19 June 2013

Infinite summer is infinite

If you missed 2009's Infinite Summer, you can read INFINITE JEST with an online group again this summer at Summer of Jest. Better yet, it's organized by the same people, who provided a modest update on the David Foster Wallace field since back then. They've already started but if you're just catching up, you're only 200 pages behind so get readin'.

I've been feeling a certain degree of nostalgia for 2009 recently and this definitely compounds it! Sadly my copy of IJ is summering in New Jersey in a warehouse right now.

via Peter W. Knox

18 June 2013

Internet Pays Attention To Female Authors When Used In Tasteless Fashion Spread

Vice is a lifestyle news/entertainment brand out of Brooklyn who most people in not-Brooklyn heard of when they took Dennis Rodman to North Korea. That is, they can swear up and down that they are hard-hitting journalists and social content connectors etc. but they are primarily in the business of getting attention on the shock line. (The New Yorker profile "The Vice Guide To The World" is a great place to read more about the brand as a whole.) But so is CNN, the 10 o'clock news and apparently members of the Republican party, to be honest.

Vice successfully shocked the Internet today by publishing a fashion spread themed around female authors who committed suicide (plus Dorothy Parker, who actually died of a heart attack -- fact checking!!) Heavy hitters like Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath were represented in poses reflecting the manner of their deaths, along with fashion credits in case your primary reaction to a woman pointing a gun at her mouth is "Ooh, I wonder who styled her?" I can't link to the spread because Vice has already taken it down and posted one of those boilerplate apologies that makes no one happy, so you will have to go through and look for those images yourself.

As a person who has known and had people close to me know that kind of despair, I thought this was in such bad taste as to be funny. Hilarious, even. I mean, this is like an "America's Next Top Model" reject-level idea. If you put this in your short story, your class would make you take it out. Who knows how many people had to approve this concept and apparently took leave of their senses in order to do so? What is even funnier about it is the theme of the whole issue is "Women in Fiction" and it probably holds a lot of articles that I would be interested in -- I hear there's a great Mary Gaitskill short story, a great Marilynne Robinson interview... how can I bring myself to read them now, I don't know. But clearly not one person, but a lot of people thought "Yeah, that'll be funny and captivating." Well, the latter is up to you to decide. There are a few images that are very well shot.

But I feel the worst for the authors included in the spread whom I have never heard of, who have now had to feed the content machine and will always be the "Oh yeah, she was one of those in that Vice thing." San Mao, Elise Cohen, Iris Chang. As if it's enough for Vice to call them "writers whose lives we very much wish weren’t cut tragically short" and have us all forget any more salient details of their lives. We couldn't even give these authors the last note of dignity in not using their deaths to sell stuff (including the Vice brand in that "stuff.") It'll just be chalked up to one of Vice's "bad-boy" stunts and, inevitably, forgiven. Because this is the culture we live in, and boy, is that the most depressing thing of all.

14 June 2013

"I mean, there's a - the you that you present to the world, and then there's, you know, of course, the real one. And if you're lucky, there's not a huge difference between those two people. And I guess in my diary, I'm not afraid to be boring. You know, I don't have a - it's not my job to entertain anyone in my diary." --David Sedaris

Reading on the Road: If I could offer you one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it.

From one of the most popular graduation columns of all time... 

I'm off to northern California this weekend to see my little brother and sister graduate from college. Where did those years go?After lugging around my earthly possessions for six weeks I am relieved to be packing the bare minimum, and am complementing it with Stacy A. Cordery's JULIETTE GORDON LOW and Sheri Fink's fall-anticipated FIVE DAYS AT MEMORIAL with an eye to passing both along to family members. (Not the graduating ones, who will get proper gifts.)

If I fell into another bookstore there, I wouldn't be too disappointed. I have a flashbulb memory of visiting the Klutz store in Palo Alto, a garagelike building at the end of a street but filled with wonders; it's too bad it seems to have since closed.

11 June 2013


  • Amount, in USD, of New York Public Library fines I just paid off so as to move with a clear conscience. 
  • Last NYPL book I read: Ian McEwan's SWEET TOOTH, one of my summer picks (not what I was expecting at all! Hoping one of you has read it so we can get into a good discussion) 
  • Last branch visited: Muhlenberg Library on West 23rd. 
  • Favorite branches: Mulberry Street Library (Houston and Lafayette) and Jefferson Market Library (6th Ave. and 10th St.) (tie) 
  • First branch ever visited: Midmanhattan Library, W. 40th and 5th Ave. 

10 June 2013

Free idea: Let's have a book club for all of these books about publishing this summer and see if either our heads explode, or we finally Understand All The Mysteries of publishing forever. (It was linkbait that worked, Book Riot!) 

05 June 2013

Lorca in New York

Last night I attended a poetry reading titled "Celebrating Federico García Lorca" at the New York Public Library. Federico García Lorca was an early 20th-century Spanish poet and playwright who I was obsessed with in my earlier years who was killed by fascists during the Spanish Civil War in 1936.

The event is tied to a Lorca in NYC festival going on this year, commemorating the year the poet spent studying at Columbia and immersing himself in American life. Out of it came his book POET IN NEW YORK, bearing witness to events as big as the stock market crash and as small as witnessing a family he was staying with in grief when their daughter fell down a well and drowned. Most of the readings from last night's event were from that book, as well as a few snippets from Lorca's essay "Theory and Play of the Duende" and letters he wrote describing his experiences at the time.

The library also has an exhibit titled "Back Tomorrow" of part of the original manuscript of POET IN NEW YORK, as well as ephemera like Lorca's drawings and his passport (see the photo I stealthed inside the exhibition room on Saturday when I visited). "Back Tomorrow" is so named because of a note Lorca left his editor in 1936 when he dropped off the manuscript of POET IN NEW YORK, promising he would be "back tomorrow." He never returned and was killed a few weeks later; his editor took the manuscript with him into exile and published it in Mexico.

I had never been to one of the library's "Live at the NYPL" events, mostly because they are relatively pricey ($25, $15 for students) and usually weren't such a burning interest that I was willing to pay the price. I wasn't overly familiar with any of the poets reading (including former U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine, to my shame) but was hooked by the opportunity to hear Lorca's poetry aloud; in fact the evening began with an audio recording from 1930 of Lorca accompanying a Spanish singer in New York on the piano, spooky and magic. My favorite reading came from Tracy K. Smith including her poem "Duende," based on her experiences traveling in southern Spain near where Lorca grew up. My least favorite section was a performance art piece in which an actor conveyed parts of Lorca's work, but did a lot of looming over the audience and bugging his eyes out theatrically to emphasize certain lines. If he wanted unsettling, he definitely got that! But from all accounts Lorca was very shy about performing in public and was not at all a hammy mchamville. This is why we do research, yes?

I feel lucky that I was able to catch this show before I go. The exhibit at the library runs through July 20, and even if you have little knowledge of Lorca, I highly suggest you check it out! You can also buy the new translation of POET IN NEW YORK at the NYPL store afterward if your interest is piqued.

04 June 2013

Faint praise

The Los Angeles Review of Books is an online journal that sprung up after the L.A. Times cut way back on its books coverage in the past few years. It has a policy, unspoken before about a week ago, of not reviewing debut authors unless the review is positive. Senior humanities editor Evan Kindley outlined on Twitter that when reviews come back negative, the publication either ignores them or kills the negative reviews. (What it does with all those kill fees is not certain, but then again I'm not sure the LARB pays contributors at all.) Critic D.G. Myers retorted with an admirable fierceness that such a policy is similar to the "trophies for everyone" behavior of children's soccer teams, and that if everything is positive then the LARB's positive reviews are diluted in comparison.

Here are some reasons this policy doesn't sit right by me:

  • As Myers points out, a review will be used by some people as a purchasing guide. I can buy Book A or Book B, but not both; what have I heard about either of them? 
  • Concern for authors' feelings is not a critical faculty. I know, I know! But it is up to them how they want to handle their hypothetical negative reviews. As a critic it is not up to me to make them feel better, only to convince them (and everyone) that I am right. (Typical oldest child behavior. How else do you think I got here?)
  • The LARB editor admitted that said policy gets bent in the case of really big debuts anyway. So it's okay to say negative things about a book that is going commercially big or critically big, because the author can just cry into her wallet/ gloating New York Times review? 
  • When done correctly, a pan or a negative review does not destroy someone's life. Unless you're Michiko Kakutani I suppose, and I'm not. (But even her -- she's reviewed some unkillables.) It may seem unfair and unjust to the author, and incorrect to anyone else. But it should not grind the axe to that point. 
  • As I love to point out, critics also have feelings, and one of those feelings is fury at having read a book only to come face-to-face with something that didn't work and was very unpleasant to endure. Since I am honor bound to finish books I review professionally, I recognize that when the dust settles I will take those books apart and say, "This is why that didn't work for me." That is one of the attractions for me, the reward I get for the "hazards." (That should have about 8 more air quotes attached to either side.) 
  • Finally, and not specifically speaking of the LARB here, this only adds fuel to the untrue theory that The Internet Now is all about "nice" and is hardly the ferocious beastie it used to be. It's still ferocious. It just hides better. And telling everybody that it's nice is like a license for some people to be even worse, and then to attack all their critics with the Nice Stick because, what the heck?! You owe me nice!

That said I know I have been less hard on debut books I didn't like than on books of the same caliber by authors with storied careers. This isn't fair and perhaps makes me a hypocrite, but occasionally I get the sense that with a well-known author... things... are overlooked on the way to publication that would trigger rewriting frenzy with a first author. It's a different flavor of disappointment when a precedent has been set.

What do you think is the best way to approach first-time authors?

03 June 2013

Don't be Grumpy, go on a LAME ADVENTURE today!

One more BEA story. On Friday at the expo, I was waiting in an epically long line for Chronicle Books' celebrity author Grumpy Cat. When Chronicle announced it would be dispatching Grumpy Cat (aka "Tardar Sauce" Bundesen of Phoenix, AZ) to the conference, I forwarded the press release around as a joke, and then at some point decided to seriously do it. (Not the first time I have made decisions in this manner.)

I got to chatting with the woman in front of me in line who was an author. Turns out her name is Virginia Antonelli and she writes a blog I already read called Lame Adventures about city life and escapades in New York and beyond. (The sea lion rescue was one of my favorites.) If you ever find yourself by choice in an hour-long line for about 20 seconds of meme glory, I highly recommend getting stuck with a blogger like her and watching everyone's faces light up or crinkle with confusion as they asked us "What are you in line for?"

Anyway, you should read about her day at BEA and then buy her book LAME ADVENTURES: UNGLAMOROUS TALES FROM MANHATTAN. Waiting for Grumpy Cat would definitely count as unglamorous, but on the other hand, now I won't have to change my Facebook photo for several meme-years.

May Unbookening: Can't Spell Futility Without BEA Edition

Bought 4 books (3 Kindle, in deference to my current unhoused state)
Had 2 returned to me
Checked 5 out from the library
Received 5 to review
Picked up 28 galleys (I know, and believe me these were just the books I was sure I wanted to read!)
44 in

Donated 12
Gave away 1
Returned 4 to library
17 out

Well, at least I will have enough reading for the whole summer. And then some. And then some more.

But seriously, for such a sales-focused conference BEA is an absolute smorgasbord of free things if you know where to look. I largely eschewed the non-book products, even the balloon animals people were carrying around (and these relate to publishing how?), except two tote bags because I don't have 87 of them already. Sometimes I would walk into an exhibitor's booth, see an artful stack of galleys, and not automatically take one with me. That actually happened! But I got some finds that I'll definitely look forward to talking and writing about in the fall, and I promise there were no rolling suitcases allowed.

02 June 2013

Most anticipated

I tried to get a picture of this much anticipated fall release by "Parks and Recreation"'s Ron Swanson, but there were people in the way. Luckily Rebecca Schinsky got the shot. One copy for each family member for Christmas is a good idea, right? So they don't have to share.

01 June 2013

Free lit course starts Monday - recommended by me

One of my favorite professors, Dr Arnold Weinstein, is diving into the world of MOOCs (massive open online courses) with The Fiction of Relationship this summer. The course starts Monday, so great news, you still have time to sign up!

The first week's reading is Abbé Prévost's MANON LESCAUT which is available in the public domain. Future weeks will tackle JANE EYRE, BARTLEBY (which I'm ashamed to never have read) and J.M. Coetzee's DISGRACE. Let me know if any of you actually sign up and we can start a back-channel discussion.