I’m not particularly drawn to biographies, and certainly not music biographies, but I make exceptions for Elvis. I was also swayed because I have heard Peter Guralnick’s books praised many times. Most satisfying about Last Train to Memphis, volume one of Guralnick’s two volume biography of Elvis Presley, was Guralnick’s ability to humanize his subject. The persona of Elvis, years after his death, is such a caricature, even a joke, that it can be hard to remember that there was a real, living, breathing person named Elvis Presley. The book contained what were, for me, some fantastic revelations. For one, Elvis was nearly done in when he was a youngster, not by the difficulties of his quest for fame, but by the swiftness with which it arrived. In a year’s time, he went from being a nobody to being one of the most recognizable faces in the country, a man whose presence literally caused riots whenever he appeared in public. For Elvis, it was a major struggle simply to adjust to this new life. Television documentaries and magazine articles often mention in passing that Elvis’ music and persona caused quite a stir, moral outrage even, when he appeared on the scene in the 1950s. Such stories sound quaint and exaggerated in this day and age, but with the context provided by Guralnick, I was able to see how groundbreaking Elvis really was, both musically and socially. Finally, I was enthralled by Guralnick’s portraits of Elvis’ supporting cast, quirky characters like Elvis’ mother Gladys, his manager Colonel Tom Parker, and the guy who gave him his first big break, Sam Phillips. The book rekindled my love, as it surely will rekindle yours, for the early days of rock and roll, and it left me with a serious hankering to read volume two of the biography, Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley sometime real soon.
In Russian, the term ostranyeniye means “the act of making strange.” In the early twentieth century, the idea was coined and used by Russian Formalists, authors and artists, who sought to make the familiar seem foreign -- to make those who consumed their art question everyday words and forms. Still Here, the third novel by Moscow-born Lara Vapnyar, bears very little resemblance to any of the experimental works by those Russian Formalists. But though her book may have more in common with the works of Jane Austen or Claire Messud, her satire is its own form of ostraneniye, as it successfully points out that the essential strangeness of what are now some of the most common elements of American life. Still Here is the story of four Russian immigrants in New York City. There’s Vadik, certain only of what he doesn’t want; Regina, a formerly famous translator who has married a wealthy American man; Vica, stuck in Staten Island with her son and husband but certain she’s "pure Manhattan"; and Sergey, Vica’s husband, a former prodigy who dreams of developing an app -- "Virtual Grave" -- that allows people to communicate with the dead by preserving and recycling what they said online in life. Virtual Grave is Sergey’s final chance to prove himself the brilliant man he was always expected to become. Given his difficulty holding down a job, it's a last shot at providing for his family -- and so a point of tension in his already troubled marriage with Vica. The characters' respective stories unfold and intersect as they, as a group, try to come to terms with death in a way that enriches life. Vapnyar is not the first to use something like Virtual Grave in art. A short story in Adam Johnson’s excellent collection Fortune Smiles centered around a very similar concept, as did an episode of the hit television show Black Mirror. What makes Vapnyar’s book unique is neither the idea of the app nor the use of four friends trying to make it in New York City (Vica is obviously the Carrie Bradshaw of the bunch), but rather how these elements -- a slightly forward-looking app and the perspective of four very different immigrants -- are used together to “make strange” the modern world. There’s always someone having more fun on Facebook; always a better match out there on Tinder or OkCupid (in the book, the app is "Hello, Love!"); always someone wittier on Twitter. Except that, of course, there isn’t. The book, like each of Vapnyar’s key players, is not without its faults. It’s a fresh take on an old theme, but it is nevertheless an old theme, and one that uses some old tropes—about New York City, about immigrants, about social media, etc. And there are points at which it feels more beach-read than smart satire. Of Regina, Vapnyar writes, “Being an introvert, she had trouble making friends.” It is the sort of sentence at which she herself might smirk elsewhere in the book. Such shortcomings aside, Vapnyar ultimately offers a literary representation of the way we live now. She shows us America, the beautiful and absurd, managing to satirize it without ever losing sympathy for the people living in it, and certainly not for her four main characters. At one point, Regina, sure that today is the day she’ll start reading and writing again, puts off work to watch television; with the help of an app called “Eat’N’Watch,” which recommends the right food-show binge combination, she wastes hours and winds up disgusted with herself. In another moment, Vadik recalls the one-night-stand he had in New York City, who he left the next morning and who, he later realizes, he may have loved. The morning after, Vadik remembers that he had left his copy Hell Is Other People at the diner where he met the woman: "He had no idea where that diner was. He would never be able to find it again. He would never be able to go back there. Vadik felt a surge of panic and regret, so bad that it made his heart ache." The book gives us plenty on which to reflect. Would we want an app like Virtual Grave? What would it mean to control our own online presence after we’re dead? If we aren’t exactly living in the book’s universe of constant app updates and addiction, how far removed are we? It makes strange the world we think we know. But even within that -- in the bounds and bonds of satire and reflection and ostraneniye -- it manages to remind us of the humanity that existed before there was an app for that. One that will remain, we can hope, once we’ve moved on.
“I live in Brooklyn. By choice.” The mid-sentence pause for effect in this opening line from Truman Capote’s 1959 essay “A House on the Heights” suggests just how unlikely that choice might sound to readers of the time. A little more than a half century later, so many writers have chosen to live in Brooklyn that it can be hard to get a cup of coffee in the borough without tripping over two or three would-be Colson Whiteheads or Jhumpa Lahiris, earbuds in, tapping away on their latest magnum opus. Why Brooklyn? This is the question at the heart of Evan Hughes' new book, Literary Brooklyn, which traces the history of New York City’s most populous borough through its writers, from Walt Whitman to Park Slope’s own dynamic duo, the married literary wunderkinds, Nicole Krauss and Jonathan Safran Foer. In truth, Hughes doesn’t have a good answer to the question he has posed for himself. “We shouldn’t mistake a massive place for an aesthetic camp,” he writes. One experience Brooklyn’s writers have shared, however, is living just outside the colossal, churning center of the metropolis – across the river from what is still often referred to as “the city.” Some have used all their might to make the escape from impoverished Brooklyn neighborhoods to the urbane quarters of Manhattan... but in their work they have often returned to the scene of their early Brooklyn struggles. Other writers have chosen Brooklyn as an escape from the commercial clamor of Manhattan, seeking a retreat where the rent is lower, the pulse runs slower, and the buildings don’t crowd out the sky. Give Hughes points for honesty. This is as close as he comes to offering a unifying thesis or theme, and you don’t have to read that closely to see that he doesn’t really have one. A dozen or so of the writers in the book grew up in Brooklyn and wrote about it, directly or indirectly, the rest of their lives; others moved to Brooklyn at some point or else, in a number of cases, were simply passing through. In other words, what we have here is a grab bag of literary criticism and social analysis trying – albeit not very hard – to stand as a work of social history. Despite some deft writing and a G train full of literary gossip, the best that can be said for Hughes’ book is that it makes no grand promises that it can’t keep. This is unfortunate because anyone who lives and writes in Brooklyn today has to feel the winds of literary history at his or her back. On my one street in Brooklyn Heights, I live half a block from the 1829 row house where Arthur Miller was living when he met Marilyn Monroe and a block and a half from the Greek Revival mansion where Truman Capote read the New York Times squib describing the brutal murder of a Kansas farming family that got him started on In Cold Blood. Another block or so to the east is the corner of Cranberry and Fulton streets where, in 1855, Walt Whitman helped hand set into type the first edition of Leaves of Grass. There is something about Brooklyn and writers, but I’ll be damned if I know much more now about why that might be than I did before I read Literary Brooklyn. Hughes is best when his subjects know Brooklyn well and work that knowledge into the fabric of their books. In a chapter on Brooklyn’s rough pre-gentrification years in the 1960s and ’70s, for instance, Hughes nicely contrasts how the middle-aged novelist Paula Fox responded to the racial and class tensions in the neighborhood of Boerum Hill with how the much younger Jonathan Lethem, who grew up down the street from Fox, reveled in the grittiness of the same atmosphere. The white married couple at the center of Fox’s best-known novel Desperate Characters view the streets around them, in Hughes’ words, as “a landscape where they feel unwelcome and embattled, where they grimly contend with garbage dumped out on the streets, dogs tormented nearby, rocks thrown through friends’ windows.” To Lethem, whose autobiographical novel The Fortress of Solitude and his earlier breakout novel Motherless Brooklyn are set largely in Boerum Hill, the neighborhood and its denizens are frightening, but also fascinating – less dangerous antagonists, Hughes suggests, than “neighbors and potential allies in a new social order.” Too often, though, Hughes builds chapters around writers like Thomas Wolfe, W.H. Auden, and Richard Wright, who spent most of their lives elsewhere and stopped off in Brooklyn only briefly to write about those other places. Hughes also gets sidetracked by oft-told tales like that of February House, a shared house in Brooklyn Heights that, at different times, hosted Auden, Wright, Jane and Paul Bowles, Carson McCullers, and the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, who was writing a mystery called The G-String Murders. This menagerie is so odd it all but demands a book of its own – and of course, one has already been written by Sherill Tippins, whose February House Hughes admits plundering for his own version of the tale. In the case of February House, Hughes is open about his debt to an earlier author, but in several instances when I knew something about the topic, such as Walt Whitman or the neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights, I found myself troubled by the thinness of Hughes’ scholarship. As I wrote in an essay in July for The Millions, I go way back with Whitman, so I was disappointed to find that in his chapter devoted to the poet, Hughes has essentially stitched together, sophomore-term-paper style, two of the better-known recent biographies of Whitman, David Reynolds' Walt Whitman’s America and Jerome Loving’s Walt Whitman: Song of Himself. The stitching isn’t inartful, but it doesn’t add much to the conversation. Hughes gets off a good line about Whitman’s personally setting much of the type for the first edition of his poems – “the nineteenth century equivalent of self-publishing out of a Kinko’s” – but he has little new to say about Whitman or to add to the voluminous commentary on the poems. One senses that Whitman isn’t in the book because Hughes feels a deep connection to him as a poet, or because Hughes has something burning to say about him, but simply because Whitman happened to live in Brooklyn. Too much of this book is built around such accidents of geography. So, then, what is it with writers and Brooklyn? Like Hughes, I’m not sure I know. Lower rent does have a lot to do with it, though as Hughes points out, New Yorkers looking for cheaper apartments in the five boroughs could just as well live in Queens or the Bronx. After reading Literary Brooklyn and living in the real literary Brooklyn for nearly eight years, my own sense is that the attraction of writers to Brooklyn is an accident of history that, over time, has become a full-blown phenomenon. From Whitman’s time onward, writers have flocked to Brooklyn because it was close to but cheaper than Manhattan, but now that gentrification has opened up whole neighborhoods to the creative classes, Brooklyn has blossomed into a genuine literary scene replete with its own literary gatherings (the Brooklyn Book Festival), top-quality literary magazines (One Story, Slice), indie publishing houses (Akashic, Melville House), and scads of literary stars (Lahiri, Whitehead, Jennifer Egan, etc.). Someday, some smart someone will write about how that happened, but as yet that book remains unwritten.
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Tillman’s authorial voice is singular, and her spoken voice is, too. It’s truly an amplification of the voice on the page. Many people have remarked on the quality of Tillman’s voice: its strength and intellect, its wit and warmth. It’s also raspy, sensitive, perceptive, keen—delivered with a New York accent.