31 July 2012

July Unbookening

"Libraries are always paradoxical: they are as personal as the collector, and at the same time are an ideal statement of knowledge that is impersonal, because it is universal, abstract, and so much larger than an individual life." - James Wood

Got 3 books to review
Had 1 returned to me (who wants to borrow my copy of GONE GIRL next?)
Checked 8 out from the library
12 in

Lent 3
Returned 5 to the library
Donated 19 - 2 to the Saint Marks Little Free Library, the rest to Housing Works
27 out

Did I say four unread Henry James novels? I meant five. Yeah... five. I guess I know what I'll be doing in a few months. What's your favorite James? I've only read THE TURN OF THE SCREW so I have my work cut out for me.

30 July 2012

Not going to lie, I was curious, but not for this price. Also, a little skeptical about this course's affiliation with Columbia given its website.

60. Walker Percy, THE MOVIEGOER

Binx Bolling is just looking for something to hold onto. I lost count of the number of times Bolling, the protagonist (one could not say hero) of Walker Percy's debut novel THE MOVIEGOER remarked on the physicality of women around him as "solid," "fleshy" or "big-bottomed," all these words used without judgment but rather observationally. (Richard Ford, also, luxuriates in the physical description of humans without judgment. Maybe this is where he learned it.)

The solidity of these women is marked against the evanescence of Binx's sense of direction, physically and psychologically. Having returned from serving in the Korean War to his family in New Orleans, Binx (one of the great first names in literature, honestly) has a just-okay job, is trying to seduce his new secretary without putting in much effort and gets the most excited about catching a glimpse of an actor filming in the French Quarter. He wouldn't describe himself as a man without possibilities, but which to alight on?

His ennui did not make me sympathetic. I think at the time Bolling's plight of not wanting to follow in the path his family set out for him -- law school, settling into a practice, getting married -- could have been perceived as revolutionary even without some kind of impetus on the other side. Yet I failed to see him as a southern Frank Wheeler, beating wildly against his passions, because he didn't seem to have any. He isn't so much stranded as overparented (in this case, largely by an aunt who is pushing him to move into her guesthouse) and undermotivated. In 2012 I fear we would call this a "manchild," but in 2012 it might not be a plot at all because, hey, he has a job, passing love interests, a hobby. It was unclear to what higher plane he even wanted to ascend, because they all seemed like work to him. Binx's troubled cousin, Kate, who has a history of suicidal behavior and is in the act of running away from her imminent marriage, cuts a much more dynamic figure in THE MOVIEGOER, and also seems to be his other real passion (but maybe I was reading between the lines too much).

I got my '70s mass-market paperback from blogmigo Wade Garrett, who should tell me more specifically why he didn't like this book because I think our reasons were similar.

Ellen vs. ML: 58 read, 42 unread.

Next up: SCOOP, by Evelyn Waugh.

27 July 2012

“The fact that A. J. Jacobs wrote this in 20 minutes, hung over in bed and dressed in his rubber-ducky pajamas, bespeaks of his superior talent.”
- Gary Shteyngart's blurb on Jacobs' New York Times essay on giving out too many blurbs. My blurb on this piece would read, "I loved it and hope he comes out of retirement by the time I have something for him to blurb."

I love wordplay, but this is a bit forced. (Out early next year from Skyhorse. Next up: FIFTY SHADES OF DORIAN GRAY. Not a joke.)

26 July 2012

Filmbook to be: Trailer for "Cloud Atlas" (2012)

Cloud Atlas - Trailer [VO|HQ]

Holy shit.

Erica Jong on FIFTY SHADES OF GREY: "Her bad writing keeps pulling you out of the fantasy"

Last night I went to a panel on the effect and influence of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY in American culture. At the beginning of the night, moderator Amy Lee of event host McNally Jackson said, "Just to get this off the table, we're not going to be discussing the book's literary merit," whereupon the Blythe Dannerish woman next to me looked up from her iPhone (where she was texting someone named Pity) and called out "There is none!"

Most everyone at the event seemed to agree with her on that count, although perhaps there would have been a few champions who were too cowed to speak out. Though not billed as such, the discussion to me represented a takedown of the book at hand and, simultaneously, a passionate defense of the right to fantasy (though some were more passionate than others).

"It's been helping my backlist, God only knows why," said Erica Jong, who criticized FIFTY SHADES' poor writing and hackneyed premise from her position as the author of the groundbreaking FEAR OF FLYING. While she allowed that "solving a mixed-up guy is something we've all tried to do in our lives" and expressed the hope that FIFTY SHADES would blow open the doors of literature to more writing about sex, Jong questioned the idea that people are really getting ideas for their own sex lives from this book. That cause was taken up primarily by Ian Kerner, a sex therapist who by his own admission had only skimmed the book (and at one point compared it to "True Blood," which was weird) but stressed the difference between transgressive fantasy (in which anything goes) and the reality that most Americans are "extremely bored" in their relationships and find themselves in "sex ruts."  

New York Times contributing writer Daniel Berger described it as a "sex novel in the guise of a romance novel" but also defended it as "giving permission" for people to enjoy erotica, even reading a passage from the book as someone in the audience made a retching noise. He also pointed out that the furor over FIFTY SHADES is less about its fantasy content, which is already readily available, than the perception of threat or damage that comes of walking that "uncomfortable boundary" between pop culture we all talk about and sex we don't all talk about.

This was one of several ways the media was taken to task for how they covered FIFTY SHADES; Febos mentioned a disturbing Newsweek article positioning the book as a threat to feminism (surprise, Katie Roiphe strikes again!), and writer Roxane Gay joked, "Of course the media are always shocked as shit when women have fantasies." She also compared it to "Magic Mike" as a hallmark of the monetization of the female gaze, without dismissing the book's more problematic aspects such as its heroine's near-constant vulnerability and that it "requires a suspension of disbelief that few people are capable of" as it "pretends to empower women."

"People have been writing these fantasies in their journals since the beginning of time," put in Melissa Febos, a former professional dominatrix who was the most open among the panelists about her personal reaction to FIFTY SHADES. "There's always going to be simplistic, poorly written fantasies." Berger concluded to a rumbling of disagreement, "Maybe porn can't be literature. It doesn't lend itself to that language." Yet the panel cited several erotic works that they considered literature including LADY CHATTERLEY'S LOVER, THE STORY OF O, Anne Rice's SLEEPING BEAUTY trilogy, THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING and A SPORT AND A PASTIME, while laughing over the idea that sales of TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES are spiking because an early edition of the book is exchanged as a gift in FIFTY SHADES.

25 July 2012

New York's own Little Free Library

On Sunday I walked over to the Saint Marks Little Free Library, the newest book-related establishment in my neighborhood. Like the marriage of Bookmooch and Etsy, the Little Free Library movement encourages individuals to better their communities by building micro-libraries (or glorified take-one-leave-one shelves, if you will) in their towns. As the frequent beneficiary of such shelves, I am in love with this idea, but would people really respect it? New York's only Little Free Library is a wooden box like an extra-large birdhouse, but mounted on a pole at pedestrian height like a mailbox, in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Prospect Heights in Brooklyn. Spotting it from the corner of Saint Marks Avenue and Vanderbilt, I was surprised, for some reason, that no one was at it at the time; in fact a few of its neighbors watched me approach it without comment. The stash inside when I visited was mostly children's books, of the early-chapter-book variety; there was also a copy of Carl Hiassen's YA novel HOOT and a few Patrick O'Brians shoved in on the left side. The box was almost full already. To test the waters I left a few good hardcovers in there with a note suggesting the takers email me. We'll see if it works -- probably nothing will come of it. The feeling of peeking inside that tiny house as if I were getting away with something can't be matched anyway. I'll definitely check inside the box again -- it doesn't hurt that the site is around the corner from one of the Heights' best dessert vendors, Ample Hills Creamery. (Get the salted crack caramel. You're welcome.) My only other excursionary note is that on my walk to the Little Free Library I saw a man in, I swear, a Westish Harpooners T-shirt with "Skrimshander" on the back. I should have stopped to ask him about it but I was too bowled over to say anything. Who are you, person with clear good taste in literary shirt?

24 July 2012

Living to tell the tale

A handful of #fridayreads ago I mentioned I was reading Sarah Manguso's THE GUARDIANS, a slim memoir about losing a friend before his time and having to reckon with the circumstances of his death and the stories that would now go untold about him. My friend Em (a long-ago camp pal, now a high-powered publishing person) offered to send me Manguso's first book, saying she liked it even better than THE GUARDIANS which I found fairly gripping even with its narrow scope.

THE TWO KINDS OF DECAY covers a period much earlier and slightly more internalized in Manguso's life, when she developed a rare autoimmune disorder. In the space of a few months during which Manguso was in and out of hospitals with what looked like a case of chronic fatigue or maybe a virus, she went from a thriving college junior to a patient who could barely leave her room because she needed all of her plasma replaced on a regular basis. So sure were she and her parents that she would be back, the first few times she was hospitalized they didn't even clean out her dorm room.

Manguso's style of writing lends power to her recounting of her ordeal by the number of things she leaves out that might be otherwise standard in a facing-your-own-mortality chronicle like this. To me, Manguso's disease represents the first kind of decay as the coating around her nerves disintegrates, leaving her practically unable to move, but as her condition takes up more and more of her life, her view of the world and its possibilities shrinks to the hospital bed till it's almost unimaginable that she will get up again. This is the decay of confidence, of viewing her condition as an anvil perpetually about to drop on her head. Yet Manguso writes about it so movingly, she relies on a perspective I wouldn't expect her to have on her ordeal, making it imaginable.

This isn't the kind of book you would want to buy for someone suffering from a chronic illness, necessarily, but a friend or family member may appreciate it to be able to enter into the mindset of someone who is going through something like Manguso's ordeal.

23 July 2012

NYC: Book Culture Amazon Local deal

My beloved Book Culture which I used to live three blocks from in Morningside Heights has a Amazon Local group deal today. Please buy it, and then go and way overspend to support this great bookstore.

"Bad timing" or great timing?

It's understandable that Simon & Schuster would try to soft-pedal its official biography, due out this fall, of Penn State head coach Joe Paterno. On the other hand, it might be of even more interest due to the scandal and people wanting to see how the book handles it, and as the first substantial work (though probably not the last) to determine how this affects Paterno's legacy. I for one wouldn't want to avoid it based on the suggestion that the writer might be too sympathetic in it... I guess depending on degree. If this book argues what a few supporters have been arguing about Paterno, despite the evidence in the Freeh report, that would be another matter.

At least they didn't stick with THE GRAND EXPERIMENT for a title.

19 July 2012

Getting caught reading?

I love posting about what I see people reading on the subway, and the blog Underground New York Public Library is like a glorious visual enlargement of that. Photographer Ourit Ben-Haim captures some incredible images of regular old subway riders captivated by their books of all shapes, sizes and colors.

That said I feel like it's a slight invasion of privacy to post people's photos without permission, even for so glorious a cause. What about people who are reading books they don't want their work supervisors or friends to know about? (You could say, "Then they shouldn't read them on the subway," and maybe you'd be right in saying that.) Maybe they have other concerns, like privacy around where they live (and what lines they take) for personal reasons.

Ben-Haim's website offers this answer:
Is it wrong to take photographs of people without their permission?
Legally, it’s not wrong. There are legal limits to what I can do with the photographs but none of those things are things I’m doing or interested in doing.
Ethically, it’s a gray area. The ethics of Street Photography is a topic that I continue to reflect on. I’m not running amok taking photographs without any regard for my subjects. Street Photography is a complex art form with its own subtle language of communication. I listen to cues when I see them and I present my subjects respectfully. For an alternative answer to this question click here
"Legally, it's not wrong" is a fairly entitled attitude to take. Just because she claims she's not "running amok" doesn't mean that everyone in the subway is giving her permission to be captured.

Would I let Ben-Haim use my picture, if I caught her in the act? I don't know. Which is more, my desire to see UNYPL succeed or my desire not to become a meme on Reddit? (That would be more "in my interest" than as Ben-Haim argues in a subsequent post that me being put on film is in our collective interest.) I guess the point is, I probably wouldn't catch her, because I'd be too busy reading.

Fugly is the new YA

Last night I went to see Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan, AKA the "Fug Girls," at WORD Bookstore in Brooklyn.

If I ever get to go to the Oscars, I will email the Fug Girls and beg for their style advice so as not to embarrass myself on the red carpet. Most of the time, though, I visit their site Go Fug Yourself for the jokes, not the practical tips. Runaway blog successes are a dime a dozen now, but GFY was one of the first I remember. The site serves up examples of celebrity how-not-tos like "Scrolldown Fugs" (outfits with great tops and terrible bottoms) and "Fug the Covers" (terrible magazine design) as well as hosting the annual "Fug Madness" fashion bracket. (Vanessa Hudgens won this year.) Cocks writes posts in the voice of Britney Spears, a tradition dating back to her 2007 breakdown, and sometimes "Intern George" (Clooney) answers fan mail and random spam.

Cocks and Morgan, who now work on the site full time, met as writers at that old recap paradise, Television Without Pity, and bonded over their love of sports and ridiculous celebrity fashion. The writers have recently branched out into YA with their books SPOILED and MESSY, which they write alongside 5-6 posts a day each. I haven't read SPOILED and MESSY yet, but I gather that they follow two daughters of an aging blockbuster actor, one who grew up in Hollywood splendor, the other who only finds out about her famous parentage as a teenager.

Cocks and Morgan said they collaborate on each chapter, after trying to each write one character and finding that took too long. "I know since there's two of us people think we each write half the book," Morgan said, "but really it's more like we each write a whole book since we're always editing each other."

18 July 2012

Unbookening fun update

Can you guess which author is the most represented in my pile of unread books right now? Here are some clues...

1. He is a dead white man
2. He's an American, but spent some time abroad
3. Jonathan Franzen is a big fan
4. His brother was also a writer, although I haven't read his best known work yet either

So I just read a lot, and ride my bike around the school

Aimee Mann stands on a library table (and wears a ridiculous coat) in "Ghost World," her song as homage to the comic of the same name. Sorry for the terrible non-synced video, it was the only one I could find.

17 July 2012

Spotted on the subway

I should just quit this game, 'cause it's never getting any better than this.

16 July 2012

All she brought for lunch: a jar of peanut butter

RIP Donald J. Sobol, creator of my favorite fictional detective
(probably) Encyclopedia Brown. Sobol published his first Encyclopedia
book in 1963, with the latest installment scheduled to come out in

Summer Reading: Looking at Winston Churchill in all the wrong places

FORTY WAYS OF LOOKING AT WINSTON CHURCHILL is a meta-biography making the point that there is no such thing as objectivity in the genre. If you've got that point, you can probably skip this book.

I was very much looking forward to Gretchen Rubin's Churchill project; a self-described fan, she compares popular ideas about Churchill (that he was depressed, for example) as they have been depicted in different accounts of his life, sometimes making the case for both of them in the same chapter. (For example, one chapter argues that Churchill was a great politician, adept at working with people to achieve his ends; the other argues that he was not very well liked and points out all the times he was ousted and/or lost elections.)

This book made me want to rush to the defense of the biographies Rubin suggests are faulty (none of which I have read, to be fair), but also to point the finger back toward Rubin. If all biographers are fallible, then Rubin's account also lacks perspective in some critical moments, even as she admits that she personally tends toward lionizing Churchill. One of FORTY WAYS' forty chapters (get it?) is just a list of some of Churchill's bon mots, proving that he did know how to turn a phrase, but not much about the quality of his work overall. One is just a factual timeline, another a list of important people Churchill knew, which is great if you want to view him as self-aggrandizing, I guess, but it's not exactly a primary source. More troubling is the chapter titled "Churchill's Imperialism," making the case that he was very invested in Britain as Empire and that that philosophy helped shape his politics. This chapter would be better titled, "Not That He Was Alone At The Time, But Churchill Was Pretty Racist."
It's not a worthless project by a long shot, but if you want to read a biography about biographies I recommend Rick Moody's THE BLACK VEIL. (Note: Rubin is best known for the book she wrote after FORTY WAYS and one I liked more, a little cult hit called THE HAPPINESS PROJECT.) I did get a good laugh out of the chapter on Churchill and sex (summary: he didn't seem that interested, which everyone found or finds weird and tries to find the root cause) and on the tidbit that to keep his estate paid between government positions, one of England's finest historical figures was reduced to writing freelance articles with titles like "Iced Water" and "Is There Life on the Moon?" Profligate hack Churchill -- now there's a biography I want to read.

13 July 2012

Reading on the Road: Lonely and dreaming of the West Coast

By the time you read this I'll already be on the way to a few glorious days in Washington, Idaho and California. I heard that it's been cool and pleasant most of the summer and is supposed to be fiery hot death starting today, but hey, what can you do.

I'm feeling the need to have a stack of paperbacks to work through on the planes -- call it an analog craving -- so I'm toting Jonathan Franzen's debut THE TWENTY-SEVENTH CITY, John Updike's RABBIT, RUN and Matt Long's THE LONG RUN with plans to resupply at one of my favorite bookstores.

Photo: pdxdiver

12 July 2012

This cover is so '70s-hardback, which is an odd choice given that the book is not set in the '70s and oh yeah, it's 2012. Also Gray Pants' anatomy is... curious. And could they not have put one of these people in a vest?

I'm not a fan, mostly because the Mobius ring was such a piece of cleverness. (Credit: Rodrigo Corral, also responsible for Jay-Z's DECODED and THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO. Check out his website here.) There's a Joyce Carol Oates book somewhere that needs this though.

New York Times discovers book parties; next week, what bears do in the woods

"Once upon a time, it was a raucous open-bar affair, paid for by a publisher. These days, with print under siege, it's often up to friends and family to foot the bill." So if you don't have an open bar and raucity, with a price tag, your book party doesn't count. That's nice. I doubt any of the ones I went to in the past year "count" under those metrics, but they were all very nice anyway. It's probably not the best metric for the health of the publishing industry, in any case.

11 July 2012

My Brooklyn Is Boring*

There's already been so much discussion and a measure of controversy over Amy Sohn's portrait of Brooklyn "regressives" -- parents who adopt teenagerish habits as coping mechanisms for what they see as very staid and stable existences -- that I hesitate to add my two cents. Just kidding, this is the Internet, why wouldn't I?

Not only do I live in Brooklyn, I'm in the same general geographic area as Sohn (although I haven't been there as long). I have really, really liked living there for the year and a half-ish I have been in residence. I accept the stereotypes about our shared neighborhood, that it used to be grittier and cheaper and more diverse, that we all eat too many bespoke cupcakes and hang out in bars instead of our living rooms, that young families abound and the streets are safe at 3AM.

No online publication outlet in the universe would publish my account of that time, even though in my view it has been filled with as much confusion and exuberance as Sohn describes in hers. That's because compared to her I am one of those monks who sit on a mountain for 27 years without speaking.

"Moms (and dads) who are crazier than they seem" is just an angle, as produced as the New York Post's pieces on secret Upper East Side bondage aficionados, or the TIME cover with the breastfeeding lady, or THY NEIGHBOR'S WIFE, or... I could go on. It's a great place from which to promote a book! That doesn't automatically make it more authentic than the place I live in.

*positively exciting enough for me

NYC: Housing Works Bookstore Google Offer

The last time they offered a $15 for $30 deal, I was convinced the incredible scores I made would put them off ever doing it again. I was wrong. Buy it now! (Non-New Yorkers, it's valid till January 2013 if you plan to visit our fair shores.)

Via coworker C. who clearly has my best interests at heart.

10 July 2012


This one time, I read a Richard Yates novel and was surprised how depressing it was. I must be really off my game right now.

I had set a goal a few years ago to read all of Yates after loving REVOLUTIONARY ROAD (a dysfunctional relationship, perhaps) and my plan is to drop one of his novels onto my library request list every so often when I'm not using one of my precious 15 holds. I didn't know anything more about it when I picked up my library paperback than that it was Yates' second novel, not the ideal way to go into it for reasons I think will be clear.

First of our surprises: this is primarily a war novel, following young Robert Prentice who turns 18 and enlists at the tail end of World War II. Feeling mediocre in all things, Robert goes to war with dreams of a tight bond with his fellow soldiers and the noble sacrifice of battle, only to get bogged down in the dirt (literal and metaphorical) of the Army's engagement abroad. He discovers that he's not really good at the day-to-day work of being a soldier at the inopportune moment of landing in Europe, and then he's really stuck

Intercut with the parade of humiliations that is Robert's service, the indomitable spirit of his mother, Alice, looks like a pie-eyed view of the world, then an outright rejection of any of its truths. Alice divorced Robert's father when he was very young because she felt that he was stifling her artistic career (first a graphic designer, then a sculptor). Her belief that she can support the family on her art if she just gets that one big break leads her to fall deeper and deeper into debt as she moves around the New York City suburbs trying to find the right place to be "inspired." This conviction is similar to April Wheeler's in REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, but April has no power and Alice has wrested it for herself.

Because of their early struggles, Robert and Alice are really too close as mother and son, and the war hurridly creates for them the boundaries they should have had all along. In a way, Robert drinks from the same well of potential hope as his mother, just thousands of miles away. Alice is steadfast in her belief that she's just a "one man show" away from making it, well into middle age, but Robert envisions war heroics as an eraser ridding himself of the shame of growing up poor and picked on; he just finds out right away that it's not going to be like that. Yates loves this topic (earlier this year I read his story "The Canal," treading similar territory); of course, Frank Wheeler was also a World War II vet. The brutality of the humiliation in A SPECIAL PROVIDENCE, though, is arguably worse than the actual acts of war themselves, and it never seems to let up on Robert.

If you've recently read REVOLUTIONARY ROAD I think you'll find this a satisfying deep cut, with a very odd jag into Westchester County society in the 1930s. Zadie Smith compared it to BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S mixed with ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, and damn, don't I wish I had thought of that first.

09 July 2012

Programming note: Mostly dead is slightly alive!

Posts may be briefer than usual this week while the HAL-9000 of our operation is getting its logic board and keyboard replaced. (Normal damages to a four-year-old laptop pressed to do just about everything; just like my cell phone that died a few weeks ago, no good story to go along with it.) Relying on mobile and virtual keyboards doesn't make our thinking any less complicated, but it slows down production and makes amusing hyperlinking more difficult. 
(Related life advice: When you drop something off at the Apple Store to get repaired, read the "work authorization" they e-mail you afterward very carefully, in case you notice that you're about to be charged $453 for the part the Genius told you, multiple times, would be replaced for free. The Genius' boss sounded irritated that I called back, as if I were disputing the adding up of a tip.)
In the meantime, read this really boring blog post about James Franco seeing "Gatz" in London. Spoiler alert: He only made it to 3/4ths of the show (quitter!) but he liked it. I don't think he has the mettle to make it here.

Peter Hessler on Twitter

Well played. And still his 730 followers keep wishing.

07 July 2012

Dummy Fined

A Poughkeepsie, NY man will be paying publisher John Wiley $7,000 in compensation for allowing others to pirate WORDPRESS FOR DUMMIES over BitTorrent. Or "sharing" it, depending on your perspective.

06 July 2012

Your Assistance, Please: Kindle is Hungry!

Since extensive Googling and the device FAQ have only made me more
confused: can anyone recommend an SD memory card compatible with the
1st generation Kindle? And where I might acquire one?

I asked a sales guy at Staples who was standing next to the Kindle
display and he said "Are you sure it's not a Nook you're asking
about?" FTLOG.

Headphones On: Chad Harbach on WNYC

Leonard Lopate opens this interview with Chad Harbach by asking "So, does everyone hate you now?" That takes balls! It's a great listen though.

Summer Reading: JOSEPH P. KENNEDY PRESENTS the old Hollywood, same as the new Hollywood

Joseph P. Kennedy had a running start in life with a plum position at his father's bank and an alliance with the mayor of Boston's daughter. But that wasn't enough, he wanted to be bigger: he wanted Hollywood! And the more that the mini-mogul denied that he was in it for the renown, or anything above making money, the less convinced a figure he cut.  

As an outsider Kennedy was aided by the fact that the movie industry was going through huge changes at the time, from vaudeville and nickelodeons to "talkies," from the studio system of keeping directors, actors and writers on salary to job-to-job employment detached from particular studios. (Helpful note: Don't mention this last part to anyone working in the entertainment industry now because it will make him VERY angry.) Convinced that any studio could be fixed to turn a profit if it were put under his aegis, Kennedy outmaneuvered careerlong studio executives to get as full control as possible and moved through a series of troubled studios -- either streamlining or gutting, depending on your perspective. But in attempting to eliminate "unnecessary" spending and waste in his Hollywood, Kennedy met his match in two figures, director Erich von Stroheim -- infamous for his lavish productions and months-behind shooting schedules -- and actress Gloria Swanson, with whom Kennedy had an expensive affair for years.

This book illuminated for me a side of the Kennedy patriarch I had never seen, though his businessman's approach to the task at hand will seem familiar from any playbook of mergers or takeovers. He made his ascent with banking money, some of which was made under less than savory circumstances such as moving funds to shell corporations (Delaware!) and buying and selling among his holdings to profit, and largely got away with it. Author Cari Beauchamp gently suggests that Kennedy enjoyed his Hollywood exploits because he was, intellectually, right at the waterline -- it was his version of the stock market, and the stakes were satisfying. (Kennedy did fine on the real stock market, too -- too easy for him?) 

Kennedy, largely seen today as the thwarted politician pushing for his sons' success at all cost, is a fascinating character, but Beauchamp surrounds him with equally fascinating characters. Von Stroheim could be lined up against any number of "problem directors" today and give them a run for their money, and the saga of Frances Marion, one of the early successful female screenwriters who formed a power couple with Westerns actor Fred Thomson, illustrates how Kennedy used people whose expertise was valuable to him to move up in the film industry and then discarded their friendship as a tactic. In the end, it's hard to know whether Kennedy left satisfied by his Hollywood endeavors, because he did such an excellent job of pretending to be interested in his projects, not just the profits.

05 July 2012

How to Acquire More Books for Little Money Without Amazon

This morning Elise Nussbaum published a piece on the personal finance blog The Billfold called "Books I Acquired for Last Year for Little or No Money" -- a topic near and dear to our hearts as frugal-ish book people. Borrowing and Bookmooch are covered, but she's taking a little heat for admitting that she bought all her new books on Amazon and

As a frequent Amazon user I have no leg to stand on to criticize Nussbaum, and she does call out a church in her locale (Jersey City) with what sounds like a kickass weekly sale. But if we're going to establish some kind of collection of best practices for book buying, I picture them like this:

Buy new hardcovers and paperbacks as gifts or when splurging on yourself. Gifts are my densest locus of new-book buying, so I budget accordingly.

Check the bestseller sales at your local indie bookstores. At least two I know of in New York (the Strand and Book Court) put the top 10 fiction and nonfiction hardcovers on automatic 30 percent markdown.
Privilege online reservation systems at local stores over online orders. Because of the vagaries of my mail situation I can often get books faster by reserving them at a local indie bookstore on its website and then walking or taking the subway over to fetch my treasure. It's also greener if that's your priority (fossil fuels exerted in bringing book to store, not book to warehouse and warehouse to you).
When possible, shop online through indies.
Support secondhand stores, but also bookstores that sell a mix of secondhand and new books. I love a Half Price Books, I seriously do, but they are a giant corporate monster that eats indies for breakfast. Because they are a monster they can afford to not give you a fair price for your own books to sell, so both ways you lose.
Buy books from your neighbors at garage sales, yard sales, stoop sales, or whatever your local variant of "Hey, we are casually selling some of our possessions" is.

After that -- for those hard to find, have-to-own books -- then check Amazon.

I liked the one where Catherine and the android took off in the spaceship together

Did you feel disappointed by the end of A FAREWELL TO ARMS? Don't worry, there are 46 more! And they're all in Simon & Schuster's new edition of the Hemingway novel (out next week). This artifact seems like as good a reason as any to continue to do some writing in longhand.

04 July 2012

"Pilgrimage," by Natasha Trethewey

Here, the Mississippi carved
            its mud-dark path, a graveyard

for skeletons of sunken riverboats.
            Here, the river changed its course,

turning away from the city
            as one turns, forgetting, from the past—

the abandoned bluffs, land sloping up
            above the river's bend—where now

the Yazoo fills the Mississippi's empty bed.
            Here, the dead stand up in stone, white

marble, on Confederate Avenue. I stand
            on ground once hollowed by a web of caves;

they must have seemed like catacombs,
            in 1863, to the woman sitting in her parlor,

candlelit, underground. I can see her
            listening to shells explode, writing herself

into history, asking what is to become
            of all the living things in this place?

This whole city is a grave. Every spring—
            Pilgrimage—the living come to mingle

with the dead, brush against their cold shoulders
            in the long hallways, listen all night

to their silence and indifference, relive
            their dying on the green battlefield.

At the museum, we marvel at their clothes—
            preserved under glass—so much smaller

than our own, as if those who wore them
            were only children. We sleep in their beds,

the old mansions hunkered on the bluffs, draped
            in flowers—funereal—a blur

of petals against the river's gray.
            The brochure in my room calls this

living history. The brass plate on the door reads
            Prissy's Room. A window frames

the river's crawl toward the Gulf. In my dream,
            the ghost of history lies down beside me,

rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm.
--Trethewey was named U.S. Poet Laureate last month. Happy Fourth of July!

03 July 2012

It can't possibly be this hard that this exists, can it?

Summer reading update: Ron $^%#ing Swanson edition

"I'm halfway through INFINITE JEST by David Foster Wallace—a writer who escaped my notice until a few years ago, when posthumously his final novel, THE PALE KING, came out. Mike Schur did his thesis on Wallace and had been in touch with him, and was absolutely religious about his writing. And Mike had organized a reading in Los Angeles—excerpts from THE PALE KING. It was Henry Rollins, Adam Scott, myself, and a couple of other actors. That was my introduction to Wallace's writing. And to continue in my fealty to Mike Schur, I decided to devour the massive feast that is INFINITE JEST."
-Nick Offerman in GQ

02 July 2012

June Unbookening: Hey, I just read you and this is crazy

Forestalling the inevitable parody...

Received 6 books to review
Checked out 2 from the library
Got 6 from friends
14 in

Returned 4 to library
Donated 5
Lent 4
13 out

Well, this was really close. I also renewed my NY Public Library card this June. I was under the impression that they never expired, but they've now been set to expire every 3 years because, as a librarian put it to me, "items were leaving the system" with borrowers who went inactive and then couldn't be found to collect. That makes me wonder if my old library account in the town where I lived before I moved here is still active, and if the librarians are still calling my old office number (they wouldn't take a cell phone because it had to be a local area code!) to see why I haven't been in. Three years is kind of narrow, especially if you don't know about the policy change and only find out about it a month before expiration (guilty!) but I'm not sure what a better term of membership might be.