Monday 11/30: Simon Van Booy presents his story collection Tales of Accidental Genius. WORD Brooklyn, 7 p.m., free.
Richard Foreman, Ken Jacobs, and George Hunka celebrate Foreman’s latest two books. McNally Jackson, 7 p.m., free.
Monday 11/30: Simon Van Booy presents his story collection Tales of Accidental Genius. WORD Brooklyn, 7 p.m., free.
Richard Foreman, Ken Jacobs, and George Hunka celebrate Foreman’s latest two books. McNally Jackson, 7 p.m., free.
Sunday 11/29: June Huitt and Nicole Hollander share stories for Sideswiping Normal. $15 at Martyrs’, 3 p.m.
Tuesday Funk-y! This month’s featured readers: Clayton Smith, Gint Aras, James Gordon, Bill Savage, and Britt Julious. Hopleaf, 7 p.m.
Friday 11/27: A new free pop-up art school is coming to Portland. home school provides welcoming contexts for critical engagement with contemporary art and its issues. The launch will feature an exhibition of visual works by Victoria Reis, Taj Bourgeois, and poet manuel arturo abreu, who will also provide an amotivational speech. There will be a short improvised talk by Eleanor Ford, a performance poetry duet by Reis and Giovanna Olmos, and a screening of Hamishia Farah’s video work, marginal aesthetics, with closing music by DJ Eric Fury. composition, 7 p.m., free.
Saturday 11/28: Join Reading Frenzy to celebrate the 3rd annual Indies First Day—a national campaign in support of independent bookstores during which they host authors as guest booksellers throughout the day to help sell books, share recommendations, sign books, and more. This year will feature guest authors Delphine Bedient, Joshua James Amberson, Nicole J. Georges, and others. Reading Frenzy, 11 am to 7 p.m., free.
Patti Smith is a poet growing old with a mindful of memories. She has enough of them to fill M Train to the brim. Sifting through these remembrances is like rediscovering an old to-do list in the pocket of a pair of jeans—the accomplished, the forgotten, the seemingly mundane all jotted together in a faded mélange. Between the travels, discoveries, and cafes, there are piles of cat vomit and hurricanes that ravage New York. Let’s be clear: every observation is beautiful. Like a reel of Super 8 film, spliced and stitched together again, this collection of moments is incandescent because we see them through the poet’s eyes.
M Train is chiefly concerned with salvaging the pieces that, together, form a life entire. “The things I touched were living. My husband’s fingers, a dandelion, a skinned knee. I didn’t seek to frame these moments. They passed without souvenir,” Smith writes. Like her National Book Award-winning Just Kids, this book draws upon her real-life relationships and travels, from childhood to adulthood, New Jersey to Tangiers. As in Just Kids, photographs peer from between the paragraphs like open doors, an invitation to look inside not as voyeurs but as friends.
From chapter to chapter, Smith luxuriates over endless cups of coffee. In its barest sense, the book is a series of cups of coffee around the world, drunk between waking and sleep. But once the memoir has sunk in its claws, these rituals become a framework for more meaningful observations. What is a life, if not a pattern interrupted by occasional revelations or surprises?
Where Just Kids traced the linear progression of her decades-long friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and her coming of age in 1970s New York City, M Train finds its footing in shared experiences. It’s the universal—not rock ‘n’ roll in particular—that haunts the reader most. The most moving passages aren’t brushes with icons (like Smith’s strange meeting with Bobby Fischer) or the spoils of musical fame, but her meditations on love, friendship, motherhood, and art’s rewards and challenges. Her travels to Tangiers are lovely not because they’re exotic, but because of her reverence for and friendship with the late Paul Bowles, whom she visited there just before his death.
Aging and loss transcend fame and geography. Smith whittles her prose down to the essentials: “He opened his eyes and laid his long, lined hand upon mine. Now he is gone.” Her one-liners can feel like a gut-punch and read like a Zen koan: “Why is it that we lose the things we love,” she writes, “and things cavalier cling to us and will be the measure of our worth long after we’re gone?” These cavalier things are the framework Smith uses to measure her days.
There’s a long literary tradition of objects as stand-ins, as portals we can touch or taste that will transport us into other rooms and other lives. M Train wedges itself into that niche. In the back of Smith’s closet lies a chest filled with drawers of small treasures, “some sacred and some whose origins were entirely forgotten.” These amulets are a spell against time and loss. Smith’s materialism is a tribute to the things time took away, like her husband, MC5 member and odd bird Fred Sonic Smith, and the writer Jean Genet, upon whose grave she places a matchbox full of sand from the Saint-Laurent prison in French Guiana. The permanent things she can hold in her hands only highlight the people and things that she can’t. Her obsessions with other artists are a reckoning: what will she leave behind? What is a legacy, except the objects that furnished a life and the objects that life produced? “Home is a desk,” Smiths writes. “Home is the cats, my books, and my work never done. All the lost things that may one day call to me…”
On her fifty-seventh birthday, a poet friend gives Smith an “ill-fitting, unlined” Commes de Garçons overcoat, which disappears. In her characteristic prose, as playful as it is disorienting, Smith writes, “Lost things. They claw through the membranes, attempting to summon our attention through an indecipherable mayday. Words tumble in helpless disorder. The dead speak. We have forgotten how to listen. Have you seen my coat? It is black and absent of detail, with frayed sleeves and a tattered hem. Have you seen my coat? It is the dead speak coat.”
For one so concerned with the material world, Smith manages to lose a lot. She returns from Mexico with a perfect, smooth white stone from a La Huasteca mountain in her pocket, only to have it confiscated at customs; later, in the same Houston airport, she places her copy of The Windup Bird Chronicle, “a heavily marked-up paperback stained with coffee and olive oil, her traveling companion and the mascot of her resurging energy,” on a bathroom ledge, only to discover it missing once she’s boarded the plane to New York.
It takes a practiced hand to write interstitial moments that cohere, and Smith’s memories—accessed via dark roast and old fishing flies, novels and syndicated detective shows—manage just that. We weren’t there, but we are now; we’ve never been to a secret meeting of Continental Drift Club, which gathers to celebrate the late Alfred Wegener, but if we were admitted, we would see the odd goings-on as she does, rapt with fascination.
In the recurring dream that opens M Train, a laconic cowboy muses, “It’s not so easy writing about nothing.” The line troubles Smith throughout the book. From the get-go, there’s a question of worthiness: what’s something? What’s its inverse? M Train’s greatest reward, for a reader, is Smith’s unwillingness to bend to the dream-cowboy’s doubts. Even nothing has meaning—the found objects, the things remembered, the cups of coffee that mark our days better than clocks. “I’m going to remember everything and then I’m going to write it all down,” she writes on the last page. “An aria to a coat. A requiem for a café. That’s what I was thinking, in my dream, looking down at my hands.” Would that every tribute to a life lived sang so beautifully.
If it seems that “lost” books, short stories, and everything else are coming out of the woodwork, well, they are. The Strand magazine has just published Twixt Cup and Lip, an early play by William Faulkner written in the 1920s:
The Strand describes the play as “a light-hearted jazz age story.” Prohibition is under way, and the friends are enjoying an illicit drink. Ruth’s drinking, however, comes under censure from Jim, who asks Francis: “What are our young girls coming to these days? They every one need to be taken by a strong hand,” adding: “I certainly don’t approve of that child chasing all over the known world after a bottle of liquor. It’s disgusting.”
Like the glaciers that cover much of the country, Iceland is covered with thick layers of stories. And like the volcanoes that roil beneath that icy crust, more stories are forming, ready to create a new geography.
The New York Times travel section featured an article about Iceland’s culture of storytelling, Reykjavik’s literary scene, and the Icelandic people’s singular language.
Since the release of 25, Adele has—unsurprisingly—dominated music news. The singer has been breaking records all month. First her single “Hello” smashed record views on Youtube and, at release, the album sold over 900,000 copies on iTunes in its first day, and 2.5 million in its first week. Billboard projects the sales of 25 to break 4 million by Christmas this year. (more…)
For Book Riot, Vanessa Willoughby explores the benefits of writing fan fiction, and how notable works are often imitations of timeless stories:
Literature that is unforgettable incites a dialogue at the very least, and a conversation at its best. Novels can serve as responses to pre-existing literature. Some of the best pieces of literature are works of thinly disguised fanfiction, re-imaginings and interpretations of stories posing as new ideas. Without fanfiction, would we have movies such as Clueless or West Side Story? Without fanfiction, there would be no Wide Sargasso Sea or The Hours. Fanfiction is simply another aspect of literature, an institution that can train readers to become writers.
I wouldn’t be a songwriter if it wasn’t for the books I read as a kid. … When you can escape into a book it trains your imagination to think big and to think that more can exist than what you see.
Taylor Swift doesn’t just sing about books (You know the words: “Here I am an open book … Baby you hold the key to the diary of me …”). She donates books, too. Electric Literature writes that the singer and songwriter has donated 25,000 books to twenty-five New York City schools as part of Scholastic’s “Open a World of Possible” initiative. Sweet!
Thanksgiving week is a slow time for notable events, but what we’ve got is as good as pecan pie! Happy holiday!
Wednesday 11/25: Lunada Literary Lounge, the monthly full moon bi-lingual reading and open mic at Galeria de la Raza in the Mission District presents poet Suzana Huerta and harpist María José Montijo plus ten five minute open mic performances. $5, 7:30 p.m., Galleria de la Raza.
A few days ago, Joyce Carol Oates mused about the media’s coverage of ISIS with a tweet that sparked an intense debate.
All we hear of ISIS is puritanical & punitive; is there nothing celebratory & joyous? Or is query naive?
–Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates), November 22, 2015
The author’s tweets have invited strong reactions in the past, as with her tweet last year about cat food in China.
For Electric Literature, Sigal Samuel suggests that reading sexist male writes is “compulsory for women writers,” as sexist works can “give insight into the history and logic of sexism”:
If reading sexist male writers is recommended for women readers, it’s downright compulsory for women writers. We need to be intimately aware of that language, need to speak it backward and forward, so that we can make our own books relevant and, ideally, cleverly subversive to boot.
Over at The Toast, Nicole Chung has written a deeply personal and beautiful essay about coming to terms with her adoption, embracing her Korean heritage, and learning her mother tongue alongside her daughter:
When I watch my daughter writing in Korean, when we talk about our family history, when she seems sure about who she is … and her place in our family and in the world, I cannot help but feel there are many different kinds of victories to be found, and many ways to heal.
Is The Hunger Games feminist? Does it matter? Flavorwire’s Sarah Seltzer wonders whether we’re asking the wrong questions:
It seduces us with a good-vs.-evil premise, but then muddies the entire thing in the gray fog of war.
Over at The Millions, Nick Ripatrazone asked some authors, including William Giraldi and Christa Parravani, which were the books that defined their childhoods and, subsequently, their writing imaginations.
While it isn’t unusual to find Killer Mike speaking about race and politics (see his past lecture at MIT on Pitchfork), Render appeared at Florida State University last week to lecture again on racism and civil rights. “Step out of your comfort zone and engage another human being as a fair and honest equal,” he said, “and based on that engagement, help that individual grow.”
Considering that racism protests have overwhelmed campuses nationwide, we’re hoping Render’s words affect change and generate positive insight. Read more on the lecture at Consequence of Sound.
If you’ve never heard of Whit Taylor, then now is the perfect time to discover her. Ghost (2015) is her understated masterpiece, self-published just months ago. As I began reading the book, I thought I was in for a nice little story about a young woman who wanted to meet her idols—Charles Darwin, Joseph Campbell et. al. Interesting, but not dynamic. But then, Taylor genuinely surprised me with an unexpected plot twist that not only made me rethink the cleverness of the entire book, but took me to a place I rarely am able to go when reading comics. (more…)
The union effort prompted my discovery of an egregious pay discrepancy, which I brought up with male writers and editors to their either mild interest or argumentative dismissal. At one point I was advised by a male superior —a man I like and consider a friend, and who is both progressive and feminist — to not “dick-measure over salary” when I became aware of distinct difference in pay among writers with equivalent jobs.
It may not just be Gawker staff writers who find themselves mistreated. (more…)
If we are to truly speak to, from, and about the margins, to which voices are we to tune our ears?
The Offing has a new special issue devoted to trans and non-binary artists. Editor Jayy Dodd introduces this project and its contributors.
Cheryl Strayed has inspired so many readers with her wise sayings, it was only a matter of time before someone collected them. The author of Brave Enough talks to Brian Lehrer about growth, fear, and moving forward:
All the best things I’ve done in my life have been scary… You have to learn how to carry it with you.
A Paris bookseller writes about the terror attacks. Parisians, meanwhile, are responding to the terror attacks by buying up all the copies of Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.
Iranian bookstores opened early on Thursday last week in a campaign to encourage reading in the country.
A bookstore in Germany serves as a cultural hub for the local Turkish community. In London, an Egyptian bookstore is doing the same thing for Arab culture.
Yes, I thought when I was sixteen. That sounds about right.
Over at the Toast, Mikaella Clements tells us the story of how she got her middle name: being escorted through the tumultuousness of adolescence by the crazed sailor Herman Melville and his book, Moby-Dick.
Sarah Einstein’s memoir Mot opens in a seedy neighborhood in Amarillo, Texas. She has traveled there, from her home in Morgantown, West Virginia, to meet the person she describes as “an unlikely friend” at the KOA campground. Her friend is Mot, a homeless man she met and befriended while working in a drop-in center for adults with mental illness. They are to spend a week together in a KOA Kabin, which is an unlikely setting for this unlikely friendship. In fact, everything about this story is unlikely.
Except that it isn’t. Among other things, Mot is the story of how unlikely things become inevitable, given the right circumstances. It’s also a story of how this unlikely friendship was the catalyst for a series of events that, while impossible to predict, were entirely likely in the end.
Mot and Einstein are a set of mismatched bookends, each holding up the story. Mot is a sixty-something homeless vet who hears voices (he calls them the Big Guys Upstairs), lives in his car (when he has one), and drifts between WalMart parking lots, living on social security and canned food. Einstein is an early-forty-something, increasingly disillusioned social worker coming to terms with the truth that no one person is enough to save the entire world. She isn’t even sure she can (or wants to) save her own marriage. They meet at Friendship Room, a drop-in center in Morgantown. Mot eventually moves on, and Einstein stays in this increasingly demoralizing and dangerous workplace. By the time they meet at the KOA in Amarillo, she has resigned from her job. Physically assaulted by a client and afraid of the people she serves, she turns her attention to Mot to reset her internal compass and try to believe in doing good again. She makes the trip as a way to “pour all the hopes I had for the job into my friendship with Mot, to see whether the smaller project of making one life better—my own—is possible.” She is aware, as narrator and writer, that this is a selfless journey entirely into the self.
At the KOA in Amarillo, Einstein and Mot cook dinners in Kabin 1, float and swim in the campground pool, go to the movies, drive around while they chat and look out the windows, and talk about the voices in Mot’s head. Einstein gets a closer look at Mot’s illness than she perhaps wanted, and she has multiple occasions to question the reasonableness of this journey. But she concludes, “although I can’t articulate why I’m here, I’m sure it is not to insist that everything be reasonable.” Calls home to Scotti, her husband of one year, confirm that things on the domestic front aren’t any more reasonable, so there’s no hurry to get home. She describes herself as “weary of his complaints about what I buy at the grocery store, how I fold the laundry, the three dollars I spend to have a cup of coffee with a friend at a coffeehouse instead of at home alone.” Time with Mot is, if nothing else, time away from all that.
Mot and the author meet again in Oklahoma City (for the Pho, of course, about which Mot is skeptical at best). His condition seems worse, things go terribly wrong with his car, and he moves to Morgantown. Einstein and Scotti continue to fail as a couple, though it seems they both try as hard as educated, progressive, world-problem-solvers possibly can, and eventually she loses Mot. He just goes. In spite of her helping, her caring, her trying, her driving him to WalMart to pick out curtains, he goes. Einstein is surprised, if not bereft .To her horror, she also feels something unexpected. “In the weeks after Mot leaves, I am forced to face an unpleasant truth about myself: I’m as relieved that he’s gone as I am sorry.” Whether Mot comes back or not (and you’ll have to read the book to find out), the lesson is learned. Einstein feels defeated, but smarter. “My limitations are more obvious to me,” she writes, “and I now know that wanting to do a thing isn’t the same as being able to do it.”
Mot does that thing that memoir is supposed to do: it functions as a compelling, on-the-ground, in-the-moment telling of events while also delivering a powerful story that transcends its own plot. Einstein deftly brings readers into the here and now of finding her friend “pissing into an old soda bottle” in his car. We are with her as she is attacked by a drop-in center participant. “He muttered something I couldn’t understand and held me in place with one large hand in the middle of my chest while he worked the other around my throat. The blood rushed into my ears and my airway closed. The edges of my vision went dark. I could smell liquor and fried food on his breath.” Not all the visceral details are gritty and sad, though: We chuckle through the scene in which she and Mot take their differences of automotive opinion to the experts by calling Car Talk. But even these lighter moments are weighted with gravity and the flavor of danger. When Ray (or was it Tom?) calls Mot a “wacko” (as the famed radio hosts were known to do), we cringe and tense our muscles until Mot signals that it’s okay by relaxing his body into the cushions of his couch. Threaded behind and above and through this story are Einstein’s cunningly placed moments of reflection. She makes this writing thing seem effortless.
Mot is not a book about succeeding. Einstein does not successfully “save” her homeless friend. She does not quiet the voices in his head, she does not teach or convince him to live indoors, and she does not prevail over his history. She likely should not have tried. She does not successfully stay married, and she does not successfully follow her mother’s footsteps into a lifetime of social work or social services or generally rescuing those too disenfranchised to rescue themselves.
But she does not fail either. Near the book’s conclusion, she writes that the person who once thought friendship would be enough to save Mot is gone. “In her place, there is only a middle-aged woman who knows her own limitations well and has come to accept that some things can’t be changed.” It was always unlikely that her devotion to this person would be enough to turn everything around, and it was equally unlikely that this story could have a nice Hollywood ending. But it wasn’t unlikely that something would change—somewhere, for someone—as a result of all this effort.
“There is meaning in attempting difficult things, whether or not you succeed,” writes Einstein near the end of the book. If no one person can change the world, then you adjust the size of the world.
While most debut novelists are seeing advances shrink, a handful of authors are seeing the reverse: million-dollar paydays. Consider Garth Risk Hallberg‘s City on Fire, released earlier this year. The 900-plus-page book earned a $2m advance. The novel will have to sell more then 300,000 copies to earn back the money. The Wall Street Journal dives into the big money book deals and attempts to explain why publishers are forking over the sums:
It’s increasingly a winner-take-all economy, publishing executives say.
As a result, publishers are competing for debut literary talent with the same kind of frenzied auction bidding once reserved for promising debut thrillers or romance novels. “If they feel they have the next Norman Mailer on their hands, they’re going have to pay for that shot,” literary agent Luke Janklow said. “It’s usually the result of a little bit of crowd hysteria in the submission.”
For Electric Literature, novelist Noy Holland explores what it means to label (and often dismiss) writing as “experimental.” Holland notes the subjectivity and mess inherent in language and form, and why writing that aims for clarity might sacrifice authenticity in the process:
Experimental fiction. How can we keep calling it this? Imagine somebody saying to you, Let’s experiment with being in love. Let’s experiment with building a bridge. The term is absurdly provisional. It is a flimsy sack into which a thousand unlike things have been thrown.