31 May 2010

Your Assistance Please: School's Out Forever

Say someone you knew when you were a teenager had, upon growing up, published a self-help book for teenagers. Would you read it? Or more accurately, how long would you be able to hold out before trying to obtain a copy to discover if the author had indeed profited from your collective misery?

I wish I could say I made this one up to determine your collective mettle and/or temperature, but it's true. I have actually known about this book for a couple of years, sort of pushing it further and further back into my mind (but it keeps coming back!). I was shocked first because I don't know many people who have published books, period, and second, this person sort of fell off my radar and to have the name turn up much later was pretty odd.

Normally I'd be curious to death, but revisiting those years? In a self-help book? Eh.

30 May 2010


A friend of mine lent me Meg Gardiner's CHINA LAKE a while back and from her recommendation I remember just one detail: That the baddies in it were a bunch of right-wing crazies and I was going to looooove it.

This was a very tantalizing offer, but in reality, not so satisfying. Chances are most Republicans I know would find the fictional fringe group of CHINA LAKE, the Remnant, to be pretty distasteful. The Remnant, led by its charismatic pastor, protests at the funerals of AIDS activists and out gays and lesbians in southern California with signs proclaiming "God Hates Sluts" and a website counting down to Armageddon. (In protest they resemble a small but highly visible American group I will not name because I don't want their rotten asses to get any press.) The heroine of Gardiner's books, Evan Delaney, would steer clear of them but for the fact that her ex-sister-in-law is a devotee and trying to kidnap her son back from Evan's care; she finds out amidst one such attempt that the Remnant is stockpiling weapons and planning to conduct biological warfare against local government in order to form a base to take over the country.

Here's the part where my rational brain took over and said, Now wait a second. There must be an easier way than all the ways they chose to do this [redacted for spoilers]. It is somewhat amusing that, unable to see the easy way to national domination, they had to take steps A through X. But I'm pretty sure I could plan a national takeover better, and I don't live in a religious commune, so. I think the plot just spiraled out of control at that point.

The book was okay, but I'd rather finish all the V.I. Warshawskis first before getting back to this author. Still I wonder about the writers who are busy converting the current American political situation into mass-market thrillers (uh, besides this one).

29 May 2010

"Does anyone have a question where we don't end up having to help you people? Is anyone here okay with what's going on at this point in their careers, and maybe just curious about the shit we do?"
--Jon Stewart BEA, moderating discussions with Mary Roach, John Grisham and Condoleezza Rice and (apparently) being driven slowly insane by audience questions about how to get published. And he does that shit: The next book by the writers and performers of "The Daily Show," EARTH (THE BOOK): A VISITOR'S GUIDE TO THE HUMAN RACE, hits stores September 21, and long before his tenure as the host he published a book of essays.

28 May 2010

The Wall Street Journal asked some famous people what they're reading this summer; Jonathan Franzen promotes THE RED PONY, which he describes as "dark dark dark and good good good." Apparently he used all his other words for FREEDOM. (August 31!)

Reading on the Road: The Mayor Bloomberg Practically Handing Me My Boarding Pass Edition

It's not your imagination, this series has been on hiatus since I haven't left New York in five months. As much as I love this city, that is a little too intimate.

I was going to test-drive my Kindle on this trip, but several pages of tedious backstory later I didn't get around to it this week. Next time! I promise to actually leave the boroughs regularly from here on out. I'm off to Houston, Texas and here's my judicious mix of tote-bag paperbacks:
Michael Idov, GROUND UP -- debut novel about a coffee shop
Joe Queenan, CLOSING TIME -- debut memoir about blue-collar Philadelphia
Simon Rich, ELLIOT ALLAGASH -- debut novel about, well, I think it has to do with a prep school?
Truman Capote, IN COLD BLOOD -- self-explanatory, my first read (I know)
I've left some posts under the warmer in case you are stuck somewhere or not skipping town. (Or not American, and thus not observing Memorial Day. I asked a coworker what she was doing for Memorial Day and she heaved the most complex, marvelous, sad sigh, like a minor-key sonata. I of course had to ruin it by making a joke, but I know how she felt.

Have a great weekend! (And happy fifth birthday blog!)

27 May 2010

Boos to the elder statesman

In an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun, Garrison Keillor writes, "Call me a pessimist, call me Ishmael, but I think that book publishing is about to slide into the sea." One can only assume he didn't feel that way when publishing his twenty-two books, or for that matter (thanks Marjorie for alerting me to this) when opening his independent bookstore in St. Paul.

Keillor sees book publishing as an extension of a class of elites who, now that anyone can have a blog (uh, guilty), are in danger of losing their protected status. At least he gets a little bit funny when describing what will replace it:
The upside of self-publishing is that you can write whatever you wish, utter freedom, and that also is the downside. You can write whatever you wish, and everyone in the world can exercise their right to read the first three sentences and delete the rest.

Self-publishing will destroy the aura of martyrdom that writers have enjoyed for centuries. Tortured geniuses, rejected by publishers, etc., etc. If you publish yourself, this doesn't work anymore, alas.
I can only assume it was his agent's idea to publish this on the first day of BookExpo America, the publishing trade show running through today here in New York. (I'm not at BEA myself, but not because I think publishing is doomed; I had a scheduling conflict. Just so we're clear.) It's a popular event on which to hang speculation about the future of the industry -- I did it myself last year -- and Keillor's beliefs, whatever they are, are more interesting to talk about than whether some British lady accepted some money in a slightly shady manner. But it will eventually be disheartening when Keillor, having already espoused a belief about book publishing, will come out and hawk his own book (and there must be another); it'd be nice if he could criticize without seeming to yank up the ladder after him, you know? That's just bad manners.

26 May 2010

Manuscripts in the SKY

The publisher Macmillan is under the spotlight in a Times article today about the Flatiron Building, where it moved in 1969 and has slowly taken over its available office space.

I've never been higher than the lobby myself, but I hear conditions in the Flatiron are... somewhat less posh than described. On the other hand, Madison Square Park is all kinds of lovely and you can watch the Shake Shack line live.

Filmbook of Bad News: No, Brad Pitt, No

The American adaptation of "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" has a director -- David Fincher -- and a projected release date of December 2011. (Read my review of the Swedish adaptation here.) I found Fincher's last movie pretty but boring, and his next movie is the Aaron Sorkin-scripted Facebook movie (insert mp3 of me laughing hysterically), but I wasn't worried about this project in his hands till rumors that Brad Pitt would play Blomkvist.

Perish the thought! Quoth Jenni Miller of Cinematical, "Frankly, I can't imagine a more inappropriate, though typically Hollywood, casting choice." She puts forth Mads Mikkelsen which is a solid option, but my top choice is still Liam Neeson, because Blomkvist is supposed to be a little old and a little weatherbeaten. (Don't talk to me about CGI-aging Brad Pitt again.)

As for Salander, the names Carey Mulligan (ace) and Ellen Page (acceptable) have been tossed around, but Cinematical also reports that Noomi Rapace, who played her in the Swedish movies, is not interested in reprising her role. That's a damn shame, but not surprising; these films were huge blockbusters in Sweden and she probably doesn't want to be forever tied to the character.

25 May 2010

Watch your favorite books

In the 15 minutes I wasn't paying attention to them, book trailers became so big that they got their own award show -- albeit one described by its MC as "meant to be a spoof." The 2010 Moby Awards, handed out by Melville House Publishing, handed out such accolades as Best Performance By An Author -- it was this guy! -- Trailer Least Likely To Sell The Book and Bloodiest Book Trailer. Zach Galifianakis took home a Moby for Best Cameo for his performance in a video about John Wray's excellent LOWBOY, but Jonathan Safran Foer probably didn't pick up his statuette for Most Annoying Performance By An Author for this video tied to EATING ANIMALS. (Okay, I haven't watched that one yet. We all need our illusions.)

The most memorable book trailers I've seen recently were the Brad Meltzer "All my negative reviews at once" one and ABRAHAM LINCOLN, VAMPIRE HUNTER. (Naturally, neither of these were on TV, although occasionally you'll see a TV ad for a book and it's usually a deeply weird experience.) Have you seen one recently you'd like to call out?

24 May 2010

Jonathan Lethem is about to up sticks and move to Southern California to teach at Pomona College. In an interview with him, the New Yorker inexplicably acts like he will never return (or, alternately, that it's 1848). Eh, he'll be back.

The judge, judged

I have often maintained that I can read anything on the subway without being much bothered by what people around me are thinking. But on that point this book is testing my mettle.

It's too bad, because first, it's extremely interesting in a Michael Pollanesque vein, weaving in a tasty mix of studies that prove what we've always known about high-sugar, high-salt and high-fat foods and those concerning what we never knew about how they influence our behavior. And second, I don't even like carrot cake, so suck on that.

23 May 2010

The mothership calling me home

"Speculating about Stieg Larsson and what he was like has practically become a journalistic subindustry in Sweden." The New York Times has everything you needed to know (and some you didn't) about the author of the THE GIRL WHO... trilogy cut short by his death at age 50. The Times has also gone live with its review of the third book, THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET'S NEST, and in brief, I could not possibly disagree with it any more.

22 May 2010

Tentative Summer 2010 Reading List

David Foster Wallace, CONSIDER THE LOBSTER
David Foster Wallace, THE BROOM OF THE SYSTEM

Thoughts on selection, order? Anybody got a good used-book dealer? And what are your summer reading plans?

21 May 2010

Too many books is all relative

Housing Works' blog linked to this Times story from 1997 about big book collections in small apartments a few days ago. On one hand I sympathize, and on the other hand I get that itchy "Hoarders" feeling from it:

There is Edward Robb Ellis, an 87-year-old writer, who shares his four-room apartment in Chelsea with what he estimates to be 10,000 books, including, he reveals proudly, five sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Ron Kolm, a writer and bookstore night manager, lost his bedroom in Long Island City, Queens, to his archive of downtown writing. For years, he and his wife have slept in the living room on a fold-out bed.

He recalled watching his reading material rise to a height of seven feet. ''I felt like Schliemann, only in reverse,'' Mr. Kolm said, referring to the 19th-century German archeologist. ''Instead of excavating the levels of Troy, I was creating them.''

But I should be patting myself on the back because I definitely don't have 10,000 books, nor do I have even one encyclopedia set. Right??

''I've been in places where there were books in the bathtub,'' said Henry Holman, who rummages through apartments as the buyer for Gryphon Bookshop on the Upper West Side. ''I've been in apartments where there were books in the bed. I've been in apartments where you were hard put to imagine exactly where they did sleep.''

Okay, but if you fall asleep with a book in your bed, that's not the same thing as storing them there. (Uh, hypothetically?) But this might be my favorite clause, about the architect who designed Trump Tower:

"his pirate books are overflowing into his architectural books"

Never had a problem there! Okay, we're all good, who's up for a dollar cart run?

20 May 2010

Gotta get a gimmick

At a reading in Los Angeles yesterday, Chuck Palahniuk tossed inflatable objects into the crowd to have them blow them up to win prizes. I saw him read several years ago (I believe it was around when LULLABY came out) and everyone who asked a question got a fake dead bird.

Bill Bryson is not getting my postcards

Uh, Bill. We talked about this. You haven't published a travel book since 2002, and now you've come out with... a 512-page travelogue taking place inside your own house? From your site:
Bill Bryson and his family live in a Victorian parsonage in a part of England where nothing of any great significance has happened since the Romans decamped. Yet one day, he began to consider how very little he knew about the ordinary things of life as he found it in that comfortable home. To remedy this, he formed the idea of journeying about his house from room to room to "write a history of the world without leaving home."
That is not what I meant! You'd better have your bag packed tonight because I'm coming by with the truck at 5AM and we're going to reenact "The Great Race" with a cab full of pugs! Don't forget your towel!

(Still deeply looking forward to it. October 5.)

(And not actually going over to Bill Bryson's house.)

(Unless invited.)

19 May 2010

WITZ author Joshua Cohen, I like you already

Describe a typical day in your writing life.

You mean after my manservant brings the muesli?

Lately it’s been whatever essay I’m writing for rent gets two hours in the morning. Then a walk on the boardwalk or beach. Then six or seven hours at the desk for myself. I assume I eat lunch (I read during lunch). I have friends but many of them drink too much. That begins around 10 p.m. At 4 a.m. comes the dream about the elephants. At 6 a.m. comes the dream about Mom. At 9 a.m. my manservant brings the muesli.

--NYT Paper Cuts blog

Filmbook: "No human being would stack books like this."

Not a famous book, but a famous library: With the blessing of the New York Public Library, Improv Everywhere recreates the ghost-in-the-stacks bit from "Ghostbusters":

18 May 2010

Free agency

The dominant pharmacy chain here in New York is called Duane Reade, named for two streets in lower Manhattan; there's one on practically every corner here.

Despite being massively in debt, so much so that it was recently sold off to Walgreens, the company has been putting its stores through unnecessary makeovers. The 'new look' includes a rack near the counter with trade paperbacks as well as mass market, something I haven't seen in any other drugstore chain around here (and you know I look).

A quick glance through the rack at the store near my office reveals Walter Kirn's UP IN THE AIR (better than the movie), Michael Lewis' THE BLIND SIDE (possibly better than the movie?), Joe Queenan's CLOSING TIME and... LEBRON'S DREAM TEAM: HOW FIVE FRIENDS MADE HISTORY, cowritten by James and Buzz Bissinger. (Its hardcover title was SHOOTING STARS.)

Given the speculation and outright advocacy surrounding James' possibly coming to play here, this means... absolutely nothing. But it's interesting to note from this collection what Duane Reade assumes its primary customers for these books are.

17 May 2010

Least anticipated book of the summer

The funniest thing on the Internet right now is "Sorr about the bag," a phrase from a story on the site 2 Birds 1 Blog. The second funniest thing on the Internet right now is the Amazon publisher-provided product description for Glenn Beck's novel, THE OVERTON WINDOW. Let's get to the purple prose:

A plan to destroy America, a hundred years in the making, is about to be unleashed... can it be stopped?

Killer opening, in that it describes practically every action movie since "Red Dawn."

"There is a powerful technique called the Overton Window that can shape our lives, our laws, and our future. It works by manipulating public perception so that ideas previously thought of as radical begin to seem acceptable over time. Move the Window and you change the debate. Change the debate and you change the country."

Here's where I got confused. It sounds like self-help, no? Like THE SECRET meets mind control infused with 1984? Turns out the idea of an Overton window is actually a political theory concept, and some people are pretty ticked that Beck borrowed it for a soon-to-be airport thriller.
For Noah Gardner, a twentysomething public relations executive...

I assume that "public relations executive" is the way Beck signifies to the audience that his hero is not a "real man," and is instead an ineffectual wuss and worse -- without making him, I don't know, a hairdresser or a member of the Village People. I'm laughing not because those stereotypes are funny, but rather because (a) conservatively, PR is 66 percent female and (b) you couldn't have thought of something, I don't know, more impressive? At least make him the vice president of something. Or an i-banker. That would kill two symbolic birds with one metaphoric stone.

(No disrespect to the publicists I know. Book publicists are pretty much the best kind of PR out there and I have never been mistreated by one, for real.)

...it's safe to say that political theory is the furthest thing from his mind. Smart, single, handsome, and insulated from the world's problems by the wealth and power of his father, Noah is far more concerned about the future of his social life than the future of his country.

Still snickering. Also, I'm pretty sure I read this book when it was pink and the hero's name was Naomi.

But all of that changes when Noah meets Molly Ross, a woman who is consumed by the knowledge that the America we know is about to be lost forever. She and her group of patriots have vowed to remember the past and fight for the future--but Noah, convinced they're just misguided conspiracy-theorists, isn't interested in lending his considerable skills to their cause.

So much to love! Molly Ross = Betsy Ross + Molly Pitcher! The hyphen between "conspiracy" and "theorists," which no one ever uses ever! (You can practically hear the sighs of old men bookending it.) The group of patriots, or as we will call them, the "Schmee Tardy," to show Noah-Naomi the error of his ways!

And then the world changes.


An unprecedented attack on U.S. soil shakes the country to the core and puts into motion a frightening plan, decades in the making, to transform America and demonize all those who stand in the way. Amidst the chaos, many don't know the difference between conspiracy theory and conspiracy fact--or, more important, which side to fight for.

I'm totally naming my new band Conspiracy Fact.

But for Noah, the choice is clear: Exposing the plan, and revealing the conspirators behind it, is the only way to save both the woman he loves and the individual freedoms he once took for granted.

What if it were on the other foot? What if it were the lady or the freedoms? Just curious!

It must also be noted that Beck asked his fans to vote on the cover design of the book, but unfortunately they went with the least insane option (#2).

This is Beck's second foray into fiction (after THE CHRISTMAS SWEATER) and you may be surprised to discover, between his books and a magazine -- oh yeah, he has one of those -- the fake crier of Fox News makes $13 million a year from publishing. But that part is not funny at all.

16 May 2010

If you geek out over cover design, you'll want to pore over David Drummond's blog, new to me (source unknown). Drummond is a Canadian designer who has done work for Amnesty International and the New York Times Magazine. Here are two favorites of mine.

15 May 2010

"The Metal Children," and books that change your life

Last night I went to see "The Metal Children," a new play about a YA author who goes to the small town in the process of banning one of his books. I'd been looking forward to this for a while because playwright Adam Rapp is one of my favorites; I don't think this is his best play, but I really liked it and think it shed some particular light on the relationship between authors and readers.

The fictional author in the play, Tobin Falmouth, hasn't even thought about his book in years before agreeing to participate in a debate about it in the town of Midlothia -- but once there, he meets a string of people to whom his book was extremely important. And he's startled to see that something he wrote ten years earlier could have that effect (and at times alarmed, since the book-within-the-play concerns a string of disappearances of pregnant teenagers).

Late in the play he gets around to a long, rambling speech of how the book affected his own life, and it's impressive, but not as much as the moment another character turns to him and says, "Your book read me, Mr. Falmouth." And I sat in the audience and thought, That is so true. If you've had that experience, of reading a book where it seemed like the book knew you better than you knew yourself, then you know what I mean. It makes you want to smile at nothing in particular. And it could make you (as it does in "The Metal Children") behave strangely toward the author of the book, presuming a connection there that the author might not even see.

I haven't had that feeling in a while, but I'm always looking for it.

14 May 2010

Books in the family

My uncle is an archaeologist and his workplace just published this book. He's not listed as one of the primary authors, but it represents the culmination of years of research and we are all very stoked about it.

I haven't yet committed to reading it; it's already out of stock on Amazon, paving the way for the inevitable Nicolas Cage movie adaptation. (He's more of a Clark Gregg, really.) But I would like to, to the extent that I understand what will probably be a fairly arcane archaeological work.

In case you're in Belton, Texas (northeast of Austin), they're having a signing tomorrow at the Bell County Museum.

13 May 2010

Nick Hornby returns...

...to his column in The Believer! At the end of 2008 the HIGH FIDELITY author announced he was ending monthly installments of "Stuff I've Been Reading," the source of three collections of essays about reading at once casual and passionate. (A major influence on this blog, for certain.) Now you can read an excerpt from his newest on the Believer site, in which he compares himself to a boomerang child.

O frabjeous day! Thanks to blogmigo Wade Garrett for sending me this.

12 May 2010

Waiting by the mailbox already

Ooh, ooh: The New Yorker's June 7 issue will have a list of the top 20 American writers under 40, the first such list published by the magazine since 1999. If you think you might be on this list, the Observer reports that you'll know for sure by Monday, in case you want to sit by the phone instead of doing something like being super awesome at writing and putting the rest of us under-40s to shame.

So who do you think will be on the list?

What Elena Kagan is reading

I couldn't find anything on what the Supreme Court nominee likes to read for fun (clearly, the most important part of her nomination). But she once argued that federal campaign law could not ban campaign books paid for by corporate funds, contrary to what someone on Fox News said. So we know she likes free speech and hates books that aren't boring...

11 May 2010

For the writers in the crowd, Editorial Ass handles the question of what to do when you're trying to sell a book whose title has recently been used by another book in your genre. Oof, that sucks!

I collect titles, as I've established, but this is one I really envied when I saw it.

Filmbook: Now is the summer of our discontent

Publishers Weekly featured a couple of the comic books behind this summer's blockbusters, including recent box office winner "Iron Man 2" and "Scott Pilgrim Versus The World." But are there any movies coming out based on ordinary books?

Short answer: no. (Long answer: noooooooooooooo.) I guess I shouldn't expect better, given the reputation of The Summer Movie, but the pickings seem especially slim this year. Semi-prodigy Nick McDonell's novel TWELVE about New York City prep schoolers with drug problems gets the big-screen treatment (starring Chace Crawford of "Gossip Girl" -- should've gotten Westwick) on July 2nd; July 23rd brings the further desecration of my childhood with a big-screen adaptation of Beverly Cleary's Ramona books (although the author said she was pleased overall). "The Switch," based on a story by Jeffrey Eugenides and opening August 20, looks good 'cause it's Jason Bateman and bad 'cause it's directed by two guys who worked on "Cavemen," the inexplicable sitcom based on the Geico ads.

The only real heavy-hitter in this category not involving vampires and werewolves (yup, Twilight 3 is happening) is the long-awaited/-dreaded adaptation of "Eat Pray Love." Warning: trailer may cause violent eye-rolling, worries about Javier Bardem's Hollywood career. Well, at least I'll be getting a lot of reading done this year.

10 May 2010

But wait! It's the Kobo!

Kepkanation has a solid piece on the Kobo, Borders' entry into the e-reader market announced by the store this week and on sale June 17.

Clearly they've tried to make a more single-function device, and I appreciate that even if the market doesn't. But its introduction echoes what a lot of Borders' decisions look like recently: Too little, too late. The Kobo shares a lot of similarities with the Kindle (black and white screen, e-Ink, the blocky white '80s-computer shape), so what took them so long? Even if they had been able to move this announcement up a few months, they could have played up the affordability angle against the iPad.

The Kobo and the Nook both have one advantage over other devices in the brick-and-mortar stores, but whether they will be able to harness it, I'm not sure. If your mother (for demographic example -- I'm sure she's very nice) has a problem with her e-reader, she would probably rather take it into Borders or Barnes & Noble to get it looked at than spend time on the phone with Amazon customer service and then have to mail her Kindle in. Same with the iPad and Apple stores, although you can't buy actual books when you're there. But I haven't heard that either store is trying that.

09 May 2010

Here, there, somewhere else

I can't remember if Lorrie Moore ever names the state in which her new book, A GATE AT THE STAIRS, is set, but most of it takes place in a city called Troy. Often tagged with the phrase "the Athens of the Midwest," Troy is the home of the big state university where the book's narrator, Tassie, has been studying, and when we're not there, we follow her home to the small town where she grew up.

Troy probably resembles a lot of cities, but I had decided for myself pretty early on which city it was. Moore would probably disapprove of this, but then she shouldn't have borrowed the historical event Tassie's dad jokingly refers to, one I'm pretty sure didn't happen in every Midwestern college town, and assigned it to Troy.

What are the advantages to setting a novel in a fictional place? Freedom of invention, to begin with. It's more critical for fantasy or science fiction works, I should think, but any author might want to add streets or even neighborhoods in which to place her characters without the interference of "But that corner isn't zoned for a restaurant in real life." (Tassie nannies for a couple in the book, one of whom owns a restaurant.) If the author is writing about a real-life event, altering the landscape of an existing city may not be enough to protect against libel charges -- or pesky reviewers who point out how similar Book X is to News Item Y. Then again, it's easier to make up a small city than a large one, and region makes a difference, too; I suspect going to your agent with a realistic work set in "a major East Coast city" wouldn't go over well, but the Midwest can be a little... more hazy in the minds of other people.

I don't think I can get out of this topic without throwing in a mention of Yoknapatawpha County, one of the most famous fictional places in American literature. (So here it is.) I wonder whether critics of the day probed him for details of the "real" Yoknapatawpha or even journeyed to Lafayette County, MS, the widely accepted real-life analogue, to examine it for his reading public. Maybe our mania for 'realness' is more recent, more of a fad, driven by the fact that we can Google "real location of TITLE" and give ourselves an 'answer' that way.

I couldn't even engage with Troy, the fictional city, but it didn't affect my enjoyment of the book. Late in it Moore pulls off this one revelatory sequence to make a creative writing major fret (aided by the fact that no one had spoiled me for it, so I will follow suit) and for which I could mostly forgive its earlier linguistic frills.

08 May 2010

In the elevator yesterday

Two office workers enter. One is carrying James Frey's MY FRIEND LEONARD.

#1: Is that what you're reading right now?
#2: Yeah, I just started it last night.
#1: Were you surprised?
#2: Yeah, you wouldn't think it would have a pink cover.

#2 wasn't liking the book very much yet, but self-described as a person who always has to finish a book, no matter how bad it is. A third coworker chimed in from behind me to say that she would always leave the bookmark in a book she didn't like much, but almost never went back to it.

07 May 2010

Merriam-Webster's lame game

I subscribe to the Merriam-Webster Word-of-the-Day, one of that cluster of e-mails I read as the coffee kicks in. Sometimes I'm a little disappointed when it turns out to be a word I already use all the time, but I've never been bored enough with it to unsubscribe. But they've done something deeply annoying to their format so I'm thinking about breaking up with them.

Classically, these e-mails were always titled with the word in question, like so*:

(Great word, too!) In the last month or six weeks, however, they switched to providing little "clues" in the subject, so that you have to open up the e-mail to be bitterly disappointed by how lame those clues are... I mean, to figure out what word they meant.

Barely a month in, the writers have clearly run out of amusing things to say about the day's words. Here's April 30:

Is it "a fun word," or is it perhaps the only noun used for "cave explorers"?

Exhibit B, from May 1st:

So I look at this subject and I think: "...Deaf?" Then I feel like an asshole, but one might argue that Beethoven is famous not only for being a great composer, but for doing so despite going deaf while producing his great work. See, Merriam-Webster? You did this to me!

Also, I might use "spelunker" but when am I honestly going to use pianistic?**

Okay, one more example, from May 3:

Here's a word I didn't know, but which, once I'd read the rest of the e-mail, I thought "They've got it all wrong!" The two definitions provided are
1 : to feel or express dejection or discontent : complain
*2 : to long for something
How are those "the blues"? I guess the second definition may qualify, but discontent is not "the blues." Complaining can be an aftereffect of "the blues," but it is not "the blues." Toss in the faux-catchiness of "This word's for you," and I can't even appreciate that it's related to the more common "to pine (for)," because I'm just annoyed.

I know they're only trying to help by making word acquisition more "fun," but given that these e-mails hit me at Maximum Annoyance Hour, I think they could be more clever and less "Uh, well, we have to title it something quick." It's not as if the creators of this e-mail are sitting over their coffee during their Maximum Annoyance Hour, thinking: "Spelunker. Why do we have to do this again?"

So I'll nominate myself for the job. I send a lot of e-mails and I'd be happy to recycle some of my own private subject lines until I have time to write eye-catching, click-through-inspiring masterpieces. How can you not open an e-mail with a title like "THERE IS NO GOD," "Don't forget to pack the world's tiniest violin" and "This is a horrible case, but I LOL'ed*** at the rhetorical question"? 'Cause I may have used all of those in the past week.**** Call me, dictionary denizens, and we'll go spelunking in the wide world of words together.

* These screenshots are not terribly exciting, I know. But I wanted some illustration.
** At work I have somehow (heh) gained a reputation as being the spelling/grammar person, proof I guess that one can only pose as normal for so long before Hulking out into full nerd. In my defense, apparently this chair needed to be filled; one of my colleagues recently asked me what a proper noun was.
*** Technically, L'ed OL. What.
**** I cherry-picked the most dramatic ones, but my point stands.

06 May 2010

Spotted on the subway: That's a bingo

Writer Lauren Bans, of Salman Rushdie fan fame, snapped this photo of a woman reading GOING ROGUE on the subway, "book cover removed so peeps wouldn't be all 'judgery.'" Too late!

I had been waiting for this to happen; since it was on a train I take a lot, I guess I'll never know how close I was. So what should be my next "Where's Waldo" subway sighting goal? It can be an incongruous book or an incongruous combination of book and reader.

05 May 2010

In which Find and Replace is your friend

Via Ed Champion on Twitter: Author Alexandra Sokoloff is being sued by a friend who claims she defamed him in her novel THE UNSEEN. It's hard to throw out his claim when he and the protagonist share the same first and last name -- at the very least, that seems like an avoidable error.

Filmbook-to-Be: Freakonomics (2010)

I wasn't all that excited about the news that the best-selling FREAKONOMICS was being turned into a movie until I actually read something about it this week. Instead of one long work, the documentary (which just played in New York this weekend at the Tribeca Film Festival) is comprised of five short films, each with a different director tackling one of the concerns (?) of the book. The talent recruited is pretty stellar, from Alex "Taxi To The Dark Side" Gibney to Heidi "Jesus Camp" Ewing, and the whole thing is stitched together by Seth "The King Of Kong" Gordon.

For introducing mainstream audiences to these up-and-coming directors, this may actually do some good. Keep an eye out for "Freakonomics" in November.

04 May 2010

Unbookening will be sorry one day, yes you will, yes you will

(If you're new here, this is the origin of the term unbookening, back when it still had its hyphen [!]; these are all the entries that followed.)

March-April edition:
Received 19 books to review
Checked 9 books out of the library
Borrowed 1 book from a friend
Bought 6 books
Won 1 book in a contest (I am lucky on the Internet right now)

Donated 24 books (OK, so I did do a little spring cleaning)
Gave away 5 books
Returned 12 to the library

Programming notes:
First, this feature is going bimonthly (first definition) until further notice. I'm still trying to reduce my stash of unread books and think about every book I acquire; I just am running out of things to write about that, which is why I have to pull shenanigans like cramming a bunch of non-related material into the bottom of those posts just to keep myself interested, ahem.

Second, Baseball Week is definitely going to happen -- but not till July. I'm thinking the 5th? It will definitely include those Roth and Mahler books, plus two titles to be announced in a few weeks. This doesn't mean that summer of DFW isn't happening, either; I just need to go back to the lab a little bit and perfect my 29-hour day. (Also, make room on my shelves to buy those. Hey, that is slightly relevant!)

Third, whose hotly anticipated summer novel did I get in the mail to review last week? And whose remaining body of work (four novels and a short-story collection I haven't read yet) am I going to crush into the next four weeks before I get to it, I hope? Stay tuned 'cause I will probably be writing about him and that process soon. (Three unhelpful clues: He was born in the 1960s, he lives in Los Angeles and he has a Twitter account he appears to run himself.)

03 May 2010

But I do plan on reading them... honest...

No Hipster Puppies entry has ever hit home as hard as this one.
When I went to bed at night I suffered my first bout of insomnia. This is what death would be like, I feared: not sleep but insomnia. To sleep no more, as I had learned in Pre-1700 British Drama. I had never feared insomnia before -- like prison, wouldn't it just give you more time to read? I'd always been able to sleep. But now I lay there, fretful as a Bartok quartet. My mind wandered through the night hours uneasily, and it was indeed like prison: when the sky began to lighten, I was in disbelief and filled with terrible, buzzing tiredness.

Once I woke with the feeling that I had actually died in the night. I awoke with a sense that during ostensible sleep I had encountered not just life's brevity but its speed! and its noise and its irrelevance and its close. How we glamorized our lives! our bodies! which were nothing more than -- potatoes! with a potato's flat eyes and pink snappable roots. I lay there in bed in a peaceful form of depression. In another town, one less antagonistic toward religion, this mood -- pre-prayer, pre-God, pre-conversion -- might have been assigned some spiritual significance. But for people in Troy, God was mind-clutter: a cross between a billboard, a charlatan, a hamburger, and a fairy king. I had always thought God was part of a sensible if credulous denial of death, one that made life doable. How could that be wicked? Why bother criticizing that? Why disparage the crutches of the lame? Why vainly imagine one's own gait unhobbled? Besides, religion gave us swearing. Before Christianity, what was there? "By Jove"? But life in Troy was to be taken without any lucky charms of any sort. It was neo-reformation. The walls of my winter room seemed a silvery, quilted satin, like the interior of a coffin. I began to feel there was no such thing as wisdom. Only lack of wisdom.

--Lorrie Moore, A GATE AT THE STAIRS

02 May 2010

Bill Murray Reading Poetry

This is probably the second most important thing I will post here all year, so straighten up.

01 May 2010

Small fabulists

I taught a class on autobiography and memoir this week, in which my students (ages 10-13) were writing short essays about one memorable event in their lives. I had to talk multiple students down from their insistence that they remembered the day they were born well enough to write about. One stared meaningfully off into the distance and said, "I saw a bright light. A man in a white coat. Slapped me on the back." Even if this is theoretically possible, what would be the odds of having more than one in the same room?

Obviously I couldn't verbally fact-check all of them, so I'll never know whether L. was allowed to play nickel slots in a casino on vacation or if my co-teacher M. really pushed her sister off her bike and then told her it was an accident. But after protesting that nothing had ever happened to them, they all wrote very specific accounts with a bizarre level of detail. I sat feeling blank till S. asked me for a story about "doggies"; I never had a dog, so I wrote about the time I got attacked by an Irish mastiff instead. (This didn't bother her.) She wrote about learning to swim in a deep pool and the feeling of looking down past your toes, down into the water.

If you've bothered to read this far you must be quite bored; but it's Free Comic Book Day, so go out and do that.