Electric Review

Culture & Criticism Since 2003

Never Mind the Pollacks

AsEverWas: MEMOIRS OF A BEAT SURVIVOR. Hammond Guthrie. SAF Publishing.

Even though this work makes reference to the “Beat Generation” in its title, it’s anything but a nostalgic trip down memory lane through the land of dead poets. Instead, this is Hammond Guthrie’s story -evocative, sensual, ribald and poetic, moving across the continents, riding endless wheels of adventure. As the story unfolds, the reader is thrust into a haze of movement: Drug smuggling. Prison. Burroughs. Ginsberg. The San Francisco art scene before the age of petty pretentiousness. Did all this really happen to one man? Is this the phantom of Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty now come back to life in another place and time? Are we reading a memoir/memory or an artful retooling of fact into fiction?

Read on and you slowly come to realize that this is indeed Guthrie’s story: the lines ring too true and the revelations are too haunting to be anything but the statement of a man looking back on his life, trying to make sense of it all. Have you ever wondered what happened to those hippie painters perched on the corner of Stanyan and Haight at the edge of Golden Gate Park circa 1967 San Francisco?

Well, EverWas is a chance to find out the answer to this question. In some circles, the 1960s have been billed as this quasi-perfect period in our history — a romantic time when young people had hope for the future, hunting rivers of personal and social freedom. But as you make your way through Hammond Guthrie’s memoir, you sense disappointment and unfulfilled possibilities: Remember, Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” was a howling against the corporate machine of America — a call to the people to rise up in unison and fight this madness before it became insurmountable and smothered our collective spirit. Unfortunately, the machine was too powerful and it couldn’t be overtaken. When these writers and musicians and artists finally figured it out, they looked to different paths. Some dissolved into drugs and drink. Some took to the road and never came back, while others went on spiritual quests, exploring the transparent evening mists and the face of the moon in search of the growling ghost of God:

“…Lawrence, who couldn’t be bothered, thrust a coffee- stained manuscript into my hands and said, ‘Here, read this and shut up!’ I was holding the original hand-written pages of Jack Kerouac’s Scriptures Of The Golden Eternity!…The precepts and allusions to the Tao that Kerouac spoke so eloquently of in his work were becoming great influences on my own life as I began to determine the nature of my own earthly purpose through creative abstraction and spiritual investigation.”

(pages 67-68)

Hammond Guthrie has memorialized his own personal story in AsEverWas, and in doing so, he’s captured the story of countless others who lived on the fringes during an era when the country was at an important crossroads. Guthrie survived. Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady and Jim Morrison and Phil Ochs and Lew Welch (among others) did not. Anyone who was alive during these turbulent times and who gives a damn about just how we got here should read this book. It contains many answers and poses many new questions.

Purchase from amazon.com.

RED ZONE. Aphrodite Jones. William Morrow.

Red Zone memorializes the story of Diane Whipple and her gruesome, untimely death. Whipple, a well-liked college lacrosse coach, was mauled to death in the hallway of her San Francisco apartment by her neighbor’s dog in the autumn of 2001. The canine’s vicious attack and the subsequent trail of the animal’s owners made headlines across the country, as the San Francisco’s District Attorney’s office sought to convict the husband and wife of murder — an unprecedented charge in the annals of California law. Red Zone attempts to recreate the story and put us in touch with the dead woman and the two individuals who are blamed for her demise.

However, as engrossing as the day-to-day news items were, Jones’ account of this horrific event falls short: It simply reads too much like an episode of Court TV — sensational and over-drawn, written more for the idea of the screen than for the silent page (the reader slapped by an endless assault of ‘voices’ — left swimming in a morass of information that is hard to track and even harder to synthesize).

But beyond this, Red Zone fails to deliver anything new: As a nation we were inundated with every grisly detail of Whipple’s story and this book does little more than revisit the tawdry taste of watching the trial play out on television (a practice akin to watching the damned about to be fed to the lions: I mean isn’t it just a little perverse to be titillated by the scene of a jury about to condemn someone to prison?). Alas, I’m left asking one question – did Red Zone need to be written? And did it ever really set out to teach us anything new about ourselves and this system of laws that govern our conduct?

In the end, Jones would have been better served by presenting a simple and comprehensive reportage while letting the facts speak out for themselves. If there was ever a story that could have carried itself, it’s this one.

Purchase from amazon.com.

WHEN I WAS COOL: My Life at the Jack Kerouac School. Sam Kashner. Harper Collins.

When I Was Cool is a memoir that records the story of a skinny, naive teenage boy from a liberal Jewish background who has gone from thinking Walt Whitman “had something to do with food – Maybe the Whitman Sampler box of chocolates” to being the author of four books, including a highly regarded novel.

As a young man, Sam Kashner convinced his parents to allow him to enroll in the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodies Poetics in Boulder, Colorado, thus forsaking a stint in a “conventional” college. It was a decision that would change him forever.

In the spring of 1976, Kashner’s life has just begun — hanging out with Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky and Anne Waldman, as well as other writers and musicians of the era. In Cool, Kashner interweaves Beatlore with his own innocent reflections in a frank, humorous and extremely entertaining manner.

A free-spirited “Kiss & Tell” theme runs through the pages of this book as openly as the heroin through Burroughs’ veins. Hailed as a hero with his father’s Diner’s Club card, Kashner is called upon repeatedly to aid and abet the shenanigans of this anti-normal group of word artists (editing Ginsberg & Corso’s manuscripts; baby-sitting Billy Burroughs J.R.; paying the check for the group on countless occasions: suddenly we’re left wondering who was actually benefiting from the kid’s enrollment at Naropa). As the story moves forward, Kashner shares the intimate details of how he thwarted sexual advances from Ginsberg and succumbed to di Prima — the scenes coming alive in all their sordid, ribald and ultimately bodacious glory.

Read on: Marijuana fields, whores, drug houses, theft, mayhem – -these are all just casual actualities of the “extra” curriculum. An especially revealing theme that reappears throughout the book presents Kashner as observer: on many occasions he stands by silently as Ginsberg and his ilk follow the teachings of their oft drunk Tibetan Buddhist meditation teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinoche, the Guru pounding at Ginsberg to “lose your ego!” as he himself pads his own pockets and libido with admiration and servitude. Cool also includes reflections from the Beats themselves. These comments appear in abundance, imparting some good, bad and indifferent memories of Kerouac and Cassady.

When I Was Cool is one of the best “Beat” books I’ve ever read. Used and abused, we go from day one to graduation sharing in Kashner’s zany encounters, all the while hoping the school gets its accreditation before he graduates. Reminiscent of Tom Wolfe’s days of entrenchment with Ken Kesey & the Merry Pranksters, Cool is a fun and fast-paced-read that shows what can happen when literary renegades become teachers.

by Cheryl A. Townsend

© Cheryl A. Townsend. All rights reserved.

Cheryl A. Townsend is the editor of Impetus magazine and author of over 30 collections of poetry. Her reviews have appeared in Small Press Review, The Hold, Urban Spaghetti and many other periodicals and e-zines. Townsend lives in Stow, Ohio.

Purchase from amazon.com.

24 DAYS. Rebecca Smith and John R. Emshwiller. Harper Collins.

This expose by two beat writers from the Wall Street Journal chronicles the massive cover-up at Enron and how the corporation literally unraveled in less then a month. Smith and Emshwiller take us step by step through the quagmire, dissecting the story into easy- to-digest bites:

“Externally, at least, Enron kept up a brave front. Company officials told reporters that the company had plenty of cash and was current with all its creditors…Internally, though, Lay and the remains of his battered team had come to realize that only two viable options remained. The company could seek a merger partner to shore up its rapidly eroding situation. Or it could file for bankruptcy court protection.” (page 190)

This story is on par with the 9-11 tragedy in terms of the amount of pain it caused innocent people (an estimated 1.2 billion in employee retirement funds was “lost”). However, more than anything, 24 Days documents the deceptiveness of the American corporate structure that literally feeds off the lowest-level workers. Both clearly written and well edited.Harper Collins also deserves mention for having the guts to put this material out in an attempt to force each of us as individuals to question the system that allowed this to happen.

Editor’s Note: Interested readers should also see RAT’S NOTEBOOK – for these are the very kinds of issues that our two guest columnists have explored in detail.
Purchase from amazon.com.

NEVER MIND THE POLLACKS. Neal Pollack. Harper Collins.

Used by Permission of Harper Collins Publishers

Never Mind The Pollacks shines a satirical eye on rock musicians and on the journalists who decide just who makes it in print and gets famous. When I picked up this novel, I wasn’t anticipating anything special — I knew a little bit about Neal Pollack from his work with Vanity Fair, but I held out no profound expectations for this particular book. Certainly, I wasn’t expecting to see myself tumbling across these mirrors. But that’s exactly what happened: In Never Mind, Neal Pollack takes the subject of rock music and uses it to help writers like myself to examine the role of the media in the reconstruction of America:

“Are you afraid to say what you think? Are you afraid, man?…I’ve read your magazine, I’ve seen what you do, with your words and your pictures. You’re just gonna say what your readers want you to say. Because your readers are sheep and so are you…”

(From Page 91 of the Harper galley advance)

Never Mind The Pollacks digs deep. It forces all critics to explore the reasons and motivations behind the headlines: Is this your opinion or the opinion of the old men on the editorial board who you work for? Do you believe this record you’re writing about is shit, or are you afraid to say you like it after the East Coast big boys panned it? Do you know why you write? If you don’t know why you’re writing how can you know what Van Morrison meant with his hymns to the silence? Pollack poses such “heavy” questions within the guise of satire, and it’s a fun and fast-paced read providing numerous laughs along the way. But in the end, this is a book with a message: when I turned closed the final page I felt compelled to revisit my obligations as a writer and journalist.

Purchase from amazon.com.

By John Aiello

On the Food Scene

FROM EMERIL’S KITCHEN. Emeril Lagasse. William Morrow Publishers.

Emeril Lagasse is one hot chef. His show on the Food Channel (“Emeril Live”) is a fun and energetic cooking class that encourages audience involvement every step of the way. Above all else, Emeril’s recipes are inventive and simple, while his delivery serves as a lesson on how not to intimidate the kitchen novice. Lagasse, a resident of Louisiana, opened up his first restaurant a decade ago in New Orleans; he now owns other eateries in Georgia, Las Vegas and Florida as well. Lagasse’s popularity has risen in the last few years, probably because we’re seeing more of him: aside from the Food Channel program, he also serves as a food correspondent for “Good Morning America.”

From Emeril’s Kitchen is a collection of the chef’s recipes that are used in his restaurants, transferring his customary high energy from the TV screen to the printed page. Lagasse is the author of seven other cooking books, but what’s special about this one is its breadth: a wide array of recipes are presented in a clear and concise manner — with a quick “1-2-3” list of instructions bringing you step-by-step through the cooking process. The pasta, rice and risotto section is especially well done: a broad sampling of recipes showcase everything from shrimp ragout with noodles to Emeril’s vegetable and egg fried rice. Another highlight is the comprehensive soups chapter that presents fine gumbo and chowder recipes. From Emeril’s is a well designed and thorough cookbook (the way the pages are split with the ingredients on one side and the recipe on the other is a great touch, as is the fact that its author has chosen to forgo flash for substance and clarity). Endearing in both its simplicity and practicality, From Emeril’s is a cook book that you are likely use time and again to enrich your life in the kitchen.

Purchase from amazon.com.

by John Aiello

The University of California Press: A Century Old and Going Strong

The University of California Press opened its doors in 1893 — not so much to be a “publisher,” but instead as a mechanism to distribute research papers by its faculty to other schools. However, as things progressed, the press started to publish select titles with a scholarly focus. Today, the University of California Press is one of the leaders in the publishing world — one of the top five University presses in the nation, it offers immaculately designed books that speak to the conscience of our culture and our society.

Like the universities that comprise the UC system, the press has dedicated itself to the dissemination and exploration of ideas. The books published by the Press are not so much “academic” in nature as they are drenched in the deepness of the mind: these are the books which we use to teach each other about ourselves, documenting our course through time, recording our movements and the history of our ancestors for the benefit of generations (a fact no better exemplified than by the UC Press title, Ishi in Two Worlds, by Theodora Kroeber).

Kroeber’s book chronicles the life of the American Indian Ishi in both human and historical terms, and it has been used widely as a teaching tool in many history and anthropology courses — bringing the world of the American Indian to life in our hearts and our heads. And this, then, brings us to the real vision behind UC Press: to produce books that will stand the test of time and serve as reference points. Reference points not just for today, but forever.

These titles mark recent releases from UC Press:

REFLECTIONS OF AN AMERICAN COMPOSER. Arthur Berger. UC Press. Arthur Berger is Professor of Music Emeritus at Brandeis University, and the author of the 1990 study, Aaron Copland. In this collection, he examines segments of American music in relation to his own life and experience, creating a wonderfully interesting reportage of how music can affect the course and outcome of a life. Reflections traces Berger’s journalism career through the music he listened to, dissecting the universality of its impact (“Composers may evoke emotions without knowing what they are and without being aware they are doing so. Tones themselves are, to start with, emotionally toned…It is a feeling, moreover, that is not a mere matter of association like the relation of most words to their object…” (page 55).

There are many fine essays in this collection, but some of the best pieces are in the “writing about music” section (Berger’s ruminations on Paul Rosenfeld and Bernard Haggin are introspective and well-reasoned — a journalist sure enough of his own work to examine the work of others).

Because of the academic style of the writing, Reflections would be useful to any college-level music history course. It is also recommended as a compliment to the record collection of any classical music fan interested in exploring the topic of sound and the ways music intersects and influences the many facets of life on earth.

Purchase from amazon.com.

THE FREE SPEECH MOVEMENT (REFLECTIONS ON BERKELEY IN THE 1960s). Edited By Robert Cohen and Reginald E. Zelnik. UC Press. In the mid sixties, the students at UC Berkeley were dissatisfied with their government and its leadership. Dissatisfied and angry, they set out to change things. This collection of essays chronicles these “seeds of dissent” — looking at the free speech movement’s genesis and the reasons it came to be born (further shedding light on why it ultimately failed). The best material in the book comes by -way of the pieces on Mario Savio, the “leader” of the troops who called his fellow students to speak out against the shackles of the Vietnam era in America (“to restrict speech on the basis of content ….That’s just not acceptable…”). (page 450)

Even though 40 years have passed since the Free Speech Movement over-ran the steps of Sproul Hall, not much has really changed. The Patriot Act circa 2001 shows that the government’s broad palms are still flexing and that our civil liberties as guaranteed by the constitution are in grave jeopardy. Find this book and read it: It’s not only about Berkeley — it’s about America today and your right to speak your mind freely. Never has it been more apt.

Appropriate in all college level sociology and history courses to help students examine the effects of a war culture on the citizenry.

Purchase from amazon.com.

IN ME OWN WORDS: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF BIG FOOT. Graham Roumieu. Manic D Press. This hilarious novel by Roumieu brings us into Big Foot’s living room circa the 21st century. Big Foot is as much a part of American lore as Santa Clause and the tooth fairy, and this novel does its best to humanize him — going so far as to bring him such a common banal affliction as an eating disorder. Is this a by-product of his cannibalism and life out in the cold? A piece of fiction melded with overtones of Sci-Fi and Burroughs-inspired fantasy. Nicely written with multiple layers to the characterizations. Worth a long look. Also makes a nice gift choice for that adventurous reader.

Purchase directly from Small Press Distribution.

Sociology/Women’s Studies

TRANSFORMING FEMINIST PRACTICE: NON-VIOLENCE, SOCIAL JUSTICE, AND THE POSSIBILITIES OF A SPIRITUALIZED FEMINISM. Leela Fernandes. Aunt Lute Books. Leela Fernandes, a professor of women’s’ studies at Rutgers University, has written a fine study on feminism in the 21st century. Many young women are in a confused state today, with too many choices clouding their ability to see and understand themselves. In Transforming, Fernandes encourages women to examine their individualized minds and resume the pursuit of their spiritual identities. She examines the affect of the social structure (academia, government) with guts and gusto — pulling no punches, speaking with conviction and candor. Much like Camilia Paglia, Fernandes writes in a honest and direct way: instead of turning off her audience like many ardent feminists will, she leaves you knowing that these are real issues warranting further and deeper exploration.

Purchase directly from Small Press Distribution.

THIS DAY: DIARIES FROM AMERICAN WOMEN. Various authors. Compiled and edited by Joni B. Cole, Rebecca Joffrey and B.K. Rakhra. Beyond Words Publishing. Fine study of the American woman through her own words. The project took shape after over 500 women were invited to record their activities in journal form on the same day; 35 of the best entries are collected in their entirety in this volume (with another 100 excerpts taken from other contributors). Above all else, This Day tells us what women think about themselves and their place in the world: revealing themselves through the blood of deep confession, this is a book of immediate perception written by different women as they walked through the same day in so many different places:

“But I think I’m tired of always being away. Of missing Old Californian school friends while on tour, of losing friends while growing apart….and the worst part of this kind of lonely is: I’m also missing. Not too sure I can explain that, but I’m constantly away, which means I’m not essential to anybody – all the people who I’m close to are used to life without me!”

(Page 19, Shankar entry)

And leaping further into the devilish canyons of the half-human subconscious:

“…I truly understand what Poe meant when he talked about sleep being ‘little slices of death.’ After I do fall asleep, and before I am drawn into my dream life, I am sometimes startled awake by what seems to be a dark presence over or around me. I feel so vulnerable. My mother says she would like to die peacefully in her sleep one day. I’m afraid I might die every night…”

(Page 139, Kendig entry)

Many different faces. Many different jobs. Many different stations in life. And many different stories. What these women actually “do” for a living is of little import, for the true meat of the book is in the ordinary revelations of these separate and random voices now dissolving into pages – a perfect description of the road of the American woman now snaking her way through the new century. Honest and candid, This Day tells of the things that drive our wives and lovers and sisters in their silent journeys through life. Fine cast of contributors high-lighted by Marisa Bono, Anoushka Shankar, Judith Kendig and Debi Davis. Appropriate for the general reader and as a undergraduate teaching text at the college and university level. Could also be useful as an undergraduate text in English composition classrooms to demonstrate the ‘form’ of journal writing (a wonderful and powerful way to familiarize the young student with the practice of writing and to encourage open expression).

See thisdayinthelife.com.
Order at amazon.com.

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This entry was posted on October 1, 2003 by in 2003, October 2003, Rat On Fiction & Nonfiction and tagged , , .
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