December 31, 2010

What I'm reading

Last great reads of 2010

I've just finished off a stack of books (one of those people who read their stacks simultaneously rather than consecutively) in time to collect a new stack for summer and hey, a new year! Hope they'll be as good as these. I loved them all.

Straight life by Art Pepper
The autobiography of a jazz star who was a white man when jazz musicians were black and a drug addict all his life. I had read an excerpt from it when it first came out and was amazed at how powerful a charge this man transmits, this man who was not a writer and in fact did not write the book -- it was born in the form of stories that his second wife (met in rehab) convinced him to tell her while she kept a tape recorder running. This year it occurred to me to suggest the library purchase it so I could finally read the whole thing. What a narrative! I know there are people out there disagreeing with this fact or another, but I say who cares about the facts. Find a more truthful description, if you can, of how you can find yourself taking the wrong turn with no good reason at all, just driving home with the radio playing. As someone in the book notes about his playing, Art Pepper never 'coasts'.

The People’s Act of Love by James Meek

An unidentified male I found myself in a cluster with at the Book Design Awards said he was loving reading this novel about a Czech battalion stranded in wintertime in some far outpost of northern Russia during the Russian civil war. I can’t remember if he mentioned the cannibalism, perhaps he thought it would be out of place as we munched our canapĂ©‎s, or maybe it just didn’t catch my imagination (hard to believe). At any rate, the idea of the lost battalion, desperate to get home, their mad Captain -- a sort of cold-weather Kurtz -- that by itself sounded like a good story. As it turned out to be! A Russian novel sort of good story, in fact, without ever being obsequious to that great genre. Let's say, a kindred spirit.

syndetics-lcAncient Gonzo Wisdom: Interviews with Hunter S Thompson

My favourite was the interview by PJ O’Rourke from 1996, because PJ O’Rourke is smart and funny, and because HST comes across best when interviewed by people who are smart and funny.

“What was the first book, the first whole book, you read?”
“Good lord, man – anybody who would remember that is probably in some kind of trouble or lying.”
“No, they say that drug addicts always remember the very first time they had the drug, or alcoholics remember the first drink.”
“Jesus, I think you’re right.”

I remembered the same book from my childhood. You might too. Read the book and find out what it was.

syndetics-lcAsk Dr. Mueller by Cookie Mueller

I knew about Cookie Mueller, who had that crazy feeling, from Nan Goldin’s photographs and her cameo appearances in various stories from the New York art and drug scene of the seventies, but I didn’t realize we had her book in the library until I came across it by chance. It collects various pieces of writing by Cookie which she wouldn’t be surprised to learn have dated – she was not someone who was trying to write for posterity.
The sad thing is that there are no later and thus less-dated pieces, because of her early death from AIDS. She certainly went down with banners flying, as befits someone who, as John Waters pointed out in his introduction, didn’t comb her hair for 25 years and still looked beautiful.

syndetics-lcSwish:  my quest to become the gayest person ever  by Joel Derfner

This book, besides being really fun to read, taught me an important lesson. I had always thought that cheerleaders were destined to be cheerleaders from birth, that it was not a learnable art. But apparently you can practice yourself into becoming a cheerleader, flips and everything, if you really want to. The other thing this book was notable for was a passage about pain and vulnerability which yes, was his viewpoint from a gay perspective, but which, like all deep insights, will say something to just about everyone. At least it did to me.

Riding toward everywhere by William T Vollman

I was seventeen, the age for dares, and on the return leg of a hitchhiking trip that was somewhat of a dare already (California to Canada and back in a four-day break from University) with a friend, when we met a Gary Snyder-type in Eugene, Oregon who filled us in on how to hop a freight. Did we do it? Of course!

syndetics-lcAnd that was how I came to ride the rails from Eugene to Portland, over the mountains, at night, in an empty boxcar with a wooden floor. I remember this detail because my friend had a new and expensive ski jacket on, a present from a guilt-burdened absentee father, and she kept worrying, as we huddled and hugged on the floor while the wind chill took the temperature down to zero and then below, that a splinter would get into the jacket and ruin it. My teeth were so gritted I couldn’t even say “Your jacket? Our lives! I think we might be going to die of the cold!"

It was thrilling and the view of the dawn over the Portland train yard was thrilling, but it turned out not to be a lark at all. It was life-and-death.

William T Vollman has written a book about trainhopping as the ultimate underground lifestyle. This is the dedication:

This book is dedicated to STEVE JONES,
who never pretended
that he or I were hobos
and who therefore coined the word fauxbeaux,
who turned fifty riding the rails with me,
who was riding the rails with me as I turned forty-seven,
who never made me feel guilty for saying
that this or that train was too fast for me,
and who is the finest Christian
who ever bought me a cigar,
drank my booze
or shouted fuck!
into the diesel-scented night.

Fleeting Rome by Carlo Levi
Memories of Rome in the years of La Dolce Vita, when Vespas roared through the city by day and sheep were herded through at night, by the author of Christ stopped at Eboli. The osteria where Levi ate lunch had seasonal wild asparagus, much better than the market variety. Where did they get it? From an employee of the Ministry of Finance who every day, after clocking in, would head off on his bicycle to hunt asparagus, which he would trade for dinner or wine. One year there was no more. The man had reached compulsory retirement age at the Ministry, and had promptly stopped his true job as well.

December 30, 2010

Fifty years on: sad literary anniversaries

Books in the City looks back at two sad literary anniversaries of the departing year

The death of Albert Camus 

Camus in 1957
It's fifty years this year since Albert Camus was killed in an automobile accident while travelling from Provence to Paris. He was 46, the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, at the peak of his fame and – see photo – charisma. He had accepted a ride in his publisher’s Facel Vega, a high-speed luxury sports car, a light rain was falling, the car skidded off the road and hit a tree. Camus died instantly, although it took the rescue workers two hours to extricate him from the wreck.

In his briefcase they found his diary, a book of Nietzsche and a copy of Othello, and the manuscript of Le Premier Homme (The First Man). His unused train ticket was in his pocket. I can’t remember seeing it in print myself, so take it for what it’s worth, but I’ve been told that Camus once said that the most meaningless of deaths would be to die in a car accident.

Richard Wright, too 

Fifty years ago, too, and again in France, but this time in a Parisian clinic, the American writer Richard Wright died after being in poor health for years. His body was cremated and the ashes mixed with the ashes of a copy of his novel Black boy, as he had wanted. He was only 52, he was nearly penniless and had spent the last year of his life writing haiku. As an expatriate he escaped the prejudice he experienced back home, but it was one hassle after another and the fire just seemed to dwindle and go out.

You need to read Wright's great novels, Native son and the autobiographical Black boy, to see why this is so sad. In Black boy he tells about how in order to get a library card he had to forge the application using the name of a white co-worker. He was fifteen. The minute he started reading (it was a book by HL Mencken, he of the slashing wit) he was consumed by the desire to be a writer, but immediately as he sat down with pen and paper, he found that the constrictions of his Jim Crow upbringing meant he didn't know what to write.

 He says "I could endure the hunger. I had learned to live with hate. But to feel that there were feelings denied me, that the very breath of life itself was beyond my reach, that more than anything else hurt, wounded me. I had a new hunger."

December 25, 2010

Joseph Brodsky's Christmas Poem

I first encountered the poet Joseph Brodsky in the pages of The New York Review of Books, it would have been something to do with St. Petersburg, the city where he was born and raised and which in many ways defined him -- the city where, as he used to say, everything can change (including its name, twice) except its weather and its light.

Even after serving 18 months at hard labour for the crime of "social parasitism" (ie being a poet), and when that didn't deter him from writing poetry, seeing himself diagnosed as schizophrenic by a medical expert of the regime, clearly a menacing development, and despite repeated invitations to emigrate to Israel, Brodsky didn't want to leave St. Petersburg. They had to break into his apartment and get him and put him on a plane; he didn't even know where it was going.

It went to Vienna, and after that he went on to America, became an American citizen and, like his city, changed his name. Fifteen years later, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. I happened to visit New York that year, and that was where I encountered him again, in the Strand Bookstore, under the guise of his book of essays, Less than one, which I bought and still treasure. And then, just a few years ago, I found his grave in the beautiful cemetery of San Martino in Venice, near those of Ezra Pound and Diaghilev.

Brodksy ended Less than one with a piece which is a tender eulogy to St Petersburg and a brave one to the memory of his parents. He called it In a room and a half, that being the size of the apartment his family was allotted by the communist officials. And now, the director Andrey Khrzhanovskiy has made a film with this name, based on Brodsky's life and poetry.

I haven't been able to see the movie yet but I found the theatrical trailer on youtube and it looks wonderful. It opens magnificently with the old slave spiritual Go down Moses as the soundtrack, an impeccable choice given how Brodsky described his parents' greatest failure: they weren't able to raise their son to be a slave.

Joseph Brodsky, who would have turned 70 this year, used to write a poem every Christmas. Here is one of them I particularly like, written during his time at hard labour in the Arkhangelsk region of northern Russia. It surprised me to realise, as I was writing this, that he was only 24 when he composed it. My first thought was that the tone is that of a much older man, which would have been more than understandable, but then I re-read it and thought, well, no, actually. For my money, that's defiance there in the last line.

January 1, 1965

The kings will lose your old address.
No star will flare up to impress.
The ear may yield, under duress,
to blizzards' nagging roar.
The shadows falling off your back,
you'd snuff the candle, hit the sack,
for calendars more nights can pack
than there are candles for.

What is this? Sadness? Yes, perhaps.
A little tune that never stops.
One knows by heart its downs and ups.
May it be played on par
with things to come, with one's eclipse,
as gratefulness of eyes and lips
for what occasionally keeps
them trained on something far.

And staring up where no cloud drifts
because your sock's devoid of gifts
you'll understand this thrift: it fits
your age; it's not a slight.
It is too late for some breakthrough,
for miracles, for Santa's crew.
And suddenly you'll realize that you
yourself are a gift outright.

-- translated by the author

December 23, 2010

Iain Sharp's favourite beat poem

Iain Sharp couldn't make it to our Day of the Dead Beat Poets, and although his presence was missed I have to say that part of me is glad, because of how he wrote these things down for me instead, meaning I could read them and then read them again, as you will also want to:

Hi Karen

It occurred to me after we spoke that my all-time favourite beat poem is an untitled little one by Lew Welch that goes like this:

Step out onto the planet.
Draw a circle 100 feet round.

Inside the circle are 300 things
nobody understands and,
maybe, nobody’s ever seen.

How many can you find?

Poor Lew Welch! He seems, at heart, to have been such a nice man, but he was plagued throughout his short life by mental problems as well as alcoholism. In May 1971, while staying with Gary Snyder in a remote part of northeast California, he walked into the woods one day with a 303 rifle and killed himself. His body was never found. He left behind a heartbreaking note:

"I never could make anything work out right and now I'm betraying my friends. I can't make anything out of it - never could. I had great visions but never could bring them together with reality. I used it all up. It's all gone. Don Allen is to be my literary executor- use MSS at Gary's and at Grove Press. I have $2,000 in Nevada City Bank of America - use it to cover my affairs and debts. I don't owe Allen G. anything yet nor my Mother. I went Southwest.
Goodbye. Lew Welch."

Another of my favourite beat poems is the elegy Snyder wrote a couple of years later:

For/From Lew

Lew Welch just turned up one day,
live as you and me. "Damn, Lew" I said,
"you didn't shoot yourself after all."
"Yes I did" he said,
and even then I felt the tingling down my back.
"Yes you did, too" I said—"I can feel it now."
"Yeah" he said,
"There's a basic fear between your world and
mine.  I don't know why.
What I came to say was,
teach the children about the cycles.
The life cycles.  All other cycles.
That's what it's all about, and it's all forgot."

A footnote: the birth name of Huey Lewis (of "Hip to be Square" fame) was Hugh Anthony Cregg. He changed his surname to Lewis as a tribute to the stepfather who helped raise him -- Lew Welch.


December 20, 2010

Day of the Dead Beat Poets

"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness..."

Do you need a reason to celebrate the great Beat poets? Well no, but anyway we had one. It's 55 years since Allen Ginsberg gave his first impassioned public reading of "Howl", the poem which "knocked the sides out of things", in the words of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who was there to hear it and the first to publish it, the next year. Last week we honoured the occasion at Central Library with the first antipodean "Day of the Dead Beat Poets", an inebriating evening of readings from the work of the dead (and some still-living) Beat poets.

Besides us hip librarians, we had that born-to-be-a-beat poet Bob Orr who, in the vein of Dean Moriarty travelling 3000 miles just to see me, took the day off work to be able to come in and gave a transcendental reading which included his fabulous poem -- which I was going to read if he didn't -- about panel-beating Neal Cassady's car, we had Michele Leggott and Jack Ross, among the public we had an American who grew up across the river from Paterson NJ and gave us a poem full of Beats and William Carlos Williams who had once treated his father which blew us away, we had a truck-farmer from San Jose California, we had Mel with burgundy hair, we had a guerrilla poet. We even had a drifter, whom I thought we might have group-hallucinated into being, so much did his appearance suggest a down-at-heel Dennis Hopper (who, aficionados will know, used to hang out with Allen Ginsberg).

syndetics-lcIt would have made Allen Ginsberg happy to know he was the catalyst for such a great evening. In the build-up to the event I read a few of the many books which have been written about him, or the Beats in general, since his death; I can recommend I Celebrate Myself: the somewhat private life of Allen Ginsberg, a thick biography by Bill Morgan, who knew Ginsberg from having worked on his archives with him, Beat, by Christopher Felver - more style than content but fun to look through and also it's pleasurably brand-new and shiny -- and The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso in Paris, 1957-1963 by Barry Miles, long-time chronicler of the Beats, which has a wonderful story about Ginsberg and Corso, stoned out of their minds, listening to a tape-recording of a performance by Antonin Artaud, the avant-garde actor/playwright/director, and being so deeply moved by its newness and strangeness they went to replay it, only to realise that they had been listening to it backwards, by mistake.

But my favourite of all the Ginsberg stories I read, the one which for me expresses the essence of the Ginsberg I love, comes from the website of Larry Keenan, a student of Michael McClure's who became a photo-documenter of the Beats. It goes like this:

"Once when I was visiting Allen in his apartment he asked me if I would like some coffee. Having said "Yes," he presented me with a metal bowl with coffee in it. The bowl seemed strange (like a dog dish) and I nursed the coffee to cool it down. Soon he started asking "Are you finished with that, man?" I would say "No, not yet" and after awhile I started to feel uncomfortable because the bowl seemed important to him. When I finally said "Yes," he grabbed the bowl away -- threw the remaining coffee in the sink and sat down with the bowl for his breakfast cereal. I was using his only bowl."

-- "Breakfast in his apartment" by Larry Keenan

December 12, 2010

one brown box

Unlike the way it always seems to happen in fairy tales, I was not heading off to market to sell the family cow when I stumbled onto good fortune the other day, but walking home from a K Rd art gallery. Feeling a bit disjunctive in the bright sun after emerging from the cool shadows of the Michael Lett Gallery where I had been watching four green-hued videos involving night, dark water and saturation at Campbell Patterson’s “Orewa” show, I went right past an open doorway beyond which stood a big empty brown box before the feeling of intrigue a big empty brown box still manages to inspire in me, even if with a bit of a delay compared to once upon a time, made me stop, turn around, go back and peer inside.

The open door was that of the objectspace gallery and the big brown box was part of an exhibition by Bronwyn Lloyd and Karl Chitham called “one brown box”, all about storybooks and fairy tales.

Princess and the pea bedEveryone whose heart stirs at the thought of fairy tales should go see this marvellous exhibition. Starting from the plainest structure with the most unlimited imaginative potential, the brown box, “one brown box” illustrates five classic fairy tales with sculptures and models made entirely from boxes and paper, such as a tiny canopy bed made by Bronwen Lloyd with a real pea (I asked Bronwen) on the pillow, an entire castle for the Steadfast Tin Soldier and, most amazing of all, Karl Chitham’s “King’s Tower” from the “Twelve Dancing Princesses”, which is a tower and a King’s face, too, perched high on a wall for all the world like a cardboard version of a river god grotesque in one of those mannerist stone grottoes in the gardens of old Italian villas.
There are also fairy tales retold from the point of view of minor characters (eg "Snow White: The Mirror’s Story”), an I Spy Cabinet and a Cabinet of Curiosities, and a wonderful display of Jack Ross’s collection of fairy tale books, with one of the nicest signs I have ever seen in an art show letting you know that you are welcome to pick them up and look at them, along with a written piece by Jack called “A Short History of Fairytales”.

I was happy to see Jack mention Italo Calvino’s book of traditional Italian fairy tales, which I was given as a child and read many times over, with no knowledge of Calvino’s literary status but a keen appreciation for their whimsy -- I remember chick peas which turned into children -- and for the figs, dates and pomegranates with which the stories were festooned, so … southern compared to those tales with little match girls freezing to death or bears bursting into houses to get out of the torment of snow.

Jack’s piece is reprinted in the brown paper-covered exhibition ‘catalogue’, which makes it possible for me to end with this wonderful quote from Dr. Johnson with which Jack introduces it:

“Memory once interrupted is not to be recalled. Written learning is a fixed luminary, which, after the cloud that had hidden it has passed away, is again bright in its proper station. Tradition is but a meteor, which if once it falls, cannot be rekindled.”

-- Dr. Samuel Johnson, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775).

The show is open until December 18th, at object space, 8 Ponsonby Road.

December 01, 2010

A glossary of hard-boiled slang

Last month the mouthpiece I got taking care of business for me out in California, he lets me know we’re behind the eight-ball. “You got to be straight with me, Vinny.” I tell him. “What’s it mean? Are we jake or are we in a jam?”

Actually what I said was “Vinny, every time someone says ‘we’re behind the eight-ball’, I never know, is that good or bad?”  Sadly un-hardboiled, but what’s a girl to do?

Well. Not long after, compiling a hard-boiled crime bookmark for our Libraries guys promotion, what did I come across but “Twists, slugs and roscoes: a glossary of hard-boiled slang” by William Denton, a web librarian in Toronto (hey, isn't that the same place the guy was from who made the list of Captain Haddock’s curses? Is this something to do with weather?). There it was, "behind the eight-ball", right between “beezer” (nose) and “bent car” (stolen car). If only I'd have known, it would have been eggs in the coffee.

According to Erle Stanley Gardner, in "Getting away with murder", a piece he wrote for The Atlantic which Denton reprints, that genius Dashiell Hammett’s dazzling command of criminalese was gained not so much from his time as a Pinkerton op, as we all thought, but from slang dictionaries. Apparently he even got the quintessential “shamus” from a dictionary, and here’s the startling claim: it’s not Irish, from Seamus, the cop on the beat, as I always thought, just as everyone did who’d ever seen a James Cagney movie or read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but Jewish-American, although the precise origin escaped Gardner, to his frustration.

What? Shamus is Jewish?

I did some sleuthing around and it looks as though it might be true. An article published a few years back in the Jewish Daily Forward, “Bogie speaks Yiddish”, makes a convincing case that 'shamus’ comes from the Yiddish word for the synagogue beadle, “shammes”,  the person who knows everyone’s business, or, as the proverb has it, "I don’t need to know him," Ikh ken dem shammes un der shammes ken di gantze shtot, “I know the shammes and the shammes knows the whole town.”

syndetics-lcAn Irish version of  'shammes', pronounced with a long 'a' like the ubiquitous Seamus, did sprout on the streets of New York. But, reports the article (whereby its endearing title), in the great Howard Hawks film version of  Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, when Humphrey Bogart is asked what he does and replies “I’m a shamus”, he gives it the Yiddish pronunciation, rhyming it with Thomas. Always a class act, Bogie.

In the book, although Eddie’s “pug” calls Philip Marlowe a shamus, Marlowe never calls himself one. What he says is “I’m a sleuth”. Raymond Chandler is one of my favourite writers, and I've read everything he ever wrote. He spent his final years in my home town of La Jolla, which he called 'Esmeralda' in the book he set there, Playback. It's not a good book, but then he was in bad shape, adrift on a sea of alcoholism, having found no anchor to replace his beloved Cissy, pink-rinsed curls and all.

As my mother replied when I checked the address and found out it was next door to our dentist (a sort of Chandlerian character who would be smoking a cigar as you settled into the chair, although he wasn't illegally dispensing drugs ending in -caine like Chandler's dentists do, at least as far as I know), and said "I know he didn't go out much, but Dr. Eller might have caught sight of him through the window", "I don't think so dear, in those years he was really always horizontal.”

'Tall, aren’t you?’ she said.

‘I didn’t mean to be.’

Her eyes rounded. She was puzzled. She was thinking. I could see, even on that short acquaintance, that thinking was always going to be a bother to her.

'Handsome too,’ she said, ‘And I bet you know it.'

I grunted.

'What’s your name?’

‘Reilly,’ I said. ‘Doghouse Reilly’.

‘That’s a funny name.’ She bit her lip and turned her head a little and looked at me along her eyes. Then she lowered her lashes until they almost cuddled her cheeks and slowly raised them again, like a theatre curtain. I was to get to know that trick. That was supposed to make me roll over on my back with all four paws in the air.

‘Are you a prizefighter?’ she asked, when I didn’t.

‘Not exactly. I’m a sleuth.’

-- from The Big Sleep, first published 1939

Fantastic magazine photo which appeared in Life Magazine of real-life shamus and acquaintances

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