Thursday, April 29, 2010

Philip K. Dick's "Exegesis"

It's been decades. But at long last, the thousands of pages sf visionary Philip K. Dick wrote in the aftermath of his divine visions will see the light of day as a two-volume set edited by novelist/fanboy Jonathan Lethem and Dick scholar Pamela Jackson.

(Dick was of course living in Orange County during those hallucinogenic visions of 1974, in which God supposedly spoke to him, as well as during the long days and nights when he transcribed his experiences. Here for the relevant chapter of my recent story about the author's time in the Southland.)

“The title he gave it, ‘Exegesis,’ alludes to the fact that what it really was, was a personal laboratory for philosophical inquiry,” Lethem told the New York Times, here for full story. “It’s not even a single manuscript, in a sense – it’s an amassing or a compilation of late-night all-night sessions of him taking on the universe, mano-a-mano, with the tools of the English language and his own paranoiac investigations.”
The visions came after a girl delivered some medication to Dick for dental surgery. Not long after he began seeing visions from modern painting and to realize that the Orange County landscape around him was actually First Century Rome.
“It’s something that he talked about and created a kind of amazing aura around,” Lethem said, “so that people have an image of it as if it’s some kind of consummated effort. ‘I’m working on my exegesis.’ But what he really meant was, he was turning his brain inside-out on the page, on a nightly basis, over a period of years of his life.”

David Gill, who runs the Total Dick-Head blog, tells The Misread City: "The fact that Dick's most personal writings are seeing the light of day offers the best evidence yet that it is Dick himself that fascinates readers, and that for many of us his novels are simply a way to get to better know this incredibly iconoclastic thinker. Whether or not these notes will allows us to better know him remains to be seen. In the grandest Dickian sense he is again blurring the lines between art and artifice, mixing the private and the public, as well as the spiritual quest for truth with what might very well be a descent into madness, forcing us to remember Emily DICKinson's declaration that 'Much madness is divinest sense, to a discerning eye.' "

The first of two volumes is expected from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2011.

Photo credit: Philip K. Dick Estate

Monday, April 26, 2010

Magical Prose and Rethinking Literary Realism

On Saturday I led a panel at UCLA with three writers who work in what we might call slipstream, literary fantasy, conceptual fiction, surrealism, or some other school still to be named. While the specific label isn't particularly important, the emphasis on rethinking realism, on embracing the best of genres like fantasy and science fiction, and moving into what Michael Chabon has called "the borderlands" between literary categories is at the center of much the best fiction these days, I think.

HERE is a Jacket Copy blogger's coverage of my panel, which I described as about the Gen-X rebellion against doctrinaire realism, and which included the writers Aimee Bender (The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake), Lev Grossman (The Magicians) and Victor LaValle (Big Machine).

My favorite moment was when LaValle was asked if he'd drawn from any myths or legends in developing his literary style and he mentioned how he had read the Bible all the way through -- a volume, he said, drawn from so many previous ancient sources that if functions like an anthology.

The Jacket Copy post includes a pretty sharp summary of the stakes of the conversation as well as a reasonable unflattering photo of yours truly mid-syllable.

I quoted Chabon's excellent book of criticism, Maps and Legends, praised the work of Ursula Le Guin, and referred to Ted Gioia's blog, Conceptual Fiction, which is dedicated to these very issues. I also name-dropped my first "favorite writer," J.R.R. Tolkien, whose family monogram is pictured.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Can 21st Century Poetry Matter?

OKAY, okay, I'll admit it's a bit corny to post on verse during National Poetry Month, but I couldn't resist. I turned to some distinguished friends of The Misread City, from different walks of life, to tell my readers which recent books they're excited about. (I'm eager, too, to have some new titles to augment my on-again, off-again collection of Neruda, Elizabeth Bishop, James Fenton, Philip Larkin and Rilke.)

Let’s start with the fact that most educated people – including many literary people – read little or no poetry, especially recent poetry. It’s an issue that two members of my kitchen cabinet, poet/critic Dana Gioia and poet/ book publicist Kim Dower, have very different takes on.

"When people tell me -- and this is what they always tell me -- that they don't like most new poetry, I agree,” Dana says. “Most new poetry isn't very good. Poetry is one of those odd arts in which the work either has to be wonderful or it isn't worthwhile.  A mediocre movie might be watchable, but no one wants to spend two hours with a mediocre book of poems. It's like striking a book of soggy matches. None of them ignite.”

Kim, whose first poetry collection, Air Kissing on Mars, comes out in October on Red Hen, says this: “The state of poetry is so alive it's hyperventilating,” thanks to  an “abundance and variety of voices, styles, ways of seeing the world. Poetry is indeed the highest art and needn't be difficult or esoteric. Poetry should be enjoyed, read aloud, felt, inhaled.”

My third enthusiast has inhaled a lot -- maybe too much. “See, I can’t seem to stop myself,” Jeff Gordinier, a jet-setting Details writer and author of the Gen-X manifesto X Saves the World, wrote on this piece for the Poetry Foundation. “A compulsion to feed my poetry fix as soon as I hit town — any town, every town — seems, at least on the surface, like a safe indulgence.” But is it? (Read Jeff’s piece to find out.)

     Here are a few recommendation from Dana Gioia:

Kay Ryan, The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (2010).  Kay Ryan is funny, weird, and wise.  Her poems are very short, intricately written, and interwoven  with hidden rhymes.  This is not just one of the best books of poems this year. It will be one of the best books of the decade and beyond.  Ryan is the brilliant outsider looking at life from the odd and revealing angle. 

Katha Pollitt, The Mind-Body Problem (2009).  This is Pollitt's second collection of poems. Her first appeared 27 years ago.  This book is smart, witty, and consumately urbane -- depicting the highs and lows of the smart middle-class in middle age.  It is one of the few recent books that I have read cover to cover.  And then I read it again. Maybe more poets should wait 27 years between volumes.

A. E. Stallings Hapax (2006). Stallings is a Southern gal living in Greece, and she has a classical turn to her imagination.  Over the past ten years she has published so many ingenious and memorable poems--from the comic to heartbreaking--that she has become one of my favorite poets now writing.  If you doubt me, read her "First Love: A Quiz," a multiple choice poem that simultaneously tells the story of Persephone and a potentially murderous white-trash date in rhymed free verse.

David Mason, Ludlow: A Verse Novel (2007).  There are very few good book-length contemporary poems.  If the story is good, the poetry is usually missing.  If the language is strong, there is often very little happening.  Mason is a compelling storyteller who recreates the the violent Ludlow Massacre of 1914 when hired guns attacked striking Colorado miners and their families. This book reads better than most novels but adds the particular power of poetry to hit our emotions and imagination.  I was delighted to see the book belatedly featured a few weeks ago on the Lehrer News Hour--proving that poetry really is news that stays news.

    Here are Kim Dower’s recs:

Frank O'Hara, Selected Poems, A New Selection Edited by Mark Ford, published by Knopf (2008) - no one beats O'Hara when it comes to a fresh and original voice, New York school, the one poet who inspired and influenced so many. Everyday stories that linger for life.  Every word and beat is an exciting experience to cherish!  

Move right into Billy Collins who takes an ordinary experience and stretches it into a whole other way of seeing life. Any one of his books will toss readers into the appealing and unprecedented joys of poetry, and his latest, The Trouble with Poetry and Other Poems is as accessible as the others, with poems that show us ordinary moments as ways to explore ourselves and the world around us: lying in bed, eating a ham sandwich, the heads  of roses beginning to droop . . .  

Denise Duhamel is an exciting and vibrant poet and KA-CHING published last year by the University of Pittsburgh Press is an invigorating and smashingly original book about luck. Funny and twisted, one of Denise's poems is also in a great new anthology that all poetry lovers -- old and new -- should have at their bedside: The Best American Poetry 2009, edited by David Wagoner, published by Scribner.  Her poem, "How It Will End," is a provocative and humorous look at relationships and takes the "he said, she said" theme into a divine dimension.  

Thomas Lux's newest book, GOD PARTICLES, published in 2008 by Houghton Mifflin is gorgeous, dark heartbreaking and funny.  

Zen monk Seido Ray Ronci, winner of this year's PEN Award for his marvelous book, THE SKELETON OF THE CROW, Ausable Press, 2008, offers readers his life's work, a book rich and simple, beautiful and intimate.  

And Kim Addonizio, delights with her newest, LUCIFER AT THE STARLITE, published by Norton - imaginative, luxurious, intimate and kickass. 

    Finally, these are some picks from Jeff Gordinier, who goes book shopping with Keanu Reeves here:

Take It, by Joshua Beckman (Wave Books, 2009) Beckman surveys the fractal dementia of our landscape ("The neighbors were going at it / with gas plungers again" and "Big eaters of America, I join you in your parade") with the eyes of a doomed and displaced Romantic.

Wind in a Box, by Terrance Hayes (Penguin, 2006) Living, breathing, swiveling, shape-shifting poems about (or not) Michael Jackson, Dr. Seuss, David Bowie, Jorge Luis Borges, Melvin Van Peebles, and picking up a woman in "deep blue denim" at a bus stop.

I Was the Jukebox, by Sandra Beasley (Norton, 2010) The wispy mists of contemporary poetry tend to make you yawn? Beasley is the bracing antidote. Consider the opening lines of her poem "Osiris Speaks": "I left my heart in San Francisco. / I left my viscera in the Netherlands. / I left my liver on the 42 Line, headed / from Farragut Square to the White House."

Rain, by Don Paterson (FSG, 2010) Paterson is a Scotsman who is skilled at writing vibrant, exquisite poems in just about every emotional and intellectual mode: He can be brusque and tender (consider "Why Do You Stay Up So Late?") and scholarly and sexy and hauntingly mystical and uproariously funny, sometimes all at once. His poems are so alive that it can feel as though they might start crawling across the page. 

Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

THIS Saturday I am quite honored to be moderating a panel with three very fine novelists of my generation at the LA Times Festival of Books. The panel -- "Writing the Fantastic" -- takes place at 2, in Moore 100 on the UCLA Campus.

One of my obsessions the last few years has been the move away from realism -- and in many cases toward genre -- by writers born in the late '60s and early '70s. I sort of associate the issue with Michael Chabon, who has written so well about the matter and exemplifies it in his own work -- here for more on that -- but he's hardly the only one. Recently I've been interested, for instance, in the lead essay on Ted Gioia's Conceptual Fiction site.)

(A year or so ago I wrote about the phenomenon in a Guardian piece called "How Ursula LeGuin Led a Generation Away From Realism," here.)

In any case, my distinguished panelist include:

Aimee Bender: Known to many readers, esp Angelenos, for her debut story collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, Bender has a novel coming in June called The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, which continues her blending of folklore and whimsical surrealism. (Or is it folkloric whimsy -- I'm not quite sure, but I think of Chagall when I read her.)

Victor Lavalle: His novel Big Machine, which came out last summer, is my can't-put-down favorite right now. I came to this book cold, and don't want to spoil it for others, as the unfolding of a mystery that begins in a train station rest room is part of the delight of Big Machine. But this guy has a great touch. Lavalle grew up in Queens and is the youngest of the panel, born 1972. His novel drew raves from both the Wall Street Journal and Mos Def.

Lev Grosssman: I've admired Grossman's criticism, much of it in Time magazine, for quite a while now -- he's one of the most astute readers I know. His novel The Magicians has been a sensation, scoring The New York Times bestseller list, acclaim from the New Yorker and Junot Diaz. The novel superficially resembled the Harry Potter cycle in its school for magicians, but takes a much darker and more, um, adult turn.

Each of the authors has a blog, linked above, and I hope readers of The Misread City will check these three out whether they can attend the panel or not.

And remember: Though Lavalle and Grossman did not grow up on the West Coast, it was not their fault.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Persistence of Frank Herbert's "Dune"

THE novel Dune, started out about as unpromisingly as a novel can -- published after many rejections, on a press specializing in auto manuals. But spoke to its own time as well as to ours, and it's still the best-selling sf novel ever.

HERE is my LA Times story on the novel and its legacy in literature, ideas and film.

There are of course all kinds of connections between Dune with Star Wars and Avatar. (See "white man saves the world" subgenre.)

One thing I ran out of room for, in my story, was my conversation with Kevin Misher, one of the two producers of the upcoming film adaptation.

"David Lynch made a good David Lynch movie," he told me. "I didn't feel like it reflected my experience with the book Dune."

"I think The Lord of the Rings opened up the possibility of what you can do with classic themes and a classic work. What Peter Jackson showed is that faithful doesn't mean slavish."

On Frank Herbert: "Was was very prescient, and created a science-fiction parable: His future was our present. It was an extremely entertaining adventure that comments on our world today. The human story at the core of Dune -- the emotional story of a family trying to survive-- is what's helped it stay atop the sf charts for 45 years."

More on Dune's film adaptation on future posts of The Misread City.

The Artistry of Cole Gerst

THE graphic design genius of Cole Gerst struck me the first time I saw his indie-rock posters for Spaceland and the T-shirts he designs as Option-G: Birds, bears and other animals against a cool, retro-modernist background.

His work struck me as in the tradition of architect John Lautner and illustrator Charley Harper, with its mariage of nature and culture -- what architecture historian Alan Hess has called "organic modernism."

But his new work shows that marriage breaking down. The animals are still there, but in a much more perilous cityscape.

HERE is my piece on Gerst, and his new show at Ghettogloss Gallery, in today's LATimes.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Record Store Day 2010

TODAY is National Record Store Day, a time to celebrate and look back at an institution dying the same slow death as delis, jazz and newspapers. But with some great moments left and some great moments ahead.

HERE is a previous post on Record Store Day that gets into my own personal history with record shops, and includes an article about record store clerks in LA, especially at Amoeba Music.

I'm also reviving a post on the great American folk-blues fingerpicking guitarist John Fahey, who like me is a Marylander who moved to the West Coast. One of his records is being reissued today in honor of Record Store Day. My post here.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Return Of Pavement

Pavement, arguably the finest indie-rock band of the '90s, has reunited for a spring and summer tour: I saw a very focussed and often wonderful show in Pomona, Calif, last night -- those guitars still sound so alien and familiar at the same time -- they will be at Coachella on Sunday, and a Sept. 30 Hollywood Bowl appearance has just been announced.

This was, of course, the unsentimental kind of Gen-X band that was not supposed to go in for a Boomer style reunion. My story in Saturday's LA Times is HERE.

Reunions typically take place for financial reasons, of course, but also because of warm, gauzy feelings between fans and the bands themselves. They’re the feelings that provoke Bic-lighter choruses, power ballads, and “farewell” tours with band members hugging. But punk – and the indie bands that took their cue from its idol-smashing style – was dryer-eyed.

“If you take the music of the Pixies and Pavement, you have some of the most unsentimental music imaginable,” Jeff Gordinier, a Details writer and author of the Generation X manifesto “X Saves the World,” told me. “A lot of Gen X music aims to eradicate sentimentality, which they associate with a Boomer sense of self-inflation and a utopian view of everything from saving the world to romance.”

Pavement was different. Their songs seemed to mean nothing, or everything: Unlike classic-rock bands that intoned lyrics about love and loss with poignant emphasis, Malkmus sang earnestly only when he got to the most nonsensical part of the song: “Praise the grammar police, set me up with your niece.” On the words that seemed to matter, he was as flatly detached as the band’s Sonic Youth-inspired guitar tunings.

In another break from ‘50s and ‘60s tradition, they didn’t come from a music scene with its layered traditions – Liverpool, Memphis, Minneapolis – but rather, seemingly simultaneously, from Stockton and Brooklyn, and the University of Virginia, where some members bonded over the arcane collection at the college radio station.

Some of what’s going on is just the inevitable return of a band people liked the first time and miss a decade later – just like any other rock reunion. After all, pining for the brighter moments of one’s past is not unique to any generation or musical ideology: We all feel it. Throw in wars and a recession and we may feel it more than usual.

But longing for a band like Pavement can signify a yearning for something broader: a craving for the days when the indie ethos seemed to be taking over the world, when Nirvana and Teenage Fanclub were giving Boomer icons a run for their money. It stirs indie-centric Xers like nothing else.
“Today, for a lot of us, the music we hear in the mainstream, at the Grammys, is just schlock,” says Gordinier, who is 43. “For a time, bands that mattered were on the radio. I don’t think it ended when Cobain died. I think it ended with Hansen – then we saw N’sync and Britney Spears, the revenge of the boy bands and bubblegum. The indie ethos just evaporated; it was rendered moot."

Gen X nostalgia, then, is essentially different from the earlier brand, in that it’s private, sub-cultural, instead of the mass-marketed public group hug that marks the Boomer version. This is different from, say, another Crosby, Stills and Nash reunion, Gordinier says. “Even though Pavement is doing a reunion tour, 99 and 3/4 percent of the country have no idea it’s happening. It’s for the people who were into it. It’s not gonna be referenced on ‘American Idol.’ ”

And because the songs haven’t been played to death, they’re retained some of their mystery. “Wanting to experience that mystery,” Gordinier says, “is a very different impulse, I think, than wanting to wallow in nostalgic bathos.”

Last night's show, by the way, included most of the obvious college-radio hits, as well as nearly all of Slanted and Enchanted. Can't wait to see em at the Bowl in September, where they will play with Sonic Youth.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Spring in California

DESPITE some early support for sage and cilantro, the fragrant, woody rosemary seems to be leading my Favorite Herb poll.

Still a couple days left to vote -- a lot could happen between now and then.

Update: Poll results in! It's rosemary, then cilantro then basil. Take a bow, folks!

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Slyness of Jeremy Denk

ONE of the coolest and most genuinely individualistic musicians I've ever met is the classical pianist Jeremy Denk, whose blog Think Denk is witty, sometimes loopy, and always provocative. He's an enthusiast of Nabokov and Proust, and a player of very deep feeling whose treatment of Ives has left some friends spellbound.

HERE is my piece on Denk, who comes to town next week for two concerts with the LA Chamber Orchestra.

The roots of Denk's blog -- which The New Yorker's Alex Ross has praised as bearing the kind of voice that could only exist on the web -- begin with him rehearsing Mozart at a church in El Paso.

"This crazy man came into the church," Denk recalls, "and started lecturing me on Mozart and the purpose of music. I wasn't entirely sure if he was going to kill me . . . or what."

I urge all music lovers to check this guy out. He's a fan of Magnetic Fields and Rufus Wainwright and a truly lively mind.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Cool New Blog Launch

TODAY I want to announce the launch of a new blog dedicated to subjects of pressing importance here in California -- education, books, technology, libraries and reading. Dig Me Out -- the name comes from the founder's roots in '90s indie rock -- looks at these subjects and takes a special interest in Young Adult fiction.

It's run by Pasadena school librarian Sara Scribner, who like many of her ilk in Southern California has been pink-slipped by her school district.

The fact that Sara -- and that this turn of events could exile us out of state -- is my wife makes me even more enthusiastic at directing readers of The Misread City to Dig Me Out.

Sara'a two latest posts are about the erosion of quality public education -- something she and I both benefited from on different coasts in the '70s and '80s --  and the disappearance of parents from YA novels.

Hope my readers find Sara's new blog intriguing.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Remembering the Civil Rights Years

LIKE a lot of people, I knew the reputation of Eyes on the Prize, the famous documentary about the civil rights movement in the Deep South in the '50s and '60s. But watching all six hours of it was simultaneously spirit-rousing and soul-crushing as I watched the movement beaten back time and time again.

The documentary, which originally broadcast in 1987, has been out of circulation for decades, but is back on PBS and now available on DVD for the first time.

HERE is my LA Times piece on the program, which included interviews with some of the show's creators as well as a UCLA professor to put it in perspective.

I must say, as a white person, even one raised by anti-racist parents far enough after the events in the program, I found some of the "resistance" by segregationists almost painful to watch. I've never understood the impetus for black militancy so clearly as I do after seeing what well-armed white folk -- both police and "volunteer" racists -- did to non-violent marchers, many of them women and children.

Amazing to be reminded that Emmett Till's killers were never brought to justice despite admitting to having killed a 14-year-old boy and dumping his body in the river. Some of the politicians are incredible, when you compare the interviews they give years later to the footage of the '50s and '60s.

Sometimes the old and new footage comments on each other, as when Selma, Alabama mayor Joseph Smitherman, mocks the protesters as media-savvy phonies in a contemporary interview before a flashback to 1965 footage in which he refers to “Martin Luther Coon,” before apologizing.

My piece closes by wondering about the connection between the movement and the election of Barack Obama. New Yorker editor David Remnick has made that link quite explicit, apparently, in his new book, The Bridge.

The Southern resistance to "government meddling" and crowing about "state's rights" sure takes on a new context after you've reflected on the events of this period. 

Photos show Emmett Till and Rosa Parks with Martin Luther King.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Johnny Cash It Is

GIVEN the people who seem to follow my blog, I expected Gram Parsons or Townes Van Zandt -- both key figures in that transition from country to alt-country -- to run away with this poll.

But Johnny Cash, whose career was both driven and nearly undermined by his struggles with alcohol, drugs, politics and Christianity, comes out on top. He is, to my ear, the most complicated of his generation of country and rockabilly musicians.

I should add, as one learned commentator has already mentioned, Cash does not tower over the competition simply as a songwriter. Most of his great songs were done by the time he recorded the Sun Sessions (though I am partial to a song recorded later called "I Still Miss Someone" that both Dylan and Richard Thompson favor.) His late-life resurgence, fueled by Rick Rubin and the American Recordings, came almost entirely from songs written by others, from Beck, the band Spain, Sheryl Crow, as well as traditional songs. (I love the Cash disc, part of an American box set, My Mother's Hymn Book.)

But the whole package of Cash, as singer, as performer, as symbol of guts and integrity, proved overpowering to the readers of The Misread City. His singing can make a poem of Rod McKuen's sound profound (as he did on "Love's Been Good to Me.)

I should add that while I adore Cash, new and old, I am a Townes man myself, and have strong feelings for some songs of Parsons -- "Hickory Wind" and "She" most obviously. As some pointed out, Parson's was active so briefly that it's hard to know what kind of body of work he would have produced.

The poll, like all of mine, required I leave some people out -- Dolly Parton, John Prine, Alejandro Escovedo, Jimmy Webb, Kristofferson, others. But I feel strongly that a number of very serious talents were on the resulting list.

To break it down: Cash got a bit more than 1/3 of votes, Willie Nelson got about a third, and Townes (photo, right) a hair less than a third. Merle Haggard, who was leading in the poll's early days, came in next, while Lucinda Williams and Gram lagged into last place. (Parsons in last place? Sheesh!) Some thought Willie, because of records like Red Headed Stranger, should be the winner hands down, and I can't disagree strenuously with that -- I love his '70s records.

Participants were allowed to cast votes for more than one artist. And I limited this to post-Hank Williams since Hank would surely run away with this as surely as Dylan would take a best rock songwriter poll.

More on these American originals shortly. My black hat is off to the late Mr. Cash today.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Saving SoCal's Libraries, Part 2

RECENTLY I wrote about the plan of Pasadena Unified School District to get rid of all of its school librarians and, probably, shut all of its school libraries.
HERE is a new interview librarian Sara Scribner, who is also my wife, gave to her field's main publication, School Library Journal, on this and related topics.

Sample exchange: 

Do you think administrators and teachers value school librarians?

This is the way I see it: most teachers and administrators went to school more than 10 years ago. If you've been in an undergraduate or graduate program recently, you see that everything has changed so drastically in the realm of research and technology that it is a new world, a new universe. Everything is different.
Teachers see how students are manipulating the technology, though, and they're seeing bad information, false information, and an explosion of plagiarism.
They're worried. But they are so busy preparing students for these high-stakes tests that they often struggle to make the time for research projects. 

Sara -- who is quite a shy person and is only wading into this debate because she's fighting for something she believes in -- has also launched a new blog devoted to books, libraries, technology and education. Here it is: Dig Me Out.

Photo credit: I cheated slightly, as this library is in Italy.