Posts Tagged ‘memoir’
When you head out to the bookstore this month, keep your eye out for these new paperback titles and you won’t be disappointed.
The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
Beginning with her experience as a medical actor who was paid to act out symptoms for medical students to diagnose, Leslie Jamison’s visceral and revealing essays ask essential questions about our basic understanding of others: How should we care about each other? How can we feel another’s pain, especially when pain can be assumed, distorted, or performed? Is empathy a tool by which to test or even grade each other? By confronting pain—real and imagined, her own and others’—Jamison uncovers a personal and cultural urgency to feel. She draws from her own experiences of illness and bodily injury to engage in an exploration that extends far beyond her life, spanning wide-ranging territory—from poverty tourism to phantom diseases, street violence to reality television, illness to incarceration—in its search for a kind of sight shaped by humility and grace.
Truth’s Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel by Philip Gura
From the acclaimed cultural historian Philip F. Gura comes Truth’s Ragged Edge, a comprehensive and original history of the American novel’s first century. Grounded in Gura’s extensive consideration of the diverse range of important early novels, not just those that remain widely read today, this book recovers many long-neglected but influential writers—such as the escaped slave Harriet Jacobs, the free black Philadelphian Frank J. Webb, and the irrepressible John Neal—to paint a complete and authoritative portrait of the era. Gura also gives us the key to understanding what sets the early novel apart, arguing that it is distinguished by its roots in “the fundamental religiosity of American life.” Our nation’s pioneering novelists, it turns out, wrote less in the service of art than of morality.
Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda
Summer in Red Hook, Brooklyn, an isolated blue-collar neighborhood where hipster gourmet supermarkets push against tired housing projects. Bored and listless, fifteen-year-old June and Val take a pink plastic raft out onto the bay.
But on the water, in the humid night, the girls disappear. Only Val will survive, washed ashore, bruised and unconscious, in the weeds. The shocking event will echo through a group of unforgettable characters, including Fadi, an ambitious Lebanese bodega owner; Cree, a lost teenager who unwittingly makes himself the cops’ chief suspect; Jonathan, Julliard drop-out, barfly, and struggling high school teacher; and Val, the grieving girl who must contend with the shadow of her missing friend and a truth she holds deep inside.
Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel
Fiona Maazel’s Woke Up Lonely follows a cult leader, his ex-wife, and the four people he takes hostage. It’s about loneliness in America, North Korea, espionage, a city underneath Cincinnati, cloud seeding, and eavesdropping. It’s also a big, sweeping love story.
Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success by Adam Grant
For generations, we have focused on the individual drivers of success: passion, hard work, talent, and luck. But in today’s dramatically reconfigured world, success is increasingly dependent on how we interact with others. InGive and Take, Adam Grant, an award-winning researcher and Wharon’s highest-rated professor, examines the surprising forces that shape why some people rise to the top of the success ladder while others sink to the bottom. Praised by social scientists, business theorists, and corporate leaders, Give and Take opens up an approach to work, interactions, and productivity that is nothing short of revolutionary.
Harley Loco: A Memoir of Hard Living, Hair, and Post-Punk, from the Middle East to the Lower East Side by Rayya Elias
When Rayya Elias was seven, her family fled their native Syria to settle in Detroit. Bullied in school and rebelling against her traditional home-life, Rayya turned her sights to fashion and music. She became a hairdresser and started a band that played the club scene in the early 1980s before she moved to New York at age twenty-three to further her musical career. She lived on the Lower East Side at the height of the punk movement and had passionate affairs with both sexes, but her casual drug use turned to addiction and Rayya was often homeless—between her visits to jail. Yet, her passion for life always saved her.
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.
Ring in the New Year with these new paperbacks.
Drinking with Men by Rosie Schaap
Rosie Schaap has always loved bars: the wood and brass and jukeboxes, the knowing bartenders, and especially the sometimes surprising but always comforting company of regulars. Starting with her misspent youth in the bar car of a regional railroad, where at fifteen she told commuters’ fortunes in exchange for beer, and continuing today as she slings cocktails at a neighborhood joint in Brooklyn, Schaap has learned her way around both sides of a bar and come to realize how powerful the fellowship among regular patrons can be.
In Drinking with Men, Schaap shares her unending quest for the perfect local haunt, which takes her from a dive outside Los Angeles to a Dublin pub full of poets, and from small-town New England taverns to a character-filled bar in Manhattan’s TriBeCa. Drinking alongside artists and expats, ironworkers and soccer fanatics, she finds these places offer a safe haven, a respite, and a place to feel most like herself. In rich, colorful prose, Schaap brings to life these seedy, warm, and wonderful rooms. Drinking with Men is a love letter to the bars, pubs, and taverns that have been Schaap’s refuge, and a celebration of the uniquely civilizing source of community that is bar culture at its best.
The Wisdom of the Myths: How Greek Mythology Can Change Your Life by Luc Ferry
A fascinating new journey through Greek mythology that explains the myths’ timeless lessons and meaning.
Heroes, gods, and mortals. The Greek myths are the founding narratives of Western civilization: to understand them is to know the origins of philosophy, literature, art, science, law, and more. Indeed, as Luc Ferry shows in this masterful book, they remain a great store of wisdom, as relevant to our lives today as ever before. No mere legends or cliches (“Herculean task,” “Pandora’s box,” “Achilles heel,” etc.), these classic stories offer profound and manifold lessons, providing the first sustained attempt to answer fundamental human questions concerning “the good life,” the burden of mortality, and how to find one’s place in the world. Vividly retelling the great tales of mythology and illuminating fresh new ways of understanding them, The Wisdom of the Myths will enlighten readers of all ages.
A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World by Rachel Cantor
In the not-too-distant future, competing giant fast food factions rule the world. Leonard works for Neetsa Pizza, the Pythagorean pizza chain, in a lonely but highly surveilled home office, answering calls on his complaints hotline. It’s a boring job, but he likes it—there’s a set answer for every scenario, and he never has to leave the house. Except then he starts getting calls from Marco, who claims to be a thirteenth-century explorer just returned from Cathay. And what do you say to a caller like that? Plus, Neetsa Pizza doesn’t like it when you go off script.
Meanwhile, Leonard’s sister keeps disappearing on secret missions with her “book club,” leaving him to take care of his nephew, which means Leonard has to go outside. And outside is where the trouble starts.
A dazzling debut novel wherein medieval Kabbalists, rare book librarians, and Latter-Day Baconians skirmish for control over secret mystical knowledge, and one Neetsa Pizza employee discovers that you can’t save the world with pizza coupons.
Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life by Adam Phillips
All of us lead two parallel lives: the one we are actively living, and the one we feel we should have had or might yet have. As hard as we try to exist in the moment, the unlived life is an inescapable presence, a shadow at our heels. And this itself can become the story of our lives: an elegy to unmet needs and sacrificed desires. We become haunted by the myth of our own potential, of what we have in ourselves to be or to do. And this can make of our lives a perpetual game of falling short.
But what happens if we remove the idea of failure from the equation? With his flair for graceful paradox, the acclaimed psychoanalyst Adam Phillips suggests that if we accept frustration as a way of outlining what we really want, satisfaction suddenly becomes possible. To crave a life without frustration is to crave a life without the potential to identify and accomplish our desires.
In Missing Out, an elegant, compassionate, and absorbing book, Phillips draws deeply on his own clinical experience as well as on the works of Shakespeare and Freud, of D. W. Winnicott and William James, to suggest that frustration, not getting it, and getting away with it are all chapters in our unlived lives—and may be essential to the one fully lived.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
In Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao has decided there’s only one escape from her aching loneliness and her classmates’ bullying. But before she ends it all, Nao first plans to document the life of her great grandmother, a Buddhist nun who’s lived more than a century. A diary is Nao’s only solace—and will touch lives in ways she can scarcely imagine. Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a collection of artifacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox—possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao’s drama and her unknown fate, and forward into her own future.
Full of Ozeki’s signature humor and deeply engaged with the relationship between writer and reader, past and present, fact and fiction, quantum physics, history, and myth, A Tale for the Time Being is a brilliantly inventive, beguiling story of our shared humanity and the search for home.
Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova
No fictional character is more renowned for his powers of thought and observation than Sherlock Holmes. But is his extraordinary intellect merely a gift of fiction, or can we learn to cultivate these abilities ourselves, to improve our lives at work and at home?
We can, says psychologist and journalist Maria Konnikova, and in Mastermind she shows us how. Beginning with the “brain attic”—Holmes’s metaphor for how we store information and organize knowledge—Konnikova unpacks the mental strategies that lead to clearer thinking and deeper insights. Drawing on twenty-first-century neuroscience and psychology, Mastermind explores Holmes’s unique methods of ever-present mindfulness, astute observation, and logical deduction. In doing so, it shows how each of us, with some self-awareness and a little practice, can employ these same methods to sharpen our perceptions, solve difficult problems, and enhance our creative powers. For Holmes aficionados and casual readers alike, Konnikova reveals how the world’s most keen-eyed detective can serve as an unparalleled guide to upgrading the mind.
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 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 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
The 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
The 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
Is 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
With 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.
Born in London in 1889, legendary comic actor Charlie Chaplin grew up poor. He was the son of a singer who often found herself out of work due to poor health. Together with his older brother, Sydney, he found ways to make ends meet by following in the family’s entertaining footsteps. The two Chaplins were successful both on stage and on screen, each signing million dollar contracts at some point in their career.
Charlie Chaplin’s autobiography, simply titled My Autobiography, recently published as part of Melville House’s Neversink Library series, is a fascinating life story. Not only is it a portrait of the film industry from the early 1920s to the 60s, it’s a look at how a mixture of luck, talent, and business savvy created one of the era’s top performers.
Around 1910, Chaplin landed in New York for the first time. Here is his first impression:
At ten o’clock on a Sunday morning we at last arrived in New York. When we got off the street-car at Times Square, it was somewhat of a let-down. Newspapers were blowing about the road and pavement, and Broadway looked seedy, like a slovenly woman just out of bed. …
However, this was New York, adventurous, bewildering, a little frightening. Paris, on the other hand, had been friendlier. Even though I could not speak the language, Paris had welcomed me on every street corner with its bistros and outside cafes. But New York was essentially a place of big business. The tall skyscrapers seemd ruthlessly arrogant and to care little for the convenience of ordinary people; even the saloon bars had no place for the customers to sit, only a long brass rail to rest a foot on, and the popular eating places, though clean and done in white marble, looked cold and clinical.
I took a back room in one of the brownstone houses off Forty-third Street, where the Times building now stands. It was dismal and dirty and made me homesick for London and our little flat. In the basement was a cleaning and pressing establishment and during the week the fetid odour of clothes being pressed and steam wafted up and added to my discomfort.
That first day I felt quite inadequate. It was an ordeal to go into a restaurant and order something because of my English accent — and the fact that I spoke slowly. So many spoke in a rapid, clipped way that I felt uncomfortable for fear I might stutter and waste their time.
I was alien to the slick tempo. In New York even the owner of the smallest enterprise acts with alacrity. The shoe-black flips his polishing rag with alacrity, the bartender serves beer with alacrity, sliding it up to you along the polished surface of the bar. The soda clerk, when serving egg malted milk, performs like a hopped-up juggler. In a fury of speed he snatches up a glass, attacking everything he puts into it, vanilla flavour, blob of ice cream, two spoonfuls of malt, a raw egg which he deposits with one crack, then adding milk, all of which he shakes in a container and delivers in less than a minute.
On the Avenue that first day many looked as I felt, lone and isolated; others swaggered along as though they owned the place. The behaviour of many people seemed dour and metallic as if to be agreeable or polite would prove a weakness. But in the evening as I walked along Broadway with the crowd dressed in their summer clothes, I became reassured. We had left England in the middle of a bitter cold September and arrived in New York in an Indian summer with a temperature of eighty degrees; and as I walked along Broadway it began to light up with myriads of coloured electric bulbs and sparkled like a brilliant jewel. And in the warm night my attitude changed and the meaning of America came to me: the tall skyscrapers, the brilliant, gay lights, the thrilling display of advertisements stirred me with hope and a sense of adventure. ‘That is it!’ I said to myself. ‘This is where I belong!’
This post originally ran on Longreads, where I now contribute a monthly podcast roundup.
For a while now we’ve been hearing about the rise of television, how shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones have surpassed the film industry when people think of quality viewing experiences. Gone are the days where writers and actors dreamed of making it big in pictures, now talent is flocking to small screen.
Here are some recent interviews that will be of interest to those who like to dig deeper.
A recent panel discussion on WBUR’s On Point featured Lynda Obst, a film and television producer whose credits include “Sleepless in Seattle” and whose recent book, Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business, chronicles the recent changes in the movie industry—big blockbusters becoming more common with smaller films barely being made. Alongside Obst, sometimes arguing, sometimes agreeing, was Sharon Waxman, CEO and EIC of TheWrap.com, a site that covers Hollywood and film industry.
Still making small films, however, is Sofia Coppola. This summer she’s back with The Bling Ring, a film based on the real life events of a group of California teenagers obsessed with celebrities; so much so that they break into stars’ homes. Sofia spoke with host Elvis Mitchell about making a true crime film and her filmmaking career so far.
Mad Men just wrapped up its sixth season and has one more to go before it’s off the air for good. Terry Gross spoke with Elisabeth Moss, better known as Peggy, about the evolution of her character, how she came to be an actress, and how much she knows about the show’s direction before shooting an episode.
Another excellent show currently on television is Sons of Anarchy, the story of a biker gang in California’s Central Valley, running drugs, guns, and their small town. “Jax” Teller, one of the heads of the club is played by Charlie Hunnam who, in real life, turns out to be British. In this interview with Chris Hardwick he talks about being approached by real bikers, his life growing up in a working-class town in North East England, and what it’s like to play a character for so many years.
Something that’s starting to get a lot of attention these days are web shows. One show that’s doing particularly well is The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which, according the series’ site, “is a modernized adaptation of the classic Jane Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice” with the story told primarily through the lead character Lizzie Bennet‘s video diary entries.
Nerdist Writer’s Panel host Ben Blacker sat down with co-creator Bernie Su, writers Margaret Dunlap, Rachel Kiley, and Kate Rorick, and writer/transmedia guy Jay Bushman to talk about the impetus for the series and how it gets made.
Bonus: Orange is the New Black
I’ve started watching the new Netflix series, Orange is the New Black, a show based on author Piper Kerman’s memoir by the same name which tells the story about the 15 months she spent in prison for a small part she played in a drug smuggling ring. Orange stars Terry Schilling as Piper; Jason Biggs as her fiancée; Laura Prepon of That 70s Show as Alex Vause, Piper’s ex-girlfriend who introduced her to smuggling; and Natasha Lyonne of Slums of Beverly Hills, But I’m a Cheerleader, and American Pie as the ex-junkie inmate who knows how to get along on the inside.
You can read an excerpt from Kerman’s book on Salon, an interview with her on The Los Angeles Times about having her book made into a show, and an interview from 2012 about the book on The Rumpus. Piper even learned a few tips that you can apply to your worklife and shared them with Fast Company. Then, check out the two books Natasha Lyonne believes capture prison life.
Jean 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.
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.
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
Here are just some of the paperbacks coming out in March that I can’t wait to read.
Crapalachia: A Biography of Place by Scott McClanahan
A colorful and elegiac coming-of-age story that announces Scott McClanahan as a resounding, lasting talent.
We Have Only This Life to Live: Selected Essays, 1939–1975 by Jean-Paul Sartre, edited by Ronald Aronson and Adrian van den Hoven
Philosopher, novelist, playwright, biographer, journalist, and activist, Jean-Paul Sartre was also—and perhaps above all—a great essayist. The essay was uniquely suited to Sartre because of its intrinsically provisional and open-ended character. It is the perfect form in which to dramatize the existential character of our deepest intellectual, artistic, and political commitments. This new selection of Sartre’s essays, the first in English to draw on the entire ten volumes of his collected essays as well as previously unpublished work, includes extraordinarily searching appreciations of such writers and artists as Faulkner, Bataille, and Giacometti; Sartre’s great address to the French people at the end of the occupation, “The Republic of Silence”; sketches of the United States from his visit in the 1940s; reflections on politics that are both incisive and incendiary; portraits of Camus and Merleau-Ponty; and a candid reckoning with his own career from one of the interviews that ill-health made his prime mode of communication late in life.
The Bone Man by Wolf Haas
At a wildly popular chicken shack in the Austrian countryside, where snooty Viennese gourmands go to indulge their secret passion for fried chicken, a gruesome discovery is made in the pile of chicken bones waiting to be fed into the basement grinder: human bones.
But when private eye Simon Brenner shows up to investigate, the manager of the restaurant, who hired him, has disappeared … while the owner of the place urges him to stay on and eat chicken.
Brenner likes chicken, so he stays, but as he waits for the manager, he discovers that the bucolic countryside is full of suspicious types: prostitutes, war profiteers, unsavory art dealers, Slavic soccer champs with dubious pasts — and at least one rather grisly murderer. And the more Brenner looks into things, the more it dawns on him that there’s a cleaver somewhere with his name on it.
Donnybrook by Frank Bill*
The Donnybrook is a three-day bare-knuckle tournament held on a thousand-acre plot out in the sticks of southern Indiana. Twenty fighters. One wire-fence ring. Fight until only one man is left standing while a rowdy festival of onlookers—drunk and high on whatever’s on offer—bet on the fighters.
As we travel through the backwoods to get to the Donnybrook, we meet a cast of nasty, ruined characters driven to all sorts of evil, all in the name of getting their fix—drugs, violence, sex, money, honor. Donnybrook is exactly the fearless, explosive, amphetamine-fueled journey you’d expect from Frank Bill’s first novel . . . and then some.
Speedboat by Renata Adler, afterword by Guy Trebay
When Speedboat burst on the scene in the late ’70s it was like nothing readers had encountered before. It seemed to disregard the rules of the novel, but it wore its unconventionality with ease. Reading it was a pleasure of a new, unexpected kind. Above all, there was its voice, ambivalent, curious, wry, the voice of Jen Fain, a journalist negotiating the fraught landscape of contemporary urban America. Party guests, taxi drivers, brownstone dwellers, professors, journalists, presidents, and debutantes fill these dispatches from the world as Jen finds it.
A touchstone over the years for writers as different as David Foster Wallace and Elizabeth Hardwick, Speedboat returns to enthrall a new generation of readers.
The Comics Journal #302 edited by Gary Groth
In his longest published interview, Sendak looks back over a career spanning over 60 years and talks to Gary Groth about art, life, and death (especially death), how his childhood, his parents, and his siblings affected his art and outlook, his search for meaning — and also, on the lighter side, about his love (and hate) of movies. Kim Thompson conducts a career-spanning interview with French graphic novel pioneer Jacques Tardi. Art Spiegelman conducts a wide-ranging aesthetic colloquy on classic kids’ comics with a group of comics critics and historians. Michael Dooley moderates a roundtable discussion with Robert Williams, Joe Coleman, Marc Bell, and Esther Pearl Watson about the relationship between fine art and comics. Bob Levin provides a revelatory investigation of the twisted history of the Keep on Truckin’ litigation and a fascinating biographical portrait of R. Crumb’s lawyer, Albert Morse. The Comics Journal has been for 37 years the world’s foremost critical magazine about comics.
Solo Pass by Ronald De Feo
A dark yet often funny novel narrated by a man who, for the past two months, has been a patient at a New York City mental ward. Having suffered a breakdown—due to his shattered marriage and an irrational fear of fading away as a human—he now finds himself caught between two worlds, neither of which is a place of comfort or fulfillment: the world of the ward, where abnormality and an odd sort of freedom reign, and the outside world, where convention and restrictive behavior rule. Finally on his way to becoming reasonably “normal” again, he requests and is granted a “solo pass,” which allows him to leave the (locked) ward for several hours and visit the city, with the promise that he will return to the hospital by evening.
As he prepares for his excursion, we get a picture of the ward he will temporarily leave behind—the staff and the patients, notably Mandy Reid, a schizophrenic and nymphomaniac who has become his closest friend there. Solo Pass is an unsettling satire that depicts, with inverted logic, the difficulties of madness and normalcy.
Messages in a Bottle: Comic Book Stories by B. (Bernard) Krigstein; Greg Sadowski (Editor); Marie Severin (IK)
Bernard Krigstein began his career as an unremarkable journeyman cartoonist during the 1940s and finished it as a respected fine artist and illustrator Krigstein’s legend rests mostly on the 30 or so stories he created for the EC Comics, but dozens of stories drawn for other, lesser publishers such as Rae Herman, Hillman, and Atlas (which would become Marvel) showcase his skills and radical reinterpretation of the comics page, in particular his groundbreaking slicing and dicing of time lapses through a series of narrow, nearly animated panels. This edition reprints the out-of-print 2004 hardcover B. Krigstein Comics, with a number of stories re-tooled and improved in terms of reproduction, and several new stories added.
*Disclaimer: Donnybrook is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, an imprint of Macmillan. I’m a publicist with Picador, also an imprint of Macmillan. I included Donnybrook for no other reason other than it looks awesome.
One 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.
One 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.
As a New Yorker, every day I pass homeless people on the street, sometimes a group of them before I leave my neighborhood. One man sits on the corner store steps, babbling to himself, wasting away, dirty, feral; another, a young man, a little too friendly for comfort, asks what time it is and how I’m doing. A lifetime of training keeps me from making eye contact. Then there’s a woman who travels with these men, mumbling as she picks through garbage, wearing a thick wool hat, even in summer. Many times I’ve seen her with bruises on her face–from beatings, from a hard life, who knows. In the East Village, crust punks line the brick wall outside of McDonald’s–alternating between nodding off and begging for change. On the west side of town, a homeless poet hawks his work, boasting having once been published in The New York Times.
I’ve never pay them much mind, other than when they’ve gone too long without a bath, their meds, or a stretch of sobriety. With the poet on the street, I’ve walked by him so many times I can repeat his pitch, but never once have I considered that his writing might actually be good. Luckily, there are people like George Bernard Shaw in the world and every so often the talents of these unlikely characters are discovered.
In 1905, Shaw received an unsolicited manuscript delivered from a place called The Farm House, located in London. It was not unusual for him to receive aspiring writers’ work and, although undoubtedly busy with his own writing, “knowing how much these little books mean to their authors,” he felt bad if any of them went unread. This is how W.H. Davies, a poet and a tramp, was given a chance.
Based on the letters that often came with the manuscripts, Shaw would assess the nature of the sending author or publisher. However, when he held Davies’ book, he “could not place him. There were no author’s compliments, no publisher’s compliments … The author, as far as I could guess, had walked into a printer’s or stationer’s shop; handed him a manuscript; and ordered his book as he might have ordered a pair of boots.” Furthermore, in his letter, Davies asked for the price of half a crown or the return of the book.
After discerning that the author was “a real poet,” finding his work free from “literary vulgarity,” and considering it “like a draught of clear water in a desert,” Shaw sent money, along with professional advice–that one cannot make a living on poetry alone. But he didn’t stop there, he sent additional money along with a list of critics with instructions for Davies to send his collection to them as well. Shaw wondered if they would “recognize a poet when they met one.”
The Farm House was one of many public houses where Davies stayed during his time traveling up and down the East Coast of America, visiting the South and Midwest, and occasionally returning to England. These years, 1893 to 1899, are recorded in his memoir, The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, first published in 1908 and reissued by Melville House in their Neversink Library series.
Although born and raised in Wales, it was The United States that Davies set his sights on and, despite receiving a weekly sum from his grandmother’s inheritance, he chose to travel as a hobo: hopping trains, sleeping in the elements, begging for food, and cohorting with unstable characters.
The book starts with a brief survey of Davies’ childhood. His father died when he was young, his mother remarried, and his brother was, as Davies called him in those pre-PC days, an “imbecile.” Davies’ family had a “great interest in pugilism” and encouraged his fighting. However, possibly altering the course of his life, his friend Dave introduced him to the joys of reading.
Through him I became a reader, in the first place with an idea of emulating his cleverness, which led to a love of literature for its own self. Of course I began with the common penny novel of the worst type, but acquired a taste for better work in a shorter time than boys usually do.
It’s this familiarity with physical abuse mixed with a sharp mind that helps Davies’ navigate the inhumane conditions and life-threatening situations he encounters.
Throughout The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, Davies writes his fellow travelers–and experiences–so large, the book often reads like a novel. The first person we meet is Brum, a quirky tramp with a keen business sense, a “notorious beggar.” Together, he and Davies “beat” from New York City to Chicago, the former playing the tutor to the latter as they look for suitable winter lodging and migrant work.
Through these companions, Davies learns to manipulate the Midwestern prison system for a warm place to stay; he witnesses firsthand the dangers of picking fruit in fields shared with snakes; and what comes to those who keep their money visible. His travels through the South bring him face to face with lynchings; meanwhile in Canada he finds “a kind-hearted race of people.”
Davies’ keen observations make The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp a work of cultural commentary, capturing a moment in history as seen from the ground. It’s How the Other Half Lives meets On the Road, one of those books that opens your eyes, changes your perspective, and makes you reconsider the world as you know it.
Welcome to 2013. To kick off the new year, here are a few paperbacks coming out in January that have caught my eye. As always, feel free to add your picks in the comments.
The Heroin Chronicles edited by Jerry Stahl
The latest entry in the Akashic Drug Chronicles Series, featuring brand-new stories by: Eric Bogosian, Lydia Lunch, Jerry Stahl, Nathan Larson, Ava Stander, Antonia Crane, Gary Phillips, Jervey Tervalon, John Albert, Michael Albo, Sophia Langdon, Tony O’Neill, and L.Z. Hansen.
Me and Mr. Booker by Cory Taylor
Looking back, Martha could’ve said no when Mr. Booker first tried to kiss her. That would’ve been the sensible thing to do. But Martha is sixteen, she lives in a small dull town — a cemetery with lights — her father is mad, her home is stifling, and she’s waiting for the rest of her life to begin. Of course Martha would kiss the charming Englishman who brightened her world with style, adventure, whiskey, cigarettes and sex. But Martha didn’t count on the consequences. Me and Mr. Booker is a story about feeling old when you’re young and acting young when you’re not.
Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
The Crescent Moon Kingdoms, home to djenn and ghuls, holy warriors and heretics, are at the boiling point of a power struggle between the iron- fisted Khalif and the mysterious master thief known as the Falcon Prince. In the midst of this brewing rebellion a series of brutal supernatural murders strikes at the heart of the Kingdoms. It is up to a handful of heroes to learn the truth behind these killings.
Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, “the last real ghul hunter in the great city of Dhamsawaat,” just wants a quiet cup of tea. Three score and more years old, he has grown weary of hunting monsters and saving lives, and is more than ready to retire from his dangerous and demanding vocation. But when an old flame’s family is murdered, Adoulla is drawn back to the hunter’s path.
Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia by Jose Manuel Prieto
Thelonius Monk (not his real name) travels to Russia and meets Linda Evangelista (not her real name) in Saint Petersburg. They journey to Yalta, where he promises that he will make her red hair famous in the fashion magazines. In fact, he’s drafting a novel about her—his notes for the novel comprise this Encyclopedia. Thelonious and Linda think of themselves as avatars of consumer culture, navigating the border between art and commerce during the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. Unwittingly they parody Russian fascination with America and its fixation on beauty and celebrity. Their conversations combine advertisement copy and art criticism, their personalities are both bohemian and commercial, and their aspirations revolve around frivolity and enchantment.
Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia is a novel that defies chronology and conformity, and finds the sublime in the trivial, ranging from meditations on Bach and Dostoyevsky to Italian alligator shoes and toothpaste.
My Autobiography by Charlie Chaplin
Chaplin’s heartfelt and hilarious autobiography tells the story of his childhood, the challenge of identifying and perfecting his talent, his subsequent film career and worldwide celebrity.
In this, one of the very first celebrity memoirs, Chaplin displays all the charms, peculiarities and deeply-held beliefs that made him such an endearing and lasting character.
Re-issued as part of Melville House’s Neversink Library, My Autobiography offers dedicated Chaplin fans and casual admirers alike an astonishing glimpse into the the heart and the mind of Hollywood’s original genius maverick.
Castle Waiting, a graphic fable by Linda Medley
Castle Waiting is the story of an isolated, abandoned castle, and the eccentric inhabitants who bring it back to life. A fable for modern times, it is a fairy tale that’s not about rescuing the princess, saving the kingdom, or fighting the ultimate war between Good and Evil — but about being a hero in your own home. The opening chapter tells the origin of the castle itself, which is abandoned by its princess in a comic twist on “Sleeping Beauty” when she rides off into the sunset with her Prince Charming. The castle becomes a refuge for misfits, outcasts, and others seeking sanctuary, playing host to a lively and colorful cast of characters that inhabits the subsequent stories, including a talking anthropomorphic horse, a mysteriously pregnant Lady on the run, and a bearded nun.
Testing the Current by William Mcpherson
Growing up in a small upper Midwestern town in the late 1930s, young Tommy MacAllister is scarcely aware of the Depression, much less the rumblings of war in Europe. For his parents and their set, life seems to revolve around dinners and dancing at the country club, tennis dates and rounds of golf, holiday parties, summers on the Island, and sparkling occasions full of people and drinks and food and laughter. But curious as he is and impatient to grow up, Tommy will soon come to glimpse the darkness that lies beneath so much genteel complacency: hidden histories and embarrassing poor relations; the subtle (and not so subtle) slighting of the “help”; the mockery of President Roosevelt; and “the commandment they talked least about in Sunday school,” adultery.
Retail: many of us have been there, most of us survived, only few unscathed. Not My Bag is comic book artist Sina Grace’s autobiographical tale of clothing store misadventure, his brief stint in selling women’s apparel.
Grace begins his comic by asking, “What are we afraid of?” A cartoon image of him stands against a black background. He’s small, unsure. In the next panel there are two. The second Sina is wearing a suit and a smirk. In the following panel he admits, “I’m afraid of myself.” We soon learn the source of his anxiety, “What if being an artist isn’t in the cards for me?” This is a story of identity and what happens when our expectations don’t match our reality.
After a minor car accident that did more damage to his hybrid than anything else, Sina finds himself in debt to the insurance company. Shortly after he applies for a job at the local mall department store and is hired as a sales associate selling women’s clothes.
From the start we see that Sina is an overachiever; in the training session he offers the history of the company and within weeks spends hours studying the clothing line. Before too long he’s able to distinguish the different styles of stretch pants by sight alone. But, as with all ambitious types, this is not enough. He hopes to gain enough experience to “move over to a boutique, where [he] believed in the designer, where [he] saw the clothes as art pieces.”
Although it’s obvious that Sina likes clothes—he spends $800 on an Alexander McQueen wool fringe coat and takes pride in the accessories used to jazz up his work attire—retail is not where he’s supposed to be. It’s his art that is his true passion and both his boyfriend, only known to us as “The Lawyer,” and his friend, a fellow comic book artist, ask if he would rather not focus on his comics. The stress from juggling these two lives comes to a head when Comic-Con and a meeting with corporate headquarters collide.
Sina’s psychological decline becomes visible. In one scene we see him curled up on his boyfriend’s lap, lacking the energy to stay awake during a television show. Their “date nights” have gone from dinner and a movie to re-runs on the couch.
All the melodrama of working in retail is on display in Not My Bag, from an evil boss whose nature is depicted through grotesque facial renderings to the silent competition of fellow coworkers. More importantly, however, Not My Bag is a warning, it shows what happens when one forgoes their passion and, at best, chases after someone else’s dream.
Anyone familiar with Choose Your Own Adventure books—the stories written in the second person where middle grade readers, after a few paragraphs, are given options as to how they’d like the character to proceed—will take one glance at Love is Not Constantly Wondering If You Are Making the Biggest Mistake of Your Life and wonder if someone is playing a trick on them. Or at least that’s what I thought when I first saw a copy in the bookstore.
The book was placed prominently at the checkout counter and as the bookseller was ringing me up I couldn’t resist. “I used to love these,” I said. As I picked it up and thumbed through I asked, “did you ever read these?” Unfortunately for the bookseller, he hadn’t experienced the wonders of these fantastic little books as a kid; and, unfortunately for me he was of little help when, to my confusion, I noticed a long string of curses on one of the pages. “I think it’s a joke,” he mumbled, or something to that effect. Not sure what to make of it, I put the book back on the display but by then it had already made an impression. The cover, so convincing in its authenticity, juxtaposed with its content, unsettlingly askew, was seared into memory.
It turns out that Love is Not Constantly Wondering isn’t a joke but a parody, a well-crafted and endearing one at that. Self-published anonymously by a 33-year-old Portland transplant, the story is based on the author’s real relationship with his alcoholic girlfriend, a time spanning from August 2002 to November 2006. His anonymity is to protect his parents from the tumultuous parts of his life as well as identity of the hard-drinking girl, Anne.
However, to his friends who will recognize him in those pages, he hopes they will now understand that the years spent with this girl, the years they spent wondering why he was putting himself through such pain, were not all bad, that there were some good moments, too, and, as Slate reported, that there was an “excitement that went hand in hand with the mess.”
To digress with a bit of interesting information, It was that Slate review that gave the book a new life. While in Portland, the Book Review Editor Dan Kois found the book at Powell’s and decided to write about it. The third printing is now being handled by the author’s friend who owns a small press. But back to the book.
I can’t speculate as to why the author decided to include a race of hostile Ant-Warriors, other than it fits with the Choose Your Own Adventure genre—the first book in the (real) series features an adventure trip to the Himalayas where you and a friend go in search of a Yeti. Intentional or not, the alien race adds to the already inhospitable landscape in which the protagonist finds himself. As often comes with addict friends, if you keep them in your life long enough, you’re bound to bear the brunt of their erratic behavior, the consequences of their poor choices, and possibly even get caught up in their legal troubles, depending on your patience and goodwill.
Unlike the series it’s based on, Love is Not Constantly Wondering is best read linearly. These choices at the bottom of the page are more for effect than instruction. They range from being abstractly related to the story to being wildly unrelated. From time to time I would g back and follow a few—“If you jump across the chasm, turn to April 26, 2006; If you decide to turn back and look for another way around, turn to June 29, 2003”—and found that even though it’s a short book, when you bounce back and forth through time, reading the story in this new order gives it an infinite feel.
In a recent interview with The Portland Mercury, the author discussed the importance of creating an authentic replication. “Producing authentic-looking zines and books is incredibly important to me. With Love I spent weeks researching how Choose Your Own Adventure books were constructed: the fonts, the amount of space between lines, the kerning, how the choices are laid out within the books.” There can be little doubt that this meticulous attention to detail pays off; even the illustrations closely mimic the originals.
As mentioned, Choose Your Own Adventure narratives are written in the second-person and so Love is Not Constantly Wondering begins:
It is a beautiful day. You walk up the stairs to the library. There is a girl sitting on the steps, smoking. She is pretty in a Virginia-Woolf-meets-Helena-Bonham-Carter-in-Fight-Club sort of way. You exchange, “I think you look interesting but I’ll be damned if I’m going to make the first move” glances, then pull the doors open and step inside.
While looking at movies you see her staring at you. And again while flipping through a pile of graphic novels. Every time you look up, she looks away. Every time she looks up, you look away. You find excuses not to leave, browsing through sections that hold no interest to you in order to prolong your opportunity to steal glances. Eventually you decide that this is getting ridiculous and you walk up to her and introduce yourself. Here is what you find out:
–Her name is Anne.
–She is 22 years old.
–She just moved here from North Carolina.
–She plays the cello.
–She is a stripper
As odd as it might sound given that the book is something of a replica, Love is Not Constantly Wondering is by far one of the most unique books I’ve read in my life (no hyperbole). It’s charming and fun, and I hope destine to become a cult classic. It’s one of those books you’ll want all your friends to read. When you find a copy (and I suggest you search high and low), buy a few and pass them around to everyone you know. It will not be the biggest mistake of your life.
July is an exciting month in the world of paperbacks. These are the new releases I’m looking forward to seeing hit the bookstores in the next few days. Look for them as you wander around the front tables this weekend. The comments are open below, what paperback releases are you looking forward to?
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar
by Cheryl Strayed
Life can be hard: your lover cheats on you; you lose a family member; you can’t pay the bills—and it can be great: you’ve had the hottest sex of your life; you get that plum job; you muster the courage to write your novel. Sugar—the once-anonymous online columnist at The Rumpus, now revealed as Cheryl Strayed, author of the bestselling memoir Wild—is the person thousands turn to for advice.
Tiny Beautiful Things brings the best of Dear Sugar in one place and includes never-before-published columns and a new introduction by Steve Almond. Rich with humor, insight, compassion—and absolute honesty—this book is a balm for everything life throws our way.
The Nervous System
by Nathan Larson
After a series of large-scale terrorist attacks, New York City is reduced to a shadow of its former self. As the city struggles to dig itself out of the wreckage, a nameless, obsessive-compulsive veteran with a spotty memory, a love for literature, and a strong if unique moral code has taken up residence at the Main Branch of the New York Public Library. Dubbed “Dewey Decimal” for his desire to reorganize the library’s stock, he gets by as bagman and muscle for unscrupulous politicians and underworld figures—as detailed in the first book in this series, The Dewey Decimal System.
In The Nervous System, Decimal, attempting to clean up loose ends after the violent events in the first book, stumbles upon information concerning the gruesome murder of a prostitute and a prominent US senator’s involvement. Immediately he finds himself chasing ghosts and fighting for his life, pursued by Blackwater-style private military contractors and the ever-present specter of his own past. Decimal confronts a twilight world of Korean hostess bars, childhood bogeymen, and the face of the military-industrial complex gone haywire—all framed by a city descending toward total chaos.
The Future Is Not Ours: New Latin American Fiction
by Diego Trelles Paz (Editor); Janet Hendrickson (Translator)
The Future Is Not Ours: New Latin American Fiction brings together twenty-three Latin American writers who were born between 1970 and 1980. The anthology offers an exciting overview of contemporary Spanish-language literature and introduces a generation of writers who came of age in the time of military dictatorships, witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, the birth of the Internet, the murders of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and the September 11th attacks in New York City.
The anthology features: Oliverio Coelho, Federico Falco, and Samanta Schweblin (Argentina); Giovanna Rivero (Bolivia); Santiago Nazarian (Brazil); Juan Gabriel Vásquez and Antonio Ungar (Colombia); Ena Lucía Portela (Cuba); Lina Meruane, Andrea Jeftanovic, and Alejandro Zambra (Chile); Ronald Flores (Guatemala); Tryno Maldonado and Antonio Ortuño (México); María del Carmen Pérez Cuadra (Nicaragua); Carlos Wynter Melo (Panama); Daniel Alarcón and Santiago Roncagliolo (Peru); Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro (Puerto Rico); Ariadna Vásquez (Dominican Republic); Ignacio Alcuri and Inés Bortagaray (Uruguay); and Slavko Zupcic (Venezuela).
by Enrique Vila-Matas; Anne McLean (Translator); Anna Milsom (Translator)
Dublinesque opens with a renowned and retired literary publisher’s dream: he finds himself in Dublin, a city he’s never visited, and the mood is full of passion and despair. Afterwards he’s obsessed with the dream, and brings three of the writers he published on a trip to the same cemetery where Paddy Dignam was buried in James Joyce’s Ulysses, where they hold a funeral for “The Gutenberg Age.” And then he notices that he’s being shadowed by a mysterious man who looks exactly like Samuel Beckett…
In this witty and poignant novel, perhaps his finest yet, Enrique Vila-Matas traces a journey that connects the worlds of Joyce and Beckett and all they symbolize: great literature and evidence of the difficulties faced by literary authors, publishers, and good readers, their struggle to survive in a society where literature is losing influence.
Your Voice in My Head: A Memoir
by Emma Forrest
Emma Forrest’s memoir was called “a journey of healing” by Interview magazine and “a beautifully written eulogy for the doctor she credits with saving her life” by Los Angeles Magazine. The book received acclaim from reviewers across the country, the movie rights were snatched up quickly, and Emma herself enchanted audiences at readings in New York and Los Angeles. Brave, brilliantly written, and anchored in the reality of everyday life, Your Voice in My Head is destined to become a classic of the genre.
An excerpt at The Guardian
Emma’s essay in The New York Times
Emma’s essay in The Paris Review
Emma’s Book Notes piece for the soundtrack to Your Voice
Maud Newton reviews Your Voice in My Head at The Awl
An interview with Interview Magazine
An interview with Ron Hogan
The No Variations: Journal of an Unfinished Novel
by Luis Chitarroni; Rhett McNeil (Translator)
A cryptic, self-negating series of notes for an unfinished work of fiction, this astonishing book is made up of ideas for characters and plot points, anecdotes and tales, literary references both real and invented, and populated by an array of fictional authors and their respective literary cliques, all of whom sport multiple pseudonyms, publish their own literary journals, and produce their own ideas for books, characters, poems . . . A dizzying look at the ugly backrooms of literature, where aesthetic ambitions are forever under siege by petty squabbles, long-nurtured grudges, envied or undeserved prizes, bankrupt publishers, and self-important critics, The No Variations is a serious game, or perhaps a frivolous tragedy, with the author and his menagerie of invented peers fighting to keep their feelings of futility at bay. A literary cousin to David Markson and César Aira,The No Variations is one of the great “novels” of contemporary Latin American literature.
The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution
by Keith Devlin
Leonardo of Pisa—better known today as Fibonacci—was the first Westerner to recognize the power of the Hindu-Arabic number system (featuring the numerals 0 through 9), which offered a much simpler method of calculation than the finger reckoning and cumbersome Roman numerals used at the time. His book Liberabbaci (The book of Calculation) remade the West as the dominant force in science, technology, and large-scale international commerce. Leonardo of Pisa is best known today for discovering the Fibonacci sequence of numbers appearing in biological structures throughout nature, but despite the ubiquity of his discoveries, he has largely slipped from the pages of history. Keith Devlin, NPR’s “Math Guy,” re-creates the life and enduring legacy of this brilliant yet overlooked mathematician.
These forthcoming paperbacks, a mixture of originals and reprints, are sure to keep your June a busy one.
The Sense of an Ending *2011 Man Booker winner*
by Julian Barnes
A novel so compelling that it begs to be read in a single setting, The Sense of an Ending has the psychological and emotional depth and sophistication of Henry James at his best, and is a stunning new chapter in Julian Barnes’s oeuvre.
This intense novel follows Tony Webster, a middle-aged man, as he contends with a past he never thought much about—until his closest childhood friends return with a vengeance: one of them from the grave, another maddeningly present. Tony thought he left this all behind as he built a life for himself, and his career has provided him with a secure retirement and an amicable relationship with his ex-wife and daughter, who now has a family of her own. But when he is presented with a mysterious legacy, he is forced to revise his estimation of his own nature and place in the world.
What Happened to Sophie Wilder
by Christopher Beha
Charlie Blakeman is living in New York, on Washington Square, struggling to write his second novel and floundering, when his college love, Sophie Wilder, returns to his life. Sophie, too, is struggling, though Charlie isn’t sure why. They’ve spoken only rarely since falling out a decade before. Now Sophie begins to tell Charlie the story of her life since then, particularly the days she spent taking care of a dying man with his own terrible past and the difficult decision he presented her with. When Sophie once again abruptly disappears, Charlie sets out to discover what happened to Sophie Wilder.
Christopher R. Beha is an associate editor at Harper’s Magazine and the author of a memoir, The Whole Five Feet. He contributes frequently to the New York Times Book Review. What Happened to Sophie Wilder is his first novel.
by Sergio Chejfec
When he reads about a mysterious explosion in the distant countryside, the narrator’s thoughts turn to his disappeared childhood friend, M, who was abducted from his home years ago, during a spasm of political violence in Buenos Aires in the early 1970s. He convinces himself that M must have died in this explosion, and he begins to tell the story of their friendship through a series interconnected vignettes, hoping in this way to reanimate his friend and relive the time they spent together wandering the streets of Buenos Aires.
Sergio Chejfec’s The Planets is an affecting and innovative exploration of mourning, remembrance, and friendship by one of Argentina’s modern masters.
Sergio Chejfec, originally from Argentina, has published numerous works of fiction, poetry, and essays. He teaches in the Creative Writing in Spanish Program at NYU.
edited by Colin Channer
Original stories by: Marlon James, Kwame Dawes, Patricia Powell, Roger Guenveur Smith, Colin Channer, Marcia Douglas, Leone Ross, Kei Miller, Christopher John Farley, Ian Thomson, Thomas Glave, and others.
Kingston is like Jo’burg, Rio, or New Orleans: a place of fascinating beauty and startling poverty. Located on one of the biggest (and grayest) harbors in the world and ringed by low green hills, this city of over a million likes to get its ganja from the farm to the table. It also likes its shagging one of two ways–drive-thru or buffet-style. It was founded by the survivors of a quake that sunk a pirate town. What should you expect? The ghettos of Kingston gave us ska, reggae, hip hop, dancehall, and Rastafarianism. It also gave us that rugged indie movie The Harder They Come. With over 500 murders a year for the last twenty years, the city’s nickname of “Killsome” is well earned. When he wrote “Concrete Jungle,” Marley had this city on his mind.
Dispatch from the Future Poems
by Leigh Stein
Uncanny yet lyrical, these poems go from the darkest side of Facebook to the remotest corner of the desert. Through online dating, beauty pageants, Greek mythology, and road trips, Stein weaves a tapestry of young women in love and in longing. Post-confessional, like Sylvia Plath raised on MTV, or Anne Sexton on Twitter, Stein knows how to draw readers in with a narrative hook, or a pop culture reference. This irreverent collection points the way to what contemporary poetry can be.
Check out a five-part interview with Leigh Stein at HTMLGiant for her novel The Fallback Plan: Part I, Part II, Part III & IV, Part V
Leigh Stein’s music playlist for her debut novel, The Fallback Plan
by Stefan Zweig, introduction by George Prochnik, translated from the German by Anthea Bell
A young man who is rapidly going to the dogs in Berlin is packed off by his father to a university in a sleepy provincial town. There a brilliant lecture awakens in him a wild passion for learning—as well as a peculiarly intense fascination with the graying professor who gave the talk. The student grows close to the professor, becoming a regular visitor to the apartment he shares with his much younger wife. He takes it upon himself to urge his teacher to finish the great work of scholarship that he has been laboring at for years and even offers to help him in any way he can. The professor welcomes the young man’s attentions, at least on some days. On others, he rages without apparent reason or turns away from his disciple with cold scorn. The young man is baffled, wounded. He cannot understand.
Stefan Zweig (1881–1942), novelist, biographer, poet, and translator, was born in Vienna into a wealthy Austrian Jewish family. During the 1930s, he was one of the best-selling writers in Europe, and was among the most translated German-language writers before the Second World War.
Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading
by Nina Sankovitch
Caught up in grief after the death of her sister, Nina Sankovitch decided to stop running and start reading. For once in her life she would put all other obligations on hold and devote herself to reading a book a day: one year of magical reading in which she found joy, healing, and wisdom.
With grace and deep insight, Sankovitch weaves together poignant family memories with the unforgettable lives of the characters she reads about. She finds a lesson in each book, ultimately realizing the ability of a good story to console, inspire, and open our lives to new places and experiences. A moving story of recovery, “Tolstoy and the Purple Chair” is also a resonant reminder of the all-encompassing power and delight of reading.
Indigo: In Search of the Color That Seduced the World
by Catherine E. McKinley
Brimming with rich, electrifying tales of the precious dye and its ancient heritage, Indigo is also the story of a personal quest: Catherine McKinley is the descendant of a clan of Scots who wore indigo tartan; Jewish “rag traders”; a Massachusetts textile factory owner; and African slaves—her ancestors were traded along the same Saharan routes as indigo, where a length of blue cotton could purchase human life. McKinley’s journey in search of beauty and her own history leads her to the West African women who dye, trade, and wear indigo—women who unwittingly teach her that buried deep in the folds of their cloths is all of destiny and the human story.