Friday, April 29, 2011

Dr. Seuss Comes to Park Slope!

People love to talk about how the seasons affect them. It colors everything from small talk over cocktail hours to descriptions of seasonal affective disorder in college psychology books. The mild, sun-filled days of spring are said to dry out winter woes, and for people like my mother, who claims alternately to “swell” and “melt” in the high heat, the fall—with its pumpkin spice lattes, ruby-colored apples, and gaudy Halloween costume displays—is cause for a long, deep sigh of relief. For a long time, such talk was lost on me. Admittedly, part of this is the intensity and quick turnover of my high-low pendulum. I like to run six miles then eat a 3,000 calorie meal, stay up all night writing a paper or reading a manuscript and then sleep the following weekend away. Who, I’ve always, wondered, can wait six months or a year for their next purely good, happy, decadent spell, or reprieve from the rougher, more challenging stretches we all go through, no matter how long or short lived?

It turns out, you’re never too old to change your tune. I moved to Park Slope six years ago and every year I am dazed and awed anew by the purple and white cherry blossoms that line the streets of the neighborhood come April. They’re also in Ohio, from where I hail, but because there’s so much more green, open space there, and because they’re more spread out, they don’t have quite the same effect. Though they can also be found throughout the city, there’s something about Park Slope’s brownstone architecture that makes the trees feel particularly suited to it, and I’ve never found another neighborhood with quite so many of them. Seeing them each year makes me want grass stain up every pair of pants I own playing in the park, and then make ice cream from scratch. They absolutely and fundamentally change my mood every time I see them, no matter how long the day or dreary the task at hand, and the fact that this unparalleled anecdote to the pitfalls of human existence is a seasonal one, sure to be gone by the first hint of summer, only makes it feel that much more magical.

And here’s where the great Doctor of this blog’s title enters the game. He is wed to this moody glimpse of the human psyche because these trees are almost uncannily Seussian in appearance. I would even go so far as to say the trees function in a Seussian capacity. Whimsical, colorful stimulants to even the crankiest and most cynical of adult imaginations, the cherry blossoms embody the spirit of the great author’s works. They're just the sort of exotic, colorful creation he would splash his pages with. Because the petals of the flower have started to fall in large numbers, the Park Slope sidewalks are blanketed in a colorful, enchanted carpet of them, and sometimes, when you’re particularly lucky, it even seems to be raining flower petals. The effect is that the presence of the trees is all encompassing—above, below, on the way down—just as the imaginary worlds of Seuss’s books are. Seuss made a career out of celebrating the wonders and possibilities of this world—the places and things we’ll discover if we’re bold enough to venture—and I’ve found little to trump these trees on that front. I think Seuss would have liked them. Maybe he did.

I have been convinced of this and have been singing this tune to anyone who will listen for almost as long as I’ve had the pleasure to live among these trees. Very recently, though, it was reinforced ten fold when I happened to actually read a Dr. Seuss book right before I journeyed to my Park Slope cherry-blossomed home. This wasn’t intentional. I had ordered the book awhile ago at work as part of the free book selection we have a few times a year, and found it when was cleaning out my mailbox when catching up after vacation. Reading it was simply a procrastination tool. My walk home that night, undertaken just an hour after reading the final pages of the book, made for one of the most satisfying literary experience in a long and fulfilling career of reading. It was a childhood pleasure brought to life, and one I won’t soon forget.

I’ve gathered what’s below in an attempt to entice everyone to go out and see this for themselves. My original plan was to spend the weekend getting in touch with my inner Ansel Adams and take mind-blowing photos that would capture every bit of the trees’ splendor to share on Monday. When I called the Brooklyn Botanical Garden to see how much longer we’d have to enjoy the trees, though, the woman I spoke to said they’d be in “peak bloom” this weekend. By Monday, then, it would be too late to tell you to go. The pictures I do have to share were stolen in the narrow slice of time between my commute home and sunset, and to be honest they don’t come close to capturing the epic delights of the trees. I almost didn’t share them at all but changed my mind because they do capture some shade of what I’m talking about (and because I nearly got hit by a car several times in the process of taking them!). For the full extent of what awaits you, though, you’ll have to take my word and go see for yourself. Get up early this Saturday or Sunday, prepare a big breakfast of green eggs and ham, and go!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Put On Your Crown

Set your alarm clocks, dust off the teapot, and pop to the shops for some crumpets: Prince William and Kate Middleton get married on Friday (at 6 a.m. EST)! Personally, I won’t be watching—I’m firmly wed to my bed, and nothing will tear us asunder before 8 a.m. on weekdays—but I will definitely be spending a lot of Friday gobbling up all the photographs and breathless reportage. What dress did she wear? Which tiara did she pick? Did they really put a disco ball up in the Palace? HOW LONG WAS THE KISS, AND WAS THERE TONGUE?

It’s incredibly alluring, this notion that the bride will walk into Westminster Abbey as Kate and walk out as Princess Catherine. After all, we have been inculcated since birth with the myth of royal metamorphosis. Our ancestors were, too: spend any time with folk tale scholars and you will soon see how nearly all cultures seem to have, or have had, a version of this transformation in their literature. Contemporary Western fantasies can be traced back to the 17th century, when Charles Perrault immortalized stories like Cendrillon, ou La petite Pantoufle de Verre in his collection of fairy tales; although he is considered responsible for the addition of the pumpkin (reading up on pumpkin symbolism is actually really interesting, by the way), his inspiration clearly came from past cultures. Writing in the 1st Century B.C., the Greek historian Strabo tells in Book 17, Chapter One, of his Geography the story of Rhodopis, the "Egyptian Cinderella." (Claudius Aelianus—Aelian—also mentions Rhodopis in Varia Historia). There is a Chinese story called "Ye Xian," dated 850 A.D., that follows the Cinderella plot, and a Gaelic legend.

Prince William's new bride would do well to read up on the origins of the princess myth, but I'd also suggest that she study its more contemporary iterations. I expect she's already read A Little PrincessFrances Hodgson Burnett's endearing, if a bit overly moralistic, exploration of what it really means to be royal. As young Sara Crewe proclaims:

“Whatever comes,” she said, “cannot alter one thing. If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside. It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in cloth of gold, but it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it."

Princess Catherine can also turn to biography. The critically-lauded Hannah Pakula introduces us to"Vicky," Queen Victoria's beloved eldest daughter, in An Uncommon Woman (which I highly recommend), while Tina Brown takes us back to the more recent past in her infamous book The Diana Chronicles.

But what of us, the commoners who will always remain so, despite our childhood wishes for a prince? Again, we can turn to the inimitable Sara Crewe for comfort:

"I am a princess. All girls are. Even if they live in tiny old attics. Even if they dress in rags, even if they aren't pretty, or smart, or young. They're still princesses. All of us."

(Or we can go here.)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Cultured Expectations

Two weeks ago, Maureen Corrigan, the book critic for NPR's cultural program Fresh Air, released her review of a Korean novel, Please Look After Mom, by Kyung-Sook Shin, upon its publication in the United States. Corrigan is usually extremely balanced in her reviews, even when she doesn't love the book, and so it was a real shock that her review of Shin's novel turned out to be a full-on condemnation. Her criticisms were not just of the writer's style, or of specific plot details, but of the novel's entire premise. " I was stranded in a Korean soap opera decked out as serious literary fiction," she said, "If there's a literary genre in Korean that translates into 'manipulative sob sister melodrama, Please Look After Mom is surely its reigning queen." Corrigan concludes her review by urging American readers to seek out other literary options "rather than knocking back the wine and reaching for the cheap consolations of kimchee-scented Kleenex fiction."

My opinions are not those of the publisher, and I have not read the book, but Corrigan's review, and the dozens of comments she received afterwards, prompted the same questions that arose as I read my book for TK last month, a piece of historical fiction about post-war Vietnam--what kinds of cultural baggage do we bring to the books we read? As a reviewer, how well-informed am I supposed to be, not just about literature, but all forms of cultural expression? And if I don't understand the cultural context of a book, does that make it anathema to me?

Corrigan's review undoubtedly reeks of ethnocentricism--she admits that she writes from a Western perspective "indoctrinated in resolute messages about 'boundaries' and 'taking responsibility'; I kept waiting for irony; a comic twist in the plot; a reprieve." Corrigan is right in that the vast majority of American fiction, especially those tearjerkers destined for embrace by the best-seller lists and book clubs, is resolved with happy endings, rarely with a closing spoonful of doubt and blame and unending guilt. But this owes a great deal to a literary tradition rooted in stories of Christian redemption--so of course we've come to expect the happy endings. But ideas of redemption express themselves differently across different cultures--a novel written from a Buddhist perspective might let characters find redemption when they give up their personal desires; a story rooted in Greek mythology might only resolve a character's conflict once they have returned to their place of origin. But if you're reading like Corrigan did, the expectations for conventional narrative get in the way of exploring something new.

This brings me to something that I think many readers have discovered, and appreciate: fiction is the easiest and cheapest form of travel. We read fiction for a lot of reasons--entertainment pleasure, intellectual challenges, emotional growth--but we also read to expose ourselves to something unknown. Your passport may lack stamps, but if you build your library across many traditions, you can easily travel the world. I can go to India with Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, to Japan with Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, to Mexico with Roberto Bolaño's 2666, and yes, to Pakistan and Afghanistan with Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea. Methinks part of the popularity of Eat, Pray, Love was not in its self-help feel-good ending, but in its geographic scope of Italy, India, and Indonesia. If you read literature in translation, the writer becomes a guide not just to a landscape, but to a whole set of cultural expectations, and you leave the work exposed to an entirely new series of ideas and possibilities. Reviewers can't be always be cultural authorities--if so, book review editors would have to provide big travel budgets--but they should be cultural omnivores. If Corrigan was turned off because the subject of motherhood from the Korean perspective proved too strangely foreign for her exploration, then one has to wonder what exactly she bothered to pick up the book at all. If you don't want to travel, then please, stay at home and leave the journey for the enthusiastic.

But of course, even if you do agree to take the journey, you may not like what you find...You can't force a book to be pleasurable if you can't make an emotional connection to it. But there, of course, is what I find one of the greatest potentialities in any book I pick up: I may really, really hate it. Not everyone reads to skate placidly across a narrative, and sometimes, you really want the experience of a rollercoaster, the narrative throwing you into wildly polarized opinions and emotions. For all the books I've loved, I learned just as much from the ones I hated--I gritted my teeth with disgust at American Psycho and Less Than Zero, groaned with annoyance at The Devil Wears Prada, and openly yelled at the characters in Freedom. But none of these reads were at any point a waste of time, and I never once put them down because I disagreed with them. And this was the point where I really fought with Corrigan's perspective: she recommends that the American readers go for Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids instead of Shin's novel. This is fine--Just Kids is a great read, one that many people have loved--but to suggest that reading is an either/or experience, that somehow one book should be substituted for another, misses the whole point of why we read. The sad, beautiful fact that we're going to miss almost everything is somewhat inevitable, but being "well-read" isn't about reading everything. It's about reading widely, generously, and with an open mind.

It's been a week full of literary highs and lows: first the potential falsehoods (and excuses) of Greg Mortenson's best-selling memoir Three Cups of Tea, then the glorious one-two punch of Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer win and HBO development deal, then today's release of the Time 100 that includes all kinds of literary tastemakers from the past year (Egan, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Chua, George R.R. Martin, and Patti Smith, among many others). All of these serve as reminders that, while we may gnash our teeth over the impending publishing apocalypse, every day writers and their work make news, incite conversation, and create reasons for the reading public to participate in a dialogue about what makes good literature. I'm happy to know that books can stimulate an exchange of'd be nice if Corrigan could've felt the same way.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Mornings with the Twits

Those brilliant Brits at Penguin's Puffin imprint. For the next few weeks, children in the U.K. will be waking up to excerpts of some of Roald Dahl’s beloved stories on the back of their cereal boxes. The imprint has struck a deal with ASDA grocery stores to run two hundred word extracts from The BFG, The Witches, The Twits, Danny, the Champion of the World and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on at least 10 million cereal boxes, in hopes of reaching households that wouldn’t normally be exposed to Roald Dahl.
I’ve only got one thing to say: It’s bloody well time. I’d like to suggest other places where literature could be placed. How about printing an excerpt of an exciting new novel on the back of boarding passes? Hello, you’re gonna be delayed. How about laminating literature to the table tops of trendy restaurants to read while you wait for your perpetually just-running-a-few-minutes-behind friend. I’d also like to suggest that we ban those foul-looking toenail fungus ads that we often see inside subway cars and instead run chunks of literature, for when your hands are too full to pull out a book. How about pasting pages of a book on the inside of a slow-moving elevator? The world has plenty of space and time for literature, it seems. Also, I’d also love it if someone could hold up something to read while I blow dry my hair in the mornings. In the meantime, let’s all hope Dahl’s magic inspires some of the little ones to ask Mummy and Daddy to buy them a book.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Where Have All the Starving Artists Gone?

In last week’s issue, New York Magazine did a spread of the New York City apartments where great writers and artists of the past lived while perfecting their craft. The point, it seemed from the rather humble nature of the abodes, was that the perfection of an art form often comes at the expense of certain basic luxuries. This is nothing new. Poverty, the concept of “the starving artist,” has long been a tenet of the glamour surrounding just about any art form: acting, writing, studio art. It’s one of the myths (well, is something mythic if it’s still true?) built into our understanding of artistry. A few years ago when I was working on the artwork for a biography on John Cheever, the image that captured my attention to the greatest degree was far and away the tiny, charmless room on Hudson Street where Cheever wrote before he made it big. On the other end of the highbrow low brow continuum, who doesn’t like to hear that story about how, before he landed Thelma and Louise, Brad Pitt wore a chicken costume to promote a fast food restaurant? Where they started makes where these people ended that much more noteworthy a journey, and what they were willing to give up in the name of pursuing something they loved makes their natural talent for that thing feel that much more epic. Being an artist is tough, we all seem to agree—if it wasn’t, every one would do it.

But counting your pennies no longer seems to be a requirement for joining the literary set. Some of the best MFA programs in the country will, if you’re one of the lucky ten or twelve students accepted into their elite programs, not only waive your tuition, but also give you a living stipend that hardly needs stretching given the cost of living in the places where these institutions are located. There’s now a writing major at all of the elite colleges. The art form of writing has come to be taken more seriously—as, well, an art form, instead of a noble hobby that requires breaking away from the establishment. Prestigious literary journals offer one week retreats with their more impressive contributors that will set fledgling writers back a grand or more. Even on the editorial side things aren’t nearly as tight as rumor or legend would have them. As an editorial assistant I have to do some budgeting, but when I play my cards right I can afford the occasional four dollar coffee or even, in a really good month, a piece of designer clothing.

This is obviously not any cause for complaint. As someone whose life is as enmeshed in the arts as mine is (and as someone who actually did minor in creative writing as an under grad), I would be an idiot to bemoan any of this. I think it’s wonderful that schools are making the serious and concentrated study of the craft of writing affordable, and I’ve looked into more than one of those retreats, pretty impressed that so many major writers would give their time and attention to the next generation, and I’m about to start paying tuition for a low residency MFA program because I truly believe it will be worth it. If I were to die a very, very rich woman tomorrow (having won the lottery some time in the next 24 hours) and had no heirs, I would likely leave the brunt of my dough to these institutions that foster talented young people. There’s also good reason to believe that this route is every wise a way to go as resigning yourself to poverty was back in the day—go to your nearest bookstore and I think you’ll be surprised at the high percentage of contemporary novelists whose bios boast MFAs. And maybe graduate school demands its own brand of chic poverty. (Having looked at the books and my financial forecast, it seems I’ll be going on far less trips and buying far less clothing now that a portion of my income will be funding my grad school dream, but that’s okay, it’s glamorous even, I’m a grad student.)

But looking at those pictures on the train this morning, my romantic side got the better of me. That noble striving evident in every speck of dust on the floor in those pictures, every smear of food on the plates in the cracked sinks, the shabbiness of the carpeting and the roaches you could practically feel looming right outside the frame, seemed to well, part of the point. Part of the fun. Part of what you inherit when you decide at the age of 5, 15, 28 or 40, I’m going to be a writer. Does finally getting something you’ve wanted your whole life mean less if you didn’t sacrifice as much to get it? Do practicality, fresh sheets, and a sound, well thought out financial plan have little place in the pursuit of becoming a writer? How starving need a starving artist be?

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Poetry of Hops

As a young person working in the poetry industry, I’m always surprised at how, well, old the art tends to skew. While it’s true the form does demand some experience from its composers, and having a lifetime to write about no doubt helps when putting pen to paper, even audience members and enthusiasts tend to hover in the middle ages of life. The reason that this is so mind baffling to me is that poetry is juicy. It’s about love affairs, love gone wrong, even sex (!). So often poetry—and many of my own favorite poems—harp on the passionate, adventure-filled and epic moments of our time on earth. It rarely concerns itself with listening to NPR, or gardening, knitting, or nifty ideas for how to fill your next visit from your grandkids. Though the nostalgia found in so many of the great poems does imply an older person looking back, the sources of rumination are often the concepts and themes that torture and delight the fleeting years of our youth. Why, then, don’t the young flock to it? Can we only reflect on these tortured and fast-paced eras once we’ve put them behind us?

As many of you may know April is poetry month. And in an attempt to both honor this delightful tradition and convince a younger demographic that poetry is everywhere, lurking even in the pastimes and vices that fill a typical twenty-something’s night out, I’ve decided to call attention to the poetry I marvel at every time I visit one of my favorite bars in Park Slope, The Beer Table. Known for its incredibly obscure beers with exotic and unlikely flavors, this tiny hole in the wall is a true gem. Maybe it’s just the alarmingly high alcohol content of the delicious, frothy creations they sell, but after a few sips I’m as delighted by and engrossed in the language of the menu as I am the brew. It’s not traditional poetry, but the language is every bit as playful, vivid, and image evoking as in any good poem. When trying to describe the concoctions for sale, its proprietors compare them to unlikely other taste powerhouses: tobacco, licorice, cereal, grass, earth, sugary candy, bark, smoke, and on. What’s wild is that these short summaries are often right—while beer and the oddball objects of comparison don’t naturally flow together, the parallels somehow work. I would go so far as to say this practice of matching two unlikely concepts together into a union that creates its own new, starling, and brilliant whole is also an important tenet of poetry.

So let the spirit of poetry month move you. Have a beer you most certainly have never tried anywhere else, pour over the rich language that accompanies it, and be merry. And maybe buy a book of poems while you’re at it. Until then, here are a few samples from The Beer Table’s menu to lighten your mood and bring a splash of unconventional poetry to your day. (Another perk of this place is that the menu changes daily, so this preview should in no way dissuade you from going yourself for the language—and beer—of the day.)

De Dolle Oerbier Special Reserve ‘09
Oak, deep winter, red wine, animal, elegant

De Cam Oude Lambiek ‘03
Delicate, lemon juice, mushroom, earth, subtle

Founders KBS
Ripe, wood smoke, warm bourbon, malty, vanilla, fresh coffee

Baladin Xyauyu Silver
Walnut, caramel, muscular, sweet sherry, sensual dessert

Schlenkerla Helles
Soft, thirst quenching, laced with smoke

JW Lees Harvest Ale, ‘02

Hedonistic, honey, nuts, maple sugar, figs, nectar

Goose Island Rare Bourbon County Stout

Oil, hot, syrup, massive

Oskar Blues Gordon

Floral, herbal, bitter, burnt caramel, apparent alcohol

Drie Fonteinen Oude Gueze
Cereal, hazy, light tart, lemon zest

Goose Island Madame Rose
Refreshing, subdued cherry, bubbly, sour

De Dochter van de Korenaar L’Enfant Terrible
Gueze-like, bracing, bold, wheaty

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Invention of Lying

Let’s make this an ongoing theme, shall we? Last night I watched a movie that, while not exactly about publishing, comes very close. In The Invention of Lying, Ricky Gervais plays a man who lives in a world where everyone tells the truth. His character is a screenwriter, but—as Gervais, himself a co-screenwriter for the movie, implies—movies are necessarily boring if lies are taken out of the equation. Fiction and acting are both forms of lies themselves. As a result, in this world, screenwriters write long historical narratives which are then read aloud on film by sonorously voiced actors. All movies are structured like the opening of Masterpiece Theatre, painfully extended to two hours in length. Near the beginning of the movie, Gervais’s character is fired. It’s not for any particular lack of writing ability, he’s told—he just happens to be a specialist in a very boring, very depressing time period, the fourteenth century. He’s already produced several movies about the Black Plague, and it doesn’t seem like there’s anywhere else to go. But after he commits the eponymous act—Gervais’s character tells the first lie this world has ever known—he’s alerted to the possibilities of fiction. He tells his old boss that he discovered an ancient text (conveniently dated to the 1300s) that documents alien visitors, and tells the story of a tragic love affair. Since no one else can conceive of anything that’s not the truth, everyone buys the story and Gervais’s character is hired back to write a movie that becomes a blockbuster. Gervais makes a few interesting choices in The Invention of Lying. I expected the plot would follow an Edenic narrative, that lying would begin with Gervais but spread to others. (Think the use of color in Pleasantville.) But lying doesn’t turn out to be contagious; neither does its seemingly inevitable consequence, doubt. No one ever suspects Gervais. Deception unsettles his world, but its denizens never consider that it might be anything less than fact. What does this have to do with publishing? Well, it gives us another way that consumers view the products of our industry, There’s a real dynamic between fiction and nonfiction being explored in The Invention of Lying. Although nonfiction is prioritized in a world where truth is central, it’s clear where Gervais’s sympathies lie. Truth, surprisingly, is lumped together with a whole host of undesirable traits in this movie: shallowness (an honest person’s evaluation of others is only skin-deep), exhaustibility (history can only yield so much, just as the Black Plague can only yield two completely accurate movies), brutality (honesty here is never sifted through caution, and no one ever chooses to remain silent when they might speak instead). Lies, and thus fiction, create space for the qualities we consider truly human: creativity, generosity (Gervais’s character uses others’ willing belief to get them to reevaluate their lives, often for the better), self-knowledge and an ability to move past surfaces (somewhat surprisingly). It’s worth noting, though, that we never see pure fiction marketed here: what becomes a mega-hit for Gervais’s character is fiction that appears to be nonfiction. It’s clear by the end of The Invention of Lying that Gervais doesn’t see nonfiction as a particularly creative or hopeful endeavor. Yet fiction—unexpected and radical—is an explosive presence. Where can we look to make money? According to Gervais, it’s in the fiction that masquerades as what it is not. For whatever The Invention of Lying says about fiction and nonfiction, its insidious message is that truth-seekers are always willing to pay good money to be deceived. Move over, Jonathan Franzen; move over, Malcolm Gladwell; if we're looking for real money, we should be eyeing James Frey.