Summer Reading, Off the Beaten Track

beachbookSummer isn’t publishing’s busiest season, but the big books that come out in June and July and August get the benefit of a major shelf-to-beach-towel popular push. And then there are the other four tried-and-true types of summer reading recommendations: the difficult books, which require stretches of undistracted time; the year’s popular books that everyone’s been meaning to get to; the doorstoppers; and the lightweight fun books suitable for packing on vacation (an easy mnemonic here would be Meaty, Beaty, Big, and Bouncy, but don’t quote me on that).

But there are also the off-the-beaten track books that might otherwise fall through the cracks of that wide-planked vacation house sun porch—or, for the rest of us not so blessed, that we just might miss if someone didn’t point us in the right direction. To start with, the Open Letters Monthly editors chimed in earlier this month with their favorite hot-weather reads, all of which are guaranteed to make you break a sweat.

And now Flavorwire has put up a tasty list under the umbrella of The Best Indie Literature of 2014 So Far—maybe not explicitly a beach umbrella, but they’re all good candidates. (OLM reviewed Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd in June, if you want a closer look.)

Entropy, on the other hand, doesn’t mince words, and its Ultimate Summer Reading List cuts a wide swath. From the ubiquitous Karl Ove Knausgaard to Muriel Spark to Sawako Nakayasu’s The Ants—perfect for your August office picnic, am I right?—there’s a little summer fun for everyone.

And if you’ve been meaning to expand your horizons without leaving dry land, try out some works in translation from Graywolf Press. They’re having a 30% off Summer Reading Sale through August, good titles all. Look, if you want to read Hillary Clinton’s book you can borrow it from the person the next towel over—and really, I do, but I’m happy to let someone else haul it around in their tote bag. I’m in the mood for something a little different this summer. I might not be taking the most spectacular vacations this year, but my reading is sure to shine and sparkle in the sun—or crinkle crisply in the air conditioning, take your pick.

(Photo credit: lakewentworth via photopin cc.)


Poetry Slam: North Carolina’s Poet Laureate Drama

magnetic_poetryThe more job listings I read, the more efficient I get at parsing them. First, of course, comes the position description, to make sure it’s something I can actually do and might even want to. The list of requirements takes a little longer to weigh: which are the slam-dunks (grasp of basic grammar, proficiency in Microsoft Office Suite, ability to lift 25 pounds), which are the no-ways (second language, second Master’s degree, second shift), and which are the gray areas, the fake-it-’til-you-make-it qualifications. A professor of mine once kindly pointed out that the only person with every one of the skills called for in a given employment description is the person who already has the job, but there’s still the fear of overestimating one’s talents. Nobody wants to be humiliated in the course of an interview, and certainly no one wants to somehow land a job they’re unsuited for.

It happens all the time, though. Think of FEMA’s Michael Brown and the “heck of a job” he did after Hurricane Katrina, or Cathie Black, New York Mayor Bloomberg’s choice for School Chancellor, who stepped down a little more than three months into her tenure when it became painfully clear that chairing Hearst Magazines didn’t quite translate into running the New York City school system. Think of George W. Bush’s friend Harriet Miers, who never made it to sit on the Supreme Court but could have. Or, if you like your incompetence scandals a little more literary, think of Valerie Macon, who was North Carolina’s Poet Laureate for all of six days.

To be fair, it wasn’t so much Macon’s inadequacy for the position that came under fire as Governor Pat McCrory’s disregard for the selection process, apparently typical of his general disengagement with cultural issues. Traditionally, the North Carolina Arts Council would review applications from poets around the state, and then submit its recommendation to the governor. McCrory, however, went ahead and chose Valerie Macon to fill the position being vacated by outgoing Laureate Joseph Bathanti without consulting anyone other than an unnamed “staff member.” Macon, a government employee—she’s a disability determination specialist with the Department of Health and Human Services—has two self-published poetry books to her name, Shelf Life (2011) and this year’s Sleeping Rough, a collection of poems about homelessness. While she’s been lauded by fellow employees and fellow poets alike for her energy, activism, and earnestness, this is not a good-intentions kind of job. Poet Laureate is a serious role; it’s the state’s face of the arts, and—especially in these times of whittled-away cultural funding—needs to be treated as such. Poet Jaki Shelton Greene, a recent inductee into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame, described McCrory’s attitude as

an affront to all the hard work so many of us have done…. I can name writer after writer in this state with a legacy not just in writing, but in leadership on how art informs lives. I don’t think McCrory has a clue. But what’s clear is he knows he doesn’t have to have a clue, just be governor.

Macon resigned the post six days after her appointment, noting that

I would like to encourage everyone to read and write poetry. They do not need prestigious publishing credits or a collection of accolades from impressive organizations—just the joy of words and appreciation of self-expression.

It’s unclear how McCrory intends to proceed in order to fill the position, but it looks as though Macon is getting her wish. The Raleigh, NC News & Observer invited readers to respond to the fracas with poems of their own, and the people comported themselves admirably in free verse, pentameter, and, of course, limericks:

When art’s left to our politicians,
It’s subject to noxious conditions.
The state’s warm embrace
Can become a disgrace
And displeasing to academicians.

—Barry Campbell

(Image is “Magnetic Poetry,” from Natalie Roberts’s Flickr set, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.)


Sunday Links, July 20, 2014


The Shirley Jackson Award winners have been announced.

The Prometheus Award winners have been announced.

What to Read Next

The Audio Bookaneers list new releases in audio books for the rest of the year and into 2015 — keep scrolling, it’s a long blog post!

For those of you who tend not to click on my links about science fiction and fantasy, here’s one you might want to click anyway:  literary SF and fantasy novels — books you might not have thought of as genre novels, but that really are.  And for those who do read genre novels, maybe you missed these because they get shelved with mainstream fiction.  Give ‘em a try.

Flavorwire suggests 50 fabulist books everyone should read.  There’s something on this list for every taste, so long as that taste includes a wild imagination.  I’m halfway tempted to spend the next six months just reading from this list.

My Bookish Ways has suggestions for books coming out in August that ought to be on your must-read list if you enjoy science fiction, fantasy and horror.

Stephen King reads at least as much as he writes, and that’s saying something.  Here are 22 books he’s recommended on Twitter lately.

Writers and Writing

Bustle lists thirteen of the most annoying writers you’ll ever meet, setting forth types who will get you fuming.  I am lucky that the writers I meet tend more often to be one of three of the most helpful writers you’ll ever meet.

If you’re trying to write yourself, these five guides might be useful to you.  And, of course, you don’t want to overlook my husband’s coming The Writer’s Idea Thesaurus!

Damien Walter, who seems to be all over this version of Sunday Links, says that novels are losing the narrative arms race.  There’s so much good stuff on television, so many good movies, so many other places to find narrative, that novels just can’t compete.  I happen to think we’re living in a new Golden Age of television, and I love movies, but still:  I’d rather be reading.  According to the survey you can find in the middle of Walter’s column, most people agree with me that books are still the way to go.

500 waysChuck Wendig suggests that every author should try acting as his or her own publisher at least once.

If you’re still on the road to traditional publishing, this article about the ten reasons an editor stops reading your submission will likely to useful.  It’s caused me to rewrite a story or two myself.


Edan LepuckiThe dispute between Amazon and Hachette continues.  This article in the San Francisco Chronicle talks about how authors are stuck in the middle, and what they’re doing about it.

Damien Walter suggests that what is really at issue here is the fact that books are not mere consumer goods.  Publishers have invited us to view them that way in recent decades, but books are actually more complicated than that.  It’s an interesting argument.  Walter suggests, among other things, that certain authors have been complicit in making books into nothing but the literary equivalent of junk food, and condemns those like Scott Turow, James Patterson and John Grisham, who have themselves protested Amazon’s conduct.  Just for the record, I don’t agree with Walter on this point.  I may not read all of these writers, and I may even disdain some of them, but there are those among them whom I consider the best at what they do.

Hugh HoweyHugh Howey thinks he owes the entirety of his success to Amazon, though, and he is one of the few voices out there supporting the retail giant. Michael Levin agrees that there are no reasons to support the major publishers and traditional publishing any more refuting Brook Warner’s piece supporting the opposite contention.

Simon and schusterAnd in the midst of all this foofaraw comes the news that Amazon is considering purchasing Simon & Schuster, one of the Big 5 publishers left in business.  As time has gone by, this has seemed more and more an unfounded rumor, but the very thought was enough to send a chill down my spine.

In the meantime, Amazon is suggesting that you pay it $120 per year for the equivalent of a free library card.  Me, I still love going to the library — and my library also gives me access to e-books to read on my Kindle in return for the tax dollars I’d be spending anyway.  No “Kindle Unlimited” for me, thanks.  BookRiot is in my corner, explaining why public libraries are not “Netflix for books” or any other form of commercial enterprise, and why that’s important.


Sunday Links, July 13, 2014


The nominees for the World Fantasy Awards have been announced.  Ellen Datlow and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro will be awarded the Lifetime Achievement Awards this year, and both are richly deserved.

What to Read Next

The Millions offers its take on the most anticipated books of the second half of 2014.  Of all the books listed, I think I’m most looking forward to Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, which is related to both Gilead and Home.

BookRiot lists the best books of the first six months of the year — so between The Millions and BookRiot, you’ve got 2014 covered.  Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation is weird and wonderful, and I’ve got Authority waiting for me with Acceptance preordered, a terrific trilogy that will send your mind scurrying off in directions you haven’t yet visited. lists the British genre novels coming to us this month.  I’d like one of each, please — but you’ve read me saying that before, haven’t you?

Between the Lines suggests you read some of their recent favorites.  I can vouch for The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey, which, yes, is about zombies, but has something new and different to say about them.

The Well-Readheads pick some satisfying summer reads.

The American Library Association Conference took place recently in Las Vegas, which must have been a great time.  I mean, really, add the bright lights, great food and crazy enjoyment of Las Vegas to books?!  What could be better than that?  These are the books that buzzed at the conference.

If you’d enjoy some melancholy this summer, The Reading Room suggests you try ten books guaranteed to make you cry.  And yes, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green made me cry — and more than once, at that.  I’m kind of afraid to see the movie for fear of severe dehydration.


Fred D. White is the author of “Memory, Fantasy, Neurology: In Praise of the Physical Book,” which appears in the latest issue of Wilderness House Literary Review.  It’s a brilliant essay, and I’m not saying that just because Fred’s my husband.

Fortunately, despite the fate of the Santa Clara University Library — um, excuse me, the Learning Commons, Technology Center and Library —books do not appear likely to leave the scene any time soon.  They may transition to e-books, but the book isn’t dying so long as kids read.  And kids are reading up a storm, which is very good news indeed.

The Society of Authors’ chief executive has come right out and said it:  traditional publishers’ terms are no longer fair or sustainable for writers.  Publishers’ profits are increasing, while the sums paid to authors are decreasing.  As a result, self-publishing is becoming an ever more appealing alternative.  We live in interesting times, that’s for sure.

The latest in the dispute between Amazon and Hachette has Amazon working harder than ever to drive a wedge between Hachette and its authors:  it has suggested that perhaps authors should receive 100% of the revenues from the sale of their e-books while the dispute continues.  Amazon seems to have reckoned that authors were venal and stupid; in fact, though, authors saw through the ploy, and noted that this still leaves them in the middle of a dispute between giants.  One source even called this a “condescending publicity stunt.”

Fun Stuff

Flavorwire has a list of the ten best songs about libraries and librarians.  Sing your way to good reading!


Better Late Than Never Dept.: The PEN 2014 Literary Award Shortlist

pen2014logoSometimes I’m late in keeping current with literary competition news here, and then sometimes I’m criminally late. My lack of commentary on the PEN 2014 Literary Awards would fall into that last category, unfortunately. So I’m going to do my best to catch us all up, starting with the fact that PEN America announced the shortlist for its nine book awards a little less than a month ago. It’s an interesting selection, light on the titles you’ll find on every other list, and heavy—especially in the debut fiction category—on smaller presses, which always cheers me.

I’m not going to link to all the shortlisted selections, but I will send you over to GalleyCat’s page of free samples from each of the nominees, which should give you at least a taste of what’s on deck. And if you like what you see, take a look at their longlist as well—there’s a lot of good work that may have flown below various forms of radar this year. I also owe them one, since they linked to my review of Christopher Hacker’s The Morels on their Recommended Reading: Debut Fiction page back in May. The winners aren’t announced until the end of this month, which gives everyone three solid weeks of blissful summer reading to pick a few favorites and run with them. There are no Goldfinches here—every one of these has some complex odds on it—so it should be an interesting contest. If I had an extra couple of months and nothing else to do, I’d be perfectly happy to read my way through the entire list. As it is, I’ll be happy to have a couple more under my belt by the time the winner is announced.


Happy Birthday, Jane Gardam!

jane-gardam-photo1-199x300Happy birthday to Jane Gardam, born in North Yorkshire in 1928, and still going strong at age 86. I’ve left plenty of traces of my own Gardam fandom, with a piece in Bloom and a note in Open Letters Monthly’s Year in Reading for 2013. But for years she felt a bit like a secret-handshake author, known to readers of literary Anglophile fiction but not so very far outside those circles.

Unlike good restaurants and hole-in-the-wall clubs, though, it’s not in anyone’s best interest for writers to remain obscure—at least not the good ones. Fortunately Jane Gardam is garnering more notice all the time, most recently a New York Times piece by Roslyn Sulcas that ought to have won her a pack of new readers. And if that doesn’t do the trick, I offer up a review of what is arguably Gardam’s masterpiece, Old Filth, written by Like Fire’s own Terry Weyna. She declares it “full of unexpected buried pearls, hidden amethysts and sudden kindnesses,” and I would concur. Many happy regards, Ms. Gardam!

Old Filth
Jane Gardam
Europa Editions, 2006
by Terry Weyna

When I picked up Old Filth, I expected a book full of Sir Edward Feathers’s reminiscences about a life at the bar in Imperial England—specifically, in the Hong Kong referred to in the title. (“Filth” means, for a British solicitor or barrister, “Failed in London—Try Hongkong.” ) After all, this book was about the life of a solicitor who ultimately became a judge, reaching the pinnacle of achievement in his profession, and in a foreign culture at that. And what is life about, for a lawyer, but his triumphs and his wretchedly unfair defeats?

But this book isn’t about a life at the bar. It is about the life of Sir Edward, from his earliest days on earth to his last. It is about an adult life full of wealth and regard, yet one that was not truly happy; professionally fulfilling, certainly, but with unhappiness lurking in every corner. It’s a remarkable character study, skillfully written so that the reader makes discoveries from inferences while enjoying language so lovely that it sinks into the brain like a song.

Old Filth skips about in time, rather like an old man’s reminiscences—an odd and sometimes confusing structure, but one that works. One moment the elderly Sir Edward is in a hotel recovering from a sprain, and the next the child Eddie is suffering at the hands of a vituperative caregiver. Sir Edward’s memories range from his birth in Malay (as Malaysia was then known), to a bitterly unhappy childhood in Wales, through prep school, World War II, Oxford and to the Orient. The memories are fully lived, almost surprises to the man. They are interwoven with his discoveries of truths he deliberately avoided or literally never knew, because he buried himself in work and in the rhythms of a staid, formal and outmoded Victorian colonialism. Old Filth’s declining years are full of renewed acquaintances with old enemies, distant cousins, and former lovers, who inspire new memories that come unbidden. The sturdy old man he has become gradually makes peace with his life—and, ultimately, his death.

I don’t wish to say too much more about this book here, because it is so full of unexpected buried pearls, hidden amethysts and sudden kindnesses. And it surprises, too, with the occasional bright happiness of a friendship of old age or the dark despair of childhood secrets. Rather, I’d prefer just to urge you to go, find it, read it, and let’s discuss it. It is one of the best books I’ve read in years, beautifully written and extraordinarily well-plotted, and I give it my highest recommendation.


Pocket Review: How About Never—Is Never Good for You?: My Life in Cartoons by Bob Mankoff

How about Never—Is Never Good for You?: My Life in Cartoons
Bob Mankoff
Henry Holt & Company, 2014

As a geeky, funny, animal-loving, endlessly doodling little kid, I basically had two career choices in mind: Veterinarian or Cartoonist. Soon enough I realized that veterinary studies involved a lot more school than interested me, so I abandoned that one. Which left me with Cartoonist, surely a practical pursuit: all I needed was a table and chair and a halfway decent light source, and some pens and pencils and erasers. It sounded like a solid plan.

I made it all the way to my twenties before realizing that maybe it wasn’t. Not because I didn’t have the raw talent—though I suppose that’s debatable too—but because, even after earning a BFA from a very good art school and a few more years freelancing, I still didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I knuckled down when I had a job, or when I needed to find one, but I didn’t really understand the sheer amount of work I’d need to do, on my own, to eventually be any good. And, OK, I was lazy.

That’s OK; I don’t think the cartoon world is in any way diminished by my absence. But cartoonists are an odd and interesting breed, even if I’m not throwing my lot in with them, and I do like reading about the people who actually make it happen. Cartoonist bios are a lot like musician bios, actually—it’s always entertaining to trace other people’s paths between whimsy and industry, and to see how they arrived at the right formula.

Bob Mankoff’s memoir, How about Never—Is Never Good for You?: My Life in Cartoons looks at that process from two angles. He’s a cartoonist, and has been all his life, but he’s also the New Yorker’s cartoon editor, which means he’s heavily invested in figuring out what’s funny to other people on a large scale. And apparently he’s good at it, having hung onto the job since 1998.

Anyone who’s ever watched Behind the Music knows that a good artist’s memoir needs its narrative arc imbued with at least a little tension—in the music world, this mainly involves a trip to rehab and a better-than-ever comeback, or at least a loving second family and a good old time on the county fair circuit. Mankoff’s life as a cartoonist turns out to be somewhat devoid of the necessary drama: he draws a lot in high school, he draws a lot in college. He starts selling cartoons to various magazines but dreams of breaking into the New Yorker and, after three years and some 500 submissions, finally does. True, he does spend a lot of time at the New York Public Library poring over the entire run of the magazine, reading every single cartoon in an effort to crack the formula. But, as you might have guessed, there is no formula. And this, in the end, is what makes Mankoff’s analysis of his job as cartoon editor interesting. There is no formula, but there’s some kind of method, and he’s more than happy to get into the nuts and bolts of what, exactly, makes a cartoon funny.

Which is to say, no one really knows—not even the man who does makes such pronouncements for a living. Mankoff admits as much, and he has a fine time looking at all the variations of funny he sees, and what makes them work or not. He studied experimental psychology in graduate school, and plays around a bit with humor theory. But within reason; he keeps it light, and makes sure there is plenty to laugh at while he’s explaining himself. And he’s not afraid to wax a bit lyrical; he explains that Saul Steinberg’s drawings “didn’t cause an outward laugh or even an inward one, but they made my mind smile,” which is just about right.

Mankoff dissects a lot of cartoons through the book. Without getting didactic, he looks at style, subjects, windups and punch lines, trends, and gag jokes versus the puzzling I-know-it’s-funny-but-I’m-not-sure-why setups. There’s some lightweight—never malicious—gossip about various cartoonists, an explanation of the submission and approval process, and he gives a good bit of the history of the New Yorker and some of its classic cartoons, as well as his rise to editorship—also debunking the rumor (which, come to think of it, he started in the first place) that he relies on a laugh meter in his office:

… evaluating humor is different from enjoying it. When you’re comparing one ostensibly funny thing to another supposedly funny thing in an effort to suss out the funniest, the cognitive effort of deciding interferes with the emotional reaction that causes laughter.

That’s about as serious as Mankoff gets, though; mostly he’s funny and disarming, making his points with the one-two rhythm of a standup comedian. It can get a little schticky, but hey, he’s a 70-year-old funny Jew from the Bronx—what’s not to like? The fact that “you can’t spell memoir without the moi” is never in dispute. And if Mankoff’s delivery is decidedly Comedy Cellar, the book itself is charmingly low-fi. Whether it was an aesthetic decision or a budget constraint, where another oversized hardcover might have glossy plates or at the least color illustrations here and there, How About Never is black and white throughout, with small photographs scattered among the text—the vibe is pasted-up and zine-like. Coffee table book aficionados might be disappointed in the presentation, but this fan of cartoon art, shaggy dog memoirs, and magazine chitchat found it as amiable as Mankoff’s patter. If I ever do decide to take up cartooning as a long-lost second third career, I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have rejecting my drawings—over and over, I imagine—than Bob Mankoff.


Sunday Links, July 6, 2014

Half a KingWhat to Read Next

A Fantastical Librarian talks about the most anticipated new books for July and August, with a heavy emphasis on young adult novels.

Io9 lists the most essential science fiction and fantasy novels to be published in July.

Dreams of gods and monstersOmnivoracious lists the best young adult novels of the year — so far.  How many of them have you read?  (Me:  zero.  Lots more reading to do.)

Stella Four offers graphic novels to share with young readers.

Michael Dirda writes in The Washington Post about specialty presses and the innovative horror literature that they publish.  He doesn’t mention, though, that many of the books from these presses are beautiful objects in addition to being full of good reading material.  For instance, I’ve recently acquired a copy of Scott Nicolay’s Ana Kai Tangata, and it is a very well-made book with a sturdy dust jacket, interior illustrations and a strong binding.  And while I can’t afford them, I’ve browsed through some of Centipede Press’s gorgeous editions with great pleasure.  When I’m rich (and that’ll happen any day now, right?), I’m buying their entire line.

American innovationsKirkus provides a slideshow of nine contemporary novels that it believes are destined to be regarded as classics.  I couldn’t resist Rivka Galchen’s American Innovations — and truth be told, I own several of the other books mentioned as well.  Now if I only had time to read them!  (I must say that in every Sunday Links column, don’t I?)

Read Diversely!

We have alwaysCare to expand your reading horizons to include some books by women?  (Check the last ten books you’ve read:  aren’t a majority of them by male authors?  That seems to be the default, even among us feminists.  Books by men receive more reviews, more publicity by publishers, and, ultimately, more readers.)  Bustle suggests 13 women authors you may not have heard of, but who deserve your immediate attention.  Nine of these writers are women I’ve never heard of, and I’m fairly well-read, so my TBR list grew considerably longer when I read this column.  I’m a little surprised at the inclusion of Shirley Jackson, to whom I think most people are exposed in school (either because of “The Lottery” or “One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts,” two marvelous short stories); I would have suggested Angela Carter, who I believe is more often passed over and unheard of by many.  But hey, if the mention leads a few more readers to Jackson’s creepy novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, it’s very much to the good.

Who Fears DeathAlong the same lines, consider whether the movement toward diversity ought to include science fiction and fantasy writers.  A recent article in the New York Times listed a “new wave” of African writers, but omitted Nnedi Okorafor.  Okorafor has won numerous awards, including the 2011 World Fantasy Award for best novel for Who Fears Death and the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa for Zahrah the Windseeker.  She certainly belongs on any list of hot new African writers in my estimation!

The Hundred Thousand KingdomsThis podcast features several others who talk about diversity in geekdom, and where to find books by minority writers — and what those writers have to offer.

Adults Reading Young Adult Fiction

Yes, we’re still talking about this.  Mark Medley writes about purging his shelves of young adult fiction in reaction to the now-famous Slate article demanding that adults cease reading such puerile stuff, tongue planted firmly in cheek.

The Well's EndThe Los Angeles Times looks at how young adult fiction has opened up new markets for writers who found their more adult novels languishing unread.

E-Books Versus Paper Books

Yes, we’re still talking about this, too.  Mary-ann Astle talks about her obsession with the printed word instead of its electronic equivalent, something to which I can most definitely relate.  (Only two overflowing bookcases?  Ha.  My husband and I have more than 50, almost all of them double-shelves.  I’ll show you true obsesson!)

Great ApesAnd increasingly, research is showing that our brains react differently to words on a screen as opposed to words on paper.  Is this good or bad?  Opinions differ.

Some tech writers have even suggested that the day of the e-reader is past, and that we’ll all be reading off our phones or iPads.  How does anyone read a book on his or her phone, anyway?  I just can’t see how having such a tiny bit of text available at any one time leads to a satisfactory reading experience.

Rebuilding the newsOne thing seems certain:  the digital revolution continues to play havoc with journalism.


For the most part, basic access to e-books through public libraries has been satisfied, but achieving customer satisfaction has not.  At a recent Publishers Weekly executive breakfast held at Random House, a panel of librarians, publishers and service providers attempted to hash out innovative and experimental approaches to lending e-books.

3D printerWhat are people using their library’s 3-D printers for?  Lots of cool stuff, and not many books.

Other Fun Stuff

Make your own very cool-looking lamp out of an old book.

I enjoyed this Periodic Table of Epic Reads.  It includes not just big books, but also twenty-seven different series.  If you’ve a need to immerse yourself in another world for a while, this might be your best source for the right title(s).

JoylandEmily Schultz wrote a book called Joyland years before Stephen King wrote a book with the same title.  Confused, readers bought many, many more copies of Schultz’s library than would normally be the case eight years after its initial publication.  This means that Schultz got a very nice royalty check she wasn’t expecting.  This Tumblr shows how she spent the money.  It’s funny and heart-warming.  What a stroke of luck!

CaliforniaSpeaking of strokes of luck, Stephen Colbert made Edan Lepucki’s first novel, California, into an instant bestseller when he mentioned the novel on his show and urged people to buy it.  The novel is published by Hachette which, you may recall, is feuding with Amazon over numerous matters, and Amazon is refusing to sell Hachette books under the same terms that books offered by other publishers.  California, for instance, is listed at Amazon as “currently unavailable.”  But you can buy it elsewhere, and thousands of people did.  I’ve long carried a torch for Colbert, and this only makes me love him more.

If you question whether you’re truly addicted to reading, PopSugar lists 50 signs that will make it clear your habit is really an addiction.  At least 40 of them apply to me.

A Game of ThronesDaniel Hope writes an open letter to a driver he saw reading George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones while driving.  Yikes!  And speaking of A Game of Thrones, see how it stacks up, lengthwise, against other books and series.

I missed this cool story called “Librarians in the Branch Library of Babel” by Shaenon K. Garritywhen it was first published, but I’m sure glad I found it now.  Robin Sloan, the author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (which I loved; see my review here) discusses the story and, particularly, its use of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, to explore what sorts of changes to a novel make it an entirely different book.  Translation?  Changing adjectives?  Rewriting from memory?  It’s an exciting and rather mind-boggling exercise.


Open Letters Monthly, July 2014

A couple of weekends ago we marked the summer solstice, and you know what that means… the days are getting shorter and in another few month’s it’ll be cold and miserable again summer’s here! And the July issue of Open Letters Monthly is just what you’ll be needing to slide into summer reading mode.

John Cotter, in a moving piece, muses on not only losing his hearing, but mourning the soundtrack of a life: “… what I’ve lost isn’t just a set of structured sounds, but the world those sounds create, a world you can live inside: Bach on a snowy afternoon, hard blues on a long night’s drive, the background mood in a restaurant or at a party.”

Alice Brittan has a smart take on Michael Cunningham’s twilit reversioning of The Snow Queen, which “borrows the uncomfortable wisdom of fairy tales, which is that the hour of despair is the most fertile of the day.”

Rohan Maitzen, in revisiting K.M. Peyton’s Pennington’s Seventeenth Summer, The Beethoven Medal, and Pennington’s Heir, makes one of the best cases for rereading beloved YA fiction I’ve seen in a while, which is much like the Bildungsroman itself: “The challenge is to bring enough idealism with us into adulthood that we can continue to see both ourselves and our world as works in progress.”

Steve Danziger finds Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records—Amanda Petrusich’s take on 78 collectors, and collector culture in general—on the condescending side, but still interesting: “These are transmissions from a lost world, and the boundless range of idiosyncratic regional voices, heard through decades of accumulated crackle and hiss, often sounds like messages from American’s collective unconscious.”

Greg Waldmann examines Hassan Abbas’s The Taliban Revival, which offers a clear-eyed look at the complex situation in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq, noting that, among other facts, “A century of intervention abroad hasn’t taught the United States that it is difficult to find principled allies.”

Juistin Hickey looks at Daniel H. Wilson’s Robogenesis, a continuation of Wilson’s future saga describing the era of robot uprising—“a Cambrian Explosion writ in chrome.”

Steve Donoghue makes a case for Donald Miller’s excellent-sounding “effulgently personality-oriented New York history” Supreme City: How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America: “… the heart of this sprawling book is the human element, which Miller highlights as smoothly and illuminatingly as the American Civil War historian Shelby Foote, or the World War II historian Richard Evans.” (This one’s going on my wish list.)

Michael O’Donnell looks at Michael Waldman’s comprehensive The Second Amendment: A Biography, and helpfully points out that “[t]here is context and background here that will be useful even to readers who follow the news very closely.”

Robert Minto explains that “Any morally inquisitive person, and not just the professional philosopher, has a stake in the preservation of Aristotle’s insights,” and recommends Brad Inwood’s collected series of Harvard lectures, Ethics After Aristotle.

Jack Hanson finds value in the new Hemingway Library Edition of The Sun Also Rises: “Whatever the risks or impure motivations inherent in the publication of the Hemingway Library editions, they perform the vital service of allowing a great voice who was vitally interested in these questions to be heard again.”

In her It’s a Mystery column, Irma Heldman checks out the reanimation of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane in Jill Paton Walsh’s The Late Scholar and imagines the ghost of Dorothy Sayers smiling at the “seamless, stylish continuation of the charismatic originals done with a contemporary sensibility.”

Dierdre Crimmins pronounces Craig DiLouie’s truly horrifying tale of tiny revenants, Suffer the Children, “startling, disturbing, and not for the faint of heart” (this one is not going on my wish list, though not for any lack of literary merit—it just sounds too scary).

There are two original poems this month: Carrie Murphy’s luscious Belen (“My cervix was pink & ripe. / The car was ready, revving. I stashed mangoes / in the back”); and from Daniel A Nicholls canes domini, which won me over with its opening lines:

the pug presents
a puffed-up chest
a riffling of faint whiskers

And from the Open Letters Monthly editorial team (and one blogger, which would be me), a sizzling collection of 12 Hot Summer Reads that will take you to Egypt, Aruba, Tierra del Fuego, the Sonora and Mojave Deserts, and French Equatorial Africa, among other sweaty locales guaranteed to cool you down a bit… or at least remind you to appreciate that window fan.


In Search of Lost Fireworks


July Fourth is one of those Rorschach holidays—it’s pretty much whatever you want to make it. If you’re patriotic, bless your heart, you can celebrate it that way. If you want to go to a party and drink beer and grill, there’s plenty of opportunity for that. You can just kick back and enjoy the long weekend, or enjoy the romantic Love American Style-style backdrop of fireworks, or—if like me, you’re the owner of a pyrotechnophobic dog—you can secretly, Grinch-like, wish for rain.

So far it looks like we dog owners are winning, at least on the east coast. But there’s always the consolation of fireworks past… and in fact, visual and written documentation of fireworks displays has a long and distinguished history. The Public Domain Review recently put up an interesting essay by Simon Werrett, Picturing Pyrotechnics, about the art of documenting the rockets’ red (and yellow, green, blue, purple, and white) glare.

While the whole idea of commemorative artwork implies a record of past events, Werrett points out that the earliest prints of firework shows—particularly the state-sponsored events put on as displays of power and technological prowess—were actually published as programs, in advance of the celebrations. This was necessary, at least in part, to fully explain the allegorical content of the most elaborate displays, so that any implied imagery wouldn’t be lost on the masses:

One such engraving shows a fireworks temple … for the anniversary of the coronation of Empress Catherine II in June 1763. The accompanying description explained how the display centred on the Island of Pallas represented in fireworks, which carried a temple, in front of which Pallas sat on a dark cloud casting out bolts of lightning. Subsequent decorations appeared, including palm trees, garlands, and the figure of the goddess Minerva holding a cornucopia. These decorations were all meant to signal the wisdom and power of the Empress Catherine and the happiness of the empire under her reign.

But there was another reason as well: fireworks were a messy, dangerous bit of business, and the performances didn’t always go off as planned—or go off at all. In 1730, French artist Dumont le Romain produced an elaborate etching of the display orchestrated by Philip V of Spain in honor of Louis XV’s new infant son. The pyrotechnic representations included a rainbow stretching between two 80-foot Pyrenean mountains, to symbolize the two countries’ friendship, and a rising sun representing the baby dauphin. According to an observer, though,

the Rising sun was omitted for Want of Time; and the Rainbow, when made, was too unwieldy and unmanageable; and therefore could not appear; nor the Goddess Iris… these should have been describ’d as designed only, and not executed.

So take heart if your Fourth is rained out, or you don’t have the heart to brave traffic, or you’re stuck at home comforting the dog. Sometimes the idea of fireworks is better than the real thing. And if that’s the case, at least you’re in good company.

And if you don’t already subscribe to The Public Domain Review‘s eclectic essay series, you really should.

(Image showing fireworks at The Hague, June 14, 1713 on the occasion of the “Peace of Utrecht”, found in Klebeband 10 of the Fürstlich Waldecksche Hofbibliothek, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)