Archive for the ‘reviews’ Category
The best books elicit emotions from its readers. Truly great books give rise to conflicted feelings. My Friend Dahmer, the graphic novel by Derf Backderf, falls firmly within that second category.
Backderf grew up in Richfield, Ohio, attending Eastview Junior High and Revere High School in the 70s, which would all seem innocuous enough had it not been for a certain classmate, convicted serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.
Dahmer went largely unnoticed — even when he was drinking heavily throughout the school, reeking of alcohol — but Backderf and his group befriended the odd character, laughing at his impressions of a physically challenged interior decorator and egging him on for public disturbances. Throughout this time, Backderf drew sketches of Dahmer, recording his antics, both humorous and disturbing — all of which aided his memory when recalling details for the book.
From time to time the group was privy to the darker side of Dahmer’s antisocial behavior — his taxidermy experiments with roadkill (he liked to dissolve already dead animals in acid) and his aforementioned drinking problem (pounding a six pack in the back of a car in under 10 minutes). Once, while picking him up at home, they met his mentally ill mother (who ultimately left Dahmer alone in his childhood home when his life was in the most danger of going off the rails).
Most people will remember, if not the details, the horror they felt when they learned of Dahmer’s arrest — a young serial killer who not only murdered his victims but ate them as well. It was the first time I’d heard of an actual cannibal living among us — not just some desperate exploratory group in a history book.
The copy of My Friend Dahmer that we see on shelves today grew out of Backderf’s self-published comic, first drawn and written after Dahmer’s death in 1994. With his R. Crumb-like stylings, detailed and at times grotesque, Backderf went back and fleshed out his story using not only his memory and interviews with former classmates, but also interviews Dahmer conducted after his arrest, legal documents, news accounts, and Dahmer’s father’s memoir; all of which is well documented in the back of the book.
Backderf makes it very clear that he loses all sympathy for Dahmer as soon as he kills his first human but, at the same time, he does a great job of showing what a tragedy this was, not just for Dahmer’s victims but for Dahmer as well. At times in the book it seems as if Dahmer knew he was deeply troubled and had few resources to cope with his urges. The reader, now having seen the teenage life of a future serial killer, is left wondering, like Backderf, if all of this could have turned out differently. Had the school acknowledged his alcoholism, had his parents not been dysfunctional, had his taxidermy experiments been brought to light, would Dahmer’s murderous tendencies have manifested or could they have been controlled? This is where the inner conflict kicks into overdrive.
My Friend Dahmer is an engrossing read, one that lingers in your bones, and will make you think twice about talking to strangers.
In the current issue of Tin House, I have an essay on Finnish author Tove Jansson. Jansson, probably best known for her children’s book characters The Moomins, also wrote books for adults. I had finally come across them early last year.
After reading Jansson’s novels, I was struck by her strong tone: a dark humor that appears to, at once, both celebrate and mock humanity. As I looked closer, I found that weather played a major role in the stories, determining where the characters lived, how they got on with their day-to-day, and even the personalities they developed.
Below is a short excerpt from the essay in the Winter Reading issue. Also in the issue is fiction from Fiona Maazel and Shirley Jackson; poetry from Meghan O’Rourke, Josh Bell, and Mark Z. Danielewski; an interview with author Robert Stone; and other reviews from Dani Shapiro and Tobias Carroll. Head out to your local bookstore today or order online at Tin House.
I came to Tove Jansson’s work late in life and in a backward fashion. Most people familiar with the Finnish author and illustrator know her as the creator of the Moomins, a family of hippopotamus-like creatures first introduced in a children’s book series in 1945 and then adapted into a comic strip. The tales of the Moomins and their fantastical journeys through Moominvalley are something of a cult classic and I’m sad to have missed them in my youth.
Lesser championed are her novels for adult readers, which do not feature fantastical creatures but, instead, follow the lives of very real humans. After spotting Jansson’s 1972 novel, The Summer Book, on display at a local bookstore–a slim book with a muted, pastel cover, and silhouette of an island in the center–I decided to give this author I’d never heard of a shot. It was only later, through a Google search, that I learned of her earlier work.
The opening chapters have a flash fiction feel–they are short, choppy, and do not appear to be linear. But as you continue to read, you realize they’re linked vignettes of life on an isolated island, the story of a cheeky grandmother and her precocious granddaughter, Sophia. (The young girl’s mother dead and the father, inexplicably, relegated to the background). The two, each the other’s primary companion, while away the hours amid the fauna and marshes of their seasonal home, moving between simple conversation and that which delves deeper:
The sun had climbed higher. The whole island, and the sea were glistening. The air seemed very
“I can dive,” Sophia said. “Do you know what it feels like when you dive?”
“Of course I do,” her grandmother said. “You let go of everything and get ready to just dive. You can feel the seaweed against your legs. It’s brown, and the water’s clear, lighter toward the top, with lots of bubbles. And you glide. You hold your breath and glide and turn and come up, let yourself rise and breathe out. And then you float. Just float.”
If you’re anything like me and you ask someone to describe you, “idle” would not show up on their list. I’m the type of person who will walk 20 blocks instead of connecting to another subway; it’s rare that I see a movie in the theater because the thought of sitting still for two hours makes my skin crawl; hang out with me for more than 45 minutes and I’ll suggest we get up from wherever we are and wander the streets; and if I’m not out of bed by 7am on the weekends I’ve wasted my day.
I read Fast Company, Harvard Business Review, and other “lifehack” type publications that promise lessons on super-human productivity. I aspire to “robot brain,” my shorthand for ultimate organizational skills. “Idle” is not in my vocabulary. So, it was an interesting choice in books when I decided, last minute, to buy How to Be Idle: A Loafer’s Manifesto by Tom Hodgkinson, co-founder and editor of The Idler magazine.
While at the bookstore register, attempting to finish off a gift card, the bright orange cover propped up on the counter caught my eye. “Indispensable,” the bookseller said when I picked it up. I was sold. Maybe, I thought, just as I hone my productivity skills, I need to learn to relax. After all, recharging is an important part of the equation as well — or so all those seasoned lifehackers tell me.
In blending social history, humor, and profiles of famous idlers from science, the arts, and politics, Hodgkinson makes a convincing case for slowing down. At times, nearly sounding like a conspiracy theorist, he points out how we became workaholics. He quotes radical philosopher Terence McKenna, “… institutions fear idle populations because an Idler is a thinker and thinkers are not a welcome addition to most social situations.” He continues with his own thoughts:
It is precisely to prevent us from thinking too much that society pressurizes us all to get out of bed. … Introspection could lead to that terrible thing: a vision of the truth, a clear image of the horror of our fractured, dissonant world.
At one point in the book, the extremity of our situation — our collective discouragement towards idling — is made clear. We’ve gotten to the point as a society that many of us take vacation seriously: what should be a time of leisure has become “over-organized.” Not only are we under pressure to fit in all there is to see and do at our destination of choice but we’re expected to be cheerful about it.
From the first chapter, Hodgkinson flips your brain, putting you in a space to trust whatever comes next.
Sleep is a powerful seducer, hence the terrifying machinery we have developed to fight it. I mean, the alarm clock. Heavens! What evil genius brought together those two enemies of the idle–clocks and alarms–into one unit? … Is it not absurd to spend our hard-earned cash on a device to make every day of our lives start as unpleasantly as possible, and which really just serves the employer to whom we sell our time?
The chapters in How to Be Idle are broken down into hours of the day. 8 a.m., entitled “Waking Up is Hard to Do,” offers the advice of laying in bed longer and enjoying the half-awake time. 9 a.m., “Toil and Trouble,” suggests working fewer days a week. “Sleeping In,” which is 10 a.m., explains how idling is actually productive, using Walter Benjamin, Sherlock Holmes, and Rene Descartes as examples.
Defining idler as a “student of the art of living,” Hodgkinson finds valuable lessons in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, pointing out that in playing hooky there is potential for a journey of self-exploration.
How to Be Idle asks us to be our better selves — noble flaneurs in today’s fast-paced climate — and urges us to step outside the daily pressures:
As with all aspects of idleness, we should resist the pressure to reject the elements of our lives which do not fit into the productive, rational, busy paradigm that society and our own selves impose upon us.
To make time for conversation:
Sharing is at the heart of conversation: sharing ideas, entertainment and stories. … As well as giving rise to ideas, conversation gives a way of expressing them.
And to look up from time to time:
Gazing at the stars opens our minds to another reality, a mysterious eternal world, beyond material struggle.
How to Be Idle — as compelling as it is humorous — is a celebration of idleness, a lesson in the importance of stepping back, slowing down, and taking a deep breath. By the end it becomes clear, Hodgkinson’s book should be kept on everyone’s nightstand and reread at least once a year.
When Brian K. Vaughan’s comic book series Saga came out last year you couldn’t turn your head without reading a rave review. Lesser known and just as worthy of the same praise is his award-winning Runaways series created with artist Adrian Alphona.
First created in 2003, Runaways is the story of six kids brought together annually while their well-to-do parents discuss fundraising efforts. This year, bored with being confined to the game room, the group sets out to spy on the meeting—even if it is just talk about tax deductibles.
However, all is not as it seems behind closed doors. After sneaking through the house’s secret wall spaces, the kids learn the shocking truth about the grown ups. Now faced with an impossible question—family or justice?—the group, in shock from what they’ve just witnessed, must decide.
Drawn in the style of teen comic dramas (see: Archie, Blue Monday, Deadenders), Runaways offers an uneasy—yet wholly enjoyable—juxtaposition between youthful innocence and a brutal Shakespearean plot.
Find Runaways at your local bookstore
There’s a lot of talk about “brand” lately and, while I can’t claim this to be a new phenomenon, with the rise of social media the notion has extended beyond the walls of advertising and marketing meetings. Now that nearly everyone is on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and a host of other online forums, the term has come into public consciousness. People are asking how they want to present themselves to the world: what do I stand for? What should be public and what should remain private? What will build a reputation and what might destroy it? In essence, what is their “brand”?
There are many skeptics when it comes to branding. Those who view it negatively see it as insincere, disingenuous, and manipulative. But it doesn’t need to be this way. There’s a case for genuine marketing, a way of creating a strong, decided presence in order to connect with an eager audience.
I work in book publishing and constantly have to remind myself that not everyone knows what an imprint is: a subdivision of a larger publishing house. For example, Vintage is an imprint of Random House; Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster; Riverhead, an imprint of Penguin; and St. Martin’s Press, an imprint of Macmillan.
For some who live within this bubble of publishing it can come as a surprise that not everyone looks at the spine of a book (where the name and logo of the imprint is located) when they walk into a bookstore; to us insiders it’s practically second nature. However, knowing what an imprint is and becoming familiar with what they publish can be incredibly useful to the general public.
Oftentimes you can tell the tone and quality of a book based on which imprint publishes it. If you’re looking for a business book, Crown and Portfolio are good bets; if you’re looking for something more literary Farrar, Straus and Giroux or Knopf might be the way you want to go; or if you are looking for something quirky in paperback, Harper Perennial, Three Rivers Press, and Plume will probably do the trick.
For those steeped in book culture these imprints are shorthand or, for those who like an air of exclusivity, secret code. It is this subsection of the book buying community that publishers—through social media and traditional advertising—can use branding to connect with and expand their audience.
What marketing naysayers might not know is that there are a number of professionals who are passionate about their branding projects, think deeply about their craft, and who don’t approach awareness-raising with cynicism.
In Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits, Debbie Millman, partner and president of the design division at Sterling Brands, President Emeritus of AIGA, and chair of the School of Visual Arts’ master’s program in Branding, sits down with leading thinkers and designers in the field to get their thoughts on advertising. Throughout her interviews, Millman asks poignant and tailored questions. These unique conversations allow for a diverse range of definitions, anecdotes, and views of the industry.
In her introduction, Millman explains that “branding is a history in flux, and [her] hope is that this collection of conversations can provide a time capsule of the second decade of the 21st century.” Throughout Brand Thinking, humanity and storytelling are common themes; nearly everyone who creates campaigns has a desire to explore what brands are and what brand awareness means.
One of the participants is Dori Turnstall, an Associate Professor of Design Anthropology, an area of study she explains has two components: the practical dimension, how to design products based on our understanding of people, and the theoretical, understanding how “the process and artifacts of design help define what it means to be human.”
From cultural critics Daniel Pink and Malcolm Gladwell to designer Karim Rashid to entrepreneur Seth Godin to a number of industry executives, Millman asks her subjects to explore the notion of “brand.” Each come to varying conclusions while sharing years of experience and knowledge.
Here are just a few excerpts from a book full of fascinating answers.
As mentioned, marketing expert Seth Godin was interviewed for the book. Here he defines brand:
I believe that ‘brand’ is a stand-in, a euphemism, a shortcut for a whole bunch of expectations, worldview connections, experiences, and promises that a product or service makes, and these allow us to work our way through a world that has thirty thousand brands that we have to make decisions about every day.
Wally Olins, Chairman of Saffron Brand Consultants of London, Madrid, Mumbai and New York, and author of a number of books on branding, has this to say about different mediums throughout the years (something to keep in mind as we’re flooding with information about the Internet and mobile devices):
Television didn’t kill radio; film didn’t kill theater. There will certainly be huge changes. But one medium doesn’t kill another. Each new medium actually makes the previous one better. Radio no longer resembles what it was before television. Television no longer resembles what it was before the Internet. All these things will change, but they give us a multiplicity of choice.
Anthropologist and author Grant McCracken, formerly a senior lecturer at the Harvard Business School and consultant for Coca-Cola, Chrysler, and Kraft, says this about understanding culture:
Designers—or indeed anybody who’s interested in business change or social change—need to make a knowledge of the culture and the social world in which they work the first condition of their provocation.
Regarding storytelling, former Chief Creative Officer of Ogilvy & Mather Brian Collins, who now runs his own communication and branding firm and whose clientele history includes Hershey’s, Coca-Cola, and Microsoft, says:
I think the secret to working with existing brands is to help them find their intrinsic story. And then amplify the stories for new generations to share. Brands have become the best device for perpetuating mythic archetypes. …
We say we want information, but we don’t experience the world through information—we experience the world through story. … Stories are how we give meaning to what happens to us. When we call upon them, they activate archetypes—”archetypes” as defined by Carl Jung. They remind us of eternal truths, and they help us navigate through our lives.
Stanley Hainsworth former VP of Global Creative at Starbucks and Former Creative Director of Nike says:
For me, it’s all about having a story to tell. This is what will enable you to create an experience around the brand. … You go back to the essence of the brand. Why was it made? What need did it fill? Go back to the origins of a brand and identify how it connected to consumers and how it became a relevant, “loved by families” product. What were the origins of this story?
And Cheryl Swanson, founder of brand consultancy Toniq says:
A brand is a product with a compelling story. … The brands are totems. They tell us stories about our place in culture—about where we are and where we’ve been. They also help us figure out where we’re going.
President of Innovation at Sterling Brands, DeeDee Gordon, discusses the need for the audience to feel like they’re a part of brand:
It’s not enough to produce great creative work. Consumers won’t automatically like an idea just because a brand says so. They need to be part of the creative process—a process that is fluid, organic, and on their own terms. A process like this produces the most useful insights and allows designers to think about products in a whole new way—oftentimes, they’re introduced to entirely new ideas. Consumers can be designer’s biggest advocates, but only if designers will let the conversation happen and give consumers the respect they deserve by allowing them to have a say.”
Whether you’re in an industry that sells books, food, clothing, or some other object with numerous competitors, Brand Thinking will start you on a path to exploring a way to differentiate yourself from the pack, one that’s light on cynicism and heavy on passionate belief.
When you’re finished reading, Debbie Millman hosts a podcast on Design Observer called “Design Matters” where she speaks with innovators and creatives in the design field in the same manner featured in Brand Thinking. These thoughtful and stimulating conversations are an excellent compliment to her books and will keep you tide over until the next one.
Published in 1971, A Meaningful Life by Brooklyn writer L.J. Davis is a dark comedy and cautionary tale.
Lowell Lake, thirty years old, wakes up one morning to find himself in personal crisis, disinterested in his job and living in Manhattan, a city where he never intended to be. Suddenly, he’s aware of his surroundings and questions the direction his life has taken, retracing his steps to figure out how he came to be where he is.
Sophomore year at Stanford, while earning a degree in English (“It had always been his best subject and it didn’t commit him to do anything specific later in life”), he met Betty, a Jewish girl from Flatbush, Brooklyn. They liked each other well enough and although he began to have doubts as the day got closer they were married two days after graduation. The plan was to move to Berkeley where Lowell was to attend a university on scholarship but after he plays a joke on his wife everything goes terribly wrong.
”I thought we were going to Berkeley,” his wife had said nine years ago, her voice coming to him down the corridor of years as clearly as if she had spoken to him only a moment before. It was the instant his life had suddenly poised itself on an idle remark, and the hinge of fate had opened—a small moment, an utterly insignificant fragment of time that could have passed as swiftly as turning a page in a book, but instead it had changed his life forever. “Didn’t you say we were going to Berkeley?” she asked anxiously. …
He could still hear the voice, he could still see the room, he could still smell the old green overstuffed chair he’d been sitting in. “Maybe not,” he said. He was only teasing. Berkeley was definitely the place they were going, and the idea of going to New York instead had just sort of wandered into his mind a moment ago like a stray insect. No doubt it would have perished there at once if he hadn’t spoken it aloud. Now it was out in the open, and God help them all.
And so, they sealed their future plans on his poor judgment and her spite. “You’re going to hate it there,” his wife warned. After goodbyes to their classmates the two drove cross-country to begin their new life, settling into a small apartment on the Upper West Side. Lowell, after a failed attempt at writing a novel, decided to take a position as Managing Eaditor at a “second-rate plumbing-trade weekly.”
Now thirty, feeling as if his life were meaningless, Lowell recalls reading about young creative types buying and fixing up houses in Brooklyn slums, areas that were once home to wealthy government officials but are now in the midst of decay.
With urban renewal in mind and their entire savings on the table, Lowell sets out to buy a house in the outer borough. What he finds, and ultimately winds up with, is a comically dilapidated townhouse. The current residents are questionable, no doubt a few squatters in the bunch. As Lowell tours the building, the descriptions are so vivid that any reader with the slightest knowledge of city life will be able to conjure the smells.
A door was thrown open at the foot of the stairs, a dim rectangle of light in the impenetrable tissue of the darkness, and although Lowell was still unable to see where to put his feet, he could now see where he was going. The knowledge made him feel better, but not for long. A great warm wave of new horrible odors, both different in degree and intensity from the old horrible odors that he’d almost gotten used to, rolled up over him and nearly knocked him flat. It was like the first whiff of the atmosphere of some alien planet: heavy, warm, barely breathable, seemingly compounded of urine and stale oatmeal in equal measure.
After throwing himself into renovating the newly purchased and swiftly vacated house, deciding to do a bulk of the work himself, Lowell experiences a sense of renewal as well.
He was suddenly famous. In a building where he had labored five days a week for nine years without a single person asking him what he did, he suddenly found himself cloaked in a highly conspicuous new identity: he became known as the Guy Who Moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant.
He hadn’t moved yet and it wasn’t Bedford-Stuyvesant but that didn’t matter. He was finally doing something with his life, he was industrious.
While A Meaningful Life raises interesting and important questions about city life—gentrification, poverty, and the rise of Brooklyn’s prominence and formidability over the years—Lowell’s story offers a reminder to live deliberately and make good decisions, a powerful message that often bears repeating.
Buy A Meaningful Life from your local bookstore
Working in an office is a learned skill, even for those who are good with people—and even for those who work in a room full of friends. While general etiquette and being pleasant go a long way, it’s always worth seeing what can be fine tuned. However, doing so requires self-awareness and a willingness to change.
One classic in the self-help business genre—and an excellent place to start—is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. The cover of the “special anniversary edition” boasts that it’s the best book of its kind—and I’m not so sure they’re wrong.
How to Win Friends and Influence People is broken down into four parts: Fundamental Techniques in Handling People; Six Ways to Make People Like You; How to Win People to Your Way of Thinking; and Be a Leader: How to Change People Without Giving Offense or Arousing Resentment
Within each of these larger sections are smaller, more targeted chapters, each featuring anecdotes and quotes from important leaders’ lives as well as from Carnegie’s own personal experience—first as a salesman, then as a public speaker.
In the first chapter, “If You Want to Gather Honey, Don’t Kick Over the Beehive,” Carnegie sets the tone for the remaining 230 pages:
Do you know someone who you would like to change and regulate and improve? Good! That is fine. I am all in favor of it. But why not begin on yourself? From a purely selfish standpoint, that is a lot more profitable than trying to improve others—yes, and a lot less dangerous. ‘Don’t complain about the snow on your neighbor’s roof, ‘ said Confucius, ‘when your own doorstep is unclean.’
Carnegie is not stingy; forehead-slapping comments such as these are found on nearly every page. It’s these simple statements, these basic ways of being with others that we all learned in grammar school but forgot, that make How to Win Friends invaluable.
Quoting Henry Ford, Carnegie shares another important principle: “If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.” And from Alfred Adler, a Viennese psychologist: “It is the individual who is not interested in his fellow men who has the greatest difficulties in life and provides the greatest injury to others.” And, of course, what advice book would be complete without Benjamin Franklin?: “If you argue and rankle and contradict, you may achieve a victory sometimes; but it will be an empty victory because you will never get your opponent’s good will.”
Each chapter ends with a distilled principle, reinforcing the lessons one should have learned from the previous pages: Give honest and sincere appreciation; Be a good listener; If you are wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically; Let the other person do a great deal of the talking; and, for those in a leadership position, make the fault seem easy to correct.
How to Win Friends and Influence People will make you think about your behavior, both within the office and without. Soon, you’ll find that those rough edges smoothed.