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“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.”
There is something just unmistakably awesome about books. They love you unconditionally and give to you without ever asking for anything in return. Something about them gets down deep into your soul, like a favorite relative or a tapeworm. Plus, they make you smarter.
So, which book is it that changed your life, with exactly the right words at the right time?
While I have already expressed my love for Joyce Carol Oates and for Tony O’Neill and Jerry Stahl, all sort of gothic figures in their own right, I have neglected to discuss my other favorite author, Haruki Murakami, and his bizarre, beautiful graceful treatment of the gothic. His amazingly creative stories and phrasing aside, Murakami deals with what feels like a Japanese post-apocalyptic wasteland landscape, something like a deranged mish-mash of New York and Los Angeles that is, however, authentically Japanese.
His books, along with other contemporary Japanese authors, appeal to me because they feel so fresh, just as the American Gothic felt to me as compared to the English when I first discovered Nathaniel Hawthorne. Now we also have the Southern Gothic (Flannery O’Conner, Faulkner, Ahem). I’d like to argue that Murakami and his contemporaries, such as Natsuo Kirino, write in the genre I’ll call the Urban Japanese Gothic Arena—a genre I have just completely made up here.
The blinds are half-drawn in the retired detective’s office. Two cigarettes smolder in an antique ashtray stolen from The Plaza, no doubt, in better days. The dank bulbs of fluorescent lights blink and bleep with each of the ex- detective’s heavy steps. May as well have been the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. He tore through piles on his metal desk, dinging drawers, feeling for moldy files that probably weren’t even there in the first place. A rattling, and a curvy brunette in a teddy and torn stockings appeared in the corner. “That commode couldn’t service me with my veins pumped full ‘a morphine,” she drawled in an accent every bit Staten Island as Marilyn Monroe…
As you can see, I’ve been reading noir lately. Not the good old classics, which the above text is meant to suggest, but those I’d like to call the “modern noir,” stories with all the pulp and theme told by characters that might have been dreamt up by Hunter S. Thompsonor William S. Burroughs or, frankly, anyone whose lives have been touched by level-5 desperation—something I believe to belong to the noir’s essence. Read more »
This year, if you don’t want to be just another Snookie in the crowd, and are striving for something a little more high brow, try one of these literary costumes.
Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird: Scout’s ham outfit is arguably the greatest costume of all time. Walk a mile in her shoes by securing a combination of chicken wire and cloth. Don’t forget to leave two peeps for eye holes!
Gulliver from Gulliver’s Travels: This one will evoke true fright, since we all know how terrifying it is to be tied down by hundreds of miniature Lilliputians. Use a simple outfit for the base: oxford shirt and slacks pushed up to reveal your socks. Then add the finishing touch by attaching a bunch of little army men to string and pinning them all over your body so that they are hanging down at all levels, ready to tie you up.
Miss Havisham from Great Expectations: Even those who relied on the Cliff Notes version of this classic will be creeped out when they see this costume. Buy an old wedding dress from the thrift store then shred it. Wear a veil atop a serious case of bed head and paint your face a pasty white. Seal the deal by carrying around a mold-infested cake.
Nancy Drew: This one is super-simple and straightforward. Wear a smart, preppy outfit, like a plaid skirt, oxford shirt, and blazer. Add a cloche hat and a magnifying glass, and you’re ready to hit the streets. Just make sure to badger everyone at the party with lots of pesky questions.
Lisabeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: You’ll need to channel your inner antisocial punk hacker for this one by donning a spiked dog collar, leather jacket, heavy mascara, pixie-length black wig, and combat boots. Use a laptop as your accessory and, for crying out loud, do not forget the tats. Bonus points for piercings.
Godot from Waiting for Godot: Show up extra late to the party wearing the following: green shirt, white tie, vest, coffee cup, and visor. Make sure to rant and rave sporadically throughout the night, about nothing and everything at the same time.
Lolita: Unfortunately, it’s way easier to go with Stanley Kubrick’s version of the seductress than Nabokov’s. But that doesn’t make it any less fun. Throw on some heart-shaped sunglasses, a short outfit with any kind of ruffle formation, and grab a sucker on your way out the door.
Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter: Sew a bright red ‘A’ to the bodice of your dress, top off with white bonnet and apron. Done and done, ya whore.
Dorian Gray from The Portrait of Dorian Gray: Not sure if you’ll meet many new friends at the party with this one, but wear a really sharp three piece suit and carry around a portrait of yourself all night. Then throw some acid on your face around 11pm for the ultimate party trick.
J.D. Salinger: Take extreme measures to part your hair with the utmost meticulousness. Then don’t leave the house at all.
I am a perpetual optimist, especially on the issue of literature in the digital age. I believe that the Internet presents a number of wonderful new ways to create and distribute literature, and I firmly deny, deny, deny when faced with the all-too-ubiquitous argument that the Internet is killing the book.
One point on which I will concede, however, is that the screen is changing the way we think. After spending eight hours at a computer and simultaneously listening to music, checking Twitter or Facebook (more often than I ought to, I should note), answering emails, editing video, or whatever it is that I’ll end up doing on a given day, suddenly I feel very distracted when faced with an open book. Reading a book can be jarringly simple after a day of multitasking and multimedia; when your brain is trained to process multiple streams of information at the same time, at lighting speed no less, sometimes it can be difficult to focus on just one thing.
So for those people, there’s Teleportal Readings, a monthly web video series made for “those who love reading but readings.” Or, I’d like to add, for those who love readings but think that video recordings of them are terribly dull. Watch what a little green screen hoodoo can do for literature:
Last night, I saw Edith Grossman, writer, translator, and critic, speak in conversation with Mary Ann Caws. The talk was fascinating–it was on the occasion of Grossman’s recent book “Why Translation Matters,” a collection of essays on the practice of literary translation. (Grossman has translated “Don Quixote,” many of Gabriel García Márquez’s works, and much more.)
The most interesting conversation of the evening came from a question posed by Kamy Wicoff, author and founder of the website SheWrites.
Wicoff talked about being stumped at how works have many lives–many iterations–in translation, while the original work in the original language doesn’t get revisited or updated for contemporary readers in that original language. Jane Austen will never be translated into contemporary English while there is probably a new Spanish edition every generation.
I think Wicoff has a great point. And one that I can’t quite wrap my head around.
I think it’s awful strange that non-English readers may have a better sense of Shakespeare than I do. They read translated versions that may be written in a contemporary version of their language, one that doesn’t sound foreign to them. I, on the other hand, read Shakespeare in Early Modern English, which means that as a high schooler, it was like reading a foreign language. Perhaps international readers can have a greater appreciation of Shakespeare than I can.
What does it mean that literary works (and plays, and poems, and memoirs for that matter) are resuscitated and revised and revisited only in translation while they only have one form, one life, in their original language? Should we be updating Old English texts into Modern English?
Today I had the pleasure to attend Book Expo America (BEA), the largest book conference in America. Geared toward publishing professionals, booksellers and educators, BEA is probably the only opportunity you’ll have to see the number of men come anywhere close to the number of women in publishing. (Seriously. There were men there. And they like BOOKS.)
Though this wasn’t my first time around the BEA dance floor, I am reminded about a few things every year. Here are the highlights (and lessons relearned) today!
1.) Pounding the Javits Center hurts. A lot. Today’s heels means tomorrow will be spent in flip flops. As in other years though, I am sure that by the time Thursday comes around, everybody will be in sneakers and jeans, and they will be much more selective about the amount of swag they want to carry.
2.) About swag. It’s heavy. Free ARCs (advanced reader copies) freaking rock! At the next pub party, you get to talk about all the books you’ve read that the general public won’t even get to touch, let alone finish reading, for another two to six months. But they are still made of paper (at this point), and so by the third day, you become a little more picky about what swag you want to carry out with you. Book with a three page sex scene between woman and monkey, yes. (It’s literary fiction, it actually looks quite good!) Book that’s being handed out at self-publishing booth, perhaps not. (Lesson here — less free books handed out on Tuesday, so if you are a self-published author at BEA, go then. Less competition for bag space, and generally more excitement for the free.)
3.) Industry panels. Today’s panels were all about social media. Authors, aspiring authors, publishers — it comes down to Nike’s infamous slogan — just do it. (It was perhaps said more eloquently than that. But another thing I’ve learned about panels is that brevity is key. Especially when chances are, your topic is going to overlap with another panel your audience sat through just an hour or two before.)
4.) It’s still kind of odd to approach your favorite authors for signings. At BEA, authors are like celebrities, but more accessible and with a slightly more awkward following. In fact, last year, my colleague and I said to Jonathan Lethem as he signed our books, “we are extremely awkward.” That, of course, made things even more awkward.
5.) It’s becoming increasingly difficult to remember who you’ve met in real life, and who you recognize from their Twitter handle. Is that an editor I’ve met before at a lunch? Or someone who happens to tweet very frequently in my feed? Oh wait, I must know them from Twitter because I’ve seen pictures of their cats! And speaking of Twitter, now as the speaker you can see in real time if your audience thinks your panel sucks. Talk about pressure!
6.) Book parties. Book nerds know how to party. We really do. Last year, I managed to rip a hole in my shirt at a tweet-up. A tweet-up! So far, my shirts remain intact. But BEA is young. There are still two more days of swag collecting, Twitter stalking and pub partying.
I’m exhausted! But it’s true guys — BEA is like Christmas in May. (If you habitually go to happy hours during Christmas.)
“This book is presented as a work of fiction and is dedicated to nobody.”
So begins Bukowski’s debut novel Post Office, which, as the dedication implies, is a reluctant and drunken stagger through Bukowski stand-in Henry Chinaski’s tenure at the US Postal Service. Bukowski had a knack for writing hilarious and fitting dedications like these, yet another reason why he’s so awesome (you can also throw this song on that pile of awesome as well). Ham on Rye, for example, is dedicated to “All the fathers,” which seems benign until you actually read the book and see that Bukowski’s dad was a cruel and abusive douchebag. Pulp is optimistically dedicated to “Bad writing.”
Bukowski actually got me thinking about other memorable dedications, those oft-overlooked little prefaces that are really like literary tattoos: they stay with you for life, so perhaps you should think twice before ascribing your current flame’s name on there in big bold letters. A quick browse through my bookshelf revealed some memorable finds between all the For My Mothers and To My Beloved Whomevers. Because I’m so wonderful I’ve shared a few of them below:
I have a friend who’s read almost every classic piece of literature there is, on her own. A few of them we had to read in school, but all those others…yeah, she read them on her own time. For enjoyment.
I hear a lot of people do this sort of thing; pick up an old, thick book that’s been embedded in the literary canon for centuries and read it in a hammock or by the fire, soaking up the famous words for their own benefit. It sounds impressive. Especially to me – because almost every classic novel I’ve read has bored me into a coma.
It occurred to me that this was going to be an issue among my peers as soon as I hit high school. While all my other writing / book nerd buddies found Jane Austin to be a delightful romp, I had to virtually skim the chapters because it annoyed me too much to read slowly. And while they were all recieving A’s on their essays about The Awakening, I was busy getting the lowest essay grade of my life, because all I could stand to write about was how much I hated the protagonist and good lord why was she so selfish?! My teacher told me I missed the point of the story. Maybe I did. But whatever. That book pissed me off. Big time. Read more »
I consider myself a well learned, words-loving person. I even spent an infinite number of dollars to get a graduate degree in the field of words, so obviously, I’m a fan of writing and reading the writing of others. When I was a kid, I used to read so voraciously that I could speed my way through half a book a night, and would routinely stay up much later than was advisable just to get in that one last chapter. So yes, I love words. I love to read.
I just hate the bookstore.
For some reason, buying a book at a store (be it a cute used Mom and Pop thing or a huge Barns’N'EveryBookEverWritten) is an immensely stressful process for me. Maybe all the choice just freaks me out. I don’t know. Whatever the reason, I’ve developed my own way of picking out a new literary escape, a way that the New York Times Book Review may frown on, but that nevertheless keeps my blood pressure where it should be. Read more »