Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Picture Puzzle Tuesday

Sorry, everyone, with the new issue coming up in just two days (and still 100 pages to go in my book), and a couple of other things on the stove, I’m feeling fairly uninspired for today’s blog post. So today I’ll just be reblogging and sharing things that you should be reading. There is a theme, though!—and it’s visual, so I drew pictures. See if you can figure it out.


If you’re not reading it already (and the chances of that seem almost as slim as those that you’re reading this), you should be checking out the University of California Press Blog’s “This is Mark Twain” feature. As I mentioned in my May review, a number of publishers are rolling out books this year to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the author’s death, but perhaps unmatched are the efforts of the UC Press. The jewel in the crown, as I see it, will be published this fall: the first of the three volumes of Twain’s autobiography, which he stipulated not be released until this year.

Anyway, in “This is Mark Twain,” the Press has been posting photos of Twain at work and at play, as well as images of his letters and other written work.

They’ve provided delightful photos such as this one:

And this:

Check it out.


The classic novel is approaching its 50th birthday (on July 11th). Events are planned, and several articles have come out about the book and its famously reclusive author in recent days. Here’s a blog post from Publishers Weekly about the publishing phenomenon the book represented:

“A first novel, a coming-of-age story set in the South. The author is utterly unknown, has no academic or media affiliations, no Web site, no blog, no Facebook page, no Twitter account. She is shy. What's a publisher and a publicist to do?

“In this case, the publisher is J.B. Lippincott. There's no record of the publicist. The novel is To Kill a Mockingbird. The author: Harper Lee. And 50 years ago the answer was: not much.”

And here’s the (exceedingly brief) interview with Lee and attending article from the Daily Mail, which has already made the internet rounds:

“Thank you so much . . . You are most kind. We’re just going to feed the ducks but call me the next time you are here. We have a lot of history here. You will enjoy it.”

Finally, I’m going to share my favorite (and some of the opening) lines from the book—a book given to me by my grandmother, a book that may represent the first ‘real’ novel that I remember committing to, a book that led to a movie that ignited my seventh-grade crush on Gregory Peck. Here they are:

“Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer's day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men's stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.”


I don’t count myself among the book’s fans, but happy 110th birthday to the author of Le Petit Prince!

Did you figure out the theme? Yes, it’s big hair! Or, um, collars.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Word Play

Over the course of my years as an avid book reader, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to marvel at how social book reading can be, despite the fact that it is a decidedly solitary activity. Some of biggest “aha,” social synergy, wow-we-just-met-but-I-think-we-could-be-friends moments have been in the wake of discovering that someone loves some character, or passage of a book or line of poetry to the same degree that I do. Some of my favorite groups of people convene for book discussions. Recently, my brother and I discovered a way to connect in what I think may be an all time record low number of written words without even trying to.

My brother (two years my junior) and I have always been close despite our many differences: he’s an athlete, I’m a dweeb; he listens to talk radio while driving while I rock out to bad pop music; he’s a news junkie, I’m a lover of fiction; he lives in OH in a very adult house that he owns, while I’ve lived in three different New York apartments in five years. One thing we’ve always had in common, though, is an ease with and an appreciation for language. No one delivers an elegant, multi-layered joke with quite the finesse that he does, and while I nearly failed seventh grade math, English composition was always a breeze.

When I was home for Christmas two years ago, one of the gifts I asked for and received was a Scrabble set. I had recently started playing it online and had caught the bug. Given that our living room floor was scattered with new video games and DVDs, I knew getting anyone to play with me would be a stretch, but I somehow conned my brother into playing one game (probably in exchange for my playing one round of his new Wii game in return) and it ended up being hours before we took a break—he was as mesmerized as I was. We continued our epic stretches of Scrabble play throughout the rest of the days I was home, and by the time I got on the plane to go back to New York, it was a full blown addiction.

It was probably less than six hours after I had made it back to my New York apartment that I signed on to Facebook and saw that my brother had started several online games of Scrabble, and I quickly made my moves. By the end of the week, we had at least twenty games going.

While my brother and I have both always been big talkers, we’ve never been phone people. So, while I always enjoy our time together during my frequent trips home, and we always pick up where we left off without missing a beat, we rarely communicate during the stretches in between. Suddenly, though, we had daily correspondence. We started naming our games with little updates about our lives: “work is killing me,” “home for Easter in 7 days—get excited.” The game titles also quickly became a way to playfully but mercilessly tease and taunt each other the way we have since childhood. “Haha—I killed you there.” “Beating you never gets old.” Or, my favorite, “la la la loser.” By utilizing the “chat” function of the online Scrabble application, we started sending quick one line messages a few times a week.

Before long, I found myself depending on these games as a way not only to sharpen my Scrabble skills and flex my vocabulary muscle, but as a way to feel close to someone very far away. I started playing my games religiously every day, no matter how pressed for time I was or how much else I had on my plate. Friends became mystified when, in ticking off items on my to do list for any given day “play my Scrabble moves” was among them. I just couldn’t miss playing my turns every day. It would be like not returning one of my brother’s calls or forgetting his birthday.

Earlier this month, I went home for a few days to attend my five year reunion at Kenyon College only a few hours from home. My brother has always been friends with my college gang and since it was only a few hours from home, he came along. When I walked out to the car to meet him for the drive up to campus, he immediately started shaking his head in amusement at my outfit. Always the biggest critic of my slightly odd, colorful fashion sense, he was once again horrified at what I was wearing, this time a lemon yellow dress with red high top sneakers.

Throughout the night, we had a blast catching up with people we hadn’t seen in years and drinking more than we had since college. More than one of my collegiate pals have equally quirky taste in clothing, and a handful of people complimented my unusual sneaker/dress combo. Every time, my brother would stifle a laugh and shake his head a bit for my benefit as if to say, “don’t let them fool you—you’re still a weirdo.”

The reunion passed all too quickly, as vacations often do, and before I knew it I was back at work. Within an hour of signing back into my very full work inbox I was psyched to see that my brother had started a handful of new games. I quickly began examining the letters I had been given in the first game without even looking at its title. It was only after I had played my move, confident that I was on my way to finally beating him, that I looked up and saw it: “yellow dress, red sneakers.” No barb after. No derogatory adjective before it. After 27 years, I can assure you that in the unwritten code between us, this means: I had a really fun time with you this weekend. Thanks for bringing me along. I miss you. It is probably the only time my eyes welled up on account of only four words, and they were better than any novel I’ve ever read.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Baking the Books

It's Saturday night and I've just baked a fresh batch of chocolate chip cookies--the epitome of simplicity, just the Nestle Toll House recipe, with extra salt for a lovely little kick in the middle of pure sweetness. I have never learned to cook anything besides pasta, and literally am unable to boil an egg, but I love to bake--it calms me to know that I can spend the time I need to read the recipe over and over and do each step before contemplating the next, and then put the combined deliciousness in the over to plump up into something delectable.

Then, of course, there's nothing that goes quite so well with a warm gooey cookie as a fresh new book or a return to a beloved favorite. Tonight, in between reading manuscripts for work, I'm returning to Mary Oliver's poetry, and also thinking of a recently finished book--Dominique Browning's SLOW LOVE: How I Lost My Job, Put on My Pajamas & Found Happiness. I highly recommend her book, and also that you take a look at her accompanying blog. In the book, Browning writes about learning to cook and the idea that one only needs to love the process--rather than be intimidated--to be able to succeed. This idea has invigorated me, and I'm spending tomorrow building a shelf for my kitchen to house all my gorgeous, untouched cookbooks and soon hope to be pulling on my apron and pouring out my love onto those impossible-to-hard boil eggs. I have faith in my future achievement.

In the meantime, I'm opening myself up to the world that Browning discovered online, all the cooking and baking sites too numerous to name here. Though I'm not a technology person--I'm still put off by computer screens, even if I do spend my days in front of one--I honor the invention of something that increases the ability for conversations across worlds. I wanted a recipe that involved Nutella the other day, and found myself peeking into people's kitchens from near and far to read about their recipes, and then all the suggestions and stories that poured forth in the comments.

One of my favorite communities is Knopf's cooking blog, run by colleagues whose personalities and enthusiasms shine through. Another of my daily favorites isn't a cooking site per se, but Grace Bonney's design*sponge, which recently featured a baklava recipe that I'm eager to try as soon as I remember to pick up rosewater from the store. Laurie Muchnick, book editor at Bloomberg, recently put me onto The Tipsy Baker, and I can't wait to follow along as Tipsy makes her way through more cookbooks and accompanying adventures (I could tell I was going to like her as soon as I read her first post, from back in 2006: "Everybody and her hamster has a blog, and I want one too!").

In my house, there are three areas for books. Two enormous oak bookcases in my blue bedroom, which house every type of book (and includes a whole shelf on the bottom of children's books) except for poetry--that resides in a shelf all its own in my living room--and cookbooks, which will be happily living together (instead of in piles) on my aforementioned new kitchen shelves. I'm looking forward to an exciting new future of a store that's used for more than ramen, and cookbooks that are beautifully stained and call forth favorite recipes. For now, I'm off to have another cookie and a dose of Mary Oliver lines (such as this, from "Honey at the Table": "...a taste composed of everything lost, in which everything lost is found." Also loved by Miz Masala.)

What are your trusted cookbooks, cooking sites, and well-remembered meals? Please share, and make us all hungry for more good food and good words.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Synergizing the Backward Overflow...

I don’t know about you, but I spent Wednesday evening lying on my sofa, stuffing my face and indulging in a television mini-marathon. Admitting this on a book blog may appear to be the ultimate act of blasphemy, but redemption presented itself towards the end of the night in a most unlikely form: ladies and gentleman, I give you Work of Art's third episode, "Judging A Book By Its Cover."

Work of Art is Bravo’s new Project Runway-esque show that features aspiring artists. As in PR, they face a series of challenges that demand results under pressure. Each week, a panel of judges evaluates the contestants’ work, selecting a winner – and one poor soul who has to pack up their brushes and go home.

In a quantum leap from last week’s “task” – to create a work of art out of trash – Wednesday’s gauntlet was laid by none other than Kathryn Court, the venerated publisher of Penguin. The assignment? Create a new cover for one of six Penguin Classics titles: Frankenstein, The Time Machine, Pride and Prejudice, Dracula, Alice in Wonderland, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The prize? Their art on the jacket of a special edition of the book, to be published by Penguin.

Watching television collide with literature made me apprehensive, and to a certain extent that anxiety was not unfounded. Most of the artists seemed not to have ever read the titles they were assigned. One woman, when confronted with Pride and Prejudice, said after a pause, “well, I’ve seen the movie.” (She also spelled Austen with an “i”). Only one contestant, Miles, actually bothered to investigate the text in question; after timing how long it took him to read a page of Frankenstein, he figured out he could finish the whole thing in four hours and so sequestered himself in a closet to do just that.

Miles's preparation showed, as his was one of the few projects that actually demonstrated an understanding of the task. It was strongly related to the book, and although I see why the judges thought it would not work terribly well as a cover, I thought Miles “got it” – he realized that the challenge was to synergize art and literature, to allow two different aesthetic mediums to work in concert and support/strengthen each other. This symbiosis was even more clearly manifested in the winner’s work: his piece was bold and cohesive, and I agree that it will translate well from the gallery to the bookstore.

There is also another synergy at work here: that between the publishing and television industries. What were Penguin’s motives for appearing on Work of Art? Product placement is one thing, but participating ("endorsing") a reality show is a much bigger leap. I'm also intrigued by the fact that there were no Penguin representatives on the judging panel.

Pondering this reminded of an article that appeared a couple of days ago in The New York Times about Elle magazine’s history of collaboration with television, which actually began with Project Runway; one of the show’s judges, Nina Garcia, used to be the publication’s Fashion Director. “Elle has certainly met its fair share of criticism for welcoming the crude medium of reality television into an orbit occupied by Anna Wintour and Giorgio Armani,” it states, which certainly is applicable here; I’m sure plenty of people will be judging Penguin for affiliating itself so firmly with television like this. But, as the editor of Elle Robbie Myers explains, “ 'I thought it was a good idea for us to do Project Runway. That was not necessarily the popular view around here. But my feeling was that we should be in as many mediums as we could be as a brand when appropriate,” she said. “We want exposure.” ’

Myers's forthrightness is producing results; Elle's sales figures are benefiting from these multi-media collaborations. In a shrinking market, is it wrong for publishers to adopt the same approach? Though many may mutter about the integrity of literature, Penguin leaping into bed with Bravo is just the latest in a series of acts demonstrating increasing intimacy between publishers and more "modern" media. Take book "trailers," for instance, or the promise of a publishing-related TV show debuting in the fall.

My argument for synergy, though, is not just financial (although every little helps). It speaks more to the fact that reading has been pushed to the fringes of mainstream culture -- a statement clearly supported by much of the Work of Art episode. If collaboration gets more people to take another look at books and the experience of reading, then I'm all for it; perhaps then everyone will at some point have the desire to read Dracula instead of just watching the film, or remember how to spell Jane Austen. To borrow a phrase from Derek Bok: "if you think education is expensive, try ignorance."

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Lessons from Launch: How a Book Gets Debuted

Caution: This is going to be one of those how-the-book-business-works posts, so it will probably be a bit too nerdy for some of you who just prefer to read about books themselves. If you’re the latter type, enjoy this lovely post from McSweeneys.

Every few months, I get to sit in on a really cool meeting called “launch”, which heralds the debut of a new season of titles to produce and promote. In a room of about 70 people (all of the publicity and art departments, a smattering of people from sales, production, marketing, and a handful of lucky assistants), each editor gets 10-15 minutes to present their list of books for an upcoming season. (This meeting usually goes 3-4 hours, but there are snacks and coffee to keep you going.) For a non-fiction title, the editor presents the basic premise of the book, comparable titles that have done reasonable well, the expertise/profile of the author, and why they think it’s going to have a fantastic life. For fiction titles, we learn a bit about the basic story, the style of the author’s writing, how their previous books have done, and who its potential audience might be.

This meeting is, without a doubt, the highlight of my job. Why? Because it is the one point in the book publishing process (apart from the acquisition process, which often happens behind closed doors) where you get to see the editor be unabashedly optimistic about a book’s future. Literally launching a book into its future life, the editor becomes a cheerleader for the book. As of launch, a book has everything possible, and as the editor explains why they bought the book and why they fell in love with it, it is hard not to fall in love with the book as well. There is nothing to kill the dream of the book’s promising future just yet: we haven’t seen any rejected jackets, no less-than-optimistic sales force, no bored or apathetic readers. We only see the good, the possible, and the promise.

This meeting is where you get to see why so many people want to become editors: speaking with clarity, humor, and confidence about their upcoming projects, the editors act like storytellers. They are deeply passionate about why they acquired a book, yet thorough and sincere in explaining the book’s strengths, challenges, and potentialities. (It is a tremendous test for a young editor, who has to adjust their presentation style to get just the right balance of extemporaneous enthusiasm and polished sobriety. The editor must also be well-read in the book’s context, especially when presenting works of non-fiction. The editor has to convince us that this book gives us something new to talk about, or that the author’s voice is fresh enough to bring blood to a supposedly dead subject. What does this book reveal that has never been revealed before? What reward does a book on ancient Egypt or the Revolutionary War provide to contemporary society? These are all important questions that the editor attempts to answer in their launch presentation.

“OK…so what’s the story?” This is ultimately the most important question the editor has to answer in their presentation. They have to tell you what the book is about, how they experienced the subject the way the author tells it, and how other people will appreciate, connect to, and benefit from this book. There is, of course, always some degree of concern about a book’s commercial viability, but this is not the meeting to confront the reality of the marketplace, or to even express doubts about the size of a book’s potential audience. An editor gets to discuss a book’s merits without denigrating other books, consumer tastes, or even the economy, ultimately making an argument about how the book can and should stand on its own strengths.”

Most importantly, in the middle of conveying all of their optimism for a book’s future, the editor has to also persuade the other launch attendees that they have to put aside their own skepticism. Even if the room is already predisposed to hate a given premise (i.e. yet another paranormal romance that rips off Wuthering Heights), the editor has to tell the story of how, by reading the book and speaking with the author and their agent, their own hesitations dissipated, and how they formed a solid admiration for and confidence in their new acquisition. Nothing kills a book’s future like doubt, and in launch, the editor has to dispel any hesitations and fill you with conviction.

My first week working in book publishing, I got to sit in on a launch meeting. The reaction this meeting produced in me may have been the product of my impressionable youth, or it may have been that it was my first meeting of this kind. Yet even 10+ launch meetings later, I can still see what so inspired me on that day: getting to see exceptionally brilliant and talented editors discuss their upcoming projects with an uninhibited degree of energy, hope, and possibility. They talk about each new title as if it were a newborn child, portending only good things and having tremendous impact on the world into which it will debut. Even in a publishing climate filled with anxiety, there's nothing like occasionally relaxing with the promise of a great new project.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Paper Hoarder

Last week I boxed up several old drafts of a manuscript and sent them back to the author. The book was finished now—in the bookstores—and we didn’t have any use for the various versions.

The pages were worn down and bound by heavy rubber bands. Notes from the editor, copyeditor, and author went every which way on the pages. Pencil marks were smudged. The manuscripts were pounds of work put into the book. I wondered where this box of bundled paper would end up. The author’s attic or basement? Either way, it was a rarity – most authors are fine with me recycling or shredding the pages. It’s the finished book that really counts.

Now I’m not so sure. Earlier this week, Sam Tanenhaus in The New York Times described John Updike’s meticulous habit of keeping all of his writing drafts, correspondence, and notes. Updike set aside a record of everything, and organized it all in his house in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts. A year and a half after his death, the archive will now be housed at the Houghton Library at Harvard. The library archivists predict it will take two years to catalog almost 170 boxes. Tanenhaus spent a few days looking over the material and discovered that the highly prolific writer was constantly rewriting, reworking, and researching his material. For Updike, who spent most of his life in that house near the Massachusetts shore, the archives document his life. They say writers live in their heads. It is just the writer and the page. Is this sentence right? Will this make sense to anyone else? Those scratched out notes, the handwriting on the sheet of paper, tells us a lot about a person, especially when that person is mostly alone all day long.

Most authors are happy for me to throw out their old manuscripts. If anything, it’s a sign that the work on the book is truly complete. They may be out on publicity tours or waiting for reviews, but the writing—the real work—is done. A box of old drafts will just sit in that same box it arrived in and gather dust in a corner. But after learning about Updike’s archive, it seems ideally all authors would keep their manuscripts. To be sure, most writers don’t expect their material to be archived anywhere. And who has the space for all of it? But even if nobody ever went through the drafts, even if no library ever wanted it, you could at least know it’s there. I’ve never written a book before, but I imagine, going over your old notes and drafts would be like going through an old photo album or yearbook. It seems you’d remember every cross out, every error, every thought and be glad you finished it.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Alexander Grothendieck and the Question of Intellectual Property

Today I’m going to talk about a subject that, I believe, will rarely be broached on our blog: math.

Or at least a mathematician. A couple of months ago, when I was brainstorming ideas for my week of blogging, my boyfriend suggested that I write about a famous mathematician. I laughed.

“No,” he said. “Hear me out.” And then he told me the story of Alexander Grothendieck.

Grothendieck was born in 1928, the son of radical parents who went to Spain for the Civil War and fled Germany in the advent of the Nazis. He himself stayed in Germany with a foster family until the situation grew too dangerous for the Jewish Grothendieck. So in 1939 he joined his parents in France. With such a restless childhood, it’s no surprise that Grothendieck’s formal education was scattershot, but he eventually earned a Ph.D. working on topological vector spaces.

It was in 1954 that Grothendieck turned to the field in which he would make his name: algebraic geometry. Over the next decade, he reshaped the field and published two fundamental works: the Séminaire de Géométrie Algébrique du Bois Marie (based on Grothendieck’s seminar notes) and Éléments de géométrie algébrique. Algebraic geometry today relies on these texts, and, according to this article, this “systematic rebuilding permitted the solution of deep number-theoretic problems, among them the final step in the proof of the Weil Conjectures by Deligne, the proof of the Mordell Conjecture by Faltings, and the solution of Fermat’s Last Problem by Wiles.” In 1968, he received the Fields Medal.

But by 1970, Grothendieck “had done mathematics twelve hours a day, seven days a week, and twelve months a year for twenty years.” This focus on math at the exclusion of all else led to a sudden reversal: he quit his job, embraced political activism, and began, gradually, to extract himself from the mathematical community. He lived in a commune. He left Paris for the small towns of France. He adopted Buddhism, but eventually discarded that for Christian mysticism. He officially retired in 1988, and has been living as hermit for some time.

Earlier this year, Grothendieck wrote a letter withdrawing his permission to print or otherwise disseminate his work, and condemning those that had done so since his retirement. He asked that publishers remove those books from circulation, and librarians to remove them from their shelves. The result, as you can see in the comments on this page, was a flurry of discussion among mathematicians. Some questioned his motives, his intent, and the underlying principles of the issue:

“Awesome, Grothendieck still has contact to other people. It’s funny that he really cares about illegal publications and stuff. Anyways, what is he going to do if people still publish and copy his work. Really suit [sic] somebody? That would be awesome (only if he appears in court of course! I would be so happy to see him.)”

“i don’t recognize the existence of ‘intellectual property’ at all, especially not in science and mathematics . . . G stands to gain nothing from this. He doesn’t want money, etc., he merely wants to suppress his own work. We wouldn’t accept results being suppressed by another mathematician. Indeed, G in the past and the current G are completely different people.”

“While I find this news as disturbing as most of you seem to, bear in mind that copyright protects words, not ideas. If someone were to write a fresh exposition of the insights in SGA, they would still be able to publish it. Indeed, most of us learn this material primarily from more modern paraphrases already. And, of course, there are enough copies already in libraries that there is no reason to worry about losing the text for decades to come.”

Others hastily made plans to salvage what they could:

“In any case, I will grab everything from the grothendieck circle and so on before it’s too late…”

“Don’t worry . . . It will eventually appear in one of the pirate book sites anyway, even Groth. circle is taken down and you miss it now. The only difference will be that instead of pdf you will get djvu format.”

So why bring all this up? As the third comment above suggests, Grothendieck’s ideas are integral to the field of algebraic geometry—present in those “modern paraphrases” as well as in the original texts. So integral, in fact, that many of the mathematicians on this board absolutely refuse to respect Grothendieck’s request, arguing instead for the invalidity of intellectual property in science and math, for the disjunct between the Grothendieck of 40 years ago (dedicated to math, happy to contribute to the mathematical community, and with the greater claim to the work done) and the Grothendieck of today, and consoling themselves with the inevitable piracy of the two books.

What do you think? Is there a difference between intellectual property among the disciplines, or between fiction and nonfiction? When do ideas become public domain—in spirit if not in law, when the public fights an author for access? Is it ever right to dismiss an author’s wishes for their work? Is it ever right to pirate?

Monday, June 21, 2010

Goodies for Book Nerds

Today is the longest day of the year—or as some might think of it, the day that offers the most hours in which to read by natural light, be it poolside, sidewalk café-style, or parked on a park bench. In honor of the best day of the year for outdoor reading, here are a few book-themed goodies to brighten your bookshelf, your closet and perhaps even your sense of good-will.

As the summer becomes a little lazier and the pace slows, there may finally be time to revisit or catch up on some of the classics. Rather than dig up to copies from your high-school or college days, check out Anthropologie’s line of colorful reproductions of classic novels. With funky new jackets and built-to-last canvas bindings in bright shades these books are as fun as they are worthwhile. I’m going to start with their edition of Great Expectations. If you go to Anthropologie’s home page and search “books” you’ll find plenty of others.

Also from Anthropologie is this literary wallpaper so delightful it may inspire an impromptu home renovation/redecorating. Giving Shakespearean die-hards a tasteful way to take the devotion to a whole new level, this Midsummer Night’s Dream wallpaper is also made to last—the writing is stitched by hand!

Last but not least, I call your attention to a website I recently stumbled upon. Out of Print Clothing offers soft and stylish t-shirts that feature classic and often out-of-print book jackets. As their mission statement says, “Some are classics, some are just curious enough to make great t-shirts, but all are striking works of art.” The t-shirts are fun, and quite hip-looking, but when I discovered the ethos behind the company I was really hooked. Realizing that not all communities have equal (or any!) access to books, they donate one book to a community in need for every t-shirt sold. Very very cool.

Festival Update

Festival Updates TK!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Politics and Storytelling

The 2010 Shakespeare and Company literary festival begins tomorrow! I have now arrived in Paris (thank you to Joey for posting for me yesterday) and I will post a few updates from the festival. The theme this year is "Politics and Storytelling" and the organizers have planned an incredible lineup of authors, as you can see on the festival schedule of events. Here is an excerpt from the introduction to the festival written by the festival co-directors, Jemma Birrell, David Delannet, and Sylvia Whitman:

"'A socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore' is how George Whitman describes the labyrinth of books that is Shakespeare & Company. . . . Bookshops, for George, are a political act. in their choice of titles and support of authors and small publishers, as well as the sense of community they offer, independent bookstores are, in their very existence, political. As our lives become more and more defined by the internet, virtual social networks and new ways of reading, bookshops offer something more tangible and contemplative.

It was this context that inspired the festival theme of Storytelling and Politics. Who are today's storytellers and what are the most influential narratives? Can a work of fiction reflect society without being political? Do writers have a particular responsibility? Should literature engage with the world, or offer respite from it?"

One of the authors who will be speaking at the festival is Fatima Bhutto, an Afghan born Pakistani poetess and writer. She is the daughter of Murtaza Bhutto, who was killed by police in 1996 during the premiership of his sister, Benazir Bhutto. Fatima's new book, Songs of Blood and Sword (forthcoming in the US from Nation Books in September), is a book about her father's death and a history of her extraordinary family that mirrors the tumultuous events of Pakistan itself. In the book, Fatima explains her quest to find the truth behind her father's murder, and links her aunt, Benazir with the deaths of Fatima's father and his brother. This has resulted in an angry reaction from critics and some of her family members in Pakistan.

The book came out in the UK to mostly praise from reviewers who are touched by her fascinating and lavish account of life inside one of South Asia's most famous, and cursed, political dynasties. Fatima has been on a book tour since its publication, giving talks to packed audiences. Today, I picked her up at the train station in Paris to accompany her to her hotel, and she is beautiful, lovely, and completely down to earth.

She will be speaking in conversation with Janine di Giovanni at 11:40 on Saturday in a marquee on the Square Rene Viviani, directly next to Shakespeare & Company.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Bookstores in Paradise

If you know me fairly well, you know that I have two favorite bookstores: Shakespeare and Company in Paris and Atlantis Books in Greece. To me, these bookstores are incredible, magical, and wonderful beyond my wildest imagination. Why? Well, the bookstores are located in Paris and on the island of Santorini, two very romantic places. But the real secret is that both bookstores are really cooperatives where writers, artists, and friends can stay and help run the bookshop.

I’ve lived in each one for a couple of weeks, waking up among the books, stocking the shelves, minding the till, washing dishes, sweeping floors, and making dinner for other bookstore residents. It’s thrilling to be surrounded by books and eccentric friends, with late-night literary conversations and daytime adventures and bookstore projects.

Here is a little profile and history of both bookstores, with links for more information.

Shakespeare & Company

The original Shakespeare and Company was run by Sylvia Beach out of her shop 12 rue de l'Odeon. She is famous for publishing James Joyce’s Ulysses out of her shop, and expats like Hemingway and Gertrude Stein were patrons. The next phase in Shakespeare and Company history started when George Whitman, a young American who had tried to walk across South America, came to Paris in the early 50s to study on the GI bill. He called his first bookstore Le Minstral, his nickname for his girlfriend at the time and also the name of the strong wind that blows from the north in France. He later changed the name to Shakespeare and Company, and let writers and 'lost souls' stay in the shop for free from the very first night. Two bookstore mottos that are painted in the bookstore are "Live for Humanity" and "Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise." Today, George is 96 and still lives in an apartment above the bookstore. His daughter Sylvia, who is 28 now, manages and owns the bookstore and organizes a festival every two years. The 2010 festival is taking place this week, from June 18-20, and I will be attending and writing updates from Paris from this blog.

Shakespeare and Company

Literary Festival

George Whitman's Wikipedia page

Documentary: Portrait of a Bookseller as an Old Man

Atlantis Books

Atlantis Books founders Craig and Oliver were studying at Oxford and visiting the village of Oia on the island of Santorini when they decided to start a bookshop. Their friends Tim and Quinn (who met at Shakespeare and Company), Chris, and Maria came along to help, building the bookshelves out of the wood they found around the island. Today, a revolving group of friends runs the bookshop at any moment. The talented bunch is always coming up with new plans—a radio show, a publishing venture, or construction projects in the bookstore. One of the best ideas that I was able to be a part of in 2008 was a Super 8 Film Festival, organized by our French friend Pauline. We projected black and white films onto the white walls of houses in Santorini, while Tim and a local musician accompanied with music.

Atlantis Books

Film Festival

Tim and Quinn's staircase project

Atlantis Books's Flickr page

*posted by Joey on Claire's behalf*

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

[tk] reviews Book Swap!

Our very first [tk] reviews book swap at Madame X in celebration of our second issue was a great success! Here are some moments from last night, in case you missed it.

When we arrived, our first guest Francisco was already there waiting for us, reading
Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler, the next book for the Union Square Reading Group that he organizes.

Everyone put their books out on the tables and immediately started browsing.

Hannah found a book that made her cry.

Meanwhile Rob and Nick decided on a fair trade: House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski for Lost Positives by John Cotrona.

[tk] reviewers from left to right: Jess, Caroline, Carmen, Hannah and me.

Allie picked up a copy of Levels of the Game by John McPhee.

We realized at one point that we had many canvas book bags among us.

Hannah, Ronit and Joey are telling you that there is more TK from this website!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Spontaneous Prose

Meet the Bumbys.

Gill and Jill Bumby are performance artists who will give you a “fair and honest appraisal of your appearance” for just five dollars (what a deal!). They’ve been a hit at parties all over the city, and as you can see, their own appearances are hidden behind masks, wigs, bandanas and kooky glasses. The nature of their relationship (are they married? brother and sister?) and their true identities also remain a mystery (a Time Out New York article claims that Gill Bumby formerly worked on Wall Street, and I tried to friend him on Facebook for more clues, but he hasn’t responded yet). Bumby assessments involve a quick observation of their subject, followed by furious typing on typewriters. Poetic adjectives, declarative sentences, and arbitrary associations are punctuated by a rating from 1 to 10, and a stamp that declares PAID! (the Bumbys require payment upfront). My friends Bryan and Colin recently ran into the Bumbys at a party at the Brooklyn Library, and here is Bryan’s result:

Colin’s description is more concise:

The Bumbys’ gig reminds me of my time living in Shakespeare and Company, a bookstore in Paris (I’ll be writing more on this magical bookshop and the literary festival taking place in Paris this week), where shop residents would take the antique typewriter from the upstairs library out front and write spontaneous quick stories for passersby for a small fee. This week, I’m reading my book for my July review, The Typewriter is Holy, a history of the Beat Generation, and both the Bumbys' and Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose” method (Kerouac famously wrote On the Road on a continuous scroll of paper in a three week burst of amphetamine-fueled energy) made me consider automatic writing’s history and how much I love the quirky effects of sketching with language. Do quick and immediate impressions of an image or idea with words provide some sort of intangible truth? Is the first draft always the best draft, as Kerouac claimed? In an age of computers and word processors, is spontaneous writing only authentic on a typewriter?

One place to start is with the automatic writing technique first used by Dada and Surrealist artists in the early 20th century. Influenced by Freud’s ideas on the subconscious, these writers and painters were inspired to try to connect with reality through the unconscious mind, writing or painting in a “stream of consciousness” style for a more “free” expression. André Breton, the principal founder of Surrealism, called "pure psychic automatism" the goal of art and writing (which would influence the Abstract Expressionist painters in the 1950s).

Irish poet William Butler Yeats, on the other hand, merged the poetic with the occult to rationalize his use of automatic writing. He was inspired most by the “psychic” aspect of his young wife’s writing when she acted as a medium: “What came in disjointed sentences, in almost illegible writing, was so exciting, sometimes so profound, that I persuaded her to give an hour or two day after day to the unknown writer, and after half dozen such hours offered to spend what remained of life explaining and piercing together those scattered sentences."

Another Irish writer, James Joyce, was extremely influential in the way that he expressed an interior stream of consciousness and eschewed punctuation and formal narration (particularly in Finnegan’s Wake) in favor of ideas, colors, and sounds. One of my favorite passages in Ulysses demonstrates an automatic technique at the beginning of the Proteus episode as Stephen walks along the Sandymount strand, thinking to himself and observing the beach around him: “Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane.

Jack Kerouac was interested in both Yeats’s “trance writing” and Joyce’s method of stringing together a list of words and sounds to achieve a sketch effect of an idea. In a letter to Alfred Kazin lobbying The Subterraneans for publication, Kerouac claimed, "I have invented a new prose, Modern Prose, jazzlike and breathlessly swift spontaneous and unrevised floods . . . it comes out wild, at least it comes out pure, it comes out and reads like butter." Kerouac defines and defends the spontaneous prose method in two essays: Essentials of Spontaneous Prose and the Belief & Techniques for Modern Prose. He includes a list of thirty rules to follow, the first is to keep “scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr (sic) own joy.”

Finally, another favorite example of spontaneous writing that comes to mind is the poetry of Frank O’Hara. A member of the New York School, which was closely associated with Abstract Expressionist painters like Pollock and DeKooning, O'Hara wanted poetry to be personal with spur-of-the-moment spontaneity in favor of expression of the artists voice and style over abstraction. In Jacket magazine, Russell Ferguson writes that “Kenneth Koch vividly recalls [O’Hara] sitting typing in the middle of a crowded party. Whatever was going through his head was precious. Frank was trying to run faster than ordinary consciousness.'” O’Hara wrote in what he called an “I do this I do that” style, and many of his poems are accounts of him walking around the streets of New York. Here’s an example from his Lunch Poems:

The Day Lady Died

by Frank O'Hara

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday

three days after Bastille day, yes

it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine

because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton

at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner

and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun

and have a hamburger and a malted and buy

an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets

in Ghana are doing these days

I go on to the bank

and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)

doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life

and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine

for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do

think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or

Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres

of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine

after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE

Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and

then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue

and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and

casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton

of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of

leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT

while she whispered a song along the keyboard

to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

What are your favorite examples of spontaneous prose? Have you encountered anyone like the Bumbys around town?

Friday, June 11, 2010

My New Pad

At first it seemed I was the only person with it. But a couple of weeks ago, while waiting for my flight to board at La Guardia, I spotted a twenty-something guy tapping away on his ipad. I could tell he was a pro by the way he blocked out the crowded airport terminal around him. Just tap, tap, tapping on the screen… He didn’t even notice the people around him looking over his shoulder.

I’ve had an ipad for several weeks now and it feels like my little sidekick. I walk around my apartment with it tucked under my arm. It’s my secret weapon. Want to randomly search online for shoe sales? I can do that. Want to read every Slate piece posted this week? Let’s do it. But the ipad is not what I expected.

With the massive amount of attention the publishing industry has given to the ipad, I figured it was just a jazzed-up ebook reader. I quickly found out that the ipad is not about ebooks. The ipad is a small, light laptop. It’s great for reading blogs, websites, news sites, and checking email. It just makes you slightly neurotic.

The difference between reading on an ipad and reading on your laptop is that the ipad is like holding a magic mirror and as you stare into it, you want more and more. It’s a toy that you keep poking. While reading articles and blogs on the device, I suffer from what Nicholas Carr writes about in The Shallows—constantly clicking through hyperlinks, finding it hard to focus on one long piece. I’d stay up late because there was always one more blog to check out. Gone were the days when reading calmed me down at the end of a day.

I found myself checking out a million different apps before I ever thought to download the free ibooks app that allows you to buy books. I tried to read the free Pride and Prejudice ebook but my email was just a click away! I’ve attempted to read ibooks in bed, but you can’t cuddle with an ipad. The screen flips the wrong way when you’re on your side. There’s no I’m-lying-in-bed mode. Plus, you’re reading on a screen, after a while your eyes just get tired.

Despite my new frantic reading habits, reading on a device makes so much sense. And the ipad is impressive enough for the flock to follow. It bothers me that Apple has such a power over us, controlling every app and the way publishers profit from ebook sales, but Amazon’s less flashy Kindle feels too plastic and slow.

The ipad doesn’t give me that same let’s-take-it-slow feeling I get from opening a new hardcover. It doesn’t inspire me to take a break and just read for a long stretch of time. It makes me hyper and needy. But at this point, I’m okay with having that split personality. My night stand has room for both.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Book Rules

I was sitting at home on Saturday writing my friend’s online dating profile.

I’d say a successful profile is 60 percent: good profile picture (cute, flattering, not overly trying) and 40 percent: self-description and responses to questions (smart, sensitive, try to be witty).

I was going through the questions quickly. Describe yourself (my friend): People person. Compassionate. Down to earth.

It was easy to describe my friend. I’d rather describe her than myself.

What do you want to do with your life? Easy! I want to make a positive impact in the world.

What would you be doing on a typical Friday night? Dinner with friends. Plenty of good food and wine.

Then I got to a stumper. What are your favorite movies, songs, and books?

My hands came to a screeching halt.

What were my friend’s favorite books? I had lost touch with what she was reading lately. She used to read Barbara Kingsolver and she’s read most of Michael Pollan’s books, but was, probably, mostly reading The Wall Street Journal now.

I could go into the other room and ask her (she had no idea I was beefing up her profile)
but the question reminded me of the many conversations I’ve had about how our favorite books reflect who we are.

My colleagues talk about books being a factor in the men they choose to date. If he doesn’t read—that’s a deal-breaker for most women in this building. I get why it matters. If your relationship works out, you’re going to hear a whole lot about what they’re reading. Do you really want to know what happens in the last chapter of every Clive Cussler book? And I understand that men are increasingly turned off by women who read Elizabeth Gilbert and Julie Powell.

In fact, a couple of years ago The New York Book Times Review ran an essay about a woman breaking up with man over his failure to get a Pushkin reference. But this book-branding concern had never jumped out at me until now.

I wondered—of all the many books my friend has read and liked, what books would portray her in the best way? How will her favorite books brand her to the online community of date seekers?

In real life, if you don’t like a guy because he doesn’t pick up on a nineteenth century Russian literature reference, it’s because you simply don’t like the guy. And what woman wants a man who can’t handle a memoir about a female’s journey in life? In the end, putting a lot of weight on what your partner reads is taking yourself a tad too seriously. On the other hand, in the online world of dating, first impressions matter, a lot.

So, in good fun, I’d like to suggest some titles to keep off your list—even if they are your faves—to avoid having potential soul mates cringe at the sight of your profile:

Are You There Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea by Chelsea Handler (poor title, even if the book isn’t half-bad)

The Invaders Plan by L. Ron Hubbard (too frightening)

The Anarchist’s Cookbook by William Powell (we don’t want him think you’re cooking up firebombs)

The Rules: Time Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right by Ellen Fein, Sherrie Schneider (these are secrets for a reason!)

Overcoming Compulsive Hoarding: Why You Save & How You Can Stop by Fugen Neziroglu, Jerome, Ph.D. Bubrick, Jose A. Yaryura-Tobias, and Patricia Perkins (no need to mention this on your first date)

Naturally Thin: Unleash Your SkinnyGirl and Free Yourself from a Lifetime of Dieting by Bethenny Frankel (there are other people who can tell you how to lose weight)

It’s Not That I’m Bitter . . .: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Visible Panty Lines and Conquered the World by Gina Barreca (although I’m usually keen on the term panty lines in book titles, this is a bit overwhelming)

How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must): The World According to Ann Coulter by Ann Coulter (if you’re going to be conservative, you don’t need to be so mean about it)

LA Candy
By Lauren Conrad (stick to clothes, Lauren!)

Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough by Lori Gottlieb (he’ll never get it, too complicated)

Oh, there are so many more. What am I missing, dear blog reader?