Thursday, September 29, 2011

Hark! A Vagrant

After finishing Midnight's Children, I read One Day (it's okay, don't run to the bookstore and buy it or anything) then decided on something a little lighter. My friend lent me Kate Beaton's book of comics about history, literature, and occasionally just whatever:

I really, really wish I could illustrate this post with "Stupid Rooster Comics," but the format doesn't work that way, so please follow the link and go see it. It never stops being funny. Also look around for Jane Eyre, Gatsby and the Brontes.

I was familiar with Beaton's work only because my friend who lent me the book is a big fan, but now she's everywhere. We saw her at the Brooklyn Book Festival, and now she's about to be on WNYC in 20 minutes or so.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Life And How To Live It

In the spring, I wrote a two-post series about my commitment to loyalty, duty, hard work and being a square. I wrote it largely about The Wire, which I see as in many ways a tribute to what's worthwhile about institutions and eras we'll never get back.

One thing I didn't mention, because I don't spend a lot of time thinking about high school thank god, is how long I stick with things. Friends, haircuts, being a vegetarian (14 years and counting). For years and years, my favorite band was R.E.M. I started listening to them sometime between Automatic for the People (1992) and Monster (1994) because I loved their songs, but it turned out that what R.E.M. was about was not only alternative rock, but about knowing who you are, knowing what works, and sticking to it. They were from an era where selling your song to Microsoft made you a sellout, and they wouldn't do it. No drama, no feuding, no nonsense and no backing down, for 31 years.

Today R.E.M. announced that they're going the way of well-staffed newspapers and Rust Belt economies and breaking up.

Excuse me while I sit on the floor all night listening to my cassette tapes (which I still have! see what I'm saying!) of Fables of the Reconstruction and Life's Rich Pageant, remembering when it was still sort of okay to give things those kinds of earnest names.

When Automatic for the People, which I *think* is their best album (it's debatable for sure) was recorded, Michael Stipe was 32 years old. Unlike R.E.M., I am likely to live another month, and I will see 32 in just a few weeks' time. Not only do I not feel old, but I think this is further proof that I'm at the height of my powers. Bands break up, the world changes, but I'll still be here same as always, eating tofu, reading novels and caring about things.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Brooklyn Book Festival -- where to begin

Today is the day that I think I will start calling Nerd Thanksgiving (Election Day being Nerd Christmas). As with regular Thanksgiving, it's something of an all-day binge. You have to pace yourself to be able to sample everything you want to try. But at this Thanksgiving, no one watches football, or, that I noticed, even gets drunk. Today was the Brooklyn Book Festival, possibly the coolest annual event ever created. It's a full day of panel discussions and book signings, a place where people line up around the block to get tickets to see Paul Krugman or Jonathan Safran Foer, a day on which you will see more tweed and spectacles than at your average academic conference.

One of the most impressive things about this year's lineup is that it somewhat reflected the diversity of Brooklyn and of New York City. I have been to panel discussions that were comprised solely of not just white men, but middle-aged, middle-class, straight white men. I learned some things from those panels, but I probably could have learned more if more than one perspective was represented. Today not only did I see a single panel comprised only of straight white men, I didn't see one comprised only of white people at all. At the Brooklyn Book Festival, the value of diversity becomes immediately obvious, because we don't just hear the perspective of privileged white men (which I am interested in -- I love Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace and all sorts of classics written by dead white guys -- I'm just not interested in it *exclusively*). We hear about the perspectives of all different kinds of people from all over the world. There is no way an event that was centered around the Mailers and Updikes of the world (if they were still alive I mean) could have the same mind-opening potential as one at which I heard a women who lives in Cairo, two celebrated female novelists of color, and three black media critics (one is a cartoonist, but he's a media critic too I think).

The list of writers I saw:
Jodi Kantor
Ben Smith
Kevin Holohan
Tayari Jones
Justin Torres
Michael Kupperman
Keith Knight (my pick for hottest writer of the day; sorry ladies, he's married)
Kate Beaton
Jennifer Hayden
Hisham Mattar
Yasmine El Rahsidi
Lucette Lagnado
Sinan Atoon
Adam Shatz
Jhumpa Lahiri (she stood next to me for five seconds! fangirl alert!)
Liesl Schillinger
Brooke Gladstone (I met her and she signed my book! double fangirl alert!)
Patrice Evans
Jennifer Pozner
Juan Gonzalez

I think their names alone speak to the range of ideas I am still somewhat overwhelmed by. So often, white people only talk to white people about race, or Jews only talk to Jews about Israel, or academic or literary gatherings will relegate The Black Perspective to a panel or two that is specifically about race. Today I saw women disagreeing about whether reality TV is reflecting or influencing reality and the progress of feminism, Arabs and Jews arguing (in a civil way) about the Arab Spring and how optimistic we should be about the future of Egypt, and white, black and Hispanic novelists talking to each other about writing, about the creative process and where their ideas come from.

My brain is so full.

Oh! And today I also learned one piece of what I would call news: Jhumpa Lahiri's next novel will be set in Calcutta in the late 60s and early 70s, which is in part where Midnight's Children, which I'm finally almost done with, takes place. I can't wait to read a book by an author I enjoy that's about the same era, now that I know more about it, but where there will be female characters who do something besides cook and have babies. For what it's worth, what she read today was great. I could have sat in the Episcopal church for the full hour listening to that and not regretted missing her actual talk at all.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Midnight's Children

My friend and I are reading this (well, she's done) as a sort of two-person long-distance book club. I can't say I'm crazy about it, but I had a moment in the breakroom at my office today where I said to myself, "wait ... I think I ... get it!"

Is that the point of reading Great Books that one only sort of enjoys? To gain some sort of enlightenment and then, if you do it enough, maybe even insight or depth of character? One can hope.

At any rate, it's like this: the main character of this book was born at the exact moment India achieved independance from Great Britan. He and the other midnight's children all have special powers, and a special ability to communicate with each other; they have a special connection to India itself. There's a whole unreliable narrator dynamic, like is the main character making up this whole crazy life he's led where he was present for various important moments in the history of India and Pakistan and could communicate telepathically and so forth. There is also another midnight's child whose life is specifically parallel to his, and this is all set against a backdrop of repeated revolutions and civil wars, so that the reader is always able to observe what could have been if fate had twisted just a little bit differently.

To me, the larger point is this: all of our lives have epic qualities. Look at who you are, where you came from, how things have changed, and how differently it all could have turned out. In a way, we're all midnight's children. Metaphorically speaking of course.

Thursday, September 8, 2011