Dave Van Ronk did not mean to write an autobiography. According to Elijah Wald—writer of the book’s epilogue, friend of the author, and guitar student during the slow denouement of Van Ronk’s musical career—Van Ronk’s book was supposed to chronicle the folk music boom in Greenwich Village in the 1950s and 1960s. The Mayor of MacDougal Street was meant as a history lesson for those interested in music, or New York City, or both. Van Ronk thought he could describe the scene’s political turmoil, auditory deconstruction, and social revolution without paying too much attention to his own influence. But his story was the one that needed to be told; his story encapsulates the time when the Village bred musicians and folk music defined a generation.
Van Ronk begins the story of the “Great Folk Scare”—a term coined by his friend Utah Phillips—with his own story of how he first discovered music. He recalls growing up in Queens in the 1950s and his deep appreciation for jazz. He distills his childhood into a string of “swells” and “trading licks” that make “boring… perfectly miserable” Queens tolerable, if not quite picturesque. He remembers taking guitar lessons from “Old Man” Jack, a local jazz aficionado, well known in the music community, who taught Van Ronk techniques he would adopt as his own. Jack also instilled in Van Ronk the ever-more-important lesson of listening.
The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink comes out today!
A manic, heartfelt, intellectual novel about an American couple living in Europe, The Wallcreeper is one of the best books of the year. Tiff and Stephen cheat on each other constantly, they’re horrible to each other, and they don’t seem to believe in their own marriage. But they both love birds—like the wallcreeper that they adopt together, after they hit it with a car, which causes Tiff to miscarry.
It’s hard to think of two fictional characters who are more believably fucked up, or more exquisitely codependent, or more maddening and joyful to know.
We asked the author one question.
How are you celebrating the publication of The Wallcreeper?
Nell Zink: I’m celebrating in a way so custom-tailored to the book, it could almost be penance: On October 1, I’ll be at the Second Adriatic Flyway Conference in Durrës, Albania, researching an article on waterbird hunting for the German magazine natur. Continue reading
The trailer for Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice is here. Been looking forward to this one for a long time.
Inherent Vice was “the Pynchon book I was the least interested in reading, and the one I flat out enjoyed the most.” It also strikes me as the most film-adaptable of his novels, especially at the hands of Anderson, who also did There Will Be Blood, Magnolia, Boogie Nights, and one of my personal favorites, Punch Drunk Love.
You can read more about his love of Pynchon and work on Inherent Vice in a recent New York Times story.
A lot of nonfiction books feel inevitable. Someone was bound to write them. If Walter Isaacson hadn’t written the definitive biography of Steve Jobs, someone else would have. But there are some nonfiction books whose very concept would be unthinkable without the peculiar interests and intelligence of their author. Books that are as strikingly unique as the person who writes them. Books like On Immunity by Eula Biss.
The unlikely premise of On Immunity is that vaccination—yes, like the shots you received when you were a kid—is the key to understanding all kinds of cultural and ethical issues, like public health, citizenship, motherhood, immigration, even the Revolutionary War and Count Dracula.
Biss starts small, with her own pregnancy, a germ of a child growing inside her. She writes powerfully about the physical trauma of childbirth and the madness of trying to protect a child from all sorts of dangers, seen and unseen.
Immediately after my son’s birth, in an otherwise complicated delivery, my uterus inverted, bursting capillaries and spilling blood… I woke up disoriented, shivering violently under a pile of heated blankets… I was too weak to move much, but when I tried I discovered that my body was lashed with tubes and wires—I had an IV in each arm, a catheter down my leg, monitors on my chest, and an oxygen mask on my face.
New music! Sometimes old music. Music that we love!
This past Wednesday I woke up to a dreary, rainy day, which was an incredibly welcome change from the dry, parched reality of Northern California these days. The sounds in this song were meant for lazy, rainy days. So if you’re having one today, wherever you are, enjoy! (If not, maybe this track is more up your alley.)
- Brook Reeder
Sean Wilsey knows that “there’s no surer impediment to a good time than knowing you’ll have to write about it.” So much for the guy who’s reviewing his book.
More Curious, Wilsey’s collection of previously published essays, is enjoyable, occasionally hilarious, and always insightful. It delves into unexpected topics, turning apparent minutiae into allegorical exposés of wide-ranging attitudes and American points of view. Part of the author’s charm is his ability to research and adventure. Obstacles be damned, he tracks down the story of a short-lived marketing campaign for Red Roof Inn that utilized a low-maintenance, animated character voiced by John Goodman, remnants of which no longer exist in the cyber-sphere; he gets the authority on New York City’s rat population on the phone, only to discover his knowledge already exceeds that of the representative of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene; on a tour of NASA, he hones his understanding of a piece of machinery that already handles urine, and hopefully will soon handle excrement, turning waste into water—an integral part of any attempt to visit Mars.
Congratulations to Matt Tanner for winning a 50 Books / 50 Covers award from Design Observer!
Matt won for designing the cover of the newest book from Fiction Advocate, The Black Cat by J.M. Geever.
We’re not surprised, but we’re hella proud.
You can see all of the winning designs here, see Matt’s full portfolio here, and start reading The Black Cat (with its award-winning good looks!) here.