Urban Librarians Unite (third Tuesday of every month)

A couple years ago, in email that the Telegraph’s Peter Robins recently called “a marvelous blast” of “municipal librarian machismo,” an old friend excoriated me for criticizing the New York Public Library.

This friend, the amazing Christian Zabriskie, moved to Brooklyn last year and now works as a children’s/young adult reference librarian at the main branch of the Queens Library in Jamaica. (His daily commute from Sunset Park alone would kick your ass.) Z’s also a renowned expert on the use of anime and manga to spur applied literacy and interest in reading.

Now he’s starting Urban Librarians Unite, which he calls a loose social and professional group of librarians in New York City. “The idea came from going out for beers with a couple of people from BPL and realizing that there was really no cross talk going between the systems,” he explains, emphasizing that this is not a meeting of the Desk Set.

Those guys are really just much more hipster cool than we hope to ever be. What I am trying to do is get people together, particularly people working in the big three public systems, to talk about how our work as urban librarians presents unique opportunities and challenges not necessarily represented in the professional literature, which is mostly dominated by suburban systems.

This is probably giving it a greater weight than I really intend. Mainly I just want people to have a chance to meet, greet, and talk, all while oiled up on cheap beer and food.

The first meeting — on Tuesday, May 20 — was at Long Island City’s The Creek and the Cave, a space (I can attest) with “lots of space, cheap drinks and grub.” The neighborhood was chosen because it’s right on the border of Brooklyn and Queens and one stop away from Manhattan. (“Sorry, Bronx and Staten Island librarians,” Z writes, “but we are doing the best we can here.”)

All librarians and MLS folks are welcome as are all wives, husbands, partners, and anyone who is so directly connected to a working librarian that they know what the words “collection development policy” mean and can comment on one without batting an eyelash.

I’ll remind you closer to the date, and will let you know if the spot changes, but the meetings will be the third Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m. “[L]ook for bookish yet achingly cool people. We’ll be seated at the next table.”

Rudy Wurlitzer regretfully declines the invitation to tap dance on your rubber raft

“I think my great handicap is my insistence on freedom,” Dawn Powell once wrote. “I require it. So I cannot make the suave adjustments to a successful writer’s life — right people, right hospitality, right gestures, because I want to be free.” Rudolph Wurlitzer, like many fine writers, could say the same.

The screenwriter behind the landmark 1973 film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, whose work arguably inspired Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 film Dead Man, Wurlitzer is also a novelist. Erik Davis calls his remarkable new book, The Drop Edge of Yonder, “the most hallucinogenic western you’ll ever catch in the movie house of your mind’s eye,” “a Queen of Hearts sutra, a court jester’s Blood Meridian.” (Sample the book here.)

My friend Lauren Cerand, Wurlitzer’s publicist, correctly predicted I’d be wild about The Drop Edge of Yonder. And she says I’d have an affinity with Wurlitzer the man, too. “He hates the dog and pony show,” she told me.

I asked if he’d be willing to talk about that, and voilà. Below Wurlizer writes about his allergy to commercially dictated art.
After my first novel, Nog, was published it soon became clear, given the cult status the book had been assigned, that it would be difficult if not impossible to continue writing novels unless I had a day job. Having an aversion towards the traditional rigidities of the academic world as well as not having any worldly money making skills, I was faced with driving a cab, or bartending, or dealing drugs, or finding a rich girlfriend, or remaining crouched in the corner, or worse. I was rescued from this precarious situation by Monte Hellman, a maverick director who was trying to finance Two Lane Blacktop from a conventional script about a mechanic and driver who drift around the country racing a hot rod.

After reading Nog, and sensing that I might be a kindred spirit, Monte offered me the job of rewriting the original script into something he had never read before, an unusual request that I would never be presented with again, at least not in the world of commercially dictated films. After Two Lane Blacktop came out I was asked to write Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid for Sam Peckinpah, a pay day which enabled me live off the grid long enough to write Flats, an even more obscure novel than Nog.

Exausted, broke, and once again dazed and confused, I tried my luck in L.A., trolling for another script gig in the lock-down sublimated rituals of the increasingly corporate mono-cultural film business. Finally after a year or more of sliding back and forth from the high to the low road and back again, I managed to put enough coin on the table for another novel. The effort, appropriately titled Quake, involved a huge earthquake that destroyed most of L.A., not only physically but emotionally and psychologically. I realized later that the book represented not just a metaphor but a catharsis that dissolved the seductive illusions I had grown attached to in my increasingly long nights and short days of California dreaming.

The dream lasted through the seventies and early eighties, then faded as interesting jobs became harder to find much less survive, and the game became so alienating and weird that the whole process took three or four times as long to complete: pitching, then waiting, then pitching again, then finally writing, then rewriting, then waiting and writing again until I collapsed in brain fog, not knowing what I thought or felt. It was no longer possible to continue lurching back and forth from internal novelistic preoccupations and doubts to the worldly strategies of survival that go with mono-cultural lowest common denominator collaborations where language is sublimated to image, and instinct and imagination abandoned to sales driven agendas.

When I began to feel like I was tap dancing on a rubber raft, I drifted to Europe, finding work with independent directors such as Antonioni, Bertolucci, Volker Schlondorff and Alex Cox, as well as, off and on over a twenty year friendship, collaborating with Robert Frank on two short films and one feature, all made in New York and Nova Scotia. Making a film with Robert Frank always renewed my energies and enthusiasms, creatively and spiritually.
After I finished my last novel, The Drop Edge of Yonder, it became clear that my old ways of surviving no longer applied and that the culture had so radically changed that I had no choice but to close the door to past solutions. Mainstream entertainment seemed to be increasingly represented by broken and cynical engines of corporate commerce.

When the first responses from my old publishers were confusion if not actual bewilderment I gave up trying to enter or be a part of the Big Room. I pulled back and waited, gradually realizing that to go on at all the process would have to involve writing for its own sake, without attachment to monetary results or established recognitions. I was surprised when the sense of futility was replaced by freedom and curiosity, sensations that I hadn’t experienced for a very long time.

In the early days when I first began to write, I wrote mainly in the present, for its own sake, without the habits that go along with hope, and thus the process was largely one without fear. I wrote to survive, to create a personal language, and, of course, to find a way to communicate beyond the habitual dictates of my discursive mind stream, even if the result was received by only a few people.
Out of the blue, I was approached by a young publisher who had started a small press called Two Dollar Radio. He had read my book and was eager to publish it. At first I was apprehensive, not knowing if he at all knew what he was doing. But the enthusiasm was disarming and stubborn and I gradually felt that in some way I had come full circle, that this was what I was meant to do. Two Dollar Radio was founded and run by a young husband and wife team, Eric Obenauf and Eliza Jane Wood. Their expressed ambitions were not only to survive but to publish without compromise what excited them and what they believed in. Their main focus was towards innovative and original fiction and they were eager to proceed in a way that wasn’t compromised by the usual reductive corporate strategies that lately have seemed to more and more define what remains of the larger main-stream publishing world.

It was clear from the jump that they were determined to hold to their vision with not only passionate endurance, but with rigorous integrity, even it meant working part time in a restaurant or taking in independent proof and editing jobs. Even though my previous novels have been published by the Big Players, including Random House, Knopf and Dutton, I haven’t missed those houses’ views and strategies about books and readers, which reminded me of the Hollywood movie studios. Entering the world of Two Dollar Radio, no matter how innocent or naïve their initial enthusiasms, represented a chance for a different more friendly and creative process, one that involved radically new methods of distribution and communication, including the new expanding world of blogs on the far reaches of the Internet.

The Mom and Pop team that drove the engine of Two Dollar Radio was also open to collaboration and eager to learn, and it was satisfying as well as nourishing to help design the book’s cover, and to enter into a real dialog about the complexities and possibilities of publishing in a new way. Also, for the first time, I didn’t mind doing “readings,” or giving interviews, or breaking bread with the publishers, because it was more a team process.

My on-going adventure with Two Dollar Radio, whose editors are now commited to re-releasing some of my old books, is one that I wouldn’t change, not even for money, or at least, well… yes, at this point, not even for money.
Photo of Rudy Wurlitzer in Havana, 1987, copyright the magnificent Lynn Davis, Wurlitzer’s wife.

Brooklyn’s mid-century South Florida wormhole

Walking up Ocean Parkway has always felt a little like being in Miami north of South Beach on Collins. I figured the sensation would dissipate once I moved there.

Three months later, though, despite all the red brick and Northeastern foliage, it still seems like I might stroll a couple blocks toward the park and stumble on the Fontainebleau. The illusion is nice; I miss South Florida less this way.

But maybe not for long. Once a place gets the New York Times Real Estate section treatment, there’s no telling what’ll happen to it.

Meanwhile, back in my old ‘hood, residents look to crown the worst architect ever. We’re down to two contenders: Karl Fischer and Howard Roark. See also What Roark might have brought to Williamsburg.

Image of mid-century co-op building swiped from Kensington Blog. Links courtesy of GMB, and Curbed.

The Smart Set: Lauren Cerand’s weekly events

The Smart Set is a weekly feature, compiled and posted by Lauren Cerand, that usually appears Mondays at 12:30 pm, and highlights the best of the week to come. Special favor is given to New York’s independent booksellers and venues, and low-cost and free events. Please send details to Ms. Cerand at lauren [at] maudnewton.com by the Thursday prior to publication. Due to the volume of submissions, events cannot be considered unless the date appears in the subject line of your message.

TUE, MAY 27: Roxana Robinson, whose new novel is Cost, and Janice Erlbaum, whose new memoir is Have You Found Her, read from their work at Other Means, an inventive series that connects bookish types with nonprofit organizations. Tuesday evening’s suggested $5 cover will go to the Natural Resources Defense Council. 8PM [Full disclosure, as always: both authors are current publicity clients of mine].

WED, MAY 28: Anne Landsman (The Rowing Lesson) and Terese Svoboda (Black Glasses Like Clark Kent) read from their new books at Sip Lit, “a monthly series of readings in a cafe,” on the Upper West Side, and one of my favorites. Sip is on Amsterdam between 109 and 110th Streets. 8PM, FREE.

THU, MAY 29:
Violist Tanya Kalmanovitch and pianist Myra Melford, who met at a Canadian jazz festival and since then have together made the album “Heart Mountain,” bring their stylish improvisation and “shared interests in the music of India” to Roulette. 8:30PM, $15.

FRI, MAY 30: This week not French enough for you? Learn “how to tell a lady from a tramp” when Godard’s Vivre, described by Susan Sontag as “a perfect film,” screens at Film Forum.

SAT, MAY 31: At the Whitney, Polaroids: Mapplethorpe. Noted, “Included are self-portraits, figure studies, still lifes, and portraits of lovers and friends including Patti Smith, Sam Wagstaff, and Marianne Faithfull. Many of these small, intimate photographs convey tenderness and vulnerability. Others depict a toughness and immediacy that would give way in later years to more classical form.” Through September 7.

SUN, JUN 1: Kelly McMasters’ tale of childhood in a small town features both Anna Wintour and a nuclear lab. She’ll connect the dots when she reads from Welcome to Shirley at Sunday’s at Sunnys, “a legendary old bar on the Brooklyn waterfront in Red Hook at 253 Conover Street (between Beard & Reed Streets). You can buy books and get them signed by the authors. The bar (cash) will be open. Free coffee and Italian pastries and cookies will be provided. Bar telephone (only available when the bar is open): 718-625-8211.” Recommended, of course. 3PM, $4 suggested.

Mouth guards over Manhattan, or a bruxist’s special day

On the anniversary of my entry into the world, someone has given me the opportunity to engage in one of my favorite pastimes: Bitching about my teeth.

“[A]t least a quarter of my friends in New York grind their teeth,” said the book blogger Maud Newton, who has blogged about her nightguard (as has Today Show host Meredith Vieira). “I tend to gravitate towards people who are also neurotic and high-strung and I’m really kind of intolerant of noise and stimuli, and I think most of the teeth grinders I know are the same. I theorize Edgar Allan Poe was a teeth grinder and it makes me feel better.”

The Observer‘s Meredith Bryan also talks with my pal Dana, who’s been visited by the Night Guard Fairy many a drunken night, Peter Terzian, and writer Ed Park. (Park’s new novel, Personal Days, includes a teeth-grinder.) Given the way neurotics congregate here, I’m not terribly surprised that Mouth Guards Over Manhattan portrays a city overrun with bruxists.

Today’s gorgeous, though. I’m gonna spend it goofing off on my balcony, watching the old guys down on Ocean Parkway play chess and dominos. Hope you get some time outdoors, too.

On Andrew Sean Greer’s latest, and recommendations generally

For me, one of the pleasures of reading a good book is trying to figure out afterward which of my friends to recommend it to.

One thing’s for sure: I won’t be pressing my copy of Andrew Sean Greer’s The Story of a Marriage on Jessa. But maybe Chris, maybe Emma? It’s so hard to decide; if you steer people wrong too many times, they start ignoring the books you give them. OGIC and Mark will pick this one up on their own. So I think I’ll point to Marla.

Greer’s The Confessions of Max Tivoli and this latest book — like Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier, Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love, and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History — are contemplative first-person narratives, structured so as to withhold and to manipulate, and I can intuitively understand how a reader might find the contrivances unconvincing and therefore empty. (For a mixed take, see John Updike’s review.) But Reader, I am not that reader.

I’d like to say more, but work calls, so I defer to the author. Greer recently appeared at Google to discuss The Story of a Marriage.

The Smart Set: Lauren Cerand’s weekly events

The Smart Set is a weekly feature, compiled and posted by Lauren Cerand, that usually appears Mondays at 12:30 pm, and highlights the best of the week to come. Special favor is given to New York’s independent booksellers and venues, and low-cost and free events. Please send details to Ms. Cerand at lauren [at] maudnewton.com by the Thursday prior to publication. Due to the volume of submissions, events cannot be considered unless the date appears in the subject line of your message.

MON, MAY 19: Monday evening, innovative architect Christoph Ingenhoven and Andres Lepik of MoMA discuss next-wave trends in the field as part of “What is Green Architecture?” at the Goethe-Institut New York [Full disclosure, as always: one of my PR projects]. 7PM, FREE.

TUE, MAY 20: Says PEN, “Cynthia Ozick, winner of this year’s PEN/Nabokov Award, will read at KGB Bar, along with Alex Mindt (Bingham finalist), Theresa Nelson (Naylor Fellow), and Margaret Jull Costa (PEN Translation Prize), in a celebration of the PEN Literary Awards. The evening will be hosted by Elissa Schappell, the chair of the PEN Awards Committee and a co-founder of Tin House.” 7PM, FREE.

WED, MAY 21: Promising new reading series alert! “Facts and Fictions at the Montauk Club is a monthly prose reading series held at the historic Montauk Club on Grand Army Plaza in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The series is free and open to the public. Hosted by Luis Jaramillo… Abigail Thomas reads from her new book Thinking About Memoir and Alison Hart reads from her novel-in-progress.” 7PM, free but reservations requested.

THU, MAY 22: Last week a friend texted me to ask what he should do with a layover in Brussels. “Go see The Death of Marat,” I replied. Do you have a favorite painting in New York? Email me (address above) and I’ll share your suggestions in next week’s edition of The Smart Set. I am always seeking that moment of discovery. In the meantime, “Nepal in Black and White” at the Rubin Museum intrigues…

FRI, MAY 23: At Issue Project Room, “David Ohle will be making a very special and somewhat hyped appearance at IPR this Friday in support of his new novel from Soft Skull/Counterpoint, The Pisstown Chaos. Brian Evenson will be coming in from Providence to join him. Music will be provided by Nat Baldwin, who’s recorded with everyone from the Anthony Braxton to The Dirty Projectors. Should be a great night and we’re just trying to get Ohle as big a crowd as possible since he’s flying in on his own dime,” says friend of The Smart Set Tony Antoniadis. Highly recommended. 8PM. And, “Spaces of Negotiation,” featuring the Berlin-based group of architects ifau and Jesko Fezer, opens at Ludlow 38 on Firday night, with a special event on Saturday night [Full disclosure, as always: one of my PR projects].

WEEKEND: C-h-i-l-l-a-x.

See also: Chicago, where I’m off to the Pilcrow Lit Fest!

Duncan Murrell’s mad seafood gumbo

It’s been almost three years since Hurricane Katrina, so you don’t hear much about New Orleans these days. After all, the whole painful rebuilding (and, unbelievably, collections) saga doesn’t make for a sexy news hour, and you wouldn’t want anything to get in the way of Anderson Cooper’s ability to spend two months asking the same three talking heads whether Reverend Wright’s comments will be the death of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

I’ve been looking forward to hosting a benefit — organized by Algonquin Books, and featuring ZZ Packer — for KARES, the New Orleans’ Writers Fund. The event will double as a launch party for the year’s New Stories from the South, which Packer edited, and will be held at Housing Works on August 28. (From what I hear about the eats, you’ll want to wear your big pants.)

Completely coincidentally, Duncan Murrell, a journalist and a former Marine who once worked at Algonquin as an acquisitions editor and has written extensively about New Orleans in the aftermath of the storm, recently sent in a recipe for gumbo.

Has anyone ever left The Big Easy without pining for a bowl of spicy seafood black magic intermittently ever after? If so, it wasn’t Mark Twain, who observed that “New Orleans food is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin.” Get your chopping knife out, and enjoy.

I didn’t grow up eating gumbo. I grew up eating seafood boiled, straight out of the shell, or freshly scaled and cleaned. I’ve always been an impatient eater, and to this day I generally prefer to eat things nearly in their wild state. I did grow up eventually, though, and I did come to understand the appeal of the big pot boiling away for hours, containing whatever you felt like throwing in it or, in some cases, containing everything you had. Gumbo became my dish, and I cook it nearly always for other people.

I learned my recipe from some very close friends in Greenville, Alabama, and I used to cook it whenever we stayed on Dauphin Island at the entrance to Mobile Bay, one over from Petit Bois Island. Although I learned the recipe from my friends, I watched it done by their ex-housekeeper, a woman who was with them for more than fifty years and no longer cooks or cleans, but still goes over to their place every day. The editorial comments are my own, but nearly all of them came from watching and listening to this woman as she cooked. There’s love in the gumbo, you know. All that chopping, you know. I can’t make this gumbo on Dauphin Island anymore because the place was nearly ruined by Hurricanes Ivan and Katrina. I haven’t made gumbo at all in a long time. Maybe this summer.

First you get a big pot, not the ones from Wal-Mart with the thin bottoms, but your mama’s pot. The one all the way at the back there, behind all the others. Get the dust off.

Here’s what else you need:

  • 2 cans of chopped, peeled tomatoes. If you use your own tomatoes from the garden, you have to peel them. Don’t forget. Don’t want those little pieces of red skin all curled up looking like something died in there.
  • 1 1/2 pounds of shrimp. Less if they’re already peeled, but if they’re already peeled you’re paying too much for them. Peel your own shrimp. Get the ones with the heads on, too, they’re fresher.
  • 1 pound of claw meat. If you’re down on the coast you can catch your own blue crabs, but good luck getting a
    pound of meat out of them. You’ll be at it all day, and that’s assuming you caught a half dozen full pots of crab. If you don’t know how to handle live crabs, you’re better off not trying. (There’s a smear of blood on my copy of this recipe which I’m happy to show you, if you need to be convinced.) Better to leave it to the professionals. Claw meat is important if you’re using crab because it’s darker meat; it doesn’t fall apart so easily after hours in the pot.
  • This is a seafood gumbo, but there are dozens of other kinds. You make it with whatever you’ve got, which could be sausage — very popular, local sausage on the Gulf Coast is terrific — or chicken, or game. Squirrel is great if you’ve got one or two. My wife, a public defender, was once driving one of her clients to court when she swerved to avoid a squirrel in the road, and her client shouted from the backseat, “Go on and hit it, I’ll put it in a pot.” She told me that story a couple times before I caught on that she thought it was funny. It sounded merely practical to me.

    There’s even a gumbo z’herbes dish, sometimes called green gumbo, which should be nearly entirely vegetarian and very delicate. (Maybe a hambone in there for a bit, but that’s it.) By tradition gumbo z’herbes is a Holy Thursday/Good Friday dish, but like red beans and rice (traditionally a Monday meal in New Orleans) it’s pretty delicious any day. I especially like gumbo z’herbes in the summer when you want to something lighter, or when my vegetarian friends come over and I don’t want them to be left out.

    That said, on with the seafood gumbo:

  • 1 1/4 pounds fresh chopped okra. And that means fresh, baby. You will spend a lot of time chopping okra, to get 1 1/4 pounds, so put some music on.
  • 2 big Vidalia onions, chopped. Vidalia, because you want that sweetness.
  • 2 green peppers, chopped. Don’t chop these too fine, because after hours of cooking the green peppers will be nearly the only thing in the gumbo that hasn’t turned the same lovely brown color. So you want the green peppers to be visible. Little squares of pepper are good.
  • As much celery as green pepper.
  • Fatback, fat from 6-8 bacon strips, or some kind of oil. I use the bacon when I’m cooking around the house because I’ve discovered that fatback isn’t really welcome in our household, and cooking oil doesn’t have the good smoky pork flavor. I love the pig.
  • 4-5 cans of stock. I split it 50/50 between chicken and beef stock. If I want to lighten it up, I’ll replace some of it with some vegetable stock. But gumbo is a powerfully flavored dish, every ingredient has to fight to be noticed, and I’m generally of the opinion that vegetable stock usually can’t punch its weight. You would use vegetable stock in gumbo — herbes, of course.
  • 4 tbsp. flour.
  • 2 bay leaves. Try to get these fresh, if you can. Everyone should be growing a little bay tree out back, they’re easy to keep alive. The desiccated, grey things they call “bay leaves” in the spice row at the supermarket are decent, but not nearly as flavorful as the fresh ones. Let the fresh ones sit on your windowsill in the sun for a few days, and then crumble them when you throw them into the pot.
  • 15 sprigs of thyme. Not 14, not 16, but 15. It’s a magic number, do not question it.
  • Continue reading…