“A Few Streets More To Kensington” Has Now Been Published!

Cover for A Few Streets More To Kensington, with street and cartoon figure.A couple of weeks back, the first book I’d ever written, A Few Streets More To Kensington, was published by Crossroad Press. It is a coming-of-age novel set in Brooklyn, New York, mostly in the mid to late 1990s, and follows its protagonist through the end of middle school. It can, I suppose, be described as “young adult fiction”, albeit much closer to the ‘literary’ children’s fiction from the 1950s-70s. (Think, for example, John Knowles’s A Separate Peace.) That is because it follows adult themes, in an adult way, yet filtered through the experiences of a child, whose presence and self-definition are controlled by an adult narrator looking back on his life.

Although I wrote it almost six years ago, I am, now looking back on it, still proud of the writing, even though I’ve gone on to fresh challenges and even more difficult projects. To celebrate its release, I’ve picked seven passages that struck me as I was re-reading them. They are not necessarily the best parts of the book, but parts passages, in the course of writing, had some sort of lasting impression on my creative development, or are memorable for some others. Here they are, in chronological order of appearance.

Enjoy.

1.

And so, I let him finish the level. It was, oddly, very peaceful to hear. As Fats ran through the Air Platform, hinging his own body off the filaments of chair, the piano deepened from the TV. It sounded hectic. Mario jumped from tile to tile, turning every once in a while to jerk away from an enemy Koopa, jumping up again, and falling even further, ready to navigate the sky maze once more. Yet where was he going, really? The game, like all Super Mario games, was about saving Princess Toadstool from a dinosaur called Bowser, but go a few minutes into it, and you forget what, exactly, you’re supposed to be doing in the first place. You forget who the little man on the screen is. To a kid, he’s just a bit of color blurring through caves, ghost houses, and open fields. Only on the Air Platform does he seem to be reaching for something higher, jumping through slabs of earth, coasting on bullets, yet hitting a kind of invisible ceiling once he goes too far, stepping, as it were, outside the parameters of design. Do kids ever see this? I recall wasting many hours trying to break through this ceiling, thinking there was something behind it all. And yet, Fats was simply trying to get to the very end, throwing Mario into acrobatics he, himself, could never do, grabbing on to things, running to the smash a piano he’d never learn to play.

Fats was getting near the end. A bullet flew past him, and he dodged another. A bright coin was ignored. He was hit by an enemy as the controller slipped through his greasy fingers. He laughed harshly as he stomped across the level, dying over … Continue reading →

The Object Of Objective Reality: Some Notes On Donald Hoffman

Objective Reality Donald HoffmanA few months ago, The Atlantic published an interview with cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman arguing – albeit in a limited sense – against the notion of objective reality. It’s an interesting read, but only partly due to the science. More importantly, it illustrates an overlooked concept in pretty much all inquiry: that language, if ill-used or poorly defined, will ultimately poison good ideas, and generate new objects of study that simply don’t exist in the real world. In short, if people are confused by language, allowing words to invent or hide problems, scientists, in being a subset of people, are little different here. For this reason, Donald Hoffman falls into the kind of errors that even a layperson is familiar with, since they have in fact made the same mistakes themselves. The laity is inevitably corrected, however, since the real world is pretty unforgiving when compared to academia. Yet seeing just how he errs in such a low-stakes environment might shed some light on future questions: actual questions, I mean, and not the needless complications that scientists and philosophers can be quite good at.

Hoffman’s basic thesis is irrefutable: that organisms have evolved in a way that maximizes fitness, first, at the expense of things that they might have better valued under different circumstances. This, to me, is a re-phrasing of Leda Cosmides’s and John Tooby’s classic observation that ‘we are not fitness maximizers, but adaptation executors’. Yeah, the wording seems at odds with Hoffman’s thesis, but they’re in fact arguing the same thing: that we’ll do whatever it is that we’ll do, even as physical circumstances change, or (as with human beings) culture shifts and replaces older values. So, for example, whereas human beings value truth in the abstract, they are ill-prepared for what objective reality – in the totalizing sense – really is. They see sunlight, react to it emotionally, physiologically, etc., but cannot detect, say, radio waves, or ionizing radiation, because they have played such a minor role in most of human history, and have therefore had no utility, no way of capturing our biological attention. And this is true despite the fact that visible light accounts for a tiny slice of electromagnetic radiation, meaning, we are in just this one regard cut off from a huge chunk of reality. Then, when one tallies up the innumerable other evolutionary biases, it is clear that, for all of our curiosity, we weren’t built to inquire in just this way, and are using some fairly limited and imprecise tools for this purpose all the while organizing the universe along a survivalist bias that we ourselves have imbued into it.

Ok, so far, so good. Yet the issues start to come fast when these observations get mixed up with some wacky conclusions that are not at all a given from the above premises. Let us start, then, with this study on veridical perception, by Hoffman and others, and define the term in question. The word refers to … Continue reading →

New Interview At Joel Bocko’s “Lost In The Movies”

Joel Bocko New Interview Woody AllenFor those that regularly follow Joel Bocko’s website, you will have probably seen my new interview posted last week. I contacted Joel late last year since his work is quoted in Woody Allen: Reel To Real. In fact, he was one of the only critics mentioned, within, that correctly declared the late 70s/1980 of Woody’s cinematic output to be a genuine high point- and, yes, this includes Interiors as well as the supernal Stardust Memories. Joel expressed an interest in reviewing the book and interviewing me. The result is 15,000 words on art, criticism, philosophy, and film– with only a slice of it on Allen.

This Fall, I’m updating Reel To Real with new material, including an unexpurgated version of the above interview- another 5,000-8,000 words, probably- that was simply too technical to include on Joel’s site. Still, those interested in the macro of my judgments- their inner ‘why’- will do well to read it. They are a blueprint to the arts as a whole.

Anyway- here is my answer to the first question. The interview can be read in full here.

Before we begin, for the sake of readers can you introduce yourself, your interest in Allen, and the reasons behind your outlook and approach to this book?

I am a poet, critic, and novelist living in New York City. I have a variety of interests- hence my desire to do film criticism from a wide “art-first” approach, where issues of character, writing, narrative, imagery, music, and their summation(s) matter. More than anything, however, I wanted Woody Allen: Reel To Real to be a kind of blueprint for critiquing art as a whole. It covers dozens of films at great depth so that, over time, the reader knows what to look for, and can extrapolate some of these ideas to the art-world at large. In an important sense, this book isn’t merely ‘about’ Woody’s art. It is about ART, with Woody serving merely as a convenient specimen.

For this reason, I don’t necessarily state my premises outright- I don’t give readers a ‘list’ of what to look for in a good film, as that’s the quickest way to formulaic thinking (which is counter to art) and a way of avoiding the exceptions that utterly DEFINE so much of art. For instance: to many viewers, John Cassavetes’s best films might ‘go on too long,’ or Walt Whitman’s great poems have too much ‘stuff’ within. Yet a careful look at either reveals that there is purpose- there is communication- in the excess, even though concision is a good rule of thumb. The point is that any artistic rule immediately calls up sub-categories, exceptions, sub-exceptions, exceptions to the exceptions… save for one. And it is this: whatever ends up on the screen, page, or frame, it must be purposeful- it must communicate something of substance, or at least act as a route to substance, of re-framing substance. And the measure of ‘substance’ is Man at his apex. I am not … Continue reading →

BlueInk Review: Unprofessional, Dishonest, (A)pathetic

BlueInk Review Scam[UPDATE 11/11/2015: I have just received a phone call from Patti Thorn, owner of BlueInk, indicating that she has refunded my money. She has apologized for the review, apologized for the way BlueInk handled my complaint, and admitted the review should have been handed over to another staff member and re-written. I am thankful for her honesty and willingness to admit error, even as I indicated that, out of fairness, I cannot take down this post, only amend it with this note. To BlueInk’s credit, they did not ask me to alter this article in any way, nor guilt, manipulate, or entice me with any promises.]

A couple of months ago, I submitted my book, Woody Allen: Reel To Real, to a popular pay-for-review site called BlueInk Review. Now, I knew the risks, for I’d seen the complaints against Kirkus and other ignoble book-review services; I smirked at BlueInk’s poor website design which accosts you with its ‘legitimacy’ as opposed to a sampling of good writing that can speak for itself; I saw the 300 word-limit rule for reviews, an obvious labor-saving measure dishonestly presented as some sort of charity to “busy readers” and “industry professionals”; the Google searches which turned up nothing — nothing — except de facto ads written by its own staff, rather than any real analysis of the service and its benefits; as well as the reality that most of the books they’d push as ‘good’ were actually selling fewer copies than my own — with many not having had a sale in months — despite Reel To Real getting almost no press upon release. This last fact, especially, alerted me to the true extent of BlueInk’s pull, for if I could make something out of nothing, purely on the strength of reputation, and personal outreach, what’s preventing BlueInk from forging their own reputations, and minting new ‘names’ as per their stated goals? At any rate, I didn’t have to wonder very long.

My review came back on time, but anonymously written. People, as a rule, do not wish to attach their names to garbage, and this was no exception. Jesus, I thought; where does one even begin? I mean, I had to proofread the thing, myself, pointing out obvious errors in everything from pagination (they printed out a 12-pt, Times New Roman MS Word document and counted that as the completed work, reducing the true page count by half!), to the odd misuse of universally-understood phrases, to the reviewer’s allusions to things that simply never occur in the book, to the fact that I was continuously quoted out of context to argue against ‘points’ I’d never made. Ridiculously, I was openly accused of everything from ad hominem to refusing to provide evidence for claims, despite that the book — this not an opinion, now — gives a scene-by-scene evaluation of many films, provides hundreds of references to 50+ years of Woody-related writing, and responds to dozens of critics virtually line-by-line, … Continue reading →

8 Great Passages From Loren Eiseley’s “The Firmament Of Time”

As of this writing, the science writer/philosopher Loren Eiseley is one of the 3 or 4 biggest influences on my style of fiction. He was ‘there’ when, as a college student, I first discovered what makes good prose good, and what, by contrast, is mere subterfuge. He was there when, running out of large, over-the-top subjects to discuss, I first noticed what might happen when the discussion turns inward, and upon things that don’t ordinarily get illumined. And, of course, he was there when I was writing my first two novels, as I’d hunt for words, phrasings, and sentences to re-fashion into my own, and will continue to be there for subsequent books as I continue to work on what Loren Eiseley had started.

This is because Loren Eiseley was one of the first writers to hit upon and solve an ancient dilemma, a dilemma that’s implicit human progress: namely, how do you write on things that matter now, in a field — science — that is always going out-of-date, yet still remain relevant for centuries, way past said field’s natural expiration? The answer was simple, really. You transcend the genre, and push against the boundaries that have held things still by mere tradition. In this way, essays can become bigger, richer, more expansive; poetry and prose can morph and meld; things like ‘narrative’ can come apply to the world at large, as opposed to smaller texts. Of course, all this got Eiseley into trouble by scientists who did not buy into his approach, preferring, as they did, pure information over wisdom, and Eiseley had to juggle ‘standard’ research (he was a paleontologist, after all) and physical discovery with deeper observations, often straying from pure science into artistic and philosophic realms.

Yet time doesn’t really give a damn about science-drones, because, despite their importance, there are millions of them, most are doing the same exact thing, and if one scientist or theoretician dies, there’s another to take his place with near-identical ideas. It is a menial, mostly thankless job, and it is unfair, I guess, that only its communicators — the people who can transmute this information into wisdom — can get fame. But this is simply the mind’s own blueprint, not a social ill, and an expression of the specifics of human cares.

Last week, Dan Schneider conducted a 2½ hour video interview with the Loren Eiseley Society. Bing Chen (president) and Tom Lynch (vice president) discussed the man’s work and historical import, while Schneider, as per his style, prodded the men for answers for deeper queries. And, in celebration of this dialogue, I’ve decided to type out some of my favorite passages from one of Loren Eiseley’s lesser books: The Firmament Of Time. Yet as Eiseley goes on to show, even his lesser books have greatness in them, with much that is memorable, quotable, and representative of his work as a whole. Just look at how much he does with science, with discoveries … Continue reading →