Getting radical with Jonathan Lethem

My nearest local bookstore (Third Place Books) hosted a fancy shmancy lunch with Jonathan Lethem last week. I treated myself to a ticket, joined 37 other attendees in the cozy space of the downstairs pub, and enjoyed it thoroughly. I went in wanting to talk with him about his family's left-leaning history along with that of the activists at the center of Lethem's engaging new novel, Dissident Gardens.  I left with some thought provoking leads. Along with a not necessarily healthy paranoia about asking questions that leave an electronic footprint. 

Lethem generously offered a long answer to my basic question - what interests you most about old-school commies gone to seed? Some of his answer echoed from what I'm finding in Dissident Gardens. Plenty of it, however, prompted me to reach out in pursuit elsewhere. Thanks to Edward Snowden, I'm now also just a teenie-weenie bit curious what sort of bells my random searching might sound like to NSA metadata mining operation(s) like PRISM.

More tangibly, Lethem uses the history of the Left (and, in particular, the American Communist Party) as the base layer of Dissident Gardens. His fascinating suggestions led me to search for background on writers like Vivian Gornick, "Marxist sportswriters," and brought me back to the massive FBI file of a source for my own work. Combined with all the other stuff I regularly read on the internet, is it ridiculous to think I've bumped askew someone's algorithmic profile of me? Only if you're unwilling to see the flip side of an otherwise innocent proposition. 

My takeaway might be that we are not a simple sum of the things we search for on the internet. Any more than our pre-internet ancestors were accurately measured by what newspapers they read or what meetings they attended. It's just a great deal easier to jump to conclusions these days. We're still a long way off from the ominous endgame used in "Minority Report" and similar "thought crime" sci-fi. Hopefully.


 Just another 'zine seen during a July 2013 visit to Burning Books in Buffalo, NY

Just another 'zine seen during a July 2013 visit to Burning Books in Buffalo, NY

Learning from those taking old stories in new directions

A-list authors surely don't need my help to promote their work. Laura Hillenbrand, for example. She delivered two towering home runs with her nonfiction books (Seabisquit and Unbroken). In so doing, Hillenbrand entered that rarified realm of conversational awareness where she gets name-dropped from all sorts of tangents. Case in point, out at dinner with friends on Saturday, a story being re-told by my wife about the HBO Documentary on sportscaster Marty Glickman led the table to discuss Hillenbrand's Unbroken - the linkage is made through the amazing life of Louis Zamperini.

Without wanting to get too lost in those sub-references, I mean to instead logroll and commend Hillenbrand for her ability to sketch recognizable times in new ways. Mainly because she also nailed it with her piece about the 1930s in this month's 100th anniversary issue of "Vanity Fair" . If you haven't checked it out, I must insist that you do so. Out of all the decade-by-decade summary pieces, Hillenbrand's stands apart in my opinion. She brings something new to ground that's been covered often. Small, evocative details make all the difference.

As someone who hopes to write thought-provoking, scene-setting prose about both the Depression and World War I, I'm hyper-curious about those who've done it well. This should also serve as a quick post to say how much I'm digging the early stages of A. Scott Berg's Wilson . Although I can't pick up that book without hearing Tom Hanks in "Castaway" yelling for his island companion. Shtick aside, the company I'm finding in Berg's longform storytelling shelters me for all the other small ball stories bouncing around currently. Here again, I strongly endorse someone who certainly isn't in need of my approval.

Getting my Weibo on

A story in yesterday's NYTimes about the Chinese government once again clamping down on their microblogging sites got me curious. I encountered pretty obvious censorship when I visited two years ago. Facebook and Twitter were unreachable. Same for Blogger and the extended utility of Google. Things loosened up when I left the Mainland for Hong Kong. It was nonetheless striking to encounter.  

Fast forward to today, and I was able to register for an account on the equivalent of Twitter in China - Sina's "Weibo" (which means, simply, "microblogging"). I have no idea whether I'll get bounced. I didn't think an English version was yet available, but by using the browser Chrome with Chinese translation enabled...well, I'm up and running. Feel free to check me out there. Or come back here to see if I learn anything good.  

I should mention that I have a book-related purpose in this long-distance trolling. In a nutshell, I'm looking for "Big V" people (meaning, verified, or vaguely influential). Those are the folks the government began clamping down upon, after what had struck me as a period of relatively progressive advances. As with most things China-related, we only have the smallest sense of the reality here. For now.  

"Cover Me Up" in old scene memories

I moved to Seattle 20 years ago this week. I saw more than my fair share of shows back in those days. Even though that era was so overburdened by a focus upon the Seattle scene, this City's clubs and bars filled me with memories. Those days continue to come up in conversation - fondly, more often than not. I just had a long sought after conversation with a source this week that largely began with us articulating our recollection of music and the scene here in the 90s. Whatever the style or the venue, those of us who grew up going to shows will probably always use those filters.

That's partly why it was such a delightful reminder to catch a show at Neumo's on Capitol Hill last night. Not because it was an epic show - Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit felt a bit deflated. Isbell admitted playing gigs both for Amazon and on "the radio" earlier in the day. Isbell's become a critical darling for his first solo effort. I was certainly there because I'd played that album ("Southeastern") dozens of times while roadtripping this summer. I didn't have a connection with Isbell's earlier band (Drive-By Truckers). But I surely recalled my prior sentiments about Neumo's. Hence the delight.

 Jason Isbell at Neumo's. Unlike in the old Moe's, you'll only find clowns up near the stage in Neumo's (yours truly included in that particular nostalgia joke). Not that any of these guys were that bad...

Jason Isbell at Neumo's. Unlike in the old Moe's, you'll only find clowns up near the stage in Neumo's (yours truly included in that particular nostalgia joke). Not that any of these guys were that bad...

So if I have a point, it's somewhere amidst staying out until 1am on a school night,  seeing Neumo's through the filter of when it was just Moe's with the terrifying clown motif, thinking back to my recent research roadtrip when Isbell was on almost constant "shuffle/repeat," and just generally digging the energy of a nostalgic flashback. Since so many people on this particular day are focused upon a very different sort of look back, I'm glad to have a legitimate reason to look fondly backward. 

Smells like good journalism

I came across the work of a friend from grad school today. This reporter (M.L. Johnson, who works for the AP in Wisconsin), was the sort who really did her homework and asked all the interesting questions. Reflective of that recollection, Johnson's piece put a proper folksy spin on a story about cow poop research. What she does stands up as totally memorable for more than just the freely wafting - and maybe quite damaging - subject matter. It was the quality of the quotes she gathered that struck me and led me to make the personal link via the ol' Google machine. Kudos for a sharp, interesting story on current agricultural research. Johnson took an interesting premise and crossed over from academia to business, leading to a beneficial takeaway for the world at large. Not easy to do, and well worth a mention. I'm glad she's back on my radar.


 I spent a long Labor Day Weekend on  this farm  with family and friends. Mt. Adams basks in the magic hour light to the north. 

I spent a long Labor Day Weekend on this farm with family and friends. Mt. Adams basks in the magic hour light to the north. 

Oh, and I say it often enough. So once more won't hurt. I plan to handle this blog a bit differently in the near-ish future. More snap, less volume (of content). Or merely shorter pieces. More photos, too. Things will migrate over to my Tumblr and back. Since school's back in session - and I'm focusing on bigger ideas back home in Seattle - the time seems right to learn something new. Again. I hope you'll check back to see what that might lead me to do here.