Books in General


26 September 2017


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Illiterate or uninformed people

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“No one wanted to shoot booksellers, I assured myself — except for illiterati and television executives during sweeps month.”
Joan Hess; A Really Cute Corpse; St Martins Press; 1988.

Irregular Schedule

25 September 2017

PG will be blogging over the next few days, but you won’t be able to set your watch by the appearance of his posts.

Nothing terrible has happened, just a bit of disruption to his routine.

Victoria and Abdul: The Friendship that Scandalized England

25 September 2017

From Smithsonian:

As part of the festivities to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, celebrating 50 years on the throne, the Queen hosted dozens of foreign rulers at a lavish banquet. She led a grand procession to Westminster Abbey in open carriage, escorted by the Indian cavalry, greeted screaming crowds on her palace balcony, and enjoyed fireworks in the garden. But of all the jubilee’s memorable events, it was the queen’s encounter with Abdul Karim that became the most significant. The young man had arrived in the United Kingdom as a “gift from India,” one intended to help Victoria address the Indian princes at her banquet. Karim would quickly prove to be the queen’s most trusted confidant, and the most despised member of the royal court.

Queen Victoria’s unusually close friendship with her Indian servant began at the 1887 celebration and spanned 14 years, a period captured in the new movie Victoria & Abdul, starring Judi Dench as the titular queen. Karim was the queen’s beloved munshi, the teacher who gave her daily Urdu lessons, educated her on Indian affairs, and introduced her to curry. Queen Victoria in turn showered him with gifts, titles and honors, much to the resentment of the royal family. When the queen died in 1901, her children burned every letter she sent Karim, whom they unceremoniously deported back to India. Yet his record lives on, thanks in large part to his diary, preserved by generations of descendants.

That diary was only recently unearthed by Shrabani Basu, the historian who wrote the movie’s source text.

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Queen Victoria’s first impression of Karim was recorded in her diaries, where she deemed him “tall with a fine serious countenance.” After their jubilee duties concluded, Karim and Buxshe traveled with the queen to her summer home on the Isle of Wight. There, Karim distinguished himself by surprising the sovereign with one of his favorite recipes. Using spices he had brought from Agra, Karim cooked a chicken curry with dal and pilau. According to Victoria biographer A.N. Wilson, the queen declared the dish “excellent” and added it to her regular menu rotation.

Eager to immerse herself further in Indian culture, Victoria asked Karim to teach her Urdu, or, as it was known at the time, Hindustani. Their lessons initially seemed somewhat relaxed. “Am learning a few words of Hindustani to speak to my servants,” Victoria wrote. “It is a great interest to me, for both the language and the people.” That interest soon turned to zeal. In an effort to improve communication between teacher and student, the queen doubled Karim’s English lessons, and he was a fast learner. Within two months, Victoria had ceased sending Karim instructions through her staff and begun writing him directly. Within a few more, she had bestowed upon him the title of Munshi Hafiz Abdul Karim, making him her official Indian clerk and relieving him of his menial duties.

Link to the rest at Smithsonian

PG is certain that Judy Dench must have appeared in a terrible production at some time during her career, but he’s never seen it.


Danielle Steel’s Desk Is Unlike Anything You’ve Ever Seen

23 September 2017

From Vanity Fair:

Danielle Steel’s wildly popular novels have made her a household name.

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Ahead of her new book, Fairytale, being published next month, take a look at where Steel’s best-sellers are brought to life, at her desk in San Francisco.

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My beloved, partially handmade 1946 Olympia standard typewriter. I’ve written 163 books on this typewriter, and it’s still going strong.

I love these mementos that my children have given me for good luck. They touch my heart but do not help my creative process. The desktop is so crowded that, when I’m writing, I have to take them off the desk until I finish the book.

. . . .

On the walls of my office are framed covers of my books and sayings that I love. One favorite, since I work very late: “What hath night to do with sleep?”

Art done by my children when they were little.

This magnet says, “#1 Mom,” and was a Mother’s Day gift.

Link to the rest at Vanity Fair

PG says you’ll want to click through to see a photo of her desk in the OP.

Read Me

23 September 2017

From Full Stop:

How did you read when you were a child? I read the backs of cereal packets and shampoo bottles with the same hope for something interesting as I did The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and I am sure I was not alone in this. I’d suck down poetry (like Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes), a simple book on art theory, a book with things in pockets, a book on how faith and evolution could be reconciled, an illustrated dictionary cover to cover, a book with handwritten lettering curling over the pages. It was all words, and they were exciting, for the worlds they gave me and the thoughts I had about them and the daydreams and the jolts of fear or disgust—and I didn’t need to know what sort of form something took to feel the various joys of reading it. Perhaps you, as a child, read just as indiscriminately. Then something may have happened.

Here it is: You know what you like. You read a particular type of book, but you won’t venture into certain territories, because they are boring, or they are Not For You. You don’t “get” poetry. You only get poetry of a certain type.

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Gone from you is the big drink of childhood reading, replaced with caution, or doubt, or self-doubt, or exhaustion. I get it. We’re all tired. There is not enough coffee growing in little red beads to rejuvenate our weary bloodstreams. We read too much that’s disparate: 20 tabs open, a video playing ASMR in the background, someone sending us a text that just reads “yeah,” but they want—something. Modern life challenges us, and I’ve not come along to bemoan it; we choose what we read, and we can all individually decide if we are reading too much ephemera (or not enough? maybe we need more longform Internet essays in our life?). Who has the energy to engage with books and shorter pieces that require a different set of considerations to evaluate? That are hybrid and confusing or wilfully obtuse? Why not just read what’s a comfort, what seems made for us?

False argument, obviously. I’m saying here, now: writing which is not a comfort is also there for us.

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[Y]ou don’t have to read simpler or popular books because they give you ready currency online, or because lots of people keep talking about them. You can read obscure, weird, or difficult stuff without feeling awkward. Because you don’t have to present your opinion to the world on the books you read in a digestible, effusive tweet or a picture of the book next to a mug of tea and an aloe plant. I know you know this, that you don’t have to have an opinion at all.

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Plenty of essays and articles exist on the writing of flash fiction—how to sharpen and pare until nothing but a needle of text is left to transport the lightning to the reader’s brainstem. But fewer pieces exist on how to read flash.

Link to the rest at Full Stop

High School Reading as an Act of Meaningful Aggression

20 September 2017

From The Millions:

Towards the end of each year I do one of those anonymous surveys where I ask the students—high-school sophomores and juniors—how much they read, as a percentage, of each book. I’ve been doing this for the last 10 years or so, and the results are remarkably consistent: most students read most, but rarely all, of each book. About 15 percent read every single word of every single thing, some of it twice. These the kids who would read the contents list of a 7-11 freezer if told, the same students who tend to sit in the front row and take the kind of notes that end up in the Smithsonian. Another 15 percent admit to struggling to even open the books, but would gladly read the 7-11 freezer list because of its novelty value and the refreshing lack of obfuscating adjectives and modifiers. The 70 percent of students in the middle make up the dominant percentage, the ones who often leave little notes, not quite apologia, but regretful explanations about wishing that they had more time to do all the reading because they would have liked to, that they did most of it, that what they read of The Great Gatsby was really good but what with other homework, and athletics, and Uncle Steve’s birthday dinner, and the cousin in Jersey with leukemia, and x not yet having said anything about prom…well, there was a lot to think about.

All this at three separate independent schools in different parts of California. Like I said, remarkably consistent results, and results that translate across gender, race, and socioeconomic status. In terms of the not-highly-rigorous breakdown of those not-highly-rigorous statistics you get about 70 percent of the students reading about 70 percent of the material 70 percent of the time. All of which sounds terrific, except that most of the time, most of the 70 percent, and even some of the 15 percent taking Smithsonian-esque notes, see words rather than read them. For most high-school students, the act of “reading” recalls the soft glow of something done at night, before bed, in jim-jams with a cup of hot cocoa—the equivalent of night-time elevator music. Or, if not that, they’re “reading” on the bus, in the car, while standing outside class two minutes before the bell. And, at best, gaining an understanding of situation and context: who did what or said what to whom and where at what time in what kind of weather. Seeing words but not really reading them, a marriage without contact.

I want them to see reading as something far more intimate, even fractured at times, as something combative, vulgar, assertive—a constant back-and-forth between reading and rereading, moments of stepping outside the text then coming back and battering at it with questions. Something better done in a flak jacket than pajamas. And high school students hate doing it. Who, what, when, and where, of course, are essential. You gotta figure out who’s sleeping with whom before you ask why. There’s a brother involved? What? No. Wait! They’re on a train? If that part’s hazy, the next stop becomes SparkNotes and PinkMonkey, and you might as well hand out the 7-11 freezer list.

Link to the rest at The Millions

How Virtual Reality Could Help You Fall In Love

19 September 2017

From Fast Company:

In 2015, The New York Times caused quite a stir by publishing “The 36 Questions That Lead To Love,” based on work by the psychologist Arthur Aron. The main idea was that people would have to be incredibly vulnerable to ask and answer such questions—and doing so could quickly build intimacy.

“The most interesting thing from the research,” said Kevin Cornish, the director of Fall in Love VR, “is this premise that the thing that creates human bonds is not the words we say to each other, but the act of conversation.”

In Cornish’s new virtual reality project, released today for the Oculus Rift, users confront the question of whether it’s possible to experience intimacy with an avatar by sitting across from one of five photo-realistic actors and, one by one, asking many of Aron’s questions off prompt cards. Out loud.

The speaking-out-loud bit is key, as the potential love interests, looking adorable, yet vulnerable, respond only when the specific questions are asked. Ask or say anything else and they just sit there looking expectant.

That’s because Fall in Love VR, from Tool of North America, uses natural language processing –becoming among the first to utilize the technology in an interactive VR project–to make users feel like they’re truly having an intimate conversation. Cornish said he got the idea when working on a VR film with Taylor Swift. “There was one moment where [Swift] looks into the camera,” he recalls, “and it feels like she’s looking at you and talking to you. There’s a connection that you can get in VR and not any other medium.”

Added Cornish, “The idea is taking all the advancement in natural language processing and pairing that with an intimate conversational experience to give a sense of what it’s going to be like when we’re having conversations in virtual reality. It’s like that moment in [the film] Her, when there’s that question of how many people are you talking to, and how scalable is it [to have an AI say the words and have them repeated again and again to other users]….I only have to have that conversation once. It’s kind of like the VR equivalent of what CC meant for email.”

In short, the idea behind Fall in Love VR was to give users a conversational experience where the joy comes from the simple act of having the conversation.

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Although that gives the initial impression that this will be a two-way conversation, it really isn’t. The entire experience is built around you asking the avatar questions, and them answering. In the early stages of production, Cornish explained, the idea had been that the avatars would ask you questions as well, but that was quickly rejected because in testing, Tool found it put people on the spot, which left them feeling uncomfortable. The decision was made to limit the functionality to asking questions of the avatars and having them respond. So those interactions have to be as realistic as possible.

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“So much of a personality is based on a face,” he said, “It’s that idea of pairing natural-language and machine learning with the personality and the warmth and eye contact that come with having a photo-realistic human face.”

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Cornish is also fond of one bit of feedback he’s heard on multiple occasions: “We hear, ‘my wife would be jealous of this,’ or ‘my boyfriend would be jealous.’ It’s such an interesting thing in making a film that that’s the reaction….It really comes from the eye contact and the naturalness of” the interaction.

Link to the rest at Fast Company

PG is certainly not the only one who immediately started thinking about all the things that could go wrong with this.

Perhaps it’s a good writing prompt.

Where Crime Fiction Meets the Talmud

19 September 2017

From Electric Lit:

Tod Goldberg, the writer — the one who told me in my first quarter of his MFA program to stop being intimidated by everyone because, “we’re all just people who sit around in our underwear, late at night, typing” — is introspective and deeply concerned with the welfare of people. Goldberg writes his observant vulnerability into the heart of his stories — even the ones involving killers.

Goldberg’s newest book, Gangster Nation (Counterpoint), is the sequel to his award-winning 2014 novel, GangsterlandThe series is going to be produced for TV by the team behind Peaky Blinders. The premise of the books is that Sal Cupertine, Chicago mafia hit man, makes a mistake: he shoots undercover FBI agents in a deal gone bad. He’s subsequently hidden in a temple in Las Vegas, given a new face, and a new identity: Rabbi David Cohen. Since he’s not Jewish — and has to become so, at least ostensibly— quickly, Rabbi David Cohen pulls from the Jewish texts he binge reads and rounds them out with Bruce Springsteen lyrics. Gangster Nation picks up two years after Gangsterland: Sal’s new face is failing him, and he is growing desperate to reunite with his wife and son.

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HSP: A lot of angst in Gangster Nation comes from The Family’s middle management. The idea that working for someone else, doing the drudgery that it takes to keep things moving is soul-crushing. In the case of this novel, it pushes some of the lesser-knowns to make bold, even sloppy, moves toward greatness. Have you had any of those moments in your professional life? Did any of your previous jobs push you toward what you ultimately wanted to do, simply because they were so banal?

TG: I worked for a while in the infomercial business. This was right after I graduated from college and was trying to become a writer, so the mid-1990s. It was a terrible job. I was an account executive for a bunch of products with really dubious names and claims. There was one whose whole concept was that you could do exercises for your face that would essentially make you look decades younger, thus eliminating the need for plastic surgery, and yet it was, ironically, lauded by plastic surgeons. You can make yourself look like a cat for pennies on the dollar compared to plastic surgery! That wasn’t the call to action, but in my mind it was. Anyway, working in the infomercial business, even for just a year, I saw and experienced some deeply weird stuff. There was one time we got a call about a boatload of those rice pillows that had been infested with vermin, which then led to a discussion about how one burns vermin infested rice pillows on a boat in a port. We had an exercise device we sold that had some tension spring that was shooting out of it and breaking windows and hitting animals and children and such, which prompted a massive recall and a lot of panicked phone calls that inexplicably landed on my desk.

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I tell you this all as a long way of saying that even then, at the bottom rung of an organization the seemed at best morally toxic by definition (separating people from their money in hopes that their cheeks won’t sag is a grift, folks, no matter if it’s on your TV or someone comes to town with a magic tonic) and actually abetting criminal activity at its worst, I only really figured out something was amiss when I came to work and the bagels and snacks had been removed from the kitchen. There was a meeting that day and our boss announced that in order to cuts costs because of the projectile tension screw problem, there would no longer be free snacks…and that there might be a few layoffs. I can’t say I made any bold moves toward greatness at that moment, but I did come home and tell my then-girlfriend-now-wife that if I had to work at that place any longer, I might jump out a window and that I really wanted to try to make a go at this writing thing full time, but not, categorically, in the infomercial business.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

Tell Us 5 Things About Your Book: The Ways We Inherit Historical Traumas

18 September 2017

From The New York Times:

Both of Elizabeth Rosner’s parents survived the Holocaust, and her new book is about “trans-generational epigenetic inheritance” — a fancy name for the “environmentally induced changes passed down from one generation to the next.” Rosner writes that this inheritance is common in plants, has been observed in mice and is only starting to be understood in humans. One researcher told her: “If you are looking for it all to be logical and fall into place perfectly, it isn’t going to yet.” “Survivor Café” grapples with big and possibly unanswerable questions about how we recognize and cope with the traumas we inherit, and how we can properly keep alive the personal stories behind great historical atrocities even after everyone who lived through them is gone. “I am more afraid of forgetting my parents’ stories than I am of forgetting my own,” Rosner writes. Below, she discusses the trip to Germany that inspired her book, the urgency she felt while writing it and more.

When did you first get the idea to write this book?

I say in the book that I’ve been writing it all my life, so the flip answer is: I began writing it in utero. But it’s not a flip book, so I have to be serious. I’ve been thinking about these themes for a long, long time, and I’ve been writing about them fictionally and poetically for a long time. But this book originated as the result of a trip I took to Germany two years ago with my father — who was 86 at the time — and my nephew, to visit Buchenwald and to participate in a commemoration ceremony for the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the camp. Third-generation Germans were organizing it, and they created this event that they called the Survivor Café, which was literally survivors sitting at these tables. What struck me so profoundly was the witnessing of history in this intimate, personal way, and how that witnessing had to keep being transmitted, had to keep being done in the present.

It began to feel increasingly urgent that I ask questions about this threshold moment we’re at — not just with the Holocaust, but the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Cambodian killing fields and so on. The people who were alive for these events are going to eventually disappear. How does history remain a living thing?

It really felt like I had no time to lose. I wanted this book to be held in my father’s hands.

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In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

It became much more of a tapestry the more I worked on it. I imagined the chapters would be discrete, even though the themes would echo. But they reverberated with each other more and more. I kept including more science research, historical fact-checking and cultural references, multicultural references — and every time I found something new, it would braid back into what I had already been writing.

The material about the multigenerational aftermath in Japan probably affected me the most. And alongside of that, the work Bryan Stevenson is doing with the legacy of slavery and lynching in America. Both of those resonated so deeply with me.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

How Reading Rewires Your Brain for More Intelligence and Empathy

16 September 2017

From Big Think:

Fitness headlines promise staggering physical results: a firmer butt, ripped abs, bulging biceps. Nutritional breakthroughs are similar clickbait, with attention-grabbing, if often inauthentic—what, really, is a “superfood?”—means of achieving better health. Strangely, one topic usually escaping discussion has been shown, time and again, to make us healthier, smarter, and more empathic animals: reading. 

Reading, of course, requires patience, diligence, and determination. Scanning headlines and retweeting quips is not going to make much cognitive difference. If anything, such sweet nothings are dangerous, the literary equivalent of sugar addiction. Information gathering in under 140 characters is lazy. The benefits of contemplation through narrative offer another story.

The benefits are plenty, which is especially important in a distracted, smartphone age in which one-quarter of American children don’t learn to read. This not only endangers them socially and intellectually, but cognitively handicaps them for life. One 2009 study of 72 children ages eight to ten discovered that reading creates new white matter in the brain, which improves system-wide communication.

White matter carries information between regions of grey matter, where any information is processed. Not only does reading increase white matter, it helps information be processed more efficiently.

Reading in one language has enormous benefits. Add a foreign language and not only do communication skills improve—you can talk to more people in wider circles—but the regions of your brain involved in spatial navigation and learning new information increase in size. Learning a new language also improves your overall memory.

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Novel reading is a great way to practice being human.1 Rather than sprints and punches, how about something more primitive and necessary in a society, like empathy? As you dive deeper into Rabbit Angstrom’s follies or Jason Taylor coming of age, you not only feel their pain and joy. You actually experience it. 

In one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.

This has profound implications for how we interact with others. When encountering a 13-year-old boy misbehaving, you most likely won’t think, “Well, David Mitchell wrote about such a situation, and so I should behave like this,” but you might have integrated some of the lessons about young boys figuring life out and display a more nuanced understanding in how you react. 

Link to the rest at Big Think

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