"iced the dragons"

This Little Art by Kate Briggs is one of the best nonfiction books I've read in ages. I only speak English, and have no worthwhile opinions about translation or languages, but I was really taken with it for how she characterizes enthusiasm for reading and the relationships individuals have with other writers' words. I was won over pretty earlier on when I saw this part. (Earlier she had discussed reading dragon stories to her children and whether or not to use a dragon-y voice):

It reads like she had fun writing it. It is playful and casual and her intelligence radiates from the pages. Loved this book!!

It was published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, a London-based indie with a number of smart titles. (Another one of theirs I’m constantly recommending, is my friend Dan Fox’s Pretentiousness.)

Part of the reason I picked it up is I read The Vegetarian by Han Kang earlier this month and didn't quite connect with it. The novel is interesting — it reminds me a little of Border, a film I find impressive, but also not for me— but I am bewildered by the overwhelming praise it received, while also unsure what it was that I found missing—or whether I missed something (it's probably me.) I don't doubt it resonated with others, but I can't pinpoint what I found lacking either.

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My latest column for Filmmaker magazine is out from behind the paywall. And that means I have an excuse to post this image:

It is about the research team that commissioned those Tumblr-famous paintings and their influence on film and other culture. The column largely draws on Fred Scharmen's wonderful book Space Settlements. And definitely check out the documentary series by Brett Ryan Bonowicz called Artist Depiction, which is on Amazon Prime and includes interviews with the artists Rick Guidice and Don Davis (So enjoyable and relaxing to watch because, I mean, imagine being a hippie in Northern California in the 70s, who can make a living off this trippy space art and hang out with Carl Sagan from time to time.)

I'm sorry I'm not in New York to see the Piotr Szulkin retrospective at Lincoln Center —a filmmaker I'm unfamiliar with, and I'd like to correct that eventually. [According to the NYT: "Part of the premise of this series is that the dystopian movies of the early 1980s (“Blade Runner,” “1984”) found a mirror image in the Communist bloc through the films of this Polish director, who died in 2018. But Film at Lincoln Center also notes that the story is more complicated than that…."]

Another good book I read recently was Health Justice Now by Timothy Faust, which is also often quite funny despite being about one of the least funny possible subjects. It is a good introduction to how much of a mess the current system is, how simple the solution is, and the tactics necessary to make the solution a reality.

Thanks for reading.

cozy dystopia

This week, I downloaded the audiobook for The Circle off Libby because it relates to something I'm researching at the moment.

I am at the supermarket, walking through the aisles, when I press play. The narrator begins:

"There wasn't any limit, no boundary at all, to the future. And it would be so a man wouldn't have room to store his happiness."

I pressed pause. Hold up. What what what?? That is an AMAZING opening to a novel. Have I been vastly underestimating The Circle all this time? Dave Eggers did not come here to play!

Then I press play again. The narrator continues:

"...John Steinbeck, East of Eden."

The epigraph. Lmao.

I watched Years and Years, that BBC/HBO show, which I found fascinating with reservations. It's schmaltzy and also bumbling when it tries to be progressive, but it's exciting to see something so obvious in this genre mishmash come together and work as a blended genre. Here's a big family epic, but instead of beginning with grandma and grandpa in WWII, let's start in the now and progress fifty years into the future. It moves along pretty naturally. I think they pulled a lot of futurey punches, so it feels more grounded. I want to call it tea towel sci-fi. It's more like a cozy mystery than kitchen sink dystopia. Cozy dystopia!

Then I read Universal Harvester, which I loved to pieces. Stayed up late to finish. And when I did, I emailed a few people “have you read this???” It’s not a cozy dystopia but it’s pretty cozy and dark. But the place where it is dark is also uplifting. It is the perfect thing to read in this late August, when nothing is really happening, but you're not exactly excited for things to start happening.

Thanks for reading.

surviving in the city

There's a scene in the The Last Black Man in San Francisco that has stayed with me. I keep thinking about it. It might be less than thirty seconds on the screen, but it felt much longer. Jimmie, the title character—played by Jimmie Fails, the story is based on his life—is squatting in the old Victorian home his grandfather built. His family lost this house many years before but it was sitting empty so he moved in. Outside, he introduces himself to a man—white, as everyone in the neighborhood is now—walking his dog. It is an awkward interaction. You get the sense that the man with his dog finds Jimmie to be odd, in a quirky and naive sort of way. But the audience knows the desperation that goes unsaid—that Jimmie is internally pleading with this man, as a representative of the new San Francisco, not to write him out, not to leave him behind.

It isn't a perfect film, but what works really really works. The best parts are observant like that brief interaction. What doesn't work is a sort of hesitation from the filmmaker, and how the tension is consequently misplayed, but it doesn’t discount the general mood and honesty of the picture.

The provocation is in the title. This is about the consequences of gentrification: poverty and homelessness—not on the street, at least not yet, but sleeping on the floor next to one's best friend in a very very tiny house. I feel like I've seen dozens of stories in the media about how hard it is to live in SF on a salary of six figures. But there are cashiers, doormen, cleaners, Lyft drivers—plenty of people—who, like, Jimmie, get by on much less. How they are surviving?

The black community is also commonly written out of media stories about SF. The black community is something like six percent now; but, as this film reveals, that six percent who remain include people with deep roots. Then again, many of the best films—the best?—made in the Bay Area in the past decade or so have all come from black filmmakers (Boots Riley, Barry Jenkins, Ryan Coogler). The director of The Last Black Man in San Francisco is white and maybe that explains some of the hesitancy. But it's a fine effort. He, and the actors, are in their twenties, and both grew up in the city. San Francisco looks dreamy and bright in this film. It is a film anticipating nostalgia, but not treacly about it. The mood seems right, even if the script doesn't always work.

“You don’t get to hate it unless you love it,” Jimmie says to two white women on a bus complaining about the city. Another one of the subtle and observant scenes I'm going to remember.

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I read Fierce Attachments this week. I got it at the last Brazenhead salon. It seemed like the right book to pick up there, although I found myself missing whatever Michael would have said about Vivian Gornick. Good dialogue in fiction or nonfiction is so rare, and there are lines in this that I could hear fully voiced in my mind. I also appreciate her ideas about memoir as either "testament” or literature.

Nothing moved me this week quite like the memories and quotes and links pouring in in remembrance of Toni Morrison. I was particularly struck by this transcript from a speech she delivered in 1981. New to me, but it feels like every writer needs to hear it: “We need protection in the form of structure: an accessible organization that is truly representative of the diverse interests of all writers. An organization committed to the rights of the few. And we need protection in the form of clarity, a knowledge of the limits of individualism and the private, indulgent suffering it fosters. We have to stop loving our horror stories. Joyce’s Ulysses was rejected fourteen times. I don’t like that story; I hate it. Fitzgerald burned out and could not work. Hemingway despaired and could not work. A went mad, B died in penury, C drank herself to death, D was blacklisted, E committed suicide. I hate those stories. Great works are written in prisons and holding camps. So are stupid books. The misery does not validate the work. It outrages the sensibilities and violates the work.”

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Thanks for reading.

always falling out of the same cars

Jeff Noon’s Falling Out of Cars was the perfect book to read this week. Nothing cynical to it, just suspense and beauty and estrangement. It is the perfect anecdote to all the grotesque horror in the world—surreal rather than absurd, and gorgeous on the sentence level. It's dreamlike but vivid and earthbound, and there's a lot of emotion, but nothing treacly. It is the first book I read this season that fit my mood, which is: yes, it’s summer but I’ve been feeling kind of sad.

Noon is the writer all your favorite sci-fi writers adore, but is somewhat on the periphery these days. I went and ordered a bunch of his other books (also some books by Matthew De Abaitua, who has a similar style.) I had this one on the shelf a while just waiting for the perfect moment, and since it is out of print, I would recommend snatching up a copy so you can do the same.

My column in the summer issue of Filmmaker Magazine is out from under the paywall. This one was fascinating to research and I got to talk to Alan Warburton. His 2017 video essay Goodbye Uncanny Valley is extraordinary but just the tip of the iceberg of the ideas he is tackling in his work. From my piece: "There is a paradox to the trade—all that work, at best, appears as if it never happened at all...Now 'we’re at the point where we can conjure just about anything with software,' and ‘the battle for photoreal CGI has been won,’ Warburton argues in Goodbye Uncanny Valley, so there are new goals for productions. If you are making a Hollywood blockbuster, that goal is about scale. If you are an independent artist, like Warburton, it means using computer graphics to get super weird…"

I also read Patrick Radden Keefe's Say Nothing, which is as good as you have heard. It does what the best nonfiction will, which is that it weaved together a lot of events and names I vaguely knew about into a coherent narrative and went deeper. The author's interview on Chris Hayes' podcast is also worth listening to, for zooming out on the subject of Northern Ireland and The Troubles into a broader themes of radicalization and polarization. This book won the Orwell prize along with Milkman, which seems incredibly well-deserved. I loved Milkman, of course, but I'm glad I didn't follow up too quickly with Say Nothing, because I felt much of the power of the novel came from its dance between specifics and lack of specificity. Either way, if you read and loved either of those books, you will get a lot from reading the other.

And it was a good week to finally watch Knock Down the House, the documentary about four progressive women in primary races; one of which happened to be AOC, but all four have compelling stories. I really hope that Paula Jean Swearengin makes it to Washington, someday.

Thanks for reading.

I dont want this party to end.

The first time I visited Brazenhead was in 2010. I had just moved to New York and I was friends with a few regulars. It was the “secret bookstore” or the “speakeasy bookshop,” terms that immediately hook in a certain kind of curious person, especially an out-of-towner or new-to-towner. But it wasn’t twee or whimsical; it was just fucking great. 

I loved texting people directions to it, “right next door to Brandy's Piano Bar.” That was the old location. Later, after some commotion, it regrouped in his old apartment, and Michael Seidenberg, the host and sole proprietor, moved upstate, but returned on weekends for its open hours from evening to very very late. That’s where I shot my video series Just Browsing and I had a few birthdays and going away parties there (yes, that’s more than one “going away” party. None of my moves from New York ever quite stuck.) Once I had a party and no one showed up, but I didn’t care much because I could hang out with Michael. 

The nights were all different but there were a few constants: first you see the books everywhere, then the bottles of whiskey and ice and pile of glasses. Maybe Michael’s playing Blood on the Tracks on an old speaker hidden under some books. You’ll talk to the other people there because you have books in common. A few snapshots that come to mind first are the times at the old location when his neighbor would show up medium-late in the night—2am maybe, with a giant bowl of pasta and plates for everyone. That neighbor left his door open and people would sneak in his apartment to use the bathroom because Brazenhead didn’t have one. Sometimes Michael’s zany dogs were around. A few nights ended at the diner nearby. Once some friends and I built a books-and-chairs barricade in the back room to keep a creepy guy away from our conversation. Another time, I can’t remember why, but we were balancing books on our heads. I could go there by myself, which always a relief, especially when I first arrived and didn’t always know what to do on a Saturday night. It was incredible to know there was always somewhere I could go and feel welcome. Like the time I left a stuffy New Year’s Eve party full of rich people. Took the train uptown and walked to Brazenhead. I don’t even think I texted beforehand to see if he was around. I just guessed and guessed correctly.

Almost all my favorite people I either brought there or met there. And one of them was Michael.

We had a plan once to set up a shelf at his bookstore: “The Underread Writers Shelf.” There was going to be a corresponding website too, but most of our plans for it consisted of talking about the “underread writers” that we liked. Most of his favorites were underread and long gone. Although, I remember he said he really loved John Wray’s Lowboy—a rare recent-ish recommendation. I keep meaning to pick that one up. 

He did not care if you were a bestseller or a receptionist, a nobel prize winner or a janitor, or where you went to school. You liked books or didn’t. I was collecting unemployment after a stint working at a call center when I first showed up, but that said nothing of my bookshelf. I pointed out Max Frisch’s I’m Not Stiller that first night and said I love that book, what else have you got like it? I believe Confessions of Felix Krull is what he suggested. To be honest, I never got around to reading it, but I did go home with a copy that couldn’t have cost more than a couple bucks.

I only ever felt welcome at Brazenhead; and in the wider world of books as commerce and books as media events, that is something to cherish. Not that I haven’t tried to make my way in those hierarchies. Looking over our past emails I see I was constantly telling him about the book proposals I worked on, which only collected rejections; an endeavor akin to Ship of Theseus repair if it were sinking. It makes sense that I would take these woes to Michael: someone who believed in books, and didn’t divide the world into somebodies and nobodies. I worked hard and he could see that; but he never gave me false hope or anything like that, nor did he discourage me from continuing to press onward or work harder. There were no useless pep talks or shallow words of encouragement from him; just a lot of wisdom and realism. I would have liked to have given him a copy of my book, but at least I got the chance this year to tell him that I finished it. 

His indifference to hierarchies is why he was one of the great booksellers: he couldn’t care less where a book came from. All that mattered to him was whether a book was good or not. Not that he didn’t notice or care about celebrities. I don’t know if Carl Bernstein is a shopaholic or not but that’s the sort of funny gossip and unsubstantiated Madlibs of cultural figures that Michael was always good for. I thought that Brazenhead was the closest I’d come to having an Elaine’s, but now I’d bet it was better than Elaine’s; after all, it was a secret bookstore.

Most of the best parties I’ve ever been to happened there, often whenever Jonathan was back in town. Jonathan’s absence was another piece of the Brazenhead’s legend—like the cool cousin away at college while visiting the coolest uncle’s house. But as often as I visited, I find myself wishing now that I hadn’t missed out on so much—I can’t believe I never got around to one of Jace’s book clubs. Never got to know the poetry community who met on Tuesdays.

I am reminded of these lines in Susan Orlean’s The Library Book:

In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned. When I first heard the phrase, I didn’t understand it, but over time I came to realize it was perfect. Our minds and souls contain volumes inscribed by our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve cataloged and stored inside us, a private library of a life lived.

It seems to me that Michael embodied all of the best qualities of New York City and all the best qualities of books: generosity and history and community and connections between people over time. Now that’s gone but people, many people, are carrying and cherishing the times they had there. These are only a few of my remembrances and I am just one of the many people who was lucky to know him and get book recommendations from him. 

Read an underread writer this summer in his honor. Any lonely and interesting-looking unfamiliar book at a used bookstore will do.

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