A Brush With Fame

Saturday was one BLEARY night in NYC, off gallivanting with my high school buddy Adam. Got back to his apartment around 3:45am, but not before stopping at a “street meat” food cart a block from his midtown apartment.

We met up with Debbie, another high school friend, who was, Adam informed me, Cindy Crawford’s personal trainer. We didn’t remember each other at all from Strath Haven, which may have been for the best. I only attended high school with them for a year (Mom & I moved down to Pennsylvania in 1988, going into my senior year of school), but seem to have more friends from that one year than I do from the 17 years I spent in New Jersey. There’s probably some significant reasons for that, which I’ll go into at a later date.

Earlier in the night, before meeting Adam at the 2nd Ave. Deli (ostensibly kosher, but open on Saturday; go figure), I walked over to St. Mark’s Book Shop, where I thought I’d browse, try to get some ideas for what I’m going to do with the Paul West book’s design. A short, balding, stocky man with sideburns walked past me and around the other side of the shelf I was browsing. I was pretty sure I recognized him, wrestled with the thought for a moment, and went over to confirm my suspicion.

“Mr. Shawn?” I asked.

“Yes?” he replied.

So there I was, standing in the presence of Wallace Shawn. Now, most people who can visually identify him don’t know his name. They probably see him and think of the two great character roles he’s played in the movies: the “That’s inconceivable!” guy from The Princess Bride, or geeky Mr. Hall in Clueless (which he also played in the TV version). Don’t get me wrong; both were fine movies, but I’m pretty sure hearing about those roles burns his ass. It’d irritate ME, if I had higher intentions than comedic bit-parts.

Which Mr. Shawn does. His father, after all, was William Shawn, a legendary editor at The New Yorker. And, beyond all the comedy roles, Wallace Shawn graduated Harvard and Oxford, wrote and starred in My Dinner with Andre, and translated Machiavelli. So rather than bring him down by citing his (gifted) comedic work, which mainly plays off of his cartoonish appearance, I said:

“I just wanted to let you know, The Designated Mourner may be one of my favorite plays ever.”

A smile brimmed his face. “Why, thank you,” he said.

We talked briefly, then I left the store. I thought about taking out my digital camera and snapping a shot of us in the store, but:

a) I didn’t want to draw too much attention to him; and

b) I would’ve had to crouch down pretty far to fit both of us in the frame.

I have several other bumping-into-celebrities stories that I’ll share sometime. The best one involves meeting demented redneck baseball pitcher John Rocker . . .

News To Abuse

Sorry not to have written in the past week. Work’s been hectic, and my evenings have been spent at work on that Paul West book (“The Immensity of the Here and Now”). I’m going to publishing it, and hope to have it all put together in time for a hardcover release by 9.11 of this year. This site’ll likely chronicle a lot of that activity, offering some insight into the strange world of small press publishing.

And now, on with the Gil Roth Show . . .

Y Kant Gil Turn Away

I was helping put together an NEA grant application for one of my authors last night (yeah, I know, exciting way to spend a Friday night; sue me), and had VH1 Classic on in the background. For those of you not familiar with it (I think it’s only on satellite), this channel spends most of its time showing videos from the 1980s. And not just later ’80s metal bands or anything; VH1 Classic airs ridiculous amounts of great New Wave tunes and post-New Wave pop. Which is to say, it’s my childhood (youth, really) splattered on a TV tube.

Last night, during the Request Hour, they aired a video for a song called “The Big Picture.” It was from Tori Amos‘ first effort, known as “Y Kant Tori Read.” I recognized the voice and turned to watch the video. I found myself transfixed for the next 4+ minutes. Somehow, a major label felt that they needed to position this girl as Tiffany’s sluttier sister. The hair was teased up, the skirts were short, and she spent the last two minutes of the video bouncing to a beat, with the camera strategically trying to catch some jiggling.

No, really. Tori Amos. Jiggling. Now, this isn’t to say she wasn’t kinda hot, especially in the part where she was wearing leather low-riders and a little green top. But considering how her career took off when she was re-positioned as a demented art-school girl of doom (I’m generalizing; don’t kill me) a few years later, it’s sort of an amazing transformation.

I mean, there are times that I marvel over the career progression of The Beatles. They managed to go, in 4 years, from (incredibly gifted) pop music writers into innovators whose work is so profoundly uncanny that we barely recognize its influence upon us. By which I mean, a bunch of aspects of contemporary music are so Beatles-derived that we have a hard time imagining that they didn’t exist previously. Not to give them sole credit/blame for music today. In fact, they were part of a pretty insanely creative matrix of musicians that drove each other to greater heights through competition. But that’s neither here nor there.

What I’m getting at is that, given the Lilith Fair-like aspect of her later career (which, from what I gather, has led to a bizarrely esoteric recent release), it’s hard for me to imagine that she would’ve been so willing to be marketed like that back in 1988. But then, a lot of people do crazy things for fame. I’m fortunate enough not to have come anywhere close to fame, and instead have negotiated my way through a whole ton of regular life.

And, though I’ve barely listened to Tori Amos’ work since about 1995, I’ll always hold her in a certain regard. After all, without her Little Earthquakes album (plus Diva, by Annie Lennox), getting girls during my senior year of college could’ve been a lot tougher . . .

Straight But Not Narrow

Spent yesterday down in Philadelphia, helping out my friend Robert Drake. In 1999, Drake was beaten nearly to death by a couple of queer-bashers in his apartment in Ireland, and has been slowly rehabbing since (he’s in a wheelchair now, and likely will be for the rest of his days). After the attack, his loved ones moved him back to Philadelphia, where he lived before moving to Sligo. Yesterday, I drove down from northern NJ to help move him into a new apartment. Turned out that most of the big move was done, with the furniture and TV getting moved on Thursday by Drake’s “chief operating officer,” Butch. The remaining job was moving 70-80 boxes of books to the home of Ed Hermance, owner of Giovanni’s Room, a queer bookstore on 12th & Pine in Philadelphia.

[For reference’s sake (and I know I’ll come off as vaguely homophobic here), I’m straight. I have a lot of queer friends, and one of the books Voyant has published is about as queer as it gets, but hey. Before he was attacked, Drake and I were walking to The Book Trader, and he mentioned that I fell into the “Straight, but not narrow” category. I was glad to find out this exists.]

After leaving Ed’s place, I met up with an old (girl)friend from grad school. We had tea at a little cafe (I quit drinking soda, particularly my greatest friend/deadliest nemesis, Cherry Coke, back in October), talked art and geopolitics, and probably riled some antiwar protestors at a nearby table. My pro-war stance and its rationale tend not to go over very well. My tea-companion, however, understood where I was coming from.

Many of my friends don’t. While my suburban coworkers tend to be much more in support of deposing Hussein, my friends tend to be against it. They tend to believe that it’s solely a blood-for-oil war. I understand where they’re coming from, and I don’t think it’s entirely wrong. Obviously, stabilizing the oil supply from that region would be a boon for America, Europe, and other industrialized countries. However, I’m not sure that these protestors are truly grasping the significance of 9.11 and the necessity of this pre-emptive military policy. I’ll write more about this later, when I’ve put it together more cogently.

PS: If you’re a charitable soul and want to help Drake out, make a tax-deductible contribution to the Robert Drake Health Fund, c/o Arch St. Meeting, 320 Arch St., Philadelphia, PA 19106, or call 215.629.0257.

Happy Valentine’s Day

It was a happier Valentine’s Day than I was expecting. As if in response to my Pattern Recognition complaints, something astonishing happened yesterday. I received what may be the first legit post-9.11 novel.

Background: in addition to editing a pharmaceutical trade magazine by day, I run Voyant Publishing, a small press publishing house, by night. One of the authors I’ve published, Paul West, recently asked me if I’d be interested in looking at a new book of his. We worked together last year to reissue his great novel, The Place In Flowers Where Pollen Rests and, though sales have been sluggish (we’ve done much better with the scatological queer porno romance mystery academic thriller novel, The Mad Man, by Samuel R. Delany), Mr. West seemed impressed enough by our operations to offer me the new book.

Yesterday, it showed up in the mail. I got home from work and found a shoebox with the return address of Mr. West’s wife, the poet and essayist Diane Ackerman, sitting at my door. Any plans of going into NYC to meet friends on Valentine’s Day were dashed. I sat down and read the first section of the book (65 pages) after dinner, and was floored. Mr. West has thus far seemed to nail down the book I’ve been desperate to see since the terrible events of 9.11. I had to restrain my impulse to call him at home and tell him that we’d publish it. There’s still 350 or so pages, and things could go awry. But I’m amazed at what he’s written so far. (My apologies for the vagueness: it’s deliberate, in order to respect Mr. West’s privacy and not give away too much about an unpublished book.)

Always thinking as a publisher (in addition to an aesthete), it warmed my heart that Mr. West chose a title almost as difficult to remember as The Place In Flowers Where Pollen Rests: that is, The Immensity of the Here and Now. Never hurts, with books that need word-of-mouth promotion, to use a long and unwieldy title . . .

I’d Order the Fish

Feb 10: Traveling to Phoenix for a pharmaceutical conference (day job). Off my head right now, mainly from not getting enough sleep (the result of a double-OT finish to the NBA All-Star Game last night, and my compulsion to finish reading Gould’s Book of Fish before this trip. It bears re-reading, which is as high a compliment as I can give a contemporary book.
I wanted to finish that one so I could have a “guilt-free” reading of William Gibson’s new novel, Pattern Recognition. I was intrigued by the idea that he set the book in 2002, basing it firmly in a post-9.11 world, instead of an indeterminate SF future. However, that reality seems barely to exist, even though the lead character is a New York resident (she’s in London as the novel begins, and has now jetted her way to Tokyo). Only 150 pages in (as if Gibson had written the previous pages before the attacks) do we get a real mention of the attacks, and Cayce’s story of that day. And it was a pretty lifeless story. The character only expresses the moment-to-moment of that morning, then glosses over everything else. While the destruction of the towers was obviously the most traumatic, emotionally devastating part of the attacks, the reshaping of the world afterward should have been much more prominent in Cayce’s psyche.

As is, there’s barely any sign that this novel needs to be taking place in 2002 (so far). Outside of the necessity of talking about a “new century,” there’s no sign of a new world. Wouldn’t cool-hunter Cayce have noticed the hip trend of banging firemen, in the months after the attacks? With all her talk of grading athletic gear brands, shouldn’t there be some mention of seeing these things on donation piles for the relief workers? Not so far (halfway in). The resonances that could bring the book more vividly into our day-to-day are lacking. Perhaps it’s a function of Gibson’s living so far from here (Vancouver), not seeing what the fruits were borne in the months after.

So I”m disappointed thus far. I”ll probably finish the book before we land, given that this flight is actually FIVE HOURS long (I thought it’d be closer to four, for some reason), and they’ve already gone through the 90 minutes of Jennifer Aniston trying to act like she has conflict (“The Good Girl“).

Feb 11: Not much improvement in the book. Read all but 50 pages before the end of the flight. Get to that tomorrow, on the way home. Plenty of action and adventure, and a sorta mystical way of making art that doesn’t sound that convincing. It’s like my buddy Tavis Allison once said about Signal To Noise, a comic by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean: “I know this is supposed to be about the grand, final film in the movie-maker’s head, but all of his descriptions of it seem to add up to five minutes of screen-time . . .”

Gotta find something else to read on the flight back. And have to pray that it’s a shorter jaunt than the trip here, when we spent almost SIX hours in the air, thanks to those darn headwinds.

Feb 12: Finished it up in the morning. Hung over a little from gallivanting poolside with margaritas, but that didn’t alter my impression the book. Not a good sign, Mr. Gibson. So it was essentially a McGuffin chase across semi-exotic settings (London, Tokyo, Moscow), a la Count Zero, except this time it’s not an AI building bricolage, but something equally implausible. It’s a fantasy world, bearing little resemblance to our own. I suppose I was hoping for a more “literary” novel than this, but when you get down it, Gibson’s a potboiler writer. I ignored his last two books, mainly because he seemed like a cheap SF knockoff of Elmore Leonard (whose work I’ve only read a smidge of). No real change here. I’m being a bit harsh, because he DOES get at some of the peculiarities of our Internet culture (though not blogs, curiously enough) in the book. But that almost exists just as a method of moving the plot along.

Who’s Next

Having run out of shelf space, I’ve been placing newly acquired books in a stack beneath my hall table. It’s my intent to read those titles before getting to work on any of the others that are already shelved in my apartment. The books in this “to read” pile are:

Gould’s Book of Fish – Richard Flanagan (in progress)
Rembrandt’s Eyes – Simon Schama (in progress)
Minotaur: Sir Arthur Evans and the Archeology of the Minoan Myth – Joseph Alexander McGillivray (in progress)
Pattern Recognition – William Gibson
The Spooky Art – Norman Mailer
The Art of Happiness – The Dalai Lama
Master Class – Paul West
Ella Minnow Pea – Mark Dunn
The Coast of Utopia – Tom Stoppard
I: Voyage
II: Shipwreck
III: Salvage
The Rush for Second Place – William Gaddis
Mendelssohn is on the Roof – Jiri Weil
Abe: Wrong for All the Right Reasons – Glenn Dakin
The Rainbow – DH Lawrence
Sons & Lovers – DH Lawrence
Cheops: A Cupboard for the Sun – Paul West
Graham Greene Omnibus
The Heart of the Matter
Stamboul Train
The Burnt-Out Case
The Third Man
The Quiet American
Loser Takes All
The Power and the Glory
Possession – A.S. Byatt
All Stories Are True – John Edgar Wideman
Nightwood – Djuna Barnes
Nova – Samuel R. Delany
The Encyclopedia of the Dead – Danilo Kis
Philip Roth & the Jews – Alan Cooper
Gothic – Richard Davenport-Hines
Little, Big – John Crowley
Underworld – Don DeLillo
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers

One thing to know about me is that I’m a man who qualifies virtually everything. So, to clarify one impression that I’m afraid this list of unread books might give, I’d like to make some points about the final two selections.

I don’t like Don DeLillo’s work in general. I think he’s overrated and tends to obfuscate as a replacement for having something to say. My opinion is somewhat mirrored by B.R. Myers in his Reader’s Manifesto, which was first published in the Atlantic Monthly.

I first tried reading Underworld shortly after it was released, a season that saw strong new works from a number of older writers (Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, and Normal Mailer’s The Gospel According to the Son). I dropped the book after 30 pages, when it became evident to me that DeLillo’s writing was nowhere near the level of those other three authors. During an early passage, a man in the 1950s discourses about the Importance of baseball. I was stunned that a writer with such affection for the game, beginning what many felt to be his magnum opus, felt the need to try to tell the reader everything of importance about the sport, rather than finding a way to show it to us. I decided I had better things to do than subject myself to the rest of the book.

Taking that into account, I’m willing to give it another chance. I saw the book recently in the “to sell” box in my attic space. I thought about something Harold Bloom once wrote in The Western Canon, about several contemporary writers whom he most definitely did not think would reach canonical status. He wrote:

Robert Lowell and Philip Larkin are here [on this list of canonical writers] because I seem to be the only critic alive who regards them as over-esteemed, and so I am probably wrong and must assume that I am blinded by extra-aesthetic considerations, which I abhor and try to avoid.

In that spirit, I’m willing to give Underworld another chance.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is in the same boat. I picked up a paperback copy of the book in Heathrow during a business trip to Milan in the fall of 2000 (a journey that warrants another rambling entry in this blog). I read half the book during the trip, and was astonished at how boring it all was. Outside of a few genuinely touching or funny passages about the difficulties of a 20-something man raising his kid brother, the book was almost completely lifeless. The facile PoMo stance of the author also served to help me develop one of my more severe aesthetic critiques: my dislike of works that make middle-brow people feel smarter than they are. This is a refinement of a principle I used to refer to as the “lowest college denominator,” which I’ll expound on at length some other time.

Suffice to say, inclusion of smarty-pants postmodernist tricks and pre-emptive, but logically specious arguments to counter any critique of his work has placed Eggers firmly in my “lowest college denominator” segment.

But, again, I’m willing to give it a second shot, and I’ll see if I’m wrong.

If there’s any public clamor for such a thing, I’ll provide a link to a bibliography of everydarnbook I’ve read since 1989. I only recently (in the last two years) started writing annotations on those titles in the list, which makes for even more fun & excitement (if you lead a sad & boring life).