Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Salman Rushdie in Los Angeles

ONE of my best experiences as a books/authors reporter was spending most of a day wandering around LA with Salman Rushdie. We discussed his longtime interest in film while strolling through his old neighborhood in West Hollywood, talked about the Beatles and the English '60s over iced coffees at the Kings Road Cafe, and got into his years in hiding while having lunch nearby.

Rushdie is in town tonight as part of the public library's wonderful ALOUD series. It's held tonight at the Japan America Theatre, where he will be interviewed by Reza Aslan. (Rushdie is touring on his new novel, Luka and the Fire of Life.)

HERE is my piece on the author.

Would he have been happier as an obscure literary novelist, I asked him, rather than as an international celebrity?

"I think you make the best of what you get," he said in his plummy accent, wearing a dark blue suit and gesturing donnishly. "And it's really easy for me to shut it out. Like most novelists, I developed early on quite strong habits of concentration, and even a requirement of solitude. Every day I just go to a room, shut the door and work. And the fame thing feels very trivial."

Monday, November 22, 2010

Philip K. Dick in Marin Co.

RECENTLY your humble blogger ventured to Point Reyes Station, a beautiful little town on the Marin Coast, where Philip K. Dick spent several reclusive and very productive years. They were also perhaps his greatest period, during which he wrote The Man in the High Castle and began The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich.

The result is this New York Times story, which runs Tuesday and looks at a memoir/biography by his third wife, Anne Dick, called, The Search for Philip K. Dick.

In some ways, the area hasn't changed all that much since he lived there 50 years ago. West Marin is an isolated region of rolling hills, wind-swept beaches and small farms: Back then ranchers and farm workers dominated what’s become a liberal, affluent county north of the San Francisco Bay. On the street where the Dicks lived, it’s still easy to be startled by deer crossing the road, especially on nights when the fog has rolled in, and the region’s scent of redwood, fir and forest floor is strong. 

Anne described a lot of details I didn't have room for: At night the couple would play board games and Dick, who had worked at classical record stores in Berkeley in the ‘50s, would play Purcell or Schubert on the record player.

David Gill, who runs the Total Dick-head blog and wrote the book's introduction, spoke to me about "Dick's family-man period." He also observed that west Marin -- with its remoteness from civilization and tendency to shortages -- may've served as the author's model for the Mars he described in the novel Martian Time-Slip.

Our sense of an artist’s development usually involves some kind of external stimulus that knocks creativity into a higher pitch. But nobody knows where it comes from.

“Sometimes artists just do things because they’re ready to,” Jonathan Lethem told me. “But look at his life relationally: Dick was a son – an adolescent,” during his early, childless years, moving through a series of mentor relationships.

“In Marin, Anne was an adult in a different way than he was used to. Everything forced him into a role as a father as an adult. You can see the rest of his life as a running from that. But it also deepened the work.”

Friday, November 19, 2010

Clowes' Wilson Headed for Hollywood

JUST announced: Alexander Payne of Sideways fame will direct an adaptation of Daniel Clowes Wilson, his latest graphic novel. Deadline.com has the story of the deal with Fox Searchlight here.

A few months ago I met the Bay Area-based Clowes, whose Ghost World and Art School Confidential have been adapted, to discuss Wilson. The character is an enraged loner who sometimes shows flashes of heart and soul. Still, he may be the most unlikable Clowes protagonist yet.

"I didn't intend to go in and try to push the envelope on how unpleasant I could make him," a slim, bald and darkly handsome Clowes told me over coffee at a Los Feliz cafe. "It came from within: I thought I'd make something both personally meaningful and something an audience would find interesting."
"I think we have a similar worldview," the author allowed. "And his sense of humor — finding humor in the razor's edge between tragedy and comedy — there's a lot of resonance between me and him."
Here is my full piece. Very eager to see how this project goes.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Past Envisions the Future

LOOKING back at mid-century optimism is always both fascinating and depressing. All the labor-saving devices and exotic holidays -- weekends on the moon! -- we were going to get by now.

The science-fiction writer Gregory Benford, who teaches at UC/Irvine, and the editors of Popular Mechanics have put together hundreds of these predictions, from asbestos dresses to personal jetpacks, along with the original art which accompanied them in the magazine. Here is my story from Sunday's LA Times on The Wonderful Future That Never Was.

Benford, who also teaches physics, writes insightful essays that puts the whole future-looking enterprise into context. As any close reader of science fiction knows, we can tell a lot about an era by how it envisions its future.

Benford has also recently co-edited a tribute to science-fiction novelist Arthur C. Clarke, whose powers of predictions, especially re satellite communication, he praises. Sentinels: In Honor of Arthur C. Clarke, edited with George Zebrokwski, includes essays on the writer himself as well as stories by Heinlein and Asimov that speak to Clarke's ambitions. (It's published by Hadley Rille Books.)

Monday, November 8, 2010

Billy Bragg and Mavis Staples at UCLA

FRIDAY night at Royce Hall saw an unlikely double bill, with British folk-punk hero Billy Bragg playing a full set mixing politics and pop before soul goddess Mavis Staples, who channels the spirit of the black church and the civil rights movement.

This incongruous pairing ended up being a blast, though the two may have more in common politically than musically. (Both artists have also, of, course, worked with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy.)

It's easy to love Billy Bragg's early music -- those rough songs from the '80s belted out with a thick British accent and an electric guitar. For a while in the early '90s it seemed like Bragg was going to ride the alt-rock boom into something like fame: He had a small hit with the jaunty "Sexuality," co-written with Johnny Marr.  But the music that's come since the early '90s with some exceptions like the Woody Guthrie records with Wilco, has seemed less urgent.

So it was a thrill to see Bragg set up solo on the Royce stage with just a stack of amps and Telecaster. His set leaned heavily on political songs, including a cover of Woody Guthrie's "I Don't Have a Home in This World Anymore," and some new numbers that sounded good. His political rants in between songs were about as engaging and persuasive in their common sense and compassion. The recent U.S. elections clearly inspired him.

And his love songs -- "Greetings to the New Brunette," "Milkman of Human Kindness," "A New England" -- still sound great. I'd forgotten how great Bragg could be live. My wife lamented that she could not vote for this British citizen for president.

The highs of Mavis Staples -- best know as part of the Staples Singers -- were high indeed even if she was less consistent than Bragg. Alongside gospel -- "Creep Along, Moses" -- and soul numbers, with stirring vocal harmonies, she sang CCR's "Wrote a Song For Everyone" and The Band's "The Weight."

At times in the set Staples seemed to get lost, and she's some of her voice's middle range sounded worn. But Staples gave off so much decency and positive energy it was hard to mind, and her band was spectacular.

A fuller review HERE by Steven Mirkin in the Orange Co Register.