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Reading at the Edge of the World

By Jessanne Collins
Thursday, July 7th, 2011

Haruki Murakami's catalog.

For five years in my otherwise landlocked twenties, I spent a week each summer with my best friend’s family at their rented beach house in Hatteras, North Carolina. It was an impossibly long drive to get there, the last turn before the road dead-ended at the ferry slip, the literal end of the land.

We carted in groceries by the cardboard boxful, and an extra blender for frozen margaritas. I toted an entire load of dirty laundry, both for the free washer and dryer and so as to not have to think about what to pack. I stocked sunscreen and bugspray in lieu of makeup and left my cell phone charger at home as there was no reception anyway. It was a week for wiping clean, of dedicating higher thought to only the essential questions, like which were the highest-scoring two-letter Scrabble words.

Long after they’ve been replaced and their space on my shelf filled, the best beach reads are the ones that are still embedded firmly in my head, springing to mind regularly, involuntarily.

The one thing I put any consideration at all into packing for this week out of the rat race — which meant, variously over that time span, working in retail, going to grad school, my first publishing job — was the half-dozen or so books I’d stash in the bottom of my laundry bag.

One year, I carried with me the entire paperback catalog of Haruki Murakami. It’s still water worn at the cracked spines where, more than once, the tide rolled in a bit too high while I read on, oblivious. During my requisite mid-MFA Southern Gothic phase, I had with me all the Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, and Eudora Welty I could lift.

I read all the modern classics there — the Jonathans, Zadie Smith, David Mitchell, Lorrie Moore. The beach was a time for catching up on all the reading I’d missed in the past year, or the past five years, or the past lifetime. But more than that, it was a place outside my otherwise obsessively literary civilization, where not even The New York Times Book Review reached. I lost all consideration for which things I should be reading, devoted myself entirely to the books that attracted my eye.

I think this is such an essential feeling to have now and then, especially for those of us who read voraciously, who keep up with criticism, or who read for a living. More often than not there is a calculus that goes into deciding what to read next, which book from the pile to prioritize. Interest — sheer giddy pleasure — plays some part. But not nearly enough in regular, real life.

Late last week I was packing up for a long weekend with the same family at a new beach house at the end of a different spit of land. As I examined my bookshelves, stuffed horizontally and to the ceiling, it occurred to me that the best beach reads are not necessarily the obvious ones. They’re books that are not even, necessarily, my “desert island” list — the favorites I read over and over. Largely, they’re not even books I still own, having long since pushed those off on friends who asked for vacation recommendations.

Long after they’ve been replaced and their space on my shelf filled, the best beach reads are the ones that are still embedded firmly in my head, springing to mind regularly, involuntarily.  They tend to be sagas of the great American offbeat: Vestal McIntyre’s Lake Overturn, about a crop of souls in small-town Idaho; Shelley Jackson’s twisted fairytale of conjoined twins, Half Life; Joan Didion’s electric, uncomfortable soap opera of a first novel, Run River; the hopelessly erotic and neurotic (and, importantly, abridged!) diaries of Anais Nin.

It’s a little too early to tell how the two I ended up toting south last weekend — Patti Smith’s Just Kids and Ben Loory’s Stories for the Nighttime and Some for the Day — place. If I had to guess which titles from this years’ crop of appropriately (not quite under-, but decidedly not over-) rated literature would fall in this highly subjective category a year or two down the road, I might dog-ear Matthew Gallaway’s The Metropolis Case and Emma Donoghue’s Room. But in the ever-prescient words of Levar Burton, when it comes to beach reads, don’t take my word for it. This is about you and a book at the edge of the world.

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A ‘Big Night’ of Storytelling: The Moth Returns to SummerStage

By Michael H. Miller
Thursday, June 30th, 2011

Andy Borowitz hosts The Moth at SummerStage.

On Tuesday night, The Moth storytelling series took over the Central Park SummerStage for the first time in eight years. Pam Grier, she of Foxy Brown fame, was supposed to be the headliner for a night of stories built on the theme of “big nights,” but the actress pulled out at the last minute due to an ominous-sounding “personal conflict,” according to a press release. Cancellations aside, it was a big night — at least in terms of turnout: The place was packed — you’d have thought Clap Your Hands Say Yeah was playing (well, in 2006 anyway).

A few minutes after 7:30, a man sat on a chair on the stage with an acoustic guitar and began strumming some chords, the Moth version of “house to half.”  After a brief announcement, everyone quieted down and Andy Borowitz, the evening’s host who has performed with The Moth since 1999, told a story about the night he met met a hot lawyer with a beautiful smile. Presaging the five stories that would follow, Borowitz explained how he met this woman at a party and she began talking about a reading she went to. It just happened to be the last reading The Moth held at Summerstage in 2003, which Borowitz also hosted. Of  course, she said she didn’t remember seeing him there, despite recalling in excrutiating detail all of the storytellers that night.  They went on three awkward dates that didn’t go anywhere. At one point, Borowitz’s said the woman unzipped her sweatshirt while the two were alone in her apartment, and instead of doing the deed, they played several games of Boggle; Borowitz lost each time. Sometimes, you have to suffer through a word puzzle board game or two to get what you want.

“One year later we got married,” he said and the audience let out a collective “awww.”

Sliding back into host mode, Borowitz explained the rules: Each reader had 10 minutes before a diminished warning chord would ring out from the guitar player — the so-called “chord of dread.” Shortly after, he’d play a loud minor key note informing the reader his or her time was up. As it turns out, he was pretty lenient. As with most readings, almost everyone went long. The stories, though, were all funny, often making light of a terrible time in the reader’s life (that’s usually where “big nights” fall). Comedian Jessi Klein read about bombing as a staff writer for Saturday Night Live (when staffers for SNL don’t laugh she said it’s like “having sex with someone you really like, but they don’t make a single sound no matter what you do to them with your body”); Sherman O.T. Powell — who last year revealed his pickpocketing tips with a Daily News staff reporter — discussed becoming a bootlegger during his time as a prisoner at Attica so that he could get more candy and cigarettes; Bonnie Levison recalled making out with her new boyfriend in front of her ex-husband and his young mistress while the B-52’s played “Love Shack” at an AIDS benefit. Substituting for Pam Grier, Permanent Midnight author and recovering addict, Jerry Stahl, stepped in and recalled a “big night” of driving around L.A. while wearing Depends (because of Robitussin-induced incontinence ) to steal heroin from armed drug dealers — only to crash his car, have it stolen, and then somehow get reimbursed $5000 by a credulous insurance company. Lesson learned, Stahl ended by pointing out that he spent the money on — what else — more heroin.

But the story I liked best was by Salman Ahmad, who (against all odds) started the rock band Junoon in 1990 in Lahore, Pakistan.

“If you’re born in India or Pakistan,” he began, “Your parents give you two choices for a career: doctor or doctor.”

His family moved to New York when he was still a boy. At 13, his friend Danny Spitz, who would go on to become lead guitarist of the band Anthrax, made him buy his extra ticket to Led Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden; it was 1977. Ahmad said the concert somehow reminded him of the Gavali music of his youth, which he sang over the audience’s handclaps. (The words were, “That whisper in your heart has strength. It may not have wings but it has the power to fly.”)

Led Zeppelin opened with “Kashmir.” Ahmad loudly hummed the riff into the microphone. After that night, Ahmad said he saved money to buy a guitar, and then sequestered himself in his room for two years to practice. After declaring to an uncle that he wanted to be just like Jimi Hendrix, his parents shipped him back to Pakistan as soon as he graduated from high school.

Ahmad did go on to medical school. But instead of going to his dissection class, he organized secret talent shows on the outskirts of Lahore. This was a time when music of all kinds was illegal in Pakistan. He described the night that he played the Van Halen song “Eruption” in front of his fellow heathens on the same guitar he saved up to buy as a boy. The talent show was raided by religious zealots. They smashed his guitar and told him that they would kill him if he continued to play. Junoon went on to sell millions of records worldwide.

By the end of the story, Ahmad had managed to avoid the “chord of dread.” He left the stage, instead, to a riff from “Kashmir.”

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Polemic of the Personal: J. Courtney Sullivan’s Maine

By Jessanne Collins
Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

J. Courtney Sullivan

The other night, the novelist J. Courtney Sullivan was reading a New Yorker commentary about Anthony Weiner’s resignation, which suggested that the old feminist maxim “the personal is political” is perhaps too simplistic to apply to our particularly overexposed modern lives. “I was like, wait, what?” she recalls, on the phone from the back deck of an Ogunquit, Maine, beach house. “I’d still say that’s pretty accurate.”

A decade ago, in any case, it was a concept that rather sharply underscored the curriculum at Smith College, where Sullivan and I were contemporaries but not acquaintances. And in her second novel, Maine, out this month from Knopf, she has woven the tenet so subtly as to be seamless into a heady, hefty family drama, which unfolds in the confines of a worn cottage set just down the road from the rental she’s using as a home base for a series of New England readings this week.

Like her debut novel, 2009’s Commencement, about four Smith girls finding their way through their early twenties, Maine is unabashedly a beach read. Sullivan’s work is entertaining and affecting, built on Housewives-worthy drama and delving into rough emotional waters. But it is also, in that Smithian sense, innately political, built on an intricate and quite deliberate socioeconomic foundation — class consciousness, sexual politics, the shape of history. In the end, it’s about the ways a person’s place — in time, in space, in a family — shapes a life down to its most intimate details.

“The word ‘feminism’ never appears in Maine, whereas in Commencement, the characters were saying it on every page,” Sullivan says. “These women are not concerned with politics, but they do live their lives within a certain framework.”

There are four central female characters in Maine. At one pole is Alice, the elderly matriarch of an extended Boston Irish Catholic family, who, despite her disinterest in motherhood, found her fate sealed long ago when her priest personally forbade her to use birth control. At the other is her granddaughter Maggie, a moderately successful but not quite satisfied Brooklyn writer who confronts the limbo of her early thirties by making a half-rash decision to skip a few pills and see what happens.

Strung between them, forming their own polar tensions, are Maggie’s mother, Kathleen, who’s rebelled from her family by recovering from her alcoholism, settling into a deliberately messy West Coast life where she runs a worm-dung fertilizer company, and Kathleen’s sister-in-law, Ann Marie, who’s developed a fixation with dollhouses just as her own picket fence existence in a wealthy Massachussetts suburb begins dissolving into disarray.

With it’s subtler politics and broader worldview, Sullivan sees the book as a “next step,” for her, as an author and also as a person. “The books that I write, as I’m writing them, are always in a way answering a question I have in my own head,” she says. Commencement was about “the ideals we leave school with, and what happens to them in the real world. What do you think you’d never do, and what do you actually do?”

By her own description, Sullivan was a pajama-wearing überfeminist — the “whole Smith cliche” — when she arrived in New York City after graduating in 2003. Soon she found herself — of all things! — working at Allure and penning a self-help book called Dating Up: Dump the Schlump and Find a Quality Man. Its cover bore an illustration of a manicured finger pushing a “penthouse” button, and its publication brought with it the requisite ribbing afforded by Gawker and the like to those new New Yorkers who are young and fresh and toeing success.

“I wouldn’t write it now, and I wouldn’t tell my 22-year-old self to write it,” Sullivan laughs. “When you’re starting out in any job you’re going to make awkward mistakes. If you’re lucky, no one sees them, but when you do it in book form…”

That said, she stands by the book’s original idea, borne of “a big conversation about what it means to be a whole person.” In that sense, it was an early meditation on the very contemporary feminist question which has become a through-line of her work: What happens when our problem becomes not what we can’t have, but how to choose between all the things we can?

It’s history now, in any case: That paycheck let Sullivan lay off babysitting and catering and the other gigs writers take on to make ends meet, and write her bestselling first novel. It’s success led to this one, anticipated and ambitious. And it, right now, is affording her a few precious minutes in the sun at one of her favorite places in the world.

She’s also well aware that the next generation may in fact have it worse. “I can’t even look at the diaries I wrote in high school, they’re so cringy. I don’t know what I’d do if blogs had existed,” she says. “I feel so grateful to have been born at the moment I was.”

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Revisiting Vonnegut’s Cradle

A writer rereads the novel that began his interest in literature.
By Michael H. Miller
Thursday, June 16th, 2011

The reputation of Cat’s Cradle among the literary cognoscenti is summed up succinctly in Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s obituary in the New York Times: “Though it initially sold only about 500 copies, it is widely read today in high school English classes.” This was also my perception of the novel — something I had moved on from the same way I progressed beyond acne. Kurt Vonnegut, I thought, is serious fiction for people who do not take fiction seriously. A recent volume published by the Library of America, Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1963-1973, would seem to confirm his rightful status alongside other inductees into the Library of America’s unofficial canon: Henry James, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth. So why the bias?

My older sister introduced me to Vonnegut when I was 14 and had no interest in books. She gave me a copy of Cat’s Cradle, which I read in more or less one sitting, setting it down, reluctantly, only for bathroom breaks and a longer, more unfortunate respite, Thanksgiving dinner at my aunt’s house. From there, Vonnegut became the first author whose work I desired to read in full. Despite some of the turgid later works—Hocus Pocus and Deadeye Dick, in particular—I succeeded. At the end of this binge, an interesting thing happened: The impulse was purged. I never read a page of Vonnegut again.

Because of the novel’s reputation as, essentially, gateway literature, I assumed I had progressed beyond his writing in favor of Delillo, Pynchon, even the likeminded Philip K. Dick, who has had the benefit of always existing on the fringe of popular taste, always in need of a great defender. (Surely, the argument for Do Androids Dream of Sleep? as the Greatest Novel Ever is rarer than similar claims about Slaughterhouse Five.) Putting aside those assumptions, I decided, for the first time since I was 14, to revisit the author that got me reading in the first place.

I immediately saw a book filled with subtle meaning that had escaped me before, even in that blunt opening line, “Call me Jonah.” If Melville’s Ishmael (probably the most famous character in literature to use the imperative as a way of introducing himself), like the Ishmael of Genesis, was saved from drowning, Vonnegut’s narrator is telling us he is quite doomed from the outset: The Book of Jonah, of course, takes place inside the belly of a whale. The narrator’s real name is not Jonah (it’s John), but from the first sentence Vonnegut has us thinking about water. He repeats the image throughout the novel so that by the time of the arrival of ice-nine, the real villain of the book, a substance that freezes any liquid at room temperature, we’ve been anticipating its appearance and expecting the worst.

What works is Vonnegut’s directness, which is why he is able to appeal to 14-year-olds in a way that, say, Henry James cannot. His sentences are lean and muscular, packed with the weight of the ominous ending awaiting readers, the one we expect from the outset.

How the book covers so much ground in so little time is a testament to Vonnegut’s singular style, as icy as his novel’s inanimate antagonist. Jonah starts out wanting to write a book on the late Felix Hoennikker, the father of the atomic bomb, and goes to a dreary town in New York State to interview his former co-workers. He returns to New York City to find his subletter has destroyed his apartment, prompting him to take a magazine assignment about the island of San Lorenzo. On the plane, he happens to meet Hoennikker’s children. Now on a secluded tropical island, the novel shifts tone to become sunny and bright, only for the island to become ground zero for the end of the world and the setting shift once more to a landscape that is altogether different from everything prior. This progression is steady and believable in the author’s hands.

I remember, the first time out, being impressed at Vonnegut’s invention of the cynical religion of Bokononism, which urges its followers, “Don’t be a fool! Close this book at once! It is nothing but [lies]!” That charming pessimism aside, Bokononism today reads more like the central tenants of Bhagavad-Gita brandished with funny names: a karass is a kind of samsara, a granfalloon is the antithesis of sanskaras and boko-maru is meditation for foot fetishists. (Bokononism’s cynicism, too, feels less original than I once thought. I think of the Buddhist story of a student telling his meditation teacher that he feels horrible, to which the teacher responds, “It will pass.” The next week the student returns and proclaims his satisfaction. “It will pass,” the teacher responds.) At 14, Bokononism seemed dense and multi-layered; it gave the novel a cerebral feel that now falls just short of vaguely imaginative.

What works is Vonnegut’s directness, which is why he is able to appeal to 14-year-olds in a way that, say, Henry James cannot. His sentences are lean and muscular, packed with the weight of the ominous ending awaiting readers, the one we expect from the outset. These sentences can pack a lifetime’s worth of exposition within a few words — “he designed the hospital, married a native woman named Celia, fathered a perfect daughter, and died” — or cast a shadow over what would otherwise be a throwaway, humorous scene. Take the charming exchange of Jonah and the Mintons, an inseparable married couple, flying to San Lorenzo (the husband is the American ambassador). After Mr. Minton cheerfully tells Jonah people are “about the same, wherever you go,” Vonnegut, as if reminding his readers the novel will end in tragedy, writes, “When it came time for the Mintons to die, they did it within the same second.”

James Wood, writing in the New Republic, once called Vonnegut “unclassifiable” in the same breath that he grouped him alongside fellow “avant-gardists” turned “mainstreamists”: Thomas Pynchon, Donald Barthelme, and William Gass. He has a point. Cat’s Cradle is at once science fiction and realist first-person narrative, political thriller and cranky litany against consumer culture, most of all a scathing comedy that is sadder than most Greek tragedies. In those contradictions lie its strength and the reason why, perhaps, the only canon it has been included in is 10th grade English class. Cat’s Cradle is out of place in postmodernism because, rather than just suggesting the end of the world — take the beautiful dance around the issue that Don Delillo performed in White Noise — Vonnegut makes the apocalypse tangible. It does not quite fit in the typical American literature since WWII survey — in which Bellow and Roth’s first-person novels of decline and impotence are the dominant literary forms — in part, because of its campy humor (the frozen dead dog, the fact that the closest the novel comes to approaching sex is the rubbing together of bare feet). Cat’s Cradle holds up not just as the book that makes people start reading, but also as serious fiction. It may continue to languish in high school hell, if only for the difficulty of placing it.

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The Bolero of Andi Rowe: An Author’s Meditation on Heritage

By Jessanne Collins
Thursday, June 9th, 2011

Toni Margarita Plummer

There’s a map on the first page of Toni Margarita Plummer’s debut short story collection, The Bolero of Andi Rowe. An artful pen and ink depiction of the spiderweb of interstates that threads through greater Los Angeles, it’s nexus is the city of South El Monte in the San Gabriel Valley.

“Even in L.A., some people don’t know where South El Monte is,” Plummer, 31, says of the Mexican-American working class suburb where she grew up and has set the majority of her stories. “I thought it was important to place the reader.”

Suspended between Hollywood and suburban Pomona, South El Monte, in Plummer’s depiction, is a sea of “one-story boxes with stucco slapped on,” watched over by ceramic Virgin Marys — a place of heavy heat, threadbare pool halls, tequila sunrises. It’s vivid, gritty, quintessentially American terrain, in the sense that it seems at once innately familiar and unexplored, and makes for an apt backdrop for stories set at the crossroads of culture and identity.

Orbiting loosely around the titular character, a young woman of Irish-American and Mexican-American decent, these are meditations on heritage, love, and coming of age — what it takes to stay rooted in an ever-expanding present. Subtle and sensual, the stories knit narratives across time: We meet both Andi and her mother as adolescents, inhabiting the same landscape through the lens of different decades. Characters who make cameos in one piece might show up fully fleshed, narrating the next.

The puzzlelike structure will be familiar — and appealing — to fans of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, but Plummer says she wasn’t aiming to write a novel. “I was committed to it being short stories,” she told me over margaritas at Manhattan’s colorful Trailer Park bar earlier this week. Plummer, who lives in Boerum Hill, is an editor at St. Martin’s Press, where her authors include crime novelist Sophie Littlefield and the International Latino Book Award-winner Michael Jaime-Becerra, an El Monte native himself. “There are different definitions, of course, but to me a novel follows a continuous storyline and I didn’t want to do that here.”

What she has done, admittedly, is used the collection as a meditation on her own heritage and family history. The narratives of Andi Rowe provide a rough sketch of Plummer’s own background: Her bookkeeper mother was born in Mexico, orphaned as a child, and raised in California by a strict grandmother. Her father was a loan officer from whom she inherited a love of books and Bob Dylan. His Irish-born mother and Plummer’s mother — both devout Catholics, with roots on opposite sides of the planet — shared a tight bond, even after Plummer’s parents divorced. “Mexico and Ireland are very similar in a way,” Plummer says. “Their relationship made me fascinated with the idea of adoptive families and adoptive cultures.”

In the story “Happy Hour,” Andi Rowe’s father takes her sister out for Coronas after his mother’s funeral, while Andi is consoling her own devastated mother. “ ‘Mexicans are much freer about their feelings. Not like white people. But you and Andi, you’ve got the best of both worlds,’ ” he says. “I smile. I don’t say it’s always been just the one world split.”

The collection, begun when Plummer was an MFA student at the University of Southern California, won the Miguel Marmol prize, for a first work of fiction by a Latino author, from the renowned independent publisher Curbstone Press in 2008. But plans for its publication were waylaid after the death of Curbstone’s director, Sandy Taylor. After a lengthy limbo Plummer used to revise, rework, and reorder the stories to her satisfaction, Curbstone was acquired by Northwestern University Press in 2009. Andi Rowe marks the debut of the new imprint, which will also continue to publish Curbstone’s extensive multiculturally oriented backlist.

Last weekend, Plummer saw it for the first time on a bookstore shelf while attending her ten-year reunion at Notre Dame. (Her classmate Greta L. Bilek, a San Francisco-based architect, is the artist of the map that appears in the book.) “Mostly it was my friends buying it,” Plummer laughs. There was also a guy she didn’t know, with a nametag that read “Man Seeking Beer.” Later that night, around 3 a.m., he pulled Plummer from her dorm room to give an impromptu reading in the hospitality room. “We assembled an interesting group of people, in various states of drunkenness,” she says. “These girls gave us their leftover Papa John’s pizza. It was rather surreal.”

Toni Margarita Plummer will read from her collection at the California-themed bar Pacific Standard, 82 4th Avenue, Brooklyn on Thursday, June 9 at 7 p.m. and will appear on the panel Periodically Speaking at the New York Public Library on June 14 at 6 p.m.

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How (Not) to Talk to Joan Didion

A young journalist on meeting his literary idol
By Michael H. Miller
Thursday, June 2nd, 2011

Joan Didion

The day J.D. Salinger died, a weekly newspaper in Manhattan assigned me, along with a colleague, to write his obituary. By 9 a.m. that morning, the voicemail inbox of Joyce Maynard, the author’s former lover, was full. My editor gave me the weighty task of calling Joan Didion, who wrote a pernicious review of Franny and Zooey for the New York Review of Books in 1961 (she dismissed the book as “self-help copy”) and who, I was assured, would be happy to talk for attribution. The connection seemed, at best, tenuous, but worse was the idea of cold calling Joan Didion, a concept as foreign to me as e-mailing Lord Byron. In one summer after college, after reading her essay “The White Album,” I examined feverishly every word she had written to that point, and considered her body of work to be a high point of the English language in the latter half of the twentieth century. If that statement sounds hyperbolic, it is, of course. But everyone has a literary idol. Outside of the words on the page, these idols are about as real as Beckett’s Godot and interacting with them is at least as hopeless. You see, Didion could not exist. She was much too important, in my mind, to be anything but that direct voice coming off the page; she could be nothing more than omniscience itself.

And yet there I was, phone in hand, staring at an e-mail that contained the ten digits of her home number. It took me 20 minutes of pacing the sidewalk outside the newspaper’s office, and another five of listening to the phone’s dial tone, before briskly punching in the numbers.

“Hello?” a voice, quiet but husky, said after two rings.

“Uh, hi, can I speak with Ms. Didion?” (My voice sounded several octaves higher than usual.)

“This is Joan Didion,” she said dramatically, or at least the words sounded dramatic enough to raise a celebrated author from the dead.

“I am a reporter and I was wondering If I could ask you about J.D. Salinger for a—”

“I can’t,” she said, cutting me off. My heart, racing up to this point, felt like it had momentarily stopped its pounding.

“If I could just have two minutes, I—”

“Sorry,” she said. Then she uttered three words that seemed to carry the entire weight of her career behind them: “I’m on deadline.” Then she hung up.

This was not how I wanted my confrontation with Joan Didion to go.

I thought that would be that, but last week I was standing five feet away from Didion at a bar in midtown for a Knopf writers’ event at BookExpo America. I didn’t expect her there. I stood with a friend in the outdoor seating section where Didion sat, alive as you or me. A long black dress hung over her tiny body. I could see most of the vertebrae in her back. She had on a pair of the signature large sunglasses, covering a good portion of her small face, even though the sun was already behind the midtown skyscrapers and close to sinking below the horizon. The veins in her thin arms were as vividly blue as the stack of galleys of her new book — coincidentally or not, called Blue Nights—sitting on the table next to her and being guarded by a publicist. The other authors — Colson Whitehead, Jennifer Egan, Margaret Atwood (no slouches themselves) — mingled jovially by the bar. Didion, as if commenting on her elevated stature, was removed to the bar’s exterior; as if the room couldn’t contain her. The publicist’s presence was preemptive, in anticipation of the swell of people that would soon recognize her presence.

“What do we say to Joan Didion?” my companion whispered hoarsely and with desperation.

“Something like, ‘Hey Joan, just wanted to let you know that I also don’t ask why Iago is evil,’” I said and we laughed. But really: what do you say to Joan Didion? How do you communicate in sufficient language how much another person’s language has meant to you? That is really all a literary idol is — a set of words, assembled in long long strings. A voice. I could feel my heart beating in my chest and my fingers felt tingly.

The party was a casual cocktail hour, but the guests formed a line at Didion’s table as if it were a booth at BookExpo America. She looked like a religious leader offering counsel to a wayward people. The line cleared momentarily and my friend and I, after downing a few glasses of champagne for courage, raced up to her. I grabbed her small hand in a loose grip, touching the fingers that wrote all those words that I had read so closely.

“Hi,” I said, ‘Hi’ not feeling like an appropriate greeting, and again my voice reduced to a soprano squeal that did not seem to belong to me.


“I want you to know that your work has meant a lot to me.”

“Thank you.”

Then we were talking. She asked me what I did and I told her.

“You and I once had an awkward conversation on the phone. When J.D. Salinger died. I called you.”

“Oh, that day.” She said the phone rang constantly. “What did I say to you?”

“You said you were on deadline.”

She smiled. “I was lying.”

I grabbed a galley of Blue Nights, a memoir she wrote about the death of her daughter shortly after her husband’s passing. “Will you sign this?” I said sheepishly. I handed her a red pen out of my pocket. She began to sign her signature in big, sweeping movements. Halfway through, the pen gave out and my face turned as red as the ink should have been. The only thing punctuated in that moment was this overdue conclusion: There is really no good way to talk to meet one’s literary idol. But the written words are more than enough.

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Clone Wars: B&N Takes Gloves Off with New Touch-Screen Nook

By Jessanne Collins
Thursday, May 26th, 2011

Nook Simple Touch Reader

To hear Barnes and Noble CEO William Lynch tell it, the biggest selling point of the latest Nook e-reader is that “it does what people want to do with books.”  To state the obvious,  he means to read them, to pocket them, and to pass them around.

It’s been generally accepted that there are two types of digital reading consumers: book readers and gadget wonks. The wonks want gadgets that allow them to choose instantaneously from zillions of apps and diversions, which may or may not include books. For them, who by a slim majority, incidentally, seem to be men, there’s the tablet, foremost among them the iPad. Unlike tablet users, book readers want their gadgets to be more like a book — beach-ready and distraction-free. That’s Amazon’s Kindle, of course, with its charming analog keypad, the Sony Reader, and earlier versions of the Nook, including the Nook Color, which, with its color touch-screen and heftier price-point, is the closest thing to a tablet/e-reader hybrid.

Priced at $139, same as the Kindle, it’s hard not to see the new Nook Simple Touch Reader, unveiled on Tuesday at Barnes and Noble in Union Square, as a no-holds-barred reach for Kindle’s market share.  The new Nook uses the same E Ink technology — i.e., the black on white text you can read in direct sunlight — and at eight ounces and six inches, it’s trimmer and cuter than Amazon’s baby. It has a graphic-based homepage that shows at a glance where you are at in what you’re reading — something Kindle readers gripe about not being able to do — and offers magazine subscriptions. The new Nook will let avid readers go at it for an average of half an hour a day for up to two months without a recharge. (B&N says that’s more than twice the battery life of the Kindle; Amazon has publicly disagreed.)

But the vastest improvement over the Kindle, hands down, is the Nook’s touch screen. On the Nook, the myriad clicks it takes to look up a word in the dictionary on a Kindle are reduced to a tap. These days we get cash, check baggage, and order sandwiches at Wawa with our fingertips, so it’s fair to say we expect no less of our gadgets. It isn’t even a matter of laziness or aesthetic — the ability to page through a text with a swipe of your finger, rather than the sterile click of a button, arguably makes for a reading experience that’s a little more, well, bookish.

Maybe it was the soothing lets-go-technology-shopping soundtrack (Moby, of course), but watching the big reveal I, for one, felt a covetous pang. I’m the quintessential ambivalent Kindle owner. An iPad still seems like an unnecessary indulgence, but, on the occasions I do use the Kindle, I find myself tapping frustratedly on its face. Most of the time it snoozes its battery life away in the dynamic stack of actual books that lives on my desk. If I could trade it in for something with a touch screen and a friendly front page, I would!

I wouldn’t give up actual books for it, of course. I’m one of those who never will. But e-readers no longer seem like a huge threat to the printed page people like me once feared they would be. Even B&N projects that physical books will continue to dominate the marketplace, at least for the next few years. Instead, we can see e-readers for what they are right now: evolving tools that can either supplement or detract from the reading experience, depending on how you use them and what your expectations are.

The Nook, for instance, is vehemently social. Aside from the ability to tweet and post to their Facebook walls right from the page they’re on, Nook users can join B&N’s proprietary social network, Nook Friends, which lets a users lend and borrow e-books, share recommendations, and see what other users “like.” Amazon unveiled similar social mechanisms in its last update, in February, and Jamie Iannone, B&N’s digital president, thinks that “the social aspect is a game-changer.”

Reading has always been one of the most social of solitary pastimes. But is the conceptual leap from Sunday afternoon book club meetings and first-date Dostoevsky discussions to the ability to ping a rec to a friend in China or react to Raskolnikov in 140 characters that easy? I imagine there’s a facet of the dedicated readers Barnes and Noble is hoping to target that will be turned off by the prospect of social diversions embedded in their books. It’s a built-in invitation into the digital noise that many of us turn to books to escape.

It’s a given that Amazon will try to appropriate and surpass Nook’s features in future iterations of the Kindle, but for now what B&N is banking on is that combining Kindle sleek, portable size with a touch screen and book-lending features, and a more streamlined experience in general, will prompt Kindle users (ambivalent and loyal alike) to switch teams. This year’s holiday season will bear out the answer more accurately than we or anyone else can.

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Slow Fade: Rudolph Wurlitzer’s Cinéma Vérité

By Michael H. Miller
Thursday, May 19th, 2011

In Quake, Rudolph Wurlitzer’s short third novel about an earthquake that hits Los Angeles, triggering the apocalypse, the author and screenwriter keeps exposition to a minimum. Omitted details tell the story as much as anything rendered on the page, Hemmingway’s iceberg theory at work. Quake is Wurlitzer — the author of five novels and the screenplays for the cult movies Pat Garret and Billy the Kid and Two-Lane Blaktop — at his most show-offy. He demonstrates that he can craft a story out of absolute chaos even as he  urges us to resist reading anything deeper into it: “We’re being castrated while we wait for the news,” one character intones after someone urges him to stay put in a motel room until he knows more information about the devastation. “Look at you,” Wurlitzer writes as if he is addressing the reader directly, “Your whole life has been devoted to interpretation and analysis. It’s been a total failure.” The scene is as apt an indicator of Wurlitzer’s work as any, where everything seems to lack backstory.

Slow Fade, his fourth novel, is being brought back into print by the record label Drag City (in both print and audiobook formats) for the first time since, well, fading into obscurity shortly after its release by Knopf in 1984. This should tell you something about the writer’s relation to mainstream publishing. The novel opens with A.D. Ballou, a disillusioned roadie with unsteady work, receiving a job offer to be the tour manager for Gang Greene, a punk band long past their prime. He flies to a farm in Albuquerque to join them, but when he arrives, they have already broken up. As the group disperses, Melissa Greene, the singer, asks A.D. to come with her to Los Angeles to “help me drive and explore my needs, which are considerable.” He agrees, but first decides to ride one of the farm’s horses into the desert. He happens to gallop right onto the set of director Wesley Hardin’s doomed 39th film, a Western that is already $5 million over budget and has no conceivable end in sight.

This false start is characteristic of most of Wurlitzer’s novels and screenplays: A dissociated character is dragged into the story as an unwilling participant, only to quickly become assimilated into his new surroundings and the narrative framework. A prop arrow from an extra’s cross bow greets A.D. in his left eye, tagging him as if to say, “You are a part of the story now.” A.D. loses the eye and threatens to sue. “How do I know what an eye is worth?” he wonders. “I won’t have any peripheral vision or depth of field.”

This handicap makes A.D. into a kind of half-functioning Tiresias, arriving with the objective insight of an outsider but too stirred up to offer any real knowledge. It is also the first of many strong allusions to director Sam Peckinpah, most famous for The Wild Bunch and Pat Garret and Billy the Kid, as well as the clear real-life analog of Hardin. Peckinpah’s camerawork made frequent use of wide angles and close-ups to build intensity, which he accomplished by using lenses with a shallow depth of field. These shots were the antithesis of John Ford’s sprawling landscapes, favoring instead a kind of cinematic myopia in which long and short distances, as well as foreground and background, were largely indistinguishable; a destruction of the camera’s periphery, if you will.

A.D., symbolically and literally lacking foresight, strikes a deal with Hardin to work with the director’s son, Walker. He has just returned from a trip to India with his wife. The point of the journey was to find his sister, Clementine, who has disappeared in the desert with a struggling musician to practice fundamentalist transcendental meditation, but it is more of a last ditch effort to save his marriage. Walker, however, returns from India alone. Wesley, unable to communicate with his son, asks the noticeably shaken Walker to tell him what happened in language he can understand: He commands Walker to write a screenplay about the experience and appoints A.D. the executive producer.

These layers of narrative make Slow Fade unique among Wurlitzer’s body of work, which also includes the novels Nog, Flats, and The Drop Edge of Yonder. Whereas many of his books are short and acerbic, essentially one long, tense scene rather than a montage (and one could argue the same of his minimal scripts), the novel abandons his usual concision in favor of a sprawling story filled with twists and turns, a narrative model of the chaos it describes. Hardin presides over the pandemonium, his ever-deteriorating film becoming a metonym for the novel’s own structural tangents. There are sudden, disruptive cuts to Walker’s script that recall the quick edits of the so-called New Hollywood directors of the 70’s, derailing the story only to digress further. Walker often interjects to address his father firsthand: “I’m stopping here to say, who are you, Pop, and why are we indulging in this devious contract?” he says, parenthetically, though it is hard not to read the passage as Wurlitzer appearing to critique his own “devious contract” with his readers, as if claiming the entire enterprise of fiction is little more than glorified lying.

The directionless cycling around the story only makes Wurlitzer’s writing compulsively more readable, and functions as a backhanded nod to Peckinpah. If it is a coincidence that Slow Fade was published the year of the director’s death, it is a highly significant one. Wurlitzer’s own role in the filming of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid as the depraved screenwriter is eerily similar to A.D.’s — a stranger pulled into the depths of another person’s mania. Peckinpah handed in the film to MGM 20 days late and $1.5 million over budget. Bob Dylan, who plays Alias in the film and recorded the soundtrack, referred to Peckinpah as a “little king, ordering everyone around.” One legend, propagated by Jean Carroll in a 1982 article in Rocky Mountain magazine claims someone on the production team hired a hitman to kill another member of Peckinpah’s team for threatening the director’s life.

As Hardin’s film continues to fall apart, he instructs the camera crew to film his failures, the director becoming both timid hero and confused antagonist of his work. “Other directors had turned an occasional trick,” Wurlitzer writes, “John Huston had acted, as had Von Stroheim and Welles and Nick Ray. But their performances embarrassed [Hardin] because he could never do it.” Slow Fade transforms into a book about a movie about a director trying to make a movie, mixed with the story of a son trying to communicate to his father by writing a second (or third) movie. Wurlitzer is unapologetically experimental, dismissive of structure and storytelling convention. He is himself like Hardin, “a ruthless cocksucker,” to steal the word’s of a movie producer in Slow Fade. But unlike his trickster postmodern peers — Delillo, Barth, or Pynchon (who wrote one of the great book blurbs of all time for Quake: “Wurlitzer is really, really good”), Wurlitzer’s manipulations finally give way to an attempt at sincerity. And somehow, you can’t help but believe him.

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The Lessons of Jane Austen, Life Coach

By Jessanne Collins
Thursday, May 12th, 2011

Out of the 30 or so southern Californians that gathered Monday night at a Pasadena bookstore for a reading by literary critic William Deresiewicz, exactly two were men. “And one of them was there because he knew me,” admitted Deresiewicz, the author of A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter, which came out this month from Penguin.

Which isn’t to say the former Yale literature professor and National Magazine Award-nominated critic was surprised by the demographics of his audience. Indeed, it’s his status as the rare male Jane Austen diehard — if “diehard” is the right word for a foremost scholar on the 19th-century icon — that gave rise to the book.

A multifaceted work that tightly weaves his own memoir with Austen’s biography and a literary analysis of her novels with a dissection of the spiritual and ethical lessons he finds embedded in them, the book took form after a dean, upon review of Deresiewicz’s CV, asked “What’s with you and Jane Austen?”

“I think that really meant, ‘You’re a guy — what’s up with that?’” Deresiewicz told Bookish Tuesday by phone from San Francisco (the third stop on his book tour), where he was sitting in his car parked on a hill overlooking the sparkling bay. “I just answered honestly with a phrase I’d been saying to myself for a long time which was, ‘I don’t know — sometimes I feel like everything I know in life I learned by reading Jane Austen.’ ”

William Deresiewicz

It was a crystallizing moment — as much as he’d already written about Austen in a scholarly capacity, Deresiewicz saw he still had more to say. “I realized that if I was going to talk about what she had taught me, I needed to talk about how she had taught me,” he says. “It needed not only to be literary criticism but also memoir, and it also needed to be literary criticism in a very specific way — something that was very personal and accessible, that really spoke directly to Jane Austen as an ethical teacher.”

Even from his book’s title, it’s obvious that Deresiewicz considers Austen something of a guru, and in chapter one, we learn that he credits his reluctant introduction to Austen in a graduate seminar with his salvation — from himself. At the time he cut the not-unfamiliar figure of a young and arrogant avowed modernist whose Bible was Ulysses, and who had a hard time biting his cynical, intellectual tongue. “Like the modernists, I was hot to change the world, even if I wasn’t sure exactly how,” he writes. “At the very least, I knew I wasn’t going to let the world change me.”

Enter Emma. At first unbearably banal in its exposition of the everyday and the “minute particulars,” the novel eventually revealed itself to Deresiewicz to be not just “a revolutionary artistic choice” on Austen’s part, but downright illuminating about his own condition: “Emma, who had it all, was forever discontented with the world around her — just like me, in my perpetual fog of resentful gloom.”

Recognizing his own image in such a character is an epiphany, and it would be followed, as Deresiewicz tells it, by others just as powerful. He finds no shortage of parallels to draw between the particularities of provincial life for Austen’s myriad heroines and his own insular upbringing, first in an Orthodox Jewish household in New Jersey where family life was “a knife fight with words” and then in the sheltered universe of Columbia University, where he spent both his undergrad and graduate years.

Now at work on a book-length expansion of an article he wrote for The Nation about the crisis in higher education, Deresiewicz has left academia, and the East Coast, settling in Portland, Ore., with (spoiler alert!) the wife he credits Austen with helping him find. But he hasn’t given up the spirited defense of Austen he honed in the classroom. There, despite her canonization — and perhaps because of her enduring influence on pop culture (“Clueless is a really good Jane Austen movie,” he allows, though he’s not a fan of how most adaptations strip out the life lessons and overblow the rose-tinted romance) — Pride and Prejudice’s appearance on the syllabus often met with groans of skepticism, especially from male students.

Using the same techniques he perfects in the book, Deresiewicz says he would break down classroom resistance by dissecting Austen’s merits as a writer — “She was not paid by the word. She chose every word very carefully”— and as an apt chronicler of the social condition, which is to say, of the way gossip shapes our world.

And as a last resort? “I’d make the girls exert social pressure and just tell the guys to shut up.”

William Deresiewicz reads at Barnes & Noble on 86th Street and Lexington, Monday May 16 at 7:00 p.m.

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Sex and the Southern Gothic: Suzanne Vega Channels Carson McCullers

By Jessanne Collins
Thursday, May 5th, 2011

Suzanne Vega as Carson McCullers at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (photo by Sandra Coudert)

On Monday night, Suzanne Vega took the stage in a tiny West Village theater and sang a song she wrote long before “Tom’s Diner” made her name in the late-’80s. Plaintive and bluesy, it was an ode to the mid-century novelist Carson McCullers that she’d first conceived at the age of 17. “I can be sweet, I can be wise,” it went. “I’ve got every one of you mirrored in my deep, sad eyes.”

By the song’s end, Vega, costumed in a boxy blazer and knee-high argyle socks, had metamorphosed into the iconic literary firecracker that had inspired the song, offering, in a light Southern drawl, a mild critique: “Not bad…a bit simplistic somehow. But it will certainly do until we have a better one.”

Vega’s one-woman performance, “Carson McCullers Talks About Love,” officially debuts tonight at the Rattlestick Theater, but it’s a project 30 years in the making.

‘I know what you have heard about me,’ she says, pouring a comically huge tumbler of Seagram’s gin. ‘That I am a bit holy terror. That I am a destroyer, cannibalistic, carnivorous, an emotional vampire, a viper, a lesbian… It’s all true!’

Part oral report, part theater, part lounge act, the show tells the story of the writer’s travails in love and literature, but it begins with a bit of Vega’s own biography. Encountering a book about McCullers in the library as a teenager, Vega relates, she was struck by the iconic photograph on the cover. “This was the face of a wise old child, but also of a film noir anti-hero,” she says. “Somehow at that moment I felt she picked me out, tapped me on the shoulder and had things to say to me.”

Vega has spent the intervening decades trying to nail down what exactly that was — she told The New York Times she first drafted a play based on McCullers as an undergraduate at Barnard — and with the help of Spring Awakening composer Duncan Sheik and director Kay Matschullat, it’s at last taken shape.

The result is an LP’s worth of McCullers-inspired songs, simple arrangements backed by piano and guitar, most delivered with prop-cigarette thoughtfully in hand. In between, Vega-as-McCullers narrates, with equal parts wit and world-weariness, her fittingly gothic life story. “I know what you have heard about me,” she says, pouring a comically huge tumbler of Seagram’s gin. “That I am a bit holy terror. That I am a destroyer, cannibalistic, carnivorous, an emotional vampire, a viper, a lesbian… It’s all true!”

She grows up in Georgia in the 1930s, venturing into black neighborhoods where she would “talk to them, and listen to them and wrote down what I heard.” Chronically ill but also insatiably ambitious, she marries young (a “greedy, lazy, drunken husband”), publishes young (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter at 22), and sets her sights far away: “Every night I put my shoes at the foot of my bed and pointed them towards New York City.”

There, of course, she finds both critical success — instant canonization — and contemporary companionship at a Brooklyn artists commune, where her circle comprises Harper’s Bazaar editor George Davis, W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Paul and Jane Bowles, among other bohemian bigwigs. (Though she also grapples with the requisite competitive streak — especially with regard to one Miss Harper Lee.)

She’s the kind of girl that falls in love with nearly everyone she meets: worrying herself sick over the morphine-addicted Annemarie Schwarztenbach, drawing into her floundering marriage the composer David Diamond; throwing herself at the feet of Katherine Anne Porter at Yaddo. Even as her health and her husband fail her time and again, McCullers as Vega plays her as wise beyond her years but also full of wide-eyed wonderment at what the world has to offer.

McCullers’s “tough, truthful and simple” prose — four novels, a book of short stories, a play about the eventual suicide of her husband (an act he tried to include her in) — resonated with Vega, herself young and precocious, who would also bear the cross of early-career success. “When her character Mic Kelly writes ‘pussy’ on the wall of an abandoned building in Columbus, Georgia, 1938, that to me was East Harlem 1968, or any American city today,” play-Vega says.

But it was only in seeing McCullers’s face for the first time in the library that she became consumed with the idea that “I could be this woman.” In watching the legend of a writer come to life in the singer’s body, a viewer feels something similar. For what is more timeless (and timely) a story than the one about a small-town girl who who arrives and strives, loves and loses love in Brooklyn?

“Carson McCullers Talks About Love” is playing at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater April 20 through June 5. Tickets are available here.

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