This week we posted two new #LitBeat features on our Tumblr. In one piece, Greg Cwik roamed Brooklyn as part of The Morley Walk, a tour organized by Melville House’s Dustin Kurtz in order to bring attention to Christopher Morley’s The Haunted Bookshop. In another, Michael Spinelli reports on a conversation between Saïd Sayrafiezadeh and Sam Lipsyte.
#LitBeat: Bookworms Go for a Walk
By Greg Cwik
On Sunday, August 19th, I got to Lark Cafe in Flatbush maybe ten minutes before noon. Only one other person was there waiting for the Walk. I checked the Tumblr account again to make sure this was the place: it certainly was. I checked the time, to make sure I wasn’t too early/late: I certainly wasn’t. Right place, right time. But writers aren’t really known for their punctuality, so I got a coffee and kept the anxiety at bay. (The coffee, by the way, was excellent; other places I visited that day, none of which will be named here, were considerably less excellent.)
The walkers began to gather a little after noon, quite abruptly, as if materializing just around the corner en masse, and by ten-after the sidewalk in front of the cafe was replete with bookworms and bibliophiles. The walkers varied in age—from college students to grandparents— and occupation—booksellers, journalists, writers, editors. They wore t-shirts adorned with Moby Dick illustrations and carried tote bags sporting literary references. A handful of (thankfully obedient) dogs accompanied the group; by the time the walk reached its midway-point at the Brooklyn library two-and-a-half hours later, the exhausted pups were passed out on the steps, and everyone else was flocking to the food trucks for sustenance.
The Morley Walk was engendered by Dustin Kurtz, marketing manager for Melville House Publishing, to bring attention to Christopher Morley’s 1919 camp-classic The Haunted Bookshop, recently released by Melville House as part of their ongoing Art of the Novella series. The novella spends a robust amount of time discussing literature; it’s almost more literary criticism than fiction, a verbose profession of adulation for all things biblio. (“I love this guy,” Kurtz said a few times.) Conrad gets multiple shout-outs while the Tarzan books take a beating, and, in a bit of proto-Dave Eggers sass, Morley warns readers that all non-booksellers should skip selected sections because they’re boring (we read all of those parts).
The sky was dark and ominous most of the day, with sinister-looking clouds mottling the air and the threat of rain constantly looming. When the first few drops began to fall, umbrellas bloomed and everyone tucked their books under their jackets: “Don’t let the books get wet” was said quite a few times by quite a few people. But the rain held off, for the most part, and no books were ruined.
The nearly six-mile walk circumvented Prospect Park. It hit four bookstores, plus the library: the new Terrace Books, powerHouse on 8th, Unnameable Books and Greenlight Books. I got Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer for a buck at Terrace (I’m on a pretty tight budget). Walkers read aloud from The Haunted Bookshop while walking, which was sometimes difficult beside the obstreperous streets of Brooklyn but always amusing—the looks we got from confused passersby were beguiled and wonderful. Reading continued outside of each bookstore while walkers perused the many shelves inside. (Books were supplied by WORD Brooklyn, whose event coordinator, Jenn Northington, was the first reader.)
For me, a newbie to the independent bookselling/publishing world, the walk elucidated the entwinement of Brooklyn-based booksellers and publishers and writers and readers—the Lit community almost felt like its own weird little world. The real-life mingling of booksellers and publishers and writers recalled their Twitter interactions, with rewteets and 140-character conversations rendered corporeal. I could see how personally invested everyone was— how deeply embedded into the undulant community. Michael de Zayas, owner of the spatially tiny and often-packed coffee shop Little Zleda’s in Crown Heights, made a brief mention of his embryonic bookstore, Hullabaloo, before the Walk commenced. He said his Kickstarter project was ending at six, ending his comments with an ellipsis. While not the subtlest of pitches, Zayas’ announcement symbolized the symbiotic relationship between local writers and publishers and booksellers. He summarized what I was about to experience and we hadn’t even started to walk yet. These bookstores rely on booklovers—like the walkers, like myself—and events—like readings, like the Morley Walk— to exist.
(Photos by Wah-Ming Chang)
#LitBeat: Saïd Sayrafiezadeh at McNally Jackson
By Michael Spinelli
Saïd Sayrafiezadeh launched his fiction debut, Brief Encounters with the Enemy, on Tuesday, August 13 at McNally Jackson Books in New York City. Saïd, who opened the launch with a joke about how difficult his name is to pronounce, read from the first story in the collection and ended with the line “My cock feels full with the thought of you in my heart.” The reading was followed by a conversation between Sayrafiezadeh and Sam Lipsyte and an open question session with the audience. Brief Encounters with the Enemy is in many ways, according to Sayrafiezadeh, a sequel to his memoir When Skateboards Will Be Free, which was clear even in the short excerpt he read at McNally Jackson Books. The main story takes place in a bleak, post-industrial city which, Lipsyte noted, feels suspiciously like Pittsburgh, where Sayrafiezadeh once lived. However, he cautioned readers against taking these similarities as facts. While his book focuses on a war that’s strikingly similar to Iraq in a city that is strikingly similar to Pittsburgh, Sayrafiezadeh shies away from linking it with any actual historical places or events. He notes that, during the publication of the title piece in The New Yorker, he received a phone call from a fact checker who insisted that the Army be contacted, and questioned the veracity of letters like the one the protagonist of the story receives. “We’re dealing with fiction,” he reminded her, which really sums up the main theme of the discussion: the freedom that Sayrafiezadeh found in the transition from working on a memoir to working on a piece of fiction. When working on the memoir, he noted, the material was all there for him, it all happened. He recalled a time, while writing When Skateboards Will Be Free, where he thought “It would be really great if my classmates beat me up here. It would be so dramatic!” but that wasn’t what happened. “Now,” he said, “They can beat me up!”
#LitBeat: Listening to Don DeLillo
By Adam Daniels
Thursday night Don DeLillo lamented the state of modern fiction in front of a packed auditorium at the Harold Washington Library in downtown Chicago. “Young people of artistic ambition are still drawn to the novel as the most challenging and rewarding form,” he said. “The question is: Is anybody listening”?
DeLillo had been presented with the Carl Sandburg Literary Award by the Chicago Public Library Foundation the previous evening and on this night was reading a portion of 2011’s The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories and discussing his career and work with Booklist’s senior editor Donna Seaman (their conversation can be heard in full on WBEZ’s Amplified).
DeLillo initially seemed a bit stiff, but as the evening went on he cultivated a spry wit and developed an almost saucy rapport with the moderator and audience, occasionally playing coy about remembering his own characters and motifs from two and three decades prior. When told the atom bomb was a recurring theme is his literature he deadpanned, “Is it?” This dry orneriness, plus a well-timed Robert Pattinson joke, played well with the crowd, allowing us to see a slightly more accessible side to the man whose words have so often felt as dazzling as they are deliberate.
DeLillo and Seaman spoke a lot about language. “I like to think I’m writing in three dimensions,” he said, “I have to see it and describe what I see and then an almost metaphysical connection occurs between what I’m seeing and the language I’m using.”
Because DeLillo lived in Greece for a time he had to learn the alphabet simply to read road signs. He said that he quickly began to view it as visual art and this had a big effect on the way he viewed and used language. Hearing these things felt oddly comforting, like this is exactly how you hoped someone like DeLillo would describe the value in language, displaying all the care and concern the nuance and emotional intricacy of his writing implies.
The award being a sort of lifetime achievement aided the discussion in some sense, not marooning the audience in a literary version of the fear that their hero will never play “Born To Run.” DeLillo’s career now spans 15 novels and over 40 years, and the range of the discussion paid tribute to that breadth. One of the more memorable aspects of the author’s reminiscing shed light onto several of the the visual moments of inspiration that inevitably led to full-fledged novels: two identically-sized 1951 New York Times headlines of vastly different substance that led to Underworld, an inauspicious photograph of a man holding a briefcase walking through the rubble of the 9/11 attacks that would become Falling Man,or a visit to the MoMA to view Douglas Gordon’s “24 Hour Psycho” installation that spawned Point Omega. The way he excitably spoke of these visual elements and the creative awakening they provided felt at times contagious to an impressively varied crowd that spanned from young teens to plenty whose age far eclipsed DeLillo’s.
The question DeLillo attempted to answer on the state of fiction is a looming one that he admitted with visible wear he couldn’t answer. He said the problem today isn’t in personnel, as there are plenty of great writers of the moment, but came back to the concern that maybe no one is listening any longer. At least for one cold evening, a large amount of Chicagoans had come out to see one of the great ones and do just that.
#LitBeat: If I had just been there
Ta-Nehisi Coates on black people and the history of the Civil War, at the Southern Festival of Books
About twenty miles up the road from a prominent highway-side statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, famed Confederate general and original Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard, Ta-Nehisi Coates delivered a passionate argument as to why African Americans should study the Civil War. Coates, Senior Editor at The Atlantic, spoke as part of last weekend’s Southern Festival of Books’ series “The Civil War and Emancipation: Conflict and Reckoning,” his own panel titled “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?”
Coates began his discussion with a quotation from William Faulkner on the Battle of Gettysburg, and the inherent feeling in Southern boys of, “If I had just been there…” It’s this rabid Southern romanticism of the war that Coates can’t come to terms with, one that he has yet to find in any African American reading of the “War Between the States.”
“The Civil War was portrayed as a violent football game,” Coates explained of his understanding of the war in his youth. “And I was very into the violent football game, and didn’t connect any political struggle with people who looked like me.”
The South, in its unending quest to Rise Again*, has in a century and a half written an intricate mythology told in reenactments, Dixie flag bumper stickers, kids named Bobby Lee and, of course, gaudy roadside monuments. It’s a loud and pervasive mythology that often overshadows the more nuanced tales of black Civil War heroes, and Coates cites this lack of a strong black Civil War mythology as a primary cause for the lack of black interest in studying the war.
“We know about Frederick Douglass, and we know about Harriet Tubman, and we have this kind of vague sense that before the Civil War people who looked like us were in chains and afterwards we were not,” he said. “How did that happen? We don’t know. Not only do we not know, we don’t think to ask. There’s no real debate.”
In a story, “Fear of a Black President,” recently published in The Atlantic, Coates implored readers to understand the struggles of President Obama through the lens of black history, and made the same case for a more thorough understanding of history’s implications in his panel.
The Q&A following his talk showed signs of promise for Coates’ mission, with audience members (of a variety of races, it should be noted) both sharing stories of their own experiences with racism and offering sincere intentions to become more educated on what Coates believes to be one of our nation’s greatest flaws: our ignorance of our own past.
Coates is currently working on an as-yet-untitled account of his Civil War studies, and following his panel signed copies of his 2008 memoir, The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood.
*As a native Tennessean, I’d like to make the point that not all Southerners share this sentiment. In fact, many of us don’t.
#LitBeat: Game Recognize Game at the Goodreads LitQuiz
By Lydia Kiesling
On a drizzly evening last week, I attended the Goodreads LitQuiz, one of 180 events constituting last week’s San Francisco LitQuake, a multi-day, multi-talent logistical marvel. Even contemplating the vast program filled me with anxiety, but the quiz, hosted by Millions staff writer Patrick Brown (also Goodreads Community Manager, also husband of Edan Lepucki), seemed like a safe place to bring my crew (and my neuroses) on a Thursday night.
True to the adage about best-laid plans, I found myself at the Make-out Room alone. But standing alone at LitQuiz felt pretty okay. The space was cozy; there were drink-tickets. Patrick, who exhibited great verve and panache as a Quiz Master, greeted the bar and the invited team-less to unite. A clarinetist named Sophie told me that her friends had bailed, and we shook hands. We were soon joined by David, an aspiring librarian. On the question of names, my new teammates allowed me to impose my will upon them; we became Widmerpool, which seemed to me like a prestige pick. This wasn’t some crappy lowbrow trivia where the questions are about Lady Gaga or baseball: this was LitQuiz.
Unlike many of the LitQuake events, which are meant to showcase great writers (or tell writers how to write better or earn more), LitQuiz was about the readers. And if almost zero people get paid for their writing, even fewer people get paid for their reading. It’s a solitary and unremunerated passion, but readers form a proud, quiet fraternity online. David and Sophie, like many of those present, were avid users of Goodreads; they had heard of the event thus. They were also amazing readers. Every trivia team needs a Ringer, and I discovered quickly that I was not she. And that was really great. Game recognize game.
120 people formed around 25 teams, among them The Virginia Woolfpack, Greater Expectations, Illiterate Basterds, George Eliot was a Chick, the (immodest) Patrick Brown Fan Club, and the (topical) Go A’s. Team Widmerpool got off to a slow start in the first round, Heartthrobs and Leading Men, despite David immediately recognizing The Count of Monte Cristo in a question about Sinbad and German luxury cars. We shat the bed on a question about Outlander (James Frazer: wounded hand, seasick, horse-whisperer); likewise threw away 15 points on Sebastian when we should have said Orsino. Fortunately, Sophie spared us the humiliation of not knowing Daisy was the third in a love triangle between Jay and Tom. Things picked up in the next round, Dystopias, and we breezed through round three, Adaptations. My original teammates showed up during the author photo bonus round and provided crucial support (Alan Moore).
Over seven rounds, Widmerpool hummed along like a friendly, well-oiled machine, free of the recriminations and passive aggression that usually beset trivia participants. We did awkward high-fives and talked about books, and Sophie didn’t bat an eyelash when I flung beer on her during my enthusiastic flailing.
As the A’s met defeat in the jaws of the Tigers, we were in a respectable fourth place, with 220 points. The last, final Jeopardy-style category was Banned Books. Deciding, a la Joyce, that it is better to burn than to wither dismally, we wagered all. The question: “What book was banned in France, Argentina, and New Zealand, but spent two years on the U.S. best-seller list in 1958?” We were flummoxed by the countries. Mein Kampf, hazarded David. Kiss of the Spiderwoman, I said, twenty years premature. A trick, we decided, and agreed that Lolita was the right vintage.
We roared as the dulcet tones rolled off of Patrick’s tongue. Stalwart Widmerpool had risked all and triumphed. In the bathroom later, I commiserated about the injustice of Jeopardy style with a member of Greater Expectations, who had been leading the race until the end. “It does suck,” I said, with the generosity of the victor. It was not a meritocracy, but a Quizocracy, Team Widmerpool parted friends, with gift cards from Goodreads, and ideas of what to buy. It was a banner evening.
#LitBeat: Zadie Smith’s Sentences
It was Tuesday night and the room was packed. Because I was alone I sat in the front row. The crowd seemed young enough that the handful of gray haired heads stood out. Based solely on preshow eavesdropping, it seemed like easily half the people in the crowd were college kids or recent grads. The room, so close to the water, smelled like light beer and someone was definitely eating a burrito. But I didn’t mind at all because I was there, at my city’s Harbourfront, to see Zadie Smith.
The event was hosted by local books columnist Becky Toyne, and was actually a live recording of a future show for Elenaor Wachtel’s popular CBC radio program Writers and Company—it’s been on the air for 20 years!, which leant the whole conversation a strange distance. Wachtel would, occasionally, interject what had seemed like a natural progression of questions and answers with “I’m Elenaor Wachtel, here with author Zadie Smith,” or after Smith read from her new book, Wachtel would jump on her mic to add: “Zadie Smith reading from her latest novel, NW.” It was weird. But then again, the first page of NW describes a line, snatched from the ether of the radio waves, so perhaps it was the best way for us in the crowd to get even closer, somehow, to the text.
Which is, ultimately, what it’s about. Smith was very charming and funny, and her attitude on stage was generous and inclusive; she kept mentioning commonalities with other people in the room, be they black parents, or other writers. It’s been over a decade since White Teeth, and Smith seems to have grown more comfortable with her success with each book since. While her early public appearances seemed to have a nervous, shell shocked hostility to them, the only trace of this discomfort on Tuesday came at the very beginning, when she crossed the stage with her head down and her hand up, a waive that doubled as a shield. Despite 12 years of living in the semi-public eye, there remains the sense that perhaps she still kind of wants us to look past her to the work itself.
When asked about the specific use of different writing styles in each section of NW, Smith’s face took on the glow of serious delight. “I decided I really wanted to write a book in fragments one way or another,” she said, “I wanted to make the reader feel different things.” Smith shared a quote from David Foster Wallace, saying that she too wanted to do something to, in his words, “break the rhythm that excludes thinking.” Near the end of the show, Smith simultaneously cracked up and charmed her audience by describing the surprising power that the humble sentence still has over us. Gently mocking her critics, some of whom seemed to take particular interest in her decision to leave dialog untagged by quotation marks, she raised her hands in mock outrage. But no one could doubt her when she said that these sort of stakes made the form an exciting one for her to keep working in. “To me,” she said, “the story is always language.”
* * *
This episode of Writers and Company will be available for streaming shortly after it airs on October 4th, 2012. See also: The Millions review of NW.
#LitBeat: The Rumpus Loves New York
“You get to shine a light on these people that you love,” Stephen Elliott said to the crowd as he explained the purpose of the event. “Musicians, and authors, and comedians who I’m just really fond of. I’m really excited to introduce a lot of you to them.” Elliott, author and founder of the online magazine The Rumpus, hosted “The Rumpus Loves New York!” party last night at the Public Assembly in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Part reading, part concert, part comedy hour, it had something for almost everyone, either for devoted fans of The Rumpus or for those who, on a whim, stopped in for some after-work entertainment. The event had a road-show feeling to it, an opportunity for Elliott and his team to bring a bit of San Francisco—where they hold similar events monthly—to New York City.
Sam Lipsyte, author of the novel The Ask and other books, opened the evening with a short story. The packed and darkened Public Assembly’s front room listened and laughed with drinks in hand, while Lipsyte narrated a humorous love story, “a reunion of sorts” between a woman and a man with whom she had crushed on some years prior.
Though crowded, the Public Assembly’s intimate space afforded enough room to see and hear those onstage, including poet and actress Amber Tamblyn, who read, according to the description on her website, a series of “persona poems […] about child star actresses who grew up into virtual unknowns and died young,” and San Francisco-based comedian Janine Brito, who enchanted the crowd with lesbian slam poetry, and other bits. All night Isaac Fitzgerald, Rumpus managing editor, manned a table of books and CDs for sale, plus their popular“Write Like A Motherfucker” mugs.
As part of her “Writers Braver Than Me” column, Sari Botton interviewed poet and memoirist Nick Flynn, author of the critically-acclaimed memoirs Another Bullshit Night in Suck City and The Ticking is the Bomb. Topics included Being Flynn, the movie adaptation of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, and the memoirist’s responsibility to other people in his work.
Expounding on his comments in an earlier interview that memoir is an “egoless genre,” Flynn said, “As we work with the [seemingly autobiographical] material, the stuff sort of transforms into the universal. And then, it has to push into this deeper realm of mystery. That seems to be the trajectory.”
Author Andrew McCarthy read a brief, hilarious nonfiction piece set in Berlin and, by way of a bottle of Jameson Irish Whiskey, Amsterdam, which included Red Light District prostitutes and a chase for a small bag of cocaine. McCarthy was followed by Colson Whitehead, novelist and author of, most recently, Zone One. A fitting end for a New York-based literary event, Whitehead read the opening essay “City Limits” from his collection The Colossus of New York:
“Our streets are calendars containing who we were and who we will be next. We see ourselves in this city every day when we walk down the sidewalk and catch our reflections in store windows, seek ourselves in this city each time we reminisce about what was there fifteen, ten, forty years ago, because all our old places are proof that we were here. One day the city we built will be gone, and when it goes, we go. When the buildings fall, we topple, too.”
As an NYC neophyte, it seemed to me that The Rumpus really does love New York. And from my vantage at the back of the crowd, enjoying some of my favorite authors (and decent drinks) while rubbing elbows with fellow members of the literati, it looked as though New York loved The Rumpus right back.
#LitBeat: Basement Boners & Mike Thomsen’s Moral Life
By Ryan Healey
Mike Thomsen. Photo courtesy of Rachel Rosenfelt.
How many boners are popped in McNally Jackson’s basement? It’s Tuesday and around 80 people are listening to essays from Mike Thomsen’s new book, Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. I show up late and trip over children’s things in the back as Helena Fitzgerald reads about Obama sex, its merits and possibilities, with Michelle & Barry about to bedside inaugurate four more years of whatever. In a voice for storms or Brontë novels, Fitzgerald says Thomsen’s words: “When I imagine myself in that position, the secret service is guarding the door while I’m in the bathroom fucking my wife, trying to hold on, in momentary freefall.” Groans joust with laughs in both the clauses and audience.
For every Rabelaisian inflection or admission from his book, Thomsen’s face is there for study, which makes the reading seem like a weird author-function or celebrity roast at times. Like when the second reader, Malcolm Harris, describes coming all over himself (as Mike Thomsen), enveloping his (Mike Thomsen’s) “chest, chin, navel, thighs.” By reports, Thomsen’s cum is warm, soft, neutral-smelling, and velveteen. The couple in front of me tighten their finger grips at Harris’s mention of Fuck Team Five, a male-exploitative porn rubric of “Amazonian pornstar women roaming the streets looking for regular guys to sleep with.” The reading seems like kind of a date night destination for some, which, when partially billed as hearing Thomsen’s dick diegetically explode, makes it a bit of a Symposium for heteros. Which is fine.
I’m standing dead in the orbit for the bathroom, which pulls a lot of unsuspecting people into what must seem like a horizontalist sex therapy, or, for some, a CIAseminar. Particularly weird is the gaggle of Wallace Shawns as they listen to the third reader, Rachel Rosenfelt, detail Thomsen’s taste for vaginal fluids: “How many men haven’t walked around the day after sex with the secret scent of vagina on their fingers, chin, or penis? To some the phrase ‘mucus flaps’ might induce revolt or socio-sexual indignation. To me it induces hunger, lust. Mmmmmmucus.” My own personal sense of socio-sexual indignation makes look at these dads in the front row with a puritan’s suspicion. Then Thomsen’s themes make me worry that this is my own perverse projection.
When Sarah Nicole Prickett begins to read, I can’t hear her from the back, which is mostly my fault, but what she reads seemed subdued and careful and on the sweet side of the Thomsen scale. Adrian Chen follows with something called “Ass Bangin’ and Astral Projection.” I can hear him read these lines just fine: “Feeling yourself penetrated at the same time that you are enjoying the metaphysical whoosh of penetrating someone else is surreal. It’s an out of body experience, like an alien abduction or astral projection. It’s like being in two separate places at once, wholly conscious of everything around you.”
Thomsen rises at last. He reads two touching stories that seem especially accomplished in their touchingness. He reads “I Am Error,” this love and departure story against the New York backdrop probably on loan for all of us: “I feel lucky to be here. I don’t deserve to live in a place so densely filled with this much life, secretly aspirating down the avenues. But I do. I’d wanted this for myself all along, to keep moving, to find a reason to not settle down and grow grass beneath my feet. I wanted to keep pushing the outer lip of what I can do. I wasn’t brave enough to say that I wanted this for my own sake. So I said it was for someone else, and that spared me the terrible weight of having to look at myself without the warping hue of romance.”
I’m in a dark corner of McNally Jackson’s basement, finding catharsis in Thomsen’s confessions of being a sometimes utterly repugnant, historically irrelevant male-bodied hetero-simian who wants to have sex and yet live a moral life. Maybe we can be better, and then happy.
This Levitate the Primate reading took place in New York City on Tuesday, August 28th, 2012, and was presented by The New Inquiry.