So, maybe you’re curious about what books people are reading right now. I’ll start with new fiction. There’s a lot of interesting new books out there right now. The book that everyone is talking about remains The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem. Lethem has recently been interviewed in periodicals ranging from Entertainment Weekly to the Paris Review, and the book is the current pick for countless book clubs. Despite the hype, this book is a worthy read, and you’ll have something to talk about at cocktail parties. In the category of science fiction for those who don’t typically read science fiction comes Quicksilver, the first book in a new series by Neal Stephenson. The book has been out for a week and is already flying off the shelves, most likely to the very same folks who are always telling me how much they love Stephenson’s previous novels, especially Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon. Meanwhile, Zoe Heller is nearing breakthrough status with her second novel What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal, which is about a teacher who carries on an affair with her fifteen year old student. It sounds trashy, but from what I hear it turns out to be a nuanced and moving character study. It’s been short-listed for the Booker Prize and is beginning to sell accordingly. Also short-listed and selling incredibly well in England is Brick Lane by Monica Ali. Following in the footsteps of fellow young Londoner Zadie Smith, Ali’s debut novel is another unsparing look at multi-cultural London. Finally, another debut, this one is a cleverly wrought time traveling romance by Audrey Niffenegger titled, appropriately, The Time Traveler’s Wife. So there you go. A few things to read this fall. Stayed tuned for the next installment: new non-fiction.
On June 25, 2010, Poet Jon Sands delivered the commencement address for the Bronx Academy of Letters – A charter school in Bronx, New York, founded on the concept that, “students who can express themselves clearly in writing can do better in any path they choose.”
Class of 2010. Here we are. 27 years, 6 months, 26 days, 7 hours since Michael Jackson released Thriller (which is still the best selling album in music history). 143 years since Christopher Latham Sholes invented the modern typewriter. 46 years, 9 months, 28 days since Martin Luther King Jr. told a crowd of over 200,000 that he had a dream. And, 36 years, 4 months, 6 days, 8 hours since my own father – after dropping out of his second year in college – decided to take a computer class to make more money than was possible at his construction job. And with a clear Manhattan morning waiting outside the glass windows, he asked the foxy lady wearing big glasses – who would turn out to be my mother – if the seat next to her was taken… and here I am.
All of which is to say, there are many paths that have brought us to this room today. Stories which led to stories which lead to right now. There is no person in this room without a great, great, great, great, great, great grandmother. Or more accurately, 128 great, great, great, great, great, great grandmothers. Beautiful ladies (I’m assuming) with favorite foods, dreams at night, who lived entire lives, and created lives that have led specifically to you… which has led you – here. We are in this room because an incredible line of history said, “yes,” when it could have said, “no.”
In 2003, my Uncle Don was practicing law in New Jersey. Don taught himself to play guitar when he was in high school, spent years covering other people’s songs at parties or reunions. Every so often – he would write a song for a funeral. Always, it would land with precision on what that person actually meant to each of us, individually. At 47, he decided his guitar made him happier than nearly anything else. He sunk an incredible amount of everything he had, financially and energetically, into creating an album; contacted professional musicians with samplings of his work, to ask if they would join him. Now there are maybe 1,500 people outside of my family who have this remarkable CD – someone I love doing what they love. Eighteen months after the disc was released, my uncle was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. After a strikingly short 5 months, he passed, leaving behind a wife and three children (ages 13, 15, and 17).
When we miss him. When the people who love him need to spend time with him – they skip photo albums and old videos, and instead go to a CD. To the documentation of him doing what he loved. Not to be a millionaire. Not to be famous. But to give this world some account that says, this – this right here – is what it feels like to be me.
Each of us entered this room – as we do any room – carrying many labels. Which is to say, today, you are high-school graduates. There are 64 of you. Two months ago you may have been the kid freestlying battle raps outside McDonald’s with three friends who couldn’t stop laughing, or the quiet girl in the back of a library – her nose glued into a 3.8 GPA.
I spend a significant amount of time being the crazy dude who came to someone else’s classroom to talk about how poetry is amazing. Right now, I’m the commencement speaker. I promise, in three hours, I’ll be the guy who looks uncomfortable in a tie on the downtown 4 train. The way it feels to live a life that can only be yours is never as clean as whatever label this world attaches to you. If you are alive — Is every person here alive?… If you are alive in this world, you can attest. What it feels like to be you is more complicated than what it looks like to be you.
So, is there ever a time you are more yourself than when doing what you love – with the people you love? Who you are exists in what you love. It is how you tell the children you have yet to bring into this world the person you were today. To tell the you who will exist 20 years from now what it felt like to close the locker door on your high school years.
We are all here because today is important. A chance to reflect on the way our lives are changing. We are also here – to celebrate – the choices you have made that led to your caps and gowns. I think we can take a minute to blow the roof off for that.
But, you will have many todays. No one else can decide how they will look. Michael Jackson, when recording Billie Jean, could not have known the way our ankles would pop for decades. Martin Luther King Jr. chose to ascend the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, not to become a cultural icon, but to communicate the vision he had for a nation. My Uncle Don could never have known what his artistry would mean to his wife, his nieces and nephews, his parents, his three children. He made music because it was what he loved. It was who he was. A choice to say, “yes,” when he could have said, “no.”
We have been afforded the opportunity to write our own chapters in the story of this life because millions of people, over thousands of years, have said “yes.” It is not feasible for me to tell you what is possible in your life. History has written you here, the next chapter is yours. Here is the news: It’s supposed to be fun. It’s not supposed to be easy (the juiciest stuff rarely is). It is supposed to be yours. And what better news can there be?
I cannot wait to witness the stories you write into this world. Congratulations Bronx Academy of Letters, Class of 2010.
[Image credit: ChrisGampat]
In the comments to the last post, Erin left a note about “depraved” Amazon reviews for Family Circus books. With a little Googling, I was quick to discover that this was something of an internet legend, dating back to the late-nineties when pranksters started leaving all sorts of silly reviews for Bil Keane’s anthologies. There’s even mention of them in Wikipedia (as of this writing.) Sadly it appears that most of the reviews have been expunged, but I was able to find a few that were subtly wierd enough to elude the censors:For What Does This Say?: Yeats once wrote, “None other knows what pleasures man/At table or in bed.” Bil Keane, however, seems to have found in his latest ‘Family Circus’ opus a treasure-chest of pleasures for each and all of us. There are some who chafe at the seeming repetitive themes within Keane’s major works; I would respectfully submit that all great stories are about life and death, love and loss, fear and triumph. If not Keane, then so go Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz and Callimachus, too, for good measure. It is not originality that spawns thought and wonderment; it is the vessels of those themes (Billy, Grandma, Barfy, PJ) that inspire and enlighten. Keane, as carrier of these vessels, reminds us of a truth so eloquently immortalized by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Some books leave us free and some books make us free.” In ‘What Does This Say’, it is clear that the tome achieves the latter, with gusto and aplomb.For Smile! With The Family Circus: Though universally popular with critics, Smile! has never been commercially successful. It’s been in and out of print — mostly out — so this hardcover 30th anniversary edition is an especially welcome event to discerning FC readers. Along with his day job with United Features Syndicate to produce the more commercial Family Circus strips we know and love, Keane labored on Smile! on evenings and weekends from 1966 through 1972 in a cathartic period when he confided to friends that he had to complete Smile! before the effort killed him. Smile! is Keane’s FC adaptation of the legendary unreleased Beach Boys album of the same name. Keane met Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks at the Fillmore West in late 1966 and quickly the three became inseperable. The next six months were a happy, artistically productive time for the three, and it’s during this time that most of the widely-bootlegged Smile! demos were recorded. Unfortunately Parks and Wilson had a falling out in February 1967, after each discovered that Keane had been sleeping with the other, and the lovers’ betrayal ended the Beach Boys’ Smile! sessions. Wilson spent the next year in solitude, finally giving up on Smile! without giving a public explanation. Keane, having been spurned by both Wilson and Parks, returned to the comfort of the Family Circus to lick his wounds. Some critics have derided Keane as “the Beach Boys’ Yoko Ono” for his unfortunate role in the Smile! sessions. Nevertheless, Keane’s book remains the only fully-realized version of the work that the three men envisioned together in late 1966. Music historians trying to guess how the bootlegged Smile! demos would have been pieced together need look no further than this book.And for Kittycat’s Motor is Running: I weep for Jeffy. The language, however base and stomach cramp inducing, does the job of transporting the reader to the suburban hell that only Keane can imagine. The amount of ennui overflowing from this wasp-ish family of innocents staggers. If you cannot see their pain, you are blind. I am Jocasta, my eyes bleed for the family circus.
The book that sent the most people to this site this week via the search engines was Moneyball by Michael Lewis. This book and the flap surrounding it has been a huge story on sports radio so it’s no surprise that there are quite a few people looking for more info. The new books that have people talking this week are not a big surprise. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963 by Robert Dallek a noted presidential biographer, revealed the news that JFK had an ongoing ralationship with an 19 year old intern codenamed “Mimi.” “Mimi” then broke her 40 year silence and went to the press. Don’t be surprised if her book shows up soon. The other book in the news is The Clinton Wars by Sidney Blumenthal which is, according to the reviews I’ve read unabashed in annointing the Clinton years as paradise on earth. The book I talked about most this week was The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis. It is by far the best book I have read in a long time, and now that several friends have read it, our new hobby seems to be speculating on the whereabouts of the mysterious Maqroll the Gaviero. Read it…Judge a book by its coverI have come to notice during my time at the bookstore that, compared to the Brits, American book cover design is pretty dull. It seems that publishers are convinced that the only way to sell books to Americans is to make the covers as bland and non-threatening as possible. Compare the American cover of Hunter S. Thompson’s new book to the British one and you’ll see what I mean.
Next, I turned to my second William Boyd novel Stars and Bars. This modern day comedy is the story of Henderson Dores, an English specialist on Impressionism who moves from London to New York in an effort to switch from academia to the lucrative business of art auctioning and to re-establish his relationship with an ex-girlfriend, who recently divorced her husband and has a teenager daughter. In Stars and Bars, Boyd exploits the differences between the English and American cultures to relate the South through the shocked eyes of Henderson. The protagonist faces a lot of challenges and his efforts to conform his lifestyle to certain English ideas do not necessarily pay-off in the good ol’ U.S. of A. Henderson defines unlucky in his exploits and his misfortunes make for a grand laugh. Need I mention that Stars and Bars is also an amazing page turner?I wanted to go on reading Boyd, but decided to take a rather unfortunate break and read Vladimir Nabokov’s Look at the Harlequins!. This is the first novel I read by Nabokov, and I realized what a bad choice it was halfway into it, but finished it nevertheless. Look at the Harlequins is an autobiographical piece and has a ton of references to other works by Nabokov, none of which I understood. So, if youre not well versed in Nabokov, do not look at the harlequins.To cheer up after my terrible defeat to Nabokov, I picked up Joseph Hellers Catch As Catch Can, a collection of his pre and post Catch-22 short stories, some published in magazines, others not. I really enjoyed the collection and left the book with my dad when I was visiting Turkey over the summer (he lobbied for 6 tireless years for me to read Catch-22, the day he bought me the book and saw me start reading it must have been one of his happier days. Actually he was so inspired by Major Major Major Major, that he wanted to name me judge in Turkish, thinking that it would prevent future jeopardy when I began drunk driving. E.g. when the cop pulls me over I tell him I am “Judge Peker,” and he would be intimidated into letting me go.) Regardless, Catch As Catch Can reveals an interesting and rather dark side of Heller before he wrote Catch-22. His subjects are all very interesting people. Among them are: old men, poor working class Brooklyners, junkies, and seamen, all in the wonderful city of New York. Catch As Catch Can also includes some stories that tell of Yossarian and Milo in their later days, which are written in the same manner and tone of Catch-22 and maintain the same level of hilarity. As in Milo sells non-existent fighter jet to the U.S. Air force to fight communists. Yes, it is great. My dad approved of the follow up Yossarian and Milo stories too.Previously: Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
Yesterday, on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show, Salman Rushdie discussed the choices he made as guest-editor of Best American Short Stories 2008. A comparison with our recent post on the year’s New Yorker fiction reveals that several of his picks date to 2007. Still, Rushdie’s taste is excellent, and it’s always fun to hear him talk off-the-cuff.