Thursday, August 23, 2007

Wednesday at Bryant Park: “We Love Chick Lit” Panel Discussion

This is from Richard Grayson's MySpace blog on Thursday, August 23, 2007:
Wednesday at Bryant Park: “We Love Chick Lit” Panel Discussion

On Wednesday at 12:30 p.m. I was in the audience under the dark skies and unseasonably cool temperatures that have been prevalent in New York this week for a Bryant Park Reading Room panel discussion called (to the apparent surprise of some of the participants) "We Love Chick Lit." (The Bryant Park Reading Room is not really a room as far as I can tell but a space in the park – a place you really wanted to avoid 20 and 30 years ago but now a midtown Manhattan oasis: lunch spot, meeting place and hangout.)

The wry Ned Vizzini, author of Be More Chill and It's Kind of a Funny Story, was an inspired choice as moderator. The Bryant Park Bookworm, librarian Miriam Tuliao introduced Ned and the panelists:

Jennifer Belle, author of the novels Going Down, High Maintenance and the new Little Stalker;

Caprice Crane, who's followed her 2006 fiction debut Stupid and Contagious with the new Forget About It;

My friend Megan Crane, whose books include English as a Second Language, Everyone Else's Girl and the new Frenemies; and

Carrie Karasyov, co-author of Wolves in Chic's Clothing and The Right Address and author of the new The Infidelity Pact.

Ned's first question to the panel was about the "log line," the need to be able to summarize your book in a sentence or two. Did the authors think this was important and what's the log line for their latest book.

Jennifer jokingly said it was important for going to cocktail parties because when someone asked you to describe your book and you told them the log line, it would immediately stop the conversation. Little Stalker is about a one-time successful 33-year-old author who finds herself blocked; obsessed with a Woody Allen-like director, she pretends to be a 13-year-old when she contacts him, eventually healing a painful childhood experience in the process. (My notes are less articulate than Jennifer or the other panelists.)

Caprice said yes, you need to be able to tell your story in a sentence for commercial purposes, but while you're writing, you should forget about the log line and write aimlessly. Forget About It is about a girl who fakes amnesia in order to reinvent herself.

Megan said, also jokingly, that she would usually, "Um, my book is about a girl…" Frenemies, she said, is about figuring out whether someone is really your friend or your enemy or maybe both.

Carrie said as a screenwriter she's used to giving pitches like it's Silence of the Lambs meets The Parent Trap or it's Jaws meets When Harry Met Sally. The Infidelity Pact is about four married women in L.A. who agree to cheat on their husbands for one year – and the one who finds out ends up dead.

Ned then noted that an "elevator pitch" is an extended version of the log line, then segued into a discussion of how writers name their characters.

Jennifer said the rule is that you name characters what their parents would have named them and then not let naming slow you down in the writing process. For characters who resemble actual famous people, lawyers advise not to use the same first initial.

Caprice also wrote screenplays and by now she feels she's run out of names. She struggles with them and sometimes changes them.

Megan said names come to her in a flash or not at all, and even when she sees her published books, she feels some characters' names are not "still wrong" for them, but she's glad she didn't obsess over names.

Carrie said she's obsessed with names; when she wrote with a partner, she was the one who did the naming while her partner wrote the titles.

Ned's next question was about strategies for writing when you're blocked.

After saying she was freezing (and yes, it was mighty chilly for August), Jennifer said that she is gentle with herself and not like some authors who force themselves to start writing at 7 a.m. She writes in the afternoons on computers, in cafes, and does not allow the word "blocked" to enter her mind while working on a book.

Caprice said she gets distracted by TiVo, dogs and IMing but not blocked. She'll take herself out of the office and go write in Starbucks, where there are no dogs or TiVo – but she can still IM there. She forces herself to write something, anything.

Megan said her writing blocks clear up immediately upon contemplating her mammoth debt; presumably finishing the book will help get her bills down to size. She said she doesn't really have blocks but instead has panic attacks.

Carrie said she'll go into bookstores and see how many books there are and how many writers and contemplate that writing is not a gift, it's kind of a job that just needs to get done.

Ned said putting all his money directly into checking and watching the balances diminish motivates him to write. He asked Caprice if she's distracted at Starbucks by other people and their conversations. She said she wears headphones that block out all the noise but music. Nick then asked the panelists about distractions and if they listen to music when they write.

Jennifer, who won't go to Starbucks but goes to other cafes said she sometimes can't help being distracted by people walking potbellied pigs down the street; she has a lovely country house with a gazebo set up for privacy and contemplation – and she can't write a word there. She disagreed with Carrie and feels writing is indeed a precious gift.

Caprice said she listens to music a lot and on one book listened to the same recording artist practically nonstop; it's not distracting to her.

Megan said she can't listen to lyrics so has to rely on classical and instrumental music; she also needs to face a blank wall when she's writing.

Carrie said she can't write and listen to music. Although she once needed a quiet place, now she has two kids and learned to zone out the noise.

Ned noted that he worked in the Brooklyn public library and that he sometimes got distracted by psychotic patrons who repeatedly hit themselves in the face.

Then he asked the panel about writing as craft versus "precious gift" and how much of their writing comes immediately as perfect and how much they labor over.

Jennifer said she didn't really know, that she went to her computer with an open mind and heart, writing what she feels. Sometimes she gets it right immediately, but she's also constantly reworking her prose.

Caprice said that when her writing is really flowing, she doesn't even want to sleep. Sometimes that's her best writing.

Megan said some of writing is a gift, the rest is craft, and that in her final product she can't tell the difference between pages she struggled over and those that happened with little effort.

Jennifer said that while writing sometimes feel like hard work, she never looks at it as a boring job; it's a privilege to be a writer.

Carrie said writing is a precious gift but also a craft. There are tons of amazing geniuses but not all end up being working writers. Many people have brilliant ideas but can't express them. She quote the film Finding Forrester (not a great movie, she said): the most important thing is simply to write.

Writing isn't a divine gift, Carrie said. Your writing will resonate with some people and not others.

Ned mentioned Dostoevsky and how many of his great novels were occasioned by the urgent need to support his family and pay off his gambling debts. He asked the writers about their typical writing day.

Jennifer said she's not strict about it, that she'll go to a café, write in her journal and get on the phone to argue to someone that chick lit has set women's writing back hundreds of years. (This seemed to change the tenor of the discussion). Jennifer noted that she's got a baby and must be flexible because of that.

Caprice said she doesn't have a set schedule and often writes from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. Megan said she doesn't have a set schedule either and likes being able to go to movies in the morning and never argues with anyone about chick lit. Carrie said she's had a partner and has kids so she can't have a set schedule either.

Ned then took up the question of chick lit.

Jennifer said her first and second books came out before the term chick lit was invented by a magazine writer and then it began being used, much to the financial detriment of women writers whose work is monetarily devalued as mere chick lit. She said she doesn't think anyone really sets out to write chick lit – not her students at the New School, whose meaningful books list show gender differences. Every woman student mentions books by men as well as women authors, but no male student ever mentions a woman author as his favorite. No man will ever buy a book marketed as chick lit, and Jennifer thinks that's sad. She's not a chick lit author but an angry writer girl.

Caprice said she was surprised to learn that this panel would be called "We Love Chick Lit": "Who knew?" The problem is that we are limiting ourselves to only half the potential audience. Chick lit, she said, is 8 letters that can be rearranged into two 4-letter words. One way of looking at it, though, is that women are the vast majority of book readers. She's written a book with an alternating point of view, male and female, saying she doesn't want to limit herself.

Megan said simply that she hopes everyone will read her books and that chick lit was just a marketing term; it's also allowed voices to be heard that were not before (Jennifer shook her head vigorously at this). Megan said chick lit gives insight into different women's lives and that's good.

Jennifer replied that there were just as many books by women published before chick lit existed, and Megan asked her to name some of them; Jennifer said she was one of many and that "you demean yourself" by calling yourself a chick lit author.

Carrie said she had no problem with chick lit, that one of her books was called "gossip lit" in the New York Times. Some people are offended by categories, but that's how things are marketed.

Megan said if chick lit creates a debate, that's good.

Ned asked about lad lit as a male equivalent, and the panel said there's not really such a thing, that men don't buy so-called lad lit books and women don't either.

Jennifer said she's just glad her new book doesn't have a cover with women's legs, and someone in the audience said she thought chick lit was all about the same story of an urban young woman in a shitty job trying to have a good relationship with a guy. That to her was chick lit.

Megan said no, that's how chick lit started but it has evolved. Jennifer again noted that chick lit allows publishers to pay women authors a fraction of what they pay men, but the others on the panel disagreed.

An agent in the audience said some of her "literary" male authors don't make as much as her chick lit authors. More women buy books, the agent said, and more buy chick lit books than any other genre, so it's a good way to get readers into bookstores. The agent noted that she gets a lot of chick lit manuscripts from would-be clients, but that lad lit doesn't work and writers themselves aren't really interested in producing it.

An audience member said she hated pink, fluffy chick lit covers. No guy, she said, would ever buy a pink book. Carrie said lots of people do love pink covers, that they have come back in fashion after a hiatus.

Near the end of the panel, an audience member asked what writers the panelists were inspired by.

Jennifer said Jean Rhys, Chekhov, Salinger, Tennessee Williams and others. Caprice gave a shout-out to J.K. Rowling and said she likes Jonathan Tripper a lot but was also inspired by early books like The Poky Little Puppy, and when she was a bit older, The Little Prince. Megan said she loved comfort books, like romances, which are predictable, and mentioned Nora Roberts and David Feinberg. Carrie said she loved Dostoevsky, Austen and especially Nabokov, but the book that most inspired her most to write was Donna Tartt's The Secret History.

Soon the hour was up and Ned thanked the panelists. All their books were on sale, and a number of the people in the audience went up to buy books and speak with the authors under the statue of William E. Dodge, the nineteenth-century industrialist, abolitionist and advocate of temperance, as a woman began to play a chartreuse piano and the rain, which had held off all day, started to come down a bit more heavily.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Sunday at the McCarren Pool: Ghostland Observatory

This appeared on Richard Grayson's MySpace blog on Monday, August 20, 2007:
Sunday at the McCarren Pool: Ghostland Observatory

The L Magazine practically told readers to avoid the last McCarren Pool Sunday concert of the summer because of what it called "the retarded electro-pop sounds" of Ghostland Observatory, but I'm just an old man so what do I know? I stood in the rain (under an umbrella, but still got wet) for over an hour blissfully enjoying Ghostland Observatory's sound, which practically compels you to start dancing, or at least swaying.

I got familiar with them a few months ago via National Public Radio, which said of the Austin-based band at SXSW:

"Ghostland Observatory is a duo, made up of singer Aaron Behrens and producer/drummer Thomas Turner. Formed to indulge a love of rock 'n' roll, the band blends new-wave electronics, danceable beats, disco guitars and Behrens' uncompromising vocals for a sound that recalls Daft Punk and The Clash in equal measure. With a vocal presence not unlike that of Freddie Mercury, there's a grand sense of ridiculousness about Ghostland Observatory — but it's a fun ridiculousness that knows how to party."

Despite the steady rain, people -- mostly 30 years younger than I am -- clearly knew how to party. I watched the dancing, the soccer game at the south end of the field, the volleyball game at the north end, the crowd's tossing around a big blue-and-white beach ball, the tall blue JellyNYC (concert presenter) inflated stick man swaying in the wind, the VIPs dry under the Helio tents at the back of the pool, kids getting their beers at the Brooklyn Brewery stands (dayglo wristbands required), others getting Sparky's All-American eats -- you know, hipsters williamsburgis in their element. (Okay, I know how cheesy and corny that is, but I published in People twenty years ago and am still recuperating.)

Obviously, at my age I'm far from being part of this scene -- although the summer of 1969, when I turned 18, will always be my favorite NYC summer (yes, Woodstock was 38 years and 2 days ago), believe me, over 55 is a lot, lot more fun than under 30 -- but I've enjoyed going to the McCarren Pool concerts these last two summers. I haven't seen anyone being arrested, vomiting, passing out, fighting out or doing illegal drugs (I'm an elderly attorney, so I do look for this stuff). All I saw were people enjoying themselves and all I heard was loud music, much of which was very, very good. And I also never saw anyone give me or any other older person a second glance as an unwanted insider. Anyone can pretty much walk in to the Sunday concerts at any time.

It's not clear what the McCarren Pool's future will be. Recently declared a landmark and perhaps scheduled to return to what was its mid-20th-century glory as one of Robert Moses's classic WPA New York City pools, there may a change in the water by next summer. Some people have criticized using the pool merely for one segment of the community -- the newly-arrived hipsters -- rather than catering to Williamsburg and Greenpoint's older Latino, Polish, Italian and other longtime residents. Diversity would be a plus, as would other uses of this amazing structure.

The New York City Parks Department wants people's opinions on the pool's future. There are three guidelines that the new pool design will follow:
The bathhouse and entry arch must be preserved.
There must be a pool.
There must be a year-round recreation center.

Give your opinions at the survey here.

Thanks to JellyNYC and everyone connected with this summer's free Sunday concerts.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Saturday at the Fort Greene Summer Literary Festival

This is from Richard Grayson's MySpace blog for Sunday, August 19, 2007:
Brooklyn's Fort Greene has been home to giants of American literature like Marianne Moore (on Cumberland Street) and Richard Wright (on Carlton Avenue). An earlier resident of the neighborhood, Walt Whitman wrote a Brooklyn Eagle editorial calling for the construction of a local park, "[as] the inhabitants there are not so wealthy nor so well situated as those on the heights…we have a desire that these, and the generations after them, should have such a place of recreation…"

Late Saturday afternoon, several hundred New Yorkers flocked to that place, Fort Greene Park, for the third annual Fort Greene Summer Literary Festival, presented by Akashic Books, the Fort Greene Park Conservancy, the New York Writers Coalition (NYWC) and others.

Gathered on a hill overlooking the lush foliage of the park, audience members sat on folding chairs or on picnic blankets or just stood listening to five established writers of poetry and fiction and about a dozen young Brooklyn residents, aged 8 to 16, who read work composed in Saturday creative writing workshops taught by NYWC members.

Laurie Cumbo, executive director and founder of the nearby Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA), served as a genial and charming MC, gracefully overcoming any jet lag she may have felt from a plane trip from South Africa the night before. Cumbo kept an event-filled program moving briskly, and her introductions and appreciations of everyone who came up to the rather rickety-looking raised platform to read or perform were both informative and enthusiastic – though she did have a tendency to give all the women and even little girls the honorific "Mrs."

First up was a non-literary treat that proved the platform wasn't as fragile as it appeared, as it stood up to the dynamic exertions of stepping provided by The P.L.A.Y.E.R.S. Club Steppers in their I (HEART) BX" T-shirts. I've seen some fine stepping at the North Florida universities where I worked, but this group proved graceful and energetic as well as engagingly sweet. When they brought some of the young kids onstage to show them the moves, it was both funny and compelling.

In a serious moment, one member of the group talked about his time as a Bloods member and in lockup and how stepping with P.L.A.Y.E.R.S. turned his life around. If you haven't experienced a stepping performance or know it only from films like "Stomp the Yard," you should try to catch one of this Bronx-based group's live performances around the city.

Next up was the highlight of the festival, as it was last year: the kids from the park's NYWC writing workshops reciting their poems, stories and essays. First the 8-12 group – Samuel and David Adames, Nathan and Mahera Josephat, Christopher and Aleisha Small, Paul and Joseph Francois, Najaya Royal, Anjelika Amog, Rachel George, Jediael Fraser and Annelise Treitmeier-McCarthy – recited their work, often with amazing poise.

The little kids presented delightful poems about magic and the third eye, superhero stories, riddling rhymes and Najaya's tale – read on WBAI last Thursday – of how a tidy neighborhood cat used bleach to clean out the heart of Mrs. Poopyhead, a woman so mean she'd eaten her own husband one Halloween night. I was impressed with many of the poems, especially Christopher's "Hands," Jediael's "Magic Address" ("It's not on Pitkin Avenue") and Aleisha's invoking the "NYC Sights" one can see on "the A-to-Z train from New Lots to Nevins Street."

Up next were the teen writers from the NYWC Saturday workshops in the park: Shaquana Cole's odes to her African heritage and the music of Etta James and the O'Jays; Caitlin Garcia, back for the third year ("Writing is so amazing!") with her Ashberyesque "Caramel" and "Nefertiti"; Dmitriy Vovchok's exhortation to his literary "comrades" – specifically including bloggers, I have to note sheepishly – not to "go on and on" but to "destroy their work without pity" (OK, Dmitriy, next year I won't mention you); and Jessica Irizari's "Emotion Sickness" with its sophisticated use of enjambment and half-rhymes.

At the end of this segment, MC Laurie Combo, who'd worked beautifully with the kids, brought them all onstage for a huge round of applause. Then, after a reprise of the P.L.A.Y.E.R.S. stepping magic, five acclaimed literary writers, all with Brooklyn connections, probably knew they had some hard acts to follow but read and performed some amazing material:

Staceyann Chin, famous for her one-woman shows and appearance in "Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam," read some of her fiery, angry and very funny poetical rants with her usual passion and artistry. As always, attention must be paid – and it was on Saturday – to Chin's takes on economic injustice, gender and racial issues and the unexpected grace that plops unbidden into our lives. Her exploration of being a dog owner ("How strange it is to love something that needs you to be clean") was thoughtful and moving.

Roger Bonair-Agard, a native of Trinidad and Tobago and another "Def Poetry Jam" alumnus, came on saying, "What's up, Brooklyn?" and performed from memory, affecting a more pronounced Caribbean accent, a long and vibrant performance piece about the ever-present conflict between the pull of his native land and the "hot kitchen in Brooklyn" that the artist in exile finds himself. Then he read from his new book of poems about and not really about the game of cricket a remarkable longpoem about his guaybera-wearing elegantly-named grandfather that recursively maneuvered back to the poet's dilemma of how to achieve dignity out of "the nothing of which we sometimes thought we were made."

Jennifer Egan, a Fort Greene resident, read a tour de force of an early chapter of her acclaimed bestseller, The Keep, in which two cousins reunite many years after a troubled past to renovate an Eastern European castle into a hotel. Egan is one of the few writers I know who can deftly blend the technique and practice of metafiction into narratives so realistic that readers suspend their belief of disbelief. I've read the whole book and know that the story of Danny and Howie is profoundly moving because of, not despite, the magical manipulations of the author and her literary surrogate.

Chris Abani began not with a literary performance but a shockingly adept turn on the saxophone. Who knew this award-winning Nigerian poet and novelist was also a terrific musician? Well, maybe Johnny Temple of Brooklyn's Akashic Books, Abani's publisher, rocking an infant on the sidelines, as the author read from Song for Night, to be published next month. The novella is the story of a West African boy soldier in a brutal war. The nameless protagonist is part of a platoon that clears land mines; all the boys' vocal chords have been cut to keep from them from distracting others with their screams when they are blown up. Haunting and lyrical, Abani's spare first-person narrative kept the crowd hushed as afternoon turned into evening.

It had been a long day by then, but Gloria Naylor – whose phenomenal The Women of Brewster Place, written as a Brooklyn College undergraduate and famously made into an Oprah Winfrey miniseries – proved up to the task of keeping everyone's attention riveted with a chapter from a work in progress, a novel combining the stories of two newcomers to Charleston in the early 1800s – a man who emigrates from Norway and a woman from Senegal coming to America on a slave ship.

Naylor read a first person account of the woman's infancy, when she is abandoned and found by Ancient Man, leader of the Diallo clan, who overcomes his family's fear that the baby is a djinn who bring them disaster and gives the child to his youngest son's junior wife, who's recently lost her own baby, to nurse. Naylor's story, obviously carefully researched and narrated with a stately dignity, kept nearly all of the crowd in their seats despite the late hour as darkness fell.

Finally, after she received a tremendous round of applause – as had all the authors – MC Laurie Cumbo thanked the festival sponsors, performers and audience. I 'm already looking forward to next year's event in Fort Greene Park.

(For great pics of the event and interesting commentary, check out Hello, Babar, the Vibe blog of Brooklyn cultural critic Jalylah Burrell.)

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Tuesday Evening at the McCarren Park Pool: "Bonnie and Clyde"

This was posted to Richard Grayson's MySpace blog on Wednesday, August 15, 2007:

Tuesday Evening at the McCarren Park Pool: "Bonnie and Clyde"

"I am sorry to say that 'Bonnie and Clyde' does not impress me as a contribution to the thinking of our times or as wholesome entertainment."

So wrote New York Times movie critic Bosley Crowther on September 3, 1967, in a mystified response to the many letters attacking his negative review of the movie.

Crowther's long reign as Times film reviewer would end that November. He never seemed to understand the sea change in American movies.

I first saw Bonnie and Clyde 40 years ago during its original run at the long-gone Brook Theater by Flatbush and Flatlands Avenues. On Tuesday evening, I got to see it on a big screen again as the penultimate film in the McCarren Pool's Summerscreen series.

As usual, most of the audience sat in folding chairs or blankets on the south half of the drained pool. With the recently landmarking and the Bloomberg administration's plans for the pool uncertain, 2007 could be the last summer for movies and concerts.

Everyone entering gets a sticker with a number. We're supposed to look for our "twin," someone wearing the same number, and if we find them, we both might win something. Wearing a number with the logo of Volkswagen (sponsor of the event along with The L Magazine and others) feels creepy to me, but several audience members are quite aggressive in trying to locate their "twin."

Blankets are placed a lot closer together than they would be at the beach, but no one seems to mind. I sit next to some film students at the School of Visual Arts, where I teach literature and writing, and one of them asks me if I had to be taken to see the movie by a parent, since I was only 16 in 1967 and it's rated R.

No, I went by myself, I say; the MPAA rating system wasn't implemented till later in 1968, probably because of movies like Bonnie and Clyde.

There's a vibrant pre-movie performance by Woodpecker!, a local bluegrass/punk/acoustic band who played the kind of music Flatt and Scruggs might be doing today if they were 25 and lived in Brooklyn.

As darkness descends, kitschy 1950s movie promos repeatedly tell us to head for the snack counter for delicious refreshments.

The film itself seems as fresh as ever, though probably not quite so startling 40 years after its debut. The crowd is quiet, with little talking, some picnicking, a bit of cigarette smoking, some chugging from oversized cans of beer. But basically everyone seems spellbound.

The biggest laugh among this mostly hipster crowd comes in the scene when Bonnie and Clyde's young accomplice C.W. Moss is upbraided by his father for getting a tattoo on his chest and defiling his body. The old man seems more upset by this than he is by his son's life of crime – pretty amusing in a crowd whose body art, if put on canvases, would take up a couple of floors of the Whitney.

The last Summerscreen movie of the summer is next week: Prince in Purple Rain. Anyone who knows what's the password can get in free.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Monday Night in East Flatbush: Heart and Soul with Anita Baker at Wingate Field

This was posted to Richard Grayson's MySpace blog on Tuesday, August 14, 2007:

Monday Night at Wingate Field: An Evening of Heart and Soul with Miss Anita Baker

Back when I was a teenager during Mayor Lindsay's administration in the mid-1960s, when New York was called "Fun City," there was a slogan for tourists that went: "New York is a Summer Festival." I think it was to get people to believe there were fun stuff to do all summer other than get mugged or caught in a riot or smell the air after a two-week sanitation worker strike. (Just kidding! New York was truly incredible for a teenager in the 1960s! I loved it! Really...)

Now there's an incredible number of free or very cheap events outdoors nearly every night. When I went to see the Hold Steady at Prospect Park last Thursday, I had to give up seeing the Beastie Boys at McCarren Pool near my house.

Since then I've gone back to Prospect Park's bandshell on Saturday for the last event of the year's Celebrate Brooklyn! series, an African Festival that featured many great bands from the continent, foremost among them the Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars. On Sunday at the McCarren Pool, I saw Ted Leo and the Pharmacists and Birds of Avalon.

Last night I took the B-43 bus from Williamsburg through Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights to Empire Boulevard and then walked down Brooklyn Avenue (downhill all the way -- thanks to the fact that the North American glacier stopped at Empire Boulevard thousands of years ago) to Wingate Field to go to a free concert, part of the 25th year of the Martin Luther King Jr. Concert Series.

The headliner was Miss Anita Baker. I am sorry I missed Lauryn Hill last week and I wasn't going to miss this. I stood on line for about half an hour with a huge crowd that must have eventually become, I don't know, 4000 people? (I noticed only about two dozen of these people were other Caucasians, and about half of them were a group of retarded adults who must have come from a residential facility.)

When we were separated into different lines for each gender, the men's line sailed through. I always carry my fragile reading glasses in a hard case in my right pocket, and when the security guard from the Nation of Islam did a body search, he felt it and jokingly said (jokingly, because of my age, I guess), "Are you carrying a deadly weapon?"

I showed him my reading glasses and said, "Yes, with these on, I can out-read anyone in Brooklyn."

He smiled and said, "That's not illegal -- yet."

Wingate High School opened when I was 4 years old and living in the neighborhood. My great-grandparents had a house not far away. The high school closed last year and was broken up into four specialized schools. Jackie Robinson came for the opening day ceremonies in 1955. The school's very modernistic, very 1950s luxe banjo shape afforded unique opportunities for ditching classes, I recall being told by kids who went there.

Marty Markowitz, the Brooklyn Borough President, was presiding onstage in a white sports jacket. I know him going back to 1970, when I was involved with undergraduate student government at Brooklyn College and Marty was the president of the graduate student organization. Even back in LaGuardia Hall, he was a great politican -- but tonight he's reading the names of about 700 people and businesses from page after page and the crowd wants to see and hear Anita.

We suffer through listening to the names of various winners of raffles for free meals at the Bed-Stuy Applebee's (at Restoration Plaza, a project of the community that Sen. Bobby Kennedy was involved with when I was an intern in his office the semester he was shot, in the spring of 1968) and for tickets to Cyclones games and BAM events.

We get to see people from WBLS (who doesn't love Steve Harvey?) and other local bigwigs and finally a Baptist minister comes on and tells us to all behave and be respectful and leave quickly and quietly at the end of the concert. He asks us to pray for good weather on Mondays, Thursdays, Saturdays ("Shabbos") and Sundays, and I wonder why there can be crappy weather the other three days. Then he says a version of the Lord's Prayer that includes "in the name of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob."

Finally our prayers are answered, the music starts, the red curtains part, and those of us standing in the back who can't see the figure onstage so well and have to rely on one of the two big video monitors (most smart people have brought those folding chairs and a few hundred get to sit in the bleachers) see her: Miss Anita, wearing a flouncy black gown, scatting and swaying. "I haven't brought anything but a bunch of old love songs," she says.

The show is sublime. She's very animated and her voice is good, though slightly distorted by the speakers, I think. Everyone has his or her favorite Anita Baker song. Some like "Fairy Tales," some "You Bring Me Joy" or whatever. My favorite is "Sweet Love."

I am tired, having woken up at 4:30 a.m. after four hours of sleep, and I leave after about seven or eight numbers. But on the corner of Brooklyn Avenue and Hawthorne Street, I discover the secret of the Wingate Field concerts, known already to the residents of that block just north of Kings County Hospital: you can actually see and hear things a lot better from that corner than you can from most of the further reaches of the crowd inside the field.

So I stick around for more songs. The night is breezy and not hot, and everyone looks happy. Sleepily, I make my way past lots of cops to New York Avenue, where I hop on the B-44 bus that will get me back to Williamsburg.

Thanks to everyone for this concert, especially to Anita, and to all the stupid white people who didn't show up for whatever reason: You missed a great show.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Thursday Night at the Prospect Park Bandshell: The Hold Steady

This appeared on Richard Grayson's MySpace blog on Friday, August 10, 2007:

Thursday Night at the Prospect Park Bandshell: The Hold Steady

It had been a while since I'd been to a show at the Prospect Park Bandshell. Celebrate Brooklyn! has been putting on these concerts for 29 summers now, and whenever I've spent the summer in the city, I've tried to go. I think the first time I went was in that summer of 1979, the last year I lived in Brooklyn with my family, the summer my first book came out, when Prospect Park and the bandshell were really funky and unsafe, and it seemed weird to go there at night. I can't remember who I saw, though I'm pretty sure it was a jazz band.

Last night the rain held off and I got to experience The Hold Steady. They were incredible. Craig Finn has more energy and idiosyncratic moves than just about any musician I've seen lately. The crowd was huge and very happy. It was a terrific experience.

I also liked the opening act, The Teenage Prayers, who were a bit quirky and fun.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Tuesday Evening at Bluestockings: Aaron Bollinger and "The MySpace Social Guide"

This is from Richard Grayson's MySpace blog for Thursday, August 9, 2007:

On Tuesday evening, I attended a fascinating presentation by Aaron Bollinger, author of The MySpace Social Guide, at Bluestockings, the wonderful radical/feminist/activist bookstore on the Lower East Side. He discussed the various innovative ways social activists and small businesses can use MySpace and Web 2.0.

Despite MySpace's technical difficulties and shortcomings (in attempting to post this, I've gotten one frozen screen and eleven frustrating "an unexpected method has occurred" messages -- you all have gotten them too), Aaron sees it and other Web 2.0 social networks, aggregators and other sites as ways people can connect with customers, other activists, and clients.

The big advantage MySpace had over an earlier social network like Friendster, Aaron said, was the ability to copy and post code into profiles; thus, any kid with a MySpace page could in effect become her own webmaster. This empowerment, along with the rise of social networking and user-generated content, is the essence of Web 2.0.

Aaron played this incredibly interesting YouTube video, mostly screens of statistics about the rapidly changing world of work, communication and technology, called "The Future of Technology." (Did you know that the U.S. Labor Department estimates that today's learners will have 10-14 different jobs by age 38? That India and China have more honors students than the U.S. has students of any kind? Or that the U.S. is 20th in broadband internet penetration? Actually, we've probably fallen behind even further by now.)

After discussing LinkedIn and, Aaron said not only the familiar "content is king" mantra but also "context is king." That is, people usually discuss religion in special places (for example, houses of worship), not at the ball game or the workplace. So where you post content is as important, if not more so, than what you are saying.

Aaron predicted that eventually every organization will have its own social network, that the complex designs of portals like Yahoo and CNN are very Web 1.0, that the future of web design is simplicity and ease of use. Then he discussed the future: Web 3.0 will be viral and nomadic, with content migrating to multiple places; for example, thanks to widgets, videos will not just show up on a site like YouTube.

He gave as an example of a "context aggregator" the mostly in-beta profile aggregators, where you can have all your social networking profiles (MySpace, Facebook, etc.) in one place. Other examples are and

Viral syndication will be made possible through widgets. Examples of widget-building sites can be found at Aaron's company,, and also at and

Some questions Aaron posed: How do smaller, specialized social networks get people to join? Will giant profiles like MySpace be where everyone spends their time in the future? How can we coherently organize content?

In meatspace, as we used to call it in Silicon Valley in the 1990s (well, some techtards like me did), people still go to general places to hang out and spend time: parks, malls, TV networks. But we also spend a lot of time at specialized places, of course, places where not everyone goes.

Aaron showed, a site for film lovers, the Four Eyed Monsters project on YouTube, as well as the twins playing the 90210 theme on guitar(whom I must admit underwhelmed me). These projects have a natural stickiness, Aaron claimed, user-generated content that a lot of people make meaningful connections with and send on to their friends.

He also had us look at simple, narrow sights like the light bulb site and EQ.TV, which have eschewed the complexity of the old Web 1.0 portals for the plain and simple interface of Google -- "as simple as TV is," Aaron said.

Then he took questions, which included queries about wikis and content management systems for user-generated content. Throughout his presentation -- on a very hot and humid evening -- Aaron was articulate without being overly polished, informative and interesting.

Although I haven't yet read The MySpace Social Guide, it appears to have the same qualities and looks like a valuable tool you might want to get for information and future reference.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Hipster Book Club Reviews HIGHLY IRREGULAR STORIES by Richard Grayson

Marie Mundaca has reviewed Highly Irregular Stories at the Hipster Book Club:

Richard Grayson is a meta-fictionalist of the old school, where structure is often as important as narrative, where the story is sometimes hidden in structural tricks like diary entries, lists, and jokes. Grayson revels in finding stories in ephemera—descriptions of what happened to groups of people on dates throughout a year, a list of traits, stories about writing stories.

The stories in Highly Irregular Stories were originally published in the 1970s and 1980s, but Grayson has such a fresh approach to writing that these stories don't seem dated. In some ways, Grayson may remind readers of a younger Woody Allen—an intellectual who ponders the nature of existence yet is remarkably funny while discussing life, death, and capitalism.

Like much of the meta-fiction oeuvre, Grayson often writes stories about writing stories—he'll describe a story he wrote, or wants to write, or is in the process of writing. The trick with this genre is to make sure the reader can find the story. There is a narrative somewhere; It's not all jokes and lists. Grayson succeeds here—the lists and diary entries reveal his passion for finding new ways to tell a story. "The Facts Are Always Friendly" is a series of calendar entries that explore the complicated relationships among a group of friends who are at once affable and duplicitous. "My Twelfth Twelfth Story Story," a tale about a seemingly upright citizen writing a book of stories about living on the 12 floor, reveals that the protagonist has a preoccupation with gruesome murders. "Progress" is a tale of a young man who goes home with a very friendly clothing salesman and ends up alone, trapped in the salesman's circular apartment, afraid to leave.

The funny stuff in Highly Irregular Stories is not just mildly amusing but actually laugh-out-loud funny. Take these lines, from "A Disjointed Fiction":
My eye catches an unauthorized advertisement scrawled on the subway map across from my seat:
It's bad enough that this is my sister's phone number, but what really hurts is that the handwriting is unmistakably my father's.

"Eating at Arby's" humorously explores the lives of two Southern Florida residents, Manny and Zelda, through a series of Dick and Jane-style stories. For Manny and Zelda, a trip to a mall becomes an analysis of the wastefulness of the middle classes, a visit to the chiropractor, and an examination of race relations. What sometimes seem like stand-up routines on the outset reveal stories about the deep struggles of creativity and identity in the late twentieth century.

In the story "Innovations," Grayson takes revenge on a more successful writer by making him a character in a story and leaving him trapped in Miami Beach during the 1950s, specifically because the successful writer called Miami Beach America's armpit. However, "Innovations" is not about the successful writer, identified as D.L., being trapped in Miami. Rather, it is about some of the things he does that seem to annoy Grayson's character and how these annoyances lead to Grayson's character trapping him in Miami. "Innovations" is very typical of the tales in Highly Irregular Stories — there are stories within stories within stories that spiral inward or spiral outward towards their conclusions.

There is nothing lazy or superfluous in Grayson's prose. Every word is called into service. What seem like digressions are insights into the story or the characters. For example, Grayson starts "The Governor of the State of Depression" by writing, "The Governor likes to be treated like a baby. . . He has taken to eating baby food. His especial favorite is Gerber's Strained Vanilla Custard Pudding." The pudding is not only pudding, it's custard, and it's strained. It's practically pre-digested. Later, when the Governor is reading an editorial condemning his policies, he's eating the pudding in an obvious attempt to comfort himself.

Sometimes Grayson's self-effacing humor seems almost Vonnegut-esque, as in "Escape from the Planet of the Humans," where he writes,
If I were to write wonderful books and grow old gracefully and become a member of the Literature Panel of the National Endowment for the Arts, the headline on page 11 of The New York Post might read WRITER HONORED AT FORUM, but I doubt it.

For all the similarities to more mainstream writers, Grayson is firmly seated in the experimental realm and is much closer to writers like Donald Barthelme, Raymond Federman and Steve Katz. Readers in search of realistic plots and characters will not find what they're looking for here, but for the more adventurous reader who enjoys satirical and experimental fiction, Highly Irregular Stories is highly recommended.

(August 2007)

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Wednesday Night at Tompkins Square Park: Ed Park, Lynne Tillman & Lore Segal for 100 issues of BOMB Magazine

This report by Richard Grayson first appeared on Jeff Bryant's blog Syntax of Things (go there for the original links) on Thursday, August 2, 2007:

So it was another Wednesday evening, another park: this time, Tompkins Square Park in the East Village. (These ParkLit events by the way have been sponsored by Open City, so thanks to Thomas Beller and company.) But no "literary death match" this Wednesday; instead, it was a celebration of a magazine I called "venerable" in a post a few days ago: BOMB, which has just published its 100th issue. And it featured readings by eminent or soon-to-be-eminent fiction writers of three different generations, befitting BOMB's role in the literary history of New York City. If BOMB were a building, the Landmarks Commission would make sure it would be standing forever (unless Donald Trump wanted to build on it).

BOMB first appeared in 1981, and while it's very much associated with the period of Lower East Side/East Village ascendancy in its early years -- best documented in Brandon Stosuy's excellent literary history Up Is Up But So Is Down: New York's Downtown Literary Scene, 1974-1992 -- the magazine has remained indispensible as it continues to fulfill its mission of "facilitating conversations between artists of all stripes" and paying close and serious attention to new developments in art and writing, regardless of their commercial appeal.

With the East Village undergoing what appears to be a similar process of gentrification that previously undid Soho (see Richard Kostelanetz's Soho: Rise and Fall of an Artists' Colony), one of the few advantages is that Tompkins Square Park, in the 1980s filled with homeless people and lots of drug addicts (although the spectacle of seeing them gather by the monument to Temperance was pretty funny), is a much more pleasant place to hang out today than it was in the old days, when I avoided it.

The park is filled with people bicycling, strolling, watching their pets at the famous dog run (supposedly one of the best in the world), doing tai chi, hanging out. It's about 87 degrees and humid at 6:30 p.m., the scheduled start for the event. About forty white plastic chairs are set out in front of a microphone and a banner for Park Lit, just in front of one of the park's amazing American elm trees (a rare collection now that Dutch elm disease has decimated most of them in the U.S.).

There's a crowd of about 35 as BOMB's Paul Morris gets the festivities underway, but another 25 or so will join the group as the reading goes on. Paul says it's an appropriate setting for the 100th issue celebration, since the East Village is where the magazine began (it's now headquartered in Fort Greene, Brooklyn).

Nicole Steinberg, whose poetry I enjoyed last Friday evening, joins Paul for the first of a series of re-enactments of the interviews for which BOMB is famous. From its plastic container, they take out a 1978 issue and Paul, as interviewer Craig Golson, questions Nicole, as playwright Christopher Durang (a favorite of mine; I was in the first-night audience at The Marriage of Bette and Boo at the Public Theatre; it contains the classic line: "I don't think God punishes people for specific things; I think He punishes them in general for no reason") about who Chris hates and whether he considers himself whimsical ("I change from day to day.")

Then Paul introduces the first reader, the young dynamo -- founding editor of The Believer, former editor of the Village Voice Literary Supplement, the Los Angeles Times Book Review's science fiction columnist and presidential adviser Ed Park, whose first novel Personal Days will be published next year by Random House. He's in the 100th issue, copies of which are being given away free this evening.

I've heard some truly great readings from novels which at the time hadn't been published -- at Bread Loaf thirty years ago John Irving's The World According to Garp and Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon -- and I can't say if Personal Days will be a classic like those books but I haven't heard one I liked as much as I did Ed's book.

The little episodes --featuring a group of office workers who come to each other cubicles to speculate about co-workers' crushes, give unwanted back rubs, help with unwanted double lines popping up in MS Word documents (if it's your resume, you can't ask the IT people for help, can you?), Googling themselves and ex-lovers ("Every time you feel a tingle in your fingers, someone somewhere is Googling you") -- are insightful, hilarious and authentic. As one character notes, we spend a lot more time with our co-workers than we do with our friends or even with our significant others.

I anticipate reading the novel with pleasure. Its deadpan rhythms and knowing vignettes (you never want to be called into the boss's office to be told you're doing a fantastic job because it's sure to mean a layoff is imminent) remind me of a favorite novel of the 1970s, Renata Adler's Speedboat. As it would for the rest of the evening, the repeated bites on my legs of one or perhaps a series of flying insects didn't deflect my attention, though at the moment I am awaiting early signs of West Nile disease.

Just before Ed is finished, a young man comes through the crowd, handing out leaflets about an upcoming rally at City Hall Park to protest the new city policy on taking public photographs. Okay.

After Ed's reading, Paul and Nicole return to the mic and show us the four different versions of the magazine throughout 26 years. The BOMB I first knew was huge, perhaps even larger than Interview, and it's since gone through various formats. There's a funny re-enactment of a colloquy between Steve Buscemi and Tim Roth about why actors who look like they do often don't get the parts that go to Brad Pitt and then Paul introduces Lynne Tillman.

What can I say about Lynne Tillman? Many of us have idolized for years. Her Madame Realism stories have had a strong influence on me. I was introduced to Lynne and her work by my friend, the 1980s downtown scene writer/performer Peter Cherches, and I've never stopped enjoying reading her fiction, essays and art criticism. It especially gratified me when in this decade I met a number of younger artists and writers, like my friend novelist/filmmaker Brian Pera, who shared my admiration of Lynne.

For anyone unfamiliar with Lynne's groundbreaking work, here's a bio note that doesn't do her justice, compiled by me from various sources:

Lynne Tillman is the author of five novels, three collections of short stories, one collection of essays, and two nonfiction books. Lynne’s No Lease on Life was a New York Times Notable Book of 1998 and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her novel, American Genius: A Comedy, was published by Soft Skull Press last year. Other novels are Motion Sickness, Haunted Houses and Cast In Doubt. Her work has appeared in many anthologies, including The New Gothic, New York Writes After 9/11, The Show I’ll Never Forget, The Penguin Book of New York Stories, and This Is Not Chick Lit. She’s a professor and writer-in-residence at the University at Albany, and last year she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Once the mic is lowered ("It's pathetic to be so short," Lynne says), she reads an excerpt from American Genius, A Comedy. The narrator is in an institution -- whether it's more like Yaddo or Rockland State, we're not really sure -- and she looks at the cosmetics sitting on the bureau, focusing on her anti-aging creams.

From there we have digressions on and meditations about belief in one's work (the narrator imagines that her Polish cosmetician trusts that her work actually helps her clients), imaginings of the lives of those who serve us, the nature of library solitude, and finally to some of the novel's riffs about American history: how John Winthrop's "City on a Hill" compares with his affectionate and even salacious letters to his wife, reflections on mythology, the songs of the past, Manifest Destiny, Bloody Kansas, the sanity of Mary Todd Lincoln, and more. If we don't wish to memorialize memory, the narrator asks, how do we perform our obligations to it?

-- I fear I am making some of the most exciting prose in recent American fiction sound tendentious by my inadequate description, so just let me say: read this book for yourself. Lynne is always a good reader in public; about a year ago I heard her in Bryant Park, along with other contributors to Elizabeth Merrick's anthology This Is Not Chick Lit, and Lynne's reading was equally powerful.

Before bringing on Lore Segal, Paul and Nicole re-enact part of an interview from issue #68, with Chuck D on the cover, by Albert Mobilio of Robert Altman, who discusses his then-forthcoming film Dr. T and the Women and wistfully says that one genre he hasn't attempted but would like to is a murder mystery. It's nice to know that he did get his wish.

I've known Lore Segal and her work for both kids and the rest of us since the early 1970s. I was introduced to her by my Brooklyn College undergrad and MFA professors Jonathan Baumbach (a continuing inspiration: his most recent book, On the Way to My Father's Funeral, is probably his best) and Peter Spielberg, then co-directors of the Fiction Collective, where I worked as an editorial assistant for several years.

I also helped coordinate a conference at BC -- directed by Jon Baumbach, Jack Gelber and John Ashbery -- called "Literature and Publishing: Can They Co-Exist?" at which Lore Segal was one of the panelists.

But it's her 1976 novel, the woefully underrated Lucinella that made me a Lore Segal fan. It seems to be out of print, but it's the best novel about the 1970s New York literary scene I know. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, John Leonard said of the eponymous character, a poet struggling to find her way, "the nicest person ever to appear in a novel about New York writers, yet she doesn't know it and she is, gently, cracking up."

Her 1985 novel, Her First American, is Segal's masterpiece. While there are some similarities in the backgrounds of the author and the character Ilka Weissnix (see also Other People's Houses), for me the most brilliant creation is Carter Bayoux, the brilliant, self-destructive and unforgettable black intellectual who is the book's hero. The Times Book Review said of Her First American: "Lore Segal might have closer than anyone to writing the Great American Novel."

Check out Han Ong's interview with Lore Segal in BOMB #99 for more. (BOMB's relaunched website will soon include the complete archive of 26 years of its famous interviews.)

After Paul Morris introduces her, Lore Segal comes to the stage, where a chair is placed for her. "There comes a time in life when you get to sit down," she says.

She reads from her new book, a collection of linked stories, most already familiar to her fans who read The New Yorker. It's called Shakespeare's Kitchen, again featuring her "Zuckerman," Ilke, here involved with the petulant and quirky intellectuals she works with at a maddeningly insulated think tank.

The passage is tenderly funny and sad as Ilke tries to connect, via a series of uncomfortable, pathetic phone conversations, with people who friends or friends of friends have claimed might make boon companions in her new isolated Connecticut setting. Segal's ear for dialogue, particularly that in family households -- especially when it's misunderstood by listeners who should know better -- remains as acute as ever.

As she gets up to enthusiastic applause, Segal offers the audience a sentence of advice: "Don't leave New York." When Segal herself was on the faculty of the University of Chicago, she refused to live in that city and commuted from New York. Similarly, Lynne Tillman's been an East Village resident since 1982 (see her novel No Lease on Life for presumed details) -- so I guess she doesn't have to go far to get home now.

But before we go, there's a raffle. Everyone's filled out these slips with their names and e-mails (so they can get on BOMB's mailing list, I guess) and Paul and Nicole pick the winners of five classic issues from the past. Once that's done, the Parks Department and the audience is given thanks, there's more applause, and the evening's over. Of all the events I've had the privilege of telling you about in the past couple of weeks, this is the one I've enjoyed the most.

Thanks very much to all for bearing with me. Thanks again, Jeff; it's been a blast.

(Oh, and as always, full disclosure: BOMB's repeated rejections of my submissions throughout the Reagan administration -- I had better luck with that other downtown-scene magazine, the shorter-lived dot-matrix-printout-in-a-plastic-bag Between C and D -- have perhaps unduly influenced my impressions of BOMB as a publication dedicated to bringing readers the best innovative work available.)