Jonathan Lethem

Oh, A Bay Area Book-Festin’ I Did Go

This last weekend I was totally excited to fly out of a record-breaking desert heatwave in Arizona, and attend the Bay Area Book Festival in Berkeley, California. Big names and small presses came together, shutting down the streets of Downtown Berkeley and gathering around the world’s largest free library. It was a book lover’s dream.

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Lacuna, the world’s largest free library/sculpture.

I went into the festival getting a bit of a cold, which I assume the dramatic climate change didn’t help, and was pretty bummed to feel like I was dying through such an incredible experience. I toughed it out though, and attended every panel I planned on, except one, crashing early in the first evening with a nasty cough.

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Saul Williams and the Black Spirituals

The festival started off with a performance by poet, musician, and slam-master Saul Williams featuring local spoken-word artist Chinaka Hodge avant-garde jazz musicians Black Spirituals. As this had been sold out for months, I wasn’t sure I was going to get in, but I scored a ticket at the last minute.

I caught the end of Hodge’s performance, which was breathtaking and made me regret walking in late. Williams jammed with the Black Spirituals, free-associating poetry out of his new collection as they jammed on the drums and a bass plugged into several synthesizers. One of the best, and worst, things about Saul Williams is his multi-faceted performance ability. You don’t know which Saul you will get when you show up to see him. As someone who loves the fast-flowing percussive alliteration of spoken word, this more chilled out performance wasn’t my favorite.

That’s okay though, I still love Saul, and found a new name to look out for in Chinaka Hodge. I picked up two books as I walked out of the performance: Saul Williams’ new collection, US(a.) and Chinaka Hodge’s Dated Emcees.

 

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Subversive Speculative Fiction with Charlie Jane Anders, Joanna Sinisalo, Carter Scholz, and Jewelle Gomez. Ayize Jama-Everett came in a bit late, so isn’t pictured here.

For the actual festival, I went real big and packed my lineup. One of the best panels I heard was the first I attended, Subversive Speculative Fiction, hosted by the always brilliant Charlie Jane Anders.

Although I hadn’t heard of many of the authors speaking, I had jotted down each of their books by the end of the talk and I’m looking forward to reading their work. Most notably Johanna Sinisalo and Ayize Jama-Everett were both hilarious while questioning the status quo of science fiction in simple but profound ways.

 

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Jane Ciabattaria hosting a panel with Dana Spiotta and Jonathan Lethem.

Another of the greatest panels I saw featured Jonathan Lethem and Dana Spiotta nerding out about society, technology, and writing like two old friends staying up way too late and analyzing the world in all the most interesting ways. This is the sort of stuff I love to hear, the strange ways smart people think. From Spiotta researching the sound and touch of 1970’s telephone technology, to Lethem’s thoughts on the way the simultaneous experience has devolved through technology like Netflix, this was all the stuff I love to think about. Lethem has been one of my favorite authors for quite a while now, and although I haven’t checked out Spiotta’s work, I am definitely going to do so in the future.

There was quite a bit more. Most notably, a panel with Adam Johnson, and another with the editors of the Voice of Witness books, which amplify the voices of those subject to human rights abuses around the world. Powerful stuff.

If you didn’t make it to Berkeley for this year’s Bay Area Book Festival, start planning now to make it out next year (it will be June 3rd and 4th, 2017).

Bay Area Book Festival

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Review – Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem

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I’m a huge fan of Jonathan Lethem.  His books are always oddness worded authentically, and I think he is able to capture a lot of the bizarre struggle of life we go through in a way only the greatest authors can.  My favorite of his books are the ones considered the more genre-fied odd ducklings of the bunch, such as This Shape We’re In, Gun, With Occasional Music, and As She Climbed Across the Table.  I think the fact that he can dabble in different genres (like Margaret Atwood is so easily able to) is a testament to his ability to write great stories, regardless of their setting.

Lethem’s newest novel Dissident Gardens, released last month, is not a genre novel.  The story documents the struggles of three generations of a radical Leftist family.  Rose is the almost-Jewish Communist matriarch, “a dark tower, a ziggurat.” Struggling to escape mom’s shadow, “like crawling out of a bomb crater,” is daughter Miriam; a cool, confident hippie chick in the way only the daughter of a rebel can be.  Miriam’s Quaker-raised son Sergius struggles to find his own identity amidst the mayhem of his history.  Stealing the show is Cicero, a sort of step-son to Rose, a frustrated gay black professor who prides himself on making the simpletons surrounding him uncomfortable:  “Cicero, like Rose in the end, preferred his listeners stunned and bleeding, all masks on the floor, or on fire.”  There has been much talk of what this more realist book means for Lethem – is he growing up, is he demanding respect as a legitimate author, is he giving in to reviewers’ requests that he give up comic books already?  Lethem has a great interview on Slate answering many questions about the book. The summary: the metaphysical here is the concept of ideology, of that intangible better way of living each character is searching for.  And I can certainly dig it.

I was hesitant when reading the summary of Dissident Gardens, because I love a story with bells and whistles (a mystery, an apocalypse, a drug-laced seedy background).  Once I began reading, however, I was reminded immediately that Lethem could rewrite the phone book into something meaningful said in a way I never would have imagined.   His unique but effortless wording had me doing double takes.  Even the first scene, of Communists gathering in Rose’s kitchen, has sentences so well crafted it is hard not to pause and mull over them for a while:  “They’d overdressed, overcompensated with vests and jackets, now arraying themselves on her chairs like some Soviet oil painting, postured as if on some intellectual assignment.  In pursuit of that chimera, the Dialectical Whosis, when really there was to be no dialectic here. Only dictatorship.  And the taking of dictation.”  An ocean atmosphere is “noon-luminous”, Cicero allows his class to sit in silence and “plummet into that abyss of the inexpressible where the truth lies.”

The intensity and accuracy with which Lethem allows his characters to document their emotional landscapes, and the room with which he gives them to grow large in his words, remind me here of that other Jonathan who has created epic American family dramas, Jonathan Franzen.  And like that other Jonathan, Lethem shows us everything it is to be part of a family, everything there that isn’t as simple as love.

The surreal feeling of past books is there, when Miriam competes in a TV quiz show and begins to have almost hysterical fantasies under the blinding studio lights.  It is there as Rose falls for, and meets, Archie Bunker.  The surrealism is there as these characters reach out for a sense of certainty in their beliefs, struggling to reconcile an imagined idealism with the harsh realities laid out before them.  Lethem shows us that struggling through true life, with bizarre self-talk and strings of random experience molded into belief, can be just as disorienting as any supernatural tale.

Dissident Gardens on Amazon.com

Dissident Gardens on Powell’s Books