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POSTCARD — February 10, 2014

Nothing Is Strange

A trip to Murakami’s jazz club

By 

Murakami at Book House You. © Tatsuya Mine

Murakami at Book House You. © Tatsuya Mine

Before he became a novelist, Haruki Murakami was a jazz fan. He got into it when he was fifteen, after seeing Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers perform in Kobe in January 1964.The lineup that night was of one of the most celebrated in the band’s three decades of existence, featuring Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Curtis Fuller on trombone, Wayne Shorter on sax, and Cedar Walton on piano. “I had never heard such amazing music,” Murakami later said. “I was hooked.” Ten years later, he postponed his university studies to open a jazz club in suburban Tokyo, naming it Peter Cat, after one of his pets. In 1977, he and his wife, Yoko, moved the club to Tokyo’s central Sendagaya neighborhood, where he wrote his first two novels, which led to later books whose titles referenced doo-wop like the Dells’ “Dance Dance Dance” and jazz tunes like Fuller’s “Five Spot After Dark.” The music equally influenced his writing style, which he sometimes conceived in terms of jazz rhythm, improvisation, and performance. Continue reading here…

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I’m grateful to have an essay listed as a Notable Essay in this year’s Best American Essays, alongside pieces by many friends, colleagues and exceptional writers. Guest editor Cheryl Strayed and series editor Robert Atwan selected my essay “\’Ra-Di-Kel\” from Hotel Amerika, about the resurgence of the word ‘rad,’ cultural recycling and aging. (You can hear me read it here.) High fives to fellow notable essayists Leslie Jamison, Frank Bures, Roxane Gay, Colin Rafferty, Eva Holland, Brian Oliu, Steven Church, Nicole Walker, Ned Stuckey-French, Joe Bonomo, Rolf Potts, Ann Patchett, Gwendolyn Knapp, Rich Cohen, Atul Gawande, and someone named David Sedaris. I hope to see more of his work. http://www.hmhbooks.com/hmh/bestamerican/essaysbookdetails
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In the book’s table of contents, J.D. Daniels’ absorbing, voice-driven Paris Review essay “Letter from Majorca,” which you can read here first. The first section slayed me.
Also included, Frank Cassese’s Guernica essay “It Doesn’t Mean We’re Wasting Our Time,” which involves written correspondence with David Foster Wallace. Prose writers will especially enjoy it.
And another absorbing Sun magazine piece by BAE regular, the inimitable Poe Ballantine. Sample “Free Rent at the Totalitarian Hotel” here, and buy the book this October.

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Many, many thanks to writer and NYLON editor Melissa Giannini for passing me the mic to do this Next Big Thing post. Below is my interview about two works of narrative nonfiction I’m writing. I’m proud to pass the mic to the super talented essayist and memoirist Steven Church, author of The Guinness Book of Me and The Day After the Day After: My Atomic Angst, and co-editor of the literary magazine The Normal School. Check the mic, one-two.
What is the working title of your book?
Currently, it’s Crowded: Portrait of Life on a Teeming Planet, though it’s hard to settle on a title until the entire story’s been written. I’m also working on another book of narrative nonfiction, this one a first-person narrative travelogue set in Canada. It’s called Canphilia. It’s essentially my attempt to understand Canada and Canadians, and to reconcile my ignorance with my strong attraction to the country. Since that book is slower-going, Crowded has overtaken it. But that’s what crowds do, I guess.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
The idea for Canphilia came like many of my essay ideas: from looking closely at my fixations. I’m obsessive. I fall deeply, and my interests lead me to read and learn as much about various subjects as I can. Be it music, food, a city or book, people or myself — I want to experience life fully, and to understand. I’ve been enchanted by Canada for about half my life, but one day I realized how strange a fixation that was since, despite having some Canadian friends and taken a few long trips through the western provinces, I didn’t really know much about the culture. I realized that my issue reflected that of many Americans: we shared the world’s longest international border with the world’s second largest country, and we knew little more about Canadians than clichés. That became my theme: do we even know what makes a Canadian a Canadian? What they stand for? How they think and act? And what do they think of us, anyway?  I spent months shaping that into a book proposal, and now I’m plotting my drive across their country in search of some enlightenment. The idea for Crowded came from feeling crowded in my daily life, which I’ll talk about more below.
What genre does your book fall under?
Crowded and Canphilia are narrative nonfiction, though I’ve been calling the former a narrative social history, and the latter a first-person narrative travelogue. They mix essay, memoir, participatory journalism, scientific exposition, profiles and history. It’s storytelling, swift and built from scenes, dialogue, action and characters, all accurately reported.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? 
Jawas, all the way. I’d have Tusken Raiders work the crew’s food service stations.
What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book? 
Canphilia: Who are the Canadian people, and why do I long to live somewhere I know so little about? Crowded: The story of one loner’s vision of human history through the story of the crowd.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I’m still writing both books, but I only started Crowded in late January, so I’m making good time. Sleep is overrated, especially when you work tea shop (caffeine).
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? 
Some stellar works of participatory journalism and narrative nonfiction that I love and keep high on my bookshelf: Taras Grescoe’s The Devil’s Picnic: Around the World in Pursuit of Forbidden Fruit, Susan Orlean’s Saturday Night, Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia, and Bill Bufford’s Among the Thugs.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
For Crowded, real life. I was eating lunch inside a café across the street from work. The place was packed but thankfully not as noisy as it can be. I was reading the Susan Orlean chapter of Robert Boynton’s The New New Journalism: Conversations with America’s Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft, and when a guy sat down next to me, a few lines came to mind: how much elbow room do you need to get by in life? To thrive or just keep your sanity? I scribbled them down on one of the stained wrinkled pages in the back of the book, then I had to race back to work since my thirty minutes were over. The next day, I typed the scribbles and kept exploring the basic idea, expanding the range of my gaze and spelunking all the fissures in the topic, and I kept looking more closely at my life. The subject was all there, all around me. Now I have a stack of library books about sociology, psychology, evolutionary biology, ancient England and China, and photocopies of all sorts of music and historic stuff, and a thick manuscript. It’s fun, and it all started with a stray thought following a bowl of soup.
What else about your book might pique a reader’s interest?
The fact that, if you live in or near a city — which over half the human population now does — you can relate to it. If you’ve ever sat near a screaming baby on a plane, watched someone in line buy the last pastry, struggled to find something on your messy office desk, or been smooshed at an awesome, sweaty rock show, then this is your story. Also, the human comedy of urban life, sleeping in a closet, scrambling over people on trains, and brushing your teeth while you pee and check your phone and close a cabinet. Life is crazy.
When and how will it be published?
With hope and with time. Meaning, hopefully sometime! (And the help of my brilliant, tireless agent.)

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As much as I read, I don’t find myself rereading too many books. I’m no Larry McMurtry, revisiting the same book year after year. Mostly, I reread essays, and the pieces that I find myself returning to with most frequency were written by Luc Sante, Calvin Trillin and Joseph Mitchell.

In his documentary stories for the New Yorker, pioneering nonfiction writer Joseph Mitchell celebrated both eccentrics and the average Joe, and in turn, he immortalized a scruffier, working class era of New York City. He also wrote what might be the longest quotes in our genre.

When first published in 1956, Mitchell’s classic “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” contained 12,056 words; over nine thousand of them were directly attributed to Hunter as quotations. Many of the stories in Mitchell’s book The Bottom of the Harbor are like that. “Up in the Old Hotel” contains a quote that runs for over four pages. “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” has one that goes for eight pages. “The Rivermen” boasts the longest of all: ten and a half pages – or six pages followed by four more, if you count the three-lines of intervening dialogue as an interruption. I don’t. But it’s not simply the length that interests me; it’s what length requires of a writer’s memory.

Take this quote from “Mr. Hunter’s Grave,” where Mr. Hunter tells Mitchell about picking a plant called pokeweed: “I went up there one morning this spring to pick some, but we had a late spring, if you remember, and the pokeweed hadn’t come up. The fiddleheads were up, and golden club, and spring beauty, and skunk cabbage, and bluets, but no pokeweed. So I was looking here and looking there, and not noticing where I was stepping, and I made a misstep, and the next thing I knew I was up to my knees in mud.” Mitchell didn’t use a tape recorder, and he rarely took notes, which raises certain questions: how did he remember these details? The precise order in which Hunter listed them? And, if many of his quotes aren’t verbatim, then how much of his nonfiction is to be believed?

In his article for the Oxford American, “The Collector of the Everyday,” author Sam Stephenson doesn’t believe that Mitchell necessarily remembered details accurately every time – that Mr. Hunter said golden club before spring beauty before bluets – only that Mitchell got the larger truth right. William Zinsser, in his book On Writing Well, agrees with Stephenson and defends Mitchell’s technique and integrity: “Now, nobody thinks Mr. Hunter really said all that in one spurt. Mitchell did a heap of splicing. Yet I have no doubt that Mr. Hunter did say it at one moment or another—that all the words and turns of phrase are his.” Zinsser describes Mitchell’s stories as mosaics, literary composites that reflected Mitchell’s journalistic technique. He would befriend a knowledgeable and colorful source – a fishmonger, oysterman, tugboat captain, etcetera – and make multiple visits over the course of weeks or months, sometimes years, gradually gathering quotes, history, scenes and a sense of the cultural landscape. Then, Mitchell would assemble his stories over time, layering the material like some sort of phyllo dough pastry; yet he rendered these portraits to depict a particular occasion – a single visit to a graveyard, a single chat with a Bowery barfly – so that they are composites of facts, collages. He likely fashioned his Olympian quotations the same way.

Certain critics might say that such composites are fictions, because the information portrayed didn’t exist in the real world in the precise way it was rendered. The composite only exists because the artist created it. I used to agree with this line of thinking.

When I first discovered Mitchell at age twenty-five, I believed that George Hunter said those words in that way verbatim, because I assumed all dialogue in nonfiction was verbatim. Not a spliced rendition, not a near-accurate depiction, not a highly educated guess, but a replica, a photograph in text. I was naïve about the mechanics of nonfiction writing, and the complex nature of truth. Now, after a decade reading and writing narrative nonfiction, I still expect accuracy whether I’m reading a magazine or a memoir, but I also know that truth is more complicated than the usual “accurate/inaccurate” dichotomy suggests. If the parts that Mitchell used to fashioned his hybrid stories and hybrid quotes were facts themselves, then is not the collage of facts also true if it captures the larger truth of his subjects? By larger truth, I mean the essence of Mister Hunter’s personality, and the particular texture of his speech. And on a thematic level, I mean the emotional truth of Hunter’s situation: aging and looming specter of his, and everyone’s, impending death. This is part of what Zinsser means when he says that “all the phrases and turns of phrase are his.”  He means that despite the splicing, Mitchell captured Hunter’s essence by accurately portraying his diction (like the way Hunter said “spring beauty” rather than “beauties”). Mitchell didn’t make quoted phrases up, didn’t invent information; rather, he simmered the facts so they accreted into a more potent truth, which is why the quotes sound like his speakers, rather than like Mitchell. This is also why I consider Mitchell’s stories nonfiction.

Mitchell’s literary standard was that of both the artist and the reputable journalist. He organized his facts in a creative arrangement in order to best serve the story. As Zinsser says: “Although Mitchell altered the truth about elapsed time, he used a dramatist’s prerogative to compress and focus his story, thereby giving the reader a manageable framework. If he had told the story in real time, strung across all the days and months he did spend on Staten Island, he would have achieved the numbing truth of Andy Warhol’s eight-hour film of a man having an eight-hour sleep. By careful manipulation he raised the craft of nonfiction to art. But he never manipulated Mr. Hunter’s truth; there was no ‘inferring,’ no ‘fabricating.’ He has played fair.” By employing these techniques, Mitchell spared readers the superfluous details, framed the relevant information, and distilled the piece to its essence, for the sake of the audience’s reading experience. In this way, Mitchell’s stories predated the “nonfiction novel” of Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe, as well as the 1960s “new journalism” that followed after: using dialogue, character development, narrative arc, foreshortening, well-sequenced scenes, emergent themes, dramatic tension in nonfiction, rather than the who, what, where, when, why of standard expository reportage. Mitchell’s Olympian quotations are sure to remain one of nonfiction’s most peculiar attractions – an extraordinary monument to truth’s complex incarnations – but it’s his stories’ artfulness and readability that have made them endure.

On a side note, I found this short documentary, about the old Fulton Ferry Hotel, from which Mitchell’s classic essay, and his collection, take their name:

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While doing research for an essay about a strange type of meat, I stumbled onto a collection of photos from Life magazine, published under the heading “A Squirrel’s Guide to Fashion.” I can imagine few phrases more enticing than that. According to the text, a Washington DC woman found a baby squirrel in the early 1940s and spent her time dressing him up in little outfits that she stitched specifically for him. His name: Tommy Tucker. I have no idea why. This might have foretold our post-post-modern era of trans-everything and pet-obsessives, an era of increasingly pliable and public gender orientation that I can only hope becomes more inclusive and open, even if it means we spare our pets the gingham humiliation. In honor of California’s ruling against Prop 8, here’s the link to the photos and the magazine’s accompanying text, where a squirrel can dress however he wants to dress:

In the early 1940s, LIFE magazine reported that a woman named Mrs. Mark Bullis of Washington, D.C., had adopted a squirrel “before his eyes were open, when his mother died and left him in a tree” in the Bullis’ back yard.

“Most squirrels,” LIFE noted (with a striking lack of evidence), “are lively and inquisitive animals who like to do tricks when they have an audience.” They do? At any rate, LIFE went on to observe that the squirrel, dubbed Tommy Tucker by the Bullis family, “is a very subdued little animal who has never had a chance to jump around in a big tree.”

“Mrs. Bullis’ main interest in Tommy,” LIFE continued, “is in dressing him up in 30 specially made costumes. Tommy has a coat and hat for going to market, a silk pleated dress for company, a Red Cross uniform for visiting the hospital.”

And so it begins … a series of at-once touching and eerie photographs by LIFE’s Nina Leen, chronicling the quiet adventures and sartorial splendor of one Tommy the squirrel.

“Tommy never seems to complain,” LIFE concluded, “although sometimes he bites Mrs. Bullis. Mrs. Bullis never complains about being bitten.” And as the saying goes: Who would listen to her, anyway, if she did?

Read more: http://life.time.com/curiosities/a-squirrels-guide-to-fashion/#ixzz1litrjBg5

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I’m working on another essay involving mid-century jazz and the Blue Note label — this one involving organist Jimmy Smith and record company vaults, for The Threepenny Review – so I wanted to toss out links to some interesting, related video clips. One is an interview with engineer Rudy Van Gelder, one of the most important people in modern music, period. Nearly every jazz session on Blue Note, he was in the room taping it, countless sessions for Verve and Prestige, too. When you hear the warmth and richness of Coltrane’s “Blue Train” and Hank Mobley’s “Soul Station,” it’s because of Rudy. When you hear every fine detail of a jazz drummer’s brushes, or every crystaline note on Kenny Burrell’s guitar — and when Jimmy Smith’s organ sounds neither overdriven or like a chirping circus tent nightmare — we have Rudy to thank. He is, without question, the Coltrane of the control room.

Clip from the Blue Note “Perfect Takes” DVD:

Then there’s this short oddity, about Blue Note in general. Shake what nature gave you:

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