Books in General

Stoop Stories

18 November 2017

From Aeon:

So I’m posted up, sharing a sandwich and a cigarette with a friend in one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in America, and my phone buzzes. On the other end is one of my old professors asking me to tell one of my wild childhood stories at the Stoop Storytelling Series, at Center Stage in downtown Baltimore.

A stoop show, I thought: kind of like what I do on the corner in my own neighbourhood every day. I’m always surrounded by stoops, Baltimore stoops made of cracked and chipped marble steps where all we do is tell street stories: who’s getting money, who’s going to jail, who murdered who, whose album is hot, who is that girl, who’s driving what, and who’s coming home from jail.

This would be easy, the same thing, but in someone else’s neighbourhood. I agreed to it like I agreed to the last 15 opportunities that fell in my lap. I’d recently written ‘Too Poor for Pop Culture’, an essay that went viral and made me semi-relevant on the internet and the man to know on the local scene. I’d learnt that exposure and platform are key, so I looked forward to the event.

The day of the show rolled round and I was backstage with my fellow cast members and storytellers. These guys were Easter-sharp, with starched button-ups and wingtips; the women matched them in pumps and flashy adult versions of their prom dresses.

Obviously, I missed the dress code memo because I walked in wearing a black hoodie and some black Air Jordans.

. . . .

The hostess gave me an amazing intro and welcomed me to the mic. I walked up and said: ‘This ain’t the stoop I’m used to. There’s no pit bulls, red cups or blue flashing lights, but I’ll make it work!’ I paused, took a look at the crowd and honestly felt like I wasn’t in Baltimore.

My black friends call it Baldamore, Harm City or Bodymore Murderland. My white friends call it Balti-mo, Charm City or Smalltimore while falling in love with the quaint pubs, trendy cafés and distinctive little shops. I just call it home.

Link to the rest at Aeon

Boston Is a Literary City Too

18 November 2017

From Publishers Weekly:

Imagine that your city hosts a book festival that attracts authors of international acclaim and readers of virtually every genre. Exhibitors representing publishers, writing centers, universities and colleges, writing groups, and booksellers (not to mention the best local grilled cheese company) fill a beautiful, historic square in town, and their booths have lines throughout the day. Tourists mix with locals walking, biking, and popping out of the subway stations nearby. Most events—whether in a church, a hotel, or the historic library; whether featuring a bestselling YA author or a scholar-activist—are standing room only.

The next day, you open your city newspapers and see nothing about the festival. Did it happen? Was it just a book lover’s dream?

The Boston Book Festival took place in Copley Square, in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood, for the ninth time on October 28. Around 200 authors appeared throughout the day, and attendees filled around 18,000 seats and standing room, to boot. Speakers included Geraldine Brooks, Daniel Handler, Chris Hayes, Lisa Ko, Dennis Lehane, Claire Messud, Eileen Myles, and Jacqueline Woodson.

Local media in Boston primed the pump ahead of the event, with pieces in the Boston Globe and on NPR, but once it happened there was radio silence. I suspect many people who participated in it in whatever way, like I did, are frustrated, as I am.

. . . .

How often can a fan of the stylish New York Review Books’ reissued paperbacks meet someone in marketing from the company? In what other space can writers watch agents consider new work, as they do at the massively popular Writer Idol event held each year at the Festival? Not covering this unique space sustains the myth that the walls between readers, writers, and gatekeepers are high and getting higher.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Although PG doesn’t live in Boston, the spine-tingling adventure of watching agents consider new work isn’t a compelling draw for him. Perhaps the newspapers felt the same way.

Annie Proulx Gave One of the Best National Book Award Speeches

18 November 2017

From Annie Proulx’ acceptance speech for the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters via Vulture:

Although this award is for lifetime achievement, I didn’t start writing until I was 58, so if you’ve been thinking about it and putting it off, well…

. . . .

We are living through a massive shift from representative democracy to something called viral direct democracy, now cascading over us in a garbage-laden tsunami of raw data. Everything is situational, seesawing between gut-response “likes” or vicious confrontations. For some this is a heady time of brilliant technological innovation that is bringing us into an exciting new world. For others it is the opening of a savagely difficult book without a happy ending.

. . . .

The happy ending still beckons, and it is in hope of grasping it that we go on. The poet Wisława Szymborska caught the writer’s dilemma of choosing between hard realities and the longing for the happy ending. She called it “consolation.” Darwin: They say he read novels to relax, but only certain kinds—nothing that ended unhappily. If he happened on something like that, enraged, he flung the book into the fire. True or not, I’m ready to believe it. Scanning in his mind so many times and places, he’s had enough with dying species, the triumphs of the strong over the weak, the endless struggle to survive, all doomed sooner or later. He’d earned the right to happy ending, at least in fiction, with its micro-scales.

Hence the indispensable silver lining, the lovers reunited, the families reconciled, the doubts dispelled, fidelity rewarded, fortunes regained, treasures uncovered, stiff-necked neighbors mending their ways, good names restored, greed daunted, old maids married off to worthy parsons, troublemakers banished to other hemispheres, forgers of documents tossed down the stairs, seducers scurried to the altar, orphans sheltered, widows comforted, pride humbled, wounds healed, prodigal sons summoned home, cups of sorrow tossed into the ocean, hankies drenched with tears of reconciliation, general merriment and celebration, and the dog Fido, gone astray in the first chapter, turns up barking gladly in the last. Thank you.

Link to the rest at Vulture

Vulture comments, “The least suspenseful part of the National Book Award ceremony can be the most fun: the speech given by each year’s winner of the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Winners of that lifetime-achievement prize tend to be over 80, and to expound passionately on the general theme of “kids today.””

An Unsolicited Great Idea for Your Next Book

17 November 2017

From The New Yorker:

“You’re a writer?” the man said. “Hey, I’ve got a great idea for a book.”

Gompers tried to stay calm. He had become a writer for the same reason anybody did: he was incapable of coming up with ideas of his own, and he longed for a lifetime of being given them at cocktail parties. But he had been down this road before. Somebody would offer him an amazing, can’t-fail idea for a guaranteed best-seller that was certain to be made into a hit movie, and then they would demand millions of dollars in payment.

This was fair enough, but Gompers simply didn’t have the money. How could he, a mere writer, earn any money before he had an idea given to him by a total stranger? And without any money, how could he pay the millions of dollars the idea was inevitably worth? It was, in the phrase coined by Joseph Heller’s chiropractor’s cousin, a total “Catch-22.”

So Gompers tried to play it cool. “A great idea?” he said, casually. “And what would you want in return?”

“You write the book, and then I take half the profits,” the man answered.

Gompers nearly dropped his drink. The other man was going to do the heavy lifting of coming up with a one- or two-sentence logline, and all Gompers had to do was expand it into a novel-length story featuring believable characters and elegant prose—and, in exchange, the man wanted only half the profits?

There had to be a catch. Maybe the idea _wasn’t _for a guaranteed best-seller that was certain to become a hit movie. Maybe it only had a seventy-five-per-cent chance of becoming a best-seller, and then the film version would earn a few Oscars in technical categories but never really take off. Still, if he turned it down and the man later ended up at a cocktail party with John Grisham or Thomas Pynchon, Gompers would never forgive himself.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker and thanks to Anne for the tip.

The Gold-Bug

17 November 2017

From Bookriot:

For modern readers, Edgar Allan Poe is synonymous with Gothic tales of horror and “dark” poetry, like The Raven or The Tell-Tale Heart. But during his lifetime, that wasn’t the case. Instead, by far his most successful and famous story was one little-known today: The Gold-Bug.

In The Gold-Bug, our unnamed narrator meets with an old acquaintance, William Legrand, who lives on an island near Charleston, South Carolina. Legrand is in “one of his fits…of enthusiasm,” having just discovered what he believes is a unknown species of beetle. So imagine how excited he gets when he realizes that, in collecting the bug, his black servant Jupiter accidentally grabbed a scrap of paper with a code revealing the location of Captain Kidd’s lost treasure.

. . . .

The Gold-Bug was the first work of fiction to incorporate cryptography into the plot. In fact, the very word cryptograph was invented by Poe and used for the first time in this story.

. . . .

Before Poe, cryptography was a complete mystery to most people. Simple substitution ciphers like the one in The Gold-Bug were considered unbreakable unless you possessed the key to decode them. But Poe’s knowledge of language and obsession with logic, or “ratiocination,” made him realize that any code could be broken. And he showed people exactly how to do it.

Link to the rest at Bookriot

Can Reading Make You Happier?

15 November 2017

From The New Yorker:

Several years ago, I was given as a gift a remote session with a bibliotherapist at the London headquarters of the School of Life, which offers innovative courses to help people deal with the daily emotional challenges of existence. I have to admit that at first I didn’t really like the idea of being given a reading “prescription.” I’ve generally preferred to mimic Virginia Woolf’s passionate commitment to serendipity in my personal reading discoveries, delighting not only in the books themselves but in the randomly meaningful nature of how I came upon them (on the bus after a breakup, in a backpackers’ hostel in Damascus, or in the dark library stacks at graduate school, while browsing instead of studying). I’ve long been wary of the peculiar evangelism of certain readers: You must read this, they say, thrusting a book into your hands with a beatific gleam in their eyes, with no allowance for the fact that books mean different things to people—or different things to the same person—at various points in our lives. I loved John Updike’s stories about the Maples in my twenties, for example, and hate them in my thirties, and I’m not even exactly sure why.

But the session was a gift, and I found myself unexpectedly enjoying the initial questionnaire about my reading habits that the bibliotherapist, Ella Berthoud, sent me. Nobody had ever asked me these questions before, even though reading fiction is and always has been essential to my life. I love to gorge on books over long breaks—I’ll pack more books than clothes, I told Berthoud. I confided my dirty little secret, which is that I don’t like buying or owning books, and always prefer to get them from the library (which, as I am a writer, does not bring me very good book-sales karma). In response to the question “What is preoccupying you at the moment?,” I was surprised by what I wanted to confess: I am worried about having no spiritual resources to shore myself up against the inevitable future grief of losing somebody I love, I wrote. I’m not religious, and I don’t particularly want to be, but I’d like to read more about other people’s reflections on coming to some sort of early, weird form of faith in a “higher being” as an emotional survival tactic. Simply answering the questions made me feel better, lighter.

We had some satisfying back-and-forths over e-mail, with Berthoud digging deeper, asking about my family’s history and my fear of grief, and when she sent the final reading prescription it was filled with gems, none of which I’d previously read. Among the recommendations was “The Guide,” by R. K. Narayan. Berthoud wrote that it was “a lovely story about a man who starts his working life as a tourist guide at a train station in Malgudi, India, but then goes through many other occupations before finding his unexpected destiny as a spiritual guide.” She had picked it because she hoped it might leave me feeling “strangely enlightened.” Another was “The Gospel According to Jesus Christ,” by José Saramago: “Saramago doesn’t reveal his own spiritual stance here but portrays a vivid and compelling version of the story we know so well.” “Henderson the Rain King,” by Saul Bellow, and “Siddhartha,” by Hermann Hesse, were among other prescribed works of fiction, and she included some nonfiction, too, such as “The Case for God,” by Karen Armstrong, and “Sum,” by the neuroscientist David Eagleman, a “short and wonderful book about possible afterlives.”

. . . .

 Bibliotherapy is a very broad term for the ancient practice of encouraging reading for therapeutic effect. The first use of the term is usually dated to a jaunty 1916 article in The Atlantic Monthly, “A Literary Clinic.” In it, the author describes stumbling upon a “bibliopathic institute” run by an acquaintance, Bagster, in the basement of his church, from where he dispenses reading recommendations with healing value. “Bibliotherapy is…a new science,” Bagster explains. “A book may be a stimulant or a sedative or an irritant or a soporific. The point is that it must do something to you, and you ought to know what it is. A book may be of the nature of a soothing syrup or it may be of the nature of a mustard plaster.” To a middle-aged client with “opinions partially ossified,” Bagster gives the following prescription: “You must read more novels. Not pleasant stories that make you forget yourself. They must be searching, drastic, stinging, relentless novels.” (George Bernard Shaw is at the top of the list.) Bagster is finally called away to deal with a patient who has “taken an overdose of war literature,” leaving the author to think about the books that “put new life into us and then set the life pulse strong but slow.”

. . . .

 The practice came into its own at the end of the nineteenth century, when Sigmund Freud began using literature during psychoanalysis sessions. After the First World War, traumatized soldiers returning home from the front were often prescribed a course of reading. “Librarians in the States were given training on how to give books to WWI vets, and there’s a nice story about Jane Austen’s novels being used for bibliotherapeutic purposes at the same time in the U.K.,” Elderkin says. Later in the century, bibliotherapy was used in varying ways in hospitals and libraries, and has more recently been taken up by psychologists, social and aged-care workers, and doctors as a viable mode of therapy.

. . . .

“We have started to show how identification with fictional characters occurs, how literary art can improve social abilities, how it can move us emotionally, and can prompt changes of selfhood. . . . Fiction is a kind of simulation, one that runs not on computers but on minds: a simulation of selves in their interactions with others in the social world…based in experience, and involving being able to think of possible futures.”

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

Are You In Need of Bibliotherapy?

15 November 2017

From Psychology Today:

If you are reading this my guess is that you’re a book addict like me. In her book Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, Jane Smiley wrote that “Many people, myself among them, feel better at the mere sight of a book.”  Whether the mere sight of a Kindle has the same effect is not known!

But what is it about a book that gives it that allure? Reading nonfiction is easy to understand; we learn facts from nonfiction, whether it is a rollicking historical account of Henry VIII or a book on neuroscience. If we want to check out ways to build a shed, grow organic vegetables, or decrease our anxiety, we can browse the shelves or the online stores for the right self-help book. (How to choose is not so easy given the multiple thousands of such books out there.)

However, if your idea of bliss is a good novel, have you ever wondered why you are willing and indeed eager to spend so much of your precious time reading made-up stories about fictional characters? It’s entertainment, a way to escape from the realities of daily stresses, you might reply. Therapeutic, yes, but hardly the stuff of serious therapy, surely?

. . . .

King Ramses II of Egypt had a special chamber for his books, and above the door were the words “House of Healing for the Soul.” Sigmund Freud incorporated literature into his psychoanalysis at the end of the nineteenth century. Medical professionals and psychologists have been prescribing books for their patients to read for a hundred years or more. But it was more as an adjunct to other treatment rather than a treatment in itself.

. . . .

Although the bibliotherapists sometimes prescribe philosophy, poetry and creative nonfiction books, novels are more common. So why is fiction more therapeutic? Research has shown that literary fiction enhances our ability to empathize with others, to put ourselves into another’s shoes; to become more intuitive about other people’s  feelings (as well as our own), and to self-reflect on our problems as we read about and empathize with a fictional character who is facing simiar problems. When we find ourselves weeping with or for the character in the story, we are also weeping for ourselves; a sort of catharsis. When our character finds happiness in the end, well perhaps so can we.

Link to the rest at Psychology Today

PG learned that there’s even a bibliotherapy book for children, The Story Cure, An A-Z of Books to Keep Kids Happy, Healthy and Wise, which “will help any small person you know through the trials and tribulations of growing up, and help you fill their bookshelves with adventure, insight and a lifetime of fun.”

PG has certainly found books to be therapeutic. There’s nothing like reading about the Seige of Vienna or the Battle of Stalingrad to take his mind off of whatever peacetime troubles may be concerning him. Good novels have a similar effect.

He’s a bit skeptical about the expanding world of therapies, however. The line between scientifically-based medicine and practices that sound interesting seems more than a bit fuzzy.

Behind Every Great Woman Writer Is Another Woman

15 November 2017

From The Millions:

It’s easy to buy into the classic image of the isolated female author: the eccentric Brontë sisters, wandering the moors; lofty George Eliot, sequestered in her London villa; a melancholic Virginia Woolf, loading her pockets with stones before stepping into the River Ouse. Male writers, on the other hand, often come in pairs: Fitzgerald and Hemingway on their riotous drinking sprees, Wordsworth and Coleridge hiking together through the Lakeland hills, Byron and Shelleyencouraging each other’s sexual escapades.

. . . .

[W]e’ve long found it intriguing that legendary male authors are cast as social creatures while their female counterparts are remembered as cloistered figures.

. . . .

The case of Jane Austen particularly captured our imagination. She devoted 24 years to writing before securing her first publishing deal—a feat of endurance that put our own experiences into perspective. Could she have forged a friendship with a fellow writer, we wondered, who gave her the strength to keep going?

A fleeting reference in a biography provided the first clue to a hidden creative alliance that would eventually take us to old census records, volumes of unpublished diaries, and our discovery of two previously unknown Austen family documents. It turned out that Anne Sharp, a governess to Austen’s niece, and a household playwright, was a dear friend to Austen. Despite the gulf in their social positions, their shared status as amateur writers functioned, for a time, as a kind of leveler. Ignoring the raised eyebrows of Austen’s relatives, the two women enjoyed lengthy conversations, acted together in one of Sharp’s theatricals, and went so far as taking a six-week vacation together.

By the time a publisher finally brought out Sense and Sensibility in 1811, Austen had been working on the novel intermittently for 16 years. Even after Austen’s books had become fêted by high society, attracting admirers as powerful as the Prince Regent, she continued to value the insights of this unpublished working woman. When Emma came out in 1815, Austen set aside one of her 12 precious presentation copies for Sharp—the only friend she singled out for such an honor. But Austen continued to seek Sharp’s appraisals, and the governess remained happy to oblige. While sharing her delight in the character of Mr. Knightly, for instance, Sharp admitted that she was not convinced by Jane Fairfax, who dreads the future mapped out for her as a governess. It’s a telling criticism, since Sharp was so well placed to judge. On a later occasion, when Austen asked for feedback on Mansfield Park, Sharp again summed up her thoughts on its strengths and weaknesses. “As you beg me to be perfectly honest,” she concluded, “I confess I prefer P. & P.”—a view shared by many readers over the centuries to come.

Link to the rest at The Millions

PG doesn’t buy the premise of the OP that there’s a gender difference between the way male writers (gregarious) and female writers (solitary) are portrayed in popular culture.

A quick search reveals an article in Jezebel, whose feminist credentials are surely unexcelled , decrying the trope of the solitary male writer creating genius works while females are stereotyped as more social creatures who are therefore less geniusy.

How It Feels When Another Writer Beats You to the Punch

14 November 2017

From The Millions:

When I heard the news that a novel called Barren Island by Carol Zoref had been long-listed for this year’s National Book Award for fiction, my first reaction was Oof! Had another writer beaten me to the punch?

There can only be one Barren Island, I told myself. It’s a wafer of sand and scrub in New York City’s vast Jamaica Bay, so named by the early Dutch settlers for the bears that may or may not have roamed there, and later destined to live up to its Anglicized name when it became the final destination for the city’s garbage and for its dead horses and other animals that were brought there by barge to be skinned, dismantled, boiled, and turned into fertilizer and glue in the ghastly factories of Barren Island. Those factories were manned mostly by immigrants from Eastern Europe, Greece, Italy, and Ireland, and by African-Americans up from the South. Diphtheria and typhoid epidemics were frequent visitors. The stench and filth and vermin were appalling. “Horrors,” recalls one man who grew up there.

I happened to know this obscure history because for the past dozen years or so I’ve been gathering string, off and on, for a novel I am (was?) hoping to set on Barren Island.

. . . .

So I opened Carol Zoref’s novel with a feeling of—no other word for it—dread. On the very first page I learned that, yes indeed, there is only one Barren Island, and Carol Zoref had beaten me to it. The novel is narrated in the first person by 80-year-old Marta Eisenstein Lane, who is looking back on her coming of age on Barren Island’s smaller, fictional neighbor, Barren Shoal, where her father, an immigrant from Belarus, works in the factory dismantling horses and other dead animals so they can be transformed into such valuable commodities as glue and nitroglycerin. Marta’s tale unfolds amid horrors, tenderness, and beauty that have the iron ring of truth.

. . . .

After I finished the book, I phoned Carol Zoref in her office at Sarah Lawrence College, where she teaches creative writing. (She also teaches at New York University.) First, I asked Zoref how she became aware of Barren Island. “A long time ago I saw an article in The New York Times about a book about the trash of New York, and it mentioned Barren Island,” she replied. “The article had a picture of a guy who had grown up on Barren Island, and I thought that was an extraordinary thing. So I bought the book and read it. And I had a question: what would it have been like to live there on Barren Island? It’s one thing to work in that sort of setting, but to actually live there as a child, to grow up there, so close to the city and but so far from the city—I just couldn’t imagine what that would have been like.”

Amazing. That newspaper article was my introduction to Barren Island, too.

. . . .

It was time for me to make an admission. “I read that article in The Times and I read Benjamin Miller’s book,” I said, “and I became totally fascinated by Barren Island. Now I’ve got my own Barren Island box. But I got busy with other things, and my idea of writing a novel about the place went on the back burner. When I heard that a novel called Barren Island was nominated for the National Book Award, my heart dropped into my shoes.”

“Sorry!” she said, with a laugh.

“So I got your book, and as I read I felt uplifted. Somebody else out there sees the potential of a story about a place, about a moment like this! It’s been an uplifting experience. I guess what I’m trying to say is thank you.”

Link to the rest at The Millions

On Unread Books

7 November 2017

From The Paris Review:

I recall, though my recollection may be faulty, a magnificent article by Giorgio Manganelli explaining how a sophisticated reader can know whether a book is worth reading even before he opens it. He wasn’t referring to the capacity often required of a professional reader, or a keen and discerning reader, to judge from an opening line, from two pages glanced at random, from the index, or often from the bibliography, whether or not a book is worth reading. This, I say, is simply experience. No, Manganelli was talking about a kind of illumination, a gift that he was evidently and paradoxically claiming to have.

How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, by Pierre Bayard, a psychoanalyst and professor of literature, is not about how you might know not to read a book but how you can happily talk about a book you haven’t read, even to your students, even when it’s a book of extraordinary importance. His calculation is scientific. Good libraries hold several millions of books: even if we read a book a day, we would read only 365 a year, around 3,600 in ten years, and between the ages of ten and eighty we’ll have read only 25,200. A trifle. On the other hand, any Italian who’s had a good secondary education knows perfectly well that they can participate in a discussion, let’s say, on Matteo Bandello, Francesco Guicciardini, Matteo Boiardo, on the tragedies of Vittorio Alfieri, or on Ippolito Nievo’s Confessions of an Italian, knowing only the name and something about the critical context, but without ever having read a word.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review and thanks to Dave for the tip.

PG tries to avoid being a harrumphing lawyer, but gently cautions that unread contracts are not a good idea.

Contracts have a way of being terribly boring until they suddenly become very important.

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