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A Tour of Literary New York

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Canada’s national newspaper The Globe and Mail was curious to know about New York City literary life. They were kind enough to ask me a few questions about bookstores, bars, and readings. You can read the feature in their travel section. Here are my answers in full.

What are your three favourite bookstores in NYC – please give a brief reason for each.

McNally JacksonThe best part about being a bookworm and living in New York City, and the surrounding area, is that there are so many independent bookstores, each with their own personality. Since I have so many favorites, depending on my mood–or current location–I’ll say that when visiting New York one should make sure to check out the iconic stores: McNally Jackson in SoHo, Strand near Union Square, and St. Marks Bookshop in the East Village.

One of the first things you’ll notice about McNally Jackson is that their fiction titles are shelved by region based on the nationality of the author. It makes for interesting perusing since you might not always know where a certain writer was born. The store also has a cafe where you can sit and read the books you’ve purchased or have brought with you. As one of the largest independents in the city, they host excellent events almost every night in the downstairs space. One of the liveliest stores in New York, it’s a great place to visit day or night.

If you’re looking to get lost in stacks of books, The Strand is the place for you. Started in 1927, Strand has 18 miles of new, used, and rare books. They also host many interesting events in their rare book room. Admission is the cost of the book or a $10 gift card. Definitely worth it.

St. Mark’s Bookshop, not actually on St. Mark’s Place but very close to it, opened in 1977. They’re known for a great collection of political and cultural studies books that are hard to find elsewhere. They also have a wide selection of poetry, literary journals, and zines.

Where are the best places for author readings, poetry slams or other similar literary events/performances (and what’s the best online resource where people can check for listings?)

WordNow you’ve tapped into one of the hardest parts about being a bookworm in New York City. As the evening approaches one is faced with a nearly unsolvable dilemma: which reading should I go to?

For this one, we’ll branch out to Brooklyn, which is a quick subway ride from Manhattan. WORD in Greenpoint devotes their entire basement to events; powerHouse Arena in DUMBO is known for hosting parties, not just readings; Housing Works is doing some creative programming and the crowd is usually packed with people in literary industry, whether it’s publishing or criticism; the Franklin Park Reading Series in Crown Heights is a monthly series that hosts a lineup of local and visiting authors; Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene not only brings in top authors but the storefront is a big glass window, which makes it an excellent place for those who like open spaces; Bluestockings on the Lower East Side is known for it’s LGBT events; and Community Bookstore has really ramped up their readings over the past few months since bringing the tireless Michele Filgate on board.

Two other places of note are the Bowery Poetry Club where you can find poetry slams and KGB Bar on West 4th where you can see rising literary talent, established local authors, and magazine launches.

Community Bookstore

As for finding out about events, my friend David Gutowski of Largehearted Boy and I started an online calendar, Book Boroughing, a little over a year ago. While it’s far from exhaustive we do include the major indie bookstore readings and some of the larger series around town. Before starting the calendar, I relied heavily on Slice Magazine’s (and still do). Time Out New York is also a great place to check for local happenings and can be found on newsstands.

Are there a couple of bars/coffeeshops where you’re likely to run into writers and other literary types  please give a brief description of each.

That’s a tough one. I think the nice part about the New York literary scene is that many local authors come out to events, so you can often run into them there. However, if you’re looking for some iconic bars, there’s the Blue Bar at the Algonquin Hotel, the White Horse Tavern and the Kettle of Fish in the West Village, and The Half King in Chelsea, which is owned by Sebastian Junger, Nanette Burstein and Scott Anderson.

Any other tips for bookish visitors to NYC  festivals, events, tours etc.  anything you can think of really that a travelling bookworm might enjoy.

Library HotelMy first piece of advice is to explore Brooklyn. It really is very close and the literary scene there is thriving. Nothing makes that more apparent than the growing success of the annual Brooklyn Book Festival that takes place at the end of September. Although the festival itself is on a Sunday, the events leading up to the day are staggering. There are a ton of readings and parties that take place all around the borough.

There are two annual Lit Crawls, one for New York City and one for Brooklyn. During the one-day event multiple readings, panels, and literary games take place around a designated area. Authors, publishers, and literary magazines all participate.

Book Expo America is a large publishing industry convention that takes place at the Jacob Javits Center. They’ve just opened it up to the public but, in true New York fashion, there are tons of parties and readings that take place after convention hours. During that week, while all sorts of literary and publishing types are in town, bookstores, publishers, and various publications use the opportunity to mingle with those they don’t have the chance to meet face-to-face during the rest of the year. Many of the parties are open to all.

While I’ve never been on a literary tour of Manhattan, I did come across one for Greenwich Village on the Fodors blog that is worth saving for your visit.

And finally, traveling bookworms might want to stay at the Library Hotel. It’s within walking distance of the New York Public Library, which is also a bookish place one should be sure to visit.

Written by Gabrielle

April 30, 2013 at 6:47 am

Steal Like an Artist, A Night with Austin Kleon

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Last week at McNally Jackson, an independent bookstore based in the heart of SoHo, Austin Kleon, artist and, most recently, the author of Steal Like an Artist, brought together three fascinating minds on the internet today. Joining him in conversation about creativity and curation were Maria Popova of the website Brainpickings, Maris Kreizman of the mashup Tumblr Slaughterhouse 90210, and cultural critic Maud Newton.

One of Austin’s ideas that I find most interesting is “creative lineage,” those who influence your work, whose fingerprints can be seen in your creations. For Maud Newton, Muriel Spark is woefully underrated; Maris raved about fiction writer Lorrie Moore and recommended Self Help and Anagrams; Maria named Susan Sontag along with Winnie the Pooh and The Little Prince; Austin, a fan of Midwesterners who include pictures with their writings, named Kurt Vonnegut and Lynda Barry.

Here is a profile I wrote and a Q&A I conducted with Austin early in April when his book first came out. It originally ran on The Nervous Breakdown. You can also read my riff on Austin’s analog vs. digital approach to creating, posted in March on this site.

Below are links to all the various places you can find Austin and the panel participants on the internet, along with more recommendations mentioned throughout the discussion.

“It’s not the book you start with, it’s the book that book leads you to” –Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist

In 2005 Austin Kleon experienced a bad case of writer’s block. Right out of college, after having studied creative writing, he was struggling to write a short story. To break out of the rut he took a Sharpie to nearby newspapers and started crossing out sentences, leaving only a few words and large swaths of black ink in his wake. Unknowingly, he created something he calls Newspaper Blackout Poems.

But as he said on the phone one Saturday morning before embarking on a major US tour to support his latest book, Steal Like an Artist — the title a riff on a popular saying in the creative world often misattributed to Picasso — “nothing comes from nowhere.” It was soon after creating these blackout poems that Kleon traced the style’s origins back 250 years to a former next-door neighbor of Benjamin Franklin’s. More recently, William Burroughs had done something similar with his cut-up technique.

Far from disappointed by his findings, Austin developed a philosophy, one that he celebrates in the book. “All creative work builds on what came before,” he continued. Whether it’s our subconscious at play or a dedicated effort, we all have influences whose work guides our own. Austin encourages us to embrace and cultivate them rather than see our mashup style as fraudulent.

“Just as you have a familial genealogy, you also have a genealogy of ideas. You don’t get to pick your family, but you can pick your teachers and you can pick your friends and you can pick the music you listen to and you can pick the books you read and you can pick the movies you see.”

Although his “family tree” is always changing, Austin named four influences who have stuck with him over time. Lynda Barry, his favorite cartoonist, showed Austin he could make a career out of pairing words and pictures. He believes her book What It Is should be required reading for high school students. Austin’s work is highly visual, the book features drawings throughout, so it was no surprise to hear him mention two other artists: Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame and Saul Steinberg, an illustrator best known for his work with The New Yorker. Acclaimed fiction writer George Saunders also made the list.

Although the influences he mentions appear cohesive, leading one to assume his work has a singular foundation, Austin says there’s no harm in variation. “Don’t worry about unity from piece to piece — what unifies all of your work is the fact that you made it,” he said.

The beauty of Steal Like an Artist is that it’s accessible, something that was important to Austin. As one can surmise from the subtitle, 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, a tagline that fits neatly into today’s culture of pared down how-tos, there’s a noticeable lack of technical jargon. Instead, Austin filled its pages with thought-provoking aphorisms and bite-sized insights. Structured around these ten simple rules, Steal Like an Artist offers a list that will most certainly transform the way you think about your work: use your hands; do good work and share it with people; be nice (the world is a small town); and be boring (it’s the only way to get work done) — to name a few.

Unlike many big thought books, Steal Like an Artist doesn’t leave you stranded: putting ideas in your head without a practical plan for going forward. In the last few pages Austin offers tips on how to harness creative energy: take a walk, get yourself a calendar, start a blog, and take a nap. As an avid reader and someone who believe books hold many answers, he includes a reading list of other books that might help you along the artistic path.

Ultimately, Steal Like an Artist is an inspiring conversation, one worth returning to again and again as your creative process evolves over time.

Here are a few bonus questions I’d asked Austin after our phone call. Check out what he has to say about procrastination, serendipity, and Carl Jung.

You talk about finding one’s voice. I’m curious to know how you found yours — or if you think the search ever ends.

Voice always confused the hell out of me in school. I really had no idea what professors were talking about when they said “find your voice.” I still don’t have a handle on it real well, honestly. The closest I’ve been to understanding is through something Billy Collins said: you find your poetic voice by emulating about 6-8 different poets, and once they fit together, so you can’t tell what comes from who, you’ve discovered your voice. I don’t think the search ends, though — at least I hope not. To have one voice forever sounds boring to me.

Do you feel procrastination is an integral part to the creative process?

Oh yeah. Basically, I always have 3-4 projects I’m working on and when I get sick of one I bounce over to the other. At some point I’ll become obsessed with one and run on that energy until it’s dead, then I switch again.

As much as we like being productive, We also need time to sit around and do nothing. To stare at the wall and think, or do something routine and mundane with your body so your mind is freed up.

How do you procrastinate productively?

I like going for walks and doing the dishes — both get me ideas, but one makes me less fat and one gets the kitchen clean.

You say “Creative work is a kind of theater.” I love that. As an artist, how do you see your work — or creative work in general — as theater?

The stage is your workspace — your desk, or your studio, whatever. The costume is your smock, or your favorite sweatpants, or a funny hat you put on to think. The props are your tools — pens, welding torch, etc. — and the script is just plain old time set aside to work. You know, just like actors “get into character,” I think we can trick our minds into get into the zone, too.

You mentioned recently that you’ve been making more of an effort to step away from your computer — your chapter “Step Away from the Screen” is one of my favorites — and that you spend your time in the local university library looking through the stacks. What’s your take on serendipitous findings in the physical world versus the virtual/online world?

Yeah, you just can’t beat having books in a physical space. I call it the “serendipity of the stacks” — you go looking for a book with a certain Dewey Decimal number, and then your eye gets caught on another book’s spine, and pretty soon you’re reading that book instead of the one you went looking for.

The same thing can happen on the Internet, but it just doesn’t feel quite the same. Steven Johnson says, if you can’t find serendipity on the web, you’re not using it right.

I’d asked you about your favorite artist biography or memoir and you mentioned Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Did it change your life in some way?

I’m not sure it’s changed my life, but what I love about the book is how Jung is constantly on the edge between science and religion, rationality and mysticism, etc. it’s just a great story about one of our great minds coming into being.

You can find Austin online at austinkleon.com, on Twitter at @austinkleon, on Facebook at Austin Kleon, and on Tumblr.

::[Links]::
Maria Popova: Website, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr
Maris Kreizman: Tumblr, Twitter
Maud Newton: Website, Twitter, Tumblr, The Chimerist (A Tumblr about iPad reading, co-run with Laura Miller of Salon)

::[Recommended Links]::
Perchance to Dream: an essay by Jonathan Franzen in Harper’s Magazine
Who is Mark Twain?: an animated conversation with John Lithgow at the New York Public Library
Artist Marc Johns on Pinterest
Maud Newton outlines her day at the Paris Review: Part I, Part II
Maria uses Evernote
Austin likes the show Justified, based on Elmore Leonard’s novels

Dispatches: From the Mouths of Magazine Editors

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Last night at McNally Jackson three magazine editors came out to give the crowd a behind-the-scenes look at the editorial process. Deputy Editors Ellah Allfrey and James Marcus, of Granta and Harper’s Magazine, respectively, were joined by Deborah Treisman, The New Yorker Fiction Editor, for a round table discussion moderated by John Freeman.

John, the Editor of Granta, started the night with a question about the latest Vida results, an organization that tracks female representation in magazines — stories and reviews written by women and books written by women, reviewed. Deborah revealed the generational divide she sees in the submissions to her magazine. Stories from writers age 40 and up come from more men than women while with those from writers under 40 the ratio is close to an even split. James admitted that the results from Harper’s are “rotten” (articles written: 13 female:65 male; book reviews: 10 female:23 male; author’s reviewed: 19 female:53 male). Their fiction split is close to even but because they publish foreign reportage, most of the nonfiction articles come from men. Ellah was happy to report that Granta did very well, with more female contributors than male. Ellah attributes this to their magazine’s tradition of publishing each issue based on a theme.

The group went on to discuss the steady stream of material flowing into the slush pile and how they wade through it — a mixture of interns and editorial staff. John brought up the lack of short story writers in Britain, which Deborah boiled down to the lack of encouragement from the publishing market. If there are less than a handful of places to sell your short story, why write one? Ellah, visiting from England, mentioned that with the rise of innovation of how the stories are consumed, as audio on BBC Radio for example, the situation overseas is improving.

Talk of different ways of experiencing the written word inevitably led to discussion of digital. The New Yorker has a fiction podcast where contemporary authors, featured in the magazine, choose a story from the archive to read aloud. The magazine also have a book blog where twice a month Deborah speaks with the author whose fiction is featured in the current issue. Granta features new writing on their site nearly every day. And while Harper’s is slower getting into the digital game, a conscious choice by the top decision maker, there is talk about a change in policy.

The liveliest part of the evening might easily have been when all four took turns discussing the writers they were enthusiastic about. And, so, this week’s “On the Shelf” segment comes from the experts. Here were their answers.

Deborah named Callan Wink who wrote the short story “Dog Run Moon” for the magazine. You can check out his Q&A with Deborah here. His story is subscription only but from what it sounds like, it’s worth paying for. Looking ahead, she is currently reading Salman Rushdie’s memoir, due out from Random House in 2012.

James chose Clancy Martin who published the book How to Sell with FSG in hardcover and then Picador in paperback. He also mentioned Bonnie Nadzam who came out with the highly acclaimed, award-winning novel Lamb last year.

John’s picks were Louise Erdrich for her short story writing skills and Julie Otsuka, a past contributor to Granta, who wrote Buddha in the Attic. He called the author Ross Raisin a “ferocious stylist” and suggested everyone read him. And finally, he mentioned Richard Ford’s introduction to The Best American Short Stories from 1990 for his comments on short story structure.

Ella highlighted a new Nigerian author Chinelo Okparanta who writes stories about lesbian lovers in Africa and environmental issues that threaten the country.  I believe she’ll be published in the magazine soon.

Patrick Ryan, Granta’s associate editor, when he joined in the discussion to share an adorable slush pile story, mentioned Chris Dennis, a recent contributor to the magazine.

I know my reading list just got longer. What short story collections are you reading? What new short story writers have your attention? Comments are open.

Written by Gabrielle

March 1, 2012 at 6:57 am

Dispatches: Sharing Moments with SMITH Magazine

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SMITH Magazine is best known for its Six-Word Memoir project. In 2006, with the belief that everyone has a story to tell, Editor-in-Chief Larry Smith, Tim Barko, and Contributing Editor Rachel Fershleiser, came up with an online challenge: “Can you tell your life story in six words?”. This idea has since spawned six books and a robust online writing community.Interested in giving writers more space to flesh out their ideas, SMITH Magazine asked storytellers to write about a moment that changed their lives; and so, The Moment: Wild, Poignant, Life-Changing Stories from 125 Writers and Artists Famous & Obscure came to fruition.

Contributors, ranging in experience — some with multiple, award-winning and best-selling books to those who have never had a letter-to-the-editor published — sent in their personal stories. The Moment, going beyond the normal essay collection, features written narratives, photographs, comics, illustrations, and handwritten letters. Contributors include household names such as Jennifer Egan, Dave Eggers, Elizabeth Gilbert, and Gregory Maguire as well as up-and-coming writers such as Tao Lin and Said Sayrafiezadeh.

This week at McNally Jackson, contributors gathered to read their work to a standing-room only crowd. Kicking off the evening was experimental journalist A.J. Jacobs with his short story, “Chalk Face,” about the time he realized grown-ups are “not flawless authority figures”. Mira Ptacin, founder and executive director of the New York City-based monthly reading series and storytelling collective Freerange Nonfiction, read her story about the moment she, literally, hit the ground running and shook off the grief from the loss of an unexpected pregnancy.

There were visuals as well: a slideshow about the moment a father fell in love with his infant son, a video montage from photojournalist Gillian Laub about her grandparents’ inspiring relationship, Matt Dojny’s handwritten and illustrated story about his experience with a homeless man on the subway, and Jerry Ma’s comic panels about the time he quit his job in finance to pursue a life in art.

Now in its sixth year, SMITH Magazine continues to celebrate “the explosion of personal media and the personal stories that celebrate the brilliance in the ordinary”. Go on over and contribute your six-word memoir or, if you’re feeling particularly verbose, share your life-changing moment.

If you’re in New York and you missed this week’s reading, you have another chance to catch The Moment contributors at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn on Thursday, January 26th.

What’s on the shelf:
The Moment: Wild, Poignant, Life-Changing Stories from 125 Writers and Artists Famous & Obscure
“ The Moment is a collection of and moving personal pieces about key instances – a moment of opportunity, serendipity, calamity, or chaos – that have had profound consequences on our lives.” [via website]

Six-Word Memoir collections
“When Hemingway famously wrote, “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn,” he proved that an entire story can be told using a half dozen words. When the online storytelling magazine SMITH asked readers to submit six-word memoirs, they proved a whole, real life can be told this way too. The results are fascinating, hilarious, shocking, and moving.” [via IndieBound]

And from the readers:

My Life as an Experiment: One Man’s Humble Quest to Improve Himself by Living as a Woman, Becoming George Washington, Telling No by A.J. Jacobs
“Bestselling author and human guinea pig A. J. Jacobs puts his life to the test and reports on the surprising and entertaining results. He goes undercover as a woman, lives by George Washington’s moral code, and impersonates a movie star. He practices “radical honesty,” brushes his teeth with the world’s most rational toothpaste, and outsources every part of his life to India—including reading bedtime stories to his kids.

And in a new adventure, Jacobs undergoes scientific testing to determine how he can put his wife through these and other life-altering experiments—one of which involves public nudity.
Filled with humor and wisdom, My Life as an Experiment will immerse you in eye-opening situations and change the way you think about the big issues of our time—from love and work to national politics and breakfast cereal.” [via IndieBound]

Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology edited by Jerry Ma
This pioneering collection brings together 66 top Asian American writers, artists and comics professionals to create 26 original stories centered around Asian American superheroes – stories set in a shadow history of our country, from the opening of the West to the election of the first minority president, and exploring ordinary Asian American life from a decidedly extraordinary perspective.

Black Elephants: A Memoir by Karol Nielsen
“An aspiring writer and reporter, Karol Nielsen went trekking through the Peruvian Andes at the height of the Shining Path terror, looking for adventure and a good story. She found Aviv, an Israeli traveler fresh out of his mandatory military service—a war-weary veteran of the first intifada—dreaming about peace. Black Elephants follows this idealistic pair as they explore the Americas, until Aviv, inexorably drawn to his homeland, asks Karol to come with him to Israel. There, the couple’s lovingly laid plans—for Aviv to attend university, and for Karol to work on a kibbutz, study Hebrew, and get to know his family—are suddenly tested by the eruption of the first Gulf War. Nielsen’s memoir paints a poignant and harrowing picture of love during wartime. Against a backdrop of bursting bombs and air-raid sirens, gas masks and sealed rooms, relationships are frayed, and romance becomes a distant memory. This story, so candidly and clearly told, powerfully illustrates the terror, loneliness, and absurdity of war and its invisible casualties.” [via IndieBound]

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon. She’s written for The New York Times, Time Out, The New York Observer, and more, and is the author of “Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream.”

The Festival of Earthly Delights (forthcoming May 2012) by Matt Dojny
“The Festival of Earthly Delights is a humorous bildungsroman set in the fictional Southeast Asian country of Puchai. The protagonist, Boyd Darrow, has recently moved there with his unfaithful girlfriend to give their relationship a second chance. His adventures, and misadventures, are relayed in a series of letters to a mysterious recipient.” [via IndieBound]

Written by Gabrielle

January 12, 2012 at 6:55 am

Dispatches: Talking DIY Culture at McNally Jackson

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Last night, McNally Jackson in SoHo hosted the panel (Re)making media: DIY, zines, punk rock, gen X and millenials in the digital age. The moderator Jacob Lewis, co-founder of a writing collective website for teens, Figment.com, was joined by Blake Nelson, whose book Dream School had been serialized and recently published by Figment, Christopher Bollen, whose book Lightning People was published by the indie press Soft Skull, Mikki Halpin, the creator of the now defunct zine Ben is Dead and the now defunct satirical website Shut Up Foodies, musician and writer Izzy Schappell-Spillman, Japanther’s Ian Vanek, and New York Times technology reporter, and recently the publisher and editor of Girl Crush Zine, Jenna Wortham.

Together, the group of panelists discussed DIY culture as it’s happening today and how technology is affecting the movement.

Most had a positive view regarding the rise of the Internet and its facilitation of independent productions. Izzy, who began her music career with the band Care Bears on Fire when she was just 8-years-old, and who is now 16, felt the online community has brought an end to isolation and has ushered in a time of quick creation. Jenna, who began as a culture blogger at the Times when she was 25, discussed that while it’s easy to get caught up in trying to be ahead of the news curve, especially when one is working for a media outlet, technology can have a profound effect on expressive culture. She mentioned Kickstarter, the online fundraising site where artists of all kinds can raise money for their projects, in particular. Blake Nelson serialized his first book, Girl, in Sassy and when he couldn’t find a publisher for the already-written sequel, Figment did the same by running it in pieces on their site.

The lone voice expressing opposition, mainly because he feels social media creates a culture of self-promotion and self-branding, was Ian Vanek. Although the most skeptical, his argument is solid: people today are too concerned with their public persona and not concerned enough with their actual art. For Vanek, he feels it’s “important to be invisible”.

A reminder of where DIY started, both Ian and Mikki spoke about the continued value of the printed zine. Online publishing platforms, with their endless opportunities for self-expression, are often corporately owned — and those companies ultimately have control over your content. The old-fashioned Xeroxed zine remains a way to share thoughts and ideas privately, or “sneakily,” as the panelists like to describe it.

Far from devolving into a trite debate about the pros and cons of the Internet, the discussion was a reminder that DIY, as an art form and ideology, is still very much a serious venture, regardless of the ease in which it can now be executed.

What’s on the shelf?

Here are just some of the projects and books created by the panelists:

Figment.com
Inspired by Japan’s cellphone novels, “Figment is a community where you can share your writing, connect with other readers, and discover new stories and authors. Whatever you’re into, from sonnets to mysteries, from sci-fi stories to cell phone novels, you can find it all here.” You can read a profile about Figment and its co-founder Jacob Lewis at The New York Times.

Girl by Blake Nelson
“Meet Andrea Marr, straight-A high school student, thrift-store addict, and princess of the downtown music scene. Andrea is about to experience her first love, first time, and first step outside the comfort zone of high school, with the help of indie rock band The Color Green.” [via IndieBound]

Dream School by Blake Nelson
“Imagining a typical ‘J. Crew/college catalogue’ experience, Andrea Marr leaves Portland to attend prestigious Wellington College in Connecticut. Surrounded by the best and the brightest, she works hard to adjust and keep up.” [via IndieBound]

Lightning People
“The fanciful premise behind the title of Bollen’s novel is that, after New York loses the lightning conductors of the Twin Towers, more and more residents die in lightning strikes. But the title also evokes the random nature of post-millennial city life, in which disaster or good fortune can strike at any time. An actor, supported by money from reruns of old commercials, pursues a sinister hobby—frequenting conspiracy-theory chat rooms and meetings. His wife doesn’t know about her husband’s fixation, distracted by her depressing job at the Bronx Zoo and her dysfunctional friends. Bollen excels at creating an atmosphere of Manhattan-specific dread, and certain scenes, particularly the account of a struggling actor’s going-away party, are tragicomic masterpieces.” [via The New Yorker]

Girl Crush Zine Edited by Jenna Wortham and Thessaly La Force
“For those unfamiliar, a girl crush is when a girl has such a deep admiration for another girl that it becomes an infatuation of sorts, though platonic in nature. Editors Jenna Wortham, a reporter for The New York Times, and Thessaly La Force, former blogger at The Paris Review, have taken this concept to the next level by celebrating girl crushes in an online and paper zine aptly called Girl Crush.” [via Laughing Squid]

Japanther
“Japanther have since made a name for themselves in unique performance situations. i.e. along side synchronized swimmers, a top the Williamsburg Bridge, with giant puppets, marionettes and shadow puppets. Out of the back of a moving truck in SOHO, with giant dinosaurs and BMXers flying off the walls.” [website] You can read an interview with Ian at The Nervous Breakdown.

Teenage Izzy Schappell-Spillman’s archive
Teenage is a film and a blog about youth culture. About the film: “Based on a groundbreaking book by the punk author Jon Savage, Teenage is an unconventional historical film about the invention of teenagers. Bringing to life fascinating youth from the early 20th century—from party-crazed Flappers and hipster Swing Kids to brainwashed Nazi Youth and frenzied Sub-Debs—the film reveals the pre-history of modern teenagers and the struggle between adults and adolescents to define youth.” [website] You can hear her perform the theme song for the teen site Rookie.

It’s Your World–If You Don’t Like It, Change It: Activism for Teenagers by Mikki Halpin
“Free Speech. Racism. The Environment. Gay Rights. Bullying and School Safety. Animal Welfare. War. Information about Safe Sex and Birth Control. Free Speech. HIV and AIDS. Women’s Rights. These are the issues you care about — and now you can do something about them. It’s Your World will show you how to act on your beliefs, no matter what they are, and make a difference.” [via IndieBound]

What are some of your favorite DIY projects? Comments are open.

Written by Gabrielle

January 5, 2012 at 5:52 am

Dispatches: Steve Almond, Breaking Hearts at Greenlight

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Last week at Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene, author Steve Almond was joined by New Yorker editor and longtime friend Ben Greenman for the launch of his latest book, God Bless America: Stories, a collection of short fiction.

The two met in the early 90s when they were both writing for the Miami New Times, an alternative weekly newspaper in Florida. As with most events where the two people know each other, the discussion was engrossing, revealing, and amusing.

Steve’s wry sense of humor, a quality that often lays itself bare on the page, is even more pronounced in person—at one point he needled the crowd about New Yorkers reluctance to laugh, which thereby got a laugh and lightened the mood for the rest of the evening. He started out by reading from “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched,” a story where a psychoanalyst with a secret gambling habit winds up at a poker table with an ex-patient. “Donkey Greedy,” Steve admits is the one story where he lands the plot; otherwise, he says, his style is very primitive and instead rests mainly on character.

Moral is a word often ascribed to Steve and his work. Whether it’s his fiction or his essays for The Rumpus—his latest, “Occupy Your Conscience: A Rumpus Exaltation,” a laudatory defense of the Occupy Wall Street protesters and critical look at the media who distort their message—Steve wears his liberal upbringing and current day politics on his sleeve. In 2006, the Boston Globe ran his resignation letter to Boston College, where he was an adjunct professor, after the school invited Condoleezza Rice to give the commencement speech.

If you think, as I first did when I heard the title, that God Bless America is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, you’d be wrong. Written during the past decade, the stories are a culmination of Almond’s experience in America during this time. A self-described “heartbroken patriot” he sets out to reclaim the phrase, to make it more honest and wrest it from the hands of political sloganeers.

Almond sees American culture as many of us do: hyperactive, splintered, fragmented, and visual-centric. In a world with Facebook, Twitter, and Smartphones he believes there’s a lack of boredom in our lives and, as someone who sees boredom as a laboratory, he mourns its passing. “Attention is a dwindling resource,” he says. As a writer, and as someone who teaches writing, Almond feels it’s up to him and fellow writers to find ways to keep the literary arts vital, to combat our distracted, frenetic culture.

As an instructor at Grub Street Writers, an independent center for creative writing, he’s noticing a trend, a modern-day gimmick that placates to our bad habits: increasingly fledgling writers are beginning their stories in the middle of an action scene without any reference to who the people are and why they’re in a particular situation. He points to Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow as the antithesis of this seemingly new approach: a story that opens by laying it all out on the first page, not with guns blazing in the midst of confusion.

Although Steve calls this new collection “very sad and very dark,” there are moments of levity. In the title story, the protagonist, a naive and delusional Boston-area tour guide with aspirations of becoming an actor, gives a hilarious view of American history, a nod to Steve’s own political leanings:

It was unfortunate that not all guides shared Billy’s enthusiasm. But what Billy had learned by studying his country’s history was that America had been built by opportunists. It was a large and prosperous country and one that could accommodate the less enthused . . . But this was America, the land of opportunists, and here it wasn’t enough to want something. You had to fight for what you wanted and fight hard, fight through your own resistance and the jeers of others and physical adversity, which was what the Pilgrims had done vis-a-vis the whole Thanksgiving situation, and after them the colonists, who had bucked the most powerful empire on earth even though they were basically just a bunch of underfed tax evaders. . . . it showed how far some people would go to find good property.

During his talk with Greenman, Almond said he believes all writers are really writing about is their family—always working out issues. Whether this rings true for others, it’s clearly Steve’s approach. Now a father and at the age where one’s parents are reaching the end of their lives, the stories pivot on the notion that family life in America is deteriorating: our myth of rugged individualism has advanced at the expense of community and perpetuated a pathological disconnection from our loved ones.“What the Bird Says” highlights these current preoccupations of Steve’s—and echos the concerns of many of us who are moving along with him. In this story a dying father calls his estranged son to his death bed, presumably to reconcile, but the humiliation and shame he feels from his vulnerability trumps his goodwill; his behavior remains the same.

At Greenlight Steve mentioned his desire to ”break the reader’s heart”. If this is his aim, he should consider his new book a success. God Bless America is a mature work offering a profound experience for those looking to examine the times in which we live.

After you buy Steve’s book either directly from his publisher, Lookout, or through IndieBound you should read what’s on his shelf. Here are a few titles he’s mentioned in passing:

Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow
Birds of America: Stories by Lorrie Moore
Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis
God Bless You Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut
Stoner by John Williams
The Brief and Frightening Reign of Philby George Saunders

::[Links]::
Steve’s website
Interview with The Rumpus
Steve Almond on WTF with Marc Maron
Interview with the Other People podcast
Steve’s essay about Occupy Wall Street in The Rumpus
Steve Almond’s 2006 resignation letter in the Boston Globe (subscription only)
Steve’s recent flash fiction story at Tin House

Written by Gabrielle

November 3, 2011 at 5:39 am

On the Shelf: Fangirl about Town, Insomnia in Paradise Edition

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Blake Butler at BookCourt

On Sunday night at BookCourt, Atlanta-based HTMLGIANT editor and novelist Blake Butler read from his latest book, Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia, his first work of nonfiction. Stemming from his own long battle with insomnia, which he owes in part to his racing mind, Blake set out to explore the many aspects of the subject, not just his own experience.

For the book, he researched insomnia’s “role in history, art, and science through its unexpected consequences on [his] personal imagination, creative process, and perspective on reality. . . . Invoking scientific data, historical anecdote, Internet obsession, and figures as diverse as Andy Warhol, Gilles Deleuze, John Cage, Anton LaVey, Jorge Luis Borges, Brian Eno, and Stephen King, Butler traces the tension between sleeping and conscious life.” For anyone familiar with the website he created, Blake’s mad-intelligence will not come as a surprise—he’s one of the most intimidating minds out there today.

I’d seen Blake read from his debut full-length novel, There is No Year, this past April and while that was fiction and this one is nonfiction, his reading style is the same for both: manic, driving, machine gun-intense, which one can assume is how he hears it in his head. It’s an infectious intonation and once listen to, his voice is forever with you as you read his words.

HTMLGIANT is a frenetic blog, now with many contributors, and has the feel of an ongoing experiement in boundary-pushing. On a daily basis it features literary and film criticism, behind-the-scenes looks at writing and writing programs, author interviews, and occasional matters of highly-structured irrelevance. When visiting the site, you’re bound to learn about something you didn’t know existed, possibly stumble onto smart commentary regarding an otherwise mundane topic, and a bookmark a bunch of posts worthy of quiet contemplation.

Butler is someone you should know about if you don’t already. He’s an original, mind-blowing voice with a trustworthy sense for talented, contemporary thinkers.

You can listen to an hour-long interview with Blake about insomnia, writing fiction vs. nonfiction, and David Foster Wallace on the Other People podcast with Brad Listi. You can follow him and HTMLGIANT on Twitter at @blakebutler and @htmlgiant.

A Night at McNally Jackson

On Monday night, three ladies of the literary world took to the floor of McNally Jackson for an intimate conversation about the writing life. Diana Abu-Jaber, author of four novels, her most recent Birds of Paradise, was joined by her editor Alane Mason and agent Joy Harris, both of nearly 20 years.

Diana began with a short reading from the book described by the publisher as, “the story of a runaway daughter, Felice, and the effect of her absence on her mother, father, and brother.” And, in the broader sense, one that “illuminates the silent crosscurrents of guilt, anger, blame, and grief that can plague a family,” which promises to “resonate with all those who have sought adolescent independence and then yearned to reconnect with their families once they are grown up.”

When Alane and Joy claimed the seats next to Diana, the mutual admiration and respect was palpable. You could feel their years together in the air. The three launched into what a touching reflection on their triangular relationship, a behind-the-scenes look inside the writing and editorial process. The night drove home the notion that a book is not always a solo act, that editors and agents matter: Alane and Joy allow Diana to indulge her “fugue state,” as they called it, and Diana knows that she has those two to ground her work in reality when the first draft is done.

As is the intention with these multi-person events, Diana was not the only draw. Her editor, Alane, is the founder and president of Words Without Borders, a groundbreaking website founded in 1999—with its first publication in 2003—dedicated to publishing, translating, and promoting contemporary international literature. You can watch Alane discuss her motivation and mission in a 2009 interview at the Big Think. You can also follow Diana on Twitter at @dabujaber.

What’s on the shelf?

The Innovator’s Cookbook: Essentials for Inventing What’s Next by Steven Johnson
Steven Johnson’s books are quickly becoming popular with help in part to the fun videos that go along with them. His last book, Where Good Ideas Come From had this awesome trailer that’s now been viewed over a million times. His latest book’s video shows the creation of the 3-D letters used for the cover image.

The Innovator’s Cookbook “features a number of conversations with creative minds from technology, business, education and the arts, talking about their methods.” In Steven’s own words, the book is an “anthology of classic essays on innovation” with “many important essays by some of [his] heroes” includig Stewart Brand, John Seely Brown, and Erik Von Hippel. Aside from the essays, it’s also a collection of conversations he’d had with innovators. Some of the innovators interviewed are “Ray Ozzie on software; Brian Eno on music and art; Beth Noveck on government innovation.”

You can check out Steven’s website here and follow him on Twitter @stevenbjohnson.

The Best American Comics 2011 edited by Alison Bechdel
The Best American Comics is a collection of work from both new and established artists. Cult comic artist Alison Bechdel, creator of “Dykes to Watch Out For” and author of the biographical graphic novel Fun Home, is the editor of this series’ latest edition. In compiling the book, Alison grabbed from graphic novels, pamplet comics, newspapers, magazines, mini-comics and webcomics. Some of the artists featured are Joe Sacco, Jeff Smith, and Dash Shaw. You can read an Interview with Alison with the AV Club where she talks about the selection process, past projects she’s worked on, and the importance of zines.

What’s on your shelf this week? Comments are open. 

Written by Gabrielle

October 13, 2011 at 5:18 am

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