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News and olds from the author of At the Existentialist Cafe, How to Live, and other books about writers, adventurers and philosophers

At the Existentialist Cafe

January 12, 2016


At the Existentialist Cafe UK coverIt’s on its way. It’s big, it’s bonny, it’s existential, it’s rectangular, and it’s been five years in the making.  Within its pages, someone gets punched in the street, someone else makes sad remarks about a lump of sugar, another person is chased by imaginary lobsters, and three people drink apricot cocktails in a mood of uncontainable excitement.   Yes, it’s my new book At the Existentialist Cafe, telling the story of twentieth-century existentialism through a blend of biography and philosophy.  It is coming out in the first few days of March from Chatto & Windus in the U.K., Other Press in the U.S., and Knopf in Canada.

There are two versions of the cover, depending on country.  Here they both are. At The Existentialist Cafe US cover

I’ll be talking about the book at festivals and other events in various places this year.  Watch this space for details as they arise..

Moonset at dawn

July 31, 2015


Moonset at dawn 31 July 2015 (2) (1024x768) … on the day I finish my book.

New York dreamtime

May 18, 2015


Head in the stars   Coney Island (1024x768) Grand Central  Chrysler

Books that I’ve been reading about New York while being in New York

May 15, 2015


New York books

Another pile. This time it’s of books that I’ve been reading about New York while being in New York.  The hard-to-see two in the middle are Luc Sante’s Low Life: lures and snares of old New York, and Will Hermes’ Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, about music in the city from 1973 to 1977.  The latter has a great cover: I’m trying to resist colouring it in with crayons rather than reading it.Loves Goes to Buildings on Fire

Jerome Charyn’s War Cries Over Avenue C
is an interesting one, a feverish, Burroughsian tale set in Alphabet City on the Lower East Side – the area covered by Avenues A to D, inserted before 1st Avenue.  I read this when it came out (in the mid-1980s), and thought it was great. Now I’m not so sure, but what I do like is the short introduction excerpted from The Manhattan Spy, a guidebook by Doris Quinn. Doris is a louche and wayward guide, a female Joseph Mitchell who briefs us on the differences between the avenues in Alphabet City, and hints at secrets behind the closed, graffiti’d shutters. On Avenue A:

You can pick your own Russian beanery. Sit and have some stuffed cabbage, say that Doris Quinn sent you, Doris from the Spy. They’ll treat you to golden pancakes, drop a strawberry in your tea, and you’ll think that Avenue A was your own fatted calf.

On Avenue C, she speculates about what goes on in the abandoned Talmud Torah school on Avenue C where a “Saigon Sarah” presides and holds a mysterious after-hours club.  But when she knocks, Saigon Sarah refuses to let her in or speak to her.

I am dying to read the rest of the Manhattan Spy.  But I can’t.  Doris Quinn is one of the book’s fictional characters, and the introduction is an invention.Charyn War Cries over Avenue C

Jerome Charyn is quite a character himself. He’s written almost 50 books in 50 years, is very big in France (where he lived for a long time), and has also been a table tennis champion.  Don DeLillo once said that Charyn’s book about the sport, Sizzling Chops & Devilish Spins, is “The Sun Also Rises of ping-pong.”

Does reading fiction make us better people?

April 30, 2015


TBR March 2015 (600x800)

Does reading fiction make us better people? I was asked this question by Nigel Warburton for the excellent new debate forum at Aeon Ideas. I argued contrariwise, but I also loved Tony Bradman’s argument in favour.  I especially like his image of fiction as a flight simulator for the emotions.  Read it all here.

It seemed appropriate to illustrate this with my recent to-be-read pile . After taking the photo, I dismantled it, read some of them, put some on the shelf, took some back to the library, and left some to seed a new to-be-read pile.

New York in colo(u)r

April 28, 2015


New York colour 1 New York colour 2 My earlier New York photo post was tastefully drab. So here are some colours to liven it up, from yesterday’s walk through the Garment District.

It’s no accident that “New York” and “walk” rhyme.  Well, for a Brit they do. Not for a New Yorker. Bang goes that theory.

Meanwhile, from my camera’s unconscious:  Walker

New York: a tiny photo wander

April 27, 2015


BobstMysteries of ChinatownOopsLife is beautiful

New York Institute of the Humanities

April 16, 2015


Writer in Residence

So this is me for the next two months!    Very excited to be here.

New York Public Library

March 29, 2015


New_York_Public_Library_1908c (2) (640x364)If you are in New York next week, and feel so inclined, do join me at the Live from the NYPL series on Easter Monday, April 6, at 7 pm. I’ll be talking with Rebecca Mead, New Yorker writer and author of the fascinating My Life in Middlemarch.  It should be a great evening – at least I’m planning to enjoy myself!  See more information and book tickets here, at the NYPL site.

Montaigne and Ponge

November 18, 2014


Here’s a link to the latest issue of the journal Republics of Letters, featuring a forum on the essay genre.  As well as fascinating contributions by other writers on a range of essayists, there’s one by me, “Reverie and Ambush: on the influence of Montaigne.”  It’s about Montaigne and one of my favourite French writers, Francis Ponge.  Francis Ponge

If you don’t know Ponge’s extraordinary, precise prose poems about things – oysters, cigarette ash, pebbles, snails, candles, soap – I’d recommend seeking out his Le Parti pris des choses (Siding With Things).  Try this: a bilingual French/English version of his “L’Orange” (“The Orange“).  It will have you peering very closely at the pips next time you squeeze your morning OJ.