Sunday, December 23, 2007

Wednesday Evening in Ditmas Park: Vox Pop Publish Yourself & Community Publishing Party

This post is from Richard Grayson's MySpace blog for Sunday, December 23, 2007:

Wednesday Evening at Vox Pop: Publish Yourself & Community Publishing Party

On Wednesday evening, I went to Vox Pop, the amazing coffee bar/bookstore/performance space/community center and now instant-publishing center on Cortelyou Road by Stratford Road in America's most diverse neighborhood, Brooklyn's Ditmas Park.

In 1966, when I was 15 I started hanging out around there because of my weekly sessions just up the block with my friendly neighborhood psychiatrist, Dr. Abbott A. Lippman, who got his medical degree from NYU during World War I and who grew orchids and taught me how to swallow pills without water.

I've always loved the neighborhood, even before Sander Hicks brought Vox Pop there and lots of other exciting places lined Cortelyou Road.

Apparently lots of other people like the neighborhood too. To celebrate Publish Yourself, Vox Pop's new community book printing and publishing center around the corner from the coffee bar, they've published What I Love About This Neighborhood, a 48-page paperback featuring "a collection of memories" by residents of Ditmas Park/Flatbush and other Brooklynites.

Leading off the collection is contributor Marty Markowitz, whom I first met at Brooklyn College back in the 1970s when he was head of the Graduate Students Organization which had its office where I hung out with other undergrad student government/newspaper/radical types, and who went on to become a community organizer, state senator and Brooklyn Borough President for the past six years.

Marty was on hand for the party, though a bit late because former President Bill Clinton had asked Marty to introduce him at a fundraiser that evening. His reminiscence of Flatbush and Ditmas Park resonated with me, although I'm kind of shocked that Marty actually managed to eat the dish called "the Kitchen Sink" at the old Jahn's ice cream parlor on Church off Flatbush back in our day.

The other contributors to What I Love About This Neighborhood share memories of the neighborhood, which now features groceries and eateries from the far ends of planet earth. Oldtimers who can recall stores I used to go in during the 1960s and 1970s and newcomers from rural America and even Manhattan all have distinctive voices, and all share their love of Ditmas Park/Flatbush and similar-but-distinct Brooklyn neighborhoods. I wonder if the Glenn Feingold who describes eating his way through Windsor Terrace ("If you want to eat tofu, go to L.A. and meditate") is my old friend whom I last recall driving home to his parents' apartment in Bergen Beach in, oh, about 1974. . .

Sander, founder of Soft Skull Press, showed me around the Publish Yourself store. It's a print-on-demand micropublisher, and the bookmaster Gabriel Stuart let me watch the magic as he produced a professional-looking paperback with his InstaPrinter machine within a few minutes.

Around the store are many paperbacks published there, and all look as good as the much more expensive small press paperbacks I used to see at our New York Small Press Book Fairs thirty years ago. If you're interested in publishing a book, Sander told me his prices are better than those of some of the more established POD firms. Check out the website for more info.

Thanks to Sander, Gabriel, and the other great people associated with Vox Pop and Publish Yourself for a fine evening and a nice little book about Brooklyn.

Now I'm leaving Brooklyn, heading out West for some holiday tofu and meditation.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Tuesday Night in Williamsburg: Jonathan Baumbach and Others for The Brooklyn Rail at Pierogi

This was posted to Richard Grayson's MySpace blog on Tuesday, November 20, 2007:

Tuesday Night at Pierogi: Jonathan Baumbach and Others for The Brooklyn Rail

On Tuesday evening at 7 p.m. I walked the few blocks from home to the Williamsburg art gallery Pierogi for a reading sponsored by The Brooklyn Rail, the borough's great arts, politics and cultural monthly.

I was ill with bronchitis and had worked from 8 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. but I wanted to hear and see Jonathan Baumbach reading from his new novel You: Or the Invention of Memory.

I wasn't disappointed. Baumbach read chapter 12 from his galleys. It was a record of four "couples therapy" sessions for an estranged couple, Jay and Lois, with the marriage counselor Leo.

Baumbach's forte is literature about the day-to-day frustrations and pleasures and dramas of domestic life, and the excerpt had the author's right-as-reigned-in-fury dialogues between the couple, who at one point get beyond their contempt for each other to gang up on Leo.

I very much enjoyed chapter 12 of You and look forward to reading the novel when it's published any day now. Baumbach has written a dozen novels since the late 1960s, as well as four short story collections, including 2006's superb On the Way to My Father's Funeral.

I was grateful that Baumbach went first, because a paroxysm of coughing (and the attendant embarrassment) following his reading caused me to miss most of the other writers featured by The Brooklyn Rail: short story writer Diane Williams (It Was Like My Trying to Have a Tender-Hearted Nature), novelist Cees Nooteboom (Lost Paradise) and poet Jerome Rothenberg (Triptych). I hope I can catch them another time.

Full disclosure: I first met Jonathan Baumbach when I took him for a short story writing class at Brooklyn College in the fall of 1971, when he introduced me to such writers as Donald Barthelme, Grace Paley, Walter Abish and John Hawkes.

From 1974 to 1976, I was a student in Brooklyn's nascent MFA program in creative writing, and Baumbach was the director of the fiction program whom I had as my teacher in both workshops and tutorials. I also worked for him and another MFA professor, the novelist Peter Spielberg, for several years at the then-new Fiction Collective, of which they were the founding co-directors.

But until Tuesday's reading, I had not seen or spoken to Jonathan Baumbach in thirty years. However, I've continued to enjoy his writing. Long careers in fiction writing in America are rare and confined mostly to household names like Mailer, Updike and Roth. Baumbach's longevity is due to many of his strengths as a writer, and I am pretty sure that I would admire him even if I had never met him.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Sunday at the Lefferts Homestead: "Disappearing Dutch Brooklyn"

This post appeared on Richard Grayson's MySpace blog on Monday, November 19, 2007:

I have a blog post reporting on yesterday's presentation at the Lefferts Historic House running today at Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn:

Sunday was the last day of "5 Dutch Days, 5 Boroughs" – the annual celebration of Dutch culture in New York City. The day's events included a morning service at the Old First Reformed Church on Carroll Street and Seventh Avenue as done in its congregation 300 years ago, using the Netherlands Liturgy of 1619, and an afternoon family exhibit at the Vander Ende-Onderdonk House in Ridgewood to show kids what life was like for young people in the early years of the city.

Four centuries ago, of course, Brooklyn was part of the great Dutch commercial world empire, but traces of Dutch Brooklyn have all but vanished in my lifetime along with the dirt roads like Mill Lane I used to walk and the wooden planks that preceded sidewalks in my little corner of what had been Nieuw Amersfoort.

When I was born, about 70 Dutch-American farmhouses stood in Brooklyn. Today only 14 are left.

On Sunday afternoon, I was at the Lefferts Homestead for "Disappearing Dutch Brooklyn – Where Have All the Houses Gone?" -- a presentation by anthropologist and archaeologist Christopher Ricciardi, who showed slides from his dig at an old house I know well, the Hendrick I. Lott House on East 36th Street, down the block from my friend Ken Falk's house in Marine Park not far from where I grew up.

Living in this Dutch Colonial farmhouse from 1720 until 1989, members of the prominent Lott family participated in the Revolutionary War, supported abolition – freeing their slaves as early as 1801 and then hiring them as paid servants – and may have later used the house as a stop on the Underground Railroad.

In 2001 Ricciardi and his colleagues from the Brooklyn College Archaeological Research Center discovered the slave quarters, a windowless, cramped garret room roughly ten feet square. A tiny space – a closet within a closet, its door hidden behind coat hooks that would have held a curtain of garments – may have been a way station for escaping slaves.

Ricciardi acknowledged that just as many 18th century houses claim that George Washington slept there, most pre-Civil War houses in the North claim to be a stop on the Underground Railroad.

But two different descendants of the Lott family, who didn't know each other, both remembered the same story when given tours of the old homestead. "They said this was where they kept their runaway slaves," Ricciardi said.

Although southern Brooklyn Dutch farmers were quite wealthy, Ricciardi noted, apparently they were not materialists like their equally rich counterparts in Manhattan and what is today brownstone Brooklyn, who had more opulent homes.

The dig proved that the Lotts lived frugally, with plain dishes, glasses and pipes and no fancy materials in the construction of their house.

The Lott House is one of four Brooklyn sites owned by the Historic House Trust of New York City, along with the Lefferts Historic House Museum (c. 1783), the Old Stone House (1699), and the oldest structure in New York City, one I can recall my first girlfriend's mother, an East Flatbush community planning board member, fighting to save in the late 1960s: the original portion of the Pieter Classen Wyckoff House on Clarendon Road and East 58th Street, which dates from 1652.
The Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum now looks a lot better than the old dump with a caved-in roof sporting a crooked TV antenna I remember from that day in August 1970, when Mayor Lindsay presided over a ceremony marking the start of its restoration.

In a fascinating Q&A session following his presentation, Chris Ricciardi said that it's hard to get New Yorkers interested in southern Brooklyn's old Dutch farmhouses because they're a bit out of the way. But, he concluded, it's important to respect our borough's past and preserve our common heritage.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


The PODler reviews Richard Grayson's And to Think That He Kissed Him on Lorimer Street today:

Richard Grayson is a prolific writer of over 200 stories, articles, and books. In the 80s, he staged a satiric run for the White House against Ronald Reagan. He has obtained a J.D. degree from University of Florida with honors and is, in addition, a master satirist and a keen observer of the American scene from his own and unique viewpoint. Grayson writes in a deceptively simple style that is, nevertheless, hard to imitate. Using this kind of autobiographical method, bordering on a confessional, Grayson looks through shifting viewpoints (gay and straight; white and black; American and immigrant; young and old) at the people, times, and palaces of a fictional Brooklyn.

In these fictions, Grayson meditates on various topics, mostly race, sexual identity, age, and change by using the device of popular culture, mixing in liberally the icons of pop culture with persons and places from memory to construct a solid literary edifice.

The collection is filled with resonant stories about the lives of ordinary people, and this focus is what makes them interesting and memorable. Somehow, though Grayson's master touch, the ordinary becomes fascinating and highly readable literature. Many of these stories, however, reflect a deep sadness that exists in the heart of the common man and his experience. Nothing seems to happen for the protagonists in these stories, their lives stupefying their subjects. Grayson reminds us with his fiction that our lives are, in the end, rather banal, revolving around the mundane, the ordinary, and the common. At the same time, there seems to be a kind of weird current of apathy that flows beneath the surface of the stories. In the title story, we wonder, for example, whether the narrator is incredibly open-minded about his son's sexuality and the kiss between the boys, or whether he's just too apathetic to care, and we wonder because the title seems to be a kind of subconscious expression of protest by the protagonist. Apathy, or more precisely, a kind of stupefaction, perhaps synergized by the bathos of pop culture, rears its head in "Shirtless Tea-bag Eating White Boys," in which two characters, one stupefied by Haldol, the other just tranquilized by American culture, watch internet videos, which somehow are appropriate for the mentally dysfunctional character and the young elementary school teacher; the first prefers to watch a purple hippo, and the latter prefers to view shirtless tea-bag eating white boy clips.

Some of these stories are biographical, and those are the stories that I like the best. Especially likable are "Branch Libraries of Southeastern Brooklyn," in which Grayson's character reminisces about the libraries that he had known and how they had evolved over the years-this one is probably my favorite story, as I do love libraries, and it seems that Grayson is a true lover of the library as well - and "The Lost Movie Theatres of Southeastern Brooklyn and Rockaway Beach," another story of nostalgia and memory, where we are treated to reminiscences about the various theatres that the author remembers. "1001 Ways to Defeat Green Arrow" deals with change in gay relationships and the longing and emptiness that result. "My Life in The New York Post" is a collection of strange but somehow funny clips from, apparently, the Post regarding a fictional Grayson's plots and schemes.

Other stories that I liked were "In the Sixties," a kaleidoscope-like summary of the Sixties; "Diary of a Brooklyn Cyclones Hot Dog," which deals with the life of a lesbian Uzbek immigrant who is promoted to being the Relish in a Hot Dog Race; and "Mohammad's Therapy Monkey," in which the protagonist, a college student with some issues is assigned a roommate with a pet monkey, which helps him find acceptance and a relationship of his own in a place that he detests.

Grayson chronicles the real through his funny, sometimes sad, but always genuine, if slightly offbeat, fictional world.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Exploring Brooklyn by Bus: The B35 from Brownsville to Sunset Park

This post appeared on Richard Grayson's MySpace blog on Thursday, November 1, 2007:

"Exploring Brooklyn by Bus: The B35 from Brownsville to Sunset Park" at OTBKB

At Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn today, I have another in my "Exploring Brooklyn By Bus" series -- today it's on the B35, the Church Avenue/39th Street route from Brownsville to Sunset Park:

Several bus routes go east-west through nearly all of Brooklyn; closest to the center of the borough is the B35, Church Avenue/39 Street, which stretches from Brownsville to Sunset Park.

Many Brooklyn bus routes are based on the old trolley routes. The Church Avenue trolley is the only one I can recall riding; it was one of the last routes to go, lasting until I was five. On trips from her house to ours, Bubbe Ita, my great-grandmother, would let me stand on the wicker seat and pull the cord to request the stop.

The B35 begins at Mother Gaston Avenue, but I walk a few blocks up to where I began – at Brookdale Hospital, Beth-El Hospital in 1951, where I was delivered by the same Park Slope GP who'd delivered my mother twenty years before. I pass streets reflecting the earlier neighborhood ethnicity, Herzl Street and Strauss Street – but at Rockaway Parkway, Church Avenue's alternative name is Bob Marley Boulevard.

I once told someone in South Florida who asked me where I was from in Brooklyn, "Around Church and Utica," and the guy, a Jamaican, said, "That's not Brooklyn; that's the West Indies." The familiar colors of the Jamaican flag are on local storefronts and posters.

West Indians started to move into East Flatbush in the late 1950s, about the time we left our apartment on East 54 Street just south of Church for our new house in Old Mill Basin. All our relatives left the neighborhood as "blockbusters" came in and scared the white people into moving. Both sets of my grandparents left in 1967 for Rockaway.

The last time I went to our old block was in 1980, when black friends brought me along to a party given by Carol, whose Jamaican father, it turned out, owned the apartment building on the corner. When I told Carol that I'd lived on this very block until 1958, she said, "Oh, I envy you. It must have been beautiful here before the Haitians came and ruined it."

Around here, as in other places, Brooklyn's varied street numbering patterns collide: on one side of Ralph Avenue, it's the East 90s; on the other side the East 50s.

We pass the East Flatbush branch library, hair braiding places, Jerk City and the Brooklyn Jerk Center, and an inspirational mural of a (Caribbean?) beach with manna from heaving falling upon it. I spot, behind a car wash by Kings Highway, the third-story window of the bedroom where I misplaced my virginity in the spring of 1971.

Storefront houses of worship, like the Reviving Revelation Revivalist Pentacostal Church, its sign decorated with a crown, a cross, and a star of David, line Church Avenue. On lampposts are many signs of the times, all with some version of AVOID FORECLOSURE! By now the bus is jammed.

Most of the stores from my childhood are gone, of course, but SilverRod Pharmacy at the corner of Utica and Church, the crossroads of our neighborhood, still stands. As we stop, the driver calls over the PA system: "Does anyone know where Kingsbrook Hospital is?"

I hesitate, then yell out, "Get out here and take the Utica bus four or five blocks north and then go left a few blocks."

"Are you sure?"

"Pretty sure," I yell. I decide not to add how I know: "My grandmother had rectal surgery there."

I'm the only non-black person on the bus.

In the East 40s we pass restaurants like Linda's Guyanese, West Indian and American Cuisine. Every three or four blocks, the numbered streets are broken up by streets named after cities: Utica, Schenectady, Troy, Albany, New York, Brooklyn (Saratoga, Kingston and Buffalo don't go down this far).

We see more churches – Eglise Baptiste and Iglesia Pentecostal – as well as day care centers, a fast-food vegetarian restaurant and a storefront P.S. 245. At Nostrand Avenue lots of people leave for the subway. The corner Granada Theatre is long gone, in its place the Guyana Gold jewelry store. Banners decorated with a palm tree on a beach proclaim "East Flatbush, the Caribbean Heart and Soul of Brooklyn."

Soon East Flatbush becomes Flatbush, and we're at Flatbush Avenue, across from the old Dutch Reformed Church that I assume gave the avenue its name. This area was the Broadway of Brooklyn, with seven or eight theaters that no longer exist. The Kenmore, right by the bus stop, is a Modell's Sporting Goods store.

On the other side of Ocean Ave, near the B/Q train station, is West Indian Farm, a great place to buy Caribbean produce. At the subway stop, an Indian woman in a sari gets on, along with Hispanic people and old Jewish man who sits beside me, replacing the woman who was reading the Bible in Creole.

On the south side of Church, brick stanchions with the PPS crest signal Prospect Park South, and both the fronts and sides of Victorian homes line the street. For a few blocks, English street names displace the East Teens: Rugby, Westminister, Marlborough, Stratford, Buckingham, Argyle.

Past Coney Island Avenue and where Ocean Parkway becomes the Prospect Expressway, the signs proclaim Kensington's ethnic mélange: Transfer D'Argent Haiti, a taqueria, a giant yeshiva, Mazowsze Polish Deli, Plaza 5 de Mayo, Productos Mexicanos, Pinosha Albanian Village, Kadima Cell Phones, food from Russia, Israel, Ukraine, Poland, Turkey. Just past Yummy Taco by McDonald Avenue's F train stop, a woman in a burqa pushes a shopping cart past Bangladesh Hair Design.

The East numbered streets are gone now as Kensington bleeds into Boro Park, and Church Avenue ends, diagonally interrupting the plain-numbered streets and avenues that dominate western Brooklyn.

The bus goes up 36 Street past auto body shops, a matzoh factory, the Heimishe Bakery a few stores down from a Mexican supermarket. Past Fort Hamilton Parkway, we pass Camp Warehouse, your spot to buy everything for summer campers.

The bus rides on 39 Street now, and I see some signs in Arabic, but also a kosher market with yarmulke-wearing customers, and a Mexican eagle in front of a barbershop.

It's kind of industrial here: auto repair shops, furniture stores and factories. Passing Fourteenth Avenue, there's The Largest Sukkah Manufacturer in the World, the Eretfsz Hachaim gas station and the Heimeshe Coffee Shop. But all the men with yarmulkes get off the bus and the only new passengers look Mexican or Central American.

Suddenly, the street is residential, mostly two-story brick houses, but there's a brand-new five-story building too. At Fort Hamilton Parkway, there's the mammoth white brick Lamp Warehouse, its sign featuring two portraits of Thomas Edison and the store's founder and these quotations: "Let there be light." – The inventor. "Let there be discounts." – The Maven

At Eleventh Ave only Chinese people get on, and by Tenth Avenue and the New Utrecht Avenue el, we pass mostly Chinese venues like Long Sing Bakery and Q Q Poultry Market, though I spot Korean signs as well. Eighth Avenue is dominated by stores featuring furniture, plumbing and heating supplies and what appear to be factories for some kind of electric, glass and stone products.

We start to go downhill as we pass Sixth and Fifth Avenues, and there's a weird Days Inn hotel tucked into a street otherwise filled with older houses with aluminum siding.

At Fifth Avenue in Sunset Park, we stop a long time for a switch of bus drivers as a crowd gets on: a woman wearing a hijab, Hispanic teens, an elderly Chinese couple, a black woman chatting on a cell phone, more Arabs, and white couple speaking a language I can't make out.

Past the Gowanus Parkway exit, at Second Avenue, the cobblestone streets have old trolley tracks coming up in all directions. This area is industrial, with huge Mack tractor-trailer trucks, the Closeout Connection and the Eat It Corporation warehouses. A two-story Costco has a parking lot huge even by suburban standards. Very prominent on the street is Peyton's Play Pen, a Gentlemen's Club that's All Nude All the Time – not that I've ever been inside.

Getting off the bus, I walk to the barbed wire at the end of 39 Street. I smell the brackish harbor and look out at the water. The Bayonne Bridge seems surprisingly close. My journey across the heart of Brooklyn has taken over an hour and my unlimited MetroCard is ready to head back east.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Friday Night at Bluestockings: Brian Berger & "New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg"

This post appeared on Richard Grayson's MySpace blog on Saturday, October 20, 2007:

Friday Night at Bluestockings: Brian Berger & "New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg"

Last night at 7 p.m. I arrived at one of my favorite bookstores, Bluestockings, just in time for a reading and presentation for New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg, a fascinating collection of 28 essays and about 200 photos, all focused on the last thirty years of New York history.

I was disappointed that the book's co-editor, Marshall Berman, couldn't make it. The last time I saw him was over twenty years ago and he came to the Upper West Side apartment where I was spending the summer to hand me a check for a lot of money (it was for my best friend Nina, who was renting her Berkshires house to Marshall and his wife Meredith Tax, whom I knew from activities at PEN – they are both excellent writers whose work you should explore).

But Brian Berger, the poet, journalist and photographer who co-edited the book with Marshall, was there – appropriately dressed for the warm October night in shorts. Also there were three contributors to the anthology: the photographer Margaret Morton, longtime NYC political reporter Tom Robbins and food and culture critic Robert Sietsema. I overheard the latter two were discussing the arrest of their big boss, Village Voice Media's Michael Lacey, in my other hometown of Phoenix (those of us who live in the Valley of the Sun know it's dangerous to anger Sheriff Joe Arpaio). I also heard Robbins tell Sietsema that Ward, whoever that is, was editing something he was working on, which effectively meant that nobody was editing him at all.

(When a student in Brooklyn College's MFA program, I myself worked for the Village Voice in 1975 and 1976 in the exalted capacity of messenger for the display advertising department at the then-minimum wage of $2 an hour and all the subway tokens I could save by walking or using the discount "midtown shoppers" bus pass. There were 4 of us messengers, and the turnover was so brisk that within 3 weeks of starting the job, I was the senior messenger.)

Anyway, New York Calling is a wonderful anthology that probably should be read by a lot of people who call themselves (or are well-known as) New York writers, most of whom weren't around for the 70s and 80s and maybe not even the 90s.

Last night's group were the real thing: Brian Berger's grandparents lived a stone's throw away from mine, overlooking Playland in Rockaway, and he's probably traveled thousands of miles inside the five boroughs; he knows New York like the back of his hand. The same is true for the others who spoke last night, none of whom I can imagining living anywhere else but the city none of them would ever dare call the Big Apple.

Here's the take on New York Calling from The Financial Times:

"In 1977, the murder rate in New York City was nearly three times what it is today. Vagrants settled in shantytowns under bridges and in tunnels, and heroin addiction rose dramatically. But it was the growing frequency of arson attacks which unnerved the city's residents the most: from the 1960s onwards, fires - almost certainly lit by landlords to collect insurance money - had been gutting buildings and sometimes entire blocks in the city's poorer neighbourhoods. On the night of July 13 1977, a power cut brought mayhem to New York, and riots and looting ensued across the five boroughs.

But subtler forces than fire and crime had already been shaping the city's direction. In the mid-1960s, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey closed most of the docks and shipping terminals around New York, prompting coastal trade to move to New Jersey. Separately, the Defense Department shut the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a facility that had, at one time, employed as many as 100,000 people. The result was that jobs and infrastructure moved south, and the city's character, both economic and cultural, became increasingly less focused on blue-collar, waterfront industry.

This is the backdrop for New York Calling . . . Through the lens of New York politics, music, art and counterculture, we hear several, often fascinating takes on essentially the same story: how the squalor, struggles, crime, drugs, and free expression of the 1970s and 1980s gave way to a cleaner and safer city in the subsequent two decades, but one in which commercial development has often trumped, protecting existing residents and preserving a rich past.

If not explicitly intended, the collection places a special emphasis on the Bronx, and the artistic movements spawned by the chaos of the 1970s. Particular attention is paid to graffiti art and the rise of hip-hop, which was ushered in by Grandmaster Flash's 1982 hit 'The Message'. Perhaps less revelatory - as writers often cover the subject today - are the numerous sections which pay homage to the bad-old East Village, where 'bodega' grocery stores sold dime bags of marijuana, and where - as one contributor remembers – 'no restaurants... stayed open past 6:00pm' . . . the essays, whether read discretely or as a complete work, offer a near-unforgettable impression of an era."

(My own take on NYC in 1977, roughly the year this collection starts with, is in my story "With Hitler in New York" and the other fictions in the 1979 book with that name.)

In his introductory talk, Brian stressed that despite the mythic narrative of the completely dysfunctional city in the 1970s, in fact New York never wholly lost its allure and back then there were still enormous opportunities for immigrants, artists and others willing to put up with the crime, the bad subways (in 1980, it seemed I encountered a track fire that delayed every rush hour trip), the arson, and the decline of city services, particularly to less affluent neighborhoods.

Brian mentioned three iconic movies of that era, all of which I love: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (best line: "What do they expect for their lousy thirty-five cents? To live forever?); Woody Allen's instant classic (and we all knew it at the time) Annie Hall; and Dog Day Afternoon (in real life I was only blocks away from the bank robbery when it happened). (I'd probably add The Warriors, Saturday Night Fever and maybe even Death Wish.)

Going on to describe various parts of the city that I sort of miss (the pre-Disneyfied Times Square, seedy and louche and somehow wonderful to me; the Fulton Fish Market; gritty, not chic, downtown neighborhoods), Brian contrasted this with the current hypercapitalist frenzy in all the five boroughs, from the suburban sprawl of Staten Island to the waterfront towers of Williamsburg – a lot of it soulless and all of it seemingly geared to the very rich. (Though some of us think this long party is about to end, kids.)

Margaret Morton presented her amazing photographs of homeless encampments of the era: the little huts by the Manhattan Bridge near the Canal Street off-ramp and plywood shanties on the bridge's other side – all of these places where people made their homes and lived their lives were eventually razed by the city – and the places by the Hudson River piers and most notably, the famous tunnel under Riverside Park where a community of squatters took shape and stayed for years (I met a few of these people when I lived in the neighborhood, and they were all extremely decent people).

Anyway, where are the homeless now? Thirty-two thousand are in shelters every night, including 13,000 children.

After Margaret's presentation, Tom Robbins began by speaking of the New York City of today, invoking the scene at Mayor Bloomberg's landslide re-election victory party, at which Magic Johnson MC'ed and a gospel group sang "Ain't No Stopping Us Now" – the classic McFadden/Whithead song that 1970s City Hall protestors used to sing when they began to realize that poor and disaffected New Yorkers were, in fact, the new majority.

Back in the late 1970s, the years of "white flight," it was assumed by all of us left that soon there'd be a city government controlled by blacks and Hispanics, that the power was shifting away from white elites. Yet our current mayor is a white Jewish billionaire from the suburbs of Boston. Wha' happened?

Tom, who has been a Lower East Side community organizer and who's covered politics as long as I can remember, took as the subject of his essay Herman Badillo, the Puerto Rican-born Bronx Borough President and Congressman who once seemed the hope of a lot of us. I worked for Badillo in the second of his runs for the mayoralty, in 1973, and I'd gotten to know him and his wife Irma the year before at the Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach. He was a voice for the disempowered in the city, but Badillo morphed into a conservative power broker as – in Tom's narrative of minority power thwarted repeatedly – Badillo's campaigns for the Democratic nomination for mayor (in 1969, when he was overshadowed by Norman Mailer; in 1973, when he lost the runoff to clubhouse guy Abe Beame; in 1977, lost in a brilliant field that included Percy Sutton, Bella Abzug, Mario Cuomo and Ed Koch, who shouted "death penalty" in a crime-ridden city long and loud enough to win); and most shamefully, in 1985, when the Democratic establishment, black and white, shut him out completely.

Badillo went on to work for Rudy Giuliani and his last run for Mayor was a pathetic attempt to get the Republican nomination. As a trustee of the City University of New York, he now works to raise tuition on its mostly poor student body – one of which Badillo once was – ironic, considering he was the foremost advocate in the 1970s for keeping the free tuition policy that he and I and countless others benefited from.

(After reading about a slur he'd made against Mexican-Americans, I had a letter in the New York Times Magazine a few years ago saying that the Herman Badillo that I knew would be ashamed of the man he's become.)

After Tom's excellent piece, Robert Sietsema discussed the new ethnic cuisines of the city; before the 1965 immigration law was passed, there were only 17 different types of ethnic restaurants in New York and now he counts 78 different ones (and he seems to amalgamate different kinds of Chinese and Indian cuisines).

He showed us three odd edibles from Chinatown, which has long since burst its historic confines to take over a lot of lower Manhattan as immigrants, mostly from Fujian province, have come – legally and illegally – for many years. (One of my students, a lifelong Chinatown resident, said her neighborhood is not the same anymore; she misses the familiar Mandarin and Cantonese she used to hear spoken in the streets and dislikes what she calls the rough Fujianese dialect that she can't understand and the "smell of the stinky fish they like." The city's changes always seem to rankle oldtimers, if only just a little.)

I got to eat a dragon's eye, admired the colorful and weirdly shaped dragonfruit, and puzzled over a shiny black double-horned thing that Robert said was a "devil nut" – which he'd gobbled up one day the first time he encountered them in Chinatown, only to go home and uncover by research that devil nuts need to be boiled for at least an hour to rid them of a dangerous parasite.

Robert praised the many exciting new ethnic foods and went on a very New Yorkerish rant against Whole Foods (which will not deal with our city's wonderful ethnic bakers and instead sell long-lasting but bad-tasting "hippie" bread in plastic).

All of this, and a lot more, is in New York Calling. The co-editor and contributors answered a few questions from the crowd at Bluestockings and signed copies of the book. If you're interested in New York and how it got the way it is, New York Calling is a worthwhile investment.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Tuesday Night at the Park Slope Barnes & Noble: Anthont LaSala & Seth Kushner’s "The Brooklynites"

This was posted to Richard Grayson's MySpace blog on Thursday, October 18, 2007:

Tuesday Night at the Park Slope Barnes & Noble: LaSala & Kushner’s "The Brooklynites" at OTBKB

At Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn, I have a report on Tuesday evening's presentation by Anthony LaSala and Seth Kushner on their book, The Brooklynites:

ON TUESDAY EVENING I attended a presentation at the Park Slope Barnes & Noble by Anthony LaSala and Seth Kushner about their excellent coffee-table book of photos and interviews, The Brooklynites. Casually dressed, they sat on either side of a screen on which they showed Seth's photos of Brooklyn residents from the book and discussed how they went about developing and executing their project and gave interesting tidbits about their subjects.

The first photo that the pair of Brooklyn natives (Seth has never left the borough for more than two weeks at a time; Anthony went away only for college) showed was of themselves back in high school in Bay Ridge in 1991.

When the two friends started their project to photograph the people of Brooklyn, they had a hard time. The neighborhood young women at the annual feast on 18th Avenue, thinking the guys were "perverts" trying to pick them up, were suspicious – as were many others.

Even Seymour, their local hardware store owner, was so dubious about what seemed to him a "not very successful" idea that he refused to be photographed – and would not agree to be until after a year had elapsed and the duo had already shot celebrities like Spike Lee (their first big "get," Spike led to others), Rosie Perez (who drove Anthony's car "with a very heavy foot" to the marqueta in Williamsburg where she posed), Jonathan Lethem (who also rounded up Brooklyn's other literary Jonathans, Safran Foer and Ames) and Marty Markowitz (photographed at his table at Junior's, where he posed with a slab of cheesecake that he would not eat – at least in front of them – but did take home).

Seth and Anthony said they gained of weight from all their travels around the borough: they got steaks at Peter Luger (whose chef is seen on the Williamsburg Bridge), pizza at Totonno's and DiFara's (Dominick DeMarco has his floured hands, as usual, taking his pie out of the oven), and cases of Fox's U-Bet syrup at the Brownsville factory where the crucial ingredient in eggcreams is still manufactured and which is permeated by the smell of chocolate.

They also got to go behind the scenes at Brooklyn's cultural and historic attractions. The pair got into the Brooklyn Museum on a Monday or Tuesday, when all of us natives know it's never open, to take a photo of director Arnold Lehman in the famed Egyptian room. They also went to Green-Wood Cemetery on a bright snowy day when it too was closed, to shoot director Ken Taylor – who told them it was often hard to convince pizzerias that, yes, the delivery should come to his home in a graveyard.

And that shot of Otis the sea lion and his keeper at the New York Aquarium also allowed Seth and Anthony access to places usually off-limits to the public. They even managed to get past the gate in Sea Gate, which Anthony said was unlike any other place in the city, when they shot gymnast Olga Karminski doing contortions on a ledge in front of the Sea Gate lighthouse.

Other photos we saw featured the Coney Island freak show's The Great Fredini, swallowing a sword on a street corner in Greenpoint; writer David Lefkowitz and his young son, who actually live on a Gowanus Canal houseboat; one of the young players for the Cyclones in Keyspan Park, with the Parachute Jump in the background; and singer Sufjan Stevens, photographed on the Brooklyn Bridge in one of the most artistic shots in the book (thanks to the wonderful geometric patterns of the bridge's cables).

They were most pleased to shoot Steve Buscemi on the block in East New York where he grew up; they were invited to his old apartment, which he hadn't been in since childhood and where he did his first acting for his mom and dad. But of course many of the portraits in the book are not of famous Brooklynites but of the regular people we pass on the street every day. In the book, all of them get to talk about what makes Brooklyn special to them. (When asked by Southerners to say something in Brooklynese, one wise guy photographed in the book said he told them, "Hand over your wallet.")

After the presentation, a lot of us lined up to get our copies of The Brooklynites signed by Seth and Anthony. I'm sending mine to my father who may have lived in other states for the past 30 years but who's still a Brooklynite at heart.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Geoffrey Philp: A Conversation with Richard Grayson

At his blog today, the great Miami-based Jamaican-American author Geoffrey Philp interviews Richard Grayson.

Tuesday Evening at the Upper West Side Barnes & Noble: Joseph Berger & "The World in a City"

This was posted to Richard Grayson's MySpace blog on Wednesday, October 3, 2007:
Tuesday Evening at the Upper West Side Barnes & Noble: Joseph Berger & "The World in a City"

Last evening I went back to the neighborhood where I lived part-time from 1984 to 1990, specifically to Broadway and West 82nd Street to the Barnes and Noble that opened after I left the area. When I lived there, part of the bookstore was a Chase Manhattan branch I wrote about in my story, "I Saw Mommy Kissing Citicorp," which originally appeared in the Lower East Side litmag Between C and D.

I always liked that Barnes and Noble store when I'd visit in the 1990s because it was one of the few bookstores in New York that carried my books. (So I didn't mind that they caused Shakespeare and Company a block down to leave; not only wouldn't they carry my books, they were pretty snobby about it.)

By 7 p.m. a big crowd was there to see New York Times reporter Joseph Berger discuss his new book, The World in a City: Traveling the Globe Through the Neighborhoods of the New New York.

Berger began by noting the changes in New York's ethnic makeup since the relaxation of the immigration laws 40 years ago. Old neighborhoods are no longer the bastions of one nationality; for example, Astoria is still somewhat Greek but now more Arab and Brazilian; Bensonhurst is still Italian, but the Chinese -- who love Bensonhurst's brick homes -- are beginning to dominate parts of the area depicted in 1977's Saturday Night Fever.

This is because as Italians, Greeks, Jews, Irish, Germans and ethnic groups established in this country for over a century become more affluent, current generations see no allure to the old neighborhood and light out for the suburbs, the Sun Belt, and posher places in New York City.

The Grand Concourse, where Berger grew up in the '40s and '50s as the son of Yiddish-speaking immigrants, now has many West African residents -- and stores that sell homes in Ghana to its immigrants who want to show their relatives and friends that they have truly "made it" in America.

While New York's newer immigrants often lead hard lives -- Berger tells the story of a Palestinian woman who has the incredible daily commute from Bedford Park in the Bronx to Jamaica, Queens, all for a $7-an-hour job as a home health care attendant -- they are usually better off than they'd be back in their native lands, and that's why they keep coming.

To anyone who explores the various neighborhoods of New York by bus and on foot as I do, none of this should come as big news. Flushing has been Chinese and Korean for a long time now; I have Guyanese friends who've dominated Richmond Hill (along with other West Indians, South Asians and Indo-Caribbean people) for years.

A lot of what Berger talked about also echoed what I'd heard at Saturday's lecture on Brooklyn by historian Mike Wallace, who, like Berger, mentioned the incredibly diverse Ditmas Park -- a neighborhood familiar to me all my life and now home to great restaurants like The Farm at Adderly and the righteous coffeehouse Vox Pop.

Berger discussed material in the book that came out of stories he did for the Times, such as the Little Neck controversy over the Korean-language signs over the stores once dominated by the neighborhood's Italians and Jews; why you can find so many ballroom dancing places in Russian Midwood and Brighton Beach; how Bukharian men in Rego Park have responded to their adjustment problems and being financially dependent upon their more adaptable wives by resorting to domestic violence; and how an Ecuadorean couple in Jackson Heights go to a videoconferencing store to be a presence in the lives of the teenage children they were forced to leave behind (they can't go back to visit for fear of never being able to return to the U.S.)

Berger discussed the last story in light of how the nature of immigration has changed. While Italians, Irish, Jews, Germans and others who came over decades earlier essentially lost nearly all contact with the old country -- Berger's mother could communicate with her only relative in post-Holocaust Poland through occasional aerogrammes back when international phone calls and airfares were prohibitively expensive -- technology and cheaper prices have made it possible for immigrants to have much more contact with their homelands.

Any New York immigrant can watch satellite channels found in her native land, Berger said. I still have the fan I got at the Dominican Day parade for Television Dominicana -- advertising the ability to get ¡Toda la emoción de tu tierra está aquí!

Younger people adapt more easily. Berger said he used to exhort his parents, "This is America! Speak English!" and today's young immigrants often chafe under their parents' old-country ways and rules, such as the Queens Afghan girls who rebel by wearing makeup and who dread arranged marriages. (I heard recently from an Indian teenage girl who bemoaned this "tradition" she knows will be forced upon her.)

There are also conflicts between more established immigrants and the newcomers from their homelands, Berger said. Just a few days ago, a friend who's lived her whole life in Chinatown complained about the Fujianese who have recently come to the neighborhood, speaking not Mandarin or Cantonese but a dialect she can't understand, as well the "smelly fish" from this province that she gets a whiff of every time she goes home.

Berger took many questions and his talk was fascinating. He emphasized that while New York is unique, the world is coming to cities and suburbs and even rural areas all over the country. Asked what New York's new rising immigrant might be, Berger guessed the Mexicans, who have largely taken over the stores in East Harlem, once the barrio of Puerto Ricans, who've moved on to the suburbs as they became more affluent and educated.

After I left Barnes and Noble, I walked along Broadway in the neighborhood I called home two decades ago and wondered what happened to the Korean greengrocer, the Lebanese hardware store owners, the Chinese-Cuban and Sichuan restaurants that were once the local specialty of the Upper West Side. As they used to say in Liverpool, Ob-la-di, ob-la-da.

Back in 1980, when I was living in a Rockaway neighborhood once known as Irishtown (and not so Irish anymore), my friends Marie Cincotta and Stuie Hershkowitz from Brooklyn College took me along to a party at the apartment of their friend Carol.

It turned out to be in the building on East 54th Street between Snyder and Church Avenues where I lived till I was eight. Most of the people at the party were West Indians from the neighborhood. When I told Carol that I used to live just a few houses down as a little kid -- of course I didn't say that the block was all Jewish in those days -- her reaction was one I'll always remember because it illustrates how we all idealize the past: "It must have been beautiful back then before the Haitians came and ruined it."

Arthur Avenue is more Albanian than Italian now, and the Albanians own many of the city's "Italian" pizzerias. No doubt some little Albanian boy fifty years from now will go back to the neighborhood of his childhood and say that some other nationality has ruined it.

Meanwhile, as Berger said, New York's population has gained a million residents since the nadir of the 1970s, and we'll have nine million people here in 2020.

Joseph Berger, who currently writes the education column for the Times, is an engaging speaker as well as an excellent stylist. I look forward to enjoying his book as much as I have his reporting.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Saturday at the Dweck Center: Mike Wallace on The History and Future of Brooklyn

Here is the post from Richard Grayson's MySpace blog for Sundary, September 30, 2007:
On Saturday at 4 p.m. I was one of about a hundred people seated in the spanking-new auditorium of the Dr. S. Stevan Dweck Center for Contemporary Culture at the Grand Army Plaza Central Library to hear a riveting lecture, "The History and Future of Brooklyn," by Mike Wallace, a distinguished professor of history at CUNY, chair of the Gotham Center for New York History and co-author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898.

Wallace discussed Brooklyn's past and future in terms of three currents in the river of history: Brooklyn's relationship with Manhattan, its macroeconomic base, and the demographic flows in and out of the borough.

As a colonial city, Brooklyn's role was to feed the profit centers of the British empire, the sugar plantations of the Caribbean whose land was too valuable to use for crops to feed the slaves who worked there.

Primarily agricultural hinterlands, Brooklyn also served as the port to send food and other supplies – some manufactured here – to the West Indies and in return to get sugar and rum. (That explains why the Havemeyers' Domino's Sugar and Revere Sugar built huge operations in Williamsburg and Red Hook.) Back then, Brooklyn's population was largely Dutch, English and African; slavery was widespread.

American independence cut off this trade and was an economic catastrophe until Brooklyn found new trading partners in the Spanish Caribbean, primarily Cuba and Puerto Rico. As the Erie Canal opened up New York's access to the agricultural Midwest, Brooklyn's farms were replaced by major manufacturing, with ironworks and furniture factories.

The industrial revolution eventually brought renewed trade with England, which got much of the cotton for its textile factories from the American South via ships from the port of Brooklyn. The port boomed, and around the same time, Brooklyn Heights became America's first suburb, a bucolic alternative to overcrowded Manhattan.

When Manhattan became the financial, entertainment and media capital of the nation, skyscraper office buildings proved more profitable than factories there, so manufacturers moved to Brooklyn with facilities like the innovative Bush Terminal, joining manufacturers with the port via its railway.

As Brooklyn became a major producer of beer and baked goods, it also served as home to a world-class resort, Coney Island, as well as baseball stadiums, movie palaces, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Prospect Park, the museum and other venues for industrial age leisure.

Brooklyn capitulated, Wallace said, to the 1898 annexation into Greater New York because it needed access to Manhattan money and its water supply.

By the start of the 20th century, a great demographic shift occurred as Jews, Italians, Norwegians, Syrians and other ethnic groups flowed across the new bridges into Brooklyn; Fort Greene and Bedford-Stuyvesant become magnets for African-Americans from the South; Puerto Ricans, U.S. citizens after 1898's other big event, the Spanish-American War, also move into the borough in large numbers; and Brooklyn's southern farms are broken up into suburban subdivisions, some as posh as Prospect Park South.

Foreign immigration is largely stopped by 1924's restrictive, xenophobic law – opposed by young Brooklyn Congressman Emanuel Celler, who, as House Judiciary Chairman in 1965, would push through the relaxed immigration act that led to the waves of newcomers from all over the world, replacing older residents who fled the borough for the suburbs and Sun Belt.

Wallace discussed Brooklyn's important role in World War II and then its slow decline and deindustrialization as thousands of manufacturing jobs disappeared. Most of the older crowd in the audience, including myself, remember the nadir of the 1970s.

I can recall a primary challenger to the seeming borough-president-for-life plastering Brooklyn with posters that read "Abe Stark, We Love You – BUT BROOKLYN IS DYING!" He didn't win but nearly all of us agreed with his sentiments.

The "turnaround" of the 1980s with renewed gentrification was really very small-scale, Wallace said; for a good part of Brooklyn, the key economic engine was actually the illegal crack trade.

Unemployment surpassed 10% as late as the early 1990s; AIDS and TB rates rose 700% in parts of Brooklyn; the old ethnic rivalries among Jews, Irish, Italians and Germans disappeared as they all became "white" and the new tensions were racial.

Wallace reminded the audience of the racial tensions of the era, from the 1968 teachers' strike – we old-timers recall the name of Rhody McCoy, the most well-known Brooklynite of the day (he was head of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district) – to the 1991 Crown Heights disturbances and the racially-charged Bensonhurst murder of Yusuf Hawkins.

Brooklyn's recent revival is the result of the same forces that have always shaped its history, Wallace said: its relationship with Manhattan (as those who could no longer afford to live there moved across the river as gentrifiers), and more importantly, the foreign immigration which has brought the world here – so much so that Brooklyn is now the third largest Ecuadorean city in the world, after Quito and Guyaquil.

Wallace ended his talk by showing a variety of maps of Brooklyn's changed demographics. Especially interesting was a map of census tracts showing which groups dominated each little neighborhood, with many an amalgam like "black-white" or "Hispanic-Asian."

This map showed how the city's third large Chinese neighborhood is developing as Hispanic residents push Asians south of Sunset Park into Bensonhurst as Russians move east from Brighton Beach, setting up the Chinese-Russian "frontier" I've noticed by the signs when I take the bus along 86 Street.

What happened to the Italian-American Bensonhurst of my youth, depicted in "Saturday Night Fever"? Essentially, Wallace said, though it still exists, the Italian community has "aged out" and is leaving the area one way or another.

Wallace mentioned how along Ocean Parkway, the Syrian Jewish community lives alongside Muslims from Pakistan and Bangladesh; how Brooklyn's Mexican residents have formed councils not just to send money to their home cities but to have a role in how it is spent; how former all-white communities like Canarsie and adjacent areas like my old block are now largely black (mostly West Indian).

Given these "amazing juxtapositions" and that today's immigrant communities, unlike those of the past, are still very involved in their native countries, Wallace said that some may think it is odd that somehow World War IV has not broken out in the borough.

A map and chart showed that at least one Brooklyn community seems to have no dominant group and is roughly one-quarter white, Asian, black and Hispanic. That's Ditmas Park ("Yay!" cheered the old ladies in front of me) – and surprisingly, it's not the border of adjacent ethnic communities, just a place where everyone seems to be content living side by side.

Is this too good to be true? Wallace asked. We will see if the subprime woes and the faltering financial markets – in evidence in Brooklyn by Wallace's ominous map of rising foreclosures in the borough (anyone on the Church Avenue bus in East Flatbush will notice "Avoid Foreclosure!" signs posted everywhere) – will change the comity between ethnic groups and jeopardize the revival. How will it play out if thousands are thrown out of their homes? Will there be a battle for space or will coalitions develop across ethnic lines?

Wallace said that Brooklynites – with its manufacturing base largely dead and those good wages replaced by low-paying retail jobs at places like Target, and with large numbers of borough residents living below the poverty line – may find that our current good will has been floating on a sea of relative prosperity.

He ended his lecture to a sea of applause. Most of us took the elevator up to a reception on the library's second floor as Wallace talked further about Brooklyn with individual members of the audience. I marveled that somehow he'd given a talk about Brooklyn's history and future without ever uttering the words "hipsters" or "Heath Ledger."

By the window overlooking Eastern Parkway, I can see the hundred-year-old Turner Towers, where my pediatrician Dr. Stein treated me from infancy to adolescent hypochondria.

Turner Towers is now covered with the black shroud that's at last being lifted from the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Building -- I guess it's One Hanson Place now although those of us who suffered root canals and oral surgery at the hands of its former tenants still call it the Skyscraper of Pain.

I wonder if there are still doctors' offices in Turner Towers.

On my last visit before he retired, Dr. Stein gave me some kind vaccine on a Saturday morning and I called him frantically that afternoon to say that my upper arm had gotten very swollen and I needed to see him right away. He sighed and said he was finished for the day but if I could drive over fast, he'd take a look.

Dr. Stein could find no swelling and when I showed him what I meant, he laughed.

"You're flexing your triceps muscle," he said. "Have you been lifting weights?"

Embarrassed, I walked out of the office with him to our cars. He pointed to the Brooklyn Museum across the street. "You know," he said, "I've had my office here almost fifty years and I've never been in that place once."

I told him he should go there now that he was retiring.

"Maybe I will," Dr. Stein said. He lived in Marine Park, not far from my family's house.

Tama Janowitz, who kindly blurbed one of my books, lives in Turner Towers now.

Just down from Turner Towers, directly across as I look out the library meeting room's window, is the still-under-construction sleek glass of Richard Meier's new building, On Prospect Park. I wonder what kind of people will be able to afford to live there and what their role will be in the future of Brooklyn.

Then I leave the library and hop on a passing Flatbush Avenue bus going downtown.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Thursday Evening at the Bowery Poetry Club: George Wallace Presents The Beat Hour

This was posted to Richard Grayson's MySpace blog on Friday, September 21, 2007:

Thursday Evening at the Bowery Poetry Club: George Wallace Presents The Beat Hour

Last evening at 6:30 p.m., I was one of about 35 people -- including a dear old friend and colleague, poet Linda Lerner -- at one of my favorite downtown venues for readings and performances, The Bowery Poetry Club, for an hour presented by the always-dynamic literary impresario George Wallace.

Although the scheduled bongo player was MIA, audience members improvised and there were some great sets by poets and performers:

Barbara Southard read some interesting poems, including a couple about downtown Jacksonville, a place I know well from having worked as a college instructor and run for Congress in that neighborhood;

Donald Lev, an old friend from the scene in the 1970s -- I had several stories in and was interviewed in Home Planet News, the great newsprint indie literary review founded by him and his late, much-missed, wife Enid Dame -- read some of his great film-reviews-as-poems (on The Goodbye Girl and Chalk) and other inimitable stylings by the guy who famously played The Poet in Robert Downey Sr.'s classic 1969 black comedy Putney Swope;

Brant Lyon and A.J. Antonio presented some wonderful jazz-poetry to musical accompaniment; and

Levi Asher, brains behind LitKicks and a lot else, read a couple of terrific Beat-style poems, the second a righteous riff on the Iraq war, and as a finale, brought up special guest Ed Champion, fresh from an interesting encounter with Danica McKellar, who joined Levi in a duet of simultaneous readings of a cut-up of Gregory Corso's "Bomb" to the accompaniment of an improvised bongo beat. It was a great way to end the evening, and since no Beat poetry event is complete without someone in the audience getting offended and leaving in a huff, it apparently prompted a guy in the first row to get up and go.

Snaps to everyone, especially George Wallace and the rest of the crew at the BPC.

Klezmer Memories of Uncle Dave Tarras

This was posted to Richard Grayson's MySpace blog on Friday, September 21, 2007:

I have a post up at Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn:

Here's another terrific story from frequent OTBKB contributor, Richard Grayson. Read a great interview with him here.

Tonight (September 20) at Barbes, you can catch Andy Statman at the 10 p.m. show. The promo for his appearance says:

A truly extraordinary artist, Andy Statman began his career in the 70's as a virtuoso Mandolinist who studied and performed David Grisman, went on to study clarinet the legendary Dave Tarras and became one of the main architect of a Klezmer revival which started out 30 years ago and has since informed and influenced folk, Jazz and improvised music forms. Andy draws equally from hassidic melodies, folk tunes from new and old worlds alike and Albert Ayler-influenced free-improv. The result reads like a very personal search for the sacred based both on traditions and introspection.

The "legendary Dave Tarras" was my Uncle Dave, called by Wikipedia "possibly the most famous 20th century klezmer musician. . .known for his long career and his very skilled clarinet playing."

Uncle Dave and his klezmer band played at my bar mitzvah reception at the Deauville Beach Club in Sheepshead Bay back in 1964. Many years before that, he played the clarinet at the wedding of my great-grandparents back in Ukraine.

Although he was my great-great-uncle, he was only 53 when I was born (in my family, we marry young or not at all) and was around till I was almost 40. A couple of weeks after The Village Voice gave a nice notice to my first book in 1979, Uncle Dave trumped that with a Voice cover story that called him "King Klezmer."

Married to my grandmother's Aunt Shifra, Uncle Dave came to America with my grandmother and his in-laws, my great-great-grandparents, who'd later own a candy store on Stone Avenue in Brownsville.

At Ellis Island, they fumigated his clarinet and he was forced to work for his brother-in-law, my great-grandfather, a prominent furrier who'd been in America for years, until he could pay for a new one.

When I was a kid, Uncle Dave lived on Tilden Avenue in East Flatbush, just across the street from Tilden High School (closed last June and broken up into smaller schools). At one point my mother decided I should have clarinet lessons and Uncle Dave came over and gamely tried to instruct me.

But I have no musical ability whatsoever and I hated the taste of the reed in my mouth. Although I loved Uncle Dave and wanted to please him, whatever came out of my clarinet must have sounded like a catfight.

After just a few weeks, he said, "You don't like this, do you?"

I shook my head.

"What do you like to do?"

"I don't know. . . writing?"

"Then you should write." He went downstairs and told my mother the clarinet was not for me.

Uncle Dave had come from a musical family, and his son-in-law Sammy Musiker, married to my grandmother's cousin Brauny, was an ace on both the sax and clarinet. A friend of Gene Krupa who played in Krupa's band, Sammy brought jazz and swing influences into klezmer before his untimely death.

My friend Bert Stratton, a clarinetist with the Cleveland band Yiddishe Cup, once did research at the YIVO Institute and sent me a composition of Uncle Dave's entitled "Richard's Ba Mitzva," though I'm pretty sure it was done not for me but for his grandson Richard Tarras or his grandnephew Richard Shapiro. All of us were students at Meyer Levin JHS in the early 1960s, so the title could do triple-duty.

Although Uncle Dave was well-known in musical circles – he had a weekly show on a Brooklyn-based radio station when I was a kid – mainstream recognition came with the klezmer revival late in his life. In 1984, the National Endowment for the Arts gave him a Heritage Fellowship in recognition of his contribution to traditional music.

After Aunt Shifra's death, Uncle Dave lived with a widow whose family he'd known for many years. To avoid losing social security benefits, they had only a religious marriage ceremony, not a civil one. We celebrated their "wedding" at the Shang-Chai kosher Chinese restaurant on Flatbush Avenue.

The last time I saw Uncle Dave, he gave me a gift: a signed copy of an LP by Enrico Caruso. I still treasure it.

Uncle Dave died at 95 and is buried next to Aunt Shifra in the family plot at Old Montefiore Cemetery in Springfield Gardens. A musical staff adorns their headstone.

Andy Statman is carrying on and extending the traditions of klezmer music. Catch him if you can.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Sunday at the Brooklyn Book Festival: Panel on "Why Book Reviews Matter"

This post appeared on Richard Grayson's MySpace Blog on Monday, September 17, 2007:

Sunday at the Brooklyn Book Festival: Why Book Reviews Matter

The last of four panels in the National Book Critics Circle's event "The Age of Infinite Margins: Book Critics Face the 21st Century," took place yesterday at the Brooklyn Book Festival. At 1 p.m. over a hundred people gathered at the Brooklyn Historical Society to attend the panel, "Why Book Reviews Matter: How We Decide What to Read (Next)."

Deborah Schwartz, the president of the Brooklyn Historical Society, began by welcoming us to their building. I've been there a number of times, and they always seem to have great exhibits of photos and other stuff from the old days, most of which I was around to see (trolleys, Ebbets Field, pterodactyls over Flatbush, etc.).

Deborah then introduced Jane Ciabattari, NBCC board member, short story writer, book critic and presence on the NBCC blog Critical Mass, today's moderator, who in turn introduced the four panelists:

Colin Harrison, author of five novels and vice president and senior editor at Scribner's, a resident of Brooklyn;

Kathryn Harrison, author of novels as well as a memoir, a biography and an essay collection, also a Brooklyn resident (you figure it out);

John Reed, novelist and books editor of The Brooklyn Rail (his residence was left unspecified); and

Harvey Shapiro, poet, former editor of The New York Times Book Review, a resident of Brooklyn Heights for 50 years.

(Full disclosure: When my first book was published in 1979, I placed a copy with a cordial note on the doorstep of Mr. Shapiro's brownstone. This friendly gesture did not get that book reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, but Mr. Shapiro did allow a mildly favorable review of my third book to appear in the NYTBR in August 1983; three weeks later he was replaced as editor by Mitchel Levitas).

Jane's first question for the panel: How do they decide what to read next?

Colin said that as an editor at a major publishing house, a river of paper comes to his desk every day. If the book is from an agent or an editor that he knows or on a topic that interests him, it has a better chance of getting his attention. Because he reads so many manuscripts, he has very little time to read for fun – and when he does so, it's usually as a "vacation" from his usual fare: a novel from the 1950s or a strange book of nonfiction.

The truth is, Colin said, he doesn't read based on book reviews. He's currently reading a Peter Blauner thriller set in New York City.

Kathryn said the last novel she read had been recommended by a student. Most books she reads are recommended by her friends, though she does look through The New York Times Book Review and the daily reviews in The New York Times.

Kathryn said there are certain writers she follows and will read all of their books. She gets a lot of books, though not as many as Colin. A lot of her reading is research for her own books. For fun, she reads Victorian novels such as those by Dickens or Madame Bovary (which she re-reads every year).

Colin interrupted to say that she reads books about serial murders, and Kathryn said that yes, she likes true crime books.

John said he finds books a lot of different ways: review copies to The Brooklyn Rail, book reviews he reads, websites he looks at, recommendations from friends. At the book festival today he'd already bought "too many books." He especially looks for books published by presses that he respects. For research, he reads strange stuff, like books on 1850s pottery. For fun, he reads things like graphic novels.

John said he wants to have The Brooklyn Rail review books early, so he relies a lot on publishers' catalogs. While a lot of review copies come to the Rail offices, he's not physically there and so doesn't see them all. Finally, reviewers sometimes come to him with books they are interested in reading.

Harvey said that there are so many books in his apartment that he has never read that he always has a huge pile of books to get to. He doesn't really use reviews as a consumer guide; rather, he listens to friends. However, he is affected by reviews – such as when everyone suddenly "discovers" a writer like Cormac McCarthy.

Harvey also follows specific reviewers like Louis Menand and Diane Johnson: "I'll read whatever they're reviewing." He also likes Adam Kirsch's reviews in The New York Sun and Charles Simic's poetry reviews in The New York Review of Books. Publications he reads include The New York Times Book Review, New York Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, Brooklyn Rail and the newsletter of the St. Marks Poetry Project, which is important for reviews of poetry books.

Jane then asked the panel how they want word to get out about the new books they themselves have coming out and what the ideal in terms of book reviews would look like.

Harvey said that it is imperative that advance copies get to the following periodicals well in advance: Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and Booklist (the latter is especially important for poetry, since a good review will create library sales).

Review outlets that help sell books, Harvey said, are The New York Review of Books, New York Times Book Review, Talisman, literary magazines, The Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times Book Review (although he got an unfortunate review there) and Boston Review.

John agreed with Harvey's response but said that even if you get a lot of reviews, a lot of other things have to happen to achieve maximum sales. He noted that publishers often mess up when it comes to advance review copies; they have to be in six months in advance. Too many people chase reviews when it's too late, like two months after publication.

John said it's necessary for books to go after very specific markets and that it's important for authors to use social networking sites, blogs, and other outlets besides the traditional print review publications.

Jane mentioned the posts about the NBCC campaign to save newspaper book reviews on its Critical Mass blog. A Harper Perennial editor said on the blog that authors definitely need a MySpace page. Another site the editor mentioned is Powells Books, which has a review of the day and with whom Harper Perennial partnered to make a film about the novel On Chesil Beach.

Jane asked Kathryn if things are done differently to get reviews and publicity for her fiction and nonfiction books. Kathryn said that it's hard to address the difference between two, that there's not much crossover in terms of readers.

Kathryn said that every book is like reinventing the wheel, even if they are from the same author; it's always like starting over unless you become one of those rare "brand names" like Stephen King. Selling books is not like selling toothpaste, as publishers say, in that books are not necessities.

Kathryn's preference is to be completely involved in something else during the publicity process; in some ways it helps to let go of a book already published, if not thinking about it as a failure before the fact.

Jane asked her about blog tours, about guest-hosting on blogs – something authors are beginning to do; Kathryn said she would certainly do that, as she would anything helpful for her books. She has a website and will probably get a MySpace page, though she called herself "an Amazon virgin" who has never checked her sales rankings or the reviews of her books by readers there.

Colin said that word of mouth is the best way to sell books. As an editor, his perspective is that the publishing company will work hard to get authors reviews. Unfortunately, due to factors beyond their control, publishers do something send out galleys late.

As reviews come in, things happen to books; sometimes a book you had high hopes for garners poor reviews that can be devastating to authors. As an editor, Colin said, he tells his authors that this is just the immediate response but the reviews are not everything in terms of success.

Right now, Colin said, there really isn't the reviewing culture that existed in the past. While professional critics are often very good, a number of book reviews today are done by occasional reviewers who freelance and these reviews are not always the best; sometimes it's easy to tell that the reviewer hasn't really read the book but based his review on the press materials.

Colin said the good reviews are sometimes not as intelligent as bad reviews because lazy reviewers who don't read carefully are loath to expose their failings with a bad review and so indulge in mindless praise.

Sometimes, Colin went on, a single review can have an electrifying effect that creates a chain of critical awareness and set the perception of the book. And some books get reviewed very well, but they don't sell many copies anyway. Few newspapers do daily reviews anymore.

Colin mentioned a book he edited, the first novel by Anthony Swofford, whose memoir Jarhead sold well after magnificent reviews. The novel got a "murderous" review in The New York Times Book Review, and although that was really the only poor review the book got, it set the perception for the novel, much to the detriment of its sales figures.

Colin repeated what others said, that there's a very short period of time in which responses to a book come in and actually matter; most books are in the marketplace of ideas for only a brief moment. A lack of reviews can be very discouraging to writers.

With newspaper reviews in decline, outlets like The Village Voice's Voice Literary Supplement gone, things are much harder, but Colin hopes were merely in a pause in the critical culture; he expects more reviews from newspapers will migrate from the print edition to the online one. There are some wonderful literary blogs that do a good job; he mentioned Jessa Crispin's Bookslut, Maud Newton and Lizzie Skurnick's The Old Hag, among others.

John took up the question and said his magazine likes to champion underdogs, so he particularly looks at small presses, of which there are many excellent ones that bring out books that might otherwise slip through the cracks. The Brooklyn Rail has a political bent and that affects its book coverage. They try to review books that they can help, which is why they rarely review books long after publication, except to right what he feels is an unjustified neglect by other review outlets.

John said a lot of an author's best coverage comes off the book pages, where the author can better define and control the coverage to her advantage.

Again, John mentioned social networking sites like MySpace, saying writers take to them like a duck takes to water. Authors who are afraid of these sites must dive in, because they will inevitably become more important.

Harvey began by saying that in his lifetime, middlebrow culture has completely disappeared. At one time magazines like Life, Time and Newsweek would feature authors on their covers because books were an important part of American novel.

[My intrusion: As a kid in the 1960s, I used to collect autographed Time covers, and in my collection are those of a number of novelists, such as John Updike, who made Time's cover when Couples came out. Updike signed it, "I'm glad you liked Irene," referring to the character of Irene Saltz, whom I told him I thought was the most well-drawn.]

Harvey said book culture receded in importance as the boundaries broke down between highbrow and lowbrow culture, with middlebrow culture completely disappearing as postmodernism reigned. This was in many ways a good thing, but it ended mainstream coverage of literary works in the mass media.

Today, because of financial problems unrelated to books and book culture, newspapers are cutting back reviews. To some degree, Harvey said, editorial space is determined by the amount of advertising in a section.

When he was editor of The New York Times Book Review, a company vice president once told him that it was okay for the section to lose two million dollars a year but if it lost three million, they'd be in trouble. No one ever gave him a balance sheet although at one point an executive told him the section was actually running int the black.

Harvey said that under him, the section reviewed about 6% of reviewable books, not including very specialized titles for a narrow audience. At one time he wanted to eliminate all art and graphics to make more room for book reviews, but of course that never happened. He thought the extra space could be given over to more review content.

The sad truth, Harvey said, is that book publishers don't advertise much. The inability to financially support itself is why The Los Angeles Times Book Review ceased to exist as a separate section as was folded into an insert in the Arts section of the paper.

Interestingly, Harvey said The New York Times Book Review began as part of the Arts section of the paper and then he mused, "Who knows, it may eventually go back to that."

Jane said the panel was running out of time and she wanted to mention some other kinds of publicity of books: Oprah Winfrey and her book club on her television show, for example, really did bring mainstream attention to a literary novelist like Cormac McCarthy when Oprah selected The Road.

After asking if anyone in the audience relied on The Colbert Report as a source of information about books they might read (no one did, apparently), Jane asked the audience members what other sources they did get information about books from.

Here are some responses people called out: page one of The Wall Street Journal, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, The Leonard Lopate Show and The Brian Lehrer Show on public radio station WNYC, critic James Wood (now at The New Yorker),, Rain Taxi, American Book Review (particularly important for poetry),, reviews (John Reed said Amazon has been culling and deleting some reviews and reminded everyone that books are reviewed there by people who also review soap) and various literary blogs.

The Brooklyn Book Festival people had another event scheduled at 2 p.m., so Jane thanked the panelists and the audience and wrapped up an interesting series of panels from the National Book Critics Circle.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Friday Afternoon at Housing Works Books Cafe: "Grub Street 2.0: The Future of Book Coverage"

This post is from Richard Grayson's MySpace blog for Saturday, September 15, 2007:

Friday Afternoon at Housing Works Books Cafe: "Grub Street 2.0: The Future of Book Coverage"

Yesterday at 4:30 p.m. I was in a very large crowd, perhaps 65 people, filling the Housing Works Used Books Cafe to attend the National Book Critics Circle's second of four panels in their series "The Age of Infinite Margins: Book Critics Face the 21st Century."

Entitled "Grub Street 2.0: The Future of Book Coverage," it was moderated by John Freeman, the widely-published book critic and president of the NBCC, who began by saying it was great to see that so many people left work early to come.

He thanked Scott McNemee for the title of this session, which of course comes from Samuel Johnson, who lived on Grub Street and who popularized the term as one for hack writers when his dictionary called it "originally the name of a street...much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems, whence any mean production is called grubstreet."

Mentioning George Gissing's novel New Grub Street, set in late-19th-century London—which contrasts a pragmatic journalist with an impoverished writer and examines the tension between commerce and art in the literary world—John noted that although the current climate for book reviews was considered bad, things may have always seemed bleak. He quoted from Gissing back in 1891:
Presently the conversation turned to periodicals, and the three men were unanimous in an opinion that no existing monthly or quarterly could be considered as representing the best literary opinion.

'We want,' remarked Mr Quarmby, 'we want a monthly review which shall deal exclusively with literature. The Fortnightly, the Contemporary -- they are very well in their way, but then they are mere miscellanies. You will find one solid literary article amid a confused mass of politics and economics and general clap-trap.'

'Articles on the currency and railway statistics and views of evolution,' said Mr Hinks, with a look as if something were grating between his teeth.

John then said things were no different in 1959, when Elizabeth Hardwick wrote her scathing Harper's essay, "The Decline of Book Reviewing," which lacerated the turgid state of American book reviews:
In America, now...a genius may indeed go to his grave unread, but he will hardly have gone to it unpraised. Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns. Everyone is found to have 'filled a need,' and is to be 'thanked' for something and to be excused for 'minor faults in an otherwise excellent work.'

After briefly discussing the NBCC's current campaign to save newspaper book review sections, John introduced the panel:

Melissa Egan, producer of The Leonard Lopate Show on New York's public radio station WNYC;

Dwight Garner, senior editor of The New York Times Book Review and writer of its best-seller list column and its Paper Cuts blog;

Emily Lazar, producer of Comedy Central's The Colbert Report;

Jennifer Szalai, senior editor at Harper's magazine;

Erica Wagner, literary editor of The Times (London); and

Steve Wasserman, former editor of The Los Angeles Times Book Review, currently a literary agent and the incoming editor at, author of the recent Columbia Journalism Review article on the decline of book coverage, "Goodbye to All That."

John began by asking Erica about the literary situation in England and if newspaper book sections are livelier there.

Erica said the crucial difference between our countries is that England is much smaller and still has national newspapers that have a greater influence over literary culture. At times, that can create an insular literary culture, "as if we are all in conversation with ourselves" and outsiders may feel excluded.

The British literary community knows each other well, Erica said, and are not as dispersed as in the U.S. so that when, say, a new Philip Roth novel comes out, people compete with each other to be the first to review it.

Erica's newspaper, The Times (as opposed to the separate entity The Sunday Times), never had a stand-alone book review section until she started one in 2005. The section is 20 pages, with games and crossword puzzles in the back. She's trying to reach people who ordinarily don't read book sections.

British newspapers also sponsor literary festivals, as hers does the Cheltenham Festival of Literature, which takes place in early October. The Times provides financial support for the festival and has a say in programming, which it ties to coverage of the event. Her book section the Saturday before the festival will be all about it and other sections of the newspaper, such as the arts section, will cover other aspects of Cheltenham's guest authors. The sponsorship has proven to be a good value all around.

John said that this reminded him that authors today can't hide from the public until they've developed a loyal cult following. Before that, they have to be out on tour, plugging the book as much as they can. He asked Emily how she chooses authors to appear on Stephen Colbert's show.

Emily said they viewed the show's primary obligation to be one of entertainment; it's not a book review show, but books are a great resource for them. They rely on book reviews to help select author guests from the many books that they get (about 60-80 each day).

Of course the premise of the show is that the Colbert character never reads any of the books he's interviewing the authors about. They would rarely have a novelist on, as the audience (and Colbert) need to understand the idea of the book right off the bat. Novels usually don't have clear arguments and their show isn't about stories. They are looking for books, essentially, that contain arguments that can easily be made fun of.

While Salman Rushdie did appear recently on Colbert, it wasn't for any of his novels. They also had a recent appearance by Garrison Keillor, but he is less a literary writer to them than the apotheosis of NPR banjo-playing folksiness, something that can be satirized.

John noted that much of the news about the Bush administration, including revelations seen nowhere else, have come not from newspaper or magazine journalists but from the authors of books. He asked Steve, now at as opposed to the Los Angeles Times Book Review, about the differences between reviewing books about current events on the Web and general book reviewing in newspapers.

Steve said that the fact that newspapers have to rely on books for news about the Bush administration testifies to newspaper journalists' total abdication of their responsibility to search for the truth. As for technological change, it may make communication more swift, the human desire to make sense of our world and seek answers remains the same.

He looks for the same qualities in all reviews: the degree to which the writer is accurate and composes with style and grace and has something interesting to say. He thinks victory will ultimately go to those blogs and older forms that have these qualities in abundance.

Steve said that the proliferation of blogs and other new forms still hasn't shown that they can produce an economic model for employment of people to write about books. Zealots in their garages now can post their manifestos on the Internet without first going through a discriminating filter that editors provide.

John then turned to Dwight and asked him about his blog for The New York Times. Dwight said that blogging is sticking a live wire into one's neck. At the book review section, they don't really have much contact with readers except for the relatively few letters that come in, but when he posts something on his blog, people respond immediately. That people online are "always yapping" means that the blogger has something like a pet that constantly craves attention and it's difficult to keep up.

Dwight likened book reviews to restaurants, while blogs are more like good hot dog stands, a fun place to go for a quick bite.

John asked Jennifer about her magazine's use of long-form reviews. In view of the widely-assumed decline of people's attention spans, has Harper's thought about changing this format and going to shorter reviews?

Jennifer said that the magazines had no plans for shorter reviews, that they and their readers seemed to appreciate the 4,000-word reviews they run or John Leonard's 2,000-word columns covering a number of books. As far as shorter attention spans go, Harper's appeals to readers curious about the world around them, people who like the long form. A not-for-profit organization, her magazine doesn't have to worry so much about economic imperatives.

John turned to Melissa and said that Leonard Lopate's radio show had the same instant feedback as blogs. He asked how she finds the authors to appear on the program.

Melissa said she usually goes by her gut feelings about the book; if they like a book, they invite the author on without worrying that she might be boring. Some people are amazingly good writers but find it hard to communicate over the air. Leonard Lopate's job is to pull them out. Their show does loads of first novels, often before there are many reviews out of these books.

John asked if she ends up reading a lot of stuff, and she said they do aggressive screening since they get 40-60 books a day. They have to do a lot of skimming.

John then discussed all the multimedia add-ons newspaper book sections now contain: the podcasts, Q & A's, etc. He asked Erica about these in both her paper's print and online book sections.

Erica said we are trying to do more and more multimedia, but nobody really yet knows what the effect of these add-ons will be and if the expenditures made will be worthwhile. After all, if they decide to do a podcast, someone has to be the interviewer. They are basically throwing stuff out and seeing what sticks, but none of this material comes without costs. The current confusion about all this comes down to economic reality.

John asked Dwight if the New York Times is also heading in that direction, and he pretty much echoed Erica in saying they were throwing everything out at readers online in particular and are waiting to see what works. For him, blogs and podcasts are not as much fun as book reviews themselves.

John noted that there were fewer newspaper reviews, and while there were many blogs, blogs don't have editors. He asked Steve about this: are we losing the kind of incisive criticism a Susan Sontag-type review once provided.

Steve said newspapers and all mass media worry about the need to "retain eyeballs" and so they can neglect the pure mission of providing criticism. Many book review outlets have blurred the boundary from being critics to being spin doctors for authors or publicists for book publishers.

In a furiously visual culture, Steve went on, mass media depend upon "a certain velocity of image." He views books as the most pure form and hates interviewers who ask authors, "What more can you tell us about your book?" An honest author might answer, "I spent three years writing my book and put everything in in. If you want to know that, just read my book. It says everything I have to say."

All podcasts, Q & A's and the other add-ons are a species of higher gossip, Steve said, a kind of Rope-a-Dope or junk food, to bring in the kind of person who normally doesn't go near straight book reviews. But they have little nutritive value compared to the work itself, and the work should be the primary focus.

John quoted Updike when he said that the perfect book review would quote the book under discussion in its entirety.

Then John asked Emily about the relentless plugging of books and whether Colbert satirizes that in his author interviews, making fun of the current system of book publicity.

Emily said the Colbert persona is so misinformed, his guests have to constantly correct him about his assumptions regarding their books. Keep in mind that their show's demographics skew toward very young viewers who probably read fewer books. If they were more conventional in their author interviews, their audience would get turned off.

She said Colbert can sell books that no one else is paying attention to. At work she has to deal with books in a "circus atmosphere," but at home, as a reader, she wishes her work self didn't have to resort to these circus tricks to bring attention to books.

John noted the paradox that while technology is making it easier to publish, it's also making it harder to find time to read. He then turned to Melissa and asked how she gets listeners to the radio show involved when so much else is competing for their attention.

Melissa said the show asks for the listeners' direct involvement, and uses it, in the form of email questions and comments to Leonard Lopate during the show; he incorporates these into his interviews with guests and also takes phone calls from listeners, who can talk to the authors who are guests.

The radio show also has contests, such as a recipe swap, and it recently had a contest for drawings using googly eyes in connection with a new book by Amy Sedaris; the contests often draw as many as 400 entries from all over the country.

John said that Steve Wasserman was a recent guest, discussing the decline of book reviewing, and he noted that soon after the interview, it could be downloaded and streamed online and that people could post comments about the show.

Melissa said that people suggest ideas for segments and guests constantly, that they use many of these ideas but only if they agree they are worthwhile.

John asked Jennifer if young reviewers, who grew up in a different mass media environment, write differently than old-time critics like Irving Howe. She said every generation takes a somewhat different approach, but young Harper's contributors are also their readers and are comfortable with the long form; reviewers in their twenties for them are happy to write 4,000-word reviews. While most twentysomethings may have a different attitude toward reading than people in their twenties did forty years ago, that's not true of the young reviewers Harper's publishes.

John turned to Dwight and asked about the Times Book Review, noting that many older book reviews the paper had in their online archives, unless they were by critics like Helene Vendler or Edward Hirsch, were often quite badly written in comparison with today's reviews.

Dwight said that he's pleased when he can go back and find reviews of old stuff, like John Gardner novels, that still stand up, but he agreed they have higher standards today. Back in the day, when he was coming up, young book reviewers could hone their craft in alternative weeklies, which have drastically cut or eliminated book coverage by now. Blogs, with a lack of editors, don't help a writer develop in the same way.

Steve Wasserman said that he doesn't understand then why the chain bookstores and some others seem to have tons of literary quarterlies. Even if these are subsidized and read by only fifty people, can't talented writers get their start there? All the quarterlies actually seem desperate to find fresh, excellent material, so talented young writers still can get published today.

Steve mentioned a UCLA student who a few years ago approached him after a panel like the one today who asked if he would look at her stuff. He did and liked it, and Cristina Nehring has gone on to produce superb work for Harper's and other magazines and has a book contract with HarperCollins. Of course, not all people with literary aspirations have as much talent as she does, and they will not succeed, and that's a good thing.

Steve affirmed that there were lots of outlets for writers with talent although he admitted they pay abysmally. Erica said she would agree, though England is a more closed world and sometimes she gets people writing her saying the British literary world is a kind of conspiracy to keep certain people down. She wishes she had more space to publish more writers who can genuinely contribute to the literary discussion.

John stated that novelist and poets write for their own enjoyment and don't feel terrible if their stuff doesn't get published, but nobody sits home and writes book reviews for their own pleasure. Without enough outlets, potential book reviewers are frustrated.

John said this frustration leads to the acerbic quality of some, but not all, literary blogs, who feel they must shout out to get heard. Some have compared them to the English essays of the eighteenth century who were similarly acerbic. Is this an apt comparison?

Steve said that at the risk of psychoanalyzing anyone's rage, he believed it was better that these people get their anger out with words on their blogs rather than climb up to a tower and start shooting people willy-nilly. Their rage is a perverse acknowledgement of how deep people's feelings about literature are.

What he dislikes about the Internet is that its neat aesthetics confer an unearned authority on the scribblings of ranters. You used to be able to tell a "nutter" by the bizarre formatting of addressing on their envelopes, their disregard for margins, their crazy scrawl. It was so much easier in the old days to spot an unhinged person. Now the Internet makes it harder to tell; all opinions, at first glance, appear equal. This is terrifying, so you've got to read online stuff carefully.

John asked Dwight how he reads the Internet, and Dwight said that at the Times Book Review, they don't really look to litblogs for literary criticism but for news of the publishing world and gossip. To look at literary criticism, they search the online book sections of other newspapers like The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, etc. Although they don't provide real literary criticism, Dwight said, blogs do have the virtue of distinctive voices.

John said that the NBCC blog Critical Mass can get famous writers to send them articles without paying them – a somewhat depressing situation if you think about it – but people don't read them, like a great essay Richard Powers did for them. Most of the traffic to the organization's blog comes from some link by another site, like Arts and Letters Daily.

Jennifer said she looks at litblogs for news as well, but she might not want online criticism because she herself is not used to reading long pieces on the Internet. Probably young people feel differently. She uses the Web to "get a sense of what's out there." But there's a lot of glut, and sometimes good things are hard to find.

Emily said some of the reviews of her husband Jonathan Alter's book seemed so petty. When reviewers aren't thoughtful, they lose credibility. She noted that some reviewers discredit an entire book because an author got one or two facts wrong. Then she said she was speaking more as the wife of an author than a TV producer.

Jennifer said there are real problems with book reviewers who want to feel superior to the books they are assigned.

When Emily said snark is more entertaining, Jennifer said that reviewers must communicate their critical experience in encountering work. It's bad to be condescending to the books under review; particularly with fiction, reviewers need to have a little bit of humility. Being a showoff results in the worst reviews, and editors need to guard against letting condescension creep into their publications' reviews.

Emily said she wanted a review of a book that was written, not the book the reviewer thought ought to have been written. Dwight said he was a fan of Emily's husband Jonathan Alter's writing and said that his columns are tough, and so he should expect tough reviews of his own work.

John asked Dwight if they often had to kill poorly-written reviews. Dwight said they rarely do this; instead they try to fix it. It looks bad if the Times Book Review kills a review because it seems as if they are favoring a writer and don't want her to receive negative criticism. They hate cheap shots, but some hits and fair hits.

Steve said that to him, a worse sin is the widespread prevalence of indifference in book reviews. "I'd embrace a crime of passion, however wrongly directed," he said, "over the indifferent complacency I see in many reviews."

Steve said he wanted to feel a presiding sensibility informing a book review, a sense that the reviewer holds readers in high regard and understands the high stakes of a review. He wants reviews that embrace the strange, the unknown, even the perverse – writing like that would go a long way toward gaining eyeballs for book review sections.

John asked Melissa if discussions on the Leonard Lopate radio show ever get combative or confrontational, and she replied that emotions are sometimes important, though if you're interviewing Henry Kissinger, you must approach him with respect. They try to have on only people that Leonard respects, and if the conversation gets heated, that's fine.

John then turned to Emily and asked her role in scripting the interviews; if they've got on a Swedish writer with a skeptical view of global warming as they did recently, what's their strategy to make the interview entertaining?

Emily said lots of writers make good foils for Steve's Colbert character, and it's Steve who usually figures out how. She couldn't do it for Keillor and would have passed on him as a guest, but Steve said he'd out-folksy him. Steve loves the challenge of interviewing guests his character would really have nothing to say so. The more difficult the interview, the better Steve likes it.

John said they were nearing the end of the hour session and asked each panel member what they were currently reading. Some of their answers:

Emily: Philip Roth's The Counterlife

Steve: Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism ("be very scared")

Melissa: Akiko Busch's Nine Ways to Cross a River: Midstream Reflections on Swimming and Getting There from Here

Erica: Carol Gould's Spitfire Girls: A Tale of the Lives and Loves, Achievements and Heroism of the Women ATA Pilots in World War II

Dwight: Phoebe Damrosch's Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter
Jennifer: Gyula Kruda's Sunflower

With that, John closed the session by thanking the panel and the audience, reminding them that at 5:45 p.m., there would be another panel, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Books: Can Criticism and Promotion Coexist Today?"

Unfortunately, someone's grandmother was waiting for me at Sal's Pizzeria in Williamsburg and so I could not stay for it.