12/29/2008 7:58:42 PM
In December, literary critics get reflective. It’s their chance to breathe, look back on the past eleven months, and tell a story about the year in books. Many ruminate in bullet points, favoring the best-of model to organize their thoughts. Literary blog The Millions likes the celebratory spirit of these year-end lists, but finds them “woefully incompatible with the habits of most readers.”
In particular, Millions contributors find fault with the lists’ exclusive focus on new books. After all, they argue, we’re “as likely to be moved by a book written 200 years ago as we are by one written two months ago.” It’s a deceptively simple observation that informs their deceptively simple answer to typical top-ten fodder.
Each day for the past month, the blog invited a different author or editor to reflect on their year in reading and spotlight books that resonated with them in 2008. The posts resist “the tyranny of the new” in different ways: Dustin Long recommends books spanning two centuries, Joseph O’Neill trumpets the joys of re-reading old favorites, and Tim W. Brown finds contemporary insights in another era. The lists also gathers an impressive range of genres—from self-help tomes to horror novellas—and a fascinating spread of subjects—from 18th century Russian jokes to Wikipedia.
While The Millions presents their blurbs as an alternative to the best-of form, they might also be treated as a companion to more traditional lists. It strikes me that each examines a year’s literary climate through a different lens: best-ofs judge a year by its writing, while lists like The Millions’ explore a year through its reading. We gain, in the combination of these perspectives, a refreshingly multi-layered way to define the value and relevance of our books.
Image by austinevan, licensed under Creative Commons.
12/23/2008 12:53:25 PM
It’s one of the beauties of reading used books: Sometimes, you stumble across tangible evidence of the reader that preceded you. Maybe you find their old bookmark, a dedication from a friend, a note they made to themselves in the margins of a page. These scribblings are my favorite. They register, if only briefly, what someone else was thinking while they were reading, offering a window into the normally private interface between a person and their book.
The Bounty Farmer found another reader’s musings in an old copy of Flaubert’s Parrot, but they’re not particularly illuminating. The notes match page numbers with the themes that interested this particular reader:
...101. Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed.
...150. That he was obsessed with style.
...193. Art & Life.
...208. do-it-yourself enema pump.
I’m not sure how to make sense of this chain of associations, and I wonder if the author of the list would be able to remember, either. But the cryptic annotations might give us something else. As The Bounty Farmer observes, they dovetail serendipitously with the tenor of the book, which follows a particularly fanatical reader of Flaubert. This narrator finds fault in overly critical approaches to books, and speaks up in favor of the casual reader's tack:
My reading might be pointless in terms of the history of literary criticism; but it’s not pointless in terms of pleasure. I can’t prove that lay readers enjoy books more than professional critics; but I can tell you one advantage we have over them. We can forget.
The list testifies to a more universal pleasure of reading—the joy of meandering through a text, guided only by the passages that capture your fancy in the moment. It’s a nice reminder that reading doesn’t need a goal; the act carries its own rewards.
Image by Alexandre Duret-Lutz
, licensed under Creative Commons.
12/19/2008 1:50:15 PM
Americans delight in bashing French movie clichés—the cigarettes! the adultery! the self-conscious seriousness! French films are perhaps an easy target for mockery. Still, I can’t help but laugh at this particularly creative send-up, a bit of one Netflix user’s review of François Ozon’s See the Sea, singled out by the blog A Whine Colored Sea:
Key elements to a french movie - slow as thick snot in January - moral depravity - infidelity - boobs are shown, sometimes crotch - people smoking…
These do not make for essential viewing:
Only recommended if you enjoy activities like sewing your head to the carpet…
Image by Nils Alsleben, licensed under Creative Commons.
12/17/2008 2:56:05 PM
It doesn’t sound like much of a paean:
F*** the Narrows. F***Amherst Rock, the gull shit, the Castle. F*** Marconi. F*** the charming little hippy-stained row houses in the Battery. F*** the Battery.
But to hear author and playwright Joel Thomas Hynes tell it, that’s exactly how he’d like you to read “God Help Thee: A Manifesto,” his ragged tirade about home.
Home, in this case, is Newfoundland, and Hynes finds quite a few things worthy of his four-letter kiss-off there—three pages’ worth, in fact, and throughout those three pages, Hynes never once strays from the bilious style set down in those first two lines. The only things that change in his relentless harangue are the targets, whether he’s skewering “the ignoramus theatrics down at City Hall” or “every coulda/woulda/shoulda-been circle-jerkin ex-high school hockey star.”
If Hynes sounds upset, he is. But, as he observes in a post script to the piece, the carefully directed crankiness also reminds him what makes home unique—a “mutinous means of expanding the myth” of Newfoundland. Hynes has a point: “God Help Thee” sounds like the kind of trash-talking rant you share with friends over beers. There's a slow pleasure in these moments, a catharsis in staking your spot in the place you live.
Image by Greg Hickman, licensed under Creative Commons.
12/15/2008 2:00:38 PM
Thanks to Chris Wilcox, scores of young writers will enter high school with a significant accomplishment under their belts: They’re already published. Wilcox is a fifth-grade teacher from Provo, Utah, and creator of the website MightyAuthors.com, which allows teachers and students to affordably self-publish books they’ve written and illustrated. Wilcox told the Salt Lake Tribune that the site is a tool to facilitate teaching writing and motivate students who “want to see a finished product.”
Sandy Lloyd, a teacher who has used the site, can attest to that. “When it’s actually published and [students] see it in color, they take a lot of ownership of it,” she told the paper. “It gives them confidence to say, ‘If I can do that, then I can do more.’ ”
After paying a one-time enrollment fee, students, teachers, and parents can purchase bound books of their own creations for between $7.95 and $22.95, according to the Tribune, or print their book for free on loose-leaf paper.
Image by Risen1, licensed under Creative Commons.
12/12/2008 3:22:33 PM
“Finding oneself in a good conversation,” writes Alain de Botton for Standpoint, “is rather like stumbling on a beautiful square in a foreign city at night—and then never knowing how to get back there in daytime.”
In his fun and thoughtful essay, "It's Good to Talk," de Botton charts the way back, in the full light of day, to that beautiful square. Despite living in a society that prizes sociability, he argues, most of us are struggling amateurs at the art of conversation. Our first mistake is accepting the idea that conversational ability is a god-given talent, not a practiced skill. And then there’s shyness, the most frequent barrier to fruitful exchange.
His prescription: rules. He suggests that guests at a dinner party should be given a conversation menu with questions like, “‘Is sex overrated?’” to help them get over their inhibitions about broaching such subjects with strangers. While the idea may seem artificial, says de Botton, the result—access to the “elusive, spontaneous and sincere bits of ourselves”—could be worth it.
Image courtesy of jemsweb, licensed under Creative Commons.
12/10/2008 3:32:30 PM
So many pieces by and about ageing people are depressing meditations on mortality and the meaning of life. Edith Iglauer's essay “What?” for Geist, a Canadian magazine of ideas and culture, stands out with its light, comic tone. Iglauer and her husband Frank both use hearing aids, and she writes about the trials of wearing—and more often searching for—them. The challenges are sometimes tragicomic (fumbling with tiny batteries) and sometimes just comic (dropping aids in a glass of water). Whatever the situation, Iglauer comes at it with vitality and a sense of humor that’s a welcome change from darker fare.
Photos by Mavis
, licensed under
12/9/2008 1:02:18 PM
College kids don’t like writing papers; no newsflash there. But the behavior that accompanies this assignment anxiety can look very different depending on the student. Some plan ahead, crafting outlines and slogging through multiple drafts. Some procrastinate, pulling all-nighters and drinking boatloads of coffee. Some, according to Nick Mamatas for The Smart Set, whip out their credit cards, forgoing the work and buying an essay from a term paper mill.
“The Term Paper Artist” details Mamatas' stint as the writer on the other side of this transaction. For several years, he wrote term papers for students willing and able to dole out the money for one. A broker connected him with the students, who he identifies in three camps: “DUMB CLIENTS,” one-timers, and non-native English speakers. Mamatas bluffed his way through their requests—be it theological reflections, literature critiques, or historical investigations—and earned the funds that helped him buy his first house.
The essay reads salaciously, kind of like a bad Dateline exposé. It’s full of cheap thrills, particularly those that come at the expense of his former clients, like the one who needed a paper on “Plah-toe” or the one who couldn’t identify the body of the paper without help from Mamatas. For his part, Mamatas spins himself into the kind of character who ought to occupy such a narrative, presenting the term paper artist as a largely unrepentant bad boy. He hints at a vague guiltiness, but any such feeling seems to get drowned out by his obvious scorn for the students he sold papers to.
That is to say, there’s little big-picture reflection about term paper mills or post-secondary education. This seems to be mirrored in the thin response to the essay. Even On the Media treats the story as a sleazy curiosity. It’s a shame, because Mamatas’ story highlights a string of breakdowns in post-secondary writing education that might merit deeper exploration: admissions policies that accept students unprepared for college coursework, overcrowded classrooms that allow struggling students to slip under the radar, and lack of access to auxiliary writing help, to name a few.
Image by Yuval Haimovits, licensed under Creative Commons.
12/3/2008 1:16:34 PM
I’ll list everything. My wife passed away 7 years ago. Our apartment was at Bloor and Dundas. I had 2 children who I thought would help me. Instead they said: "There’s the door."
So begins Homeless Man Speaks, a blog started in October 2006 by Tony Clemens, the titular homeless man, and Philip Stern, his friend of 9 years who helps him type everything up. “Tony was aware of the Internet, though he hadn’t used it—or even seen it,” writes Stern in Spacing magazine.
Among the many blogs about homelessness out there, such as LA’s Homeless Blog and Homeless Family, Homeless Man Speaks stands out by featuring conversations between Stern and Clemens, instead of straight news or advocacy information. The collection of introspective vignettes read as if the two men are standing on the street, in front of the coffee shop where they met; the reader becomes a passerby, walking just slowly enough to overhear an episode.
While Homeless Man Speaks has allowed an otherwise marginalized man to tell his story, the caveat, of course, is to remember not to rely on this type of media for the whole story. Clemens himself points out the limitations of the Internet:
PHILIP: That fire you told me about, the one that’s supposed to have happened yesterday, the one you told me about.
TONY: Yeah the one we were going to write up on the blog.
PHILIP: I googled for a news story about that fire but I couldn’t find anything anywhere.
TONY: Sometimes I think that it should say in the Bible that not everything is on the Internet, if you know what I mean.
Photo of Tony Clemens courtesy Jim Allen, from Irked Magazine.
12/2/2008 3:12:58 PM
Well-written literary sex can advance a plot, reveal fascinating character traits, and add immensely to a novel. A badly written sex scene, on the other hand, is just pornographic. The Literary Review just released their nominees for the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards, including scenes from Brida by Paulo Coelho and The Reserve by Russell Banks. The awards are designed to “discourage, poorly written, redundant or excessively pornographic passages of a sexual nature in fiction,” and should come with a “not appropriate for children” warning.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Book Design Review blog just released its list of its favorite book covers from 2008. The simplicity of Jennifer Carrow’s cover for Against Happiness, book by Eric G. Wilson, makes it my favorite of the bunch.
(Thanks, Kottke and Coudal.)
12/2/2008 1:01:29 PM
Writer Carleen Brice, in a “sometimes serious, sometimes light-hearted plea,” has declared December National Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give it to Somebody Not Black Month.
On her blog, Brice presents her “official invitation into the African American section of the bookstore” with just a hint of irony—as when she reassures white readers that there are indeed black-authored books “without Ebonics,” introduces authors who defy expectations for black writing (“Yes, Virginia, black folks write about the paranormal”), or gently reminds holiday shoppers that “white people already know about Toni Morrison, so please choose something else besides A Mercy.” But in a literary atmosphere where publishers market books by black writers as marginal genre work, and “readers and reporters still ask black authors ‘Is your work for everyone?’ ” Brice issues the invitation sincerely, too. She balances the sarcasm with an earnestly informative tone, offering links on race and writing, reading, and publishing; pointing readers to resources on black authors; and suggesting some of her favorite books by lesser-known black writers.
Visitors to the blog have largely treated Brice’s rallying cry humorlessly, offering up bland praise for the idea or guiltily working to prove their own color-blind reading habits. Comments on the site hint at tantalizing questions—Should bookstores keep special sections for black writing? How do we define the ‘black’ in ‘black writing’?—that never develop into full-blown discussion. Bloggers have started to spread the word, but seem to have contented themselves thus far with quick mentions of the initiative. Check out the most substantial I’ve found—at cowriters Donna Grant and Virginia DeBerry’s TwoMindsFull blog, which is most interesting when it examines the difficulty of black authors “crossing over” anecdotally.
But NBBBAGSNB Month only officially began on Monday. Here’s hoping the conversation is just starting!
(Thanks, Written Nerd.)
12/1/2008 10:33:50 AM
As food magazines go, Diner Journal sits triumphantly atop a slew of mediocre reads. Whether you have the inkling to delve into a bit of gastronomic prose or tie on your favorite apron and cook the night away, Diner Journal seamlessly melds the literary and culinary arts.
Read Charlotte Kamin’s “Donut Peaches & Time” in the Fall 2008 issue, an excellent swatch of food writing on pickling with her ex. Kamin tells the charming, yet awkward, story of how the two former lovers learn and relearn the canning process to cope with the discomfort of no longer being a couple. Further paging through, you’ll discover recipes to pickle your own everything: cucumbers, kimchi, and green tomatoes.
In “A Matter or Mouthful,” Jess Arndt and Amos Owens disclose the making of moonshine, or rather, the consuming of it:
Moonshine, bootleg, white lightning, crazy Mary, popskull, panther’s breath, hooch. One night in the hot armpit, of a country summer I thrashed through the buggy backdoor and into my bare-bulbed kitchen. My roommate (who also likes taking pictures of himself standing in used car lots wearing Mexican wrestling masks) was making moonshine. There was a mason jar on the table. Clear as water, thick ripples beckoning small greasy hurricanes on its surface.
I drank it.
Meanwhile, people all over New York are carting in soil to cultivate their own food, according to Peter Hale in his essay “A Series of Gestures.” He reminds the reader of World War II's Victory Gardens, community vegetable patches grown in support of the troops and to alleviate the financial burden of war. Victory Gardens produced 40 percent of the food consumed annually in the United States. Hale contends that growing your own food, even in the city, is both responsible and possible.
Published quarterly out of Brooklyn, New York, the ad-free Diner Journal is the rural-minded urbanite’s dream come true, sharing an appreciation for fresh, natural foods from the center of a bustling metropolis.
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