Lucia Berlin: The Art of Phantom Pain

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I met Lucia Berlin in 1977, the year her first small book appeared, but it wasn’t till I published her collection Phantom Pain that we became great friends (Tombouctou Books, Bolinas, 1984). Lucia was working at Alta Bates Hospital then, in Berkeley, at the switchboard and in the waiting rooms. Hospital work suited her. She was interested in extremities, in gossip, in contrary people with serious complaints, who also felt relieved to be alive. It was hard, low-paying work. She would have preferred to be writing, but she almost never said so. She did produce several new hospital stories (“Emergency […]

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A Possible Way for Tech and Artists to Work Together?: Digital Art from Depict

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A lot of the conversation in the Bay Area about art and tech describes an alienated, if not antagonistic relationship between the two spheres. Tech workers “displace” artists in much of the dialogue about rising rents and gentrification. Tech also threatens art by making its replicability ever easier and cheaper, and by fostering a culture of consumption that habituates people to enjoying the works of writers, artists, actors, and musicians for free. And yet, a fruitful relationship between the two camps isn’t impossible. San Francisco startup Depict is hoping it has found a way to (in startup language) “optimize” the […]

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E-remorse and Writers

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“E-mail,” snorted Molly Young, in the New York Times last December. “A medium I associate with cowardly ex-boyfriends and offshore Viagra vendors.” On the face of it, yes. Social media scorn the e-mail habit: a sad old grandfather, smelling of camphor and oatmeal. But I’m still waltzing—more like, locked in a tango—with Grandpa. I depend upon e-mail, check it obsessively, prefer it over real-time, physical confrontations for the same reasons I turned to writing in the first place: leisure to think deeply (or stall for time), speak from the heart in shiniest prose, curry favor and influence—all this accomplished either […]

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All the Lost, Autobiographical Novels

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Years ago, when novelist Alexander Chee couldn’t sell his first book, a literary agent told him, “The first novel you finish isn’t always the first novel you publish.” The agent was right. Hunter S. Thompson, for example, wrote his first novel, the autobiographical story of a boozy Kentucky boy in the city titled Prince Jellyfish, in his early twenties. After numerous literary agents declined it, Thompson shelved the manuscript and finished a second novel called The Rum Diary, which Simon & Schuster released in 1998, nearly four decades after he had completed it. And just last month, De Capo Press published Jack Kerouac’s lost, semi-autobiographical […]

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Reading Music

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Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is one of the great examples of program music, which means notes, not words, are the storytellers. The story here is a lurid one of opium induced reveries and unrequited love that descends into murder, execution, and hell. I heard it for the first time in junior high school, back when music appreciation was considered a part of a public school’s core curriculum and stories of opium and sin didn’t trigger over-protective hysteria in the PTA. The work became the first piece of classical music I could recognize, despite the fact that music of all kinds […]

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The Outlaw Barney Rosset

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Because my brother Howie and I collected comics as poor kids in the Bronx, hoping to score a prized first edition of, say, Avengers #4 (which heralded the return appearance of Captain America) or Amazing Fantasy #15 (containing the origin of Spiderman) we haunted the sleazy second hand bookstores around the Bronx of the 1960s, dark moldy storefronts stacked with boxes full of lurid paperbacks and stag mags. In such a shop, I found a wooden grapefruits crate containing back issues of a magazine called Evergreen Review, edited and published by one Barney Rosset. Fred Jordan, the other name prominently […]

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San Francisco Opens a Walk-In Human Cloning Agency

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[slideshow id=2]For millennia people have struggled to craft the human form in materials from clay to silicone. But while there have been some popular hits such as Michelangelo’s David, nothing in the world’s museums shows the subtlety to be seen in the living body. In our scientifically advanced society, the optimal way to create a portrait is to clone the human subject. Conventional genetic cloning is technically problematic, but only because cloners apply antiquated genetic concepts. Recently biologists have learned that the genes you inherit don’t determine who you become. What matters is which genes are expressed, and gene expression […]

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America’s Westernmost Indie Bookstore: Talk Story on the Garden Isle

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Along Hanapepe Road in Hanapepe, Kaua’i—a town as wet as it is green—the storefronts this August morning are still shaded; it’s too early for anyone but tourists. Besides the rare interruption of a passing car, movement is confined to two locations: a cafe selling wraps named after punk bands (and also where someone has scrawled in Sharpie on a bathroom wall “LEVON RIP 4/19/12,” a reference to the late drummer of The Band) and the local bookstore. Talk Story, which derives its name from the Hawaiian slang for casual conversation, establishes its noteworthiness immediately: “THE WESTERN-MOST INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORE OF THE […]

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The Great (and Good) Cross-Pollination of American Literature

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It was the first day of my first Advanced Fiction workshop. Everyone was fiddling with their pens and eyeing each other across the long oak table. As she handed out syllabi, our professor extolled the virtues of experimentation and articulated a staunchly ecumenical approach to writing. With one exception, of course. If any of us were interested in writing science fiction, fantasy, or mystery, she would be happy to introduce us to her dear friend over at MIT, who knew everything there was to know about genre fiction. The implication was loud and clear: some of her best friends wrote […]

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The Twelve Friends of Rodolfo and Mimi

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My husband settles back on the couch with his coffee. “I’ve been indulging this bizarre, wacko fantasy,” he says. Oh, dear. He’ll want to fly to his hometown’s soccer field for Christmas. (Blackburn, Lancashire: identification with the home team is tribal.) Or start ballroom dancing lessons. Rip out the grass and plant cactus in the yard. Kayak the Nile. It’s the first day of November’s last week. He takes twenty minutes to “thaw out” in the morning, as my dad used to term it, before hopping on his bicycle to go to work. I am doing yogic stretches on the […]

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Appealing More and More to the Ear: Literature and Audio Books

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Dear reader, I did not intend to get the audio book. When I walked into the Berkeley Public Library a few months ago, looking for a copy of Alan Hollinghurst’s first novel, The Swimming Pool Library, I don’t think I had intentions toward any particular format. If pressed at the time to reveal my implicit biases, I would probably have said I was looking for a physical, bound paper-and-cloth book, a book-book. (For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to such objects as “books”). Unfortunately, The Swimming Pool Library and The Line of Beauty—Hollinghurst’s Booker prize-winning fourth novel—were both […]

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Don Emblen: The Fate of ‘The Palomino Boy’

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Born in Los Angeles in 1918, Don Emblen was one of those tough old believers, a poet, publisher and bibliophile who lived hard. Lifelong friends included Donald Hall, Robert Bly, and the late William Stafford. He worked for what was then the Los Angeles City News Service, chased submarines in the Navy, married three times, sired kids who produced grandkids, taught English Lit thirtysome years at the same Northern California college, and acted as a second father to my husband, whom he hired many years ago to teach there as well. Don’s passions were myriad. He ran a hand-press; printed […]

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