People love hearing these stories about you mingling with normal people. Why do you think that is? It’s like seeing a bunny rabbit come into your house or something like that, or a bird fly into your house. It’s like, “Hey, there’s a bird in the house.” It’s just kind of a strange thing. It’s like, “Well, that’s kind of unusual, there’s a bird in the house.” Or even a bug, more like a big bug. But, like, if you see a bunny rabbit and you’re close to it, and it’s something you don’t usually get close to, it’s kind of amazing. You’re like, “Hey, it’s alive,” you know? “Look at that thing. Even its eyes, it’s really interesting. It’s alive, it’s a creature, look at that thing.”
Lily Renée Phillips’s first job in comics was erasing the errors made by the male illustrators who sat around her. It was 1943 in the cramped, smoky offices of Fiction House—the epicenter of comics publishing at the height of the golden age of comics—and Phillips was one of two women on staff and a handful working in the business who filled desks emptied by the war. The illustrators around her drew in graphite, then inked them over. It was her job to erase too-thick arms, stray bullets—and the lewd notes they wrote her in the margins. She hated it so much, she often cried herself to sleep. “I never wanted to come back,” she says. “At the same time I wanted to do good work; I wanted very much to succeed for my own sake.”
And so she did. Phillips went on to become perhaps the best-known female illustrator of her day, revered by the medium’s obsessive fans and yet undiscovered for nearly 50 years…
Two thin, careful girls would sit next to me. They were stenographers, and to type quickly in Chinese it took both of them simultaneously punching on a small red keyboard. One would type the pinyin and tone of the character – given a notation system on the board – and the other would click through to select the correct character out of the hundreds that appeared on a screen. Their lives seemed hard and dull, even in the glimmering sheen of the press room – a ballroom in a garish new hotel. On the other hand, D and I thought it was glamorous. There were rose petals in a bowl in the ladies room, lemons floated in a tureen of ice-water poured out by attendants in white gloves. We were at the center of the world. And the reporters who flooded in — taking notes on what we heard, funneling it back out to the world — looked over at us, here at the head of the room, where we sat at a long, slim, linen-covered table taking directions from a few men in tweed suits — censors, or information officers — who ran the show.
Here are things my mother’s cat does that make us remark, “Oh, he’s so smart!”
1. If you forget you’re playing with him — dragging his favorite orange feather cluster by a long strand — and instead, you start paying attention to the movie you’re watching, he doesn’t meow. Instead, he reaches up to your hand — which is holding his string — and lightly claws it.
2. When he gets tired, he stops playing and watches television.
I wish magazines that regularly run long profiles would let readers browse the archives of those profiles by industry. Interested in the art world? Here is every art world profile ever published in the New Yorker. Etc.
I want them to also do it by region! (China!?) But more to the point — read "A Roomful of Hovings" — John McPhee’s profile of Thomas Hoving!
“I also knew that if I stayed another semester they would hand me a diploma, and that diploma is going to open a whole lot of doors that I don’t want to go through. And I know that I am not real strong, and if I have that key, at some point I’m going to be seduced and want to go through one of those doors. So by not having the diploma, I will remove the temptation. That actually worked out very well, because I was tempted, more than once.”
When your windowshades are down and you begin to hear the faint trickle of rain but are sure you could be deluding yourself, WHY IS THERE NO WEBSITE TO TURN TO THAT HAS THE CURRENT WEATHER? This was the thought I just actually had.
In addition to my $160-for-$6 first edition Mysteries of Pittsburgh find, I found a first edition Arundhati Roy God of Small Things for $8 dollars — which is going for $55 on eBay! Whoot whoot! Interestingly enough — and I don’t know what this means — my first edition Jonathan Lethem Fortress of Solitude, which I thought would be somewhat collectible, is completely worthless. That’s only $6 dollars down the hole though… As is the true first edition of Paul Harding’s Tinkers — which I thought would be more as it was such a storied small edition, but actually is just about $20 dollars. Anyway, I want to read it so it’s no loss.
Finally: I think I’m going to start a small business where I just visit my parents in the obscure locations where they live going used book shopping, then return to New York and sell them.
ps: I also snagged an epic Stanley Elkin novel, The Magic Kingdom, whose comic plot consists of following a school trip of terminally ill children as they voyage to Disneyland. If I write an essay on The Book of Daniel, I think this will prove useful.
When Gulou was destroyed I realized I had to write about Beijing. When I was there, in 2008, everyone was mourning the neighborhoods that had been destroyed before I had gotten there; I saw the mourners but knew nothing of what they were mourning. The boy I was dating lived in a complex of dark towers that surrounded a lake that had swans in it. I assumed they cut the swans’ wings because any other bird would have flown away from there. What happened in the winter to them, I didn’t know.
I would wake up earlier than him — shaky, unsure of my life — and draw wide the cheap Ikea curtain to look out on his two views. On one side there was a big hot-shot architect building of housing towers joined by a walkway on their 20th floor; it looked like one of those marble games that children play with where the glass balls whoosh down planks toward some playtime sense of destruction. On the other view there was — when we first started dating — a cluster of half-destroyed hutongs, with no families in them. Sometimes there were little stray dogs there, eating the trash. On their walls, spraypainted, was the character for demolition. It reminded me of what I had seen in New Orleans after the storm — the spraypainted National Guard signs for when the house had been searched over the number of bodies that had been found there. The later dates were in the Black neighborhoods — of course, the government had searched there last — and N.O. activists let the spraypaint stand as a monument of the government mismanagement they were trying to prove. Returning homeowners were the first to whitewash over the marks of what had failed them.
Here, there was little threat of finding bodies in the rubble and I’d stare at the dollhouse-like insides of homes on my way to the big bus station at the corner. Later, the rubble was gone and there was astro-turf and a few trees. It was an awkward place for a park — punched up in a triangle of land in a Metropolitan area, near the curve of highway that marked the third ring road. We never saw anyone go into it. There were no picnics there, no kids playing. The trees looked awkward in the new grass.
But I didn’t feel anything about it. I had never seen the area alive. And I didn’t mind that my boyfriend’s house was built on some older, deader hutong which I had never known. But with every phase of new destruction, I am now a person who has a memory about some other place. Beijing, to me, will never be better than it was in 2008 — when there were a couple of swans zooming around some dark ponds, and elsewhere in the city there were little lighted alleys among the belltowers.
The time I consciously remember going to Gulou — aside from the times we went there to drink, or I went there to meet with my Chinese tutor, Wei Ling, who liked a little cafe at their base — was when there was a murder.
I was hanging out with an NPR freelancer who was getting a lot of work coming up during the Olympics. She had strawberry blonde hair and a kind of Scandanavian face — with the upturned nose and the bright smile; but her demeanor was the opposite of all that physical nicety. She was hardboiled and hardworking, rough and punchy. It was something like the week before the Opening ceremonies and we did nothing but work from her living room’s wifi — cleaning up drafts, e-mailing editors, check up on pitches… I had a lot of work around that time and I hadn’t been to Gulou to hang out in a couple of weeks.
I was on GoogleReader and saw an alert on Reuters’ wire, I think. It might have been AP. A volleyball coach of the American team had gone up on the Belltower as a tourist and had been stabbed. I read it out loud as I was reading it and J___ froze, her hand over her mouth. Without saying much about it we grabbed notebooks and her recording equipment and ran down the flight of stairs at her compound — a warren of pale blue apartment buildings with those dingy hallways, scraped up from years of sneaker rubber. We pedaled over as fast as we could on our big, beachcomber flying pigeons and parked the bikes near a small cluster of what were obviously foreign reporters. They were in black with big teams of translators and researchers; the new imports here just for the Olympics. Everyone was just trying to get a shot of the Belltower’s now-closed gate, with a sign that read “Closed” and some police tape. The woman who worked the tower wasn’t talking, the cops weren’t talking, and the reporters were just wasting time on cigarettes and chatter. The story was it was just one crazy murderer, just out of an insane asylum of some sort. The coach had just been American — that was all.
J___ was more of a go-getter than me and her Chinese was far superior. She decided we should go around the neighborhood, seeing if anyone had seen anything. We talked to the woman on the corner, who sold film to tourists and the other barkeeps and food stall owners who worked right around the tower. They had all heard the sirens but not much else, and instead of giving J the quotes she needed would just ask her about what had happened and why. So there we were, two Americans explaining to these people who had never been able to leave the country in which they were born that some crazy man had stabbed one of our own. We walked down the back alleys, sure enough that no one here had heard or seen anything, but just doing it because it was beautiful. And it was 2:00 on a summer day, and what else did we have to do. I think we went for noodles, because what else would we have done. I tried to feel bad for the man who was stabbed but I didn’t. I imagined him in his coaching windbreaker, touring the Belltower where they kept all those old time pieces and gongs. I had been there too, as an ignorant, when I first came to Beijing in December. I had shuffled as a tourist. I had said stupid things, loudly. Had worn an ugly snow jacket. Maybe I — the me eating noodles — would kill that version of myself, too. I liked not knowing which side I was on — which was a way of not feeling guilty about anything, not feeling guilty about being priveleged enough to leave this country and not feeling like America’s rude ignorance was my fault. It was this kind of confusion of place that I loved about the hutongs. There are so few places where I can get lost in the world, where I can lose my sense of direction, my sense of space, my sense of time. And that was one of them — back there, in those spare, small alleys with their bustle and clamor and the noodle shops and the children and the bars and the crates of Tsingtao out on the corner for the recycling man and the coal man shouting and the jingling jangling sound of the place, which was the opposite of monolithic Beijing and its wide, quiet squares. And feeling lost and confused by commotion was the opposite of feeling alone in those big squares, where I knew where I was but wasn’t sure why I was there.
Our friend Josh Farrar, author of Rules to Rock By, emailed me today and I thought you’d all enjoy his little story:
I’d been looking for a copy of Walker Percy’s “The Last Gentleman” for quite a while now. It’s kind of hard to find, but you guys had a nice copy of it (in fact it was the only Walker Percy book you had that day).
I’d read it in high school, but wanted to re-read it after reading in Flannery O’Connor’s biography that the character Val, a nun, is based on O’Connor. A couple days ago, after reading about a hundred pages, I noticed a little script-handwritten note in the flap that said “Val = O’Connor.”
Q. What compelled you, when you were still a newspaper journalist, to write your first novel?
A. The spur was a financial crisis. My car broke down, and I couldn’t afford to get it fixed. And another journalist at the newspaper had written a thriller and the advance he got from the publisher was £200, which was pretty much exactly the amount of money I needed to get my car fixed. I did not figure that out until life began to show me I was a so-so newspaper reporter, and as a novelist I might have something special.
i am at another fashion party that my friend who works for a publication that covers fashion parties brought me to, i came because ezra koenig is on the guest list and is apparently going to show up “any minute now” but the publicist has been saying that for like an hour, we are on a rooftop overlooking the hudson river from 22nd and 11th, i can see the “gold coast” of new jersey and the empire state building and a bunch of other buildings, it is really a gorgeous view, i wish i lived the type of life where i could get invited to these instead of having to sneak into them or get brought to them. also the guy who plays Chuck Bass on gossip girl is supposed to be coming to this and i’m gonna ask him what his favorite indie band is ;). i am wearing my nicest shirt, except it has a little BBQ sauce stain under the bottom button so i tucked it in, this is a fashion party where everyone is eyeing everyone else’s outfit and i don’t wanna draw attention to myself for looking unfashionable or dirty. there is a noise band playing right now, apparently led by Hicham Baroocha from Soft Circle and i think he also plays with the Boredoms or Black Dice or Lightning Bolt sometimes but i could be wrong, i don’t really know much about noise music. also the dudes who run Kitsune, the french electronic label, are DJing but we just got here and haven’t heard them yet. right behind the band playing there are a bunch of huge thick gray clouds and there is a LIGHTNING STORM going on in those clouds and it looks unbelievable. wish i had my video camera.
so i spot a guy standing like fifteen feet from me who i think is either jeff tweedy or one of the dudes in Broken Social Scene, he’s wearing a fedora and chuck taylors and rockabilly jeans and a flannel, i tell elizabeth “hey i think that’s jeff tweedy!” and she says “are you sure?” and i’m like “not really, i’ve seen him live a few times but i was always pretty far away but that guy looks so much like him” so i search “jeff tweedy” in google images on my phone and a grainy thumbnail of his face comes up and i’m positive it’s jeff tweedy!! ahhh!!
so i go up to him and i’m really nervous and i wait for a break in his conversation with the other dudes he’s talking to and i tap him on the shoulder and say, as fast as i can get it out, “hey i’m really sorry to interrupt you but i write a blog about pitchfork and i was wondering if i could ask you two questions? well the second one is two-pronged so i guess three questions”
and he gives me a quizzical look and goes “sure” and i say “okay ummm.. i know it’s a super lame question but who is your number one rockstar icon?” because i don’t wanna scare him away with what i really wanna ask him, and he goes “i guess it’s kevin drew?”
and i think “i guess it IS a guy from Broken Social Scene”, there are a lot of guys in that band but i can’t place which one, but anyway i go, “okay cool. so what’s your favorite drug?” he says “weed”
i go “how much do you smoke?”
he says “do you want like a dollar amount? or how often” and i say “how often” and his eyes sort of light up and he goes “every day man. do you wanna smoke now?” and he takes a metal contraption out of his pocket that looks like a cigarette box and slides the top off it and pulls a metal tube out of it, then rubs the tip of the tube into the bottom of the thing that looks like a cigarette box, then pulls it out and the tip is covered in green residue, and i say “no thanks, i’m good” and he goes “okay” and lights the tip and inhales. i say “okay i guess those are my only questions” and he exhales and then looks kind of surprised and then expectant and i go, “so umm are you guys on tour now?”
and he says “what? who do you think i am?”
and my face gets all red, this is embarassing, and i go “ahhhh! i thought you were jeff tweedy or one of the guys in broken social scene!!! i looked it up in my phone to make sure and you look so much like jeff tweedy!! and even though i wasn’t sure if you were jeff tweedy or not, you can’t ask someone who they ARE when you’re interviewing them you know? even if you’re not sure”
and he laughs and seems understanding and goes “yeah of course, i just didn’t get why someone who writes about music would wanna interview me” and i laugh too and i look at elizabeth and she’s giggling and then i tell the dude “hey thanks for the interview anyway” and then we go over to the bar and i get two heineken lights, which at this moment of embarassment i would prefer to consume intravenously, and we go over to this bench that has an thin awning over it because it looks like it’s about to rain. the band stops playing and the DJs come back on and they play All The Way Turnt Up by Roscoe Dash, then a remix of the Ting Tings single whose title i can’t think of at this moment but it’s the single that isn’t That’s Not My Name, the one whose chorus is “the drums / the drums / the drums” which fades into Let’s Go Surfing by The Drums and then Over by Drake, then there’s some sound problems and you can only hear bass, then they fix the sound but it starts to get really windy, then it starts to rain
then it starts to pour!! and people start running over to this mesh canopy we’re under, other people are running for the exits, security guards are yelling but nobody’s listening, it’s hectic, the band and DJs must be panicking because it’s raining on their equipment. the last people to make it under the canopy before it’s too full are this really tall blonde woman and the guy she’s with, he has a shaved head and is wearing loose t-shirt down to his thighs and has long fake eyelashes and is wearing heavy makeup. someone else under the canopy elbows the blonde woman in the back and she spills her icy cold drink right on my canvas shoes, my toes get wet and cold, she looks horrified, she starts apologizing, i say “hey it’s okay! we’re all about to get soaked anyway” because the awning isn’t really stopping the rain. we’re under it for like another minute before we start talking, the guy looks at me and says something about getting soaked, there’s a lull in the conversation so i go “so what do you guys do?” and the guy goes “i’m in fashion, i dress bands” and i say “oh so are you a stylist?” and he says “no i’m a designer, i design clothes for bands.” i say “oh cool, i’m really into music — what bands have you dressed? maybe i know them” and he goes ”i dressed alicia keys for the cover of Rolling Stone a couple months ago, Lil’ Kim, Swizz Beats, i design stuff for the Scissor Sisters” and i’m like “oh man i really like them!” and he goes “oh yeah i’ve known them forever, they’re, like, my friends.” then the security guard runs up to the structure we’re under and starts screaming that everyone has to get off the roof, the dude who we’ve been talking to screams back, with so much sass, “GIVE US TWO MINUTES, THANK YOU!!” and the security guard backs off. we all talk for another minute or two, we get soaked because the awning isn’t blocking all the rain, we run into the building and go down the stairs and as soon as we can’t see the guy with the makeup and the blonde woman anymore, elizabeth goes “that was richie rich!!” and i’m like “who?” and she says “richie rich the fashion designer!”
we leave the party, which is now happening in the lobby of the building we were in instead of on the roof, and on the way to the subway i ask elizabeth if she thinks i’d look like a moron if i wrote about interviewing a guy who i thought was jeff tweedy but turned out not to be, she said it would be funny but i didn’t have to if i didn’t want to, i thought about it for a while and realized that it’s more interesting to be honest, and what i want this blog to be is sort of a journal of listening and learning and asking questions, and growing up i guess, not listening and judging and feigning knowing everything, and i guess if i make an ass out of myself to some random person at a party then that’s part of it too you know? there are enough people who write about music on the internet who are out to convince you of the vast depths of their knowledge that i don’t need to add to their ranks i think? i don’t know. okay that’s it, bye
Gulou is basically one of those beautiful, windy-alleyway neighborhoods of Beijing that’s so curvy it’s difficult to navigate on bicycle. I would walk through here smelling baozi baking, watch kids playing, see old people peering out from their living rooms — on my way to those places we used to always go to together: that billiard club, that two story cafe, those bell towers.
Today in Northampton I was shopping for Used Books with my Dad. I found a first edition of Michael Chabon’s first novel, Mysteries of Pittsburgh, for $6 dollars, but then I remembered what my mother said once. I had thought it was impressive that I had the first edition signed hardcover of Jonathan Safran Foer’s first novel and she said that they make books like that in huge runs these days, and it wouldn’t get any money at all.* And I remembered reading that Mysteries of Pittsburgh was you know, a huge success. So it probably had a huge run.
D’oh! It’s worth $50 - 100 dollars! Why oh why did I buy the Raymond Chandler novel instead because “it seemed more fun and I’m on vacation.”
*I just fact-checked. Turns out the Everything is Illuminated is going for $160! And the other gem in my collection — N + 1 volume 1 — which I stole from my friend’s brother’s room, is 182 dollars!
Keep buying those first editions, kids!
**The title is a reference to Patti Smith’s autobiography, in which she basically lives off of finding first editions in trash heaps. I knew all of you knew this already. I should really stop gloating and start driving to Northampton.
I was trying to explain to Ming the immensity of this last week, when they had only just beat Brazil —
"For years, my people have been known for cheese, wooden shoes, pointed hats, tulips. That’s like — one thing per 3 centuries. Now, in this century, there is one more thing!" It’s 1% about sports and 99% about broad, international statements. Soccer could be to Holland as Bjork is to Iceland — some symbol that elevates a regurgitated country out of the darkness of Viking pasts.
But if in the final they play Germany, we’re screwed — everyone will probably still confuse the two countries’ identities. That was the consensus at Tonic — where in the cheers and whoops it was the only audible negative.