31 May 2011

It's the circle of life

When I wrote that my college town was missing its beloved indie bookshop (after the demise of the generically named College Hill Bookstore) I spoke too soon: A local new-and-used store called Symposium Books grabbed a space near campus last fall, which I passed on one of many "But wait, what was there before?" tours of the street. I wasn't able to go in and check it out because of its holiday hours, but the prospect of a used bookstore that close to campus is a great sign. I certainly could have used it. 

Interestingly, the campus store has also remodeled to give its non-course-reading section more of a "Come here and linger awhile" feeling, with overstuffed armchairs and a cafe pouring Blue State Coffee (an establishment and chain new to me, but two dirty Commie bleeding-heart thumbs up). I see the redesign as an acknowledgment that, even as most students rely on the campus store to get their books, that trade has its peaks and valleys which are in itself insufficient to sustain a business year-round. That, or the next generation of proud parents, alums, etc. are not buying enough T-shirts and water bottles. (Guilty, at least this weekend.)

30 May 2011

Overheard on Amtrak

Woman spies her friend pulling out a copy of MATING, by Norman Rush.
"Oh my God, that's my favorite novel. Favorite, favorite, favorite.
It's like I missed the characters. I'm jealous that you're reading it
right now!" She's reading a definitively food-stained cream paperback
of Lewis Hyde's THE GIFT.

Alison Espach's THE ADULTS: Everybody knows it sucks to grow up

Consider Alison Espach's debut as three novellas about and narrated by the same character at various points in her life. The third is sublime, the second is tedious, and the first is tragic and difficult to take; but to get the full effect of the third, it's necessary to push and halt through the others.

When THE ADULTS opens Emily Vidal is 14, the only child of a family in a suburban Connecticut enclave, and her parents have just decided to get divorced. Two things happen to Emily that year: She witnesses the death of a neighbor, and she gets involved in a rather complicated relationship, and coupled with the effects of the divorce, those experiences follow her into adulthood as we revisit her later in life.

Hyperdetailed, almost painful, this first section can be overwhelming to the extent to which it forces you behind Emily's eyes. The ADULTS opens with this sort of set piece at Emily's father's fiftieth birthday party out on the lawn, at which Emily (as teenagers do) is sulky, disruptive and in a way envious of all the other people who know what they ought to be doing. (Or so it seems to her.) The boy who likes her and the boy she likes are both at the party, and hard to separate. She doesn't know where she stands with her best friend. The accumulation of detail is critical, but a little bit hard to take.

There's an overabundance of detail in the second section as well, but it isn't till the third section that it all snaps together. Not every sentence is packed with detail, but they all are pulling in unison toward a greater picture -- my favorite example being, and this is completely out of context, "Jonathan was asking me if I would like to pass him the bread basket as though it were an option to deny someone the bread basket." These are sentences that cut, but they also advance the conception of Emily as she moves away from these life-changing events and, yes, tries to measure her own maturity against the adults around her. I wouldn't call the second section of THE ADULTS a failure by that sense, but the details highlighted pull against any meaningful characterization that is going on, so the reader feels yanked in both directions at once.

As disturbing as I occasionally found THE ADULTS, it stays with me. That said, I had trouble finding the momentum to finish this book because some of the circumstances described in the beginning are difficult to comprehend. If having the impulse to shout at a fictional character (or a few) is not fun for you, you're not going to even get through the beginning of this book, but if you can hang on: it gets better.

My interest in this book was piqued when I saw Espach compete in Literary Death Match earlier this year

29 May 2011

Jancee Dunn, aging gracefully

Former MTV VJ Jancee Dunn chased a fairly serious novel (2008's DON'T YOU FORGET ABOUT ME) with this collection of essays about getting old that can't help but keep bubbling up to the comic surface. Even when Dunn and her friend Lou are blankly contemplating their parents' eventual demise, they do so with the backdrop of a series of terrible Lifetime movies, as is their tradition, after snarking on the other shoppers at Whole Foods.

Dunn has more than made her peace with age; she tells her best friend explicitly in ...GETTING A TATTOO that she's prepared to embrace it, albeit in a gentle hipsterish way. Not for her the Red Hat Society; it's more about leaving boring dinner parties earlier and going on better vacations. And one thing she really does well in this collection is capture conversations like those -- I think there are three chapters of straight conversation. This device could be so tedious even for the most empty-eared eavesdropper, yet each one in the book feels authentic and revealing, not artificial or insidery. If two characters were having that dialogue in a fictional context, it would be entirely believable. (Was she taping? ...Hmm, unlikely.)

I found it interesting, in the department of publishing nerdery, that the paperback edition of this book is blurbed by Sloane Crosley, because Dunn is more of a prefigure to Crosley. Her first memoir, about her adventures in music journalism, came out in 2006; since then she's flown just below the radar, popping up now and then in magazines. What separates ...GETTING A TATTOO from Crosley's books is the unity of theme displayed here; having used her linear anecdotal material, here she hovers around a theme.

Origin note: I spotted this book in the Biography/Memoir section of my branch library while I was looking for something else. I knew Dunn had come out with a second memoir, and had enjoyed the first one BUT ENOUGH ABOUT ME when I snagged a copy for free while visiting Dunn's publisher in 2006.

28 May 2011

James Hynes, NEXT: Like a modern man

I had this book all figured out until it took the most unexpected leap -- definitely the most surprising ending of any book I've read so far this year. The ending completely changed my view of the book, and and now I'm forcing myself to review it without giving an inkling as to the nature of that turn, my spoiler tendon twitching all the while (it's on one side of the thumb, did you know). Yet we plunge ahead.

NEXT follows middle-aged academic Kevin Quinn on a day trip to Austin and in somewhat of a moment of crisis: The longtime editor of a small university press, Kevin found a job ad in the back pages of Publishers Weekly on a day when the office politics were getting him down, and, to his shock, was invited to fly down for an interview. At that moment, the private-sector position with corresponding salary bump and new landscape looked like a window into a bright new future, but arriving in Texas, Kevin is not at all sure whether he really wanted all that change. Should he instead stay in Michigan, with its sweet memories of collegiate aimlessness and old flings in the '70s? Should he instead commit to his younger girlfriend Stella, even though she may want children soon and he's undecided? (Adding a wrinkle, he hasn't told Stella about the interview, although sometimes he envisions her in his potential future Texan life.)

When the Believer Book Award [non-spoilery] writeup compared it to MRS. DALLOWAY, they weren't far off; the one day seems to stretch out forever as, hours early for his job interview, Kevin decides to go for a walk in the unfamiliar city, ill attired in his suit, trying to picture himself starting over. The critical distinction is Kevin's preoccupation with what age and circumstance have done to his sex life -- the sex he had, and that which he can expect to have whether he stays or leaves. Before Stella, there was his girlfriend of eleven years, who left him with an "I'm pregnant and it's not yours" (a line that causes him to feel even more ardor toward her "or some Dawkins shit like that" [A+++ Dawkins reference]). Before that, lovers whom he did not love, and the one woman whose rejection continually stings. Kevin regularly self-chastises for these flights of "geriatric priapism" (his words), even, at one point, finding himself in literal danger as a result of his fantasy about a woman on his flight down. A little on the nose, but an entertaining bit of misdirection.

To that point, this book did not entirely live down to its Better Book Titles spoof, although the third such scene sort of lost its effectiveness as a contributor to characterization. NEXT also won the Salon.com Good Sex in Fiction award for a scene that is so much more effective in context, I recommend you not read it now (but I will link to it anyway, ye foolhardy sorts).

A lot of ink has been spilled about this particular aspect of the middle-aged male, and Hynes makes more effort than most of universalizing Kevin's feelings beyond his concerns. Part of his dilemma, after all, is the ungendered feeling as if time had stopped somewhere back in his 20s, and finding himself suddenly past the age of the older employee he used to look up to at the record store where he worked in college. (That man, McNulty, is a supporting character who I would almost read a whole book on, but is probably best served by the tantalizing fragments here.) That sauce of fear and possibility, itemized here as the properties and surprises of Austin, could be served over any number of major life events, and is complemented by the pivot point of the ending which again, I will not spoil, but casts a light over everything.

I picked up this book after its inclusion in the Morning News' Tournament of Books; I am wending my way through those books as you can see at the bottom of this post. In other news, this blog is 6 years old today, making it not even middle-aged but possibly dead in Blog Years. Graphomania is a B.

27 May 2011

Oh, and one more thing before I pop the hatch on this weekend: I just reviewed Douglas Kennedy's THE MOMENT for the AV Club, and I need someone to talk about it with so we can argue about whether [redacted for spoilers] really [redacted], and whether the narrator is really going to his grave thinking that [redacted]. It's a mystery wrapped in a romance set in Cold War Berlin. Get to that!

Reading On The Road: In Deo Speramus

I haven't written one of these in a while because it hardly seems worth it for short trips, and most of what I've been taking have been short trips. I will try to write some more this summer with all the fun traveling (sincerely!) that that entails.

This weekend, I'm off to my college reunion for four days of reminiscence and pointing to random buildings and saying "When did that get here?!" Having not set foot on campus since the day I moved out of dorms, I'm backlogged in both those activities, although I have lately been reading the college daily newspaper I used to work for to get myself up to speed. It's (still) spectacular.

Besides catching up on some reviewing I am looking forward to digging into two memoirs, Jon-Jon Goulian's THE MAN IN THE GRAY FLANNEL SKIRT (publishing, New York City) and Carolyn Weber's SURPRISED BY OXFORD (religion, philosophy). Sadly, in my four years on campus we lost the nearby independent bookstore -- last I knew it was a vaguely Indian clothing store? -- but there's always the ol' campus shop.

26 May 2011

Out on the rolling lawns again

I'm feeling pretty ambivalent about making a summer reading list this year. It is only this close to Memorial Day that I am free to admit that. I suppose I could bend to the local tendency and blame it on the weather; in the past few weeks here, we've moved from highly allergic semi-spring, to April in Seattle (or Atlantis, depending), and then jolted into what looks like summer. Where was the gentle crescendo? At least in Wisconsin we had two weeks, easy, of fresh warm days before the mosquitoes descended. On Saturday I had my bare feet in the Atlantic, and on Sunday I almost dug out my peacoat again.

I mean, it's not as if there's any danger that I won't read anything if I don't sit down and make a list. Last year I only read, I think, three books on my list, but it wasn't because, as a social-studies teacher once told me, my "brain was vegetating." I still read plenty. But I feel as though I have to defensively point that out in case I take up a soul-consuming video game habit in the meantime. Hasn't been a summer like that yet.

In my case I think it's a matter of balance; I'm feeling too regimented in other areas of life, hence the desire to ease off and just kind of read as I go. I'm also interested in the serendipitous ways of following one book into another, so it might be neat, rather than sticking to one list, to note how I end up in the books I end up in, and where the patterns are. (Swear this kind of notation won't take the place of Actual Blogging; I can just tack on an origin, or something.)

What I really want to do is finally tackle 2666, and also read something new in Spanish (suggestions? You know what to do), because I'd like to wake that muscle up for something. I could kill 2 birds and read 2666 in Spanish, but that feature would be better deemed Summer/Fall/Winter/Possibly Spring 2012 Reading, for which I do not have the patience. Yet I have that aspect which thrives on lists and metrics, that asks more, that tells me this is not enough.

25 May 2011

Crown has released an excerpt of Mindy Kaling's forthcoming memoir IS EVERYONE HANGING OUT WITHOUT ME?, and it's delightful. Except the cat pedicure parlor, that's just weird.

24 May 2011

A few Oprah's Book Club selections actually worth reading

Wednesday marks the last episode of Oprah Winfrey's network talk show. We won't bother watching it, so we'll have no idea whether they were all dead or not. (Been sitting on that joke for a year!)

Oprah's Book Club was great for the publishing industry and spectacular for the authors lucky enough to be picked, but it created an odd pressure system surrounding the picks. It can't be said for sure that her tendency to pick a certain type of problem novel featuring a female protagonist actually created a ripple effect in buying and marketing -- that other publishing houses decided to feature just Oprah-worthy picks -- but now to mention that a book got the once-coveted stamp is kind of a knock, isn't it? While the classics she mostly reached for in her earlier years are unassailable, some of her earlier picks (prior to 2003, for the sake of argument) are, well, assailable. Credit where credit's due, though: here are a few we actually liked:

Jane Hamilton, THE BOOK OF RUTH and A MAP OF THE WORLD: Hamilton's 2009 novel LAURA RIDER'S MASTERPIECE was kind of a weak sendup of romance-novel cliches, but her earlier works function as intricate miniatures of suburban middle-class life marked by one major event whose ramifications turn neighbors against each other. (The best of these, though not chosen for the book club, are DISOBEDIENCE and THE SHORT HISTORY OF A PRINCE.)

Barbara Kingsolver, THE POISONWOOD BIBLE: This novel about a family of missionaries set adrift in the Belgian Congo will ruin all other Kingsolver, but it's worth it. This is the kind of historical fiction that gives the lie to the term "historical fiction," so unconcerned is it with the concrete details of daily life, yet the lives it chronicles ring off the page. It's a textbook example of how to build a sense of creepiness into a narrative from the first page, even when nothing is happening, so as to make it unbearable when something does.

Bernhard Schlink, THE READER. This book really triumphs on rereading, when its nuances begin to emerge. Said nuances were not well demarcated by the 2009 movie adaptation, despite the best work of Best Actress Winner Kate Winslet, although for a mainstream movie it at least tries to force a kind of re-evaluation on its audience. Also by Bernhard Schlink, and excellent: THE WEEKEND.

23 May 2011

Spotted on the subway

Normally my invisibility to my fellow subway riders is a boon to this feature, but not last night on the N train. Guy in the red Adidas jacket, I'm going to go ahead and assume you're not from here judging by the length of time you were discussing what stop to get off at (and that that stop was Times Square). So maybe you didn't realize it's rude to elbow the woman you're sitting next to every 30 seconds.

It's also rude, when you're sitting down at first, to fling your manbag (which looked stupid, by the way!) into a stranger's lap. And it's rude to roll your eyes when she asks you to stop elbowing her, which she didn't really want to do and hardly ever has to do.

I may be invisible to you but everyone else knows where I am. Get with it.

P.S. I wrote this post this morning before I realized how funny "fling your manbag" is, so allow me to clarify. The manbag was a small black leather-looking bag on a cross-body strap. It was about the length and width of a trade paperback, and thick as two. When he sat down it swung over and landed in my lap. 

It goes without saying that you should also not fling your manbag on strange women on the subway, if you know what I mean, and I think you do.

22 May 2011

"I woke up at 8 for some reason and drank yesterday's leftover iced coffee in my pajamas while eluding the Times paywall."

The New York Times' Sunday Routine feature profiles Gary Shteyngart this week, and I'm surprised they got him to go so straight in the telling. From when I've seen him at the Brooklyn Book Festival and elsewhere, his answers tend to be rooted in truth but grow in the direction of absurdity. (At least 71 Irving Place, Xi'an and Porchetta, I have heard of before.) And are the staged pictures often included in this feature not inherently hilarious? Then again, the entire feature is something of a staged one, even as I enjoy it in that format.

(Oh hey, you're still here! ...Well... it's okay, so am I.)

21 May 2011

Will there be time to read after the Rapture?

In case you haven't heard, a man named Harold Camping is predicting the Rapture will take place today. In our research we have not been able to conclusively establish whether this is taking place at 6PM local time or 6PM Tokyo local time, meaning that if you are reading this you already know whether you have been Raptured or not.

The publishing staff here at Wormbook have become maybe a little unhealthily obsessed with this story, for which we credit Twitter -- a great place to hang out with people whose irreverent commentary might contribute to them not being Raptured. (Exhibit A; Exhibit B; Exhibit C. I love you all; sorry.) It's likely that we know some people for whom this is a genuine concern, whether or not one is Raptured, so we will state simply that we expect the prediction to be incorrect, and leave it there. If we expected differently we might be skimming the book of Revelations right now, which we assume will act as TIME Magazine for the faithful to get their analysis and commentary for what's happening on earth while we are elsewhere (and like TIME these days, will be a little too over-explanatory and familiar for comfort). It won't be all that urgent for them anyway, for the faithful.

Though not raised in a very religious household, nor evangelical Protestant, we were very impressionable children and the tradition we were raised in (to which our parents subscribe to varying degrees) stuck with us just enough room for the pry-fingers of doubt. We assume, for example, that you do not pack for a Rapture, but what if we get stuck in some sort of Celestial Waiting Room for a bit? Would it be worth strapping our Kindles to ourselves, just in case? Would a paper book be better, in case there are no outlets? Our Sunday-school educations didn't quite clarify what was going on in Heaven all that while. (Never mind that these inquiries are probably why we are not being Raptured. It's just we never go anywhere without one.) We tab to Google -- but we hesitate in time.

Anyway, aside from what might or might not be happening today it might do us all good to reread the "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After" chapter of David Mitchell's CLOUD ATLAS and focus on what's really scary, the threat of a postliterate society. The Guardian also has a piece on the LEFT BEHIND novels, which would seem to lend themselves to a situation like this, unless people would rather not be spoiled on what's about to happen to them. We didn't have time to read them. Will we later? In any case, we didn't bother writing any posts for after today, in case we did get Raptured. So if we don't update, just listen to this song four or five times until you see it's actually fairly cheery.

20 May 2011

"Henry James and Joseph Conrad actually dictated their later novels—which must count as one of the greatest vocal achievements of all time, even though they might have benefited from hearing some passages read back to them."
--Christopher Hitchens, from an essay on losing his voice in Vanity Fair. Might have???

I can't go on -- I'll go on.

"The upshot of this, I think, is that the greatness of a novel in the mind of its readers is often alloyed with those readers' sense of their own greatness (as readers) for having conquered it. I don’t think William Gaddis's THE RECOGNITIONS, for instance, is nearly as fantastic a novel as people often claim it is. But it is one of the most memorable and monumental experiences of my reading life. And these are the reasons why: because the thing was just so long; because I had such a hard time with it; and because I eventually finished it. (I read it as part of an academic reading group devoted to long and difficult American novels, and I'm not sure I would have got to the end of it otherwise). Reading a novel of punishing difficulty and length is a version of climbing Everest for people who prefer not to leave the house. And people who climb Everest don’t howl with exhilaration at the summit because the mountain was a good or a well made or an interesting mountain per se, but because they’re overawed at themselves for having done such a fantastically difficult thing."
-Mark O'Connell about what he calls Long Novel Stockholm Syndrome. All the usuals are name-checked: ULYSSES, GRAVITY'S RAINBOW, MOBY-DICK. This article actually made me want to read THE RECOGNITIONS (wasn't that high on my list before).

I think the real Stockholm Syndrome kicks in when you are in the dead middle of one of these books, unable to see either end, and you start to believe simultaneously that
a. you will never finish this book, that you will actually go to your death with the bookmark stuck in, and
b. it is critical that, having sunk so much energy into the book already, you must do it anyway.

(Hence the Beckett quotation of my title.) Note, though, that for any of this syndrome to make sense you have to be reading the novel by choice. Suffering through a long novel for a class is a separate experience, because you'll know you either have to finish it or do some fancy footwork. (How rude! Of course you're finishing it, right??)

I think my ultimate Long Novel Stockholm Syndrome experience came at the hands of WAR AND PEACE. I've written about how I think it's overrated, but perhaps I should put that judgment into some context. I read it the summer after my freshman year of college, and there was a particular shine on that first book I allowed myself to read for fun after finals were over, like the cover retracting over the backyard pool before you dive in. At least, at first! I was honestly looking forward to tackling the novel given how much I adore ANNA KARENINA, but quickly found myself slogging through the battle scenes, attempting to draw family trees and character charts, and... not really having much fun.

If I had been studying it I might have been handed the context to my tedium, but I had to go out and find it for myself. I'm glad I finished, but I still like ANNA better.

19 May 2011

Unhurt of head, unqueasy of stomach

Whoever sent this to me:

I hope you think you're really funny, 'cause you are. Clearly you understood my cooking inabilities (Bittman vs. Crawford cook-off???) This cover design is fairly brilliant.

Apparently there is a thriving market for hangover books out there:


Always popping up on the Staff Recommends shelf at one of my local bookstores. Cult author.
(Not a self-portrait.)

Those are the fakest looking designer martinis I have ever seen. Is that JELL-O?

Probably no physical cures in this one.

Screams "Future Joke Gift." For a man.

Interestingly, while trying to pull an image for this novel I discovered there are many recipes for a dish called "Hangover Soup." This is a cooking stunt I would not attempt, although I had a roommate for a while who would come home and make soup while drunk. Never injured himself either. (People you meet on Craigslist!) 

This isn't even a book, I'm just including it 'cause it's creepy.

This concludes Hangover Look Book '11. Cheer up, it's almost 5:00 in Rio. 

18 May 2011

Worst Zen koan ever

From the New York Public Library's chatbot: "Our Interlibrary Loan service is free of charge for the patron, unless it is some special request where there will be a fee for the patron." Gotcha.

Aaron Sorkin on blogging

"When I read the Times or The Wall Street Journal, I know those reporters had to have cleared a very high bar to get the jobs they have. When I read a blog piece from "BobsThoughts.com," Bob could be the most qualified guy in the world but I have no way of knowing that because all he had to do to get his job was set up a website--something my 10-year-old daughter has been doing for 3 years. When The Times or The Journal get it wrong they have a lot of people to answer to. When Bob gets it wrong there are no immediate consequences for Bob except his wrong information is in the water supply now so there are consequences for us."
--From The Atlantic. I didn't realize since "Studio 60" went off the air he had become so adept at playing the tiny violin.

17 May 2011

Gotta get down on Frey day

"Frey's major public shaming will serve forever as a window into the aggressive, hit-hungry world of book publishing, and the spectacular pressure on writers to sex up their tale, regardless of whether it's accurate. But when Frey told Winfrey, 'I don't have a lot of respect for memoir. I think most writers of memoirs do what I do, you play around with things, you tell the best story you can,' it was a flabbergastingly cheap and lazy shot.
"As someone who's written a memoir, who has good friends who've written some fantastic memoirs, I think it's safe to say that memoir doesn't have a whole lot of respect for Frey either."
-Mary Elizabeth Williams in Salon about James Frey's first appearance on "Oprah" this week; the second airs today. I recommended Williams' memoir GIMME SHELTER in my list of books about New York real estate

The Someone-Help in action: Sloane Crosley, an author we otherwise like, writing for the Independent about how she's trying a $65-a-day juice cleanse even though she "fits easily through the average hallway," after a paragraph about how hard it is for women to go on a diet publicly. (What?) If you do not fit through the average hallway, this blog suggests you call 911, not purchase expensive articles of junk science.

16 May 2011

Speaking of detective work

Marisha Pessl's follow-up to SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS: You can already buy it! Whatever it is! Wherever it is! (To the best we can find: Titled NIGHT FILM, out in September.)

Mystery-Writing Detective: Nevermore

Right now the major TV networks are in the middle of announcing next season's pickups, which for us means bidding goodbye to the sweet dream of "Poe," a procedural starring the 19th-century writer solving mysteries in Boston. This was an actual pilot commissioned by ABC. We are shocked it didn't go anywhere. This review of the pilot (which I haven't seen) faults the casting of blond Australian actor Chris Egan, formerly of the tanktastic "Kings," as E.A. Poe. Yeah, it is hard to picture a blond Poe, but more so a Poe solving crimes.

Truly, if you need a mystery-writing detective show in your life, "Castle" with Nathan Fillion as thriller writer Richard Castle is all right, and it was renewed months ago. Alternately, peruse the "Edgar Allen Poe in television and film" Wikipedia page (holy completism).

15 May 2011

"Again and again, I’m amazed at the knowledge, skill, and wit with which so many of these authors speak, like it’s second nature to be so damn right about something — anything — all the time. But I also love sharing in some secret pleasure of not the lowest common denominator, because so many of these insults have been high-brow zings, but maybe in the foolish but earnest pursuit. I (and maybe some other readers) want so badly to experience the genius behind my favorite books, and to see it in a way I can comprehend."

--Insulted by Authors, forever.

14 May 2011

Things that happened during Blogger Blackout '11

  • I started Douglas Kennedy's THE MOMENT and I am bowled over by it right now. Kennedy is one of those American writers who is most famous overseas, and all I can say is... the rest of the world is probably right.
  • My review of Jen Lancaster's IF YOU WERE HERE went up, complete with extraneous commentary (scroll down).
  • I got mild to moderate vertigo on the "catwalk level" of one of the libraries near my office (see photo). Translucent floors -- why would you ever? I'm fine now but I was shaking for at least 10 minutes. 
  • Did you miss my post about the rise of a new genre? I was fairly excited that it had been rescued.
  • Speaking of new things, someone I know took a job at a startup called Bookish.com, described in the New York Times as wanting to be the Pitchfork of books. (If you just rolled your eyes, congratulations! You're a BHD!) It hasn't launched yet but I'll be keeping an eye on this project. 
  • Isn't it ridiculous that Yankee Stadium would try to prohibit fans from bringing in Kindles? Even for the Yankees, that is a new low. /NewEnglandforever /RedSoxfan
  • The film adaptation of Lionel Shriver's WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival and got good to glowing reviews. It hasn't been picked up yet but look for it this fall starring Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly.
And that about covers it. This entry has been brought to you by Oren's Daily Roast's Beowulf blend, for the undercaffeinated monster inside you. 

13 May 2011

Judge a book by its cover

(Blogger appears to be down and ate yesterday's important Wormbook post, so we'll see if this works.) Via Regular Commenter Elizabeth, the creator of Better Book Titles, a Tumblr of Photoshopped covers revealing the "real" content behind famous books, was just profiled on NPR. Some of my favorites: ALICE IN WONDERLAND; GREAT EXPECTATIONS; JANE EYRE (LOL, forever) and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.

Ironically the first book on the site as I write this (Thursday's post) is a novel I was just about to pick up from the library today. I hope they are exaggerating.

12 May 2011

Forget Self-Help, Buy A Someone-Help Book

I'm okay, you're okay! Wait, I'm great, and you're great too. We're all great and there's nothing to discuss except this totally abstract human problem plaguing general humankind for centuries, including famous people even! But absolutely not you. We will discuss this problem solely in the abstract, except where we might give some concrete suggestions, but only to fill out the picture. 

Where reading self-help books has taken on a stigma, a new subgenre rises in the breach. Often it provides the historical sweeping view of a human problem, in addition to citing scientific studies, researchers and field experts It's not actionable nonfiction -- unless you want it to be.

I came up with the concept of the "someone-help" after finishing Daniel Akst's WE HAVE MET THE ENEMY: SELF-CONTROL IN THE AGE OF EXCESS. This was the latest in a string of books I had read, shelved under several different Dewey classifications, but all around the hazy idea of the sociopsychology of eating, diets and the food industry. (The ability to take a deep dive into a subject just because you have the resources available is one of my top five favorite things about reading, at least. I've been doing this at least since that stretch in the 2nd grade when I was obsessed with King Tut.) WE HAVE MET THE ENEMY isn't exclusively about self-control at the table, but there is that donut on the cover. 

Beyond the subject of Akst's book, which I found interesting enough although by no means an exhaustive treatment of the topic, what hooked me into writing this post was the broad denial by Akst at the front of the book that he has any personal interest in the topic. He was so adamant that it was a bit creepy. It's not even an "I think we can all learn this," it's "I really don't have any of these problems, but here is a joke about how hard writing a book is if you have no self-control -- which obviously is not a problem for me." I'm paraphrasing, but this is a direct quote: 
"For a writer in today's marketplace, moderation is an affliction... Although I check my e-mail a little too often, I am not addicted to anything. I do not even struggle with my weight, except -- and this is embarrassing -- when it gets too low. I've had my excesses over the years, but the sad fact is that I never quite manage to take them to excess... I will admit that in Las Vegas once, on assignment, I developed a gambling problem. The problem was that I lost $10 on the Penn-Dartmouth football game, the sting of which is with me still." 
Poor Mr. Akst, having not one vice he can cop to to sell books. Never to know the glorious sloth of hitting the snooze button 4 to 6 times in one morning, or making dinner out of a box of Tagalongs! That's where my self-control problems lie, for I have done both those things and lived to tell the tale. That's how you relate. See? It's easy. (Though frankly I could use a Tagalong or two after writing this paragraph.) 

The more I thought about it, though, Akst's demurral started to look like genius. It communicates to the reader that you and he are complicit in the problem you do not have. It compliments you -- you're too smart to have problems! -- instead of the classic coach method of breaking you down to build you back up. As long as you're learning, you can pretend that your problem is abstract, and that you're really perfect.

A true someone-help book contains three elements -- history, science and self-help. Another member of the genre, I've read recently, although ironically far less strident, is Gary Taubes' WHY WE GET FAT. (Answer: carbs.) This is primarily a scientific book with a few chapters at the end, not so much delivering practical tips on how to cut out all carbs (cauliflower crust pizza! Agave-based sweeteners! That ricotta cheese thing for dessert!) as stressing why it's absolutely necessary to do so if you want to live longer and healthier. I didn't agree with all of his points and found his sourcing a little specious at times, but he provided satisfying answers to some nutritional conundra, which is more than most authors can provide. 

The lack of stridency is ironic because if you search for any reviews of the Taubes book you will run, sooner or later, into a wall of virulent comments about how wrong he is about everything, as one is tempted to state upon learning that an entire food group is to be eliminated. I knew this going in, so maybe it just didn't affect me as much. It's not necessarily the part of the author in this case to point out that carbs are delicious, but he could have acknowledged that this diet comes with its own difficulties. 

Not every author wants to be part of the subject of his or her own actionable nonfiction book, and I understand that; nor would every author have experience with the topic about which s/he is writing. But there's something slippery about pretending everything's okay as a narrative tool. When the premise of your book is stacked on a false trust, there is a risk of erosion. 

If they don't win it's a shame

Apparently if you try to bring your e-reader to Yankee Stadium, you might run into some trouble with security under the umbrella of a "laptop" ban. For iPad users too! (See also: various cafes.) This is both funny and infuriating, and if you're asking, "Why would anyone want to bring an e-reader to a baseball game?" try spending an hour-plus on the subway to get there.

By your tote bag shall we know ye

Vol. 1 Brooklyn has a great post today about what your literary tote bag says about you. (Though in my defense, I own and love my Strand tote -- in Spanish! -- and I never went to NYU.)

There is definitely a secret hierarchy of these tote bags. No one respects my Auntie's Bookstore tote, even though it has a lot of sentimental value to me; if I wanted to consciously show off I'd be better off with my Harper Perennial bag. If you carry this, you probably go to a lot of readings in bars. Actually, I went to a HP reading in a bar, so it fits.

I need another tote bag like I need more books in the house, but my next acquisition is likely to be a Greenlight Bookstore tote. If you carry this, this says you roll your eyes violently when people act like traveling to Brooklyn is a hardship. (Guilty.)

But in my mind, the ultimate status book tote is one that can no longer be bought because not only does the original bookstore not exist, the bookstore that bought its name is now out of business (or in deep trouble; I can't remember). I can't even find a picture of this rare bird but here is a photo of the store's old sign:

If you carry a Labyrinth Books tote you have roots on the UWS pre-2005 and you prefer hardcovers to ARCs. Also, I envy you.

11 May 2011

Right, Ladies?

It was cut from last week's "Saturday Night Live" broadcast, but this skit featuring Tina Fey on "Great Women Writers" is almost too painful to be funny. Fey has two heartbreaking, funny and true pieces on body image in BOSSYPANTS, mirror images of each other that brilliantly expose how mixed those messages are to women, but she gets it done in under five minutes in that skit (with some help).

I hate to be obvious and rewrite the same post I always rewrite, but I am reaching the limit of my tolerance regarding the "trend" of authors and relative attractiveness of same, because you know what, who gives a shit. The trouble is, a lot of people give a shit. Where has it ever been shown anywhere, that there's a correlation between physical beauty and literary talent? Nowhere, and the more people try and shoehorn "Must be a pretty pretty princess" into the requirements to being a marketable author, the less I respect their opinions on anything. At least, it's time to stop pretending that there isn't a double standard, and that it falls disproportionately on female authors to prove their palatability to the general world vis a vis their looks. And even when done in fun, commenting on an author's attractiveness in the context of their literary achievement legitimizes this value system.

10 May 2011

Why we can't be friends

May 25 marks the end of Oprah's daily talk show as we know it, and the Associated Press reported this morning that disgraced author James Frey will appear on two episodes next week. You know, to talk about his feelings.

First impression: This trick worked way better with Franzen six months ago.

Second: It's not even that I'm mad at James Frey in particular (although in part I am, and in part particular; I suffered through BRIGHT SHINY MORNING for your sins didn't I?) It just smacks of the weirdest audience-pandery quasi-sweeps week agenda cooked up by a programming department who thinks America has a vested interest in seeing this thing resolved. Do we need the laying on of Oprah's hands? Is that just what we deserve? Surely no one was waiting for Frey to be officially forgiven.

(I say that, but I'm not at all sure.)

Third: Remember when Conan O'Brien was going off "Tonight" and he did those running gags about how much of their money he could spend in one gig, like the racehorse (fake) wearing the priceless fur coat (fake I assume) watching sports highlights for exorbitant rights fees (possibly real)? Why can't we just do some of those? Oprah already gives away stuff; why not just more stuff to mark her last week on network TV before jumping to her own channel?

Fourth: I probably won't tune in, but I would read a recap or a pause-laden transcript. Use that to gauge my interest. I still haven't read all of A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, and I still have no plans to now.


Your Assistance, Please: "But I was at the keyboard the whole time!"

What's your favorite method of writerly procrastination? What is your position of last resort when you're down to the wire and you have to get something finished, but once you have your hands on the keys, instead you're...

I'll tell you mine even though it's kind of gross. It's a habit I've carried with me since college, before YouTube was even a twinkle in Steve Chen and Chad Hurley's eyes. (Uh... anyway.) When push comes to shove you'll often find me cleaning underneath the keys in my keyboard. Have you seen the stuff that lurks under there? Unspeakable. Back in college I had a PC whose keys I could pop off one by one to clean, before I spilled coffee on it (I could star in a PSA about what not to do with your laptop) and had to get that keyboard swapped out.

I'll be back when I'm done with my cleaning I MEAN writing.

09 May 2011

First impressions of Bookperk: A deal site too far

Bookperk aims to be a Groupon or LivingSocial for book-related deals, but so far it's served me mostly as fodder for forwards. Free YA book with lip gloss! Sci-fi cats! Flask included with purchase! I did come mildly close to buying a ticket to this Shakespeare book party, but I was otherwise occupied (and also $20 is a bit steep when the book isn't included).

Here's what I think the site is missing: Deals. People don't just buy Groupons because they're fun, they buy them either to save money on something they already buy, or something they wouldn't otherwise have bought. They bought the record-breaking Gap Groupon because they needed pants, but they bought the kickboxing Groupon because they wanted a free pair of boxing gloves.

Bookperk seems to target obscure pockets of fans of certain books or authors, rather than people looking to save money and get some wingdings. It's hard to assume profitability with such odd niches. Is it that hard to make books exciting? Those of us who buy books in volume (pun not intended [just kidding, it totally was]) don't need the wingdings, but occasionally we like the wingdings. A book by Prince Charles is not a wingding in which I have interest.

Today's deal almost gets there, but the price is too high. I love A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, and after several fruitless searches at my parents' house have concluded that I will be buying another copy sooner rather than later.; List price ($14.95) is not a great deal, though, even with shipping included, and the paperweight doesn't add any value for me. (You know what makes a great paperweight? A coffee mug.) Yet it sold out, so what do I know? And no kidding, just as I was writing this I get an email about a signed book by Sammy Hagar. Sigh. Don't think so.

08 May 2011

There's a great book about creativity and the artist hiding in this ultimately unsurprising rock memoir. Holding down a few part-time jobs and tired of being pigeon-holed as a female singer (and held thus to showcases of earnest, acoustic work), Trynin created her own record label out of her apartment and recorded a demo anyway, after which: major-label flirtation, a six-figure deal, tours, sleeping with a bandmate, music videos, depression, disappointing sales...

I read a comic memoir a while back by a former A&R executive whose primary note seemed to be shock that the filthy lucre was driving everything, that great artists weren't getting the great deals they deserved and that no one cared about The Art. In the key of naivete, and pretty winceworthy coming from the other side of the desk. Trynin's point of view is subtler, and sadder: All those trappings of success didn't help her get closer to her craft -- they only took her further away, but she had to go through all of it to know that. She sets it down for the next artist, the next band, even as she knows they'll disregard her advice.

Here's the video for Trynin's first single (discussed extensively in the book), "Better Than Nothing":

07 May 2011

Today I had an early Mother's Day brunch and talked my mom into picking up mail with me so I could see whether a book I needed had come in yet. It had. I told her who the author was and she got really excited. I opened the envelope right out on Second Avenue and handed the galley to her for inspection.

She clutched it to her chest and said "Ooh, look at me! I'm fabulous! I have a book that's not out yet!" Then she asked how soon I could lend it to her.

Happy early Mother's Day, Mom. I'm glad all the sleep deprivation I caused you didn't kill you, so you had time to catch up on your reading later.

06 May 2011

Read ALL the things?

Well, thank God: Allie Brosh of Hyperbole and a Half fame is writing and illustrating a book, due out next fall from Touchstone.

05 May 2011

What They're Reading in the Missed Connections

Book-related post of the week: So Roger Ebert wrote a cookbook, eh? - m4w - 22 (Midtown)

Quirk Classics' latest chilling tale

Special delivery from Regular Commenter Elizabeth (who is also on Blogspot now, did you know?)

04 May 2011

"We 'decide' how to write by doing it over and over, all the while trying to avoid nauseating ourselves."
- George Saunders in BOMB

What kind of man you are, if you're a man at all

KAPITOIL has such a great premise that it took me weeks to realize it basically collapses in on itself. The novel purports to be the transcribed audio diary of Karim Issar, who has come to New York from Qatar on a programming assignment tied to the Y2K bug at a financial services firm -- a job he takes to support his shopkeeper father and make sure his younger sister can go to college. Living in the city allows Karim to be exposed to forms of debauchery not available in Qatar, like sexy Halloween parties (a very funny scene) and Leonard Cohen, but before he has a social life he finds the time to invent an algorithm that trades stocks according to news stories from the Middle East, making his employer a fantastic, stupid amount of money in the process.

The question with which we wrestle over Karim is how he can be so morally relative in the classic end-of-the-innocence sense, until the one instance where he decides he cannot budge -- when his employer starts taking steps to own Kapitoil. This is what makes Karim so human and KAPITOIL so troublesome. It would be a great book for a discussion setting because it doesn't strain to ask, What would you do? (Judging by my reaction to the end of this book, I think he chose wrong, but that led to a fair amount of soul searching on my part over whether I was the one being the moral relativist.) The trouble isn't that Karim is smart or not smart in order to pull this all off, it's that he seems smart enough sometimes and not others. In any case, he's way over his head on a couple of levels, and that is both realistic and (because of its realism) difficult territory to cover as a reader because of his own unawareness of his trouble.

The layer of timeliness works in concert with his dilemma; as an Arab national working for a U.S. financial firm, Karim's life would be dramatically altered by 9/11 no matter what he chose in the moment, but we don't find out because the book ends in December, 2000. I only hesitate to call it a "pre-9/11 novel" as Vanity Fair did because technically that covers most of Western literature.

Contextual note: I picked this book up after reading its review in the Tournament of Books 2011 and am toying with working my way through the whole list. You could do worse than working through this list if you are pressed for time on your award winners past. For my own reference mostly, here it is:

  • KAPITOIL (meta-link!!!)
  • ROOM
  • THE FINKLER QUESTION (Man Booker Prize winner)
  • A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD (Pulitzer winner)
  • NOX
  • LORD OF MISRULE (National Book Award winner)
  • NEXT (The Believer Book Award winner)
  • BLOODROOT (off the blog)

03 May 2011

Old joke

It's not even being updated any more, but nothing will get done around here while I'm busy catching up on @ChaucerSXSW. The Atlantic, I thank and curse you with one breath for this round-up of Dead Authors On Twitter. (My other favorite is @HalfPintIngalls who quipped, "For heaven's sake, it was just a little diphtheria!"

Unbookening, and Housing Works Park Slope at last

Checked out 11 from the library
Bought 5 (for shame)
Got 7 to review
23 in

Donated 7
Returned 14 to the library
Gave away 2
23 out

Over the weekend I took my donations over to the new Housing Works secondhand store, one in a chain whose proceeds help HIV-positive homeless people. The store was clean, twee, and about as double-rainbow-inducing as I expected, and best yet, I walked out with a carbon-backed donation form, a "Thanks!" and an empty bag. I didn't take the time to eyeball the selection, but go shop my castoff books y'all.

02 May 2011

Poetry for Gumbies

Yesterday, just in time for the end of National Poetry Month, I went to the oddest poetry reading I've ever attended -- a combination poetry reading and yoga class. (Alternately, a new Das Racist breakout hit.) The Rubin Museum of Art cleared out part of its lobby on a Sunday morning and invited poets from all over the world -- Finland, Hungary, Georgia (country) among others -- to sit on the sidelines of an anusara yoga class and read at intervals.

When I described this to my roommate, he skepticked, "But won't it be distracting?" Well, depending on the level of patter, that can be a nice thing. If you've never been to a yoga class, often a teacher will keep up a sort of 'yoga chat' during the class amid instructions, ranging from the practical ("Relax," "dig deep" etc.) to more spiritual (anything describing something you would do to your heart that does not sound biologically sound) Some teachers don't talk at all, just put music on. And some give you a thousand-yard stare while speaking unconvincingly about how much they loved yoga when they finally tried it.

If you are serious about yoga as a practice, you'd probably want to give this class a miss. But no one, not even the called-out regulars, seemed disappointed at this class. At the beginning the teacher spoke for a few minutes about how much she liked poetry and the role it played in her life, and I thought it was both appropriate and pleasant. (The woman next to me even took a notepad and started writing down some of the end-of-class talk, which I thought was pushing the envelope...) Most of the poems read at this event were about breath, or compassion, or similarly spiritual topics, but I think they were easier to contemplate knowing they were a poem first and a yoga accompaniment second.

I definitely didn't catch as much of the poetry as I would have in a classical setting but I'd like to look up more work by the Georgian poet, David-Dephy Gogibedashvili. I was thinking between sessions of stretching and so on how little I go to poetry readings; it's the kind of thing I would have envisioned myself doing all the time, but in fact I don't often seek out poets to go hear as I do other authors. Maybe I should do more of that. I have been doing a little yoga since reading STRETCH and it has made zero measurable difference in anything, but one tries.

Well played, Merriam-Webster

01 May 2011

I can't wait to start giving this book out to friends at baby showers when they decide to start replicating. I didn't even know Jonathan Lethem had kids!