Yunior de las Casas, that fast-talking, philandering Dominican Jersey boy, is the one addiction that author Junot Díaz just can’t quit. Díaz’s first book, Drown, was technically a short-story collection, but one that largely chronicled de las Casas’ stumbling towards maturity. The follow-up to that, the novel The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, focused largely on the title character — but even then, his story unfurled mostly as narrated by Yunior.
The Miami Book Fair is always great, and this year’s fair (Nov. 11 – 18) promises to raise the bar even higher. The list of already confirmed authors includes Bonfire of the Vanities author Tom Wolfe, whose fourth novel, Back To Blood, focuses on immigration in Miami (see trailer below); Joan Didion, who wrote one of the best books ever written about our frightening city (“Havana vanities come to dust in Miami”); Robert Caro, a master biographer whose obsession with Lyndon Baines Johnson has resulted in four tomes and counting (I just read all 1,100+ pages of Master Of The Senate — highly recommended); novelist Sandra Cisneros (The House On Mango Street); and New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik.
If the book fair boasted only these authors it would be hugely exciting, but of course many more will be announced in the coming months. We’ll keep you posted, of course, and you should also bookmark (get it?) the official fair website.
Miami-born, Brooklyn-based writer and artist Arielle Angel recently spoke to best-selling novelist Nicole Krauss, who will do a reading at the Miami Book Fair on Friday, Nov. 18.
Nicole Krauss’s third novel, Great House, is populated by private and solitary people: a pair of siblings who increasingly become shut-ins, a son who sends pieces of his manuscript home from the army in over-zealously sealed boxes marked “private,” and two female writers, one in America and one in Britain, who forgo motherhood and withhold from their partners to focus on their work.
So when I asked Krauss if she belonged to a writing group or ever shares her work-in-progress, her response wasn’t surprising.
“I’m a pretty solitary person and a pretty private person, especially when it comes to my writing. The idea of belonging to a group of anything makes my skin prickle,” she said. “Some joy and excitement about this thing that only I am working on gets deflated if I show it too early.”
While the Great House cast of characters includes the pair of female writers, Krauss said fiction gives her an opportunity to transcend her own biography.
“I’m often not interested in writing exactly in my line of experience,” she said. “I’m interested in the other path, the one that I can imagine, but that isn’t my own.”
With Hip-Hop America, his popular 1999 book, Nelson George deftly packed cultural criticism and a wide-ranging history of 25 years of hip-hop into a slim volume. The book served as a love letter to the music, but also a broad-viewed look at the culture surrounding it. Now, more than a decade later, George has taken up many of these themes again, but, this time, with fiction.
The Plot Against Hip-Hop, due out this month from New York-based independent publisher Akashic Books (“dedicated to the reverse-gentrification of the literary world”), boasts an eyebrow-raising title and a murder within the first few of its 174 pages. By the end of the second chapter, Dwayne Robinson, an old-school hip-hop critic who’s a thinly veiled effigy for George himself, lies stabbed to death in a Soho office building. Staggering to the office door of his old friend, the younger, successful entertainment world body guard, D Hunter, Robinson stammers a famous Notorious B.I.G. line as his last words.
The murder initiates a fast-paced, kaleidoscoping world of intrigue as Hunter searches for Robinson’s killer, opening up in the process a Pandora’s box of shady dealings in the hip-hop industry. Conspiracy theorists, aging record executives, gang members, and other shadowy figures abound, all with an apparent interest in an archival document that set out the first tenets of marketing to the hip-hop generation.
Yes, there is some of the Illuminati talk long popular in Internet hip-hop circles. But George’s novel is very much a snapshot of the industry right now. There are scenes set at Russell Simmons-hosted charity events, Kanye West name-checks, and even a relatively protracted passage detailing the beef between Flo Rida, DJ Khaled, and the Rick Ross camp.
A maggot-infested “half-dead man” and a toxic trash heap — “a gash in the earth that eats up everything” — both figure in Haiti Noir, the lastest collection of short stories in the Akashic Books Noir series. The collection was edited by Haitian-born writer, off-and-on Miami local, and McArthur Genius Award recipient Edwidge Danticat, who appeared with fellow contributors on Sunday at the Miami Book Fair. With a brutal history of violent oppression, an earthquake-ravaged infrastructure, and a fatal cholera outbreak ongoing, Haiti is an island nation in which the noir genre may feel more like realism. Still, the writers on the panel — Danticat, Mark Kurlansky, M.J. Fievre, and Marie K. Theodore-Pharel — inspired with their ability to craft literature out of Haiti’s darkness and still smile and laugh and galvanize. “The light … is that we have brilliant people writing right now,” Danticat said.
The notion that art and literature could play a crucial role in pulling Haiti out of the abyss was a motif of the discussion. “Write what you know, what you have lived,” Fievre said. “Just write.” The panel member’s dedication to Haiti flowed from different sources. Kurlansky said his fascination started when he saw a souvenir mask carved out of black wood as a child. Like the character in his story — Izzy Goldstein, a Jewish kid who nonetheless “felt in his heart that he was really Haitian” — Kurlansky was drawn to the island by an inexplicable force. He later covered Haiti for years as a Chicago Tribune reporter. “I think I’ve learned more about life and human beings, and what is good and what is bad in human beings, from Haiti than from any other part of my life,” he said.
Through darkness and mystery and murder, the goal of Haiti Noir is to share those lessons with the world.
As I mentioned in a previous post, Patti Smith brought the crowd at the Miami Book Fair to its feet and to joyful tears when she sang “Because the Night” a capella on Friday evening. Here is a video of the stunning performance, including a hilarious bit of improv in the middle of the song that I’d forgotten about.
Reigning queen of art punk Patti Smith won the National Book Award Wednesday for Just Kids, a memoir about bohemian New York in the ’60s and ’70s and her “brother-sister” relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe. Though she may have thumbed her nose at such establishment recognition as a scrawny 17-year-old poetess, Smith was obviously still high on her triumph Friday night at the Miami Book Fair. And this turned out to be very, very lucky for the hundreds of people in attendance.
True to her punk roots, Smith interrupted her own introduction when she walked out onto the stage in the middle of University of Wynwood founder Scott Cunningham’s prepared remarks. Wearing an ill-fitting men’s jacket, white button-down shirt, and jeans tucked into slouchy leather boots, she wandered around the auditorium looking a bit like an old-folks-home escapee as Cunningham led a rousing choral reading of “Vowels”, by French poet Arthur Rimbaud. As Cunningham recited the lines from the podium, scattered members of the audience stood in succession and chimed in:
A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: the vowels.
I will tell thee, one day, of thy newborn portents:
A, the black velvet cuirass of flies whose essence
commingles, abuzz, around the cruellest of smells,
“I never saw anything like that,” Smith would say later. “That was really cool.”
It was quite a compliment from a woman who has seen a lot. Reading from Just Kids, Smith related one incredible story after another: eating at the Chelsea Hotel, in 1969, alongside Jimi Hendrix, Grace Slick, and Janis Joplin (“People ask, ‘Were you at Woodstock?’ No, Woodstock came to me.”); sharing a cup of laundromat coffee and a sandwich with a prowling Allen Ginsberg, who mistook her for “a very pretty boy” (“Does that mean I have to give the sandwich back?”); encountering Muhammad Ali in the Chelsea’s elevator while she was wearing, naturally, light-leather boxing shoes; and seeing Television perform Marquee Moon at CBGB.
If Neil Armstrong had once landed on Muhammad Ali’s toe, chances are he’d be best known for that. So it goes without saying that accomplished author, painter, and screenwriter Ferdie Pacheco is himself best known as the “Fight Doctor” after serving 15 years as The Champ’s physician.
In his latest book, Tales from the 5th St. Gym, which he will discuss on Saturday at the Miami Book Fair, Pacheco recounts his 40 years ringside in the temple of boxing’s golden age. Originally at 501 Washington Avenue, in South Beach, the 5th Street Gym bred some of boxing’s greatest champions, including Sugar Ray Leonard, George Foreman, and Muhammad Ali. In the book, Pacheco and several guest writers share their memories of the Oz-esque world that was the 5th Street Gym and of its “Wizard,” Chris Dundee, the older brother of Angelo Dundee, Ali’s cornerman.
On Wednesday, I spoke with the Fight Doctor by phone about his new book, the 5th Street Gym’s mystique, and the difference between a gym and a gymnasium.
You start your book by recounting how the commemorative plaque for the original 5th Street Gym, which was torn down in 1993 to make room for a parking lot, makes no mention of Chris Dundee. That, you say, is the reason you wrote the book.
Ferdie Pacheco: I think he was being disparaged, is what it was. It was the 5th Street Gym, and it was Chris Dundee’s 5th Street Gym. I wanted to set the record straight.
What made the 5th Street Gym such a special place?
Ferdie Pacheco: If you were going to be a good boxer, if you were going to fight in major fights, you had to go through the 5th Street Gym, and that made it incredibly important. You had to go through 5th Street Gym to get to the championship.
I’ve never seen a John Waters movie or read a John Waters book. What I knew of him before last night, I’d picked up by way of either scandalized whispers or unbridled gushing or The Simpsons (from which I picked up that he’s gay). What I know of him after last night, having heard him speak at the Miami Book Fair International, includes the following:
— that he takes life lessons from a member of the Manson family
— that a room full of incarcerated murderers once (at least once) unanimously agreed that he is “fucked up” after seeing one of his movies
— that perfect strangers confide in him their most disturbing secrets (“My whole family fucked me on Easter morning”) because, he says, “People look at me and think, ‘Well, I’ll understand.'”
— that he considers one of his movies the perfect sex addiction flick to screen at a birthday party
— that he was, in his own estimation, “typecast” as the flasher in the remake of his 1988 film Hairspray
— and that he advocates politicians having more sex as a peacekeeping strategy.
Even without having experienced any of Waters’ oeuvre, I was hardly surprised to learn any of this, for his reputation as the “Pope of Trash” precedes him. (William S. Burroughs coined the epithet, which Waters says was “like being anointed from above.”) But if I had ever thought about it, I might not have expected these idiosyncrasies to reside in a gentleman whose gentility, charm, and easy wit won over a packed house within moments.