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New in Paperback for February

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Here are just a few paperbacks coming out this month that have caught my eye.

Artful by Ali Smith
Artful is a celebration of literature’s worth in and to the world—it is about the things art can do, the things art is made of, and the quicksilver nature of all artfulness. A magical hybrid that refuses to be tied down to either fiction or the essay form, Artful is narrated by a character who is haunted—literally—by a former lover, the writer of a series of lectures about art and literature. Ali Smith’s heady powers as a novelist and short story writer harmonize with her keen perceptions as a reader and critic to form a living thing that reminds us that life and art are never separate.

Me, Myself, and Why: Searching for the Science of Self by Jennifer Ouellette
me myself whyAs diverse as people appear to be, all of our genes and brains are nearly identical. In Me, Myself, and Why, Jennifer Ouellette dives into the miniscule ranges of variation to understand just what sets us apart. She draws on cutting-edge research in genetics, neuroscience, and psychology—enlivened as always with her signature sense of humor—to explore the mysteries of human identity and behavior. Readers follow her own surprising journey of self-discovery as she has her genome sequenced, her brain mapped, her personality typed, and even samples a popular hallucinogen. Bringing together everything from Mendel’s famous pea plant experiments and mutations in The X-Men to our taste for cilantro and our relationships with virtual avatars, Ouellette takes us on an endlessly thrilling and illuminating trip into the science of ourselves.

The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published by David Skinner
Created by the most respected American publisher of dictionaries and supervised by editor Philip Gove, Webster’s Third broke with tradition, adding thousands of new words and eliminating “artificial notions of correctness,” basing proper usage on how language was actually spoken. The dictionary’s revolutionary style sparked what David Foster Wallace called “the Fort Sumter of the Usage Wars.” Critics bayed at the dictionary’s permissive handling of ain’t. Literary intellectuals such as Dwight Macdonald believed the abandonment of the old standard represented the unraveling of civilization.

Entertaining and erudite, The Story of Ain’t describes a great societal metamorphosis, tracing the fallout of the world wars, the rise of an educated middle class, and the emergence of America as the undisputed leader of the free world, and illuminating how those forces shaped our language. Never before or since has a dictionary so embodied the cultural transformation of the United States.

What’s Important is Feeling by Adam Wilson
Bankers prowl Brooklyn bars on the eve of the stock market crash. A debate over Young Elvis versus Vegas Elvis turns existential. Detoxing junkies use a live lobster to spice up their love life. Students on summer break struggle to escape the orbit of a seemingly utopic communal house.

And in the title story, selected for The Best American Short Stories, two film school buddies working on a doomed project are left sizing up their own talent, hoping to come out on top–but fearing they won’t.

In What’s Important Is Feeling, Adam Wilson follows the through-line of contemporary coming-of-age from the ravings of teenage lust to the staggering loneliness of proto-adulthood. He navigates the tough terrain of American life with a delicate balance of comedy and compassion, lyricism and unsparing straightforwardness. Wilson’s characters wander through a purgatory of yearning, hope, and grief. No one emerges unscathed.

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi
Electric, exhilarating, and beautifully crafted, Ghana Must Go introduces the world to Taiye Selasi, a novelist of extraordinary talent. In a sweeping narrative that takes readers from Accra to Lagos to London to New York, it is at once a portrait of a modern family and an exploration of the importance of where we come from to who we are.

A renowned surgeon and failed husband, Kweku Sai dies suddenly at dawn outside his home in suburban Accra. The news of his death sends a ripple around the world, bringing together the family he abandoned years before. Moving with great elegance through time and place, Ghana Must Go charts their circuitous journey to one another and, along the way, teaches us that the truths we speak can heal the wounds we hide.

Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the Age of Cultural Production by Nato Thompson
A fog of information and images has flooded the world: from advertising, television, radio, and film to the information glut produced by the new economy. With the rise of social networking, even our contemporaries, peers, and friends are all suddenly selling us the ultimate product: themselves.

Here curator and critic Nato Thompson interrogates the implications of these developments for those dedicated to socially engaged art and activism. How can anyone find a voice and make change when the world is flooded with images and information? And what is one to make of the endless machine of consumer capitalism, which has appropriated much from the history of art and, in recent years, the methods of grassroots political organizing and social networking?

Highlighting the work of some of the most innovative and interesting artists and activists working today, Thompson reads and praises sites and institutions that empower their communities to see power and re-imagine it. From cooperative housing to anarchist infoshops to alternative art venues, Thompson shows that many of today’s most innovative spaces operate as sites of dramatic personal transformation.

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide; Eric Selland (translator)
A bestseller in France and winner of Japan s Kiyama Shohei Literary Award, The Guest Cat, by the acclaimed poet Takashi Hiraide, is a subtly moving and exceptionally beautiful novel about the transient nature of life and idiosyncratic but deeply felt ways of living. A couple in their thirties live in a small rented cottage in a quiet part of Tokyo; they work at home, freelance copy-editing; they no longer have very much to say to one another. But one day a cat invites itself into their small kitchen. It leaves, but the next day comes again, and then again and again. Soon they are buying treats for the cat and enjoying talks about the animal and all its little ways. Life suddenly seems to have more promise for the husband and wife the days have more light and color. The novel brims with new small joys and many moments of staggering poetic beauty, but then something happens

Europe in Sepia by Dubravka Ugresic; David Williams (translator)
Hurtling between Weltschmerz and wit, drollness and diatribe, entropy and enchantment, it’s the juxtaposition at the heart of Dubravka Ugresic’s writings that saw Ruth Franklin dub her “the fantasy cultural studies professor you never had.” In Europe in Sepia, Ugresic, ever the flâneur, wanders from the Midwest to Zuccotti Park, the Irish Aran Islands to Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim, from the tristesse of Dutch housing estates to the riots of south London, charting everything from the listlessness of Central Europe to the ennui of the Low Countries. One finger on the pulse of an exhausted Europe, another in the wounds of postindustrial America, Ugresic trawls the fallout of political failure and the detritus of popular culture, mining each for revelation.

Infused with compassion and melancholic doubt, Europe in Sepia centers on the disappearance of the future, the anxiety that no new utopian visions have emerged from the ruins of communism; that ours is a time of irreducible nostalgia, our surrender to pastism complete. Punctuated by the levity of Ugresic’s raucous instinct for the absurd, despair has seldom been so beguiling.

Glyph by Percival Everett
glyphBaby Ralph has ways to pass the time in his crib—but they don’t include staring at a mobile. Aided by his mother, he reads voraciously: “All of Swift, all of Sterne, Invisible Man, Baldwin, Joyce, Balzac, Auden, Roethke,” along with a generous helping of philosophy, semiotics, and trashy thrillers. He’s also fond of writing poems and stories (in crayon). But Ralph has limits. He’s mute by choice and can’t drive, so in his own estimation he’s not a genius. Unfortunately for him, everyone else disagrees. His psychiatrist kidnaps him for testing, and once his brilliance is quantified (IQ: 475), a Pentagon officer also abducts him. Diabolically funny and lacerating in its critique of poststructuralism, Glyph has the feverish plot of a thriller and the philosophical depth of a text by Roland Barthes.

On Loving Women by Diane Obomsawin; Helge Dascher (translator)
loving womenOn Loving Women is a new collection of stories about coming out, first love, and sexual identity by the animator Diane Obomsawin. With this work, Obomsawin brings her gaze to bear on subjects closer to home—her friends’ and lovers’ personal accounts of realizing they’re gay or first finding love with another woman. Each story is a master class in reaching the emotional truth of a situation with the simplest means possible. Her stripped-down pages use the bare minimum of linework to expressively reveal heartbreak, joy, irritation, and fear.

On Loving Women focuses primarily on adolescence—crushes on high school teachers, awkwardness on first dates—but also addresses much deeper-seated difficulties of being out: fears of rejection and of not being who others want one to be. Within these pages, Obomsawin has forged a poignant, powerful narrative that speaks to the difficulties of coming out and the joys of being loved.

Her first English-language work, Kaspar—a retelling of the life of Kaspar Hauser, the mysterious German youth who was raised in isolation and murdered just a few years after emerging from his imprisonment—was critically lauded for its simple but expressive storytelling, and for the way it portrayed traumatic material compassionately but without self-indulgence. Preview.

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer.

This is the twelfth expedition.

Their group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all their observations, scientific and otherwise, of their surroundings and of one another; and, above all, to avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.

They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding—but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them, and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another, that change everything.

Written by Gabrielle

February 5, 2014 at 6:48 am

New in Paperback for December

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Here are just a few paperback releases coming out this month that have caught my eye.

Black Is the Color by Julia Gfrorer
Black is the ColorBlack is the Color begins with a 17th-century sailor abandoned at sea by his shipmates, and as it progresses he endures, and eventually succumbs to, both his lingering death sentence and the advances of a cruel and amorous mermaid. The narrative also explores the experiences of the loved ones he leaves behind, on his ship and at home on land, as well as of the mermaids who jadedly witness his destruction. At the heart of the story lie the dubious value of maintaining dignity to the detriment of intimacy, and the erotic potential of the worst-case scenario. Julie Gfrorer’s delicate drawing style perfectly complements the period era of Black is the Color, bringing the lyricism and romanticism of Gfrorer’s prose to the fore. Black is the Color is a book as seductive as the sirens it depicts.

To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others by Daniel Pink
To Sell is HumanTo Sell Is Human offers a fresh look at the art and science of selling. As he did in Drive and A Whole New Mind, Daniel H. Pink draws on a rich trove of social science for his counterintuitive insights. He reveals the new ABCs of moving others (it’s no longer “Always Be Closing”), explains why extraverts don’t make the best salespeople, and shows how giving people an “off-ramp” for their actions can matter more than actually changing their minds.

Along the way, Pink describes the six successors to the elevator pitch, the three rules for understanding another’s perspective, the five frames that can make your message clearer and more persuasive, and much more. The result is a perceptive and practical book–one that will change how you see the world and transform what you do at work, at school, and at home.

Hip Hop Family Tree by Ed Piskor
Hip Hop Family TreeThe lore of the early days of hip hop has become the stuff of myth, so what better way to document this fascinating, epic true story than in another great American mythological medium — the comic book? From exciting young talent and self-proclaimed hip hop nerd Ed Piskor, acclaimed for his hacker graphic novel Wizzywig, comes this explosively entertaining, encyclopedic history of the formative years of the music genre that changed global culture. Originally serialized on the hugely popular website Boing Boing, The Hip Hop Family Tree is now collected in a single volume cleverly presented and packaged in a style mimicking the Marvel comics of the same era. Piskor’s exuberant yet controlled cartooning takes you from the parks and rec rooms of the South Bronx to the night clubs, recording studios, and radio stations where the scene started to boom, capturing the flavor of late-1970s New York City in panels bursting with obsessively authentic detail. With a painstaking, vigorous and engaging Ken Burns meets- Stan Lee approach, the battles and rivalries, the technical innovations, the triumphs and failures are all thoroughly researched and lovingly depicted. plus the charismatic players behind the scenes like Russell Simmons, Sylvia Robinson and then-punker Rick Rubin. Piskor also traces graffiti master Fab 5 Freddy’s rise in the art world, and Debbie Harry, Keith Haring, The Clash, and other luminaries make cameos as the music and culture begin to penetrate downtown Manhattan and the mainstream at large. Like the acclaimed hip hop documentaries Style Wars and Scratch, The Hip Hop Family Tree is an exciting and essential cultural chronicle and a must for hip hop fans, pop-culture addicts, and anyone who wants to know how it went down back in the day.

The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays by Martin Heidegger
Question Concerning TechnologyThe advent of machine technology has given rise to some of the deepest problems of modern thought. Featuring the celebrated essay “The Question Concerning Technology,” this prescient volume contains Martin Heidegger’s groundbreaking investigation into the pervasive “enframing” character of our understanding of ourselves and the world. As relevant now as ever before, this collection is an essential landmark in the philosophy of science from “one of the most profound thinkers of the twentieth century” (New York Times).

The Guy Under the Sheets: The Unauthorized Autobiography by Chris Elliott
Chris ElliottIs Chris Elliott a highly successful and beloved comedian—or a slightly dim-witted notalent from a celebrity family who managed to convince a generation of disillusioned youth that he was funny? From a ghastly childhood on the posh Upper East Side to his first job entertaining mobsters with his Judy Garland impersonation, The Guy Under the Sheets is packed with countless episodes from the life of a mediocre artist who somehow faked his way to the top—of semi-moderate fame and fortune. Woven throughout thectional fun in Elliott’s memoir are wonderful real-life anecdotes that will delight many new readers and loyal fans alike.

Pretty in Ink: North American Women Cartoonists 1896-2013 by Trina Robbins
Pretty in InkWith the 1896 publication of Rose O’Neill’s comic strip The Old Subscriber Calls, in Truth Magazine, American women entered the field of comics, and they never left it. But, you might not know that reading most of the comics histories out there. Trina Robbins has spent the last thirty years recording the accomplishments of a century of women cartoonists, and Pretty in Ink is her ultimate book, a revised, updated and rewritten history of women cartoonists, with more color illustrations than ever before, and with some startling new discoveries (such as a Native American woman cartoonist from the 1940s who was also a Corporal in the women’s army, and the revelation that a cartoonist included in all of Robbins’s previous histories was a man ) In the pages of Pretty in Ink you’ll find new photos and correspondence from cartoonists Ethel Hays and Edwina Dumm, and the true story of Golden Age comic book star Lily Renee, as intriguing as the comics she drew. Although the comics profession was dominated by men, there were far more women working in the profession throughout the 20th century than other histories indicate, and they have flourished in the 21st. Robbins not only documents the increasing relevance of women throughout the 20th century, with mainstream creators such as Ramona Fradon and Dale Messick and alternative cartoonists such as Lynda Barry, Carol Tyler, and Phoebe Gloeckner, but the latest generation of women cartoonists–Megan Kelso, Cathy Malkasian, Linda Medley, and Lilli Carre, among many others. Robbins is the preeminent historian of women comic artists; forget her previous histories: Pretty in Ink is her most comprehensive volume to date.

Written by Gabrielle

December 4, 2013 at 7:00 am

Quick Takes: Runaways by Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona

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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.

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Find Runaways at your local bookstore

Written by Gabrielle

October 8, 2013 at 6:56 am

New in Paperback for October

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It was near impossible keeping this month’s roundup short. Lots of good stuff coming out in October. Hit the bookstores! 

How to Read a Novelist by John Freeman
How to Read a NovelistFor the last fifteen years, whenever a novel was published, John Freeman was there to greet it. As a critic for more than two hundred newspapers worldwide, the onetime president of the National Book Critics Circle, and the current editor of Granta, he has reviewed thousands of books and interviewed scores of writers. In How to Read a Novelist, which pulls together his very best profiles (many of them new or completely rewritten for this volume) of the very best novelists of our time, he shares with us what he’s learned.

From such international stars as Doris Lessing, Haruki Murakami, Salman Rushdie, and Mo Yan, to established American lions such as Don DeLillo, Norman Mailer, Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson, Philip Roth, John Updike, and David Foster Wallace, to the new guard of Edwidge Danticat, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen, and more, Freeman has talked to everyone.

What emerges is an instructive and illuminating, definitive yet still idiosyncratic guide to a diverse and lively literary culture: a vision of the novel as a varied yet vital contemporary form, a portrait of the novelist as a unique and profound figure in our fragmenting global culture, and a book that will be essential reading for every aspiring writer and engaged reader—a perfect companion (or gift!) for anyone who’s ever curled up with a novel and wanted to know a bit more about the person who made it possible.

Frequencies Volume 3
TFrequencies 3he latest installment of “Frequencies” follows Norman Mailer and George Plimpton to Vienna for a staged reading of “Zelda,” based on correspondence between Ernest Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds. D. Foy tracks krump, from street-art to reality television.Plus: Antonia Crane on being down-and-out in San Francisco, and a discussion between photographer Lynn Davis and husband, Rudolph Wurlitzer.

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe
Marvel ComicsIn the early 1960s, a struggling company called Marvel Comics presented a cast of brightly costumed characters distinguished by smart banter and compellingly human flaws: Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, the X-Men. Over the course of half a century, Marvel’s epic universe would become the most elaborate fictional narrative in history and serve as a modern American mythology for millions of readers.

For the first time, Marvel Comics reveals the outsized personalities behind the scenes, including Martin Goodman, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and generations of editors, artists, and writers who struggled with commercial mandates, a fickle audience, and–over matters of credit and control–one another. Marvel Comics is a story of fertile imaginations, lifelong friendships, action-packed fistfights, and third-act betrayals–a narrative of one of the most extraordinary, beloved, and beleaguered pop-cultural entities in America’s history.

The Revolution of Every Day by Cari Luna
Revolution of Every DayIn the midnineties, New York’s Lower East Side contained a city within its shadows: a community of squatters who staked their claims on abandoned tenements and lived and worked within their own parameters, accountable to no one but each other. With gritty prose and vivid descriptions, Cari Luna’s debut novel, “The Revolution of Every Day,” imagines the lives of five squatters from that time. But almost more threatening than the city lawyers and the private developers trying to evict them are the rifts within their community. Amelia, taken in by Gerrit as a teen runaway seven years earlier, is now pregnant by his best friend, Steve. Anne, married to Steve, is questioning her commitment to the squatter lifestyle. Cat, a fading legend of the downtown scene and unwitting leader of one of the squats, succumbs to heroin. The misunderstandings and assumptions, the secrets and the dissolution of the hope that originally bound these five threaten to destroy their homes as surely as the city’s battering rams. “The Revolution of Every Day” shows readers a life that few people, including the New Yorkers who passed the squats every day, know about or understand.

What Are You Looking At?: The Surprising, Shocking, and Sometimes Strange Story of 150 Years of Modern Art by Will Gompertz
what are you looking at?In the tradition of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, art history with a sense of humor

Every year, millions of museum and gallery visitors ponder the modern art on display and secretly ask themselves, “Is this art?” A former director at London’s Tate Gallery and now the BBC arts editor, Will Gompertz made it his mission to bring modern art’s exciting history alive for everyone, explaining why an unmade bed or a pickled shark can be art—and why a five-year-old couldn’t really do it.

Rich with extraordinary tales and anecdotes, What Are You Looking At? entertains as it arms readers with the knowledge to truly understand and enjoy what it is they’re looking at.

The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf
Black SpiderIt is a sunny summer Sunday in a remote Swiss village, and a christening is being celebrated at a lovely old farmhouse. One of the guests notes an anomaly in the fabric of the venerable edifice: a blackened post that has been carefully built into a trim new window frame. Thereby hangs a tale, one that, as the wise old grandfather who has lived all his life in the house proceeds to tell it, takes one chilling turn after another, while his audience listens in appalled silence. Featuring a cruelly overbearing lord of the manor and the oppressed villagers who must render him service, an irreverent young woman who will stop at nothing, a mysterious stranger with a red beard and a green hat, and, last but not least, the black spider, the tale is as riveting and appalling today as when Jeremias Gotthelf set it down more than a hundred years ago. The Black Spider can be seen as a parable of evil in the heart or of evil at large in society (Thomas Mann saw it as foretelling the advent of Nazism), or as a vision, anticipating H. P. Lovecraft, of cosmic horror. There’s no question, in any case, that it is unforgettably creepy.

The Dark by Sergio Chejfec
The DarkOpening with the presently shut-in narrator reminiscing about a past relationship with Delia, a young factory worker,The Dark employs Chejfec’s signature style with an emphasis on the geography and motion of the mind, to recount the time the narrator spent with this multifaceted, yet somewhat absent, woman. On their daily walks he becomes privy to the ways in which the working class functions; he studies and analyzes its structure and mindset, finding it incredibly organized, self-explanatory, and even beautiful. He repeatedly attempts to apply his “book” knowledge to explain what he sees and wants to understand of Delia’s existence, and though the difference between their social classes is initially a source of great intrigue—if not obsession—he must eventually learn that there comes a point where the boundary between observer and participant can dissolve with disarming speed.

The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth by Robert Graves
White GoddessThis labyrinthine and extraordinary book, first published more than sixty years ago, was the outcome of Robert Graves’s vast reading and curious research into strange territories of folklore, mythology, religion, and magic. Erudite and impassioned, it is a scholar-poet’s quest for the meaning of European myths, a polemic about the relations between man and woman, and also an intensely personal document in which Graves explores the sources of his own inspiration and, as he believed, all true poetry.

Incorporating all of Graves’s final revisions, his replies to two of the original reviewers, and an essay describing the months of illumination in which The White Goddess was written, this is the definitive edition of one of the most influential books of our time.

Leapfrog by Guillermo Rosales
LeapfrogLeapfrog depicts one summer in the life of a very poor young boy in post-revolutionary Havana in the late ’50s. He has superhero fantasies, hangs around with the neighborhood kids, smokes cigarettes, tells very lame jokes: “By the way, do you know who died? No. Someone who was alive. Laughter.” The kids fight, discuss the mysteries of religion and sex, and play games — such as leapfrog. So vivid and so very credible, Leapfrog reads as if Rosales had simply transcribed everything that he’d heard or said for this one moving and touching book about a lost childhood.

Leapfrog was a finalist for Cuba’s prestigious Casa de las Americas award in 1968. Years later, Rosales’s sister told The Miami Herald that Rosales felt he hadn’t won the prize because his book lacked sufficient leftist fervor, and that subtle critiques of cruel children and hypocritical adults throughout the playful recollections had clearly “rankled” state officials. In the end the novel never appeared in Cuba. It was first published in Spain in 1994, a year after Rosales’s death.

Written by Gabrielle

October 1, 2013 at 6:42 am

The Difficulty of Being Jean Cocteau

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Difficulty of BeingJean Cocteau, who died at the age of 74 in 1963, was a man of many talents—a poet, a novelist, a filmmaker, and an artist. He wrote the libretto for Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex and was best known for his 1929 novel Les Enfants Terribles and the 1946 film adaptation Beauty and the Beast. After his death, in 1965, he was named the Honorary President of the Cannes Film Festival.

I once read that if you’re in a rut, creative or otherwise, you should read a biography of someone who did great things. Benjamin Franklin comes to mind, as does any social movement leader, but when I saw The Difficulty of Being, Cocteau’s collection of biographical essays—written in 1947— I was curious to know what this polymath had thought about life. As I thumbed through the copy in the bookstore, I noticed that the chapter headings read like Montaigue: “On conversation,” “On my style,” “On friendship,” “On death,” and “On beauty” are just a few.

In his introduction to Melville House’s Neversink Library edition, Geoffrey O’Brien, a critic and the Editor-in-Chief of the Library of America, notes that the book is written in “a mood of detached self-examination” and that Cocteau “makes himself his own portraitist … determined to work out some basic definitions.” He goes on to say, “It is most fundamentally a work of criticism, in which by paying close attention to his own writing process he creates a different kind of writing, opaque and deliberate.”

From my own reading, I found a poignancy in many of the questions Cocteau seeks to answer and the observations he puts on the page. Here is a very small selection of what is a great read—whether you choose to go from cover to cover or open at will.

On Reading

I cannot read or write. And when the census form asks me this question, I am tempted to say no.

Who knows how to write? It is to battle with ink to try to make oneself understood.

Either one takes too much care over one’s work or one does not take enough. Seldom does one find the happy mean that limps with grace. Reading is another matter. I read. I think I am reading. Each time I re-read, I perceive that I have not read. That is the trouble with a letter. One finds in it what one looks for. One is satisfied. One puts it aside. If one finds it again, on re-reading one reads into it another which one had not read.

Books play the same trick. If they do not suit our present mood we do not consider them good. If they disturb us we criticize them, and this criticism is superimposed upon them and prevents us from reading them fairly.

What the reader wants is to read himself. When he reads what he approves of he thinks he could have written it. He may even have a grudge against the book for taking his place, for saying what he did not know how to say, and which according to him he would have said better.

The more a book means to us the less well we read it. Our substance slips into it and thinks it round to our own outlook. That is why if I want to read and convince myself that I can read. I read books into which my substance does not penetrate. In the hospitals in which I spent long periods, I used to read what the nurse brought me or what fell into my hands by chance. … you often hear a tubercular patient say of Thomas Mann’s book The Magic Mountain: ‘That is a book one couldn’t understand if one hadn’t been tubercular.’ In fact Thomas Mann wrote it without being this and for the very purpose of making those who had not experienced tuberculosis understand it.

We are all ill and only know how to read book which deal with our malady. This is why books dealing with love are so successful, since everyone believes that he is the only one to experience it. He thinks: ‘This book is addressed to me. What can anyone else see in it?’

On the Rule of the Soul

We cannot run from place to place without losing something, suddenly move all our goods from one place to another and change our work all in a moment just as we please. Nothing takes so long over its journey as the soul, and it is slowly, if it detaches itself, that it rejoins the body. Hence those who think themselves speedy are thrown into confusion, badly reassembled, since the soul, joining them little by little and having rejoined them when they departed, is found by them to perform the same exercise in reverse. IN the end they come to believe they are, and are no longer.

The same thing applies to the discomfort of passing from one work to another, since the finished work goes on living in us and only leaves a very confused place for the new work. It is important, in regard to a journey, to wait for the body to reassemble itself and not to rely on an appearance in which only those who do not know us well can have any faith.

In regard to one’s works, it is important to wait after each one, and let the body free itself of the vapours which remain in it and which may take a long time to disperse. … In my estimation it takes a month, after a work or a journey, to regain control of one’s individuality. Until then it is in limbo. … Each time I find myself in this intermediate state, I wonder if it is permanent. It upsets me to the point of making me exaggerate the void it creates and convinces me that it will never be filled.

Here I am then between two rhythms, unbalanced, weak in body and lame in mind. Woe to him who rebels against this. An attempt to bypass it would only make things worse. … What is one to do against this fear of emptiness? It dries me up. One must forget it. I practise doing so. I go to the point of reading children’s books. I avoid any contact which might make me aware of the passing of time. I vegetate. I talk to dogs.

On Words

I attach no importance to what people call style and by which they flatter themselves that they can recognize an author. I want to be recognized by my ideas, or better still, by the results of them. All I attempt is to make myself understood as succinctly as possible. I have noticed that when a story does not grip the mind, it has shown a tendency to read too quickly, to grease its own slope. That is why, in this book, I turn my writing around, which prevents it from sliding into a straight line, makes one revise it twice over and reread the sentences so as not to lose the thread.

Whenever I read a book, I marvel at the number of words I meet in it and I long to use them. I make a note of them. When I am at work this is impossible for me. I restrict myself to my own vocabulary. I cannot get away from it, and it is so limited that the work becomes a brain-twister.

I wonder, at every line, if I can go any further, if the combination of these words that I use, always the same ones, will not end by seizing up and compelling me to hold my peace. This would be a blessing for everyone, but it is with words as with numbers, or with the letters of the alphabet. They have the faculty of rearranging themselves differently and perpetually at the end of the kaleidoscope.

Reprinted from The Difficulty of Being by Jean Cocteau; English translation ©1966 Elizabeth Sprigge; Published by Melville House

::[Links]::
Buy The Difficulty of Being from your local bookstore
Read an interview with Jean Cocteau in The Paris Review
Explore the Neversink Library collection

Written by Gabrielle

June 18, 2013 at 6:49 am

Posted in books, excerpt

Tagged with , , , , ,

Comic Book Confessionals: Marbles by Ellen Forney

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MarblesOne of my favorite genres is the comic book memoir—or graphic memoir as they are often called; Alison Bechdel’s work, Fun Home and Are You My Mother?, being the most recognizable of the group. As goes with my text-based memoir preference, the edgier the better. I want personal struggle, rock bottoms, and, although not always necessary, redemption.

A few months ago one book kept jumping out at me. Whenever I’d walk into a store I’d see its bright, sky blue cover: a woman’s face from the eyes up peaking out from the bottom edge; overhead there was a design scheme of color and grayscale-ringed circles cropped by the margins. Its odd shape—a little bit taller and a little bit wider than the average book—called for my hands every time. I’d flip through and wonder what kind of story this quirky book held.

As I turned the pages, I noticed the art varied from simple charactertures—thick outlines without much detail—to more sophisticated sketches, notably a series of self-portraits. Some pages featured imitations of notebook scraps while others were intricate diagrams, like the nine panels of prescription drugs: Klonopin, Lithium, Celexa, and so on. Each pill was recorded, along with the many side effects they had on this particular artist. That’s because Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michaelangelo, & Me is cartoonist Ellen Forney’s story of being bipolar: learning of it, learning about it, and learning how to live with it.

The book starts off with Ellen on a high. We see her in manic mode as she walks home in the snow having just gotten a full back tattoo; euphoria coursing through her veins: “My back felt warm, like I had a mild sunburn, and the warmth created a yin yang balance in the air. It was perfect. Exponentially perfect. Everything was magical and intense, and bursting with universal truth.”

Just a few pages later, a social worker Ellen has been seeing grows concerned about the sudden spike in cheer and refers her to a psychiatrist. Almost 30-years-old, Ellen receives the diagnosis: Bipolar I Disorder, her own “brilliant, unique personality was neatly outlined right there” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

What follows is Ellen’s adventure into a world of prescription pills and psychiatric help, the doses and frequencies of each fluctuating over the years. While attempting to move forward, Ellen looks to the past with new insight and examines the present for clues to her progress.

Ellen Forney.credit Jacob Peter FennellOne of the first thoughts that pops into Ellen’s mind as she sits in the doctor’s office is that she is “officially a crazy artist” and therefore outfitted with some credibility. She researches historical figures who suffered from the same affliction. First we meet some of the more obvious cases: Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, but then we learn of Edvard Munch and Mark Rothko.

Shortly after, another thought follows: “Along with my romantic preconceptions about what being a crazy artist meant, were my terrified preconceptions about what being a medicated artist meant.” In the accompanying panel, the “crazy artist” is represented by a balloon, full of air, exploding out of a cloud-like mass, while the “medicated artist” is shown as a deflated balloon, seemingly a few days old and barely afloat.

Of Van Gogh Forney asks, “What would his art have been like if he hadn’t been ‘cracked’? Was it his demons that gave his art life? Or did he work in spite of them? What if he’d been stabilized on meds? Who knows?” Where inspiration and talent come from is of perennial interest to—as well as a great source of anxiety for—creative types. Both wonder and fear permeate the pages as Ellen explores these questions.

Before reading Marbles, I had viewed bipolar with skepticism. Sure, I believed it existed but I thought it was overdiagnosed and often overblown. For those outside of the disorder, for those whom it is an abstraction, the importance—and power—of Marbles lies in Ellen’s ability to make bipolar real, to strip away the doubt of even the hardest naysayer.

“Bipolar Disorder is difficult to treat. Finding the right medications can take a long time, so bipolars may list our med histories proudly, like merit badges,” she says. The lifelong commitment to mental health and its maintenance—ongoing therapy, expensive drugs, lifestyle change—eloquently documented in Ellen’s book shows that the process is not something someone would go through if they didn’t have to.

Meanwhile, for those in the thick of bipolar, themselves having been diagnosed, Marbles offers valuable lessons: How much should one tell their therapist? What are some useful exercises for self-exploration? How does one chart progress and setbacks?

This advice is so subtle, so woven into the story, that I often wondered if it was intentional or simply a byproduct of Ellen’s focused approach.

There are many questions packed into Marbles: What is bipolar? Where is the intersection between mental illness and creativity? Does managing the former lead to a loss of the latter? Taking Forney’s book as evidence, one can answer that last question with a resounding “no.” Marbles is an important book, easily digestible, highly entertaining, and instinctively informative.

::[Links]::
Buy Marbles from your local bookstore
Ellen’s website
Ellen on NPR’s Morning Edition
Read an interview with Ellen at The Comics Reporter

Written by Gabrielle

February 19, 2013 at 6:47 am

Week in the World: Excellent Journalism Edition

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I don’t believe this is a new phenomenon but I’ve noticed an overwhelming amount of quality journalism on the Internet lately. Here are a few pieces that made me think about creative nonfiction, links to more straightforward writing articles, and, of course, television shows and podcasts for when you’re done reading.

CREATIVE NONFICTION
The Food That Ate Manhattan: The Implacable Rise of Frozen Yogurt Leaves Us Cold by Kim Velsey for The New York Observer
Frozen YogurtAnyone who knows me knows about my terrible frozen yogurt habit. I’ve memorized the locations of all the self-serve places below 14th street. I know the Tasti-d-Lites that surround the stores and coffee shops I frequent. I couldn’t go a day without it, or at least not easily. So, when I came across this fantastic article on the rise of frozen yogurt, specifically in New York City, and read its mocking, horrified tone, I was enthralled and wanted to share with everyone I knew.

It was not until one day in Union Square that I realized, in a moment of disquieting clarity, that frozen yogurt shops were everywhere. A Joyride frozen yogurt truck idled by the park, Diet Lite Ice Cream was visible just down 17th Street, and a Yelp search revealed that a Pinkberry, a Tasti D-Lite, a Red Mango, a 16 Handles, a Yoqua Bar and a Yogurberry were all within a five to 10 minute walk. None of which were deemed satisfactory by the friend at my side, who urged us on toward Flavaboom on Sixth Avenue, where one could get the nonfat flavors twisted together and heaped with cheesecake bites and cookie dough.

Nearly skipping with anticipation, she raved about frozen yogurt the whole way there. It was alarming. How could she be so into frozen yogurt? I wondered. How could anyone?

Saying Goodbye to Now by Thomas Beller for the New Yorker’s Culture Desk
CameraThomas Beller is an excellent observer. In this essay he looks at the difference between memories and photographs. At one point he asks, “Are [these memories] any more vivid to me because there are no photographs? Conversely, would photographing have taken me away and made it all less sharp in my mind?” But first he begins:

My daughter was now airborne. A flying monkey coming right at me, headfirst: straw-yellow hair, a blue skirt, blue spaghetti-strap shirt, apple cheeks, and lips garishly smudged with pink lip gloss within which is the whiteness of her bared teeth—

Stop! Right here, let’s freeze the frame. Here is an image that I will never see again, except in my memory. A girl in mid-flight, waves of green behind her, her face all bright with the colors —blue, pink, yellow, white—of joy and delight, and behind her, as though it was the place from which she had fled, an old, dignified mansion.

Right then, as she was airborne, my hand twitched and slapped my pocket, in the dim hope that I could locate my camera, pull it out, and shoot while the moment still held. But there was no camera, and anyway there was no time. I will never forget this image, though I may already be embellishing it. And you will never see it. You may picture it, but the picture itself was not taken. I had to fight off a sadness about this, because the moment, after all, was happening, and it was beautiful, and anything that detracted from my perception of that was a shame.

Deconstructed—Chris Ware’s Innovation by Steve Almond for The New Republic
Steve Almond is one of my favorite contemporary writers. I particularly like his nonfiction and usually find that his essays double as a writing lesson. In this review of Chris Ware’s epic graphic art experiment, Building Stories, Almond teaches us how to write about things of which we have no authority:

Let’s start with my qualifications as a critic of graphic novels: Putting aside an adolescent excursion into a stoner comic strip called the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, I have none. Worse yet, I tend to associate graphic novels with the regressive and haughty wing of hipsterism, the one that favors mope rock and off-brand beers. I guess what I’m getting at here is that I’m a nitwit.

There is no greater evidence of my nitwittedness (currently) than my initial reaction to the new release by the graphic novelist Chris Ware, who I have come to understand is something of a big deal in his field.

While this is totally hilarious, it is also getting at a problem that deserves attention–how do you write about something you haven’t got the slightest clue about? How do you look at a text, a work of art, a film, or listen to a piece of music and judge it, deconstruct it, and put to paper your thoughts and observations without context? Steve Almond breaks the taboo, touts his ignorance, and, inadvertently, champions the amateur.

Four hours with John McAfee by Adam Thomson for The Financial Times
McafeeThis profile of John McAfee, a tech tycoon who went on the lam after his neighbor was murdered, is a story that got really weird, really fast. The first reporting I’d read was in the Financial Times when one of their correspondents met up with him in Belize to write a profile:

There was nothing serene or tranquil about McAfee. As soon as he closed the front door, he ditched the limp and the crippled arm. Then, hands trembling, he reached for one of several cigarette packets lying on the table.”

His distress, and that of Samantha, his feisty 20-year-old Belizean girlfriend – during the interview, she accused me of being scared: “I’m young and smaller than you and I’ve got more balls” – was more than understandable given the saga that their lives had become over the previous few weeks.

Apparently, VICE magazine was there as well and gave away McAfee’s location through an iPhone photo embedded with GPS coordinates. Something McAfee is now suing them for. However, as The New York Times Decoder blog reports:

Within 36 hours, he began an aggressive campaign to court and spin coverage of his story. … Mr. McAfee seemed to understand the dynamics of journalism well enough to know which assertions reporters would pass along without double-checking or qualifying — like his claim that he had eluded the police by burying himself in sand and positioning a box over his head — even as his self-created narrative veered ever further into the surreal.

WRITING and PUBLISHING
How to Write a Book Review from Daily Writing Tips
Why Netflix Makes You a Better Writer on LitReactor
Five Dos and Don’ts for Picking an Editor by Susan J. Morris for Omnivoracious
Should You Spend Money On Publicity & Marketing? by Randy Susan Meyers for Beyond the Margins

TELEVISION and PODCASTS
GirlsFor those of you who don’t have cable, Lena Dunham’s show Girls is now available on DVD. While you’re at it, co-producer Judd Apatow’s show Freaks and Geeks (1999) is streaming on Netflix. And for his latest film, ‘This is 40,’ Apatow has been doing some interviews: The Nerdist with Chris Hardwick and Bullseye with Jesse Thorn.

Now that everyone’s caught up on Mad Men Season 5, you can listen to The Nerdist Writer’s Panel’s “Mad Men season five in review” episode with Creator and showrunner Matthew Weiner, showrunners Andre and Maria Jacquemetton, and writer Erin Levy.

Judd Apatow

Alec Baldwin spoke with Lapham’s Quarterly founder, Lewis Lapham, for his show, Here’s the Thing. Lapham has an excellent gravelly voice that makes his stories and wisdom even better, if that were possible. You can also read an interview Lewis recently conducted with Smithsonian Magazine that I meant to share last week.

To the Best of Our Knowledge spoke with autistic savant Daniel Tammet and it was mesmerizing. Daniel is one of the few people with autism who can express his thought process and explain what he experiences. To hear him tell the interviewer how he thinks was astounding.

Images: Frozen Yogurt Charms; Camera; John McAfee

Written by Gabrielle

December 18, 2012 at 6:50 am

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