Literary Review

50 Years On the Road!

on_the_road.jpgDear Jack, 

Hey, man, 50 years, and On the Road is still going, still selling, still talking in your own special bebop prose to the young at heart. It's a classic. And you, of course, have long gone to the great beyond with Janis and Jimi and Elvis, and all the other cool lost souls of excess; too much talent, too little control.

Life is so filled with ironies. It took you years to sell that book that has now sold in the millions. Publishers kept turning up their collective noses. The draft you completed in 1951 didn't come out until the fall of '57. Read more »

Norman Mailer, R.I.P.

norman_mailer.jpgThe lion silenced. Norman Mailer roared over the literary scene forever and now he's gone. He spat out words like the boxers he so loved sprayed punches, but no more. He ran for mayor of New York City, and he could have been mayor of the world. He talked shit and wrote like an angel. A son of Harvard he enlisted to be a combat grunt in WWII so he could get material, and it worked. Read more »

Elegy to a Lost City

skin_lane.jpgSkin Lane
by Neil Bartlett (Serpent's Tail, paperback)

Neil Bartlett's new novel is a strange elegy to a lost city, a lost trade, and in many ways the manner in which time tramples all that was once important to the lived and spent. We are all destined to leave detritus. All that mattered will mean little to future eyes. The loves, the losses, the passions that burned so fiercely, become invisible with the savage progress of existence. Read more »

Behind Every Great Woman...


Song Without Words: The Photographs and Diaries of Countess Sophia Tolstoy by Leah Bendavid-Val (National Geographic Society)

Count Leo Tolstoy, author of War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Death of Ivan Ilych, and so many other masterpieces (to use an overused, but totally apt word) seems like he should have lived in another eon. Surely he must have hung out with Socrates, or Aeschylus, or, at the very least, Shakespeare. But he didn't. If not quite of our time, he did manage to live into the 20th century (1910 to be exact), and there are films and photographs of him. Read more »

"By George, Wilfred got it"


The House That George Built: With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty

by Wilfred Sheed (Random House)


There's a story towards the end of this crackling essay cum history that could sum up the bittersweet but ballyhooing tonality of the entire glorious screed. We see an aging but still-in-fighting-trim Yip Harburg, leftie songsmith of the golden age, the Gershwin age, as he's regaling the '60s radical Father Berrigan and his gang with a rousing rendition of his "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime." Read more »

High School Unconfidential


I Love You, Beth Cooper

by Larry Doyle (Ecco)

The big question any writer attempting a tome on secondary school must face: is high school more pathetic or more hilarious? The fact is, it is pathetic when you're going through it -- a hormonally exploding biology experiment in an all-expense-paid cage. But afterward, when as an adult humor writer you tackle it, is it funny? Read more »

Poison Pixel Letters from Life

cynthia_kaplan.jpgThe incessant "I, I, I," of the essay form, not to say the memoir tsunami that has washed over reading for the past ten years or so, has created a din that can make one hunger for some good old third-person omniscient narration (hello Dickens, hello Tolstoy) -- but more on that in another post. The fact is, I have enough dirty -- and slightly soiled -- laundry of my own to keep me busy. (And there I go, using the dreaded "I" -- it can't be helped. Mea culpa.) But having said that, when writers uses their own experiences as a window to subjects beyond how their parents used to beat them with heroin syringes while they were converting to fundamentalist Christianity and performing root canals on themselves, the form can't be beat. Read more »

Mark Harris November 19, 1927 - May 30, 2007

mark_harris.jpgMark Harris, who died Wednesday from complications of Alzheimer's Disease, made his mark on American literature with four baseball novels. The most famous of them, the second in the series, Bang the Drum Slowly, was filmed twice. First came a television performance in 1956 (the year the novel was published) on The U.S. Steel Hour, with Paul Newman playing the role of Henry "Author" Wiggen, star pitcher of the NY Mammoths and narrator of the series. (Wiggen anticipates the real-life ballplayer/authors Jim Brosnan and Jim Bouton.) Then in 1973 came the movie (screenplay by Harris), with Robert DeNiro -- in just his tenth role -- as terminally ill catcher Bruce Pearson, a part that, along with DeNiro's appearance in Mean Streets the same year, established him as an acting force. (Danny Aiello makes his first film appearance in a minor role.) Read more »

A Young One Grows Up

overtaken.jpgIf you know Alexei Sayle, you know him as one of the loonies in the early '80s shaggy dog English sitcom The Young Ones. And don't worry, if you haven't seen it, today's erstwhile comedy writers who try to craft sitcoms that will stave off the Internet have seen the program. But whether or not you've seen this cauldron of anarchy -- punker, hippie, businessman, etc., squatting together in Thatcherite angst -- you wouldn't necessarily have pegged Sayle, one of its stalwarts, as a writer of books. And not just a writer of books, a writer of fiction books, and good ones. Read more »

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., November 11, 1922 - April 11, 2007

kurt_vonnegut_jrKurt Vonnegut died Wednesday from brain injuries sustained after a fall. So it goes. He was initially filed under science fiction. He wrote in The New York Times in 1965, "I learned from the reviewers that I was a science-fiction writer. I didn't know that. I supposed that I was writing a novel about life, about things I could not avoid seeing and hearing in Schenectady, a very real town, awkwardly set in the gruesome now. I have been a sore-headed occupant of a file-drawer labeled 'science fiction' ever since, and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a tall white fixture in a comfort station. The way a person gets into this drawer, apparently, is to notice technology. The feeling persists that no one can simultaneously be a respectable writer and understand how a refrigerator works."  Read more »

Blasting Through the Doors of Perception

beyond_sight.jpgTalk about high concept -- how about a photography book by blind photographers? You read that correctly, people who can't see (or are substantially sight-impaired) taking pictures. Not just people, teenagers -- the most perceptive stage of being known to man (and woman.) Needless to say, when Tony Deifell, the author/curator of the essential book Seeing Beyond Sight, broached the topic with the outreach director of the Governor Morehead School for the Blind in 1992, she thought he was pulling a prank. The results are anything but. Read more »

Debora Spar: The Baby Business

baby_biz.jpgOne of the more important and timely books of last year, The Baby Business: How Money, Science, and Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception (Harvard Business School Press) doesn't seem to be coming out in paperback. In fact, you can grab the hardcover for $6.62 on Amazon. Where's the fairness in that? The masses should be in an uproar.

Anyway, I caught up with its author, the stylish Debora Spar, as she was treading the pathways of City College in upper Manhattan. She was there to lecture a group of young undergraduate feminist theorists. Read more »

Gray's Anatomy

gray_dylan.jpgThe Bob Dylan Encyclopedia by Michael Gray (Continuum)

Like a bloody train wreck, some books just have an inevitable likelihood of being written. They are labors of twisted love and devotion holding a virtually pornographic fascination for both the writer and his audience. Dense and devotional, it is no coincidence that this weighty tome resembles a cross between a dictionary, a Bible, and a pathology manual. Read more »

Korporate Komedy Koup!

blackberry.jpgNapoleon couldn't conquer Britain. Neither could Hitler. But the Blackberry (tm) has accomplished what neither of these maniacs could. What's worse, it brought with it the bilge of American corpo-speak and created in its wake cadres of globalist, Golf-worshiping business-types. As a result, the land of Shakespeare has educated people running around spouting rubbish like "best in class," "core competencies," and "benchmarking."

Lucy Kellaway's recent e-mail novel, Who Moved My Blackberry, creates a laff-riot by tracing a year in the life of one Martin Lukes, proud author of the concept of "Creovation" (tm). Read more »

ANNIVERSARIES: "Howl" Published Fifty Years Ago

howlAllen Ginsberg's "Howl," published in Howl and Other Poems in November 1956 (the fourth item in the famous City Lights Pocket Poets series), is the most influential and iconic poem of the past half-century.

It went into the world with a wonderful introduction penned by fellow New Jerseyite and poet William Carlos Williams, who did as good a job as an establishment poet could of preparing an unsuspecting world for the force that was about to realign it: "Literally he has, from all the evidence, been through hell. On the way he met a man named Carl Solomon with whom he shared among the teeth and excrement of this life something that cannot be described but in the words he has used to describe it." And, "He avoids nothing but experiences it to the hilt. He contains it."

Read more »

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