Posting has been light because I’m nearing the end of the quarter at school, and I am in the final stages of a very big project. And posting will probably continue to be light because I’ll be heading off on vacation as soon as school is done. I’m thinking about taking my laptop with me, but even if I do, I’m not sure how close I’ll be to the Internet. I’m excited about this vacation (we’ll be joining my family at the beach in North Carolina) not just because it’ll be a much needed break from school, but also because there’s no place I’d rather read than on vacation. On a proper vacation there are seemingly endless hours to spend with your books. I also love the way certain reading experiences become associated with certain exotic locales – and by “exotic” I mean simply “not home.” For example, last summer Mrs. Millions both read Walker Percy’s classic The Moviegoer during our honey moon in St. Maarten. The unfamiliarity of that island paradise mingled with the humidity of New Orleans where Percy’s Binx Bolling is trying to keep “despair” at bay. The book and the place where I read it combined to form a peculiar sort of dreamy memory that I love. Though I haven’t even gotten the suitcase out of the closet, I already know which four books I’ll be taking with me. I plan to finish The Count of Monte Cristo on the plane ride there. I’ve been enjoying the book immensely, by the way. After that I’m going to read Belly, a debut novel by Lisa Selin Davis that will be coming out later this summer. The publisher’s publicity compares her writing to that of Jane Smiley and Richard Russo. I’m also bringing a couple of nonfiction books: David Lipsky’s account of following a class of cadets through West Point, Absolutely American. Lipsky was originally assigned to write an article for Rolling Stone about the military academy but ended up sticking with the story for four years. I’m also bringing The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki, the resident business writer at the New Yorker. The book’s premise, which is borrowed from the world of economics, is that the collective choices of large populations of people are often correct, and that it’s even possible, by setting up what amounts to a futures market for ideas, to use this effect to predict the future. A good example of this is a futures market where one can bet on who will be elected president. Such markets have been very good predictors of actual events over the years. None of these books particularly strike me as “summer reading,” but I’ll just be happy that it’s summer and that my only obligation is to read.
Amar Bakshi was about five years behind me at my high school in Washington DC, but he has my dream job, traveling the world to author a blog for the Washington Post, taking on the charged topic, “How the World Sees America.” I started reading it because of the high school connection (Amar is a friend of my little brother’s), but I’ve become an avid reader of it over time as Amar follows in the footsteps of some of my favorite traveling journalists: Jon Lee Anderson, Paul Theroux, and, of course, Ryszard Kapuscinski. Unlike those masters of the form, Amar also carries a video camera with him to further chronicle his experiences. Since starting in May, he’s been to England and India, and now he’s back in the States hashing out plans to travel farther afield. It’s an interesting experiment from a young writer. Worth a read if you’re looking for another blog to follow.
I used part of my day off to sit around my house and listlessly attempt to get things done. I used the other, smaller, part of my day off to run some errands, and when I spotted a goodwill store in Glendale, I just had to run in and check out their book selection. I’m really glad I did.Find #1: A hardcover edition of J. F. Powers’ cult classic Wheat That Springeth Green. As you can see from the link, New York Review of Books Press has recently reissued this one, and it has been a favorite among my coworkers.Find #2: A hardcover edition of a book called Shah of Shahs by one of my all time favorite writers, Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski. Kapuscinski has spent the last 50 years writing for the Polish equivalent of the Associated Press. During this time he has been on the scene for nearly every international conflict from front page news to the one paragraph comment buried in the International section. He wrote under the auspices of a state run news agency controlled by a Communist country and yet he spent nearly all of this time abroad, witnessing the wider world as few Communist citizens were able to. His writing betrays this interesting perspective in that he takes nothing for granted and never resorts to cliche to describe cultures that are utterly foreign. In this way, his journalism bears little resemblence to his Western counterparts, and instead he is just a man describing other men, exploring the universal nature of conflict, and occasionally pining for the cold winters of his homeland. Shah of Shahs is about the fall of the Shah of Iran and the rise of the Ayatollah as told by Kapuscinski who was, of course, in Tehran at the time. I already own this in paperback, but I couldn’t help buying the hardcover.Find #3: The two books about Russia that I read recently made frequent mention of two interesting points. First, that for a long time the West had no idea what sort of horrors went on in Stalin’s Russia, and for a long time after many downplayed these horrors. Second, that there was a large officially sanctioned community of writers, known as the “Writers’ Union,” that spewed out official literature, hailed as a great achievement but often little more than thinly disguised propaganda. At the store today I found a book called Short Stories of Russia Today, edited by Yvonne Kapp and published by Houghton Mifflin in 1959. This corresponds with the height of Khrushchev’s “thaw,” three years after he had denouced Stalin in his “Secret Speech” to a closed session of the General Assembly, which must somehow account for how this collection came to be. There is also inherent in this book the sort of thinly disguised awe and fear that Americans felt towards Russia at the time. The dust jacket copy can be read almost as a warning that there is no endeavor that Russians can not apply their might towards. Here’s one little snippet “Like Sputnik, this collection shows that there is more going on in Russia than is revealed by the facade of Communist propaganda.” Whatever the point of this collection, it certainly is a relic of a different time.Finds #4 & 5: When I go bookfinding, I like to pick up books that I’ve never heard of. This can be tricky because most books that end up where I’m scavenging are pretty bad. Usually I solve this problem by getting short story anthologies or literary journals when I see them. There’s usually a hidden gem or two contained within. Today, I snagged O. Henry Awards Prize Stories of 1992 featuring stories by Cynthia Ozick, Joyce Carol Oates, and Ann Packer among many others. I also came across an interesting-looking old hardcover (Knopf, 1969) of a book called The Coming of Rain by Richard Marius. I’d never heard of him, but after getting home and doing a little research I discovered that he’s fairly well-known Southern writer and that this book is the first of a series of four novels that, between the four of them, take place over the course of the last century in the South.
Just about four years ago, we were asked when Robert Caro might wrap up his much praised, award-bedecked, and quite massive four-part biography of Lyndon B. Johnson. The best we could offer at the time was to say:Well, the short answer is that they don’t have a date yet, but we can at least hazard a guess. The first book, The Path to Power came out in 1982; the second, Means of Ascent, in 1990, and the third, Master of the Senate, in 2002. So, after doing some back of the envelope calculations, I would expect to see the fourth and final volume (tentatively titled The Presidency) some time between 2010 and 2014.As it turns out, my guess may still be on target. Marking the 100th anniversary of LBJ’s birth (which is tomorrow), Caro spoke with the AP on LBJ’s legacy. The article offers this update on the book:The historian says he has completed the opening section of his fourth LBJ book, filling hundreds of pages just to tell of Johnson’s brief, unhappy vice presidency under John Kennedy, concluding with Johnson being sworn in as president after Kennedy’s assassination. The last book will be “very long,” although likely less than the 1,000-plus length of Master of the Senate. He is reluctant to reveal details, but says the Kennedys will be “more than characters; they are protagonists in this book.”Sounds like I might have just enough time to read the first three before this one comes out.
What do you do when your nemesis (who you secretly sort of love) up and moves away? How do you fight the emptiness? How do you carry on? These are the questions I imagine Gawker has been pondering for the past two weeks. Lost in the to-do over the 9/11 anniversary was the last night of MisShapes. For those not in the loop (for shame, people, for shame), MisShapes are a trio of DJs whose weekly dance parties at Don Hill’s were, for a time, a modern day Studio 54. With their motley collection of absurdly hip hipsters, sporting self-styled monikers like Jonny Makeup and Tommy Hottpants, MisShapes created a party so phosphorous-hot hip it attracted a diverse crowd of celebrities, artists, and trust-fund brats. Max Minghella, Cindy Sherman, David Byrne, Leelee Sobieski – they all partied at MisShapes.While MisShapes flourished as a media phenomenon (the trio themselves became darlings of the fashion world), the backlash against them proved more entertaining. Nowhere was the bile better than on Gawker’s weekly feature Blue States Lose. Each week, Gawker took the best photos from websites like MisShapes, Last Night’s Party, and The Cobrasnake, and lampooned the partygoers pictured within. Dubbing MisShape member Leigh Lezark “Princess Coldstare,” and referring to the crowd at Misshapes as “hiptards,” Blue States Lose became weekly reading for anyone who ever saw a guy wearing American Apparel stretch pants, aviator sunglasses, and a Cherokee headdress and thought, “Maybe I should just kill myself now, if people like this are going to be free to breathe my air?” But all of that’s over now. Blue States Lose will have to soldier on without the MisShapes. They won’t have Leotard Fantastic to kick around anymore.To cope with the loss, Gawker is following MisShapes’ lead and publishing a book. It’s a first for the blogging giant, and it’s still unclear exactly what the Gawker book is all about. Is it a chapbook of old posts? Is it new material? Is it really a “guide to conquering all media?” Regardless of its content, the Gawker book should be a litmus test for how well the blog format can translate into print. Gawker, with its of-the-moment focus, its pithy snarkiness, is the epitome of “blogginess,” at least from where I stand. It’s sort of the Platonic ideal of a blog, so to imagine it in book form is, well, difficult. If it’s successfully carried off, readers can expect to find The Millions Guide to Reading on Public Transportation (Forward by Kaye Gibbons) at their local Barnes and Noble sometime in the near future.
Abebooks.com has posted a list of the Top 10 most expensive Stephen King books ever sold on the site. The number one book on the list is: The Regulators, Sold in July 2004: A leather-bound copy with four Winchester bullets emerging from the front cover and the shell cases entering the rear of the book – signed by “Bachman” and dedicated to Harlan Ellison. Sold for $8,000
I have been living in a room in a house perched on a cliff that overlooks the Oregon coast for almost a month. A window with an ocean view spans the width of my desk, but when I sit down to write, I often find myself doing anything but that. I stare at the sea and the rolling clouds, or follow the beachcombers, the joggers, the surfers, and the fishing vessels further out with the binoculars my aunt uses to spot whales in the winter. The setting is striking to the point of distraction for this city dweller accustomed to skylines punctuated by skyscrapers, to glimpses of rivers from the Manhattan Bridge, to lawns circumscribed by park walls.
In Newport, Oregon, nature dominates. The only depiction of this town I’ve encountered beyond a travel guide is in Jon Raymond’s story “The Coast” from his collection, Livability. Raymond’s eye is attuned to the landscape of the Pacific Northwest. In his story, he describes the coastline in quadrants and colors as if he’s painting: “The wind was blustery and the sky was all over the place–dark in one quadrant and pale blue in another, with splashes of magenta, orange, and streaks of hot pink in the lower regions. The billowing cumulus clouds gliding over the ocean were like slow-moving buildings of water and air. I skirted the edge of the tide, avoiding heaps of bullwhip kelp and seagull carcasses and blobs of broken jellyfish.” The sea, the wind, and labile sky capture the tableau precisely.
The first few days after I arrived, I found myself spouting dumbfounded phrases such as, “The clouds! The mountains! Like a painting!” as if I were severely nature deprived. I’m sure I sounded like the equivalent of a yokel visiting the city, jaw dropping at the sight of yellow taxi-filled roads and towering buildings–just like the movies! I am smitten with the sea lions, the sand dunes, the washed up bivalves and cracked crab shells that litter the beach. The open skies have cleared the smog in my mind. The landscape works its way into my stories and it infuses my essays (as you can see).
It’s difficult not to notice the differences here, and not respond to the surroundings. When I was at the local library, a man found a pocket knife on the floor and turned it in to the lost and found. Hitchhikers walk backward along the coastal highway, carrying sleeping bags nestled atop oversize backpacks. More abundant and less haggard than the east coast variety, they make me think of ranch hand and expert hitchhiker Sissy Hankshaw and her magnificent thumbs, straight out of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. The fluorescent red and green sea anemones in the tide pools mimic the Day-Glo hues made popular by the Merry Pranksters, so it’s fitting that head Prankster Ken Kesey grew up in Oregon, just outside of Eugene.
I took up with Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test out of curiosity about Kesey, his writing, and his influence on the sixties West Coast acid scene. Wolfe emphasizes Kesey’s tremendous physicality and soft country drawl, which owe much to his upbringing in Oregon’s outdoors. Kesey’s father “had started him and his younger brother … shooting and fishing and swimming as early as they could in any way manage it, also boxing, running, wrestling, plunging down the rapids of the Williamette and the McKenzie Rivers, on inner-tube rafts, with lots of rocks and water and sartin’ death foamin’ down below.” He came off as a country boy, but when he moved to San Francisco as a Stegner fellow, his physical prowess and charisma made him popular with the bohemian literary set.
The Northwestern terrain also infused Kesey’s fiction. His second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, is set in a logging town near the Oregon coast where a family of loggers break from the unionized strikers by supplying lumber to a local mill. Kesey researched the book while living in Florence, a coastal town just south of Newport. He lived the logging life, in a way. By day he rode in the pick-up trucks that bussed loggers to and from their camps and by night he hung out at the loggers’ watering holes. The novel opens already anchored in the landscape, the pages suffused by passages describing the contours of the land: “ Along the western slopes of the Oregon Coastal Range … come look: the hysterical crashing of tributaries as they merge into the Wakonda Auga River … ”
After Kesey wrote the novel, his artistic focus shifted from writing to life. He devoted himself to living in the moment, to making experimental movies and bringing fantasies to life, to reaching higher states of awareness tripping on LSD. “I’d rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph,” was Kesey’s reason for quitting writing. Wolfe adds, “He talked about something called the Acid Test and forms of expression in which there would be no separation between himself and the audience. It would be all one experience, with all the senses opened wide, words music, lights, sounds, touch–lightning–” Even Kesey’s metaphors reference the outdoors–acting as a conduit for electricity rather than recording the earth’s movements with ink.
A Harvard undergrad on the staff of the campus literary magazine in 1970 spoke to The New York Times about her extracurricular reading habits and the irresistible appeal of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. She said, “Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Air [sic] Acid Test really gets to some of us. I had to stop reading it half way through because I never would have gotten my work done. I wanted to freak out on acid, and like Ken Kesey take a bus onto the road and just live!”
How does one get work done when it becomes obvious there are fantasies to enact, road trips to take, rules to flout? How does one write when nature, and life, beckon from beyond the window? Put the book down. Close the blinds. Or don’t. There’s a delicate balance to strike. Even Kesey, magnificent lightening rod that he was, wrote more books after the acid tests ended. And without Tom Wolfe’s assemblage of interviews and documentation of the Pranskters’ escapades in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, I would know far less about Kesey, his medium, and his life. I know I will soon pack my bags and go home. But I am lucky to have witnessed the landscape, and to know there is the possibility of return.
[Image credit: Anne Yoder]
I know that some folks out there are interested in the travels of our friend Cem. But because he is currently somewhere near the border of Thailand and Burma, it has become difficult for him to update as often as he (or we) would like. Therefore I have taken it upon myself to excerpt some of the emails that we have been exchanging. I do this partly because it’s another way to keep track of this wily character but also partly because I always find talk of travels to be a good igniter of interesting discussion. So, lets leave it at that for now. His last email bore some good news for Realistic Records (from halfway around the world no less!!) as well as the sort of scheming that would make Maqroll and Bashur proud ( You should really read this book! Gabriel Garcia Marquez loves it. And frankly, I think it might be the best book I’ve ever read. I gave it to Cem to read while he travels around the world. You can see how it has already attached itself to his psyche):max,couple things.1.a qoute from my friend kevin, a serious music junkie and collector, whose taste in music i respect more than anyone i know. this email was sent to me before i told him to buy your record:”music-wise, soulseek is still saving my life. i’m watching out for the RIAA these days, though. $150,000 a song! http://www.cnn.com/2003/TECH/internet/07/01/download.music.ap/index.htmlmy top 8 albums in 2003 so far: (no particular order)junior senior : d-d-d-don’t stop the beatdelgados : haterecoys : rekoysdat politics : plugs pluspostal service : give uporanges band : all arounderlend oye : unrestbroken social scene : you forgot it in people”thats right fooo! realistic up an runnin![2 is of little interest to you, faithful reader, so let’s move on to 3.]3.i think that ill be following maqroll, thanks very much. as you know and i now fear, this will mean going dead broke and having to figure a way out of it. i have already begun the most basic level of planning for a small import venture involving Burmese laquerware from Mandalay and/or ethnic textiles for sale in small markets and possibly wholesale to shops. i need to speak with Thibault. i am not kidding max – the stuff is beautiful, cheap, pleantiful, and there is noone selling it that i can find in the US. you will hear more on this later – i really think that it might work.. if it aroused your interests, Mr Bashur, we could both perhaps share in the success.all for now,cem.Indie Rockers kan rede 2Cem’s friend Kevin and his fantastic list of this year’s best indie rock reminded me of, what else, a book. If you walk down the music aisle in any bookstore you will see shelves and shelves of books about the Beatles and the Stones and their compatriots in classic rock. There will also be bulging shelves of books on jazz, blues, and even world music. Punk rock, once the vanguard of the antiestablishment even warrants it’s own chunck of shelf space (Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil is by far the best book on punk, by the way). But what about indie rock? Should a fan of this lowly but noble genre of music go without adequate reading material? No longer. A couple of years ago music journalist Michael Azerrad put together a book called Our Band Could Be Your Life that chronicles the rise and fall of thirteen seminal indie rock bands. Detailed chapters on Black Flag, The Minutemen (whose line from Double Nickels on the Dime supplies the title of the book), Mission of Burma, Minor Threat, Husker Du, The Replacements, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Big Black, Fugazi Mudhoney, and Beat Happening, effectively constitute the history of rock and roll for a generation of music fans.Hey Hey L. A.I’ve been in LA for almost 3 years now, and it long ago lost it’s shiny newness for me, but it’s still a big enough place that it continues to reveal itself to me bit by bit. The other day I was driving home from work and something I heard on the radio reminded me of the way radio stations in other towns that I’ve lived in used to do spoof versions of popular songs to make them refer to something going on in that city; like when I was growing up Washington DC and the morning drive guys were always playing Aerosmith songs that had been turned into spoofs of Mayor (for life) Marion Barry and his crack habit. For a second, whatever I was hearing on the radio made me think that they were playing a goofy made up song about LA. Then I realized that I wasn’t listing to a spoof song, but a real song, probably a song that’s very popular among the kids right now. It just so happened that this song, subconsciously almost, heavily references Los Angeles. The more I thought about this and the more I let it inform my music listening and TV watching and movie viewing, the more I realized that a huge portion of American pop entertainment consciously or, more frequently, subconsciously references Los Angeles in such a way that you could only really be aware of it if you have spent a decent chunk of time in this odd city. The implications of all this are somewhat startling. Many folks get upset that America’s monopoly on popular entertainment results in a monopoly of American values and beliefs. The reality, though, is that America’s popular effluvia is simply the values of Los Angeles and its accompanying entertainment culture masquerading as American culture. It’s possible that because I am simultaineously a Los Angeles insider and a Los Angeles outsider I am particularly apt to find this disturbing. Nonetheless, I can’t shake the feeling that this is not a particularily good thing.A couple more quick notesYesterday when I was out driving, I saw a car with this vanity plate: FAKE TAG. I gave a chuckle and then decided that it’s only funny if the plates really are fake.