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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7 Quick Reasons Why Writers Should Attend the Next South by Southwest Interactive

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South by Southwest is a music festival, one of the country’s largest. It turned 25 this March and is always held in Austin in the spring. Half its age but just as influential is South by Southwest Interactive, the sister festival about technology, ideas and the very near future. SXSWi turned 16 this year and topped 15,000 attendees. And though SXSW’s nerdier sibling now has, according to the Wall Street Journal, “the eyes of the technical world upon it,” the festival is still significantly attended by artists, designers, business people, book publishers and journalists who wouldn’t know a line of […]

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On Oscar Zeta Acosta

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If people remember Oscar Zeta Acosta at all, it’s as a Samoan attorney. Since Hunter Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” was published 40 years ago this week (as duly noted by the Rumpus), the 250-pound Baptist missionary turned Oakland Legal Aid lawyer turned Chicano activist turned unsolved mystery (he disappeared down in Mexico in 1974) has all but been eclipsed by his side-kick role as Dr. Gonzo. This is nowhere near right, because to only know Acosta as Thompson’s once “partner in too many crimes,” as Thompson noted, is to be ignorant of Acosta at his finest – […]

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‘Parrot in the Oven’: An Appreciation of Victor Martinez

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I first read Victor Martinez’s novel Parrot in the Oven: Mi Vida when I was eleven, just a couple years younger than Manuel Hernandez, the book’s narrator and titular perico. Parrot won the National Book Award in 1996, making it more or less required reading for anyone my age (except where it was banned). Like many of the adolescents who read it, my life was radically different from Manny’s. I didn’t have to work. My parents left books, not loaded rifles, lying around the house. I didn’t have to look after my baby sister; my parents hired people to look […]

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Day and Night

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Twenty-five years or so ago, when I first started coming to Los Angeles on a regular basis, I used to stay with a friend who had a satellite’s eye view poster of the city in his breakfast room. It was then — and remains, I think — a vivid metaphor. Not for the sprawl of Southern California, although you can certainly see it there, but rather for the odd tension of the built environment, which can only push the natural landscape so far. If sprawl is an expression of our attempts to control our surroundings, the satellite photo reveals just […]

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