Tea Time

by Michelle Tea on June 9, 2004

Last night in a bowling alley in Chicago I saw the most expensive book ever. So big and lush and presumably bruiseable that you must don a pair of white cotton gloves if you wish to browse through it. Instead of simply browsing, I got the tour. A tour led by the cutest girl I’ve seen at Book Expo America, the annual book industry convention that is a deliriously overstimulating schmoozefest filled all the free books you can stuff into your free tote bags.

Nobody is walking away with a review copy of the 792-paged giant before me, though. Published by Taschen, the extravagant art house known best perhaps for publishing Eric Stanton and other books featuring either dominant whip-wielding femmes or ladies shrink-wrapped in latex outfits bound to chairs and other objects. Taschen’s books are often a merging of high-end art books with the traditionally low-brow world of porn and the porn-inspired, and the fact that the press–in the position to spend a total of twelve million dollars on production of this crazy book I swear I’ll get back to–is throwing it’s party in a classic working-class recreation joint like a bowling alley tells you everything. “You should have seen their party last year, in Los Angeles,” said Anna Brown from art publishers Last Gasp. “They had a taco truck serving bottomless martinis.”

Okay, GOAT is the book. Greatest of All Time, nearly a thousand pages chronicling the inspired life and career of Muhammad Ali. There are two editions of the book available for you, dear reader, to purchase. One is The Collector’s Edition. There are 10,000 in print, they are bound in hot pink Louis Vuitton leather, pink being the butterfly color of Ali’s first Cadillac. It’s bound at the Vatican, where I guess the most killer book-binding happens, and at such a slow, careful pace that only a few hundred copies could be assembled each week. They’re all signed by the boxer, a feat that took the man four years. They’re also signed by Jeff Koons, the American Psycho of the art world, symbol of all that was bad about the 80s. There is much talk of of Jeff Koons sucking among those I consider to be My People at the Taschen party that night, and the biggest hater is perhaps artist Laurenn McCubbinn, who railed wisely on how the ex-stocker broker, who is surely a font of ironic art concepts, doesn’t actually make his pieces himself. Anyway, folks who find the $3,000 cover price of GOAT not, um, challenging enough, financially speaking, can blow a whopping $7,500 for the Champ’s Edition, which comes with an original Koons sculpture that is perhaps the crappiest piece of art I’ve ever seen, involving a stool, a fake tire and an inflateable dolphin. I can only hope one of the unsung artists who actually assembled Koons’ art perhaps revolted and put together the drab and senseless arrangement as a sort of giant joke, and that this person is off somewhere smoking a bowl and having a hearty chuckle.

I began to bowl, on a team that consisted of Koons-hater Laurenn, Anna of Last Gasp, a ponytailed Dutch pornographer and a Scottish chidren’s book publisher who taught me how to vasly improve my ball-lobbing game by pausing to kiss the ball before hurling it down the lane (“It’s Celtic,” he told me. “You’ve got to make a connection with the ball.”). Our team that was periodically visited by members of the uber-political South End Press, the anarchists of AK Press, and some more of the artsy radicals from Last Gasp. There was much puzzled discussion about GOAT, a truly glorious volume detailing the life of an African-American hero, who used his placement in media and pop culture to give talk about racism in a most natural way (a gloved flip through the book lands me on a page quoting Ali casting boxing as My-slave-can-kick-your slave’s-ass entertainment for white people) that can only be afforded by the very richest, someone who not only can spring for a $3,000 book but has a house big enough to accomodate the gorgeous monster. But that’s Taschen–a moneyed press with a transgressive aestetic that enjoys luxuriating in its excess. And, as I flung free bowling balls down the slick wooden lanes, gorged myself on free fancy-ass pizza and flourless chocolate cake, as I watched my friends all get blotto on the open bar and received free Taschen t-shirts from ecstatic Taschen employees who, I believe, might have the funnest jobs in the world, I came back to where such brushes with wealth always bring me: that the food was delicious and the games were fun and the book is undenaiably sumptous, all tucked away now in its silk-lined box, and it is a good thing that it exists in the world and that the problem is access. In the Utopia I long for, the rich don’t get booted out of their palaces and dragged down to live among us in our tiny apartments, our sprawling squalor–we ascend, en mass, to all take our places in modern castles with room enough for extravagantly-bound couture literature. That’s my socialist fantasy, anyway.

As for my reality, I take my extravagant literature in the form of copious amounts of free books. Since arriving in Chicago two days ago I’ve amassed three tote bags full of what the presses will be pushing on we the readers this coming year. A quick dig into my Believer tote bag–a score snagged over at the McSweeneys’ booth, the only booth sporting a fully made twin bed for weary publishing people to take a nap at–reveals a fantastic booty. A free copy of Body & Soul magazine, which promises 25 All-Natural SECRETS for HEALTHY BEAUTY. I love being let in on SECRETS, HEALTHY BEAUTY is my current obsession, and magazines in general are my most pleasureable guilty pleasure, so I’m psyched. There’s a book called American Whiskey Bar I grabbed from the table of Arsenal Pulp Press, the Vancouver, B.C. press that is so cool, it’s one more in a growing list of reasons to defect to Canada. Trish Kelley, the adorable and bespectacled marketing manager, hands me a stapled zine of her own design, called the make out club, which contains poems with titles such as ‘My first girlfriend, the sun, tries to be the moon’, and smartly lists the author’s shoe size (8) and shirt size (medium), lest you be so moved by her words to show your appreciation in the form of a gift of ladies’ clothing. Alyson Press, the L.A.-based gay publisher from which zillions of books with fit male torsos on the cover are launched, was pushing Aaron Krach’s Half-Life, the tale of a boy’s dramatic last two weeks of high school, which has not torsos but flowers and a night shot of perhaps Los Angeles on its cover. They also had stapled, xeroxed handouts of a most exciting forthcoming book, Midnight at the Palace: My Life as a Fabulous Cockette by Pam Tent. The Alyson person pointed out that a lot of fashion designers have been inspired by the silent film star-meets-child’s dance costume-meets-hippie look of the troupe, all facial hair and glitter like you can really see that they were on acid when they hit their closets and the result is divine.

After guiltily requesting an advance galley of Arundhati Roy’s An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire, the sweet, sweet boys of South End Press (one, upon hearing that my comrade Lauremm was faint from the lack of vegetarian options at the convention center food court softly offered a last one of two pieces of his fake baloney) thrust upon me a copy of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s memoir of a life in the Black Panther Party, We Want Freedom. Thanks! I gushed. I always feel bad begging books off the small presses because their purse strings are tighter then anyone’s, but alas it is the small presses that publish the best shit, and I was off in search of good shit. It is my biggest pain that I could not bring myself to beg a book from either the truly spectacular Akashic Press, whose novel Southland captured the Best Lezzie Fiction Lambda this year, or Manic D Press, who are pushing new works from two local favorites, Jon Longhi’s Wake Up and Smell the Beer, and Alvin Orloff’s Gutterboys, the latter having a cover so neon leopard-print new-wave hot you might want to figure out a way to wear it after you’re done reading it.

Over at the big-ass New York City presses, the free schwag sit out in piles. I managed to miss all the free copies of Augusten Burrough’s new book Magical Thinking, but nabbed what I heard to be the hot new young adult title, Scott Westerfeld’s So Yesterday, the story of a teenaged trend-spotter which Laurenn cracked open back at our hotel and could not be pulled out from. San Francisco’s Chonicle Books was out in full force, and I snatched a little free notebook, which they had buckets of; some weird book about cloning blond women that seemed totaly Maxim and which I grabbed only because I was compulsively grabbing everything, and a true score–a copy of Empire, issue IX of the art & graphics publication Nozone, a really exciting mishmash of comics such as SUV’s Axles of Evil, graphics built around stunning quotes like one from Condeleeza Rica (“We need a common enemy to unite us.”) and writing by Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham. There were only two Empires left and we got ’em, and dashed away quickly from the Chronicle aisle because we weren’t fully sure we hadn’t stolen them.

I spent most of my time loitering around the Last gasp booth talking up the graphic novel, Rent Girl, that me and Laurenn just finished collaborating on. Who knew the press was on the verge of publishing a brand new illustrated novella from JT Leroy? Not me, but now there’s one more thing to look forward to in life. The story being illustrated is Harold’s End, which originally appeared in McSweeney’s and has an introduction from Mr. McSweeneys himself, Dave Eggers. The illustrations, by Cherry Hood, look beautiful, judging from the postcard available at the Last gasp booth–an intense watercolor of a watery-eyed boy with a halo of muddy blond hair holding a snail. He of course looks sad and I of course am wicked excited to see the book, which Last Gasp promises ‘goes from dark to incomprehensibly black.’

My favorite newly discovered small press must be Small Beer Press, a Northampton, Massachussetts outifit that’s been getting some attention for a fabulous book of short stories, Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen, which I greedily grabbed a copy of. Small Beer was also pushing a xeroxed excerpt from Family Reunion, an original comic forthcoming from writer Sean Stewart and illustrater Steve Lieber, and Small Beer’s literary journal Lady Churchhill’s Rosebud Wristlet, which looks stuffed with good things to read. Unwilling to not take advantage of any small press up for loading me down with books, I also walked away with a beautiful chapbook titled Horses Blow Up Dog City & Other Stories, by Richard Butner, an Kalpa Imperial, a piece of fantastical fiction from Argentinian writer Angelica Gorodischer and translated by Ursula Le Guin.

There were countless, heartening titles exploring what a total fuckwad George W. was, including a hardcover called Regime Change Begins at Home, Soft Skull’s League of Pissed-Off Voters book, a tear-calendar featuring a different assinine quote from the man every day for 365 days, which sounds sort of masochistic actually, and the one I got in my hands now, The W Effect: Bush’s War on Women, edited by radio personailty Laura Flandars, who must be still catching her breath after all the touring she did to promote her last book, Bushwomen: Tales of a Cynical Species.

After dumping the Bush calendar I realized that left me without a way to track 2005 for free, so I really jumped on the stack of complimentary Baby Circus, a full-color yearly calander filled with pictures of littlw white toddlers in various circus scenrios. Initially I meant to give it to someone as an ironic gift, but then I began to love it too much and decided to keep it. I look forward to January 2005, which features a baby held in the ominous arms of a clown. Who makes this sick shit? Cedco Publishing, actually, and thank you for the free calendar.

Speaking of sick shit, Grove was pushing 100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed, the ‘fictionalized memoir of Melissa P., a teenager on a quest for love in a pornographic world.’ A ‘poignant’ account of the fourteen-year-old Melissa P.’s foray into group SM and other scandalous sexual activities with men and women ‘her age and much older,’ the book wil no doubt make the now of-age teenager mighty rich. That is presuming she actually exists, of course. I grabbed another title off the Grove booth, Danuta De Rhodes’ The Little White Car, which promises sex, death, hostile road driving, soft rock and homing pigeons.

SF-based MacAdam/Cage throws a mean BEA cocktail party, hauling in a full bar replete with outfitted bartenders to dole out the fancy cocktails. They were cheerfully pushing a few titles—Fruit, a novel by Brian Francis, Sleep Toward Heaven author Amanda Eyre Ward’s new How to Be Lost, and Stephen Elliot’s Happy Baby, a joint publishing effort with McSweeneys. It apears that Steve is about to wicked blow up big time with the imminent release of his account of spending the past year chasing down, observing and interviewing various Democratic hopefuls. Titlled Looking Forward to It: or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the American electoral process, the book will be full of much that is heartfelt and much that is hilarious, such as telling Howard Dean he’s with GQ, a total lie, and experiencing deep connection with Dennis Kucinich.

The Soft Skull booth was populated by writers such as Bee Lavender, Anne Elizabeth Moore and the stately in a goth way Daphne Gottlieb, who ordered me to actually review the books I was lifting from the excellent small press, so let me here say that, though I have not yet cracked them open, I am most excited to plunge into the much-hyped novel The Pornographer’s Poem, by Michael Turner, which I was told by very punk and sincere Soft Skull employee Ammi Emergency is a beautiful and heartbreaking story of a bunch of sixteen-year-olds making porn in 1974 Vancouver, B.C. I also took a copy of The Sleeping Father by Matthew Sharpe, which imporbably has a Today’s Book Club logo on its cover. You Guys Got Picked For A Today Book Club Pick? I asked, amazed, and the very punk and sincere people of Soft Skull nodded back at me, also amazed.

Before I end this to roll naked on a bed full of books, I must mention the underground art journal Art Prostitute which, once I got over the name, I began to love with a jazzed and excited love for its fantastic art and design and writings and the really incredible posters included at the back of the volume. Art Prostitute and the two nice guys promoting it around the BEA hail from Denton, Texas, and if you didn’t know, Denton is for sure the new Austin, and might even be the new Olympia. You heard it here first~Michelle Tea.

Michelle Tea is the author of bunches of books, including the memoir The Chelsea Whistle, the poetry collection The Beautiful, and the anthology Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class. She curates, hosts and bakes cookies for the monthly Radar Reading Series at the San Francisco Public Library.

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