Thursday, May 29, 2008

Thursday Night at the Strand: Sean Wilentz and “The Age of Reagan”

We went to the Strand Bookstore on Thursday at 7 p.m. after hanging out in Union Square Park following dinner on a perfect warm and clear evening. Sean Wilentz, the distinguished historian, Princeton professor, Democratic party eminence grise and Bob Dylan scholar spoke about his latest book, The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008.

What’s always remarkable about Prof. Wilentz when we see him is how we can still detect so much of the brilliant kid who sat across from us in homeroom at Midwood High School forty years ago and beyond. His hair is now grayer than it was blond, but he’s still got the same hairline he did at 17! Sean – we called him Robert back in the Johnson administration – was not only one of the smartest students in our school but also an incredibly nice guy. No wonder our friend, a certain literary agent also in our graduating class, used to make us listen to how she had a big crush on him.

Probably the last times we saw him were in the mid-1970s to mid-1980s, when we used to catch him and his sister Amy Wilentz (who's also produced some amazing nonfiction books) a few blocks south in Greenwich Village, at their family-owned E.S. Wilentz’s Eighth Street Bookshop, our favorite bookstore of all time in New York (and the only one besides Gotham Book Mart to carry our little chapbook, Disjointed Fictions, back when it came out thirty summers ago in 1978). Since then he’s produced one incredibly good book after another, combining rigorous scholarship with a terrific style that makes him a pleasure to read; he deservedly won the Bancroft Prize for his magisterial The Rise of American Democracy

Sean’s current book title, to those of us of a certain age, recalls first of all Arthur Schlesinger’s The Age of Jackson, and while we haven’t finished it yet, it probably sums up our age, at least as far as public policy and the national mood are concerned.

Why is Ronald Reagan the defining political figure of our times? Why has the conservative ascendancy lasted far longer than any previous period of conservative or liberal political dominance? How did Reagan manage to change the dynamic of political discourse and move the country to the right for so long that only now is his era fading away?

In a forty-minute fascinating talk, interspersed with brief readings from the book – among them Jerry Ford’s musing on the bicentennial even as Reagan almost defeated him for the Republican nomination in 1976 and a telling moment from Reagan’s second term, prefiguring the Iran/Contra fiasco, when he insisted on paying tribute to fallen Nazi soldiers at Bitburg – Prof. Wilentz laid out the argument of his book.

Probably we can’t do his thesis much justice here – read the book for yourself, and you can start with reviews like this one -- but Sean worked a lot like a fiction writer, telling a fascinating narrative with all kinds of compelling characters, like the young White House chief of staff with the very strange views he discovered in letters and documents in the Richard B. Cheney papers at the Gerald Ford Presidential Library. (“Being a historian means you get to read a lot of dead people’s letters,” said Sean, “but for this book I got to read some living people’s letters.”) Did you know that Cheney and Rumsfeld back in the 1970s tried to get Robert Bork installed as CIA director? (The job ultimately went to George H.W. Bush.) Sean Wilentz’s book is filled with interesting details like that, along with an analysis of how Reagan first transformed himself from a sunny, surprisingly sophisticated performer who worshipped FDR into the star and the firmament of the American conservative movement, starting with the little part that made Reagan Reagan, his 1964 speech on behalf of Goldwater, “A Time for Choosing.”

Maybe it takes a liberal Democrat like Wilentz – to fairly appraise Reagan’s presidency amid a passel of Reagan books that are either hagiography or demonic portraits.

Sean spent a long time taking maybe twenty questions, including his recent opinions on the “insanity” of the Democratic nomination rules (OK, we were there in Miami Beach at the 1972 convention when everything started to change). Tina Brown, sitting in the first row with Harold Evans, asked an interesting question wondering how Reagan managed to reconcile his buoyant man-of-the-world Hollywood temperament with his very right-wing, rather callous political worldview. Sean said, “He was the first Reagan Democrat, a little ahead of his time.”

Reagan’s age is over, our historian tells us, even if McCain wins the Presidency. But we’ll never get back to a 70% top income tax rate, and so parts of Reagan’s legacy aren’t going to go away for quite some time to come.

Sean Wilentz is a graceful stylist whose books are not the usual dry fare of the academic historian. But, hey, he’s from Brooklyn before most of today’s Brooklyn writers were born. Even people who hated Ronald Reagan will enjoy The Age of Reagan.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Concerned Parents: Fed Up With Abstinence Education? WHO WILL KISS THE PIG?: SEX STORIES FOR TEENS Can Be an Educational Tool for Your Child

Dear Concerned Parents:

Dumbo Books asks that you take note that the federal government has spent upwards of $1 billion over the last decade on abstinence-only sex education. The idea is that not teaching students about contraception, safe sex, etc., will lead to better outcomes, including less unwanted pregnancies and fewer sexually transmitted diseases.

Well, guess what? It turns out that teenagers are circumventing their abstinence education and having sex anyway!

Studies have repeatedly shown that abstinence-only students have almost the same number of sexual partners, and have sex almost as early, as students who receive traditional sex ed; they just don't have as much fun doing it.

In fact, abstinence-only programs may actually increase the risk of STDs and unintentional teen pregnancies. That’s because those abstinence-only students who do have sex tend to be less likely to use protection.

If you live in a school district where your children are subject to this horrible policy and want them to learn about hot teen sex in a responsible and comprehensive manner, what better way than to buy Richard Grayson's Who Will Kiss the Pig?: Sex Stories for Teens as an educational tool for your youngsters?

Author Richard Grayson took a class in AIDS Education and Human Sexuality at Teachers College, Columbia University, in the summer of 1990 and received the grade of A. This entitled him, if he had been a New York City schoolteacher, to teach "Family Living and Human Sexuality" in the largest school district in the United States. So he is an expert in this field!

The book is chock-full of great information for America's youth: facts and figures teens need to know about sex. But instead of being presented as dull "lessons," these kind of learning takes place within exciting narratives. That's edutainment!

For example, Professor Jochnowitz, a real-life professor emeritus much beloved at the College of Staten Island, makes a guest appearance on page 5, in the story "How to Become an Excitable Nun," to explain to the students in his History of English and the Romance Languages class, including a nun (though not the excitable one of the title), the etymology of the word cunt.

This kind of knowledge is absolutely necessary if your children are to make responsible decisions regarding what to do with their bodies.

Similarly, in the tale "Understanding Human Sexual Inadequacy" on pages 91-97 of Who Will Kiss the Pig?: Sex Stories for Teens, Carole and Izzy, Kevin and Shelli, and Elspeth and a whole lot of boys, learn not only about the physical facts but also the emotional aspects of fooling around. From page 93 of the book:
Finding the campus deserted, Kevin and Shelli go home...[and] read The National Lampoon. The laugh at a comic in which someone calls Adlai Stevenson "Fuckface." They also get into bed and have an exquisite time.

Kevin wonders if Shelli's feeling guilty about sex. He doesn't think he does. Shelli's new shrink, Dr. Russell, says she's attracted to Kevin because she can mother him. Anyway, Kevin thinks, Shelli seems to be getting better at it. . .

After their Patty Melts for lunch at the International House of Pancakes, Kevin and Shelli go shopping and come back home. They make love and lie naked in bed, talking for an hour. It'll be a great relief when her period comes.

Parents, don't you owe it to your children to provide them with this book?

* * *
Special message for sex educators: To get your examination copy of Richard Grayson's Who Will Kiss the Pig?: Sex Stories for Teens to use as a textbook in your classes, please write to us from your school email account.

Dumbo Books Continues Celebrating the Quasquicentennial: The Brooklyn Bridge Art Show at The City Reliquary, Opening Night & Reception

Last evening Dumbo Books continued our celebration of the Brooklyn Bridge’s quasquicentennial (what those of you who don’t have our massive vocabulary call the 125th anniversary) by attending the opening reception of The City Reliquary Brooklyn Bridge Art Show at the wonderful little storefront museum on Metropolitan Avenue, right near our Dumbo Books HQ in Williamsburg. In fact, we were able to attend the reception during the hour that our laundry was tumbling in its dryer a few blocks down. How convenient!

A visit to The City Reliquary is always fun because their ever-changing display of exhibits from the permanent collection is on display. In the front gallery, under the remains of the Hebrewish font of the old 2nd Avenue Deli sign, we looked at memorabilia from the 1939-40 World’s Fair (lots of little Trylons and Perispheres), a collection of rare seltzer bottles from various out-of-business companies (our old friend from Marine Park, Ken, still gets seltzer delivered to his fancy East Side co-op from the city’s sole remaining distributor), and a display of classic subway tokens (when very young, we liked to press them into our upper arms and create body art formed by the token’s missing Y in NYC). Spotting a Piels Beer bottle, we fondly recalled the cartoon figures of Bert and Harry and the voices of Bob and Ray.

The back gallery contained the Brooklyn Bridge Art Show, “artistic projects by NYC students, kindergarten through college, that shows historic research into and/or visual exploration of the great Brooklyn Bridge,” and a rear door was kept open for one to climb up and down shaky steps to the outdoor reception, featuring an array of beverages, including our favorite (and Lyndon Johnson’s), Fresca, and snacks courtesy of Utz and Hershey.

Many fascinating people were in attendance, including the dedicated men, women and children who volunteer their time to keep a treasure (seriously!) like The City Reliquary open every weekend for the pleasure of New Yorkers. We had a wonderful time.

Now for our review of the artworks themselves. What makes Dumbo Books qualified to be an art reviewer, you ask? Well, forty years ago we were in Mr. Cohen’s class in Contemporary Art in Midwood High School. We knew who Ad Reinhardt and Franz Kline were before we needed to shave! We had a friend with an actual Jasper Johns bought by his parents in his living room! And we have taught at The School of Visual Arts since 1979, with only a 26-year hiatus from 1980 until 2006. (Try applying for employment at a place where you’d last worked a quarter of a century before and see how far you get before you make fun of us!) Also, we have mooched off famous artists’ colonies like MacDowell, Millay, Ragdale, Ucross and VCCA and lived in close proximity to literally dozens of visual artists.

Okay, okay, we’re not really qualified to do this, but here goes:

The Brooklyn Bridge Art Show is great. The artists, who come from schools like P.S. 116 in Boerum Hill and P.S. 20 in Fort Greene, have done a wonderful job in conveying the beauty and majesty of the great bridge. As a tape from the Ken Burns documentary played on a screen, we got to enjoy an art show in the way we haven’t enjoyed one since attending the Whitney Biennial (free to SVA employees because our school has a corporate membership!) a few weeks ago.

Most of the works were on construction paper, it appeared, or something similar. Oluwatobi Oniyinde’s “The NY Bridge,” a composite of Xeroxed photo and pencilwork, seemed magisterial and a bit ominous, as the words “deadly photo” could be seen on the bridge’s seamy underside. Very edgy!

“The Bridge,” a photo by Dia Sotiropoulou, age 12, had a fascinating long view from the walkway on the Brooklyn side. It’s all black and white except for one figure, a lone boy walking with his back toward the camera, and he’s got on very blue blue jeans and a bright orange hoodie. Since the photo was mounted on orange construction paper, this made for a satisfying arrangement.

Lia Fikaris’ “The Brooklyn Bridge” featured above the structure a smiling yellow-and-orange sun and birds flapping all around in ways that made them all look like cursive V’s. What did the artist mean by that? Lia’s medium is felt pen, and she is very good.

Noelle Fikaris (perhaps a relation to Lia?) featured boats making their way around and under the bridge, all in broad colorful strokes, while Cherokee Williams, employing a broad black crayon, created a work reminiscent of German expressionism, with a close up of the bridge with figures on the walkway postmodernly labeled “Lynn,” “Perran,” and the mysterious “Sciysnngpiate.” The horror! We guess some people share our feelings that the bridge sometimes seems a little scary.

There were a lot of other good works we are not mentioning because they were over our head. We are somewhat deficient in height and couldn’t see the art well enough to review it properly but it looked good from what we could tell, with a number taking on a Spider-Man motif, adeptly juxtaposing the superhero’s famous webs and the spidery cables of the bridge.

Of the lower-positioned (eye-level) artworks, a skillful collage by the artist known only as Rafiu featured a Xeroxed photo of the bridge surrounded by blue penstrokes. Another very stark and beautiful work was a watercolor of the bridge’s anchorage among the rocks, by an artist whose name was not on his or her drawing. Who is this anonymous master?

It was fascinating to see such varied interpretations of the Brooklyn Bridge. Natalie Pagan, who signs her work with a heart over the lower case “I” in Natalie, created a triptych that resembled a greeting card. George Sotirpoulou, age 8, combined his visual expression with a poem, “Brooklyn Bridge Safety”:
When you walk the Brooklyn Bridge,
You won’t be scared at all.
But when you come to the wood floor,
You might freak out and fall.

So let that be a lesson,
That you should always know.
But if you disagree,
You might end up below!

Nice going, George. If you have an entire poetry manuscript, Dumbo Books is thinking of someday having a contest with a fairly low entry fee. Keep us in mind.

Dylan (no last name) created a work titled “THE BK BRIG NYC” which is a construction featuring not only the bridge but also an octopus (often seen in the East River, of course), a crab, a matador, and a clock with ears in which the time is either 1:30 or 6:05, the ambiguity perfectly capturing our feelings, at least, about the bridge.

Aisha (again, no last name – these kids are already marketing themselves shrewdly) used the “125” motif repeatedly in her portrayal of the wonderful bridge. And Jeremiah Williams employed the repeated text WOW WOW WOW WOW WOW around a drawing of what seems to be, with its arch, the Bayonne Bridge. But, hey, the Bayonne Bridge needs some attention from the art world, too.

Braxton J. King, a playful member of the art community, created a game in his work. Twenty objects are hidden within his rendition of the bridge; among them are a nail, a brick, a “meatal wire,” a baseball bat, a basketball and a figure labeled Braxton J. King. We love slyly self-referential art that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Braxton J. King is someone the art world needs to be aware of.

Rina Sotiropoulou, age 6, perhaps the younger sister of poet George and photographer Dia, had a marvelous contribution to the show: a gorgeous yellow-dominated watercolor called “Colors of Brooklyn Bridge” that made us smile. Very cheerful!

There were many other wonderful artworks that will make you smile, too, if you attend the Brooklyn Bridge Art Show at The City Reliquary. We were smiling as we walked down Metropolitan Avenue at the start of the holiday weekend to pick up our laundry.

Everyone seemed happy, especially the teenagers making out on a bench at the Jaime Campiz Playground under the shadow of the elevated Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Isn’t life wonderful!

The City Reliquary
370 Metropolitan Ave
near Havemeyer, Williamsburg
(G/L to Metropolitan/Lorimer)

Friday, May 23, 2008

Dumbo Books Addresses Concerns and Rumors About WHO WILL KISS THE PIG?: SEX STORIES FOR TEENS in the Florida Jewish Community

It has come to our attention that nasty rumors are being spread by email to members of the Florida Jewish community about Richard Grayson’s new book, Who Will Kiss the Pig?: Sex Stories for Teens.

More specifically, we have heard that Florida Jews are denouncing the book and its author for being very anti-Semitic and for portraying teenage Jews, in particular those in South Florida, as extremely promiscuous.

These rumors are lies. We don’t know how they started. Our book is not very anti-Semitic.

Yes, it is true that Richard Grayson’s first story collection, published in 1979, was called With Hitler in New York and had a title story in which the German dictator visits Brooklyn and has a lot of fun with his young Jewish friends listening to dirty stories on the Brighton Beach boardwalk, smoking marijuana on a Belt Parkway overpass, and eating Chinese food on Montague Street in the Heights.

But the Judaic studies scholar Alvin H. Rosenfeld, in his 1984 book Imagining Hitler (Indiana University Press) discussed “With Hitler in New York” in detail, as did his son Gavriel D Rosenfeld, another scholar, in his 2005 book The World Hitler Never Made (Cambridge University Press) and both professors explained that while the story might be offensive, no disrespect to Jews was intended.

Also, some South Florida rabbis have noted that Dumbo Books’ release of Richard Grayson’s Highly Irregular Stories contained a reprint of his infamous 1982 chapbook, Eating at Arby’s: The South Florida Stories that has been called anti-Semitic in its portrayal of elderly residents of Century Village, snowbirds, “condo commandos,” and diners at the Rascal House “early bird special.”

We can only reply that the book was favorably reviewed by a Jewish Miami University (of Ohio) professor, Mark Bernheim, in Israel Today and that a Jewish novelist, Ivan Gold, writing in The New York Times Book Review, said Eating at Arby’s: The South Florida Stories was “equidistant between Hemingway and Dick and Jane.” Does that sound anti-Semitic to you?

Richard Grayson did in fact have a bris on June 11, 1951 at Beth-El (now Brookdale) Hospital in Brownsville; a bar mitzvah ceremony on May 23, 1964 at the Flatbush Park Jewish Center (a siddur presented by the temple’s Sisterhood will prove this); and a bar mitzvah reception the following Saturday, May 30, 1964 at the Deauville Beach Club (now United Artists Sheepshead Bay Theatre) on beautiful Gerritsen Beach, with performances by the Israeli team of Daniel & Dmitri and also Joe Vega & the Cha Cha Aces. The orchestra was led by Richard's great-great-uncle Dave Tarras, the famous klezmer clarinetist. And there was plenty of stuffed derma and a Viennese table!

As far as Jew-on-Jew teenage sex in Who Will Kiss the Pig?, yes, we admit there is plenty of it. But there is a lot of it in real life too, and Richard Grayson knows this. During the 2005-2006 school year, he taught English at the Jess Schwartz Jewish Community High School in Phoenix and observed a lot of sexy behavior on the part of students. Fortunately, this problem was dealt with by the school’s shiksa headmistress, noted educator Dr. Janice Johnson.

And in fact, one of the stories in the book notes that many Jewish teenagers do NOT partake in sexual activity. On page 122, in the story “Talking to a Stranger,” there is this passage:
Joshua and I are at the UN, trying to film a demonstration protesting an Arab massacre of Israeli schoolchildren. Joshua has to hand in a final for his Cinematography course and figures the UN demonstration might be interesting.

There are a lot of yarmulkes and girls wearing stockings. Perhaps Sidney is somewhere in the crowd.

Joshua says all Jewish girls are ugly. He says it softly because there are Jewish girls crowding us from all sides. He leans over to me and whispers, “If these were WASPs, man, we’d be having a fucking orgy.”

So there.

Finally, there is the matter of pig-kissing in the title story and in one other one. It is true that although that the pigs involved are not kosher and the guys who want to or are forced to kiss them are Jewish, the depiction was not meant to offend anyone who follows the kosher dietary laws. The fact that on page 1 a character named Yassir is the one making the Jewish guy kiss the pig, is in no way a criticism of Zionism. After all, on page 17, the mother of the girl that Jonathan has gotten pregnant makes it quite clear to him that Muslims also find pigs unclean.

Any rabbi or Jewish official wanting confirmation can write us at and we will supply you with a PDF of Who Will Kiss the Pig?: Sex Stories for Teens.

Finally, we would like to acknowledge that not all South Florida rabbis have denounced Dumbo Books and Richard Grayson. Some South Florida rabbis are great, like Richard’s first cousin once removed, Rabbi Donald Crain, now in Boca in retirement from spiritual leadership of his congregation in Utica, New York. (Rabbi Crain is the son of Richard’s great-uncle Irving Cohen, brother to his Grandma Sylvia, who was a noted South Florida Jewish celebrity in her time.)

So now that we’ve cleared it up that our new book of teen sex stories is not a “shonda” or “bad for the Jews,” we envision great support for Dumbo Books in the Florida Jewish community! Isn’t life wonderful!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Dumbo Books Celebrates the 125th Anniversary of the Brooklyn Bridge at Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park

Dumbo Books spent most of today, now that our attorneys have given us the go-ahead, sending out PDF files of Who Will Kiss the Pig?: Sex Stories for Teens by Richard Grayson, to the kindly cool young hipsters who answered our Craigslist ad and agreed to take an advance peek at the book. (Not so nice was the person who broke our confidential pre-publication press blackout and leaked it to The Gothamist. And a big boo to the mean commenters on that site.)

Anyway, we were tired, but after a short nap during “All Things Considered” (Darn! We missed the last show with those great pledge breaks), we were up for some fun. The famous writer Tao Lin had a blog post mentioning a big party in honor of Brooklyn’s indie presses, but when we looked down the list of publishers – Akashic, Melville House, Soft Skull, etc. – we didn’t see our name. Dumbo Books wasn’t invited! Sniff. Maybe we are not “Brooklyn” enough for them. We have not been so bummed out since we were in Mrs. Eisenstein’s first grade class at P.S. 244 in East Flatbush and a certain Walter O’Malley did something really mean to us.

(After all, in our new book of teen sex stories, a lot of the teen sex takes place in Brooklyn, a borough famous for teenage sex. For example, on page 77 of the book, after a lot of sex involving a whole bunch of friends, Kevin has to take Libby to the free city gynecological clinic in Coney Island and while he is anxiously waiting to hear if she has an STD, another boy asks him: “You done knock up yo’ fox?” By page 83 Libby and Kevin are staring at a baby in the maternity ward of Methodist Hospital in Park Slope although by then Kevin is more interested in looking at Ted... but we digress.)

Downcast at not being invited to the shindig for Brooklyn small presses, Dumbo Books glumly walked the streets of our eponymous neighborhood until we heard about an even better party that, yes, we were invited to. Wow!

It was the kickoff of the celebration of the 125th anniversary of the famous Brooklyn Bridge just a few blocks away at Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park.

Entering the park, we admired the dark blue Brooklyn Bridge anniversary T-shirts worn by the event volunteers, who were probably freezing – we had a hoodie over a sweater over a long-sleeved shirt over a Medgar Evers College T-shirt and were still cold.

The T-shirts reminded us of the powder blue T-shirt honoring the bridge’s centennial that we got in May 1983 for ten dollars at the Brooklyn Museum gift shop. We wore the shirt proudly but either it shrunk or we expanded and eventually it ended up usefully but rather ignominiously as a dustrag in Grandma Ethel’s Rockaway apartment.

Back in 1983, we watched the Brooklyn Bridge centennial fireworks with our BFF (and current Dumbo Books landlady) Nina, who was rewarded with her work in the Cuomo campaign the year before with a great job in the state department of transportation. So we got to see the spectacular fireworks from the huge windows of her office on the 89th floor of a building that doesn’t exist anymore.

Thinking about that made us a little sad, but then right in front of us, we saw our old friend Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, decked out in a top hat and 1890s-style suit, looking slightly steampunk but just as handsome as we remembered him from the first time we saw him on the second floor of LaGuardia Hall back in the day when he was the Graduate Student Organization president at Brooklyn College and we were a lowly reporter for the student government newspaper The Ol’ Spigot.

Mayor Bloomberg was there with him, drinking one of the free Snapple antioxidant waters in five colors and flavors that they were giving out along with blue tote bags and other tchtotchkes. And also Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, whom we recall as a little pisher standing on the corner of 86th Street and Broadway hocking Nina and us to sign his petition to get on the ballot as district leader. How time flies!

Well, the night was fantastic. We found some friends from Crown Heights by way of Trinidad who shared some goodies and a blanket, and listened as Mayor Bloomberg came over and told a little kid with a sippy cup sitting on a blanket with his mom, “It’s all downhill from here…You have to go to school and get a job” before he trailed off and went to the podium, where his image, and everyone else’s was enlarged on two big Jumbotron screens.

After a military officer from Fort Hamilton (we patriotically failed our January 1970 draft physical there) sang “The Star-Spangled Banner”, there was a great chorus from an intermediate school who sang and moved to “Give Me That Old Time Rock and Roll” and other songs; and the Brooklyn IMPACT Project; and the Brooklyn Philharmonic looking very classy in white dinner clothes playing favorites like Brooklyn-born Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” Dvorak’s New World Symphony and the rousing John Philip Sousa march that goes, you know, “because a duck may be somebody’s mother.”

Also, Marvin Hamlisch and his many chins sat at a piano and after calling the bridge “one singular sensation,” played some of his finest songs and even an original one for the occasion. Mr. Hamlisch is a talented lyricist – you try rhyming something with “Emily Roebling”!

Marty said they had spent a lot of money on this celebration – they really went all out for last night’s kickoff – but at least they did not have to sell the Brooklyn Bridge to fund it. Ha ha.

At 8:30 p.m. a bunch of people with white T-shirts that said CAKE TEAM on the back started handing out the bridge’s birthday cake from Cake Man Raven. We were hoping for a slice of his famous red velvet cake, but we got something that was bright green instead. Whatever it was, it was good!

It was a beautiful, if chilly, night and as the sky darkened, Mayor Bloomberg counted down and then the colorful lights for the bridge went on. They change colors every few seconds and will be on for the remainder of the celebration. Also, a tugboat or something was spraying water really high from near the Manhattan side, and one of the big cruise ships from Red Hook passed by just before it took off (do ships take off?) for the Caribbean or someplace exotic like Europe. And some military-type jets zoomed overhead, at one point drowning out whatever pearls of wisdom were coming out of Mayor Bloomberg's mouth -- though we did hear him say something about John Roebling's going to Poly Tech being why kids needed an education.

Then the fireworks began. The Gruccis outdid themselves with a spectacular display on both sides of the bridge, and even a little near the Manhattan Bridge so it wouldn’t feel left out, we guess. (We could see the people on the D train from our little spot on the grass).

There were some fancy VIPs in a roped-off area by a structure, and they were drinking wine (one of the state park rangers made a young hipster girl sitting next to us on the grass leave because she had a sixpack of PBR, which wasn’t allowed) and eating ravioli or lasagna or something. A lot of them wore suits and stylish dresses and some of them had press badges.

Waiting for the port-o-potty, we were kind of shocked when not one but two teens came out of the little locked space. Well, we guess they were making their own fireworks! We considered hyping our book of sex stories for teens but frankly we hate hype – except when it’s justified as it is for the magnificent Brooklyn Bridge (although we had a terrible panic attack the first time we drove over it as well as one the first and last time we tried to walk across it).

Despite our being disappointed at Dumbo Books being left off the invitation list for the Brooklyn indie presses party, we had a glorious evening celebrating the 125th anniversary of the spectacular achievement of the Roeblings and the brave sandhogs who built the bridge. (We think we heard Marty misspeak and pay tribute to the “sweathogs,” but that was another group of Brooklynites headed by the cute teen Vinnie Barbarino).

At Hoyt/Schermerhorn the fabulous G train conductor actually waited in the station for those of us on the A train to get aboard. What a perfect night! Isn’t life wonderful!

Despite the Recent Supreme Court Ruling on Child Pornography, Publication is Going Ahead with Our Book of Sex Stories for Teens

On Monday, by a 7-2 vote, the United States Supreme Court upheld the latest Congressional effort to curb the spread of child pornography.

Nevertheless, after consultation with our attorney Floyd Abrams, Dumbo Books of Brooklyn has decided to go ahead with the publication of Who Will Kiss the Pig?: Sex Stories for Teens by Richard Grayson.

The official publication date is August 15.

We believe that the material in our book, although perhaps pornographic and involving underage youth, is suitable for mature, sophisticated and cosmopolitan readers.

If charged with violation of the so-called Protect Act, Dumbo Books will fight the federal government in court.

Thanks for your patience and understanding. Isn't life wonderful?

Friday, May 2, 2008

PEN World Voices Festival: Small World, Big Changes, a program for high school students

This was posted to Richard Grayson's MySpace blog on Friday, May 2, 2008:

PEN World Voices Festival: Small World, Big Changes, a program for HS students

Small World, Big Changes: A Program for High School Students began a bit later than its scheduled 10 a.m. start time due to problems in the subway system which caused various participants and audience members to be delayed. (I was grateful for this, since I'd never experienced a half-hour ride on the L train from Williamsburg to Union Square before this morning and was late myself.)

This event was co-sponsored by the Consulate of Spain and held in the Manhattan branch of Instituto Cervantes, the amazing organization started by the Spanish government in 1991 to promote the study and the teaching of Spanish language and culture. The Instituto's basement auditorium where the panel took place is below Amster Yard, that rare public Manhattan courtyard garden tucked into the middle of a block. I hadn't been there since 1974, when I discovered as a haven for a Brooklyn College MFA student working six hours a day as a midtown messenger for The Village Voice.

With students from the High School for Public Service, Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies and High School for Social Justice making up most of the audience, I sat with Laban Carrick Hill and a couple of other people of a certain age in a front corner as Stacy Leigh, Director of PEN Readers & Writers, our literary arts enrichment program for underserved students and schools, went to the podium onstage.

Stacy noted the empty chair at the table for the panelists, representing one of the persecuted writers of the world, was for scholar Lin Jinhua, Executive Director of the China Development Strategy, arrested in April 2005 on charges of "leaking State secrets" to a Hong Kong based-reporter. After a secret trial lasting only 90 minutes, Lu was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison and is reportedly being held incommunicado in Beijing City jail.

Then Stacy introduced the panelists:

Marina Budhos, author of Remix: Conversations with Immigrant Teenagers and several novels, including the recent Ask Me No Questions, named one of ALA's Best Books for Young Adults 2007;

Michael Patrick MacDonald, author of All Souls: A Family Story from Southie and Easter Rising: A Memoir of Roots and Rebellion, awarded the American Book Award;

Patricia McCormick, author of My Brother's Keeper, Cut, and Sold, winner of the Quill Award for Young Adult/Teen literature in 2007;

Pam Munoz Ryan, the 2007 Author Recipient of the National Education Association's Human and Civil Rights Award, whose more thirty books include the bestselling Esperanza Rising and Becoming Naomi Leon; and

Jutta Richter, award-winning German author of more than twenty books, including two books translated into English, The Cat: Or, How I Lost Eternity and The Summer of the Pike.

Marina, the panel's ringleader, then had each author go to the podium and discuss their work and read a short excerpt from one of their books.

Michael discussed being one of eleven kids in a family in the South Boston housing project growing up – or not, as several of his siblings died from poverty-related illness, suicide or violent crime – in a culture controlled by the Irish Mafia in a neighborhood culture of welfare, drugs and dysfunction that I'm sure some of the kids in the audience could relate to, although they might not have expected that white kids like Michael had experienced.

He talked about how, in writing his memoirs, he broke the neighborhood's code of silence surrounding conditions in Southie and how death threats necessitated his leaving the area that he still loved because the flip side of the area's insularity was a solidarity and sense that everyone there was connected.

Michael read a section of Easter Rising about his first, grudging visit to a Beacon Hill psychotherapist, to whom he'd been sent by the doctors tired of his coming to the ER with symptoms that had no physical cause; this was immediately after the violent deaths of two of his brothers. It was a beautifully-wrought passage as the young Michael struggles to tell the therapist about his siblings' deaths, telling her he'd "gotten over it" when clearly he hadn't.

Patricia then got up to talk about Sold, her novel about child trafficking, an issue she discussed in some detail, telling how destitute rural families in developing nations unwittingly sell their kids into sex slavery thinking that they are making a better life for them in the big city.

She discussed her experiences talking to girls in Indian brothels who are locked in rooms, drugged, beaten and raped several times a day. As became clear in the Q&A session later, a number of the students had read Patricia's book. I could tell some were really affected by some of what they'd read and heard by their comments after the event.

Patricia closed by reading a passage from the novel in which her 13-year-old Nepalese protagonist Lakshmi, sold and forced to work in a brothel, envies an 8-year-old "David Beckham boy" (he wears a T-shirt with the soccer star's picture on it) who goes to school and can actually read the books she so desperately wants to.

Next up, Jutta said she started writing at 15, when she was a German exchange student in the very unfamiliar culture of Detroit, where the family she stayed with would not let her read or listen to German and the only way she could access her native language was by writing it herself.

The students were impressed that Jutta managed to get this early book published when she returned to Germany. She read a passage from The Cat, or How I Lost Eternity, featuring a young narrator always yelled at for being a lollygagger and late for school. Each day she gets waylaid by encounters with a cat who is as willful as she is and who seems to have a clever retort to all of her comments.

Pam, at her turn at the podium, discussed Esperanza Rising as a fictional retelling of her grandmother's childhood riches-to-rags story as she immigrates to California with her brother and their mother, a Mexican patrician fallen on hard times. She also discussed some of the reaction to her book that she didn't expect: because Esperanza's family doesn't take part in the strikes among migrant agricultural workers, union members were upset with her.

The passage she read was one in which Esperanza boards a train, not in the first-class cars she's used to, but in one filled with "peasants" she doesn't want to associate with. On a train ride in which the girl experiences a world of poverty she'd never seen up close before, Esperanza begins to understand by the end that she and her family are no longer rich but are themselves "peasants." When she sees rich people ignore a crippled Indian woman beggar but a poor woman who has befriended her mother give the beggar something, Esperanza learns that "the rich take care of the rich and the poor take care of those who have less than they do."

Finally, Marina got up to discuss Ask Me No Questions, the story of two sisters from Bangladesh growing up in post-9/11 Queens as undocumented immigrants whose father is arrested and detained in the anti-Muslim hysteria after the World Trade Center bombing.

Marina read a passage in which her protagonist Nadira learns how to "forget that you don't really exist here." At Flushing High, with a large population of immigrant students from Bangladesh, China, Korea, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere, the policy is "Ask me no questions" (still true today, according to my friend who teaches English there who has repeated what Marina said the teachers in her novel say: "We're not the INS") – but it's also clear that sometimes young girls want to ask questions.

After Marina put a couple of questions to the panelists – about balancing their desire to teach the world about young people's experience with injustice and their need to create art; about doing research and whether it can ever hamper a novelist or memoirist – the kids in the audience and a teacher or two got to ask their questions.

They asked the writers how they handle a bad day when they don't find writing easy; how they react to criticism of their books; how they balance feeling hope and feeling despair; whether they feel differently about their books when they read them after publication; what they like to read when they're writing their own books; what they do to keep readers interested; and what motivated them to start writing in the first place. The answers from various panelists were honest and insightful.

As someone who's taught urban high school kids (one year in Phoenix was all I could manage) and community college students, I know that two hours can be a long time for teenagers, especially some boys, to sit quietly and listen passively. But the audience members were exceedingly polite and quiet and for the most part seemed interested (although I noticed several had fallen asleep at various points and the boy behind me muttered, "Boring!" during one of the more convoluted answers to the discussions).

This was a worthwhile event although as a teacher, I guess I would have liked more audience involvement a bit earlier. In some ways the focus was a bit too much on the authors and not enough on the kids – many of whom, I'm sure, have their own stories to tell.

Also, some things can't be taken for granted when you talk to young people. For example, Pam offhandedly mentioned her book "about Marian Anderson" (it's When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson) without explaining who Anderson was. I would be very surprised if many students – who probably have a hard time saying exactly when the Civil War happened – had ever heard of Marian Anderson or knew her story.

But then, I am pretty sure none of the twentysomething hipster novelists in New York whose readings I attend have heard of Marian Anderson either. Maybe they need to read a few more books?