bunch of other Notre Dame alum I hadn't seen in about fifteen years. The book's a thriller rooted--and I'm doing this loosely so as not to give away much--in human cloning, so Kevin took the real-life tensions surrounding the abortion controversy, including the terrorist activities of Christian fanatics, and used them to describe the battle over cloning that takes place in his story, which he describes not quite as science fiction but an "alternative present." Thus, the first section he read was from the perspective of an anti-cloning terrorist, tracing the evolution (so to speak) of his violent ideology, while a second passage explored the increasing agnosticism of the doctor whose left-field reaction to his daughter's murder sets the book's plot in motion. Early in the Q&A period, somebody asked Kevin what the significance of the title was, and so he spent the rest of the evening flipping through the book between questions about how to create strong plots and characters, trying to find the "cast of shadows" passage. No such luck, even with helpful advice supplied by The Morning News Rosecrans Baldwin, who came with co-chief Andrew Womack to cheer on their contributing writer.

March 23, 2005

Next Stop, Greenwich Village

Employees Only, the hip Village dining spot of the moment, was certainly packed last night, as Lucky editor-in-chief Kim France threw a party to celebrate the publication of René Steinke's new novel, Holy Skirts. The crowd was a mix of literati, fashion folks, and music press (Steinke's husband writes for Blender), and I found myself chatting to Pia Catton, the NY Sun reviewer, who told me she loved the novel so much she was missing subway stops while reading it. I also spotted Steinke's cousin, Darcey, making her way through the crowd; she has a new novel out as well. And I ran into Galaxy Craze, who I interviewed back in 1999. She was kind enough to give me some tips about what City Hall's going to be like next month when the Significant Other and I go make things legal.

March 18, 2005

Nor Did I Meet Wonkette, Dammit

When I learned that Nick Denton, the publisher of Gawker Media, was going to be throwing a partyy for San Francisco novelist Eric Martin to celebrate the publication of Winners, my first reaction was to get all excited that maybe I'd finally be able to meet the head Gawker herself, but it was not to be! On the other hand, I did run into Julian Rubinstein, which was fortuitous, as Fresh Eyes had just published the third in a series of great articles about Ballad of the Whiskey Robber and why it's--I'm paraphrasing here--a cult favorite instead of the wild bestseller it ought to be. Julian also introduced me to Barry Yourgrau, who's got something darkly unusual coming out next month called NastyBook.

Turns out that Winners is set in San Francisco during the peak New Economy years, and the reason the party was at Denton's place, Martin explained during his brief welcoming (and thanking) remarks, was that Denton's initial reaction to the early chapters was to wonder if a dotcom executive was supposed to be him. (Eric assured us it wasn't, and pointed out that the question is one fiction writers will often wind up facing, "like from your parents whenever a scene involves bad parenting," or from your exes whenever a love scene goes wrong.)

March 16, 2005

Gilead and Pearl

Monday night I made another one of my periodic trips out to the 92nd Street Y, this time to see Marilynne Robinson read from Gilead. She was introduced by Meghan O'Rourke, who talked briefly about the experience of working on the NYT profile of Robinson she wrote last fall, after which there was prolonged applause as the author walked across the stage to the podium, to the point where I would not have been surprised if there had been a standing ovation.

Robinson certainly would have deserved one; the passages she read from Gilead, in which the narrator describes the process of falling in love with the woman who became his second wife, were incredibly captivating, and one felt a genuine humanness to the character's voice, both in the authenticity of his emotions and in their expression.

It was a rich and vivid peek into another person's life--and a markedly different experience, at least to my mind, than that offered by the second reader, Mary Gordon. The audience was told quite a few times, as Gordon introduced sections from Pearl, that "I wanted to talk about" what I'll call Issue X and Theme Y (a typical example of which was "what happened to the political faith of my cohort"). It's not that Pearl is a bad book--it's just that writing a novel because one wants to "talk about" something creates a fundamentally different end product than doing so because one wants, say, to tell a story, and I found both the passages Gordon read from the novel and the beginning chunks I'd read earlier that day to possess a certain detachment, to treat the characters as objects of study rather than vibrant presentations, a feeling that was intensified by Gordon's use of a first-person narrator of near-omniscience.

And I realized by the end of the evening that, as an individual reader, and at the broadest levels, I'm simply drawn more intently to novels in which--again speaking broadly, and from my own reaction of the portion of Pearl I've read so far, which is admittedly not the entire book, so I apologize for whatever disservice I may be doing both author and book--issues, if they exist at all, appear to emerge organically out of characters' lives, rather than those in which characters' lives illustrate issues.

March 15, 2005

It's a Rehearsal for the Edgars, Kind Of

Dozens of mystery writers from up and down the Eastern seaboard and other points east of the Mississippi will migrate to Manhattan's Black Orchid Bookshop tonight so they can see the start of Irish crime writer Ken Bruen's North American tour in support of The Magdalen Martyrs. Sarah Weinman has a pretty good idea about who all is coming, and she also passes along news of a conversation between Bruen and fellow author Duane Swierczynski that may reveal why his peers admire him so much:

"Editors tried to get me to fill out descriptive passages, like scenery. I said I don’t do scenery. And to tone down the violence and language. I said… no. I felt the day would come and the books would be of their time so I wouldn’t compromise...Noir can never be noir enough, but I hate the gore in many mystery novels—full on scenes of minute descriptions of skinning or cannibalism. I don’t think that’s noir. It’s pure sensationalism… and wasted space. Less is more and suggestion is almost more horrific. Set the scene and let the reader draw the horrible implication—works so much better. So the reader goes, what the hell, did he just?"

March 14, 2005

Sex in the Seventies

I took advantage of the great weather Saturday afternoon to take the long walk from the subway to the Brooklyn Public Library to see Lisa Dierbeck talk about One Pill Makes You Smaller with one of the cultural beacons of New York radio, Leonard Lopate. They discussed the process behind writing the novel, a dark story of the sexual awakening of an eleven-year-old who develops physically much earlier than most young girls and falls prey to J.D., a man described in one review (passed on by Lopate) as "one of the most despicable characters in contemporary literature." But Dierbeck was careful to point out that, despite his act of statutory rape against Alice, she does find things to like about the character, who she described as emblematic of the "transgressive spirit" of the decade, and that she prefers ambiguous characters to outright heroes and villains. She also recalled that the manuscript was "roundly rejected"by several publishers when she sent it out; even those editors who found it "wonderfully written" felt "frightened by the material." (In the long run, though, it took only a few weeks for the novel to find a home at FSG and, now, Picador.) And, yes, the congruence of the title, Alice's name, and the sexual themes is not accidental; allusions to Balthus, Salinger, and Mann also weave their way in and around the story.

Meg Wolitzer's The Position takes on the sexual atmosphere of the 1970s from a different angle, imagining the emotional fallout from Pleasuring, a bestselling sex manual filled with line drawings of a man and woman engaged in numerous forms of lovemaking--a man and a woman the four Mellow children immediately recognize as their parents. The section from the novel Wolitzer read at KGB last night, however, actually stretched back to the late 1950s, to explore how that couple first met, when he was in training to be a psychoanalyst and she walked into the clinic as his patient. It's a self-contained anecdote that still neatly captures the combination of emotional empathy and humor Wolitzer brings to the story--because, after all, she knows what it's like to grow up with parents who write about sex.

She shared the KGB spotlight with Lauren Sanders, who read a different section of With or Without You than the one I saw her read last month. This time around, her narrator was already in prison after having murdered the actress with whom she was obsessed, and is enduring a visit from her mother (made even more difficult by a certain masochistic punishment devised by her current sexual partner out of a carrot, two condoms, and a bit of dental floss; your imagination can fill in the rest to keep this screen safe for work).

I was also pleasantly surprised to run into Libby Schmais, who wrote The Perfect Elizabeth and The Essential Charlotte, and hear about the new novel she's finishing; I also spotted Felicia Sullivan in the back of the bar and chatted with her briefly afterwards. Her own KGB reading series is back on Tuesday nights--tomorrow (3/15) she'll introduce Wendy Shanker and Ayun Halliday.

March 11, 2005

Otherwise Engaged to Party

goudge.jpgThat's me with Eileen Goudge, at the tail end of a great party at her midtown carriage house to celebrate the publication of her latest novel, Otherwise Engaged. (I upgraded to a new cell phone with a camera attachment last week specifically so I could start showing you pictures from all the readings and book parties, but then of course everything until last night was either in a dimly lit bar or I was too far away to get a good shot.) In addition to getting to chat with Eileen and her husband, Sandy Kenyon, I met up with a newly minted yoga instructor who had become friends with the author after emailing her a fan letter, which I thought was very cool. I started reading the novel on the subway ride back to the Outer Boroughs; it seems like it could be pretty fun, with a romantic twist on the whole "life swap" meme that's become such a staple on reality TV.

March 10, 2005

LA Times Meets Literati On Their Home Turf

I actually put on a tie last night for the reception announcing the finalists for the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes, that's how much I wanted to make sure I wouldn't inadvertently get tossed from the National Arts Club before I'd had a chance to mingle with the writers. I spent about an hour catching up with various publicists from houses with nominated authors--and chatting all too briefly with Amanda Stern and Lisa Glatt (who was very good about keeping her nomination for the First Fiction prize a secret from me)--then settled in for the announcements. Times editor John Carroll seemed to lay the idea that the prizes were some sort of cultural defense against the barbarians massing at the gates a bit thick, and I found an early reference to "a tsunami-like torrent of bad goods" rather jarring, but I make up all sorts of motivations to get myself out of bed in the morning, too, and the main thing seemed to be a goal we could all agree on: "affirm[ing] the highest quality of writing in the United States."

Which made the nomination of Lauren Slater's Opening Skinner's Box in the "science & technology" category frankly inexplicable. Especially after a year that saw great science books like Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos, Richard Dawkins's The Ancestor's Tale, Steven Johnson's Mind Wide Open, Diane Ackerman's An Alchemy of Mind, and Owen Gingerich's The Book Nobody Read. Those are just among the science books I read; that somebody who really knows science, as one assumes the nominating judges did, thought Lauren Slater was a better writer than all five of those authors defies rational belief.

That was, however, the only genuine shocker of the evening, unless maybe you were expecting The Plot Against America to get a fiction nod. Roth was shut out, but then so were all five of last year's National Book Award nominees. (For that matter, every NBA nominee, in all categories, seems to have been excluded, unless my memory's shot to hell.) Still, nobody's going to fault a fiction shortlist that includes Chris Abani, Russell Banks, Marilynne Robinson, Colm Toibin, and Joy Williams.

A Blogger Into Coolhunters, Go Figure

As soon as the LA Times thing was over, I went up Lexington Avenue a couple blocks to Rocky Sullivan's. Oddly enough, although they've been doing readings there for years, I'd never been before, but Lynn Messina was going to be reading from Mim Warner's Lost Her Cool, which uses "assistant lit" as a platform to satirize coolhunting--and I've got a soft spot for coolhunting satires ever since reading Alex Shakar's The Savage Girl. Plus I've been a fan of Lynn's ever since her first book (though we've only recently been in touch and, in fact, I'm hoping to bring her here soon).

I managed to get a spot at the crowded bar next to Lynn's Red Dress Ink compatriot, Ariella Papa, who's just come out with her latest, Bundle of Joy?, and will be reading from it next Tuesday at the Chelsea B&N. Apart from annoying drunken chatter from a group of guys standing off to my side, the reading went superbly. Which wasn't too surprising, since Mim Warner is great fun; I spent all my subway time yesterday devouring it and smiling to myself. As far as I can tell, it doesn't matter if chick lit's an avowed passion for you or a guilty pleasure--heck, even if you can't stand the genre, I think Lynn's sense of comic writing stands a good chance of winning you over.

March 09, 2005

Let's Mess With Your Evening Plans Further

Last week, I told you tonight was overcrowded with literary events, from one-time events featuring Hannah Tinti, Lynn Messina, and Jen Sincero to the latest editions of Cupcake Night and Happy Ending. Now there's more from you to choose from: the New York Underground Film Festival has the local premiere of Asia Argento's film adaptation of JT Leroy's The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, and Makor hosts a reading and reception for Emmanuel Moses and his translator, Marilyn Hacker, to celebrate the publication of Last News of Mr. Nobody, Moses' first English-language poetry collection.

And here's a related item, a bit of an exclusive: I've been told that the next film made from JT Leroy's fiction will be directed by photographer Nan Goldin. Now that should be interesting (and, to be honest, a lot closer to what I think of as "underground").

March 08, 2005

Manhattanites, Break Out Your Snowshoes

I, unfortunately, shall not be departing from the Outer Boroughs until tomorrow at the earliest, but if you can make it to Junno's tonight at 7:30 p.m., Julian Rubinstein is hosting a night of American writers who were expatriates in Eastern Europe, featuring Arthur Phillips, Annie Nigh Ward, and Aaron Hamburger. (Yes, I know it's not on the Junno's website, but Julian assures me it's happening...)

Back to School Nights on the Literary Circuit

I didn't realize when I went out to KGB Sunday night to see Curtis Sittenfeld read from Prep that she'd just published a NYT op-ed about whether they should add essays to the SAT; I could have told her she isn't "the only person ever to forget her own SAT scores." (Not only can I not remember them, I can't remember my GSATs; I must have figured that since I already got into college and graduate school, there wasn't any need to hang on to the useless data.) Instead, we ended up talking about that time she interviewed me when I worked at Amazon, and about her recent appearance here. This was all after she'd signed dozens of copies of her novel for the audience, including two guys who swore they'd brought a bagful of Prep "for their book group" but were almost certainly stocking up on signed firsts.

Sittenfeld read from a section of the novel in which the protagonist agonizes about whether her parents will embarrass her during a weekend visit. So the second reader for the evening, Francine Prose, told us it was going to be high school night, as she chose passages from her new novel, A Changed Man, dealing with a supporting character's experiences attending his Western Civ classes while stoned not once, but twice. It was compelling stuff, and the novel definitely sounds worth picking up.

Last night, I went to my first ever New York Review of Science Fiction reading to catch Gavin Grant and Kelly Link of Small Beer Press. I hadn't even realized that Gavin wrote as well as published, but his short story "Heads Down, Thumbs Up" was a remarkable, fairytale-like story about a young boy in a world where when the borders change in wartime, the cultures of the new nations sweep over everything automatically, with the people forced to play catch-up. Kelly's story, "Monster," started out as total non-fantasy, just a darkly humorous story about the psychological torment kids can go through at summer camp, and then about three-quarters of the way in, the monster shows up. It sort of reminded me of Hal Hartley's 2001 film No Such Thing, only conceived for a pre-teen audience. Look for it in a McSweeney's anthology of children's stories at some point in the near future.

March 04, 2005

Party On, Dudes

The boys from n+1 are back with their second issue, and they're going to celebrate. If you're not doing anything Saturday night, they're taking over the fifth-floor basketball courts at 184 Eldridge Street from 9:00 P.M. to 1:00 A.M. Maybe the Cupcakes will show up and there'll be a rumble!

A Whirlwind of Social Activity

Ever since I met Jean Nathan a few months ago at KGB, we've been talking about how great it would be to feature her and The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll, so it was great to catch up with her Wednesday night at Happy Ending and chat for a bit before she read from the book's opening passages, in which she described the stirrings of her memories of Dare Wright's The Lonely Doll and her efforts to track down the book and its author--followed by a later passage which underlined the creepy relationship between Wright and her mother that Nathan discovered during her research. Happy Ending host Amanda Stern paired Nathan off with family friend Gregory Maguire, who read excerpts from Son of a Witch, the forthcoming sequel to Wicked. The evening was musically bookended by singer-songwriter Jeffrey Lewis, whose rambling acoustic songs were pretty funny--although when he sang the one about getting sodomized by Will Oldham on the subway tracks, a couple of us kept looking to the corner of the room where some woman had brought her daughter, who couldn't have been more than seven or eight. (Whether she was a fan of Lewis, Nathan, or Maguire, we'll never know.)

Last night, the Astor Place B&N was packed for Abha Dawesar's reading from Babyji, with a mix of Indian-Americans, more recent Indian immigrants, and New York lesbians--so the sections Dawesar read, in which teenage Babyji gets an instant crush on the mother of one of her classmates, fantasizes about removing women's saris at a cocktail party, and takes the bus across Delhi after a failed pass at another one of her classmates had something for everyone. (Although it wasn't all sunshine and Sappho; the bus ride includes a gritty attempted rape scene that silenced the usually-laughing audience for about five minutes.) Once the lines formed for Dawesar's signing, I jumped on the 6 uptown to join the release party for Kenneth D. Ackerman's Boss Tweed, the first biography in more than a generation of New York's archetypal politician. Ackerman's a great raconteur--I'd never realized before that the U.S. government essentially kidnapped Tweed in order to throw him in prison--and as I started reading the book on the subway back to the Outer Boroughs, I was riveted. Look for Ackerman to show up in these pages again soon!

March 03, 2005

Hearing the Inner Voices

The weather is so nice today, it's hard to recall that just three nights ago, I was braving yet another snowstorm to come into Manhattan and then up to the 92nd Street Y to see Lucie Brock-Broido and Richard Howard read from their poems, introduced by Boston Review poetry editor Timothy Donnelly--who, Brock-Broido joked with us as she took the podium, has all of her poems committed to memory and can do them in funny voices. She started her portion of the evening by reading "Domestic Mysticism," the first poem from her first book. She then turned to her latest collection, Trouble in Mind; her first choice, "The Halo That Would Not Light," was, like the book itself, dedicated to her late friend, Lucy Grealy. The title came from a list of unused titles for poems Wallace Stevens compiled in his notebooks; Brock-Broido also turned to that source for the title "Still Life With Aspirin." She closed by returning to her earlier work for the long poem "Elective Mutes," a reimagining of the life of June and Jennifer Gibbons that underscored the visceral qualities of her language.

After the Richard Howard reading, I turned to the Significant Other and told her that his voice reminded me of David Doyle, which just got me a quizzical look and an "If you say so." But I meant it in the best way--and I wasn't even thinking of Bosley so much as Doyle's brief supporting role as George Plimpton's Sports Illustrated editor in the film version of Paper Lion--it was just that sort of mixture of crackle and rumble to the voice. Anyway...Howard began with two excerpts from "The Masters on the Movies," imaginging Henry James contemplating Now Voyager and Rudyard Kipling grousing through the original King Kong. Howard is widely regarded as a master of the dramatic monologue, and with good reason--he doesn't read his work so much as perform it, his manner changing slightly with each new persona. He took on his own voice for poetic recollections of close friends Mona Van Duyn and Hannah Arendt, as well as an encounter with André Breton in "The Job Interview" (quoted in this review of Inner Voices, a retrospective selection of Howard's poems). He ended by taking on one more persona, this time from mythology, as "Telemachus" imagines an encounter between Ulysses' son and Helen of Troy:

"...sitting in the one spot on the terrace
where the canopy produced a corner of shade: the afternoon sun
in Sparta is ruthless as Egypt's (she explained) in any season--"

At which point, after brief conversations with encountered friends in the reception area, the Significant Other and I went back out into the snow, where I for one might have preferred a little ruthless sun.

February 28, 2005

Akashic Psychosexual Thriller Night at Barnes & Noble

The snow was coming down pretty heavily Thursday night, but I wasn't to be deterred from my plans to see an Akashic Books double bill of Arthur Nersesian and Lauren Sanders at the Astor Place Barnes & Noble. About two dozen other brave souls felt the same way, and I'm sure it was only cruel coincidence that both authors read sections from their books that took place in sunny California. After taking a couple pictures of us (to prove to his mother that he actually does do readings, he quipped), Nersesian read a passage from Suicide Casanova set in San Francisco shortly after the assassination of Harvey Milk. In the scene, a porn star turned stripper walks to work and runs into a former costar. The selection seemed like a good choice--funny and self-contained, and detached enough from the main narrative thrust of the book that it doesn't really give away any secrets.

The scene Lauren Sanders chose from her latest, With or Without You, was more central to that book's plotline about a young woman's obsession with a soap opera actress. Through a series of events, the teen has managed to obtain a tour of the Los Angeles studio where the soap is taped, and eventually finds herself on the set with her idol. It was a dead-on imitation of the uniquely teenage mixture of earnestness and cynicism, and it'll be interesting to see how the book as a whole holds up to other stories in what Stewart O'Nan pegged as the modern form of the medieval gallows broadside.

After the reading, I met some of the editors of CyanideMagazine, an online literary journal that's currently offering a signed copy of Suicide Casanova--and maybe a signed copy of Nersesian's other recent release, Unlubricated, in a writing contest. You've still got a little over a month to enter...

February 27, 2005

For Those of You Not Watching the Oscars...

...and living close enough to KGB to get there tonight, John Haskell will be reading an excerpt (maybe that one, maybe not) from American Purgatorio, a novel which Benjamin Kunkel recently told Nation readers has "achieved an authentic dark vision" and may be "the most Buddhist English-language novel I have read." And one more, just for good measure: "a thrilling quest poem in the indigenous form of a road novel."

I haven't read Haskell yet, though that review revitalizes my initial interest in doing so soon. And he'll be joined by Sam Lipsyte, reading from Home Land, which I (among many other bookbloggers) came to love last month.

February 25, 2005

Two Public Art Forms, One Location

If you live in New York, and you read this early enough, you can prepare yourself for poetry at The Gates. (Thanks to the Academy of American Poets for the heads-up.) "Ambassadors to poetry" from around the area will gather at Central Park, standing at the pillars of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's latest installation and read poems inspired by the spectacle.

February 21, 2005

Sunday Night Stories

Last night I went to KGB to hear Daphne Kalotay read from Calamity and Other Stories, which had just received a review of sorts as part of a "chronicle" round-up of short story collections in the current issue of NYTBR (about which I actually had something to say at Beatrix). The story she read, "A Brand New You," was an amusing vignette tracing a brief fling between a 40-year-old graduate student and her ex-husband, set in New York City at the beginning of the 1980s; it's not online as far as I can tell, but some of the other stories in this impressive collection are, including the title story, "Calamity," and "The Man from Allston Electric."

Kalotay was followed by Jess Row, whom I had seen a few weeks ago at a free writers' workshop conducted at Coliseum Books under the auspices of Gotham Writers' Workshop. Row talked about the importance of setting in story, an apt subject given that the stories in his collection, The Train to Lo Wu, are all set at least in part in Hong Kong--although the story he read to us, "Heaven Lake," is primarily set in New York City... coincidentally around the same time as Kalotay's tale, though the two couldn't be further apart in other ways. (You can hear a reading from "Heaven Lake" and follow along with the opening section.) One of the most important things I got out of Row's lecture to the dozen or so of us gathered in the bookstore's café section was about the willingness you must have to "get things wrong," to concentrate first on your character's experience of being in a certain place and time and later give some consideration as to whether you've got all the landmarks in the right place or enough colorful local details. In fact, he pointed out, the fewer such details, perhaps the better; after all, for somebody who has lived in an area long enough, those "exotic" details may well have blended into the background...

At any rate, two great collections, one linked by characters, the other by setting, both of them worthy of your attention.

February 14, 2005

Fine Literature, Russian Beer: I'm Set

I seem to be spending more time than usual at KGB Bar lately. It all started last Wednesday, when I went to see Pearl Abraham read from her latest novel, The Seventh Beggar, as part of the bar's monthly "Novel Jews" night, organized by the arts section of the Forward. Her novel takes its inspiration from an unfinished tale by the 19th-century Hasidic guru Nachman of Bratslav; I'm enjoying the early chapters and, after having read Dinitia Smith's NYT profile, looking forward to its eventual foray into science fiction territory when an artificial intelligence researcher starts dwelling upon robot's rights. (As Beatrice readers have discovered, I'm all about the appearance of science fiction tropes in literary fiction...) She was joined by Steve Stern, who read from The Angel of Forgetfulness, which has its own connections to Nachman and unfinished tales; the chapter he read, in which a young Forward copyeditor at the turn of the 20th century tries to impress a shop clerk with the story he's writing, was very funny, and I'm looking forward to finding some time to learn how it ends.

Saturday night I went out on the advice of Richard Eoin Nash of Soft Skull Press, to hear one of his authors, Lydia Millet, read from Everyone's Pretty, a multi-voiced tale in the vein of Nathanael West or Bruce Wagner inspired, so I'm told, by Millet's experiences working for Larry Flynt Publications. Amazingly, she's going to follow this up with an even huger novel this summer: Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, which catapults J. Robert Oppenheimer and two other atomic scientists into present-day America, where they become anti-nuclear activists.

Finally, last night, I was eager to see Jean Hanff Korelitz read from The White Rose, a retelling of Der Rosenkavalier set in contemporary Manhattan with an all-Jewish cast--which, she quipped, would probably have thrilled Strauss no end. She read a flashback chapter which detailed an early meeting between Marian, a middle-aged history professor, and Oliver, the twentysomething florist (and son of one of her oldest friends) with whom she emarks on a romantic affair. It was a captivating passage, one which showed Korelitz's attention to subtle, telling moments, and I've moved the novel to the top of my reading pile. (And, no, you don't need to know opera for it to work.) Before she read, Kyle Smith read portions of a chapter from Love Monkey, an anti-romantic comedy of sorts narrated by a New York City bachelor with a steady stream of wisecracks, like Philip Marlowe but with live bodies instead of corpses. (You may recall that Laura Miller declared Love Monkey dead in the water last spring; Smith may have the last laugh, as he let us know that he's just signed a development deal to turn the novel into a sitcom starring Tom Cavanagh, formerly TV's Ed.

February 13, 2005

Put a Little Love in Your Heart

Tonight at Fez, Ian Frazier, Susan Jane Gilman, Molly Jong-Fast, Susan Shapiro, Peter Hyman and Dave Itzkoff will come together for "Addicted to Love," a benefit reading for the soup kitchens at Holy Apostles and Village Temple. Get there at 6:30 p.m.; the cover's just $10.

(Of course, if you read Maud Newton's blog, you've known about this since last Monday, because Lauren Cerand mentioned it in her weekly roundup of the best upcoming literary events in New York City. And if you don't read Maud's site, well, you ought to.)

February 08, 2005

Who, What, Y...

It's been a while since I've been to the 92nd Street Y for a reading, but there was no way I was going to miss an appearance by Edward P. Jones. Hilton Als's introduction stressed how little he (or any of us) knows about Jones's life beyond his stories, and rejecting comparisons of Jones to writers such as Toni Morrison or William Faulkner: "His work is unplaceable, unaccountable, and his own." Jones came out and read a chapter from The Known World in which a widow worries that her slave, her only companion for the last several years, is going to get rebellious and start grinding up glass and putting it into her food. It sounds grim, but there's a lot of funny passages...and funny in a way that emerges naturally from the situation, not played forcibly for laughs. The mixture of humor and poignancy continued into "Blindsided," a short story about a woman on a D.C. bus who suddenly loses her vision and tries to figure out what's wrong with her and get back to her apartment.

Next, former Philadelphia Daily News editor Gil Spencer introduced his former columnist, Pete Dexter, who then came out and told some stories on Spencer before launching into an anecdote about how he had recently bought an airplane and he hadn't told his wife, and he hadn't figured out how he was going to tell her, until he decided to use a Howdy Doody puppet his sister-in-law had given him for Christmas, except that "call me insensitive, but after 26 years of marriage, I didn't know how she feels about puppets. Turns out she's afraid of them." And then, although I was expecting a passage from his new paperback, Train, instead he read a lengthy excerpt from what appears to be a semi-autobiographical novel in process about a...well, not quite a schlemiel, because it's not that the guy's incompetent, it's just that stuff keeps happening to him. I'm sure you know the type of character I mean: the 20th-century down-and-out American male unto whom life just keeps dumping a string of misfortune, most of which is rooted somehow in his own psychological or social limitations, with much dark humor ensuing. The material was funny enough, especially the part where his car catches fire as the repo man tries to tow it away, but it went on a little long, and so I ended up bailing on the Q&A, although as I was walking out the door, I did hear Jones comment on the relationship of his novel to history: "Well, there's a state called Virginia, and a country called the United States. Those parts are real."

February 07, 2005

Thank Heaven for Literary Girls

I spent my Friday night on the Lower East Side, at the anarcho-feminist bookstore collective Bluestockings (if I exaggerate, I do it with solidarity and love) at the invitation of Lauren Cerand, who's doing some publicity for two great emerging women writers. One of them, Quinn Dalton, came up to town from North Carolina because she has an essay in Sex and Sensibility and the publisher was having a book party. So Lauren decides that as long as Quinn's in town, she'll get her a reading, even if her collection of short stories, Bulletproof Girl, isn't out for a few more months. And let me tell you, the store was packed.

Quinn read the short story "Back on Earth," which interweaves a young woman's recovery from rape with her following of the Mir space station accident on television news, and her self-identification with one of the American astronauts. Then the second author, Elizabeth Merrick, who cohosts the Cupcake reading series with Lauren, read the final chapter of her novel, Girly, a downbeat ending to a mother-daughter story that was "kind of heavy for a Friday night," she admitted, but she knew it was the part she had to read. She'll be publishing the novel this spring, with a new indie press of her own creation called Demimonde Books; the imprint doesn't have a website yet, but when it does, I'll get her in here to tell you more.

February 06, 2005

When I Hear the Word 'Art,' I Reach for My Wallet
(With Apologies to Palance and Godard)

If you're visiting Beatrice because you've seen the BookTV panel, then you know what Housing Works looks like, and I was back there Saturday night to see David Thomson talk about The Whole Equation with Geoffrey O'Brien (whose own book on film, Phantom Empire, was unfortunately not in the store's inventory--which is stocked entirely from what the store receives in donations). It was an engagingly combative conversation, in which O'Brien staked out a position championing film as "the primary expression in art of the human consciousness in the twentieth century," at least in the first half of that century, while Thomson probed: "Do you really feel absolutely confident about calling it art?" He'd put it "somewhere between art and trash," which led to an interesting long digression about the meaning of Sullivan's Travels, and then he wondered aloud if film's declining command of the public's attention could simply be because the novelty of the filmgoing experience wore off, especially once television came into play.

Either way, they agreed, the films just weren't as good anymore (overall); one point of comparison came when the original King Kong was juxtaposed with last year's Troy. O'Brien didn't care for the digital effects in that movie, which he found obvious and distracting; Thomson said the problem with Troy isn't that the digital effects aren't there yet, but that the script wasn't there." He pointed out that the Kong effects couldn't be described as other than "threadbare," but you come to love the gorilla anyway because the film's that good. He then suggested that part of the problem with the critical attitudes on the alleged decline of film as a "lost art" were that film isn't something you should be writing about critically, necessarily, in the academic sense; as he said, "I'm not sure that the intellectual assertion that this is an art form is accurate or even useful." He does, though, believe in an "atmospheric" literature of film. Including the memoirs O'Brien found "trashy" and "unreliable;" to Thomson, the memoirs are "unreliable in the way that film is not reality."

"Our Girl in Chicago" from About Last Night saw Thomson in Chicago earlier this week, and her detailed thoughts about the similar remarks he made there are definitely worth your attention. You should also, if you haven't seen it already, Louis Menand's at-large reflections on a few recent film books, Thomson's included, in last week's New Yorker, which gives Thomson praise that seems not just guarded, but locked up within a vault:

"[I]f you are someone who believes that 'history' means a maximum of information presented with a minimum of opinion, then The Whole Equation is not the book for you. But if you think that our interest in movies has everything to do with our feelings about them, and if you have a tolerance for repetition, digression, first-person indulgence, and general narrative shagginess, then you are not likely to find a more affecting and intellectually absorbing book on film as a popular art."

Now, I happen to be driven mad on a regular basis by a certain type of film biography that engages in "repetition, digression, first-person indulgence, and general narrative shagginess," but that's because I read biography for "a maximum of information presented with a minimum of opinion;" cultural criticism is a completely different ballgame, and Thomson's one of its All-Stars. Other critics disagree: Stephanie Zacharek called him "loquacious to the point of reader numbness" in the NYTBR, and warns that "his judgment is often downright screwy." In the daily NYT, though, Michiko Kakutani doesn't seem to let her reservations with the "appealing but overstuffed and at times undernourished volume" get in the way of an implied recommendation.

(By the way, for those of you who are just arriving, since taping that show, I've launched a new site, Beatrix, which does exactly what I did in the last paragraph--talk about the major book reviews and my reaction to them--in much more, and sharper, detail. I hope you'll try it after you're done here.)

February 04, 2005

If a Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words,
Maybe I've Just Met My Daily Word Count

Because I've got to get the paying gigs out the door a little faster than they're currently getting, I'm taking the day off, but before you go see what the other bookbloggers are up to--or better yet, maybe you could catch up on your Beatrix reading, and see why I think Wendy Shalit's a horrid critic and Mark Sarvas thinks even less of Rick Moody for lousing up a simple job like reviewing a comic book--anyway, before you click away, here's some somewhat hastily compressed (sorry) photos from last week's Story Prize party at Symphony Space (taken by Mercedes McAndrew and forwarded to me by Larry Dark):


Story Prize winner Edwige Danticat (left) poses with fellow nominees Cathy Day and Joan Silber at the afterparty.


Hard to believe that's the same guy who can do the "Fox News glaredown," but, yes, that's me with Story Prize director Larry Dark, his Business Week colleague Alethea Black, and the back of Alice Elliott Dark's head.

February 03, 2005

Everybody Loves a Happy Ending

"Who's here to see Jenifer Jackson?" Amanda Stern worked the crowd as she started up another Happy Ending evening. She turned to the corner of the room that had generated the smattering of applause that followed and said, "Then you might want to go home and turn on your iPod, because she's not here." Without the scheduled musical entertainment, Amanda (a self-described "grumpy Jewish girl" who was also threatening to start a pool on the exact temperature of her fever) was forced to go straight to the literary portion of the evening, and Samantha Hunt kicked things off with her public risk: two stanzas of "Annabel Lee" in backwards-talk. Which actually tied into her novel, The Seas, because one of the characters is a former printer, and so there are all these passages where he's set type, and thus the reversed characters, and... So then she reads from the novel, and then Tom Bissell gets up and plays the banjo, then reads an excerpt from "Death Defier," the lead story in his new collection, God Lives in St. Petersburg. (This is the part that made the Significant Other very happy, as she is a tremendous fan of Tom's and she has probably been to see him read more than any other author.)

Now, during all of this, the Significant Other and I are sitting with Soft Skull Press publisher (and now a Recognized Literary Icon (TM), thanks to PW) Richard Nash and his friend Colm, and then Richard brought over the evening's third guest, David Rees, and his wife, Sarah. So I am sitting very calmly, doing my best not to go all fanboy in front of David, when Lauren Grodstein sits down at the next table, making this two nights in a row that she and I have run into each other on the literary party circuit. Then Elizabeth Kadetsky comes over to say hello, and introduces me to Dale Maharidge, her colleague at Columbia's School of Journalism. I chatted with them a bit during intermission about Dale's former pupil, Julian Rubinstein, and the great week he's had, after which it was David's turn to wow the crowd with a "Mysterypiece Theater" presentation starring a clip art character named "Sunglasses Joe," in which the boss who refuses to let Joe update the office voice mail system, even after Joe puts together a dazzling Powerpoint demonstration, is savagely murdered. Let me tell you: all readings from this day forward should include PowerPoint, Edward Tufte be damned.

Tom is reading at B&N Astor tonight (2/3) and at KGB next month, while Samantha will be at KGB this weekend (2/6) and at Cupcake on the 9th. So go see them!

February 02, 2005

(With Apologies to Matt Drudge)

So there I was at the book party for Dave King, celebrating the great (and deserved) success he's had with The Ha-Ha, when I ran into another great Little, Brown author, Julian Rubinstein, who had just won the Borders Original Voices prize for nonfiction with his first book, Ballad of the Whiskey Robber, and he tells me...and this is the breaking news, which you haven't read anywhere else yet...he's just signed a film deal with Warner Bros., and Johnny Depp's attached to star. Woo hoo! (UPDATE: Apparently all those folks who subscribe to Publishers Marketplace actually heard about this yesterday. At least I still beat Page Six by a few hours...)

Several other writers who were in the Columbia creative writing program with King were at the party to cheer him on, including Lauren Grodstein and Felicia Sullivan of Small Spiral Notebook introduced me to a classmate who's now one of her poetry editors, Jane Carr. They were joined by Emily Chenoweth of Publishers Weekly (and, at one time, of the KGB Reading Series), who might also be a Columbian, but I didn't quite find out for sure. I'll have to ask her the next time I'm down at the PW office.

January 27, 2005

I Love an Awards Show

I've always wanted to sit in the audience for a "Selected Shorts" show at Symphony Space, and last night I got my chance, as I attended the presentation ceremony for The Story Prize, a new award that bestows $20,000 and an engraved silver bowl upon one author of a short fiction collection each year. The nominees on this inaugural slate were Ideas of Heaven by Joan Silber (also, you'll recall, a National Book Award nominee), Edwige Danticat's The Dew Breaker, and Cathy Day's The Circus in Winter.

Prize director Larry Dark was even more excited to be at Symphony Space than I was; "this room's like a holy temple of the short story as far as I'm concerned," he marveled during his opening remarks--then murmured, "It feels like my bar mitzvah right now" (to much appreciative laughter). Jane Curtin read Silber's "My Shape," Kate Burton read Day's "Circus People," and Sonia Manzano read Danticat's "The Book of Miracles." (If the last name sounds unfamiliar to you, you'll recognize her instantly as Maria from Sesame Street.) After the readings, prize founder Julie Lindsey came out to present Danticat with the bowl, after which there was a nice reception in the Thalia Café. I actually never did get to speak to Danticat or the other nominees, because I ran into Silber's four companions on the NBA fiction shortlist: Christine Schutt, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, Kate Walbert, and Lily Tuck, who won for her novel The News From Paraguay. When she won, she remarked that she'd never actually been to Paraguay, and the government apparently got wind of this, because she's about to be flown over as a guest of the state. Christine introduced me to Stephen O'Connor, and I also ran into Caraid O'Brien, who works on Symphony Space's production team and will, knock on wood, have something to share with Beatrice readers in the near future...and then I discovered that Larry Dark's wife was Alice Elliott Dark, at one time quite the master of the short story herself--though she would, I suppose, be disqualified from consideration if she had published a collection in '04; we'll just have to content ourselves with the wait for her next novel.

UPDATE: : A few sites have pointed to a dispatch from Reuters about the prize which quotes Danticat's acceptance remarks: "'The most precious gift that a writer can get is time,' she said, noting that the cash prize, which organizers said was the largest of any annual U.S. book award, would buy 'a lot of time, time that one can invest back into one's work.'" Which may be an indication that the benefits of receiving Oprah's seal of approval are not quite as long-lasting as outside observers might have imagined.

Try to Continue the Pain and Degradation

I was psyched to see Stephen Elliott read from Happy Baby Tuesday night, even if the chapter he chose to read, "Stalking Gracie," was the shortest--in deference, he said, to the fact that he was sharing the podium at the Astor Place B&N with Sam Lipsyte--and "a dark chapter in an otherwise funny book." Very, very dark. In it, the narrator spots a former guard at one of the juvenile detention centers in which he was raised and begins following him on the subways to his home, plotting revenge for the repeated rapes he endured as an adolescent...and, as you can imagine, he doesn't quite get what he wants. All of which affects his home life with an aggressively masochistic girlfriend who provided the chapter with some of its most intense imagery.

"I'm going to try to continue the pain and degradation," Lipsyte said as he came to the microphone, and then he read from the opening of Home Land, a series of letters to a high school alumni newsletter from a man who, as he freely admits, "did not pan out." After that setup was established to much laughter, he switched to a later scene in which the protagonist has a bizarre sexual encounter with his ex-fiancée. Those readers who admired the no-holds-barred, go-where-the-scene-takes-you quality of Lipsyte's The Subject Steve will find that Home Land is grounded more solidly in the "real" world, but don't worry: it ain't as if Sam's gone all naturalistic on his fans. Not by a long shot.

On my way out, I was pleased to run into Cupcake codirector Lauren Cerand, who reminded me about a special reading she's putting together at Bluestockings next week (2/4) with Quinn Dalton and Elizabeth Merrick.

January 23, 2005


Sunday was supposed to be anything but a day of rest for this literary diarist, but the weather had other plans in store for me, and as the snow fell all day Saturday and into the evening, the first event was officially cancelled, when Lauren Henderson sent an email informing me her in-store appearance at Coliseum to celebrate the publication of Jane Austen's Guide to Dating was indefinitely postponed. The advice (read an excerpt) is fairly standard, but Lauren (an all too infrequent drinking companion of your diarist) puts an entertaining spin on it by showing how it plays out in Austen's novels...and she's a refreshingly modern commentator on Austen as well (I know I've never seen any other critic willing to go on record as calling Miss Bingley "one of the nastiest bitches in the whole of Austen's work"). Lauren doesn't just analyze dating novels, by the way, she writes them, too: her latest, Don't Even Think About It, showed up fairly recently as well.

So that event was off, and when I tried to call the venue for the next event I was planning to attend, a Pam Houston reading at a downtown pet shop, nobody answered the phone. If you're wondering why a pet shop, well, Houston's latest, Sight Hound, is a story about (among other things) the bond between a middle-aged female playwright and her three-legged wolfhound, who occasionally takes over the narration from his human...sharing the spotlight, as it were, with his veterinarians, a housekeeper, another dog and even a cat. Anyway, faced with the prospect of making my way into Manhattan from the Outer Boroughs and then all the way downtown, I decided to stay in and catch up on my reading--knowing that I could hear Houston read on the Leonard Lopate show Monday. (She'll be all over the place for at least two months, too, so chances are you'll get to one-up me by seeing her in person.)

So, as I say, I avoided the inclement weather by reading indoors: a little book reviewing, a little catching up with the NYTBR, where several things made me happy, including Rachel Donadio revisiting Stephen Greenblatt's Shakespeare and reviews for two writers who will be reading at New York Barnes & Nobles later this week; Dave King, whose The Ha-Ha has been warmly mentioned in this blog, will read at Astor Place Wednesday (1/26), while J Milligan hits Park Slope this Friday. Milligan's novel, Jack Fish, is dubbed "like a Mark Leyner novel, but with a plot, and harpoons." Remember Mark Leyner novels? Those were fun. I wonder if we'll see one of those again any time soon...

January 21, 2005

More Authors Doing Their Bit for Tsunami Relief is sponsoring "Thrown Together," a reading this Sunday night at the meatpacking district eatery Jefferson (121 W. 10th Street). All of the $15 you contribute at the door will go to Oxfam and Heifer International, and in exchange you get complimentary hors d’ouevres and readings from Adam Goodheart, Ayun Halliday, Suketu Mehta, Bob Morris, and Daniel Asa Rose... each of whom has written some nonfiction set in the affected region.

Meanwhile, comic book artists Jeff Bone and Dave Sim are contributing original work for eBay auctions to raise relief funds. The charity auctions are being overseen by Toronto comics shop The Beguiling, which promises to have lots more artwork in the weeks ahead, so this one might be worth bookmarking and checking again later.

January 19, 2005

Oh, and the Reading? That Went Great

I went to Housing Works last night to see Elliot Perlman read from Seven Types of Ambiguity, and the poor fellow had his left arm bound up in a sling. Turns out that he was in Seattle last week on his book tour and, trying to make it back to New York in time for another reading here, got stuck on the runway at SeaTac for nearly two hours before American finally decided to cancel his flight. So they told him that if he ran over to the Continental terminal, he could catch a ride with them. He does this, and they tell him, sure, but only if he goes back to the ticket counters and gets a ticket. So off he runs again, backpack on his shoulder and wheeling a suitcase behind him, and suddenly--BAM! He falls directly onto his left arm, breaking it. Luckily, a doctor passing by had the resourcefulness to create a makeshift sling out of her scarf, but he still had to get onto the plane with that broken arm, because he just couldn't miss the event here in Manhattan.

(Also on the bill at Housing Works: Adam Langer, whose Crossing California is due in trade paperback in just a month or so. Impatient readers amongst you can still spring for the hardcover, and in all fairness it would be money well spent based on what I heard.)

January 16, 2005

Drink & Listen to Authors for a Good Cause

If you've never been to one of Amanda Stern's Happy Ending events, the one coming up this Wednesday (January 19th) would be a good time to start. Not just because the readers for the evening will be former college roommates Tom Perrotta (he of the ever-changing book covers) and Mark Dow (read an excerpt from American Gulag), or because Kimya Dawson will be the musical guest. In addition to all those reasons, you should consider going because it's going to be a fundraiser for tsunami relief; Amanda hasn't chosen a charitable organization that will get the money collected at the door yet because she'll be leaving that up to the audience, which will have information about several different relief groups and then vote on where the funds should go.

January 13, 2005

Too Bad This Didn't Make It Into Her Tour Diary

"I haven't been in a venue like this since I was twenty years old," Cynthia Ozick said as she approached the podium at the front of KGB, where she was reading from Heir to the Glimmering World as part of the monthly "Novel Jews" series the Forward co-sponsors at the Lower East Side literary cynosure. (I thought it was because her previous publisher never sent her out on book tour, but, no, she just doesn't go to bars...)

After remarking that the largely twenty-something audience was probably too young to remember the "adorably obnxious, or maybe obnoxiously adorable" Shirley Temple directly, and commenting upon her own jealously of the screen moppet growing up, Ozick turned to Christopher Robin Milne, the real-life inspiration for his father's Pooh stories. A fictional reconfiguration of what it would be like to live an adult life with such a legacy forms a major part of her novel, and she read a chapter in which "the Bear Boy," as she calls her stand-in, recalls the process by which he was dragged into his father's creative acts. A second chapter dealt with Rose, the teenage protagonist, and her run-in with a Depression-era Communist-feminist; the passage was a great display of Ozick's witty dialogue.

The standing-room-only crowd had plenty of questions, and Ozick didn't particularly want to answer many that dealt explicitly with political issues, which isn't surprising since the first question was about the "morally ambiguous" (to the questioner's mind) situation of reading at a bar named after the Soviet secret police. But she was quite eager to discuss literary matters, such as what she'd been reading--a combination of Jonathan Rosen, Jonathan Safran Foer, Amos Oz, and Gish Jen--and why one of her characters had referred to Christianity rather than Judaism during one patch of dialogue, arguing that the reader needed to respect "a true dichotomy between the characters and the writer," honoring the "closed system" of the novel in which the author's opinions are irrelevant to the actions and beliefs of the characters she creates. She also revealed that she loves "The Pagan Rabbi" the best of all her stories, and that it's only writing if you press pen down on paper; sitting at a keyboard just doesn't count where she's concerned.

"Meditation Didn't Help," He Joked

mishra.gifIt's been far too long since I've been to the New York Public Library, but I'd seen a William Grimes review of An End to Suffering a few weeks ago, so when I found out earlier this week that the author, Pankaj Mishra, would be answering Jonathan Schell's questions about Buddhism, I immediately made plans to see him.

Apparently I had a much easier time getting to the NYPL than Mishra did; we learned that just last week, Mishra had been coming back from a journalistic trip through Pakistan and Afghanistan when he was stopped at customs in JFK and, as he described it, "taken to a little cell where people who looked like me were sitting," where he was detained for several hours and threatened with deportation because an immigration official spotted "something on his computer" that made Mishra look suspect. Sounds like Ian McEwan got off easy compared to Mishra, who was clearly still rattled by the experience--and the blue-city New York audience was sympathetically anxious for him as well.

At any rate, Schell began the main thread of discussion by musing aloud about the idea of meditation as a "technology of the self" deployed for the purpose of self-examination, and Mishra eagerly dove into an explanation of the principles of detachment and observation, noting the Buddha's goal to "undermine the pretensions of the self," that sense of an important identity constructed out of past experiences. Later, the conversation worked its way round to Nietzsche and how he compared himself to the Buddha ("one of the few people he actually admired," Mishra quipped), which struck Schell as a little odd: how do you reconcile the will to power with the obliteration of the self, after all? Then they turned to Gandhi, and how withdrawal into the world could be transformed into "militant non-violence" with an expressly political goal. Finally, they addressed Buddhism's challenge to nationalist identity, because of its concern with the ethical life of the individual rather than identification with illusory abstractions. Ultimately, Mishra suggested Buddhism was "a different way of being modern," an alternative to the progress-driven Western interpretation of history...and after some discussion of the contemporary political scene, the evening was over, and I had a firm addition to my reading list.

David Levine caricature from NYRB

January 07, 2005

The Literary Value Nearly Approaches the Moral Value

From Maud, we learn that the New York chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association is sponsoring a benefit reading tonight at Maharaja (230 E. 44th St). Authors scheduled to attend include Meena Alexander, Jessica Hagedorn, Meera Nair, Akhil Sharma, and Suketu Mehta, who has written eloquently about the tsunami's aftermath. Before the authors read, though, experts on the relief efforts--including United Nations Development Programme regional deputy director David Lockwood--will update attendees on what is being and remains to be done to help the survivors of this tragic event. Most of the $20 admission will go directly to relief efforts.

January 06, 2005

For a Taste of Your Whiskey, I'll Give You Some Advice

I've become reasonably adept at poker in the last year, having lucked my way into a very fun, relaxed monthly game at a friend's apartment, where I can spend a couple hours playing hold 'em, Omaha, and seven-card stud and double my money, or spend a couple hours more and go home broke but happy. So when I heard that Harrah's would be celebrating their recent assumption of the management of the World Series of Poker with a media-only charity tournament at ESPN Sports Zone yesterday, I figured playing no-limit hold 'em with imaginary money would be a good way for me to learn how to improve my game and maybe, just maybe, earn some money for Oxfam.

I met up with Toby Leah Bochan before the official start time, so we could swap stories about writing books under tight production schedules: turns out she had just about as much time to write The Bad Ass Girl's Guide to Poker, which comes out this spring, as I did to write Stewardess. Because we arrived at roughly the same time, we ended up sitting next to each other at one of the tourney tables. I should have taken notes, because I don't recall much about how the individual hands went, other than having to go all in with my last two chips on the big blind and managing to come up with a king-high straight, which bought me enough time to hand over my stacks over the next four hands, just after Toby had left the table.

(While folks were milling around before play started, I saw a guy with a tag that said, "Tad/New Yorker," so as we were sitting down, I told her, "Hey, Mr. Latte's here!" At which point a guy at the next table tapped me on the shoulder, and introduced us...Other celebs included Chris Meloni and poker stars Doyle Brunson, Howard Lederer, and Phil Gordon.)

Once I'd folded, I stuck around for the buffet table and kept an eye out for Alice Kim, the InStyle editor who'd been written up in p6 over the weekend because of her recently completed novel, The Poker Fashionista. The buzz got her a couple calls from interested publishers over the last few days, she told me during a lull in play, and they'll probably be even more interested now that her skills at the table have been confirmed. As the only woman to make it to the final table of nine players, she then proceeded to knock out four of her opponents--eliminating two in one hand by forcing them to go all-in while she held pocket kings--and ultimately came in third overall, which meant that her designated charity, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, received $1,000 from Harrah's...and then another $1,000 from the folks who make Degree antiperspirant. Now I just have to introduce her to Toby...and make sure I'm never sitting at a table opposite them when real money's on the line!

January 05, 2005

This Is Why I Became a Writer: To Go Drinking With Writers

Erik Barmack, the author of The Virgin (which comes out next week, and which I'll have something to say about very soon), has been kind enough to invite me to a monthly informal gathering of writers here in New York for the last couple months, but because I was so busy with Stewardess, I just wasn't able to get out to one until last night. I'm so glad I went, though--in addition to finally meeting Erik in person, I also reconnected with co-organizer Nic (Girls) Kelman and several other writers I've met at readings in recent months, including Merrill Feitell, Lisa Dierbeck, Felicia Sullivan, Tom Bissell, and Annie Murphy Paul. Plus I was reintroduced to Annie (The Making of June) Ward, who got me very excited about an upcoming reading by her friend, former CIA case officer Lindsay Moran. So that's something to look forward to here next week, perhaps.

I also ran into fellow bloggers Alex and Lindsay, who are collaborating on a novel. Alex recently returned to his blog after a hiatus that was deemed noteworthy enough for a NYT mention; I overheard Erik ask why he stopped and why he started again, and his reply was perfect: "Boredom with writing the blog and boredom with not writing the blog."

December 14, 2004

This Announcement Is Last Minute, Just Like My Shopping

Greg Gilderman always manages to put together a good roster for his reading events at Fez, and tonight's "Holidays from Hell" lineup includes onathan Ames, Mike Daisey, Lynn Harris, and Cintra Wilson"--plus burlesque dancers of both genders*, so everybody goes home happy. Though the first 30 audience members to show up may go home happier, since they'll be getting free copies of David Sedaris' Holidays on Ice.

* That's what they say, anyway, though "Ms. Bunny Love and Julie Atlas Muz" seems a bit one-sided on the gender front. On the other hand, this is New York, where anything's possible...

"Get Me Out of This Goddamn Box"
Will Be Automatically Disqualified, So I'm Screwed

Thursday night (the 16th), Soft Skull Press is hosting "the Bill Hicks Birthday Party" at the Bowery Poetry Club, and celebrating the publication of Love All the People, a selection of Hicks' writings and routines. Theater critic John Lahr, who provided the book's foreword, will be on hand for the occasion.

The press is also sponsoring "What Would Bill Hicks Say?" The winner of this contest, the nature of which is fairly self-evident from the title, will be flown to the Salvador Dali Museum, which will apparently be closing up an exhibit on mass culture and isn't expecting a semi-public awards ceremony. Unless they've got online access, I suppose.

December 05, 2004

740 More than Alan Keyes Got at His Last NYC Book Signing
(Give or Take)

Some time ago, I put out an open call to anyone who had been to a reading that I missed, inviting them to write in with their own reports, which I'd publish here. Freelance writer (and audiobooks insider) Doug Diesenhaus is the first to respond, with this account of a recent New York City appearance by Senator-elect Barack Obama at the Union Square Barnes & Noble. Obama drew "by far the largest reading crowd I've ever seen," Diesenhaus says, "around 750 people, if not more."

It was a fairly diverse crowd [he continues], filled with many young political types (glasses, bald spots, and the New York Times sticking out of their back pockets). Obama spoke without notes, referencing Dreams from My Father but not reading from it. While his talk was a bit dry, he was best in his moments of humor, such as his self-deprecating reaction to his new status as the rising star, "I'm 99th in seniority.... I will be sharpening pencils and sweeping when I get to Washington, so I hope people don't expect too much." He didn't hesitate to gloat just a bit, however, mentioning, "We're big in Kenya right now. Someone went on a safari and saw some Masai in traditional garb with an Obama button."

The crowd thinned at the start of the Q&A portion, and some members of the audience became a bit distracted by other stimulations. The guy standing next to me in the nosebleed photography section, who had first picked up a copy of American Pitbull soon turned to harder stuff with Timothy Greenfield-Sanders' XXX: 30 Porn-Star Portraits. Obama closed by tying his politics to a religious belief he cautioned is critically absent from the Democratic party's current platform. Using a line I'm sure the American public will be hearing more of, he said, "my individual salvation depends on our collective salvation."

December 01, 2004

Scarier than "Monster Chiller Horror Theater," Even

"Literary blogs," the Housing Works Café website tells us, "have become the must-read publications for booksellers, publishers, journalists and lovers of literature from around the world." Which means that according to my server stats, a lot of those people are holding out...or maybe they're just devoting all their attention to Maud Newton, Bookslut, BookNinja, and Moorish Girl. Dennis Loy Johnson, impresario of the recently revived, has somehow convinced the four of them to allow me to share the spotlight with them this Friday night (7:00 p.m.) at the café, where he'll pepper us with questions as part of "What the Blog? The Terrifying World of Literary Websites." Come on down--you're bound to leave asking yourself pensively, "This is what I was afraid of?"

And if you can't make it, because you're busy or don't live in New York, C-SPAN will apparently be taping it for Book TV, which means you'll be able to see it every weekend, just after Lyndon Johnson's White House tapes.

November 30, 2004

Children Expecting Little Mermaid Remake Will Have Their Minds Blown

The manuscript of poems collected under the title Ariel that Sylvia Plath left behind when she killed herself in 1963 isn't what was published under that name a few years later. Ted Hughes' editorial revisions have finally been changed back, as HarperCollins publishes Ariel: The Restored Edition. Plath's daughter, Frieda Hughes, will introduce a reading of the original arrangement tonight at the Proshansky Auditorium on Fifth Avenue between 34th and 35th Streets. (The event starts at 7:30 p.m., but frankly I'd plan on getting there earlier if I were you--I'd be there myself, but I've got to write about Hollywood musicals of the 1970s.)

Soeaking of Plath, Salon offers a lengthy article about her therapist drawing upon a 1998 interview that led Karen Maroda to believe "this talented therapist had certain blind spots about Sylvia that may have interfered with her treatment." She adds, "While it is clear these two women forged a powerful relationship that helped Sylvia Plath, they also crossed some professional boundaries along the way." To find out what those boundaries were, you'll have to read the article yourself...

November 24, 2004

Catching Up With My Social Calendar

Monday night I dropped by KGB with the Significant Other to hear one of her favorite poets, Donna Masini, read from her new collection, Turning to Fiction. "This is the first time I've ever done a reading after having something to drink first," she quipped, but she was glad that this time around she was able to stand at the lectern at the front of the bar and actually see her audience instead of a cloud of smoke ("though I miss smoking desperately," she added). The new poems are wonderful confessionals, rooted equally in emotional immediacy and striking detail. She was joined by Alan Michael Parker, whose most recent collection is Love Song With Motor Vehicles, but he also read some of the incisive and hilarious poems from his previous book, The Vandals, which proved him one of the few poets I've seen who can make postmodern self-referentiality damn funny; he's practically Barthelmian in that regard and definitely worth your readerly attention.

And I would have told you about this sooner, were I not spending so much time writing about '70s movies, but last weekend I attended a fundraiser for Small Spiral Notebook, where I finally got to meet editor Felicia Sullivan in person. I also got a chance to chat with Iowa Short Fiction Award winner Merrill Feitell as we rode up in the elevator to the Vernacular Press studios, which had kindly lent their space to SSN for the evening. Merrill was one of five readers for the evening: Lisa Dierbeck offered a scene from her novel One Pill Makes You Smaller; Cris Beam presented a section from her forthcoming book of reportage focusing on the lives of transsexual teenagers living on the streets of Los Angeles; Rachel Sherman read a section from her novel-in-progress; and Nic Kelman read a scene from his novel Girls. Afterwards, as I was waiting to say hello to one of the writers, I happened to hear another guest mention that he had a novel out soon, and it turned out to be Dave King, which was a happy accident since The Ha-Ha is actually a book I've been looking forward to reading for quite some time now.

And could it really be more than a week ago since I went to see fellow blogger Rachel Kramer Bussel read at East Side Oral? When the reading series has a title like that, and Rachel's latest anthology is Naughty Spanking Stories from A to Z, you can guess what it was like...pretty darn funny, for the most part. Albert Stern read an essay called "Jewish Sexuality, Such As It Is," centered around a long, long search for the Yiddish word for a woman's genitalia (in which the best euphemism translates, roughly, as "that place"). Elizabeth Real read a short story about a torrid office affair with a bad apple, followed by Josh Melrod's wacky story about two boys who set out to have sex with a beached whale on a dare. And then Rachel read her inaugural "Lusty Lady" column from the Village Voice, followed by the semi-notorious short short "Gloss," which is oh-so-Not-Safe-for-Work in textual content...but then, since it's on the Good Vibrations web site, those filters your boss had installed probably won't let you read it at your desk anyway.

And on that note, enjoy the holiday weekend! There will be some minimal activity here, including the first of Beatrice's holiday gift suggestions from guest writers, but mostly, once the plates are cleared, I'll be writing about blaxsploitation and Cassavetes all weekend long...

November 19, 2004

"The history of the world is hearsay. Hear it."

LeeRobinson.jpgLee Robinson, a former lawyer who now lives on a 102-acre ranch in Texas, has won the Poets Out Loud prize for her first collection of poems, Hearsay. The award is sponsored by Fordham University Press, which has also published the poems and brought Robinson up to New York to read from her work tonight at the university's Lincoln Center campus (113 W. 60th St.) at 7:30 p.m., with judge Robert Wrigley, who calls her book ""not simply the stories of a life that might be Lee Robinson's, but the stories of my own blood and kin and soul, the enactments of what it means to be human. I read and I think, yes, this is how it is."

Here's one of her poems, as read by Garrison Keillor:

The Rules of Evidence

What you want to say most
is inadmissible.
Say it anyway.
Say it again.
What they tell you is irrelevant
can't be denied and will
eventually be heard.
Every question
is a leading question.
Ask it anyway, then expect
what you won't get.
There is no such thing
as the original
so you'll have to make do
with a reasonable facsimile.

The history of the world
is hearsay. Hear it.
The whole truth
is unspeakable
and nothing but the truth
is a lie.
I swear this.
My oath is a kiss.
I swear
by everything

"It's like Partisan Review, except not dead"

Labyrinth Books, on Manhattan's Upper West Side in the general vicinity of Columbia, has got to be the only bookstore I've ever been in which I would swear with near certainty arranges its display tables according to what's reviewed and advertised in the New York Review of Books. But that's a good thing--and it makes the store the perfect venue for a reading by various editors of n+1, a new literary magazine which makes rather delightful sport of its own struggle to survive on its web site. Keith Gessen, whose story "Like Vaclav" is reason enough to buy the latest edition of Best New American Voices, introduced fellow editors Mark Greif, who explained the meaning of life as "eudynamistic hedonism" or the pursuit of experiences, Marco Roth, who remembered a graduate seminar in Paris Jacques Derrida and pointed out the shabby treatment he got at the hands of the NYT obit department, and Benjamin Kunkel, who read an excerpt from his forthcoming novel. It's an eclectic mix of philosophy, personal journalism, and fiction which some folks might be too trepidatious to try to fit under one editorial roof, but these guys are going for it and more power to them.

The headline, by the way, comes from a NY Sun story that ran when the issue first came out a few months back.

November 16, 2004

"The Most Beautiful, Perfect Moment Possible"


While I stayed home and wrote about '70s films, the Significant Other went out last week to watch NYT art critic Michael Kimmelman interview Gregory Crewdson, one of our favorite photographers--and no stranger to NYT magazine readers. He spoke about growing up in a Park Slope brownstone, trying to eavesdrop through the floor on the analysis sessions in his father's basement psychiatry office, then of falling into photography because of a college crush. After continued study at Yale, he moved to a small town in western Massachusetts and began exploring what he called "a style between documentary photo style and the cinematic approach."

Eventually the documentary element faded: "I became interested in more artificial lighting in everyday life and more fantastic images," while "the photos themselves were becoming overly familiar to me." Unsure where to go next, he eventually settled upon elaborately crafted tableaux. "Even though my pictures are very highly produced," he observed, "on some level I consider myself a realist. I want to create a sort of transparent world. I consider myself a psychological realist--trying to portray an inner reality by way of something tangible." Over the last few years, the Significant Other and I have become more and more convinced that he's getting it right--and while these online images are okay, and the books even better, you really do have to see an installation (if you can) and view the prints at their fullest size.

The S.O. took such good notes that I don't feel quite as bad about missing the conversation--too bad I'm not going to be able to send her out again when Kimmelman turns his attention to Sally Mann at Miami's Museum of Contemporary Art in two weeks.

November 12, 2004

Don't Call It a Comeback...

I had thought that Golden Rule Jones had bitten the dust, but after an extended absence of several weeks Sam, one of Chicago's finest bookbloggers, returns with an account of the New Yorker college tour's presentation of Aleksander Hemon and Antonya Nelson. "I couldn't help but wonder," he muses, "isn't Nelson's work the kind of stuff Hemon supposedly hates, given his frequent denunciations of 'bourgeois' and 'suburban' fiction?" Whether it is or not, they apparently got on well enough in person, and even fielded a couple questions from the audience.

November 11, 2004

Happy Is England! I Could Be Content

newbrits.jpg"Every anthology tries to remedy a wrong," Charles Simic told the audience gathered in a small auditorium at the New School last night by way of introduction to New British Poetry. "When you tell people there's good poetry out there, you have to prove it," and this collection of thirty-six poets from England, Scotland, and Wales is certainly up to the task. (Unfortunately, I couldn't find a suitably clever allusion involving "Britain" for a headline, so sorry, Scots and Welsh; if anybody has any ideas...) Simic presented the anthology, recently published in the States by Graywolf Press, with co-editor Don Paterson and four of the collected poets--and after explaining how the book came about, he read short poems by three poets not present, including Michael Donaghy, who died two months ago of an aneurysm. Donaghy was actually born in the Bronx, moving to England in 1985, but was highly regarded (and greatly missed) within British poetry circles. As Paterson, who also read one of Donaghy's poems during his time at the podium, told me at the end of the evening, "It's incomprehensible to us that he hasn't been published here."

After Paterson's further introductory remarks (and, once the tech guy replaced the defective microphone, poems) came two British poets who actually live on this side of the Atlantic now, Fred D'Aguiar and Glyn Maxwell. Both read primarily from work not included in the volume, from D'Aguiar's "Frank Bruno Chronicles," a poetic essay about the former boxer("my black Jack Dempsey"), to Maxwell's "Cat World," which imagines the voice of the sort of God that would actually expect followers to commit suicide bombings and capital punishment in His name...casting Him in much the same tone as a human presented with dead birds and mice by a pet cat.

Ruth Padel recited the title poem of her new collection, The Soho Leopard, and I was struck while listening that she wasn't reading it--she knew the piece, which lasted nearly ten minutes, by heart. (I asked her about it afterwards, and she explained that it was her way of giving the poem more fully to the audience, no doubt influenced by her years of training as a musician.) Then Jo Shapcott read three of her poems, beginning with "The Mad Cow Talks Back," spoken by an actual mad cow that also happens to be a bit of a holy fool--and was, it turns out, published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, which I bet not too many other poets can list on their vitae--and concluding with "Phrase Book," which happens to be the last poem in the anthology as well, ending on this plaintive note:

Where is the British Consulate? Please explain.
What does it mean? What must I do? Where
can I find? What have I done? I have done
nothing. Let me pass please. I am an Englishwoman.

November 09, 2004

I Know This Saying. It Was Invented in Russia.

My first exposure to Anton Chekhov in my senior year of high school went about as well as might be expected; I found The Cherry Orchard rather dull, "like one of those Woody Allen movies that aren't funny," as I complained at the time. I got smarter as I got older (part of it comes from not reading quite as much crap in my spare time as I did back then), and now Chekhov's one of my favorite playwrights. I know the fiction's out there, too, but I still haven't managed to get around to it yet--though the new Penguin Classics edition of The Shooting Party and a galley of the Everyman Library's The Complete Short Novels have turned up in my to-be-read pile within the last few months. So I was glad to see that the 92nd Street Y put on a tribute to Chekhov last night; I figured it'd be a good way to dip my toes in the water.

After a brief introduction by Unterberg Poetry Center director David Yezzi, who reminded us that "nothing much happens [in Chekhov's stories], except that one world ends and another begins," the evening began with a perfect example of that: the short story "The Schoolmistress," read by Janet Malcolm, who certainly knows a thing or two about Chekhov. Then Andre Gregory, who was still a bit torn up about the election--though jocularly so ("I did what our president always urges us to do; I went shopping")--but then segued into the idea that "in times like this, great art is a comfort." From there, he regaled us with the story of how Vanya on 42nd Street came about, beginning in 1989 when, working with his daughter in "an all-alcoholic Shakespeare company," he agreed to help her with a scene from Uncle Vanya and immediately thought of "Wally." Wallace Shawn didn't want to do it--in Gregory's impeccable imitation, "because I'm not an actor." He agreed to do it only when Gregory explained that it wasn't a show, that they'd just work on it in private--which was also how he convinced George Gaines, then still grieving over the death of his son, and Julianne Moore, who was fed up with acting and planning to become a teacher, to take part as well. One thing led to another, and they kept rehearsing the play each summer, then gradually invited some friends to watch, finally persuading Louis Malle to document the production on film... Gregory summed up the experience as an illustration of "Chekhovian reality," an act of "translating pain into the ecstatic."

Larry Pine, who played Astrov in that non-production, came out and joked that Gregory had told him he would have to go into therapy if he took the part, and when Pine balked ("I like to eat out and take cabs when it gets cold"), the director offered to pay for his first year. "And it changed my life!" Pine quipped, before plunging into the dramatic monologue at the heart of A Tragedian in Spite of Himself (PDF script). It's a classic Chekhovian rant against the little things in life that drive one mad, and had me thinking at one point that Dennis Leary would be perfect in Chekhov--of course, when Pine implored us, "Understand, this isn't farce, it's tragedy!", that just made us laugh harder. He followed that piece with a letter from Chekhov to his editor that began by suggesting artists should stop trying to offer solutions to the world's problems and concentrate on "the correct posing of questions." (Don't quote me on that; I went looking in A Life in Letters to check the quote but got tired because I stay up too late blogging...) Finally, he performed some of Trigorin's speeches on the frustrations of being a writer from The Seagull, with Betsy Bonner of the Unterberg reciting Nina's lines offstage. The dialogue is a lacerating self-critique of a writer who's convinced his friends will walk past his grave saying, "He was a good writer, but not as good as Turgenev," and Pine nailed the character's simultaneous need to write and lack of confidence in his ability to do so--every struggling writer in the room (and I'm sure there were plenty) knew exactly what he meant.

More Events I'll Miss But You Shouldn't

Yesterday I mentioned the "Airbrush This!" panel as something you might want to attend. Now I hear tell of a New York Public Library event with Sheila Kohler and Amy Hempel, in which they discuss the ways authors mine their real lives for fictional stories. Meanwhile, if you're not afraid to venture downtown, Cupcake hosts a reading by Martha Witt and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which will also be followed by a discussion. Anybody who goes and blogs about either event should tell me!

November 08, 2004

New York City, Literary Cornucopia

I've got my own plans for tonight--which you'll hear about in due course, but my goodness, the city's jumping: Roddy Doyle will be reading from his latest, Oh, Play That Thing! at the Union Square B&N, Chang-Rae Lee's just a few blocks away at the National Arts Club reading from Aloft (dress nice!), and Jonathan Ames will be down at Housing Works Café. To top things off, David Lehman and Douglas Crase are appearing together at KGB. Oh, and Jim Shepard's at the New School, reading and talking to Helen Schulman.

Also, tomorrow night you might want to check out "Airbrush This!", a panel of authors, journalists, and feminist scholars considering whether or not the "idealized, unrealistic images" of women permeating contemporary pop culture are undercutting women's opportunities for success and personal fulfillment. Perhaps ironically, considering the insidious influence of Sex and the City, they'll be on the 15th floor of the HBO building at 42nd and Sixth (6:30 p.m.)

An Apter Reading KGB May Never Have Had

I first became a fan of Jerome Charyn a decade ago when I came across paperback copies of the Isaac Sidel novels, hooked into their dream-like depiction of the blurred lines between cop and criminal in New York City. So when I heard he would be reading at KGB last night, I grabbed the copy of The Isaac Quartet I'd picked up last month in Los Angeles and jumped on the subway. He was kind enough to sign it for me while everyone was still ordering their drinks and finding their seats, before he read from his latest novel, "a romance of Stalinist Russia" called The Green Lantern, giving us a passage in his brilliantly hallucinatory style during which the protagonist finagles his way into a one-way ticket to the gulag to reunite with the actress he loves.

The second author, August Kleinzahler, alternated passages from his new collection of memoir-essays, Cutty, One Rock, with some of his poetry. This was phenomenal stuff, and the audience loved it--if you want to hear for yourself, you might try 192 Books on Thursday night (11/11).

Between the two readings, I happened to spot a woman holding a copy of The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll in one hand and a pen in the other, and so I asked her if she was Jean Nathan. She was! Her book has been on my radar ever since that NYT profile last month, and in addition to the rave reviews and profile attention, it turns out she did Leonard Lopate's show last week. Well, with any luck she'll be answering five questions from me next week, just you wait...

November 04, 2004

A Million Little Nights in Suck City

The conversation between Nick Flynn and James Frey at Housing Works Café tonight (7 p.m.) is bound to be crackling with energy, and if I didn't have another reading I'd be so there--if you are, write about it and let me know where the URL is! Hear Flynn talking about Another Bullshit Night in Suck City on The Connection, and read the Observer profile that started all the public hoopla over Frey and A Million Little Pieces.

November 03, 2004

Who Knew Henry James Was Such a Sidesplitter?

The Significant Other and I were able to distract ourselves from the national tension Monday night with a trip to the 92nd Street Y to see Louis Auchincloss and David Lodge read. Bruce Bawer began the evening by paying tribute to Auchincloss' writing career, which has spanned more than fifty years and more than fifty books, celebrating him as "the most authoritative chronicler and the most trenchant critic" of America's elite class. We were expecting Auchincloss to read from his latest novel, East Side Story, so the Significant Other was pleasantly surprised when he announced upon arriving at the podium that he would be reading from perhaps his most famous work, The Rector of Justin. Soon she was shooting me dirty looks, trying to get me to stop laughing quite so hard at his uproarious prose; I'd not read this novel before, and it really is one of the funniest passages I've heard in ages. I calmed down soon enough, and Auchincloss continued with a portion of the story "Billy and the Gargoyles" followed by another short story about a disastrous night at the opera.

That last story was an apt choice given that Lodge was reading from Author, Author, his novel about Henry James' attempt to match his literary success with a hit play, an attempt which went terribly (but in Lodge's casting, hilariously) wrong on opening night. One could see that some in the audience felt his introductory remarks went on a bit long; people had already begun to walk out as soon as Auchincloss walked offstage, even as Alison Lurie was comparing Lodge to Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh for their mutual "ironic tone" and "sardonic humor." The digression about how a proposed TV adaptation of George du Maurier's Trilby ten years ago inspired Lodge to think about James might have overextended itself, perhaps, but at least it led to the sly quip that "if I'd started earlier, I might have been the first instead of the third novelist to write a book about Henry James," which drew a chuckle from the audience and brought any undecideds firmly into his camp...after which his brilliant recreation of the opening night of James' play held our attentions firmly. Afterwards, while the S.O. was getting our copy of Author, Author signed, I asked Lodge if he'd had a chance to read any of the other James books, knowing of his passing acquaintance with Colm Tóibin. Not yet, he told me, though he was looking forward to them after his book tour was complete.

November 01, 2004

The Mirror Speaks, the Reflection Lies

Friday night, I went out to the West Side Y to see Annie Murphy Paul talk about The Cult of Personality, her engaging look at the history of personality tests: how they were developed, how they've been deployed, and how they're frequently misused in settings from the workplace to the courtroom. At least, I assume the entire book is as engaging as the chapter on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory I read in The Believer a few months back, an article which, as Sally Satel noted of the book as a whole, "combines lucid science reporting with colorful biography and intelligent social commentary."

Paul read from the opening and closing chapters of the book, describing how tests originally designed to diagnose mental illness have been increasingly applied to the population at large, defining people as "the sum of our sicknesses" or as simplified types that can only approximate human behavior--and, in the case of the Myers-Briggs, with about as much effectiveness as astrology.

When she invited the audience to ask questions about specific issues, we learned that she came to his material because she'd already found a niche for herself writing about psychology, and wanted to explore more fully how it "interacts with real people's lives," and so perhaps some of the things she's discovered about the tests could be applied to the use of psychological techniques in general. She didn't take any of the various tests while researching; "I didn't want to have my perspective on these tests shaped by whether I felt they had 'got' me or not." There were a few psychologists in the room, one of whom defended the use of testing in diagnostic situations--which, it turned out, wasn't a problem for Paul--while the other chimed in after my question about whether you can come out "normal" on any of these tests by pointing out that this raised the whole question of how to define pathology: as the mere possession of certain traits or the possession of those traits to degrees at statistical deviance from the majority of people...? Paul's definitely on to something with this book, and if you want any further proof, no less a science popularizer than Malcolm Gladwell introduced her work to New Yorker readers in a recent article. Here's hoping his enthusiasm sent a lot of those readers straight to the source.

Yes, But Will They Serve Madeleines?

On Wednesday, November 3rd, the New York Public Library will present "The Proust Project," billed as "a discussion with latter-day disciples, admirers, and shameless imitators," with a lineup that includes Louis Begley, Wayne Koestenbaum, Andrew Solomon, Judith Thurman, and Colm Tó well as some mystery guest stars who will be reading from In Search of Lost Time. I'd dearly love to be there, but other duties prevail, so if you go and you blog about it, let me know, won't you?

October 28, 2004

Spinoza Meets Old Friends

Last night I went to Housing Works to see a pair of Melville House authors read from their latest books. First up: Colette Inez and her new poetry collection, Spinoza Doesn't Live Here Anymore. The title piece was a fun combination of philosophy and a photographic eye for Manhattan details, and Inez's playfulness shows through much of her work. A poem about meeting Perry Como in the 1950s was written in the form of a pantoum, a Malay form employing interlocking repitition of whole lines, while she wrote about her mother using the ghazal.

Stephen Dixon came to the podium next, to read from his newest novel, Old Friends. Tracing the friendship that develops between two writers, Dixon piled one great sentence upon another to create long, cascading paragraphs of dialogue and memory. He read from two passages--one at the beginning of the relationship, when Irv learns about Leonard's past, and one near the end, a phone call with an ailing Leonard that's both funny and poignant, as disease and age have begun to take their toll on his mental faculties, though he refuses to give in to the accumulating effects.

After the reading, I chatted briefly with the folks who run Ig Publishing, a small press out of Brooklyn, and then I spotted F. Murray Abraham out of the corner of my eye. Introducing myself, I soon discovered that he'd been a friend of Dixon's for about thirty years now. When I mentioned that I became a fan when I read Frog, he asked me how I liked Interstate, and when I allowed that I hadn't read it yet, he recommended it to me heartily. He also revealed that he has plans to produce and direct a film version of one of Dixon's short stories--and he's got quite a literary/cinematic winter ahead of him, with film versions of ...And Quiet Flows the Don and The Bridge at San Luis Rey. Plus keep an eye out around the art-house circuit for an Italian TV-movie he's made with Sophia Loren, directed by Lina Wertmuller, which will have its American premiere in San Francisco sometime in November.

October 26, 2004

Back with Black (and Wunderlich)

It was just a little over a month ago the last time I heard Sophie Cabot Black read, but when I heard she would be appearing with fellow Graywolf poet Mark Wunderlich, I told the Significant Other to meet me at KGB--mind you, I thought the reading began a half hour earlier than it did, but being the first ones in worked to our advantage once the room filled up. We had a chance to say hello to Sophie just before the show got started--she'd been Halloween shopping just around the corner and showed us some fabulous Day of the Dead skull necklaces and rattles she'd picked up. Then it was up to the podium to read from The Descent, where I was once again stunned by the power of her imagery. "You were spooky up there," her friend, who'd been sitting next to me as Sophie read, said when she came back to our table. And not just because of the underlighting effect created by the reading lamp on the podium--Sophie's style is to simply move from one poem to the next, with only the barest of introductory remarks at the very beginning, and the accumulative effect is, in fact, powerfully unnerving (in the best way).

During the intermission, I discovered that her friend was Lucie Brock-Broido, and that she had taught Mark Wunderlich--which makes this conversation between Wunderlich and Stanley Kunitz a little more poignant, since Brock-Broido was Kunitz's student. I let her borrow my copy of Wunderlich's latest collection, Voluntary Servitude, and she followed along as he read. After recalling the "happy times" he had spent in a writing group with Sophie years ago, he told us how the title of his collection came from an essay by the French philosopher Etienne de La Boétie. And then the poems--again, I tended to be struck by the imagery, especially in scenes which were rooted in his Wisconsin farm childhood--passages about hunting deer, breaking geldings, milking goats--but there's also a powerful erotic current that flows through his verse, and a playfulness with form: he described one poem as "a confused villanelle," and revealed how another had started out inspired by Rilke but quickly went off in its own direction. The Significant Other was equally moved, and after the reading was over we had both poets sign our books.

October 21, 2004

Soft Skull Night at Happy Ending

"Is Rebecca Myles here?" Amanda Stern asked the murmuring crowd at last night's Happy Ending reading. "No? Too bad." Apparently Ms. Myles had emailed her after last week's show to complain about how it was run, and Amanda was all set to turn the moderating duties over to her for the evening. The complainant was a no-show, however, so Amanda kept the show moving by introducing Irish singer-songwriter Mark Geary, who is awfully damn good (hear for yourself). He kept bringing up friends from the audience to sing along and play the harmonica with him; by the end of the evening, he'd even charmed the audience into singing the choruses, and he actually managed to pull off the "I'm ending my set by walking out of the room while strumming the final chords" trick without it seeming totally trite.

With that kind of talent, the two authors--both of whom, like Amanda, have had their latest work published by Soft Skull Press, one of our favorite indie houses--faced stiff competition. Cultural critic and poet Wayne Koestenbaum read from his debut novel, Moira Orfei in Aigues-Mortes, which he described as "the notebooks of a dying polysexual pianist" who is trying to stage a comeback performance in collaboration with Orfei, Italy's "Queen of the Circus," although everything about her in the book is completely made up. (For example, although the sentence "Watching the gladiator picture I made with Eric Rohmer gives me no pleasure" held my attention, a cursory search of the Internet Movie Database turns up no collaboration between them...though she did star in Two Gladiators.) Koestenbaum read from a series of postcards his Moira sends to the pianist, a selection which highlighted the poetic qualities of his prose with its love of language's potential for sheer aesthetic pleasure.

The other reader, Matthew Sharpe, took two passages from The Sleeping Father, his breakaway hit from last spring, including a hilarious bungled class presentation on Paul Robeson that includes a Nirvana CD and Leon Trotsky. He also read from a fan letter he'd written to Koestenbaum years ago, in which he transcribed the contents of every lavender Post-It note he'd found in a copy of Cleavage in the local public library. And he read us the Library of Congress catalog description of his novel, beginning with "Antidepressants--Side effects--Fiction," suggesting that it ought to include one more category: "Good deeds that come back to bite you on the ass--Fiction." If you didn't read it back in the spring, I'd strongly suggest you do so now.

One of the Best Books I've Read All Year...

...although it must be pointed out that on the subject of Ren Weschler I have zero objectivity, as I've been a rabid fan of his for more than a decade now, such that he's the one author I really make an effort to get other people to read.

weschler.jpgAnyway, Weschler gave a group of fans a guided tour through his career-spanning collection, Vermeer in Bosnia, last night at Coliseum Books. Actually, he began by reading Vijay Seshadri's poem "Superman Agonistes," just because he liked it so much (judge for yourself, and even hear it read by Seshadri). Then he read what he'd written "in lieu of a preface," a witty essay explaining why he could never write fiction, followed by the first page or so of the opening chapter, and additional excerpts from each of the book's major sections.

One of the first questions from the audience was something along the lines of "what does Vermeer have to do with Bosnia, anyway?"--which, really, takes the entire chapter, if not the entire book, to answer, but Weschler spoke eloquently about how the perpetrators of the atrocities in Bosnia and other horrific acts like the attacks on the World Trade Center or the school massacre in Chechnya do not see their victims as fully human, even though they themselves may possess a deep enough well of feeling to see the beauty in the work of masters like Vermeer and Shakespeare, and how we eventually have to address the fact of their humanity. I can't really do what he said justice by summarizing it, but I was instantly reminded of a passage in Richard Rorty's Truth and Progress that has stayed with me when I read it more than half a decade ago:

Plato set things up so that moral philosophers think they have failed unless they convince the rational egotist that he should not be an egotist--convince him by telling him about his true, unfortunately neglected self. But the rational egotist is not the problem. The problem is the gallant and honorable Serb who sees Muslims as circumcised dogs. It is the brave soldier and good comrade who loves and is loved by his mates, but who thinks of women as dangerous, malevolent whores and bitches.

Another question from the audience brought up the matter of Weschler's sheer unclassifaibility as a writer, since individual books from his oeuvre can be, and have been, filed in just about every nonfiction section of the bookstore. The answer he gave was so similar to what he said to me earlier this year when I interviewed him for Publishers Weekly that I'm just going to run with that:

The kind of writing I'm interested in, and aspire to be a part of, is a personal grappling with the complexity of the world. At the end of the day, what I am is a storyteller. A connector of widly disparate sorts of particulars, finding form and pattern, but an idiosyncratic and personal pattern that has persisted across all my writing. If I were a fiction writer, this would be obvious to everybody. And again, I'm not talking about my own writing. I'm talking about Ian Frazier, Joan Didion, Joseph Mitchell, A.J. Liebling--those people should be in alphabetical order under literature, the same place you put Larry McMurtry...

It's natural, looking at a painting, to have thoughts about other things which are provoked by the painting, and to be mindful of those other thoughts. But the sluices and conduits of contemporary book capitalism make it difficult to do that. I keep hitting my head against that wall--well, I've had a lovely time doing it, anway, and I don't seem capable of doing it any other way.

Carol Friedman

October 20, 2004

He Came Dancing Across the Water, Kertész, Kertész

kertesz.jpgI went to the 92nd St. Y last night to see Nobel-winning novelist Imre Kertész (IM-ray CARE-tez) in a rare American appearance. After being introduced by Thane Rosenbaum as "a witness to a world that before then had never existed," in reference both to his own youthful imprisonment at Auschwitz and Buchenwald and his fictional testimony to the Holocaust survivor's experience in works like Fatelessness, Kaddish for an Unborn Child, and Liquidation, Kertész came out and began reading in his native Hungarian, at which point another Hungarian in the audience yelled something at him along the lines of "stand closer to the microphone." So if any of my readers are writers who've struggled with book tours, rest assured: it doesn't get any better when you're one of the greatest writers in the world. (You'll even have to face the same questions about your "writing process.")

Kertész's Hungarian readings were punctuated by solo piano performances of Dvorak and Schubert by his friend, Andras Schiff. Then Rosenbaum returned to the stage to read (in English) several passages from the three novels previously noted, and between his curly mullet-like hair and a certain pitch that crept into his voice when he was trying to imitate old men or getting excited by a darkly humorous bit, and especially when his pace quickened in excitement, the overall effect was like hearing a young Gene Wilder.

Kertész returned to the stage with a translator to field questions from Rosenbaum, who appeared to have a very strong idea of what the laureate's fiction was about. The conversation hit an early bump when Rosenbaum wondered if perhaps the childhood trauma of the concentration camps had so heavily weighed upon Kertész that he repeatedly returned to it in fiction while not writing so much about his experiences living under communism, to which the author replied that he had written quite a bit about that subject but it was apparently not as well known in English as his other work. The followup--"don't you think it's interesting, then, that the world remembers you more as a Holocaust survivor?"--was a valiant effort at a save, and Kertész met it halfway allowing that "the Holocaust is a universal experience," while life under a communist regime was a particular experience, especially in its Hungarian variety. Asked if he thought much about other Holocaust survivors who wrote about their experiences and then committed suicide, he suggested that it was precisely because he endured communism after being liberated from the camps that he never killed himself. "They expected too much after the Holocaust from the worlds they now lived in," he explained. Kertész wrote in one novel, "There is no cure for Auschwitz," and in another, "I already know there will be happiness." Rosenbaum saw "tremendous contradictions" in the two statements, and pressed Kertész, "Which is true?" The short answer--different texts, different contexts--didn't seem to fully satisfy, and the conversation would veer back in this direction quite a few times, though Kertész refused to be pinned down, doing his best to renegotiate a literary context. Pressed about whether authors like Primo Levi were right in saying that the Holocaust could never be depicted in words, Kertész said that the key was to simply "describe the describable" in such a way that the reader is engaged by the protagonist's dilemma; secure that emotional involvement and you wouldn't even have to attempt to describe the indescribable aspects of life in the camps. "And a character in a novel," he would later add, "is nothing but a choice of language."

October 14, 2004

I Have Met My Match at Celebrity Impressions

Actually, to hear the Significant Other tell it, most of my celebrity impressions stink, although she does admit that my Peter Bonerz is eerily accurate, and I think the reason she hates my Walken is that it's so good it reminds her of Walken, who she finds annoying. (My Yoda as the Alec Baldwin character in Glengarry Glen Ross makes her laugh, but I don't know that it's a "celebrity" impression, exactly...) But on to the main event...last week I had the opportunity to see Peter Bogdanovich speak to a couple hundred fans at the Union Square Barnes & Noble about his latest book, Who the Hell's In It. The book is a collection of profiles and personal reflections on several Hollywood legends, and he told a couple tales from it, which provided a perfect opportunity to do his impressions of Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, Marlon Brando, and Alfred Hitchcock. That last one was the funniest to me--Bogdanovich visited the set of Torn Curtain and found Hitchcock in a foul mood. "Paul Newman sent me a memo," the director finally said. "An eight-page memo." Well, I guess it loses something on the page...

So Q&A time rolls around and nobody bothers with the question part; we just toss out celebrity names and put the poor guy to work. Jimmy Cagney! Frank Sinatra! John Wayne! (Which also led to a Howard Hawks impression, the accuracy of which I cannot judge, but will assume to be just fine.) The Dietrich impression I personally found a bit shaky, but, hell, it's more than I'd even try. After it was all over, and he'd signed about a gazillion books, I tagged along with his dinner party to a nearby restaurant, where he and I tag-teamed his publicist with stories about Richard Bennett and Orson Welles on the set of The Magnificent Ambersons (I'd just finished a biography of the Bennett family) and then I pretty much let him run with the ball because I really wanted to hear the stories about Welles as a houseguest, and they were just as funny as I thought they were going to be.

Another Hundred People Just Started Blogs

My editor on The Karen Black Project is also here in Los Angeles looking at 30-year-old production stills with me, and as it happens, Laurence Maslon and Michael Kantor, the co-authors of her big book for this fall season were being feted by KCET because their book, Broadway: The American Musical, is also a six-part PBS documentary airing next week.

Watch it. You will be entertained. The highlight reel I saw included featurettes on Cole Porter, Comden & Green, Sondheim, Michael Bennett and some of the current hit shows, and the combination of archival footage and talking heads is just really superb. What I've seen of the book has been pretty damn impressive as well, and though this excerpt doesn't have any of the photos, but it'll give you a feel for what they're up to.

The party/screening. held at an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences screening room, drew quite a few stars with musical theater backgrounds. I could have sworn I saw Donna McKechnie, but my editor wasn't able to confirm it. She did, however, point out George Furth and William Daniels to me, though I'm rather saddened she didn't introduce me to the latter as "Michael," as I figured it would be a great way to get to hear him say the name. (Yeah, I guess it is pretty nerdy, at that.)

October 11, 2004

NYC Events I Can't Attend But You Can and Should

I'll be out of the city most of this week, traveling to Los Angeles to do research in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences archives for The Karen Black Project. I'm excited, of course, but it means that I'll be missing a bunch of interesting literary events here in New York. KGB is hosting Gary Sherbell Tuesday night; I don't know anything about his novel, Talking to Richard, beyond the paragraph on the bar's website, but a story about a lawyer who wakes up with another lawyer's head where his penis used to be should be different. Sure, you're thinking it'll be different by being bad, but people probably thought that about Chester Brown before Ed the Happy Clown kicked into gear. Anyway, Wednesday night will be a bit more conventional, as Rebecca Goldstein and Adam Langer take the podium.

Bluestockings is on a roll this week. Tuesday they'll be supplying books for a Monique Truong reading at Lolita as part of the Cupcake series; Truong, you might recall, won the New York Public Library Young Lions Literary Award back in April for The Book of Salt. Wednesday, they get behind Lisa Dierbeck's reading at Knit for her debut novel, One Pill Makes You Smaller. And on Thursday, they bring the party to the store for "an evening of feminist science fiction" featuring Ellen Datlow, Carol Emshwiller, Nancy Jane Moore, Sue Lange, and Marleen Barr--the last of whom I've seen read before; she's fearlessly enthusiastic and her high energy is awfully contagious.

But if you go to that Thursday night, you'll miss a poetry reading at NYU's Tishman Auditorium featuring three Knopf authors: Philip Levine, Sharon Olds, and Edward Hirsch. Then again, you can always catch Levine at Three Lives on the 20th...and if you didn't catch my earlier announcements about Elisabeth Frank and Alan Hollinghurst reading there this week, consider yourselves alerted now. If you want any more suggestions, why not do what I do every Monday and visit Maud's blog for Lauren Cerand's top picks?

October 08, 2004

Gaelic Pronunciation Guide: call-um toe-BEEN

Despite my inability to navigate the Village, I managed to find NYU's Glucksman Ireland House and hear Colm Toibin speak about his Man Booker-nominated The Master. Before reading, he spoke briefly about what it felt like the last time he was nominated, commenting drily, "It's what the five losers get up to afterwards that's more interesting to a novelist." In the end, he compared it to the Blessed Sacrament processions he was compelled to take part in as a churchgoing lad--forced into one's good clothes and paraded around all day by the people in charge.

He read two passages from the novel, one in which Henry James desperately tries to prevent his American houseguest from figuring out that his servants are alcoholics, and another in which James disposes of the clothes of Constance Fenimore Woolson after her death in Venice. Toibin noted that the latter incident shows up in other recent novels about James as well, and says it just proves the truth of a bit of writing advice James himself once gave: "Dramatise, dramatise." It's part of why he even chose to write about the author; other writers lives may lead to obvious conclusions and pat fictionalizations, but "the level of mystery in James is really very great--everything he was, he was also the opposite." He was also, he told us, concerned with the recent recastings of James as a neurotic and the queering process that had taken place with regard to his life and fiction, particularly in academia. In elaborating his fictional portrayal of James, Toibin's priority was creating "a novel of feeling," and he found himself cutting biographical details that seemed to show off his own clever research. For the prose style, "I tried to pretend that Hemingway had never lived," so that he doesn't quite imitate James directly, but he does rely on a more Latinate vocabularly and indulges in slightly longer sentences with semicolons and dashes.

What about those other novels about James, I asked from the back of the room? He recounted a long-ago meeting with David Lodge, then told us that he'd had lunch with Lodge more recently, as they were reading from their James novels in the same town on consecutive nights. "I've read the beginning of Author, Author, which I liked," he said, "and I'm sure I'll like the rest as well." He also called Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty "marvelous," though he actually finds it "closer to the spirit of an English political novel, more like Trollope than James." Which may make New Yorkers that much more interested in catching Hollinghurst at Three Lives on October 13th.

"Ain't Nothing But a Hooker Party"

rentgirl.jpgLest you get the wrong idea, that's actually a line from Rent Girl, the new graphic novel written by Michelle Tea to "explore in depth her ambivalence to the sex industry, which she found to be an exciting outlaw occupation one minute and a traumatic existential nightmare the next." Every page has a stunning two-color illustration by Laurenn McCubbin, and you'll probably like it if you're a fan of those "comic book" things the Times just discovered. (Mind you, one of their selections is a comic strip reprint, and the other's a nonfiction book about comic books, but I expect by the fiftieth time they rerealize comics aren't just for kids anymore, they'll get it right.)

Anyway, Michelle and Laurenn will be at the Lucky 13 Saloon in Park Slope tonight, celebrating the book's release with Cheryl B. and Rachel Kramer Bussel.

October 07, 2004

Great Readings Often Happen By Chancellors

The chancellors of the Academy of American Poets should be "literary persons of the highest standing," according to the organization's mandate, and with at least four Pulitzers, four National Book Awards, a National Book Critics Circle Award and a Guggenheim fellowship among them, the eight poets at last night's Chancellors Reading certainly fit the bill. (And, as executive director Tree Swenson pointed out, they fulfill the other mandate for geographic and stylistic diversity.) There were plenty of literary persons in the front rows of the Florence Gould Hall, too; at least the Significant Other and I assume there were, though we didn't actually recognize anybody besides Harold Bloom.

Frank Bidart led off the evening with his poem "Guilty of Dust" and two newer works. Susan Howe followed with the most avant-garde selection of the evening, an extract from her "Leisure of the Theory Class" that began with at least a dozen repetitions of the phrase "Praises to..." and remained highly fragmentary in tone from there. Next up: Galway Kinnell, acknowledging the long line of poems about Orpheus and Eurydice as an introduction to his, written from Orpheus' perspective (hope I got this right):

I've grown tired of wondering the earth
spouting the same tragedy night after night

Yusef Komunyakaa had one of the most impressive reading voices, reminiscent of Ossie Davis' baritone, and he applied it masterfully to "Anodyne," which the Significant Other and I both agreed was probably the top individual poem of the evening. Philip Levine's "On the Meeting of Garcia Lorca and Hart Crane" was a strong runner-up, though, as you can hear. His other poem, "The Two," turned out to employ a similarly self-conscious and slightly combative narrator, well suited to his voice. Nathaniel Mackey read "On Antiphon Island," modestly omitting that it was one of the best American poems of 2002, as well as an "Orphic fragment" from his cycle Song of the Andoumboulou.

I was especially thrilled to see the next poet, Gary Snyder, since he doesn't do many readings in New York these days. He read from his latest collection, Danger on Peaks (read a review--heck, read two), noting that the title referred to Mount St. Helens, "a lovely mountain which is apparently taking notice of my attention," he quipped. The four prose-and-verse pieces he read didn't actually refer to the volcano, but the S.O. agreed that they were among the most beautiful works of the evening, stunning in the exactitude of their imagery. The final poet to read, Rosanna Warren, was very engaging with the audience, noting that one poem was titled "'Runes,' not 'Ruins'" and joking that "Tempus Fugit" had "a deliberately pretentious Latin title." Neither of those poems appears to be online, but Web de Sol (another one of those NYTBR-recognized sites that deserve your attention) does have "Noon."

Afterwards, the S.O. and I made our way onstage to get Levine's autograph on his most recent collection, Breath, and then wait patiently behind Paul Auster as he chatted with Snyder and got some of his books signed, too. I asked Snyder about the Japanese poetic form he'd used in the pieces he read. "It's haibun," he said. "Bun is Japanese for prose and hai refers to haiku. Although my poems weren't really haiku. They aren't short enough." Well, we still can't recommend them highly enough.

October 05, 2004

Apparently, It's Not a Pink Floyd Cover Band

usnthem.JPGLast night I made it out to UKNew York for a launch party in honor of Us and Them, a collection of drawings-with-text that reveals "What the British Think of The Americans [and] What The Americans Think of The British." I wish there were some samples of the artwork available online, but what I saw at the party has a very enjoyable, Danny Gregory sort of feel to it. In addition to meeting co-author Paul Davis, I also had a pleasant conversation with Steven Guarnaccia, whose "moderne" version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears is loaded with images of hip furniture by the likes of Eames and Noguchi, which made it sound right up my alley. The crowd seemed to be about half "us" and half "them," but all in favor of the scrumptious appetizers, including bite-size portions of vegetarian (I think) bubble and squeak.

October 03, 2004

New York Is Book Country

weiner.jpgSo Sarah Weinman and I were hanging out with Jennifer Weiner (that's her to the left) before her New York Is Book Country panel began, and she asked us whether we'd been to see A. J. Jacobs and lend him some moral support after the rough treatment at Joe Queenan's hands. We hadn't, but we all had some sympathy for the guy--and wondered if maybe Queenan, who's no stranger to books built on shaky premises, was trying to nip the next generation of competition in the bud. And though it was not stated outright, one felt that a man who's written for Movieline has some nerve making fun of a contributor to Entertainment Weekly; for a more sympathetic portrait of Jacobs and his project, check out his NPR interviews.

I then took the opportunity to introduce Jennifer to Stephanie Lehmann and show her the copy of Stephanie's second novel, Are You in the Mood?, that I was carrying in my backpack--along with Jennifer's Little Earthquakes--before we were all hustled into the NYU classroom where Jennifer would speak to several dozen women (and about five guys). Cathleen Schine was supposed to join her for a dialogue, but she didn't, so we got to hear Jennifer read a chapter from Little Earthquakes in which one of the protagonists "tries to resume relations" with her husband a few months after giving birth, interrupted halfway through for a story about her own hospital stay, and then a little later when the action heated up--"If my husband's at the reading," she quipped, "this is the point when he leaves." Then it was on to audience discussion, which took a detour into the walking adventures of several 17-month-olds before seguing into the usual author questions about process, revision, finding an agent, etc. The subject of the "chick lit" label generated a few sparks; Jennifer finds it useful shorthand as a marketing tool, but hates how the critical establishment has used it as a shortcut to ignore popular fiction aimed at women. "It's demeaning to women as readers and writers," she remarked, "to say you'd only read something that speaks specifically to what's going on in your life right this minute." She also revealed that she lets her family take a look at her manuscript before it sees print, while noting that Philip Roth, among others, says you should never do that since you're writing for posterity, not your relatives. "I don't know where he goes for Passover," she laughed, "but I have to go home, and who needs an uncomfortable seder?"

Afterwards, I asked Stephanie, whose novel (like Jennifer's) falls under the "momlit" rubric, what her impressions were, especially since she'd just finished Little Earthquakes. "She's great at creating real characters women relate to like crazy," she said. "The whole thing with 'chick lit' and 'momlit' is that it's like a dialogue between women. I think the reason it's so big right now is that it's so confusing to be a woman; we get so many conflicting messages about what we should be. In the '50s, we were told to be a good mom, then everything changed in the '60s. You were told you could go out and have a career, then you were told you could have it all, until people realized you can't. So now we all ask ourselves what can we do, and what is everybody else doing? What's it really like for them?" I recalled Jennifer's comment about reading outside one's immediate experiences, and Stephanie nodded, "You want to read what it's like for married women when you're single, and I think a lot of readers of momlit are women who don't have children yet and want to find out what it's going to be like. You want to know what's down the line, and you want to know about other people's experiences."

schnur2.gifLucky for me, my next Book Country panel was just four floors up (and running five minutes late). There were quite a few "emerging authors" panels this weekend, but I suspect I attended the only one where one of the authors was celebrating her 50th birthday: Leslie Schnur (that's her to the left, and as you can see, one certainly wouldn't have known about the birthday had she not mentioned it...). She started writing The Dog Walker after a 20-year career in publishing, including a stint as Dell's editor-in-chief, but other than that, it turned out she had plenty in common with the other panelists, Ann Napolitano and David Schickler, like studying under Helen Schulman and Dani Shapiro. Schickler told us how his writing career had really started as a teenager, when he would regale his parents at the dinner table with completely fabricated stories about fellow students at his private high school, while Napolitano explained how her British editor had wanted all sorts of changes made to Within Arm's Reach, but her American editor had been able to exert her influence to make the alterations minimal. I may end up going to KGB next week to see Schickler read from Sweet and Vicious, and will have more to report if I do. When the panel was over, I got to reintroduce myself to Napolitano's NYU classmate, Helen Ellis, who's currently shopping around her new novel, Cedarbark Circle, about "a group of 1950's housewives who become convinced that their neighbor is a witch." I loved Eating the Cheshire Cat, so I'll be looking forward to this one and expect it shouldn't have much trouble landing a publisher.

And In Another Part of Book Country...

The Significant Other took on the role of Beatrice correspondent over the weekend, venturing out to New York Is Book Country panels I couldn't see because of scheduling conflicts. Saturday afternoon, while I stayed at the New York Film Festival to see the cast members of Sam Fuller's The Big Red One chat with Richard Schickel and Christa Fuller (Sam's widow, and a charmingly cynical German countess in a freshly restored scene) talk about what it was like to make a war movie with Lee Marvin, she went down to Washington Square Park to see the writing team from The Daily Show read aloud from America: The Book. (Tangential note: it takes seven expository paragraphs before this review even mentions its purported subject, and the cutesy question "you were wondering when I'd get to it, weren't you?" doesn't make the problem go away. Neither, if the last few months of NYTBR are any indication, will editor Sam Tanenhaus--his version of the Review often, though not always, seems to thrive on writing about the subjects of books in lieu of writing about the books.)

After that reading, the S.O. moved on to Mark Crispin Miller, who spoke to a small crowd about Cruel and Unusual, an in-depth look at the "New World Order" of Bush-Cheney. "We’ve drifted in the direction of Stalin’s Soviet Union," he observed, "in that the truth is what they say it is. If you come up with a counterexample, they say you’re doing propaganda." He also warned that next month's presidential election isn't just an election, but a crisis, and expressed strong skepticism that the electronic voting machines installed in many states could be trusted: "Any state that has them where a Republican wins, I’d mistrust on principle."

Sunday afternoon brought another political panel, which she attended specifically to see Thomas Frank talk about What's the Matter With Kansas. He shared the dais with John Judis, another tough analyst of neoconservatism, Craig (House of Bush, House of Saud) Unger, and Thai Jones, who indirectly caused a bit of hoopla when the videocamera taping the event started to pan the audience during his remarks. An agitated woman loudly demanded to know why they were being taped, and when another audience member exasperatingly asked why she was making an issue of it, she asked if that other woman was "with the government." Which was, I thought when the tale was related to me, a bit much, especially since I would think subversives in hiding wouldn't bother to come out to Book Country, even to support Jones' well-written memoir about growing up in "a radical line."

And if you think that itinerary sounds a bit ideologically lopsided, well, that's the way Beatrice and the Significant Other lean, to be sure, but frankly, looking over the schedule just now, I couldn't recognize any conservative authors on the Book Country schedule. I would've been willing to check some out, schedule permitting, but they don't seem to have shown up. Whether that says something about them, or Book Country, or New York, perhaps isn't for me to say. And if you did see one there this weekend, perhaps you could comment about it below!

October 02, 2004

"What gets left of a man amounts
to a part. To his spoken part. To a part of speech."

jbrodsky.jpgDavid Remnick began the New Yorker festival's tribute to Joseph Brodsky by describing how the Russian expatriate poet used to show his disdain for the "vulgarity" of journalistic questions about his political views by making "them" hold his cat in "their" lap, producing much sniffling as allergies kicked in. (Somehow, I think the sample pool here might be rather narrow...) After offering some additional insights into Brodsky's verse and his stature in his homeland, Remnick turned the microphone over to the writers, beginning with Mark Strand, who recalled of Brodsky's readings, "he seemed to chant, and American poets tend to mumble." Nicole Krauss was next, and though she's best known as a novelist these days, she has written some poetry--with, she told us, a bit of mentorship from Brodsky that began her freshman year of college. She read a letter he'd written with advice on specific poems; his reaction to one titled "Sleeping With Baryshnikov" was that "sex is something that is easier done than said, and this poem proves it."

Gary Shtenygart revealed that, unlike the other panelists, he'd never met Brodsky, but as a Russian emigré in New York in the 1980s, he was acutely aware of him; a declaration by Shtenygart's mother that she'd seen the poet crossing the street in Manhattan and looking pale could set off all manner of hoopla in the household, and the teenage boy came to the poems because he wanted to know who could generate such a fuss. Tatyana Tolstaya talked about the time she came to America and met Brodsky, then recalled how she dreamed about his death at, apparently, the very hour it was happening; she also read from three of his poems in Russian, which many audience members in the darkened auditorium appreciated, if the murmuring was any indication. Finally, Derek Walcott shared his memories of meeting Brodsky at Robert Lowell's funeral, where his uncrying demeanor was "a model of reticence," and eventually working together on translations of his Russian verse, including "Letter from the Ming Dynasty."

Photos of Brodsky at various stages of his life were projected on a large screen behind the podium, and occasionally one could hear recordings of Brodsky reading his poems as one guest sat down and another prepared to stand. As Walcott walked away, the final picture was the portrait by Richard Avedon (which you can see in reduced size here), a fitting--and I assume witting--tribute to the recently deceased photographer whose work had done so much to transform the magazine over the last twelve years.

Who Knows, Hitchens Might Even Be There is having a fundraiser at Pianos tonight in order to scrape together the cash for a print issue this fall. There will be a raffle; among the prizes, I hear, is a copy of something autographed by Christopher Hitchens. Go and say hi to founding editor Sarah Stodola!

The same bar will host another literary magazine party Monday night, when Swink holds a reading with international flavor. Geoff Dyer represents for England, Israel sends Etgar Keret, and poet Rynn Williams delivers for the hometown crowd.

The Venue Sounds Like a Video Game,
But the Prose Was Strictly Literary

When the New Yorker festival schedule arrived a few weeks ago, I immediately hit upon the idea of trying to get a press pass so I could see a bunch of writers without blowing my entire entertainment budget for the fall season. The media relations department undoubtedly saw right through this stratagem, but apparently they liked what they saw in write-ups of other events, because last night they let me hang out at Crash Mansion for a pair of readings by a total of four authors.

Deputy fiction editor Cressida Leyshon introduced Antonya Nelson by invoking a statement from her Missouri Review interview: "I think I make people uneasy sometimes by being so curious as to why they do what they do. I find myself thinking about this fairly obsessively, and I can't stop until I've found an answer. It doesn't matter whether it's the correct answer for that person. For me, it has to be an answer that appears to be true; it has to make sense to me." It was something to keep in mind as she read "Dick," a short story that appeared in the magazine in the spring of 2003. Sitting in a booth in the back of the room, I mostly kept my attention up front, but occasionally turned to the big screen TV on the wall beside me to get a closer perspective. When she was done, Jeffrey Eugenides came to the podium and, after an impromptu analysis of Thursday's presidential debate (which mostly consisted of ragging on Bush's appearance of being not that bright), he read a fragment from a work in progress in which a young man named Constantine recalled many unusual things that had happened during a trip through Europe and Asia. The character was also called Cos at some points because, Eugenides said, his wife had told him "no one can bear to read an entire novel about a man named Constantine." He followed this up with a rare (for him, anyway) short story, "The Coming Out Party," which apparently the festival folks had wanted to webcast--an idea he told us he'd promptly nixed, preferring to limit the audience to his "heavily drinking" friends in the room.

In the Q&A segment afterwards, Nelson suggested that she was resuming a focus on short stories as opposed to novels because her adolescent children had begun requiring large amounts of attention again, while Eugenides admitted, "I can't write short stories to save my life." He cited a bit of advice he'd picked up from Larry McMurtry in graduate school, to the effect that novels are much easier to write than short stories. In response to a query about editing, Nelson said the New Yorker edited her fiction even more rigorously than her book publishers, and Eugenides pointed to Leyshon and told us she was the person who'd taught him most about how to analyze a story's effectiveness line by line. Nelson also quipped that while her children may remind her what it's like to be a teenager, the issues she grapples with in her writing have been gestating in her mind since her own adolescence; "if you're still stuck in your teenage self," she joked, "you probably have the makings of a writer."

There then followed a short intermission.

While waiting for George Saunders to begin the second round of readings, I caught up with his Syracuse faculty mate Mary Karr, who introduced me to Keith Gessen, mentioning his Atlantic Monthly feature on the preservers of Lenin's corpse and predicting a possibly great future for him. (Turns out he's also the author of the lengthy Dave Eggers analysis in n+1.) Saunders was soon introduced by NYer editorial director Henry Finder and read "Bohemians," a story that proves Saunders is just as amazingly funny when practicing hyperrealism as he was in his most surrealist stories. (An audience member would later suggest "echoes of Stuart Dybek," and Saunders readily agreed, dwelling on the idea of a "Chicago sensibility" rooted in sarcastic rejection of sentiment.)

Jonathan Franzen had a hard act to follow, and said as much: "George's language is as precise as it gets. He has a perfect ear." But his own three vignettes of "people behaving weirdly upon breaking up" proved that his ear's still pretty sharp, too. I thought he'd saved the best for last, in a tale about Pam and Paul, a married couple and screenwriting team whose disintegrating relationship gets filtered through their latest project in development. In lesser hands, that idea could be executed very, very badly, but Franzen makes it work through prose that's accessible without being simplistic.

Given the subject matter, I took the opportunity to begin the questioning by wondering how they felt about Hollywood adapting their work. Saunders was all for it; he's actually working on the script for CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and hopes "to use the same raw material to do a slightly different thing." Franzen knows "a script exists," but says, "I don't want to see it until they make me." A slew of questions about what you think about when you write followed, though a comment about Franzen's success at depicting Lithuania and Lithuanians in The Corrections led to a swell running gag that got us through all sorts of topics. There was actually a really thoughtful series of responses dealing with the modern American fiction reader and what he or she is like in aggregate, but I'm sorry to report that my writing hand was getting a bit sore by then, so you'll just have to take my word when I say the two of them handled the topic quite well, though Franzen did sort of stun the crowd when he suggested that the small audience of literary fiction readers "are the only people in this country I really care about." A lot of us seemed to be wondering if he'd really just said that, and he went on to...not backpedal exactly, but to qualify the remark by saying that he liked just about everybody he met, even the people with whom he disagreed most fervently, but that it was the people who saw the point in reading fiction for whom he had the greatest affinity. At least that's how I took it; if you were there and you interpreted it differently, comment now!

October 01, 2004

All the Chick Lit You Can Handle

I'll be engrossed in the restored The Big Red One at the New York Film Festival, but chick lit fans should think about attending Red Dress Ink's New York Is Book Country event at 2:00 p.m. on the Borders Stage. In addition to Lynda Curnyn and Sarah Mlynowski, the group of featured authors includes Heather Cochran, Courtney Litz, Lauren Baratz-Logsted, and RDI's lone male author, Michael Weinreb.

In My Head, Crow and Tom Cried, "MITCHELL!"

mitchell.jpgThe buzz about Cloud Atlas first caught my attention back in February, so when I learned the author would be reading at Three Lives (a place Michael Cunningham calls "one of the greatest bookstores on the face of the Earth"), I was so there. Once I figured out exactly where in the Village it is, I mean; that whole area between Sixth and Seventh below Greenwich Avenue always confuses the bejesus out of me. Luckily, David Mitchell and his retinue were running a few minutes later than I was, so I was still able to stake out a spot in the back of the tightly packed room before his reading began.

Taking a spot at the head of the crowd, he asked if anyone had a favorite passage they'd like him to read. "I take requests," he quipped--and then proceeded to read a section from "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing" in which Ewing witnesses the whipping of a Moriori native. "Well, that's sort of a grim beginning, isn't it?" he said as the passage drew to a close, then told us about an encounter with a Maori on Chatham Island whol told him the Moriori were a myth created by misunderstanding English colonists. From there, Mitchell moved on to a scene from "Letters from Zedelghem" in which the narrator makes his way to the home of Vyvyan Ayrs--"and if anyone knows Albert Finney or his agents," he interjected after assaying Ayrs' first line of dialogue, "tell them they can have the rights for nothing." Finally, he read the opening of "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After," the novel's midpoint before its interlocking narratives begin to fold back on themselves. I didn't quite catch what he said about the dialect in which it was written, but apparently it had something to do with someone who'd called in with a question when he was on WBUR's The Connection that morning. (The 47-minute show's worth a listen, if you've got the time, and includes a snippet of the Ewing passage.) The question-and-answer section was a bit abbreviated, but Mitchell did find time to recommend John Dower's writings on Japanese history and come up with a question he'd like to ask himself: "Why did you study literature at university when all you had to do was read the books?" (A question with which I, as a film school escapee, could instantly sympathize.)

September 29, 2004

NYC Fans of South Asian-American Women Novelists Face Conundrum

Chitra Divakaruni reads from her new novel, The Queen of Dreams, at the South Asian Journalist Association & Indo-American Arts Council reception tomorrow night at Maharaja. But the Asian-American Writers' Workshop is holding a simultaneous event with Bharati Mukherjee in honor of her latest, The Tree Bride--and to up the stakes, she's got Ruth Ozeki introducing her.

As it happens, I'll be taking the easy way out of this dilemma by hiding out at Three Lives, where Booker shortlistee David Mitchell kicks off his U.S. tour for Cloud Atlas. But do consider the other events carefully, won't you? And if you go, let me know; I'll run a report here or link to your blog.

September 28, 2004

If I Have Any Bay Area Readers, They Should Listen Up

Lawrence Weschler's coming to Berkeley. Go see him at the Wheeler Auditorium tomorrow night, where he'll be talking about his latest book, Vermeer in Bosnia, and that magazine he's trying to get off the ground, Omnivore. I can't say enough good things about Weschler's prose. Just go. You'll be glad you did. (And if you want to send me a report, well, that's fine, too.)

Cue Your Bongwater CDs to "Women Tied Up in Knots"

amisakurai.jpgI went out to Bluestockings last week to catch a reading by Ami Sakurai, whose publisher describes her as "a writer for the Heidi Fleiss, Paris Hilton, Tracy Quan, Annabelle Chong generation of women," which is to say that she's "challenging our contemporary notions of female sexuality." Though she appeared to have ditched the "sword-wielding samurai-kogyaru" said to have accompanied her at other events during her week-long stay in New York, her kimono was much like the one in the photo above. Anyway, she read the first two pages of her novella, Innocent World, in Japanese, and then ceded the microphone to neo-geisha Hillary Raphael, who read a translation all of Ami's first chapter and a good portion of the second--taking the protagonist (also named Ami) through a recollection of the first time she had sex with her brother and the latest sex job she's taken so she can afford to keep going out to visit said brother and continue their romance.

The translation by Steven Clark has an effective deadpan quality, though this subject matter is clearly not going to be for everyone. And none of those reference points cited above quite work--well, maybe Tracy Quan, but only by way of Abel Ferrara. I'm actually thinking more along the lines of Kathy Acker without the textual experimentation... As it happens, Raphael actually has some of that experimentation in her novel, I [heart] Lord Buddha, which I'm still working my way through. But she's a huge Sakurai fan, calling Innocent World her "favorite novel in Japanese right now." And Sakurai has some interesting tastes of her own; we spoke briefly after the reading, and she mentioned a group of favorite American authors that veered from Fitzgerald to Harlan Ellison, specifically The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World.

Oh, and I promised the folks at Vertical I'd mention their new directing ordering program, which comes with a 33 percent discount and free shipping. Which is quite a bargrain for fans of Vertical's quirky J-pulp line. I'm pretty excited about the new material from Ring creator Koji Suzuki myself...

September 27, 2004

KGB Poetry: Better Read than...Ahhh, Too Obvious

I've been told that Christian Hawkey will be reading from his first book of poems, The Book of Funnels, at KGB tonight (7 P.M., to be exact). Hawkey's a co-editor of the poetry journal Jubilat--which, as it happens, hosted a reading in Amherst yesterday, and will be hosting another one on October 24th with Nick Flynn and Matthea Harvey, two poets published by Graywolf Press. Although these days Flynn may be getting more attention as the author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, the memoir the NYTBR can't bring itself to name. (The thing that throws me is the inability to say "in suck city.") And I've been a fan of Harvey's Sad Little Breathing Machine ever since I heard her read from it last spring.

Oh, and keep an eye out for fifteen Hawkey poems in the fall 2004 Conjunctions, an assortment selected by John Ashbery, who counts himself among Hawkey's admirers.

Let a Thousand Authors Blume

judyblume.jpgYou might recall Beatrice's account of June's Judy Blume tribute at Fez. Well, what with that National Book Award, much of that same crowd will return tomorrow night with new featured perfomers like Mike Daisey and Touré, plus a special appearance by Blume herself. If I didn't have to take a sick cat to the vet for a followup appointment that night, you know this is where I'd be, so go in my place and then tell me how it went.

September 23, 2004

Double-Dipping Into the Events Calendar

Last night I went out to the Park Avenue Borders to hear Elise Juska read from her recently released second novel, The Hazards of Sleeping Alone. The publicity folks at Downtown Press set up a little wine and cheese table in the corner of the basement, so I had a chance to chat briefly with Juska before she read from the opening chapter, telling her how the Significant Other had nodded at the back cover copy that described one character as "having just graduated from Wesleyan with a pierced tongue and an arsenal of opinions." And then, after the audience of several dozen fans listened to Juska read about that character telling her mother she was going to move in with her boyfriend, from the mother's perspective, I was introduced to fellow Downtown Press author Heather Swain, who's also got a second novel just out in stores, Luscious Lemon.

Then I took a brisk walk over to the West Side Y for a poetry reading by Sophie Cabot Black. As she took the podium, Black noted that it was fitting that she hold her first reading for The Descent here, as the Y had been the site of her first reading for The Misunderstanding of Nature a decade ago. She then read well over a dozen poems from the collection, including "The Mountain" and "Holy". (See more of her work at Ploughshares.) On my way out afterwards, I stopped briefly to chat with Graywolf Press director Fiona McCrae, who I'd met at the indie publisher's 30th anniversary party last spring, and Tree Swenson, executive director of the Academy of American Poets, joking that she and I would be sure to run into each other at several more readings in the months ahead. I also promised West Side Y literary organizer Glenn Raucher that although I can't make Friday night's reading by Ursula Hegl, I'd give Beatrice readers in NYC a heads-up. So if you don't have plans, swing by; it's just a few blocks north of Columbus Circle on W. 63rd.

September 20, 2004

Book Promotion 101

Bella Stander, who I met at BookExpo earlier this year, will be conducting a Book Promotion 101 seminar in New York City on November 13th. Guest lecturers include Jacqueline Deval, the publisher of Hearst Books, and Stephanie Elizondo Griest, whose Around the Bloc was one of this year's more promising debut memoirs.

And He Did It With Expert Timing

Friday night found me in the basement of the Upper East Side townhouse that headquarters David Ziff Cooking, where Judith Feher Gurewich, the publisher of Other Press, threw a small cocktail party in honor of Jeffrey Lewis and his first novel, Meritocracy. The group was an eclectic mix of television people, many of them from the Lewis clan, and writers like Wendy Lesser and Lawrence Osborne.

The novel, which is the first in a project quartet of stories spanning four decades, has turned out to be even more relevant than Lewis might have anticipated. Set in 1966, the story centers around a group of recent Yale graduates getting together for one final weekend before they go their separate ways. One of them, Harry Nolan, is the son of a California senator, and is planning to enlist in the Army and go to Vietnam not because he believes in the war, but because he thinks he needs to be seen as doing his duty for the sake of his future political career. Lewis obviously knows what he's playing at, and takes the issue by the horns; the narrator claims that fellow Yalie George W. Bush was an admirer of Nolan, and makes direct reference to the Vietnam "plans" of John Kerry and Al Gore. The problem is that Nolan and his young wife, Sascha, are by far the most compelling characters in the story; the Nick Carraway-like narrator comes close, but that's largely a function of his proximity to Nolan. And the news that Harry and Sascha won't be around doesn't necessarily bode well for the three sequels. But we'll see: Lewis has a gazillion Emmy nominations, and two awards, for his script work on Hill Street Blues, and Meritocracy shows that he knows his way around the tight kernel of a story. In subsequent novels, he might be able to flesh out his talent a little further and turn the supporting characters here into more than window dressing for a neatly conceived Gatsby variation.

September 16, 2004

Even Stephens, Odd Ed

Actually, I have no idea if Ed Valentine's all that odd or not, but the headline works and I'm in a hurry. Now, I happen to have plans for Thursday night what with the high holy day and all, but any goyim with a penchant for literary events at bars should swing by KGB, where the monthly "Drunken Careening Writers" event will feature the aforementioned Mr. Valentine along with Stephen Bassman and Stephen Policoff. Be sure to ask Policoff about his novel, Beautiful Somewhere Else, which he's discussed at Tingle Alley and The Elegant Variation. And which I still need to read, so I'll have to see if I can squeeze it in around working on The Karen Black Project...

September 15, 2004

Blogging and Alcohol Do, Apparently, Mix Quite Well

Cupcake does one of the most consistently excellent reading series in New York, focusing exclusively on women authors. Last night's reading was even more tightly focused, gathering seven female bloggers in the back room at Lolita. Eight, actually, counting special guest host Maud Newton. The first segment was shared by Jami Attenberg and Blaise K, who both had first-person narratives with weight gain as a dramatic device, though Attenberg's story (in which an ex-boyfriend tells the narrator how his parents met) had a slight edge over K's faux Bennington graduation speech. Next, Emma Garman read an excerpt from her novel-in-progress, followed by a bit of lesbian erotica from Rachel Kramer Bussel, which certainly reduced the ambient noise from chatty drinkers at the other end of the bar for a good ten minutes. The final third was given over to the unholy triumvirate of Maccers, who wrote about not being able to defecate in strange bathrooms and having sex with Dick Cheney, Eurotrash, whose monologue was the most stylishly brilliant piece of the entire evening, and Elizabeth Spiers, who gamely followed up with a semi-autobiographical story about getting her younger brother to jump from great heights.

September 09, 2004

Dick Morris, Hotheaded? I Was Shocked, I Tell You

Yesterday afternoon, I got to have lunch on The Week, which I'd never actually read before, but turns out to be a rather blog-like magazine--if its recaps of what's going on in the press had hyperlinks, it'd be perfect. So anyway, a slew of people got together at Michael Jordan's Steakhouse (where the salmon's pretty good, though the iced tea could be a bit sweeter) as editor-at-large Sir Harold Evans gathered together a panel of experts to talk about the upcoming election. Frank Newport, the voice of Gallup, started things off by recounting Bush's lead among likely voters. Then Dick Morris said he thought the lead was bigger than Gallup's numbers suggested, and Mario Cuomo said it probably was, but it didn't matter much since it was all based on post-convention impressions anyway. Former Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi, hanging back a bit, suggested the problem with the Kerry campaign was that it only had two gears, "coast" and "fight," and that it needed to stay in the latter if Kerry wants to be the president (as he put it later, "I think he should take a hammer to these guys"). (Morris replied that we should listen to Trippi's advice, because "the only thing I didn't like about the Howard Dean campaign was Howard Dean."

Cuomo tore into the Bush administration for its lack of a solid agenda beyond throwing its military weight around, and when he finally stopped for breath, Evans said, in his Lord Emsworth way, that the former governor was "brilliantly excoriating" and wondered, "Why aren't you on the campaign trail?" (Morris was a little blunter in his baiting on this issue later on, demanding to know why, if Cuomo cared so much about judicial appointments, he didn't accept Clinton's initial overtures towards a Supreme Court nomination.) Eventually, the audience got to participate, which led to a rambling non-question by some guy associated with Nader, a phone call from Russell Simmons, a plug for election monitoring by Holly Hunter, and another phone call from Michael Dukakis, who deplored the latest round of negative campaigning against a Bush opponent. (Notice how I didn't say "by the Bush campaign" or "associated with the Bush campaign" there!) "At least Willie Horton happened," he quipped. Then Monica Crowley stood up and wondered why nobody was talking about the negative campaigning against Bush by George Soros and

...and then things really heated up, as Cuomo suggested that maybe Bush should be a little more forthright about what he was up to during the Vietnam War, prompting Morris to stand up and scream, "It does not become a former governor of New York State to attack the president who saved the Brooklyn Bridge and the Garment District from being bombed because of the Patriot Act." Cuomo tried to interrupt, but Morris raved on, "I'm not finished yet and I haven't talked as long as you." So Cuomo calmly asked him to explain, Morris spun some tale about how the government had allegedly thwarted some plot to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge, and then the ex-governor quipped something along the lines that he thought he'd seen everything, but he'd never before seen a political consultant try to sell the Brooklyn Bridge. Morris shouted that he should try telling that joke to the 10,000 people who would've died, and Cuomo said that if he had real evidence, he should pass it along. Otherwise, "It seems to me that you've had some kind of psychic burst— now that you've released it, I hope it goes away."

I was tucked away in a corner with several other bloggers, including old friends Rachel, who observed that Newport sounded just like the reverend on The Simpsons, and Girly, who got the best quip of the day when Evans told one panelist to stay seated so he wouldn't be taller than the host, "because I don't like being dominated." Girly leaned over to me and said, "What's he doing with Tina Brown, then?"

September 02, 2004

Chick Lit Authors Rally for War Relief

A group of Red Dress Ink authors got together at a restaurant in downtown Manhattan last night to drum up media interest in Girls' Night In, an anthology of short stories from 21 writers created to raise money for War Child, an international relief organization that's doing what it can to help children whose lives have been upended by combat in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is the first American installment in a series which has raised close to a million dollars in several U.K. editions.

Co-editor Chris Manby flew in from Los Angeles to start the party while colleague Sarah Mlynowski signed copies at a nearby Borders with fellow Manhattanite Lynda Curnyn, where they were joined by bestselling authors Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez and Carole Matthews, both of whom have stories in the collection--and who both have newly published novels worth checking out. (In fact, Alisa's tour for Playing With Boys is just about to start, and I may have another dispatch in a few weeks.) At the party, I also ran into Laurie Gwen Shapiro and Melanie Murray, whose first novel will be published by Red Dress next summer and sounds like it'll be an absolutely hilarious story. I even met up with Edward Wyatt, the NYT reporter who's started staking out his claim to the romance and porn ends of the publishing industry lately. (If I've left anybody out, it's only because the apple martinis were so good I kept asking for refills...)

September 01, 2004

Be Like Mark and Me, Get Your Face on C-SPAN

...and you don't even have to fly to Chicago to do it. Although you do have to come to New York City, but what the hell, it's a holiday weekend.

This Sunday, the Strand (located just below the protest epicenter of Union Square) will host C-SPAN's cameras as the long-awaited second floor finally opens for business, creating space for even more miles of books. Wait, you say, that's hardly exciting enough to justify cable news coverage...? Well, Art Spiegelman, Harold Evans, Peter Osnos, Amy Goodman, and a slew of others are going to be there. You could even tell Richard Brookhiser what you thought of his review of Rik Hertzberg's essay collection, if you wanted!

August 16, 2004

But Who Would Want to Be Such an Asshole?

I've got plans this evening, but New Yorkers might want to consider the Charles Bukowksi tribute at Fez. It's by the same folks who paid homage to Judy Blume two months ago, so it's bound to be entertaining.

August 13, 2004

I Think We've Found a Replacement for BookNotes

Remember that PEN rally last week? It'll be on C-SPAN2 Sunday afternoon.

August 10, 2004

New Yorkers, Go See Thisbe Nissen Tonight

If I didn't already have plans for this evening, I'd be at the Chelsea B&N tonight catching up with Thisbe Nissen as she reads from her second novel, Osprey Island, which Knopf website features all sorts of interesting notes, including maps she drew of the fictional town in which the story's set. Robert Birnbaum interviewed her once, too.

If you do go, or if you've seen her read someplace else, feel free to tell the rest of us in the handy comments section!

August 04, 2004

Speaking Truth (and Fiction) to Power

For various reasons, I won't be able to attend PEN's "State of Emergency" event at Cooper Union this evening, but if you like writers and liberals and you don't mind crowds, you should certainly go and listen to Laurie Anderson, Paul Auster, Russell Banks, Don DeLillo, Ariel Dorfman, Eve Ensler, Jonathan Safran Foer, Barbara Goldsmith, A.M. Homes, Margo Jefferson, Edward P. Jones, Walter Dean Myers, Francine Prose, Salman Rushdie, and Monique Truong. If you can't make it, especially if you don't live in New York, you might try to catch the webcast on that evening--no idea if they're going to archive it though I certainly hope they would. If you miss that, or you want to see what everybody looks like, apparently C-SPAN will send its camera along to video the event for future broadcast.

August 02, 2004

Beatrice Recommends the Goat Cheese Burger

Braving the hipsters, I made my way out to Pianos for the second Manhattan Swink reading. At least I think it was the second; I might have missed one along the way...anyway, Maud Newton was there to kick things off with an excerpt from "Post-Extraction," followed by Andrew Foster Altschul, who read from his short story in the magazine's first print issue, "From A to Z," about a young man who's trying to finish off his quest to "fuck my way through the alphabet." Anthony Tognazzini finished things up with about a dozen of his short-shorts, some of which were rather amusing, all of which were very offbeat.

July 27, 2004

On the Undercard, I Have a Pie Fight With Ravi Suria

jmarcus.GIFI have plans already, but if you're in Manhattan and not doing anything tonight, you might want to visit Housing Works Used Book Café, where Amazonia author James Marcus will chat with Henry Blodget, the former Amazon-happy securities analyst who, having been banned from the industry by the SEC, has lately been popping up at places like Slate to offer color commentary on the Martha Stewart case.

June 17, 2004

I Would Have Served Coke in Bottles,
But I'm Fairly Tactless

The basement of Bloomingdale's Soho seems like an odd place to have a book party, what with making sure you don't put your cocktail glass down on the $175 shirts, but I'm not one to complain, especially when they're serving little pieces of filet mignon on potato chips. Details had gotten a bunch of people together to celebrate Jerry Stahl's new novel, I, Fatty, in which Fatty Arbuckle's butler drags the disgraced comedy star's story out of him. I was able to chat with Stahl for a moment about our mutual enthusiasm for the "twisted true stories" of the golden age of Hollywood, and soon we were rapping about two of our favorites, A Cast of Killers and Sex and Rockets. If Amy Sohn hadn't come by to say hello before her Judy Blume reading, we probably would've gotten around to the death of Lupe Velez...

Yesterday's Blume's-Day Celebration

Greg Gilderman is, he told the packed crowd at hip East Village club Fez, "a heterosexual male who likes Judy Blume." A chance reading of Forever changed his life at the age of nine, but it was It's Not the End of the World--which he compares favorably to Catcher in the Rye--that's meant the most to him over the years. Knowing that a lot of other young writers were, whether they admit it or not, shaped by Blume's novels for children and teens, Gilderman and a couple friends put together a tribute...and almost got Blume herself to attend. Though family obligations kept her away, she wrote in an email he shared with the audience, "here's to teen angst, and here's to angst for all of us--without it, I might never have started to write!"

YA writer Kristen Kemp started off by explaining that she tells people she writes "books like Judy Blume's...all about boys and bras and boobs." By the time she finished her short story about a ninth-grade girl upset that her mother's taking her out of town for the holidays when she was supposed to go to this big party where the hottest boy in the school was going to kiss her, the audience was in tears from the laughter. Novelist and sex columnist Amy Sohn took things even higher with "John Hughes, J'Accuse," an indictment of those '80s teen romances that filled her head with unrealistic expectations.

Actress Mary Purdy did a scene from her one-woman show "Judy Blume Owes Me," about her nine-year wait to grow out of "the Itty Bitty Titty Committee," followed by Lynn "Breakup Girl" Harris, author of the new media boom satire Miss Media, who shared an article she wrote for Knot about her dad and what it was like to be the daughter of a world-famous linguist ("Sure, he was a heartbeat away from Noam Chomsky, but that's not a enormous asset in terms of fifth-grade street cred").

"Starring Miriam R. Parker as Herself" came next, in which nine-year-old Miriam discovered that "love and other indoor sports" is not an appropriate way to sign a thank-you note to your great-aunt. Jennifer Abbott was prepared to compare Blubber to Moby Dick, except that she'd never read the latter "and I'm not really sure I'm down with that sort of writing." So she just focused on Blubber, whose protagonist learns "life isn't fair and girls are evil--which is all I've ever learned, too."

Teen novelist Amy K. wrapped things up with a scene from Focus on This, in which a precocious teen who's starring in a reality series filmed at a high school in New Jersey fends off an advance from one of the show's producers in a locked car. After that, a quick song by Rob Paravonian called "The Geek Never Gets the Girl" cracked the audience up one last time (especially after he forgot his own second verse), and that was it until the next Fez author tribute in August...for Charles Bukowksi.

June 16, 2004

Venturing Onto the Dread L Train

Last night I went out to Williamsburg and the Brooklyn Brewery, which has a large space up front just perfect for group author events. Akashic Books, The Brooklyn Rail, and Soapbox teamed up to bring six women writers together for a fast-paced evening of poetry and prose. First, Elana Greenfield brought Rail drama editor Emily Devoti up to the microphone for assistance on a duologue called "Possessed by a Demon." This devil comes down to Westchester story was somewhat slow, and they stood a bit too far from the microphone, so it took Wendy Shanker and The Fat Girl's Guide to Life to really get things jumping, after which Akashic author Louise Wareham read a scene from her debut novel, Since You Ask.

Then more poetry: Rail poetry editor Monica de la Torre read some pieces, followed by Dawn Lundy Martin of the Third Wave Foundation. Finally, Nicole Blackman came out to read a portion of "Dumped," her contribution to a new Akashic anthology called Brooklyn Noir...about which more later this week. Suffice to say that this story of two guys tied up in the back of a van, talking to each other about how they treated the same woman when they dated her, ended the show on a high note.

June 11, 2004

Hanging Out With Henning Mankell

"I'm here tonight as a fan," said Michael Ondaatje. He was joined by several hundred other admirers of the internationally bestselling Inspector Wallander novels for a rare American appearance by Swedish author Henning Mankell (though some folks might have had trouble remembering his name). I'm fairly new to the series, but I got lucky--the book I'd just finished reading this morning, Faceless Killers, was the one Mankell brought with him, reading the scene that introduces Wallander, awakened by a late-night phone call to investigate a reported murder at a desolate farmhouse:

A time to live and a time to die, he thought as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. He had adopted this incantation many years ago, when he was a young policeman cruising the streets of Malmö, his home town. A drunk had pulled out a big butcher's knife as he and his partner were trying to take him away in the squad car from Pildamm Park. Wallander was stabbed deep, right next to his heart. A few millmetres were all that saved him from an untimely death. He had been 23 then, suddenly profoundly aware of what it meant to be a policeman. The incantation was his way of fending off the memories.

After the short excerpt, Mankell recounted a short anecdote about walking along a beach in Mozambique that was meant to demonstrate how little the world's cultures understand each other, even as technology brings them into closer and more consistent contact. Then he sat down and took some questions from Ondaatje, who brought up Mankell's active theatrical life, suggesting that his experience as a playwright and stage director might have some influence on the "direction" he exercises over Wallander and the other members of the Ystad police ensemble. Mankell allowed that his background did give him some understanding of group dynamics which was particularly useful. Then he revealed that he'd wanted to tell stories ever since he was eight years old; Hemingway had just won the Nobel and the young boy had badgered his grandmother into reading him The Old Man and the Sea despite her insistence that he wouldn't understand it, and the power of that story made him determined to tell his own.

Ondaatje compated Mankell to LeCarre, suggesting that both authors had "chosen a genre and made something more of it," but Mankell was more restrained in his own discussion of the series, pointing out that he'd started out writing a crime novel only because it was the most convenient way to make the points about racism that he'd wanted to make when he set out to write Faceless Killers. He was equally restrained in his discussion of Wallander, who he seems to view primarily as a tool for telling certain types of stories which he can use or discard at will. "I'm not dependent on him," he insisted. "I'm not even sure I really like him." He sees "very little" of himself in the character, other than their age and shared enthusiasm for Italian opera. He's even shifting the inspector into the background for his next novel, Before the Frost, which won't come out in the U.S. until next February (though the Brits will have it in hand by September, so maybe you can get one from Canada if you can't wait, especially after you read this review by one of Mankell's translators). Instead, the story focuses on Wallander's daughter, Linda, who will be a rookie on the Ystad police force. But, Mankell assured his fans, Wallander will still be around, and Linda will even be able to tell us some things about him from an all-new angle.

June 10, 2004

Also, There Were Acoustic '80s Tunes

When Amanda Stern steps up to the microphone at the Happy Ending reading series, brace yourself for candor. The first time I attended the series, which she curates in a Chinatown bar which used to be a "health club" (which I'm thinking must be a euphemism for "massage parlor"), she made the audience guess what three types of infections she had. At the end of last night's show, she informed us all that she'd spent the last hour or so having a panic attack induced by a misdosage of Wellbutrin ("and it hasn't even helped me quit smoking," she quipped). This sudden revelation came as her commitment to the "risk" she demands from each of the readers in the amazing lineups that she assembles on a weekly basis--in an evening which saw Ben Greenman rattle off all his PIN numbers (yes, I know "PIN number" is a redundancy), Lisa Glatt read a poem called "If You Have Sex with a Stranger with One Ball," and Marc Nesbitt perform a dialogue from Barton Fink using Senor Wences puppets (which is to say, his fists).

Glatt, you may recall, I had recently met in Chicago, where she was signing copies of A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That in her publisher's booth. So I hung out with her and her husband, poet David Hernandez, at one end of the bar, chatting about how the SoCal couple were enjoying their weeklong stay in Manhattan. At one point, he thought he'd spotted Maud Newton, who had recently posted at great length about Glatt's work. (No such luck, though I assured them I could produce her the next time they were in town!) This is definitely Glatt's week;she mostly came out ahead in Sunday's NYTBR, though reviewer Lisa Zeidner wedged in some disapproval of the novel-in-stories format the book employs.

Glatt was the centerpiece of the evening's literary segment. Before her, Ben Greenman read some short humor pieces about W's search for a running mate during the summer of 2000 and the future trajectory of Ken Burns' oeuvre. After, Nesbitt--whose short story collection Gigantic, in addition to indirectly inspiring the launch of The Believer. totally rocked (and here's proof)--read from an unfinished short story that began with the narrator getting busted for smoking pot at the corner of Bleecker and Crosby and thrown into the back of a police van. Great stuff: can't wait to see a finished version in some magazine soon!

(Before and after the stories, as the headline indicates, there was the traditional covering of '80s tunes...this week supplied by regular musical contributor Whitney Pastorak, who ran the gamut from the Cure's "Just Like Heaven" to Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive.")

June 09, 2004

Cupcake @ Lolita

The Cupcake Series convenes on the second Tuesday of each month at the Lower East Side's Lolita (corner of Allen & Broome) so that two women writers can read from their work. There's not a whole lot of room in the basement, so the place was pretty packed, and justifiably so, as star bookblogger Maud Newton read a short story that's been accepted for publication by Swink. It was a hilarious tale about a sexually frustrated postal worker who spends his time recuperating from having all his deteriorating teeth extracted by surfing the web for porn while his wife's out running errands.

After a short intermission, T Cooper read from the opening chapters of her debut novel, Some of the Parts, introducing us to two of its protagonists, Arlene and the gender "freak" Isak, who revealed how sie got her job at a Coney Island sideshow:

The first lady to fill the geek's spot was a youngish bearded lady. But after her husband died in a tragic motorcyle accident on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the bearded lady went to San Francisco and opened a gay men's leather bar called, well, "Beard." The bearded lady after her was stricken with an aneurysm that left the right side of her body and face paralyzed, and so she became a psychic with her gypsy family in a storefront in Queeens instead. No one would say what happened to the snake lady who came after the second bearded lady (apparently she got into penetrating herself with the snakes, and then the act--and her life--went straight downhill from there). Then the woman with a tail protruding from the base of her spine found that she could make much more money as a prostitute, and so with no notice, up and left the show for Atlantic City.

And finally, before I came on board, there was the hermaphrodite whose family came and rescued her from the freak show one balmy summer night. So there I was.

But Cooper wasn't done yet--she also shared her contribution the The Believer's ongoing series of notes from authors about what's on their desk (though, oddly enough, her answer isn't actually on that page).

June 07, 2004

Already in Heavy Rotation on my iTunes

I met up with the members of One Ring Zero at the Soft Skull Press booth Sunday morning, to get a signed copy of As Smart As We Are, an album of songs with lyrics by A-list authors like Paul Auster, Rick Moody, Darin Strauss, Myla Goldberg, Jonathan Ames... all of whom will be joining the band at New York City's Museum of Jewish Heritage for the official release party tonight. If you can get tickets, I recommend them highly. If you're not in NYC, catch them on tour.

June 01, 2004

As Long as the Food Isn't Scary

The Horror Writers Association are convening in New York this weekend to hand out the Bram Stoker Awards. Highlights of the award banquet will include lifetime achievement awards to Anne Rice and Martin H. Greenberg and the best slices of cake set aside for special guests Peter Straub, Don Cascarelli, and Jack Ketchum. The HWA will also announce some of the results of its eBay auction to raise funds for Charles H. Grant's medical expenses, as discussed earlier here.

May 27, 2004

Salon: New Media Breeding Ground for Old Media Writers

Tuesday night is nonfiction night at KGB, and this week it provided a forum for two former Salon writers to strut their stuff. First up was Chris Colin, whose What Really Happened to the Class of '93 looks at what some of his high school classmates have been up to for the last decade or so. He read to us about Matt, the "stringy-haired computer geek" who became Ann (or is it Anne?), a gender radical who spent ten years living "as a theory," deliberately rejecting even the slightest hint of a stable identity. (She's a bit cagey with him about whether she's actually had any surgery to bring her body in closer conformity to her trans identity, saying that isn't the point of what she's been up to.) Then he introduced us to a classmate who was actually in the room; Ben filled us in on the fight he'd just had with his mom, who was upset by what he had to say about Asian-American culture in the chapter about him.

We could have heard more about what happened after Ben's mom threw the book at him, but Mary Roach was also in the room, on an overnight trip to NYC to promote the paperback release of Stiff, a wickedly funny book about the uses to which human cadavers get put. She read from a chapter on medical cannibalism:

roach.gifIn the grand bazaars of twelfth-century Arabia, it was occasionally possible, if you knew where to look and you had a lot of cash and a tote bag you didn't care about, to procure an item known as mellified man. The verb "to mellify" comes from the Latin for honey, mel. Mellified man was dead human remains steeped in honey. Its other name was "human mummy confection," though this is misleading, for, unlike other honey-steeped Middle Eastern confections, this one did not get served for dessert.

Then there was a passage about the Harvard Brain Bank, originally a Salon feature. Oh, and look for a "5 Questions With..." feature with Roach soon!

May 24, 2004

Out on the Town

Went out to KGB Sunday night to hear Jardine Libaire read from her debut novel, Here Kitty Kitty. (Here's an excerpt she didn't read last night.) It's another novel with a New York protagonist in a tightening downward spiral (which makes the Q&A with The Romance Reader's Connection, of all places, a bit surprising) but Libaire has a fairly strong authorial voice and easily kept the assembled young literati enthralled.

The second half of the evening belonged to Binnie Kirshenbaum, who elected to read from the recently reissued A Disturbance in One Place. Three short passages (not including this one) introduced the audience to the narrator's trio of adulterous lovers, known as the hit man, the multimedia artist, and the love of her life. The selection was a pleasant surprise; I recalled it fondly from my reading about a decade ago, when I in my capacity as a novice bookstore clerk in Los Angeles was introduced to her during her tour to promote this very novel, and on the evidence of last night, it appears to have held up well.

May 11, 2004

Dispatches from the Literary Circuit

I've been to a few things recently that I haven't had a chance to sit down and really type about until now. Let's start with last Friday's 10th anniversary party for Sarabande Books at the Dactyl Foundation in SoHo. The whole crew came up from Louisville for the occasion--also marked by numerous readings over the weekend--and brought with them the Squallis Puppeteers, with their ten-foot high representation of the Sarabande personification and her dancing partners. In their first decade of operations, Sarabande's put out 81 books, including 28 collections from debut writers, and most recently a new chapbook from U.S. poet laureate Louise Gluck. Before the formal festivities began, I got to chat with one of the house's top fiction writers, Heather Sellers, who was absolutely fantastic. While she held up the banner for the fiction side, Phil Levine weighed in for the poets...although his shoot-from-the-hip approach may have made the top brass wonder just what they'd let themselves in for.

The night before that, I'd gone out to Housing Works to see Jonathan Lethem and David Shields launch a new series of events, "Author2Author," basically chatting with each other about their enthusiasm for pro sports. The occasion was sparked by the recent publication of Shields' latest book, Body Politic. This isn't an excerpt exactly, but it's still interesting to read: Shields on Ichiro Suzuki.

Looking for Mr. Latte

I'll admit that my reasons for attending the Amanda Hesser reading at Coliseum Books last night were primarily extraliterary. First of all, the location made it extraordinarily convenient for me to pop over to Nat Sherman earlier in the afternoon and chill out in the humidor for an hour or so with Bruce Sterling's new technothriller, The Zenith Angle (about which more very soon). Second, I was under the distinct impression that some of Hesser's fiercely loyal opposition from the New York blogging community might show up to, well, be opposed, after which I might have gone drinking with them, because that's pretty much what happens when you get three or more bloggers together in a one-yard radius.

They all skipped out, however, so although they might well have bared their teeth as Ms. Hesser read a passage from Cooking for Mr. Latte in which she almost dumps her new boyfriend because he uses Equal instead of raw sugar to sweeten those lattes, the story was recounted without incident, along with a further anecdote about how she learned to live with her eventual in-laws and their attitude towards the culinary arts.

To some, of course, this will all sound dreadfully unsympathetic, and under purely social circumstances my own patience might wear thin just as easily; I mean, if the worst you can say about a prospective boyfriend is that he likes Budweiser, and you're still on the fence about dating him, it may be time to question your standards. To her credit, however, Hesser isn't a Bergdorf Blonde, and thus possesses enough self-awareness to anticipate this reaction, so she steers the tale precisely in the direction of her learning to loosen up under Mr. Latte's influence, and confessed to the audience that she's learned to drink more beer since dating and then marrying him. (Which isn't to say he doesn't clean up nicely; apparently she's gotten him to upgrade from Budweiser to Sapporo.)

As I said, the crowd was pretty much in Hesser's camp, so when the Spice Market controversy finally came up during the Q&A, it was raised by a sympathetic foodie blogger from Brooklyn, and we all accepted Hesser's answer, which was that of course she should have exercised full disclosure, but had forgotten that her publisher had contacted Jean-Georges Vongerichten for a blurb. She also told us she only had a few more reviews left to write, for which she was thankful, and when pressed to name a restaurant she liked, eventually allowed that she enjoyed the soba at Honmura An. (As well she might, though it's been years since I've been there myself.) Then somebody asked what haricots verts were, and I stopped keeping track of what was happening around me.

May 05, 2004

An Evening at Housing Works

There are two ways to handle a book reading: short introductory remarks followed by a prolonged extract, or a series of extracts interwoven with explanatory remarks and tangetial stories. It was this latter approach Colum McCann took in reading from Dancer at Housing Works. The book, he told us, "has been typed as a novelization about the life of Rudolf Nuryev, but really it's a story about stories." Stories ranging from the Russian front in the winter of 1944 to the streets of gay Manhattan in the 1970s, to which he added his own stories about the writing, including a walk through a cemetery in St. Petersburg where he discovered the grave of a woman who not only had the name of a character he'd invented, but had died in the year he'd assigned to his character's death.

But in one sense, the best story he had to tell us was of his long friendship with Jeff Talarigo, who he'd first met in a writer's group in a small Japanese village in the early '90s. Talarigo was also present this evening to read from his debut novel, The Pearl Diver (which Janice P. Nimura calls "a quiet triumph," while Malena Watrous finds it "original and haunting"). Talarigo started with a scene in which the eponymous Japanese protagonist, well, dives for pearls, then moved on to a later scene in which, following a diagnosis of leprosy, she is ferried by rowboat to an island leprosarium where her former life will be stripped away from her. Then, checking for audience approval, which was immediately granted, he gave us one more scene from her first night on the island, when a fellow exile explains to her how she should choose her new name. After that, he fielded a couple questions about the time he spent at the actual leprosarium he writes about in the novel, compared his experiences there to an earlier period living in refugee camps in Gaza, and discussed how the Japanese poetic forms of tonka and haiku influenced his writing style.

In between authors, an old friend I hadn't seen in ages slipped into my row, followed by another person who took the seat between us. When we could speak freely, I discovered that I'd been sitting next to Lisa Dierbeck, the author of One Pill Makes You Smaller.

April 29, 2004

Mystery Writers Let Their Hair Down

I could, I believe, get used to attending parties where Anthony Bourdain wanders up to me with a tray of appetizers and insists I dig in. Such was the scene at Partners & Crime, waiting for the beginning of the 10th annual Nevermores ceremony--the Nevermores being a set of joke prizes handpicked by the mystery bookshop's owners. (To give you a sampling of the mood: Thomas Perry--not in attendance--gets the Myra Breckinridge Award for the best series written by a male author starring a female protagonist.) Crime writers who were brave enough to show up included Colin Harrison, who took home a prize for writing the only one of the several recent novels with "Havana" in the title not actually set in Havana, Jason Starr, Alina Adams, Lauren Henderson (who was an awfully good sport about having her book mocked in song), James O. Born, Ken Bruen...and countless others I'm blanking on, plus a guy who looked just like Mark Margolis from Oz. I'm sure that if you visit Sarah Weinman's blog, she can fill you in on everybody I've missed... (The two of us have been effectively representing the blogosphere, her much more than me, since crime and mystery are her home turf...)

Oh, wait, I also ran into Rebecca Pawel, who I had just heard read at Coliseum from her debut novel, Death of a Nationalist, which is up for an Edgar for best first novel. She was joined by fellow nominees James Hime and Robert Heilbrun; all three of their books had great openings, and I hope some day soon I can catch up with them.

April 28, 2004

Two Poets, Each Underappreciated in His Own Way

Monday night previous, I dropped by Poets House, where the Library of America was celebrating the latest round of books in its American Poets Project, with Brenda Wineapple and Robert Polito on hand to read from the selected works of John Greenleaf Whittier and Kenneth Fearing, respectively.

When approached to edit Whittier's poems for publication, Wineapple quipped, she "felt like they were asking me to endure the return of the repressed," as she had been "force-fed" his poems in grade school--and we were all grateful, I suppose, that she read from neither "The Barefoot Boy" nor "Barbara Frietchie," because, really, you can only ask so much of an audience; the most famous of his poems recited was perhaps "Telling the Bees." But all kidding aside, her adult reading found Whittier quite more engaging and exciting than most folks give him credit for, and she even came to admire "Snow-Bound," a particular bane of her youth (a portion of which she read). His verse is especially powerful when it grapples explicitly with the issues surrounding slavery and abolition, the latter of which was a matter of crusade for him. (Edward Hirsch has also discovered this quality upon reading Wineapple's selection; frankly I would like to see these poems taught in American history classes as a vital illustration of the passions raised on Whittier's side of the slavery question.) Particularly striking in this regard are "The Hunters of Men," "Ichabod," and "Letter," a blank verse purporting to be a missive from a Christian missionary on the Kansas frontier:

Here, at the Mission, all things have gone well:
The brother who, throughout my absence, acted
As overseer, assures me that the crops
Never were better. I have lost one negro,
A first-rate hand, but obstinate and sullen.
He ran away some time last spring, and hid
In the river timber. There my Indian converts
Found him, and treed and shot him...

One might also note some of Whitter's Quaker poems; this online selection offers more in this vein than Wineapple, but, as she notes, the collection strives to show the breadth of his range. But on to Fearing...

To the extent he's known at all today, Fearing is perhaps best remembered as the author of thrillers like The Big Clock, which was adapted once fairly respectfully and then cannibalized for the Kevin Costner vehicle No Way Out. But in the mid-1990s, a splendid essay by Thomas Disch turned me on to the fact that Fearing was also a poet quite ahead of his time, so ever since then I'd been hoping the poems would eventually get back into print. And here they are. Polito gave us a good taste of Fearing's range, from his Eliot parody "John Standish, Artist" to the proto-Mametian "How Do I Feel?", which begins:

Get this straight, Joe, and don't get me wrong.
Sure, Steve, O.K., all I got to say is, when do I get the dough?

Will you listen for a minute? And just shut up? Let a guy explain?
Go ahead, go ahead, I won't say a word.

And then there's the cinematic "St. Agnes' Eve," and the Elvis Costelloesque (Polito's comparison, not mine, but apt) "Dear Beatrice Fairfax" and... Fearing, simply put, was a trailblazer in terms of getting the idioms of 20th-century language, the language of cinema ads, tabloid headlines, and the like, into poetry, and Polito is right on the mark when he pegs Fearing as "a link between William Carlos William and Allen Ginsberg." I'm far from the world's expert on poetry, so you can take my advice with a grain of salt, but go out and get the Kenneth Fearing collection already. It's that good.

April 18, 2004

Graywolf Press Celebrates 30 Years of Indie Publishing

graywolf.gifI went to the National Arts Club the other night for a poetry reading celebrating the 30th anniversary of the founding of Graywolf Press, co-hosted by the Poetry Society of America. Tony Hoagland and Elizabeth Alexander started the evening--Hoagland with three short pieces, Alexander with a longer, episodic work meant to evoke the voice of Muhammad Ali (highly effective when commenting on Gerry Quarry's skills or fashion advice given to Joe Frazier, somewhat less so in more explicitly political sections). Two of the other readers, Sophie Cabot Black and Mark Wunderlich, read from new collections that Graywolf will be releasing in the fall, both of which would appear to hold great promise for their current fans and other poetry lovers based on the sampling offered. (Wunderlich got off the best one-liner of the evening, introducing one of his poems: "You probably all know what an amaryllis is. This looks like an amaryllis-loving crowd.") I'm also looking forward to reading the rest of Matthea Harvey's recently published Sad Little Breathing Machine, because the poems she read are pretty darn fabulous. Vijay Seshadri had a new collection out, too, as well as several of his writing students from Sarah Lawrence...where, as it turns out, quite a few of the other poets also teach--and where Harvey will start in the fall. So if any of my readers are young enough to be looking for a college where they can study poetry, well, there's one excellent option for you...

April 08, 2004

From the Swink Launch Party

Usually, geographical distance and lack of coolness keep me away from the bars on the Lower East Side, but I ventured out to Pianos Wednesday night for the launch party of Swink, a new literary magazine edited by Leelila Strogov (whose own short stories for other magazines include "Fatso" and "Paper Slippers"). The place was packed, and the crowd in back didn't seem to understand they were at a reading, but it went pretty well.

Amanda Stern kicked things off with her 42-sentence short, "The Shape of Florida," edging up on her tiptoes to reach the microphone. Then Elizabeth Tippens read from "A Message of Comfort in Your Time of Grief," the first chapter of a novel-in-progress about twin siblings former child stars turned writers with very different careers. This was great stuff, definitely a novel to look forward to in a couple of years once it's finished, sold, and published.

Then Chris Offutt showed up, which was a bit of a surprise; he'd been scheduled to read, but then everybody thought he was too sick to come over from Iowa. Apparently not, as he regaled us with equal parts reading from his short story "Maybe Delillo Was There" and breaking away to explain the story's autobiographical background. David Hollander and Nelly Reifler took the stage next, to take turns reading from their collaboration, "Whatever We Were Beforehand." Reifler had started this "damaged darling" but was never quite able to finish it to her satisfaction, so Strogov and the rest of the editorial staff persuaded her to let Hollander give it his best.

Daniel Alarcón read a portion of his short story "Florida" (apparently Florida's a subtheme of this premiere issue), after which Jonathan Ames showed us an ear candle which figured prominently in the opening of his story, "A Young Girl," an amusing if indulgent tale of a writer receiving an e-mail from an eager fan and quickly negotiating his way to a sexual encounter.

After that, we all pushed our way to or away from the bar, where I ran into Maud, who introduced me to the managing editor of Night Train. I also saw Caren Lissner, whose recently published Starting From Square Two kept me entertained on the subway in and out of the Outer Boroughs recently. She introduced me to Ned Vizzini, and his upcoming novel, Be More Chill, sounds a little kooky, but probably the good kind of kooky. And then Tippens and I tried to chat with each other, but the hosts had the Serge Gainsbourg cranked so high we had to shout at each other, so finally we just swapped emails and decided we'd try again some other time when we weren't bombarded by French pop music.

April 02, 2004

Soup and Guinness Served Separately

matzo.gifDocumentary filmmaker Laurie Gwen Shapiro moonlights as a novelist, or maybe it's the other way around. Anyway, I was at the Astor Place B&N to listen to her read from her second novel, The Matzo Ball Heiress. It's the latest example of "chick lit" specialist Red Dress Ink's steady improvement in the quality of its titles. (Not that there weren't a lot of gems in the imprint's first two years; there were, but some were gems in the rough.) As you'd expect from somebody whose debut got noticed by folks like Ruth Ozeki and Tom Perrotta, Shapiro's got the total package--character, plot, and voice--wrapped up pretty neatly, and it showed in the passages she read Thursday night which (a) explained the four ways a prosciutto-and-Swiss panini is a decidedly treyf Passover meal and (b) captured a 17-year-old stoner's dismay at discovering Hunter S. Thompson is old enough to be his dad.

bombshell.gifAt the after-party a few blocks away, as guests drank Guinness and ate matzo ball soup from the 2nd Avenue Deli, I chatted with Shapiro's Red Dress Ink compatriot Lynda Curnyn, who had just received a finished copy of her latest novel, Bombshell, which has her best cover yet. (I have to admit I'm also wild about Shapiro's cover, with that facial expression that reminds me of my long-lost copy of Coffee, Tea, or Me?) We talked about her gradual adjustment to writing fulltime after having done her first books around a day job at Harlequin and about what's she working on now: a few short stories for various anthologies and a murder mystery. She also had good things to say about another upcoming Red Dress title, Michael Weinreb's short story collection Girl Boy Etc.. (I've got an advance copy, so we'll see how it fares soon enough...)

April 01, 2004

NYPL Recognizes Young Literary Lion(esse)s

Last night, I headed out to the New York Public Library for the presentation of the fourth annual Young Lions Fiction Award for a novel or collection of short stories by an author aged 35 or younger. Rick Moody started the evening off on an alarmist note, declaring that "if the censorship of literature is not de jure or statutory, it is certainly de facto," and I was so busy writing that down I missed the context of a subsequent crack about "celebrity daughters of hoteliers." He then pointed out that four of the five nominees for this year's award were women, and suggested this was all the more remarkable for the difficulties faced by women in the literary marketplace.

One of last year's co-winners, Anthony Doerr, who said that he'd been invited back to talk about what he'd done in the last year, which, he quipped, was "a very shrewd way of finding out what I'd done with the $10,000 I won." Using it for mortgage payments and countless turkey sandwiches at a nearby deli, he was able to finish a draft of his first novel over the summer, and thanked the Lions on behalf of himself and the other nominees (who received $1,000 each) for "investing in our careers when we most need it."

Bliss Broyard spoke briefly about the late Amanda Davis, whose novel Wonder When You'll Miss Me would almost certainly have been a nominee (and, in my opinion, quite likely would have won). An honorary award was created in her memory and, at the request of her surviving family, the money was given to a memorial scholarship set up in her name at Bread Loaf. With that, we were ready to hear from the five nominees.

Ellen Barkin and Ethan Hawke took turns reading passages from the five books nominated: Barkin from Susan Choi's American Woman, Maile Meloy's Liars and Saints, and Lara Vapnyar's There Are Jews in My House; Hawke from Jordan Ellenberg's The Grasshopper King (shouting out to Ellenberg for an assist on pronouncing the protagonist's last name) and Monique Truong's The Book of Salt. Which, as you might guess by my linkage, was the ultimate winner, described by the judges as "delicious in its wit [and] pungent in its cultural purpose," the taste allusions inspired by the novel's portrayal of a Vietnamese cook to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. "Well, this has been delicious torture," Truong quipped before thanking the committee for the prize, noting that this was the first time a female author had and speaking briefly about the novel as a search for an answer to questions about what home is. I caught up with her afterwards and asked if she had any plans yet for the prize. "I'm going to use it to live," she said, and spoke briefly about her current project, a "reimagining of the Southern Gothic novel."

(Read Vapnyar's short story "Mistress" and Meloy's "Native Sandstone.")

March 31, 2004

Takahashi Takes Manhattan

PW calls Sayanora, Gangsters "amusing, sexy, moving, intelligent and maddeningly obtuse--often all at the same time." And that's about right. I went to the Japan Society to hear Genichiro Takahaski read from his debut novel, first published in the early 1980s but never before available in English. (He read in Japanese, while Michael Emmerich, who translated the novel for Vertical, followed him in English. And just for the heck of it, and because it's always good to encourage headline writers to throw in Sisters of Mercy references, here's an interview with Emmerich, this time about translating Banana Yoshimoto.)

Before Takahashi did his thing, though, Chinese theater director Meng Jinghui introduced his first film, Chicken Poets, in which an unsuccessful poet named Yun Fei moves in with his best friend, who runs a chicken farm near Beijing, then comes across a CD-ROM that transforms him into the most famous poet in the nation (in scenes that echo parts of Hal Hartley's Henry Fool, but are even more surreal). Yun becomes so ubiquitous a part of Chinese pop culture that he even gets his own URL,, though in real life that appears to be a corporate site for "Ruian Feiyun Machinery Works." He showed sequences totalling about half of the movie, I'd say, and it was engaging enough that I'd like to see the rest eventually.

It turned out to be a good fit, since Sayanora, Gangsters is also about a poet who hasn't quite lived up to his ambitions. The approach is much different, however, and the novel's ambiguously futuristic setting and vignettish structure reminded me a lot of Donald Barthelme. (He turned out to be the one American postmodernist Takahashi cited as an influence when I raised the point during the Q&A; he also invoked Phillip Roth, but admitted he was more of a high modernist.) I'll be quoting some choice passages in a day or two, so be on the lookout for that.

March 26, 2004

Literature in the Outer Boroughs

It was off to Barbès, a tiny Park Slope bar, to hear Kelly Link read from her short story "The Hortlak," about the night clerk at a convenience store across the street from a chasm from which zombies periodically arise, his coworker who sleeps in the supply closet and has a never-ending supply of different pajamas, and his sort-of girlfriend, who works at the animal shelter and takes dogs out for one last drive before putting them sleep. It was great stuff, full of the surreal dream-like imagery that makes Link's stories so irresistible. We got a chance to talk before story time began, to chat about a book she's very enthusiastic about: Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club. (I just got my ARC yesterday, and am hoping to dig into it soon...)

She was followed by Jim Shepard, who gave us the world premiere of a new short story, "Ancestral Legacies," narrated in the first-person voice of Ernst Schäfer, a German orinthologist who really was, in the early years of World War II, sent to Tibet by Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler to search the Himalayas for the origins of the Aryan race. And, as the story revealed, spent plenty of time looking for the Yeti while he was there. It was a hilarious tale, with Schäfer and his colleague stuck out at the ass-end of nowhere, and at times you could forget that these were two Nazi officers...but then Schäfer's complaints about the natives turn into articulations of "race science" and you're reminded again of who he is--and what it says about the Nazis that they'd send two guys out on such a dumb mission (so dumb, Shepard told me after the reading as he signed my copy of Love and Hydrogen, that even Hitler couldn't believe Himmler'd blow funds on it and ordered the mission scrapped as soon as he found out).

March 25, 2004

And At No Point Was an Equation Invoked

The Union Square Barnes & Noble is where the really famous authors get sent to do their readings, with a huge chunk of the fourth floor given over to seating. Wednesday night the crowds were there for Brian Greene, the dreamy-looking scientist who made superstring theory officially cool with the PBS miniseries version of his first book, The Elegant Universe. In his latest, The Fabric of the Cosmos, he delves into "space, time, and the texture of reality," and he gave the audience a brief runthrough of what it's all about.

He started with Isaac Newton's attempts to codify his observations of motion in the material world with equations that worked just fine once space and time were defined as universal absolutes, and then introduced Einstein's two stages of relativistic thinking: first, a universe in which time and space are both relative, but "spacetime" is absolute, then the world of general relativity where the fabric of spacetime could be warped by forces such as gravity. And then came the quantum mechanics...

At the level of atoms and subatomic particles, the quantum physicists proposed, we could no longer describe future states of being, only predict them. That didn't sit well with Einstein, so he and two colleagues attempted to poke holes in the theory by pointing out that, if we accepted the initial conditions of quantum reality, you could take two electrons that were both in a state of flux and put distance between them, then measure the spin of one electron--at which point the other electron would instantly snap into an opposite spin. The Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen (EPR) paradox was supposed to stop quantum physics in its tracks because it was too crazy to be real, but then the quantum crowd said, well, hey, maybe that's how it is. And when they finally had sufficiently advanced technology to perform the experiments in the 1980s, that's what they found.

Today, Greene continued, he and other scientists found themselves interested in questions of "cosmological reality," specifically with questions of time and our experience of it as "flowing" sequentially in a "direction." But when you look at the math, he said, "every moment in relativity is on a par with every other;" they're all "now" to some observer. So do they all exist simultaneously--and if so, why do we observe time as proceeding "forward"? It may have something to do with the conditions at the universe's origins...and to find out, physicists may end up teaming up with astronomers to study the background radiation from the Big Bang (which did, in fact, bring him neatly to the last page of his book).

During the Q&A afterwards, Greene talked a bit more about the nature of the spacetime continuum, and why string theorists are starting to believe that space might be able to come apart and reassemble itself. He also fielded a couple questions out of left field, like one about the perception of time after death, and was peppered with philosophical inquiries from a fellow who finally asked him to comment on the theories of Rupert Sheldrake. Trying to get out of it by saying Sheldrake seemed like a nice guy, he finally admitted, "He has interesting ideas, but it's hard for me to see how somebody rational could believe them." And, he admitted to another querent, science is great at talking about how reality is, but not so much on the why. And yet the opening pages of Fabric are quite eloquent on how his fascination with the subatomic world was instigated in part by reading Camus as a young adolescent... It was all fairly entertaining; Greene in person is a lot like Greene on television, only without the special effects. And reading Fabric before and after the event, it's quite easy to hear his voice in the text (which must make the audiobook, read by Erik Davies, an interesting experience).

March 24, 2004

We're Going to Graceland, Graceland...

abani.jpgSalman Rushdie put in his first public appearance as the newly elected president of PEN American Center Monday night to introduce the first in a series of "Foreign Exchanges" which bring an American author and a foreign author together in conversation. This time around, Walter Mosley met with Chris Abani, whose novel Graceland has recently appeared to much critical acclaim. (See, for example, the review from the perhaps unfortunately named Hackwriters or Sophie Harrison in the NYTBR--then again, Paul Demko in the Twin Cities City Pages found it "a sprawling mess," despite admiring Abani's depiction of the chaotic conditions in Lagos.)

But before the conversation, came the celebrities.

Bill Irwin read from one of the novel's opening scenes, in a wonderful voice that had me trying to remember which radio announcer or documentary narrator it reminded me off. Then, when the dialogue came, he perfectly captured the accents and cadences of southern tourists. Next, Alfre Woodard read from a little further into the novel, a conversation between the novel's protagonist, a young Elvis impersonator of the Igbo tribe, and a Lagos native about the absurd levels of self-destructiveness and corruption in the city. She also read a poem from one of Abani's earlier books, Daphne's Lot, about the death of his father.

Then Mosley and Abani came out and took their seats, with Mosley praising the prose in Graceland for being "so eloquent without calling attention to itself." A question about whether Abani felt like a "writer in exile" led to the story of his three different stays in Nigerian prisons, incidents about which the author was impressively humble, pointedly saying that he didn't want to be singled out at the expense of the cause for which he and others were fighting. This after telling the audience that he'd first been held captive at the age of 18, simply because a thriller he'd written about an invasion of Nigeria was found in the possession of a military officer plotting a coup. Later jail stays came due to his active involvement in activist theater; at one point, he shared a cell with Nigeria's most famous entertainer/rebel, the legendary Fela Kuti, who upon learning why Abani was there, laughed and declared, "You know, my young friend, the truth is a risky business."

Part of the point of the "Foreign Exchanges" series, as Rushdie mentioned in his opening remarks, was the notion that Americans need now more than ever to hear from (and engage in dialogue with) people in other parts of the world, so it wasn't terribly surprising when, at Mosley's not-so-subtle prompting, a bit of America-bashing crept into the conversation, with Abani's description of the United States as "a nation of people who have gone to sleep and don't question things" drawing enthusiastic applause from the audience of New York sophisticates, who undoubtedly felt proud of themselves for not being one of the people Abani was thinking of. Not that I agree or disagree with his assessment; it just struck me as a somewhat easy bone to throw to the crowd, even as he joked about jeopardizing his immigration status before making the comments. While some might suggest that he's got it easy in the States, though, compared to his homeland, Abani pointed out that he's still subject to occasional incidences of racism--and, since he didn't grow up exposed to them as African-Americans did, he hasn't yet learned how to fully dismiss them. (On the other hand, he points out, in America it's genuinely possible for emigrés to make mainstream success for themselves, whereas in London--where he lived first after leaving Nigeria--one's "Otherness" may have been accepted, but only as "Other," with little hope of genuine assimilation.)

After talking at length about his writing methods (always working on poetry and prose simultaneously), life in East Los Angeles, and various aspects of Igbo culture, Abani closed by reading another passage from Graceland, this time a harrowing depiction of a lynching by immolation which he followed with an improvisatory performance on the saxophone intended to depict in music the scene he'd just read. I'm not the one to tell you whether that effort was a success, though it was pretty competent sax playing with a strong vibe of what I'd tentatively call West Coast jazz to it. And that was it--until the next "Foreign Exchange" in May, when vagina monloguist Eve Ensler will chat with Azar Nafisi about reading Lolita (and other works of Western literature) in Tehran. (She can undoubtedly use this interview by Robert Birnbaum as research...)

March 16, 2004

The Fast-Paced Life of the Litterateur

Another whirlwind extended happy hour of literary schmoozing. First I ducked into the humidor at Nat Sherman's to sit back and enjoy a cigar while I chatted on the cell phone with Jacqueline deMontravel, who's just finished writing the sequel to her debut novel, The Fabulous Emily Briggs. I'm trying to lure her into Manhattan some time in the next couple weeks so we can pick up another chick lit writer, take over a booth at some swank cocktail lounge, and dish dirt about the genre. Of course I'll report back with the juicy details.

From there, a quick walk halfway down the block to Coliseum to see Stephanie Elizondo Griest read from Around the Bloc, in which she recounts her youthful adventures in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana. Of the three writers there from Best Travelers Tales 2004, Steph was definitely the most lively of the bunch; she's about to hit the road, so visit her site, find out when she's in your town, and check her out.

And then it was off to the launch party from Rem Koolhaas' newest book, Content. Having just wandered back home from this bash, I honestly can't say I've done more than flipped through this yet, and couldn't possibly begin to make a coherent statement about how it reflects upon the cultural moment of present-day architecture, but it certainly looks fascinating, like a superthick issue of Metropolis...or, as Phoebe from Mastermind put it, maybe more like Tokion. And it's got a small amount of advertising to offset the production costs, making it available for just $14.95.

Though I spent much of my time catching up with Phoebe and her backstory with the magazine, we eventually got caught up in another conversation with Stephanie Klein and Tony Hightower, who runs The Evil Twin Theory (and is nearly 1/4 of the way through a project to post a song a week to his site, eventually to collate the MP3s onto four 13-track CDs). Both of whom seemed quite fun, and I'm looking forward to digging into the blogs a little more fully than I just did to get their URLs.

March 15, 2004

The New Romantics

Laurie Graff started out her Barnes & Noble reading by handing out tiny plastic frogs to everyone in the audience, a cute reference to the title of her novel, You Have to Kiss a Lot of Frogs. It's published by Red Dress Ink, Harlequin's "chick lit" line, but though it shares the misadventures-in-dating theme in most of that genre, it also diverges in some critical ways. First, like Graff herself, the protagonist is in her mid-forties, a bit higher than the lead characters typically skew. Secondly, the undercurrents are much, much darker; the companionless narrator introduces herself at a friend's surprise shower by dwelling on thoughts of suicide, brought back from the brink essentially by clinging to the idea that her bad dates (subsequently told in flashback) at least give her amusing stories to tell. Mind you, the two short chapters Graff read did have their humorous moments, and she has an actor's sense of making a monologue out of an anecdote. It's also interesting (and rather heartening) to see Red Dress willing to shuffle the deck a bit and not turn out yet another variation on the same bumpy romance tale; I'm led to understand that they'll also be branching out into lad lit later this spring...

Graff was joined by another Red Dress author, Ariella Papa, sharing a few scenes from her second novel, Up and Out. This one hews a little more closely to what I guess we can call the classic conventions, but Papa has a pretty good sense of voice, and her description of the twenty-something protagonist's night out with a foodie, and the dishing among girlfriends the next morning, was fun.

Now, she certainly wasn't in New York this evening, but Red Dress is also the American publisher of Isabel Wolff, a former BBC reporter who became a chick lit writer when the Telegraph invited her to write a fictional column about the misadventures of, well, a chick lit chick. Seven years later, the editors must have found her insufficiently grateful for launching her career, because they open the door to her potential downfall by making her the lead example in an article exposing how authors blurbing other people's novels are frequently lying through their teeth--and, if Wolff's any indication, not feeling the least bit bad about it until somebody else points out that it's, well, patently dishonest (and even then her remorse seems rather insincere).

In a bit of self-justification that must have made her feel quite the clever clogs, she says she only fakes it for American novelists, hoping to boost her own literary presence stateside by appearing on the dust jackets of authors like Emmi Fredericks--who apparently didn't even need her help flogging Fatal Distraction, having won over Deirdre Donahue at USA Today easily enough on her own merits. Of course, American readers probably won't hear much about this, but since most of the literary bloggers I know have picked up on the story, it would be interesting to see how much of our readership also reads chick lit...

"Pulling a Philip Roth" Sounds A Bit Dirty, Actually

"Don't pull a Philip Roth," Margot Krebs chastised Nathan Englander the other night. We were all at the 92nd Street Y for a discussion on new Jewish fiction centered around the anthology Lost Tribe. Prof. Krebs had just asked what makes Jewish fiction Jewish, and he'd replied that it was a label that came entirely from the outside, not from the writer. He was echoing fellow panelist Myla Goldberg, who recalled surprise that Bee Season had been received as a Jewish novel, believing that she'd just written about an American family which happened to be Jewish. Neither answer seemed to be quite what the professor was looking for, and the conversation would circle around this theme for the rest of the evening, as she challenged the guests--who also included Dara Horn, author of In the Image, and Paul Zakrzewski, Lost Tribe editor--to admit their place in the pantheon of Jewish literature and they countered that, as Englander put it, "fiction had better be universal or it is not functioning." Or, as Goldberg said, that their identities were mosaics, with no single fragment holding precedence over any other.

Horn didn't say as much overall, but her personal story seemed interesting, as did her novel, for that matter. In the Image was, she said, inspired by her study of Hebrew and Yiddish literature, particularly the use of scriptural imagery in contemporary secular fiction, and it was that tradition that she saw herself responding to most directly, rather than an American Jewish canon. (Similarly, Goldberg would recall that when she wrote her novel, she'd never even read authors like Roth, Bellow, or Malamud.) She also pointed out how the biblical themes had made it somewhat easier to market the novel to non-Jewish audiences even though it dealt explicity with 20th-century Jewish history, and raised a few hackles when she suggested that she and the other authors had grown up "in a world where there was no anti-Semitism." Goldberg said that even though it hadn't defined who she was, she was aware of its presence growing up, while Englander explained that he was raised among Orthodox who essentially braced themselves for a second Holocaust at any moment.

The probing continued into the audience questioning, as one woman asked Goldberg if she thought a non-Jew could have written Bee Season. Her reply, I think, summed up the resistance to categorization each of the authors voiced throughout the evening: "I don't think anybody who isn't me could write this book."

March 10, 2004

Whirlwind Literary Evening

Despite the biting mixture of snow and rain last night, I trekked up to the Upper West Side Barnes & Noble--and then Ian Rankin didn't even bother reading from his latest Inspector Rebus novel, A Question of Blood. What the hell? Actually, he went one step better, regaling the densely packed audience with tales of how he moved from one home, just down the street from the real-life police station where Rebus works, to another two doors down from fellow crime novelist Alexander McCall Smith, whose wife went gaga over Rankin's hot tub at the housewarming party. And then a fellow goes and gets himself murdered just around the corner, the first slaying the neighborhood's seen in decades...and the victim turns out to be the organizer of a walking tour that points out various locations from the Rebus novels...

Rankin was joined by another Little, Brown author, George Pelecanos, who did read from Hard Revolution, which delves into the past of recurring Pelecanos protagonist Derek Strange, who confronts the riots that broke out in D.C. after the 1968 slaying of Martin Luther King, Jr. In the Q&A session afterwards, Pelecanos talked about how living through those riots and their aftermath--taking the bus through shattered neighborhoods to get to his family's diner--set him on a lifelong path of writing, churning through the issues of race and class that were revealed to him that summer. For other curious fans, he explained how he was recruited to help create a "novel for television" with the HBO series The Wire, and told us the cable network had essentially shelved another project they'd asked him to write, a film about the American Basketball Association. Rankin, meanwhile, said the BBC would be doing more Rebus adaptations, but not with John Hannah, who he deemed too good-looking for the part (and not even from Edinburgh), and mildly debunked rumors of a teamup between Rebus and Peter Robinson's Inspector Banks. It might happen someday, he said, but for now it's just a fun-sounding idea they cooked up in a pub one night.

Before any of this happened, though, I was at Coliseum Books to see Sara Nelson read selections from So Many Books, So Little Time, which starts out as an effort to read 52 books in 52 weeks but becomes a meditation on how reading and relationships often intermingle. In one passage, she writes about a friend who works up the courage to suggest that Sara might like a favorite book of hers. That friend knows the risks entailed; she essentially let a potential friend drift away after the woman recommended The Bridges of Madison County to her (and this was far back enough that she had no idea what to expect, and actually started reading the damn thing). Sara was joined by Caroline Leavitt, who read from her new novel, Girls in Trouble. Based on the two sections she read, featuring a pregnant honors student dissatisfied with the couples seeking to adopt her forthcoming child and a middle-aged woman desperate for motherhood, I think that if Oprah were still picking contemporary fiction, she'd definitely be giving this close consideration. It came across as a solidly written novel, with realistically drawn characters facing a very contemporary, instantly understandable dilemma, with full attention to their emotional shifts.

March 05, 2004

Kit and Caboodle

To Greenwich Village and the mystery bookshop Partners & Crime, where Leslie Silbert was celebrating the publication of her debut thriller, The Intelligencer, which combines the exploits of a sexy Ivy League-educated PI named Kate Morgan (not entirely unlike, I suspect, Ms. Silbert herself, who quips that she become a sleuth as "an interesting way to pay the bills while writing in the evenings and on weekends") with a reconstruction of the last weeks of the life of Christopher Marlowe (beware the MIDI). And though I'm reasonably certain that the use of the Celtic Cross tarot spread in the late 16th century is anachronistic, I'm not going to quibble too strongly with a novel that introduces Europe's top cat burglar in chapter two only to have him kill himself with an exotic poison hidden in a ring a few pages later, because that's a special sort of riproarin' fun that keeps me going to the finish (though it's a pity he won't be able to make it for the sequel). Silbert, who also gets extra points for bringing "a genuine Elizabethan shilling which Marlowe could have touched during his lifetime" to the party, noted during the Q&A that her "hands down absolute favorite" writer is Frederick Forsyth, though she also claims inspiration from Tom Stoppard's Arcadia for the novel's dual-timetrack plot.

March 04, 2004

The Return of Kyle Clayton

wenzel.jpgKurt Wenzel was at the Astor Place Barnes & Noble last night, reading the first two-thirds or so of the opening chapter of Gotham Tragic, his second novel. The scene reintroduced readers to Kyle Clayton, the bad-boy novelist (and admitted alter ego) who starred in Wenzel's debut, Lit Life, which I considered a rather enjoyable black comedy about the literary scene, mashing together satirical takes on Bret Easton Ellis (or perhaps Jay McInernery) and Tom Clancy and turning them into pals. This time around, Clayton's converted to Islam, though not very effectively, and at novel's start is lunching with his agent, a vivdly drawn, impatiently aggressive woman who will later call him to gloat about "banging" the hostess he had his eye on at City, the hot fictional Manhattan restaurant of the late 1990s, based in part on his own experiences as a waiter at Patroon. It's a good scene; maybe he'll read from it again this Sunday night at KGB (where he'll be sharing the podium with Andrew Sean Greer, currently enjoying a spurt of It-ness for The Confessions of Max Tivoli).

I found the scene Wenzel read entertaining, and I've also enjoyed the following chapters I read on the subway ride home, though as Wenzel noted during the Q&A, not everyone shares that opinion. Stephen Metcalf wrote in the NYTBR that the novel "[goes] a long way toward proving the resilience of utter inanity," and when he compares Wenzel to Tom Wolfe, it's not meant as a ringing endorsement. Janet Maslin glancingly echoed the Wolfe comparison with kinder intentions in her review, and though she doesn't think he stacks up she gives him points for trying...but I ended up asking him how he felt about both reviewers lumping him in with the allegedly emerging "lad lit" genre by reviewing him in tandem with Kyle Smith's Love Monkey. Wenzel admitted to some surprise, since his novel's not about a guy trying to get a date in the way "lad lit" echoes Bridget and her followers, and some disappointment that this second novel isn't getting considered on its own after the strong reviews Lit Life got. On the other hand, he's able to joke with Smith about their evisceration at Metcalf's hands... He told another fan that Clayton's being put to rest for a while. "Spending five to six years with an alcoholic womanizer gets exhausting," he quipped. "I need a break."

March 02, 2004

Twice Told Tales, Told Once More

Yesterday afternoon, the Significant Other asked if I was interested in going to the 92nd Street Y, having scored tickets to a Nathaniel Hawthorne bicentenary celebration rather unexpectedly. As it turns out, I went alone, and it wasn't quite what I expected, but enjoyable nevertheless.

I was under the impression that the evening was to be, or at least to include, a panel discussion about Hawthorne and his continuing influence on American literature. The theme of his influence, though, turned out to be implied in the presence of the featured authors who came out to read works by and about Hawthorne. Brenda Wineapple, author of a new Hawthorne biography, began the evening by noting that despite being a canonical dead white male, his stock had never fallen. (When it was all through, at a small reception afterwards, I asked Wineapple why she, most famous for writing about the lives of 20th-century modernists, was interested in Hawthorne. She returned to a point she'd made during her introductory remarks: "He was a 19th-century man who wrote about women," and brilliantly so.) And then Paul Auster walked on stage to read the short story "Wakefield."

Auster had a generally soft voice, with a hint of gravelly undertone, and the overall effect, especially given the story's subject matter, was that of Miguel Ferrer doing an extended impression of Rod Serling. The story seemed an apt one for Auster, as the attempts of the narrator to create his story out of a half-remembered article might be considered postmodern before there was postmodernism; heck, at some points, it almost felt like Hawthorne was pitching a treatment for a film idea rather than writing a short story.

Next up was Russell Banks, who selected the twelfth chapter of The Scarlet Letter. He explained how Hawthorne had come to write the novel after losing the customs office job he had enjoyed during Franklin Pierce's presidency (which he himself had partially brought about by writing the campaign biography), soon creating "the first work of genius in American literature." The chapter he chose was a masterful probing of Dimmesdale's psychological condition, as well as featuring appearances from all the other major characters, and Banks read it with relish.

Elizabeth Frank discussed the brief friendship of Hawthorne and Melville, then read extracts from Melville's book review "Hawthorne and His Mosses." Finally, Rick Moody read excerpts from "The Minister's Black Veil," holding back the ending in hopes of sending us out to track down the story for ourselves.

At the reception, I chanced upon Willem Dafoe, and asked him what attracted him to Hawthorne. He admitted that he'd actually come to the event for social reasons, to hear his friends Banks and Auster read. "I know The Scarlet Letter, but I know it the way a schoolboy knows it," he said. "But Paul often talks about Hawthorne, and what I've heard tonight makes me want to read more." (I also thought I spotted Harold Bloom seated up front during the reading, but I couldn't quite work up the nerve to verify it.)

The 92nd Street Y isn't done with Hawthorne yet, by the way. On March 8th, they'll host the official world premiere of Hester Prynne at Death, a musical drama composed by Stephen Paulus with a libretto by Terry Quinn. The piece will be sung by soprano Elizabeth Dabney, for whom it was created; she will be accompanied by an ensemble of eight choristers, clarinet, cello, piano and percussion.

February 25, 2004

A Tragedy With A Happy Ending

studsloa.jpgTwo days before the 100th anniversary of James T. Farrell's birth, the New York Public Library hosted a symposium on his work, moderated by Donald Yannella, an American literature scholar currently editing Farrell's interviews for publication. Although some folks, like William H. Pritchard, don't think Farrell will ever truly come back into fashion, the Library of America is placing its bet on him with a flourish, and had a new one-volume edition of the Studs Lonigan trilogy for sale at a table off to the side, along with a similar omnibus from Penguin Classics.

Yannella started things off with a slide show of his collection of Farrell first editions, showing how much more the author had done than the opening trilogy which made him (for a time) a household name. There were more novel cycles, short stories, poems, literary criticism, satirical essays...some of them represented by very elegant "DJs" (a term for dust jackets I'd never heard before). Then it was over to the guests.

First up: Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who basically presented an abridged overview of Farrell's life, making the first of several comparisons to Dreiser as he talked about his first reaction to reading Young Lonigan as an undergraduate. Then Norman Mailer announced, "I've got to talk about myself 80 percent of the time to give you a beautiful 20 percent on James T. Farrell," revealing how his encounter with Studs Lonigan as a Harvard student made him realize it would be possible for him to write fiction. A few of his compliments could be construed as backhanded, but he seemed utterly sincere when he'd just realized that The Executioner's Song owed a debt to Farrell, who'd taught him that one could write successfully "without style" by telling people's stories simply and honestly.

Kevin McCarthy was a bit of a wild card; his sister, Mary, was a close friend of Farrell's but unable at the time of his death to make it to New York from her Paris apartment in time for his funeral, so she dictated a eulogy for McCarthy to read at the memorial. This text he reread for the audience tonight.

Ann Douglas, who wrote the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, was thrilled to see the largest audience gathered to hear about Farrell she'd ever come across, and shared some anecdotes from her encounters with him near the end of his life, describing him as "incredibly kind" and "almost nakedly trusting."

Finally, Pete Hamill admitted he'd never met Farrell but did correspond with him, receiving letters with handwriting "like he stuck his finger in an electric outlet." He read Farrell for the first time as a 16-year-old sheetmetal worker in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, having bought a cheap Signet paperback with a "hot painting" on the cover and flap copy emphasizing the "steamy" content. Rereading Farrell recently, he said he was impressed by the subtleties of the prose, then described Farrell as "the first Irish-American novelist," making an intriguing comparison between Studs Lonigan and Stephen Dedalus. Towards the end, he mused aloud about Farrell's fade into obscurity, quoting William Dean Howells' advice to Edith Wharton: "Americans only want tragedies with happy endings." (But, Douglas would say later, students to whom she assigns Farrell today get him instantly, so maybe there's hope for him coming back into style yet.)

At this point, the panelists were invited to talk amongst themselves. Douglas commented on Mailer's appreciation for Farrell's endurance as a writer, and Mailer ran with that ball, suggesting Farrell had "a fundamental novelistic confidence most good writers don't have" in his willingness to tackle any subject, and though he didn't think Farrell was an especially gifted writer, "he got the maximum out of his gifts" and consequently was "as exciting to read when he failed as when he succeeded." Hamill asked if Mailer thought Farrell made other writers possible, and Mailer said more than that, "he made them better."

Then, as Yannella tried to close up shop, Douglas made an effort to open the floor up to questions. This led to a rambling, disheveled performance by a fellow who, as near as I could make out, only ever read three books in his life, one of which was Ellen Rogers. Once they got rid of him, Farrell's son said a brief word of thanks, and Yannella sent us home, quipping that we might want to hail a taxi to get down to the Strand to search for some of the books we'd just heard about.

Apart from the Studs Lonigan trilogy, other Farrell books currently in print include My Baseball Diary and Chicago Stories. You can also read "Memoir on Leon Trotsky" online. Some of Farrell's papers are at the University of Delaware, but Syracuse also has a few things in its special collections, and Michigan State has a couple audio recordings where he talks about 1930s America.

February 24, 2004

The Chip Kidds of Jazz Age Paris

artdecocover.jpegThe New York Public Library is getting ready to display a large sampling of a French bibliographic collection's Art Deco bookbindings. The bindings by Pierre Legrain and Rose Adler are pretty damn stunning, based on the photographic evidence.

One of the most eye-catching items on view is the binding Legrain created for Paul Morand's Les Amis nouveaux, in which he combined blue calf with perforated nickel-plated steel, with gold dots in the center of the perforations and repeating on the spine and the doublure. Considered one of the great "modern" bindings, the composition appears to salute architect Otto Wagner and his Postal Savings Bank in Vienna, an impression reinforced by the steel rivets on the inside of the covers.

You'll have noticed that the picture I'm showing isn't actually of that book. For some reason, the binding of Colette's L'Envers Du Music-Hall just caught my eye more readily, although the Morand is pretty hot.

The Word "Cyberspace" Was Never Uttered, Thankfully

I probably should've mentioned this sooner, but...last Saturday I ventured out to the Columbia University Bookstore for an afternoon reading by William Gibson from his latest novel, Pattern Recognition, now out in paperback. He read an early chapter in which the protagonist receives two emails, one from a cameraman on assignment at an archaeological dig of a WWII battlefield on the Russian front, with vivid descriptions of "strata of Germans, Russians, Germans" and a "rising pyramid of gray bone." The second letter is more directly tied to the book's McGuffin, going into detail about digital watermarking and steganographics in connection with mysterious film footage that, in the novel, appears online without attribution thereby generating much buzz.

Afterwards, Gibson took questions from the audience. We learned that the protagonist's phobic fear of the Michelin Man stems from his own daughter's dislike of the figure, and that he spends a lot of time on eBay, which he regards as a "vast museum of humankind." I asked if he'd felt hampered by sticking to present technology rather than the near future, and he said no, it was more difficult for him to write the story strictly from one character's viewpoint, as opposed to his usual technique of "switching cameras" between several characters, and that he was constantly second guessing the story's sense of timing because of it. He also explained that he started writing Pattern Recognition before 9/11, but was unsatisfied with how it was turning out and couldn't understand what made the lead character tick. He almost abandoned the project entirely after the terrorist attacks, but a close friend suggested he go through the novel word by word and "recalibrate everything against what had happened." The resulting story is so signficiantly shaped by 9/11 that he can no longer imagine what the novel would be like without it.

Gibson's novels are filled with cutting edge technology, but in person he cuts a decidedly lo-tech figure in denim jeans and oversize denim jacket. The audience that came out to hear him read practically made me feel old: college kids and grad students with black PVC jackets and bright maroon hair, but then I spotted about half a dozen balding middle-aged men scattered among the crowd, too, so I felt a little better. One of them asked what he'd been reading lately, and he was highly enthusiastic about Holy Land by D.J. Waldie, then suggested he would probably turn to The Devil in the White City next, as he's been seeing the paperback prominently displayed at every stop along his tour.

February 23, 2004

Isaac Bashevis Singer Centennial

It's the 100th anniversary of Isaac Bashevis Singer's birth, and to mark the occasion the Library of America, which is putting out a three-volume edition of his short stories, has put together a tribute website with tons of biographical and bibliographical information (not to mention an amazing collection of photographs; I would show you one if only I could figure out how to download it on account of the whole thing is done up in Flash, though very nicely done up to be sure). There's also going to be a slew of events all year long, including a reading at Symphony Space this Wednesday night. The evening's lineup celebrates immigrant American writers and includes stories by Jaime Manrique and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in addition to Singer. The readers are B.D. Wong, Sarita Choudhury, and Isaiah Sheffer.

In 1998, I interviewed Dvorah Telushkin, who started out driving Singer from his apartment to Bard College so she could audit his class and ended up as one of his translators.

February 19, 2004

The Promised Page From My Social Diary

epicure.JPGJust came home from Housing Works, where Kate Christensen read a hilarious scene from her new novel, The Epicure's Lament, in which our antihero, who has elected to continue smoking even though it will surely kill him, picks up the married woman who's infatuated with his brother (whom he despises) in a bar. Verses from "Seasons in the Sun" are involved. It was especially wonderful to see Kate because it gave me the opportunity to finally return the copy of The Diaries of Dawn Powell she graciously loaned me ages ago; both of us, I discovered when I interviewed her, are huge fans of Powell, and Kate's done a marvelous job of depicting Manhattan with a similarly sharp eye in her three books. If she's reading again, you'd do well to go hear her.

Drumming Up Business for the L Train

I've already made plans for this evening, which you'll read about in due course, but apparently the folks at Drunken Boat are celebrating their sixth online issue with a bash at Pete's Candy Store tonight featuring "poets Andrea Baker, Benjamin Gantcher, Brian Kim Stefans, and sound artists Latasha Natasha Diggs and Cary Peppermint." Fortunately, it's on a weeknight, so you'll be able to get in and out of Williamsburg easily enough.

February 15, 2004

Love, Exciting and (Not So) New

The Significant Other and I ventured from the Outer Boroughs to Housing Works Café for a reading sponsored by the Collins Library to mark the reissue of Lady Into Fox, the 1922 debut novel by outlying Bloomsburian David Garnett.

Which, as it happened, nobody read from at all.

Paul Collins began by reading a few scenes from Wired Love, "a romance of dots and dashes" written in 1879 by Ella Thayer--a bizarre tale of 19th-century cyberromance between two telegraph operators in which the female protagonist's early attempt at genderspoofing is quickly debunked by the man's recognition of the feminine touch to her telegraphic fist. Then Tom Bissell read the fire-starting scene from Scott Spencer's Endless Love, followed by the mightily creepy final pages.

And then it was play time, as Todd Pruzan brought out Home Occupations for Boys and Girls, a domestic science manual from 1908 he'd found in a junkstore in Utah. He shared some Valentine's Day activities with us, mostly revolving around cutting up food in the shape of hearts, taught us how to make a miniature croquet set with peas, matchsticks and corks, and then asked if there were any couples in the room. I was about to raise my hand when the Significant Other slapped my arm and told me to shush. Good thing, too, because the couple was brought up to the front of the room so the husband could entertain himself pounding nails into a hunk of soap while the wife made a potato horse, after which they played a round of "Countess of the Huggermuggers."

Such an act is hard to follow, but Rachel Cohen offered up some of Sarah Orne Jewett's love letters to Annie Adams Fields. Dan Kennedy wrapped things up with a hilarious excerpt from Helen Gurley Brown's Sex and the Single Girl about the downside of having an affair with a married man. Who could resist a hot date with the boss when he buys you a chafing dish and invites you to catch Shelly Berman's act at the club?

On the subway ride home, in between catching the Significant Other's eye and intoning, "The Countess of the Huggermuggers is dead," I started Lady Into Fox, which, sure, is a bit mannered, but highly entertaining nevertheless, as the protagonist struggles to adjust when his wife, you guessed it, suddenly turns into a fox. He still loves her and all, it's just so hard to bear when she eats chicken right off the bone and wants to run in the fields chasing wild fowl...

February 11, 2004

Night Life

Went to a reading at KGB for the first time in ages last night to see Elizabeth Kadetsky read from First There Is A Mountain (longtime readers of this blog know I'm a fan). Both sections from which she read were set in India -- first she recounted the difficulties she and a friend had catching a bus to Agra, followed by a journalistic passage in which she probed the tensions caused by the introduction of yoga techniques to the West by Iyengar (who was also her own yoga mentor while she was in India).

Then Cynthia Kaplan read--not from her collection of essays, Why I'm Like This, though. That's been out for a while, and "if you read the hardcover," she told the audience, "you should get the paperback, too. It's funnier." She treated us to an unpublished piece called "Foreign Correspondent," which she's working on for an anthology, which starts off by expressing regret at never having had an exotic foreign adventure in her youth. After all, she quipped, "what else do adults do but sit around and tell stories that make them look cool?" From there, it eventually works its way around to her 20th high school reunion and how people who never gave you the time of day in school now act as if everybody was best friends. It's still a work in progress, but as I told her when we chatted afterwards, it seems much more done than not done. (For a fuller sense of her style, try "Mountain Men.")

February 09, 2004

Dating Divas

This evening I went to the SoHo furniture boutique Desiron for a New York Times "Booked for the Evening" event, part of their series of Times Talks, in which Alex Kuczynski moderated a discussion with chick lit authors Meg Cabot and Valerie Frankel, both of whom have new trade paperbacks out from Avon--respectively, Boy Meets Girl and The Not-So-Perfect Man.

Both novels are about women falling for the type of man they never thought they'd fall in love with, but for very different reasons. Cabot's protagonist, who despises lawyers, becomes infatuated with the attorney deposing her in a lawsuit, while Frankel's is a widow in her mid-thirties who falls for a guy who's young, talented, but can barely hold down a job.

But the two weren't there to talk about their books so much as to dish about dating and relationships, and that they did in spades. Cabot advised women in the audience to go with the man who was least annoying. "My husband watches sports all the time," she said, "but the last boyfriend before him cheated on me, which was much more annoying." And though both suggested periodic check-up discussions to evaluate the relationship's status, Frankel went on to note, "Women have a bottomless need for reassurance, and men are very bored by that." (Which rings pretty true to any guy who's found himself saying, "Yes, I still love you, enough already.")

Other highlights: the "doorman factor," which can cause Manhattan women not to bring men back to their apartment; David Denby as the male Bridget Jones self-cataloging all his flaws in meticulous detail; and basing characters on real-life acquaintances. Cabot: "I can tell my friends don't read my books because the books are about them and they don't hate me." Frankel's fiancé, meanwhile, doesn't care if she writes about him, as long as she doesn't work out their problems in her books instead of with him.

January 23, 2004

Miss Media

lynn.jpgLast night I went to a Mediabistro-sponsored book party for Lynn Harris, aka "Breakup Girl," who's just published her first novel, Miss Media, through iUniverse. It's a not-so-thinly veiled fictionalization of her Big Media experiences, and the four or five scenes she read for an enthusiastic audience were pretty effective, I thought. The first-person narration could have used a bit of pruning, perhaps, but that might be just a sensibility quibble--I'm of the "less thinking aloud, more action" prose school myself. On a less ambivalent tack, as someone who went through the new media grinder myself, I found her depiction of the scene (and the creeping corporitization of startups) authentic, even when jacked up for satirical purposes, and for that alone I'd recommend checking this out for yourself.

January 15, 2004

Is Chick Lit Chic?

When I heard that was the title of the Women's National Book Association's latest panel discussion, held tonight in the Time-Life Building, my first reaction was, admittedly, "What, did somebody set the wayback machine on 2000 again?" Shows what I know--or, perhaps, how far I've clawed my way into publishing's inner circles that I'm out of touch with the average reader. Panelist Carol Fitzgerald of had some very interesting things to say about just how much of the bookbuying market still doesn't recognize the term "chick lit," and all the panelists seemed to agree that the genre has a ways to go before it reaches its peak. Barnes & Noble fiction buyer Sessalee Hensley pointed out the genre's particular strength in trade paperback, while Doug Mendini, the director of national accounts for Kensington Books, added that mass market doesn't hurt either; for one thing, it makes it easier to get the book into Wal-Mart. (He also had some interesting things to say about the erotic romance market being poised to explode very soon, especially the stuff Lori Foster is writing for the house's Brava imprint.

But some of the most provocative comments came from author Jennifer Weiner, who explained why "dick lit" doesn't really work as fiction but seems increasingly to wind up in the memoir section, wittily ran down the checklist of chick lit's stock characters, and aptly described the whole genre as "comfort food between covers." (Carol also made an apt comment about how the genre's heroines, often losers in love trapped in jobs from hell, are proof that we're allowed to admit our failures now--think of all those dotcom ex-millionaires who just laugh and move on to the next thing.)

During Beatrice's second big wave, which began the day Amazon cut me loose and gave me all the free time I needed to work on my own website again, I interviewed a LOT of chick lit writers because that's what was hitting the market then and because, in all honesty, I was 30, single, and more than happy to hang out with talented women and talk literature. (Not, I hesitate to add, that I was ever able to get a date from those interviews, though I was able to get dates out of having a literary website, but that's another story...) That's how I first found out about Jennifer, and discovered other fantastic writers like Elissa Schappell and Kate Christensen. That's sort of stretching the genre's definition a bit, but one of the points that came up tonight, especially from Sessalee, was that the boundaries aren't that firm; it all gets stocked in fiction.

I don't read it as much these days, in part because my professional book reviewing duties have me immersed in nonfiction, but the occasional novel still comes up on my radar screen. I'm looking forward to reading Caroline Hwang's debut, In Full Bloom, when I catch my breath after the Return to the Outer Boroughs, as well as Carrie Pilby by Caren Lissner, which has the best name for a protagonist-as-title I've seen in ages--and which I promised Caren's pal Dawn I would read months ago. (Why Malcolm Gladwell didn't use Dawn as an example of Connectors in The Tipping Point is one of life's great mysteries.) Plus it's from Red Dress Ink, which has done a fantastic job of specializing in the genre yet maintaining a degree of diversity among its writers.

January 11, 2004

Doing anything Tuesday night?

If not, and you live in New York City, think about spending the evening at Magnetic Field in Brooklyn, where Sara Gran and Rebecca Donner will be reading from their novels along with four other writers, all to raise funds for the literary magazine Small Spiral Notebook. Magnetic Fields is just a brisk (and in this weather, I do mean brisk) walk away from the Borough Hall stop for the 2,3,4,5,N, and R trains, the F/G stop at Bergen Street, or the A/C lines at Jay Street. $10 donation suggested; readings start at 7:00 p.m. sharp.