A designer’s eighty-five composition notebooks

The great Michael Bierut’s collection of composition notebooks (1982-2008) has me feeling all self-righteous and vindicated for choosing their unfussy functionality over the trendy, overpriced moleskine.

Seeing his laid out in rows like that was so inspiring, it almost made me second-guess the practice of ripping out my rough drafts and destroying them as soon as I type the words in. Then I remembered what my rough drafts look and read like, and no, they really do belong with the cat litter.

Bierut writes both about his system and what it’s like to look back on the notebooks he’s been keeping for more than 25 years:

I use them in order. Tibor Kalman once asked me why I didn’t have a different notebook for every project. I have to admit, this would be more useful. But I don’t. I fill each one up and then move to the next one, the projects all jumbled together….

At the beginning I used to customize the covers. Those were the days when I used to handmake every birthday card. After a while it started to feel like an affectation. Nowadays I tend to just write the number on the front. The marbled cover, beloved by Ettore Sottsass during his Memphis period, may be iconic enough on its own.

Several years ago, when moving away from this site’s original paint-spatter background, I had my heart set on an homage to the composition notebook. For a long time, behind the scenes, Max tried out different marbled designs. But they were too distracting online, so we settled for the graph paper (now, as of 2010, the graph paper is gone too).

R.I.P. Ellen Miller (and a public memorial service)

I’m only now learning that Ellen Miller, author of the amazing ’90s junkie novel Like Being Killed, died of a heart attack on December 23 at the age of forty-one.

When Ken Foster announced the terrible news a couple weeks ago, he quoted the book’s opening:

We crowded around the rickety kitchen table, predicting how each of us would die.

Six of us sat under a naked lighbulb that hung like an interrogation lamp from a thin wire over Margarita’s chipped wooden table. We squinted and leaned phototropically into the empty center, noses almost touching, eyelashes fluttering against the force of the light like the wings of hovering moths. We were checking the count, raising each small, discreet, translucent envelope up to the stark whiteness of the blank bulb. Everything else disappeared. The count was good. The count was the only thing in the world. It was lonely. It was scary. It was fun. It was what I did now, without Susannah.

But before I could even finish thinking the words — with Susannah or Susannah is gone — she was no longer gone. She had materialized into language, inside my head, where it mattered.

Dana introduced me to the book, which I loved, several years back, and it’s grown larger and deeper in my memory rather than diminishing with time.

Paul Zakrzewski, Miller’s friend and editor of the Lost Tribe fiction anthology in which her work appeared, sends word that Miller’s life and work will be remembered by friends and family at a memorial service scheduled for February 8, 2008. All are welcome.

Details are toward the end of Karkzewski’s brief remembrance:

Ellen grew up in the Carnarsie neighborhood of Brooklyn, in a working-class Jewish environment. Her vivid experience of this upbringing formed an important element in her second (unfinished) novel, Stop, Drop, Roll, an excerpt of which appeared in the anthology Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge (2003). She also contributed stories to the anthologies 110 Stories: New York Writes After Sept 11 and Brooklyn Noir, among others.

In addition, Ellen taught creative writing at New York University, Pratt, and the New School, where she was admired by her students and colleagues not only for her mastery of the writing craft and dedication to teaching, but for her remarkable courage and honesty both on the page and in the classroom. Notwithstanding years of chronic illness and other hardships, which she faced with superhuman strength and determination, Ellen lived a rich and creative life and deeply touched many others. In the terminology of her favorite hobby, boxing, Ellen had “a lot of heart.”

She received her BA from Wesleyan University in 1988 with Honors and Phi Beta Kappa and later earned her MFA from the New York University Creative Writing program where she was the recipient of the NYU Creative Writing Fellowship for Fiction. She was also awarded a residency at the MacDowell Colony, among others.

Drafted in a six-month creative burst and published in 1998, Ellen’s novel Like Being Killed enjoyed many critical accolades, including a brief appearance on the San Francisco Chronicle’s bestseller list (after a cover review). Kirkus Reviews noted that “[the narrator's] voice is authentic in unsparingly illuminating the link between self-protection and self-destruction, revealing a tender inner life that persists despite addiction, depression, and descent into squalor. A bleak, bracing debut.” Meanwhile, her teacher and mentor Annie Dillard wrote: “Ellen Miller hurls herself, along with her readers, into a world that resonates with moral complexity, startling anecdote, humor and good humor, brutality and compassion. Her prose is uncommonly clear, compelling, unaffected, and strong. The range of her narrative concerns — from Primo Levi, Nietzsche, and dead languages to bagels and peach pies -proves that she can make anything interesting.”

She is survived by her devoted partner, Christopher Rowell, her step-father, Scott Hyde, her two brothers Steven and Michael, and her beloved god-daughter, Olivia Francesca Foster. She will be missed dearly by all.

A memorial service in honor of Ellen’s life and work will be held on Sunday, February 8th, 2009 from 4:00 to 6:00 pm at the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House, 58 West 10th Street (btw 5th and 6th Aves.), New York, NY. Please RSVP (due to limited space) to Stephanie Foster at smfostersays [at] yahoo [dot] com.

Like Being Killed has fallen out of print. Here’s hoping Miller’s publisher revives it, pronto, at least electronically.

Bolaño’s “The Beach” translated at Eyeshot in December

The Times‘ Larry Rohter reports on the controversy that has erupted over the details of Roberto Bolaño’s life story.

Bolaño himself fostered the idea, enthusiastically embraced by U.S. critics and readers, that he had a heroin habit. But his widow and agent dispute this detail, as do Latin American critics. Julio Ortega, a Peruvian scholar, charged in Spain’s leading daily that North Americans have made “a trivial spectacle” of Bolaño’s life and work.

An important clarification, though: Rohter asserts that “The Beach,” the story at the center of the heroin controversy, is “not yet available in English.” In fact, I read a translation at the literary magazine Eyeshot in early December. The piece is one very long sentence that starts this way:

I kicked heroin and went back to the little town and began taking methadone, which I was given at the outpatient clinic, and I had nothing much else to get up for each morning, and I would watch television and try to sleep through the night, but I was unable to, something was keeping me from closing my eyes and resting, and this was my routine until I couldn’t take it anymore, so I bought a black swimsuit in a shop at the center of town and went to the beach with my black swimsuit, a towel, and magazine, and I would roll out my towel at a distance from the water, stretch out and read for awhile, considering whether or not to go in the water, and there were many reasons that occurred to me in favor of doing so, though many reasons not to go in also occurred to me, the children playing along the shoreline, for example, so that finally I would simply sit there killing time before returning home, and the next morning I bought some suntan lotion and went to the beach again and at noon I marched to the outpatient clinic and took my dose of methadone and nodded at the familiar faces, not one of them a friend, just faces I knew from the methadone line, surprised to see me standing there in my swimsuit….

Translator Riley Hanick is slightly apologetic about his efforts. A note following “The Beach” reads “While I’m sure that it has some problems, there is currently no English translation of the piece available, and perhaps this will offer a placeholder before more definitive translations of the work … are published. Because my own Spanish is frequently shaky, I’m very much in debt to Leah Leone for her help with the original text.”

The original text of the story appeared in Entre paréntesis, a collection described by executor Ignacio Echevarría as as “a type of ‘fragmented autobiography’” and “personal cartography.” More recently, however, Echevarría “said that the introduction and title page of future Spanish-language editions of the book would be changed to incorporate language to indicate that ‘Beach’ is fiction.” Publisher Herralde agreed, noting that the writer enjoyed playing tricks, speculating “he may just have been trying to lay a trap for his future biographers.”

The questions about Bolaño’s biography are not limited to drug use. His friends in Mexico say that the writer “was not in Chile during the military coup that brought Gen. Augusto Pinochet to power, despite his claim[s].”

(Eyeshot editor Lee Klein and I exchanged a little email about Bolaño this morning. “Pretty interesting stuff about auto-mythologizing,” he said. “Reminds me of our zany early-21st century exploits in Greenpoint: the hard drugs, the all-night raves, the homicide sprees, the failed plot to implode Bedford Ave with explosive pierogis . . .”

Klein started Eyeshot years ago. He posted a couple pieces of mine there when, unbeknownst to us, we lived in the same neighborhood. Eventually we had some pints, and the pierogi plot was hatched — or not. He’s in the midst of publishing a short, dense novel by someone named Eyeshot al Sheriff.)

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, JAN 26: “In Crips and Bloods: Made In America, renowned documentarian Stacy Peralta (Dogtown and Z Boys, Riding Giants) examines the story of South Los Angeles and the gangs that inhabit it. Blending gripping archival footage and photos with in-depth interviews of current and former gang members, educators, historians, family members and experts, Peralta brings his trademark dynamic visual style and story-telling ability to this often-ignored chapter of America’s history. Hard-hitting, yet ultimately hopeful, Crips and Bloods: Made In America not only documents the emergence of the Bloods and the Crips and their growth beyond the borders of South Central, but also offers insight as to how this ongoing tragedy might be resolved.” Showing one week only (through Friday) at IFC. Highly recommended. And, Charles Bock fans take note: he’s at McNally Jackson on Monday evening to discuss the making of Beautiful Children with his editor, David Ebershoff. 7PM, FREE. Continue reading…

Will e-books expand the trashy exposé market?

Late last week, a friend forwarded a press release entitled “Publication Date Set for ‘Manhattan Madam’ Tell-All EBook.” It announces that Kristin Davis’ “biographical peak inside NYC’s sex-industry” will go on sale February 20.

Says my friend, “‘EBook’ in the headline of the press release? Classy. But perhaps it’s shrewd — no shameful shuffling in the checkout line, no awkward moments when your boss and his wife are over for dinner, perusing your bookshelves while you serve the hors d’oeuvres… Just a little secret between you and your hard drive.”

Image taken from the New York Daily News.

Koolhaas’ Exodus and Thomson’s Divided Kingdom

Museum-going tends to happen when Max and I have visitors, and with A. in town the past week has been a whirlwind of white corridors, polished floors, and hushed galleries.

At the MOMA, I was finally able to see Rem Koolhaas’ 1972 architectural thesis, Exodus, or The Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture, in full. In this project, the Dutch architect envisons a walled linear structure cutting London in half. The accompanying prologue begins:

Once, a city was divided in two parts. One part became the Good Half, the other part the Bad Half. The inhabitants of the Bad Half began to flock to the good part of the divided city, rapidly swelling into an urban exodus. If this situation had been allowed to continue forever, the population of the Good Half would have doubled, while the Bad Half would have turned into a ghost town. After all attempts to interrupt this undesirable migration had failed, the authorities of the bad part made desperate and savage use of architecture: they built a wall around the good part of the city, making it completely inaccessible to their subjects.

The Wall was a masterpiece.

Before I interviewed Rupert Thomson a few years ago, Joseph (my architectural theorist brother-in-law) suggested that I ask about the influence of the Koolhaas project on Thomson’s 2005 novel, Divided Kingdom. (The author has named both his time in Berlin and Koolhaas’ S,M,L,XL as inspirations.)

I did mention Exodus, but my question was so dense and meandering that Thomson didn’t speak to that part of it. Now that I’ve had a chance to look over this fragmented London in more detail, I wish I’d followed up. The Park of the Four Elements — devoted to Air, Desert, Water, and Earth — seems particularly germane to the novel and its themes. Here’s a little bit from Koolhaas’ description:

Divided into four square areas, the Park of the Four Elements disappears into the ground in four gigantic steps. The first square, “Air,” consists of several sunken pavilions overgrown with elaborate networks of ducts that emit various mixtures of gasses to create aromatic and hallucinogenic experiences. Through subtle variations in dosage, density, and perhaps even color, these volatile scented clouds can be modified or sustained like musical instruments. Moods of exhilaration, depression, serenity,and receptivity can be evoked invisibly in programmed or improvised sequences and rhythms. Vertical air jets provide environmental protection above the pavilions.

Identical in size to the first square but sunken below surface level is “Desert,” an artificial reconstruction of an Egyptian landscape, simulating its dizzying conditions: a pyramid, a small oasis, and the fire organ — a steel frame with innumerable outlets for flames of different intensity, color, and heat. It is played at night to provide a pyrotechnic spectacle visible from all parts of the Strip, a nocturnal sun.

At the end of tour linear caves, mirage machines project images of desirable ideals. Those in the Desert who enter the tubes run to reach these beatific images. But actual contact can never be established: they run on a belt that moves in the opposite direction at a speed that increases as the distance between mirage and runner shrinks. The frustrated energies and desires will have to be channeled into sublimated activities…