On Getting Self-Reliant

PhilosopherSelfReliance02Sometime around the middle of this month, I tossed a piece I’d been writing on and off for a while. That’s not something I generally do. Part of what I love about essays is the process of writing myself into—and then out of—a corner. Or to work with a slightly more claustrophobic image, since that’s mostly how it feels, writing my way out of a paper bag. The idea is to set up a problem and then solve it, whether it’s ideological, stylistic, or a matter of working through my own convoluted logic to figure out what I really wanted to say in the first place. But at some point I realized that this one—which had revolved loosely around issues of class and privilege among writers, among other things—had nowhere to go. Or rather, I had the sudden feeling that there was nothing I could say on those topics that hadn’t been said already, and better, by other people. It’s become a bit of a buzzword, the whole “check your privilege” reflex, but it’s also the source of some good and thoughtful writing. The more I wrote myself into that particular corner, the more derivative I felt I was getting. So I just chucked the whole thing—as my more polite Macbook would say, moved it to the trash.

Earlier this week, Flavorwire posted a great list titled 50 Essays Guaranteed to Make You a Better Person; great not just because I want to be a better person—who doesn’t?—but because it was a good bunch of essays to have in one place. I was of a mind to just post the link with minimal commentary, so that all Like Fire readers could have the opportunity to become better people too. But then the completist thing got a hold of me and I decided I should go the Full Better Person Monty and read them all myself first. I’d read a number of them already over the years, and figured they’d all round out to a good creative nonfiction experience.

OK, faithful Like Fire readers, who can remember the title of our very first post? I’ll tell you: it was called “Perfect is the Enemy of Good,” which is a concept I do constant, unwavering battle with. It was true five years ago, when I was dithering unreasonably with the CSS of this blog and finally just had to hit the “publish” button, and it’s true today. I got 11 essays in (although I’d already read Zadie Smith’s and Aleksandr Hemon’s, and one was a link to the entire collection, rather than an individual essay—Janet Malcolm’s Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers—which made me sad because I had been very much hoping for a freebie sample). And then I hit the 12th, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” and bogged down completely; the idea of writing about the series languished as I tried to pound my way through it several late nights in a row.

I’d never read Emerson, but I’ve long felt that I should. My literary education is snaggle-toothed, with all sorts of unexpected gaps, and I’m definitely not up on my Transcendentalists (except for Walt Whitman, if he is one—I can never remember). The Flavorwire commentary just rubbed it in:

[T]here’s a reason we all had to read this in high school. Emerson’s basic message is so elemental, so American, perhaps, but still worthwhile: “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” Self-reliance, self-trust, self-belief—these things can go a long way towards just about anyone’s personal betterment.

Clearly, I didn’t have to read it in high school. All the better reason to tackle it now. But it was slow, slow going. Not because of the quality of Emerson’s writing; it’s very good. But it’s dense, and—for me, anyway—doesn’t scan easily. Maybe if I read an entire collection of his, I’d get into some kind of groove. This one took some real labor on my part, obliterating hours when I could have been doing any number of other, more productive things. Although, in fact, it did turn out to be productive in an oblique way. I see why it’s assigned in high school; it’s pretty much what you’re already thinking when you’re 16, and therefore a good gateway to more difficult writing and a more pan-historical perspective. And if you weren’t thinking that way when you were 16… well, that’s a shame, but it’s never too late. There’s good stuff for any age, particularly if you’re pondering online writing in 2014:

My life is for itself and not for a spectacle. I much prefer that it should be of a lower strain, so it be genuine and equal, than that it should be glittering and unsteady. I wish it to be sound and sweet, and not to need diet and bleeding.


It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

It turned out that there was a good takeaway for me here after all. What I ended up appreciating about Emerson wasn’t, ultimately, that he wrote so amazingly that it became the be-all and end-all on the subject. It was that he wrote about it well in 1841, and then Joan Didion did it well in 1968, and George Sanders did it well in his lovely commencement speech at Syracuse University in 2003 (all of which are linked to in Flavorwire’s collection). One of the pitfalls of having blogged for a long time, and finding yourself knee-deep now in hundreds of blogs interested in the same things you are, is that you start to doubt the value of your own take. Someone else with more time on their hands has already scooped the very topic you were so hot to discuss, or has found a far better cross-reference for the link you were about to post, and so on. You start to feel like an indistinct component of the greater babble—and really, what’s the point of that?

So it’s good to read Emerson’s thoughts from 175 years back and realize that they’re just as interesting, in their own right, as Didion’s or Saunders’s or anyone else’s in that 50-essay selection; that the voice matters just as much as the subject, just as much as the quality of the writing itself. And there’s always room for another voice. The trick for me is believing in the value of mine long enough to finish the damn essay, and only then sit back to worry about its jewel-like qualities (or lack of them). What’s been moved to the trash can be moved back. Because as Emerson counsels,

When good is near you, when you have life in yourself, it is not by any known or accustomed way; you shall not discern the foot-prints of any other; you shall not see the face of man; you shall not hear any name;—the way, the thought, the good, shall be wholly strange and new.


Sunday Links, August 31, 2014


 The Hugo Award winners have been announced, as have the winners of the 1939 Retro Hugos.  If you missed reading the nominated stories, you can find many of them linked here.

 The Baen Fantasy Adventure Award winners have been announced.

The Mythopoeic Award winners have been announced.

The Sideways Awards for Alternate History have been announced.

What to Read Next

I’ve always found fall reading much more exciting that summer reading, but I’m weird.  Still, Vulture’s list of 57 books to read this fall makes my heart start beating faster.  I’m especially looking forward to Stone Mattress:  Nine Tales by Margaret Atwood and The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel.

Flavorwire lists its own 25 recommendations for fall reading, with surprisingly little overlap with the Vulture list.  Diane Ackerman’s The Human Age sounds especially exciting.

Never to be left out, The Huffington Post has a list of fall books, too, and again, there seems to be little overlap with the other two lists.  From this list, the book that especially tempts me is The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell.

All those lists, all those books, and they don’t even include the science fiction, fantasy and horror!  Don’t worry, though, I’ve got you covered:  My Bookish Ways has a list of the best SF/F/H novels coming out in September.  As usual, I want them all, but I’m especially eager to read Lauren Beukes’s Broken Monsters, Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs, and Monstrous Affections, edited by Kelly Link and Gavin Grant.  Good thing I have nothing to do this fall but read.  (That’s sarcasm, of course; if only!)

io9 has its own list of science fiction and fantasy books that will change your life this fall.  I sure wish I had nothing to do but read for the next four months!

Feel like everyone’s closing up the summer too fast?  John DeNardo has some suggestions for end-of-the-summer fare.

Powell’s suggests 25 books to read before you die, and gives you a 30% discount of them besides.  The list contains an unusual collection — not the usual round-up of classics you usually find in such lists.

The Telegraph lists 100 novels everyone should read — a list that is precisely the sort of classics round-up mentioned above, though there are still plenty of surprises.

Or you could go the other way, and read bestsellers.  Kirkus suggests nine of them that you might have passed by.

How many of the greatest books by women have you read?  My score is a depressing 23 out of 102 books, though I own a surprising number of the books listed.  (Well, maybe not too surprising when you consider the breadth of my library; what’s really is surprising is that at the ripe old age of 58, I still haven’t read George Eliot’s Middlemarch.)

If you’d like to be author specific in your next bout of reading, you might want to try to read through this list of Patricia Highsmith’s best work.  I’ve not read any of her work, so find myself mighty tempted to do exactly that.

More and more literature is becoming available in translation, which strikes me as a very good idea indeed.  (If we’re all to get along together, we need to know each other better, and if you can’t travel in person, you certainly can by book.)  Cheryl Morgan lists some science fiction and fantasy works that are becoming available in translationAndreas Eschbach’s The Carpet Makers is an astonishingly good work, for instance; it’s been translated from the German.

Io9 recommends ten “ultra-weird” science fiction novels that have become required reading.  And it has another list of weird science fiction no one’s ever read (I’ve never read a single book on this list).  The lists are both older, dating from 2012, but I hadn’t seen them before and find them fascinating.


The Hachette-Amazon battle continues to rage, making it impossible to pre-order such don’t-miss books as Mira Grant’s Symbiont, due out in November.  Authors and readers have lined up on both sides of the divide, as previous Sunday Links columns have shown.  Frankly, it’s a mess, and it’s bad for everyone.  Jake Kerr makes sense out of it all.  J.A. Konrath has a somewhat different view, which isn’t surprising given that he mostly self-publishes through Amazon.


Jack Heckel discusses why we keep telling ourselves fairy tales.  I love reading rewritten fairy tales — the Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling series, beginning with Snow White, Blood Red is a special favorite.

Will Self says the novel is dead.  No, really, this time it’s really, really dead.  He might be right.  This morning’s New York Times Book Review contained the following quotation:  “Short attention span is the new avant-garde.  Everyone complains that we can no longer intake huge chunks of text.  I find that a reason to celebrate. . . .  Twitter is the revenge of modernism.”  Kenneth Goldsmith made my heart sink all the way to the floor with that one.

Along the same lines:  seems readers absorb less on Kindles than they do on paper.  It’s a small study, and it included only two experienced Kindle readers, but I think there’s something there to which we need to pay attention.  Similarly, recent research suggests that we should take notes by hand, not on a computer.

Has horror fiction run out of things to write about?  Is there nothing left that frightens us?  My opinion is that there may be more than ever that we find terrifying, not least of which is our very own minds and bodies.  The article’s recommendation of Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box is right on target.

BookRiot suggests we should all lay off the criticism of Stephenie Meyer.  After all, it points out (correctly), she single-handedly improved the market for Young Adult books, and got legions of girls reading.


I’m looking forward to reading Lev Grossman’s latest book, The Magician’s Land — but I want to do it by rereading the first two books in his trilogy first.  I’m even more intrigued since reading this article by Grossman in which he describes how he discovered he’s a fantasy writer.

Delilah Dawson lists ten things you don’t need to be a writer.  It’s inspiring, especially to someone like me, who often thinks she needs some sort of credential in order to be able to write well.  (Really, I don’t need an MFA?  Or at least a six-week workshop?)

Fun Stuff

Okay, this is just silly:  geniuses who messed up desserts the first time they tried to make them.  Who knew Friedrich Nietzsche couldn’t make lemon squares?

Bustle explains how readers react to those who don’t read.  I tend to work really hard at #5.  Surely there’s something for every potential reader, isn’t there?

Fifteen scientists share their favorite science fiction works.

The new season of Doctor Who has started, with the new Doctor played by Peter Capaldi.  So far, so good, with the second episode considerably better than the first.  What, you’re not a Doctor Who fan?  Then give it a try with the 30 episodes listed here.  Some very fine television in that list.  It inspires me to go back to the beginning of the rebooted series in 2005 with Christopher Eccleston playing the Doctor and watch all of it over again.

Readers are the best sorts of people to fall in love with.  A scientific truth, according to this article.  But we all knew that already, didn’t we?


Open Letters Monthly, August 2014

It’s the last week of August, the last week (perhaps) of unstructured summer reading, and the perfect time to investigate the August issue of Open Letters Monthly, if you haven’t yet. Or even if you have. It’s a fine way to say farewell to the month, the summer, maybe a long stretch of unemployed indolence… whatever you’re bidding adieu, this issue of OLM is stocked with an abundance of good reading to console you.

On the fiction shelves, Amelia Glaser has good words for Mira Jacob’s The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, a family story that’s also about, among other things, “neuroscience (and minds that fail us), photography, the lasting trauma of immigration to the US, and the miracle of finding a soul mate.”

Elisa Gabbert dives into “master manipulator” Ben Lerner’s metafictional novel 10:04, with mixed results.

John William Walker Zeiser enjoys Kyung-sook Shin’s I’ll Be Right There (translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell), both for the storyline and its nostalgic descriptions of “an older Korea that still bursts through the slick glass modernity and high-speed technology that has supplanted it.”

In the nonfiction department, Dorian Stuber declares Bernard Wasserstein’s An Ambiguity of Virtue: Gertrude van Tijn and the Fate of the Dutch Jews, the morally complex story of the woman who helped prepare Holland’s Jews for emigration (and deportation) during WWII, a largely informative book that “allows us to conclude that ambiguity need not undo the possibility of virtue.”

Lianne Habinek examines Denis Donoghue’s Metaphor, which asks the crucial question: “Why say that something is something else?”

Jessica Miller enjoys Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s argument for the relevance of philosophy in the 21st century, Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away—which includes bringing Plato here to talk with a Google engineer, a parenting expert, and a Bill O’Reilly type, among others. But far from being a simplistic book, it “challenges, it rouses, and it finally requires thinking participation in some of the most important and enduring questions human beings can ask.”

Jack Hanson is not too impressed with Sam Harris’s Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion, posting that “If Dr. Harris believed that the question of consciousness is a serious one, and not simply a matter of making oneself feel better in world left cold by science, he would attend to it with the intellectual rigor he praises elsewhere.”

Michael O’Donnell takes on William Deresiewicz’s disquisition on what’s wrong with the college careers of privileged Ivy Leaguers, Excellent Sheep—pointing out that, as a good reviewer does, “I put my biases away so successfully that it took me about 80 pages to realize why I wasn’t connecting to the book before I thought, ‘Oh, right. I despise these people.’”

Steve Donoghue’s read on Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan is that, while “Perlstein tells this oft-told tale with great amounts of gusto; as he demonstrated in Nixonland, he’s an enthusiastic and aphoristic storyteller,” the book’s lack of thorough attributions are cause for concern, concluding that the political era covered “deserves a better, more careful, more conscientious, more trustworthy book than it gets here.” (The New York Times picked up on this earlier in the month.)

Adam Golaski pronounces The Mind’s Eye: The Art of Omni, edited by Jeremy Frommer and Rick Schwartz, short on information but long on the weird art we fondly remember from the magazine’s heyday—“fun to look at, even if frequently dumb.”

Brendan Costello Jr. visits Kara Walker’s installation at the Domino Sugar Refinery and declares it a success, especially for its site-specific qualities: “[T]he vaulted ceilings, charred walls, and pervasive odor of burned sugar made “A Subtlety” visceral. History literally permeated the air—you could not help but breathe it in—and it was not pleasant. This art got in your face in a way that Damien Hirst could only dream of.”

In her It’s a Mystery column, Irma Heldman reviews two books: Charles Cumming’s A Colder War and Neely Tucker’s The Ways of the Dead, pronouncing the first “state-of-the-art espionage fiction” and the second a “probing, powerful, edgy debut novel.”

We get not one but two new poems: Bonnie Auslander’s Felix Feels Bitter (“The toothache that seeks out only him, / the quarters his sisters get to keep.”) and Words, by Donald Illich, with its opening line full of promise: “When I wake words want me.”

Stephen Akey takes a look at the ins and outs—and the insides and outsides—of cultural criticism, ignorance, learning and forgetting, and the fine distinction between high- and low-brow, pointing out that “All these books and pictures and poems and great debates have made my life richer, not easier.”

And for this month’s Title Menu, OLM checks out 10 Great “Minor” Works by Major Writers, from Henry Adams’s The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma to Muriel Spark’s Loitering With Intent to Shakespeare’s Richard II (“the other Richard”).


A Brief Respite from Longlist Fatigue

Flaherty-Dunnan-long-list2Right around this time of year, I run out of things to say about book awards. By now all the big literary competitions have either come and gone or at the very least announced their finalists. Some, like the PEN fiction awards, have already voted in winner sbut like to ramp up the suspense by not announcing them for another month or two. By now we’ve seen all the longlists, the novels that have popped up everywhere like dandelions and the surprise breakthroughs that we’ve exclaimed over and vowed to read someday. After a certain point, for those of us who follow these things recreationally-but-attentively, there just isn’t a whole lot more to say (other than keeping a running tally on The Millions’s very Jamesian scorecard—and by Jamesian I mean Bill, not Henry or William).

So in the interest of leaving off with all the stats and metrics, I just want note that the announcement I’m most looking forward to this month is the shortlist for The Center for Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. Because… well, I’m sorry I can’t put it more critically, but that’s just a very pretty longlist. You’ve got your front-runners and your dark horses, big publishers and small presses, and really, not a single one that I wouldn’t gladly drop everything and read (except for the ones I’ve already dropped everything and read). Part of what makes the list so tasty, I think, is that the finalists are nominated by some 50 booksellers from indie bookstores all over the country—a kind of large-scale hand sell that carries a nice sense of justice. Recent winners include Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which got lots of additional attention, and Bonnie Nadzam’s wonderful, discomfiting Lamb, which didn’t get nearly enough.

The prize’s main sponsor is Nancy Dunnan, coauthor of—among other works—The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette. With a $10,000 first prize and an additional $1,000 going to each of the shortlisted finalists, I’d say that’s a very civil display of literary manners. Mostly, though, it’s a great-looking longlist. I’m not quite ready to start thinking about the 2015 award cycle, but checking out the novels featured here should keep me busy for a while.


Letterforms Outside the Box


I discovered hand lettering in sixth grade, one rainy day poking through my mom’s studio in the attic. She had a little graphic design business on the side—on the side of what I was never sure, but between that and the darkroom in the basement it gave her every excuse not to engage with my dad, who had custody of the rest of the house. But she let me do anything I wanted up there: look through her collection of art books, use any of her cool materials—dip pens and mechanical pens and dyes and watercolors and big pads of thick cold-pressed paper. I was a careful kid, asked before I used anything and always cleaned up after myself, so I was always welcome, and it was a fine place to explore.

I already had a low-level fascination with type, and liked to look covetously through her big envelope of Letraset sheets, which I probably liked originally because they were a step or two up from the rub-ons I loved so much when I was little—the term for them, technically, was “rub-down transfers,” sheets of little dry picture decals that you could transfer onto the panoramic board backgrounds they came with—but that’s what we called them. In retrospect they sound kind of boring, but there was a certain hypnotic pleasure in placing each one in just the right spot, thoroughly rubbing the back, and pulling away the plastic—oh, the suspense!—to see if it had worked completely, or if you’d have to try a second time to transfer the other half of the image, and the edges never quite lined up. Letraset was like that, but I was also entranced by the letterforms themselves. I’m not sure I’d ever thought about the physical lines and shapes that made up the words in the books and comics I loved, but this made me consider them, and I liked the artistry involved.

Letraset was expensive, though, and I knew better than to use up my mom’s just playing around. But I found something almost as good, for my experimental purposes: a thick black three-ring binder with some 500 pages of fonts, full alphabets in graduated point sizes, from the conservative Times New Roman to any number of far out decorative typefaces. Octopuss. Lazybones. Motter Umbra. Tango. Sinaloa. This was the ’70s, and type was weird. But all I needed to experiment was tracing paper, a sharp pencil, and a radiograph to ink the finished product in. I spent hours out of my nerdy pre-teen life playing around with letterforms, and eventually started a little business doing custom lettering jobs—mostly for the front of other kids’ notebooks or textbooks, where I’d carefully rubber-cement the tracing paper onto Bristol board and proudly hand the finished product over for a couple of dollars.

I was still hand-lettering up until I got to art school, which had a computer lab. And then my agonizingly slow tracing days were over—you could do anything with some scalable fonts, Microsoft Word, and a little patience. I swapped free fonts with friends the way we would music a few years later. But I never lost my love for nicely handcrafted letterforms; I like to make them, and I like to look at them. Computers may have killed the necessity for hand-drawn type, but what is being made has a rapt audience online, and there are no end of variations.

Which is an awfully long-winded way of introducing a few of this week’s typographical finds.

D-Main-resizeFirst off, via Taxi, Nicola Yeoman’s letterforms. The collection isn’t a full alphabet, but assemblages of materials that form letters, and accompanying photos that deconstruct them, breaking them down into details. They’re haunting and exquisite—I think the letter D is my favorite, though the New York Times Magazine-commissioned T, with its scaffolding of branches, is a close second.

Tommy-Perez_AtoZoë_QOn the less mysterious side of things is designer Tommy Perez’s food alphabet, which he created for—and with—his 2-year-old daughter Zoë. As Perez explained to Fast Company Design, it was a way to teach her the ABCs but also get her involved:

Zoë has always had an interest in helping or contributing to whatever I was working on…. Whether it be building something or sketching, Zoë always wanted to be doing the same. So when I shifted to freelancing from home, I wanted to make sure she had something fun and creative that was just her own.

Plus, he says, she gets to eat the finished product, which includes hummus, olives, quinoa, and sunflower seeds.

calligraphy_textFinally, we have Christina Vanko writing in The Atlantic about sending all her text messages in calligraphy for a week. And while the temptation is to dismiss it as gimmicky and cute… it’s a great gimmick. And it is cute. Plus, as projects go, it turned out to be pretty interesting; she logs her friends’ responses (“It’s like you’re deaf and you’re writing down your response to everything. You should do this to ppl in person haha”) and questions (“Have you made like a go-to standard phrase page with like “lol” and “I know right?”). Aside from the more predictable discoveries—that writing everything out made her more thoughtful about what she was saying and how—I thought it was interesting that even with the expressiveness of handwriting, she missed the convenience of emojis (and used selfies instead).

So there you are, three artists whom I wouldn’t necessarily term typographers or calligraphers, who’ve taken advantage of the visual and conceptual resources of both arts. So much of my reading lately tends to be in pixel form, or e-ink, or just so content-dependent that I wouldn’t notice a beautiful ampersand if it fell out of the book and broke my toe. But it’s good to think about letters, and lettering, and what goes into the parts that make the whole.

(Images, top to bottom: Octopuss font; “Letter D” © Nicola Yeoman; “Letter Q” © Tommy Perez; Christina Vanko for The Atlantic.)


Beyond “Ass in Chair”: Poets & Writers’ “Writers Recommend”

water_flowing_ms-archivesWell, hello. We’re back from a brief midsummer break—thanks eternally to Terry Weyna for holding down the fort—recharged, we hope, and refreshed, with all sorts of good things to share. As much as the labor-of-love aspect of blogging can feel like a liability, it’s unquestionably nice to be able to walk away from something for a little while without major repercussions other than a dismal page hit count and some impatient readers. Most responsibilities, though, require regular attendance even when the desire to do so has taken off for a long weekend in the woods—ironically, or maybe that should be especially, when it comes to the creative pursuits that we love enough to make them our livelihood, but which sometimes feel like nothing more or less than jobs.

My muse takes more vacations than I do, and better ones too. Not just mine, of course. But sometimes it feels that way, which is when it’s a good idea to sit down and read a few entries in Poets & Writers’ Writers Recommend series, where they “ask authors to share books, art, music, writing prompts, films—anything and everything—that has inspired them in their writing. We see this as a place for writers to turn to for ideas that will help feed their creative process.” The responses come from a diverse group of writers—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, published by large imprints and small, with best sellers and backlist books—all of them describing, in a paragraph or two, what helps them keep the words flowing.

I’m not necessarily a fan of the Internet as decentralized group therapy—you want therapy, go to a therapist. But there’s something reassuring to see how assiduously other writers have worked to find work-arounds, and how obviously happy they are to talk about it. We all know ass in chair. But that only goes so far; the ass has to leave the chair periodically to feed the process, whether literally or metaphorically, and I enjoy hearing how other writers do it.

The series is a great window into other people’s creative lives: the talismans, the workplaces, the prompts—music, junk shop photographs, a shoebox full of paper scraps with words and phrases on them—and my favorite, the unblocking techniques. There are a lot of odes to changes of scenery, long walks, mundane tasks, eavesdropping, and showers; I love that Ivy Pochoda has to fight the impulse to take a second shower during the course of her writing day—“that seems weird”—so she goes for a drive instead. Kevin Sampsell gets ideas from collage, both making his own and what he terms “disjointed art: anything that surprises the reader, the viewer, the listener.” In fact, the series is full of quotes that I’ve copied down (a number of writers, including Alix Ohlin and Kyle Minor, advocate writing out, longhand, passages of work they love). I can tell myself a hundred times in a row that impasse unfailingly precedes inspiration, but that can feel like talking to an eye-rolling teenager who sighs and mutters, “Yeah, mom, OK.” It’s much more encouraging to read that sentiment from writers I like and respect, and who have the track records to make me listen to them. And it’s reassuring to find out how many people ritually get out their “Write Like a Motherfucker” coffee mugs when the going gets tough. Mine comes out at least once a month.

Here, write this down for starters. It’s from poet Peter Everwine, quoting Rutger Kopland, quoting Gerrit Krol: “If you don’t stir your soul with a stick every day, you’ll freeze solid.”

(Photo courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.)


Sunday Links, August 10, 2014

What to Read Next

John Scalzi lists his favorite books about epidemics.  I’m surprised he left out Mira Grant’s Newsfeed Trilogy — but maybe he classifies those more as zombie novels than novels about epidemics.  But if that’s the case, how come he included Max Brooks’s World War Z?  Still, it’s hard to argue with his choices; Stephen King’s The Stand may be the best book ever written about an epidemic.

io9 has a terrific list of ten novels that will make you more passionate about science.  It would be easy to double the size of that list, I think.  Add the novels of Richard Powers, for instance (maybe Plowing the Dark would be a good place to start), or some of Marge Piercy’s work (like He, She and It), or a novel or two by Margaret Drabble (The Peppered Moth, perhaps).

CNN offers its opinion on what African writers you should be reading right now.  The article substantially lengthened my list of books to read.


Buzzfeed, with one of its inimitable lists, gives us 18 things that happen when you’re addicted to reading.  Number 12 is especially telling for me, as I regularly burst into tears when something sad happens in books.  You should have seen me while I was reading John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.  (Or, rather, it’s a good thing you didn’t; red eyes, leaking nose and splotchy face is not my best look.)

I’ve had this feeling more than once:  either I liked something no one else did, or I hated something everyone else liked.  It’s the reviewer’s dilemma.


io9 offers tips for creating memorable characters.

Lev Grossman offers advice on how not to write your first novel in a fascinating biographical essay.  I’m excited to read his new novel, The Magician’s Land — the third in his trilogy of books about a school for wizards that is no Hogwarts, but somehow manages to convey much of the same charm on a fully adult level.


The dispute between Amazon and Hachette continues to simmer — though just lately, it seems to be coming to a rolling boil.  Amazon has launched a website called readersunited.com, through which it is appealing to its customers to support it in the dispute.  John Scalzi wrote a well-reasoned article on his blog, Whatever, about how this gambit indicates that Amazon is feeling increasingly nervous about how it is being perceived by its customers.  One of the reasons why Amazon seems to be feeling the pressure:  a petition by more than 900 authors, published in today’s New York Times, asking Amazon to stop using authors as hostages.  The signatories to the petition include a number of heavy hitters, including Stephen King, John Grisham and Douglas Preston.  Not all of the writers are published by Hachette, either, not by a long shot — but they all understand that their publishers could be next in Amazon’s crosshairs.  The Guardian has more information about the petition.  One of the bloggers for the Times points out how wrong Amazon was to choose George Orwell and paperback books as their example of how publishers and authors resist new forms of publication.  Independent authors have responded with a petition of their own in support of Amazon.  Author Hugh Howey has gone further, writing on his blog that authors are being hoodwinked by traditional publishers, who are making a fortune off electronic books but failing to share the riches with the people who wrote the product that’s making them so much money.  The Los Angeles Times, on the other hand, writes about how Amazon’s numbers regarding ebooks aren’t as transparent as Amazon suggests.  How will this dispute be resolved?  It’s anyone’s guess, but right now it looks to me as if Amazon is losing.  Stay tuned.

Fun Stuff

To celebrate the upcoming publication of Haruki Murakami’s new novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, Toast gives us a list of ten ways to determine whether we’re in a Murakami novel.

Michael Cunningham and Ursula K. LeGuin talk about orthodoxy, gender and breaking down the barriers between genres.  The article also gives you a link to buy LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven for only $3.99.  It’s one of my favorite books of hers, and I heartily recommend it.


Sunday Links, August 3, 2014


The 2014 Scribe Awards have been announced.  These awards are given to those who excel at media tie-in writing.  I’d never thought of this category as needing awards — my snobbishness tends toward avoiding tie-in books — but there’s excellence everywhere, if you’re only willing to look for it.

The winner of the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award has been announced.

The Man Booker prize longlist is almost as much fun in contemplation as in actuality.  This is the first time Americans have been elgible for nomination, and there are two such authors on the list:  Karen Joy Fowler for We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (which you may recall won the PEN/Faulkner Award in the United States) and Joshua Ferris for To Rise Again at a Decent Hour.  Personally, I’d like to read all thirteen nominees.  Which ones have you read?

If the Booker isn’t your thing, be sure to vote for the Not the Booker Prize.  The deadline is midnight tonight, so vote quickly!  (That long list sure looks tempting.)

What to Read Next

The beginning of the month always brings a deluge of suggestions for new reading, and August is no exception.  Kirkus suggests the best bets for the month in speculative fiction.  I’ve read Graham Joyce’s The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit, and I agree that it’s very good indeed.

Kirkus also suggests anthologies of science fiction and fantasy short fiction.

Tor.com has a plethora of articles about exceptional genre fiction.  First, there’s this list of British genre fiction from late July, which makes me want to take a quick trip to London.  To complement your reading of the fiction, you might want to take a good, close look at Strange Horizon’s symposium on the state of British science fiction and fantasy.

Second, third, fourth and fifth, there are Tor.com’s lists of books being released in August:  science fiction, urban fantasy, fantasy, and genre-benders.  That last category looks especially delectable to me.  Which ones do you want to read?

Publishers Weekly lists the most anticipated books of the fall reading season.

Kirkus lists nine books a reader could recommend to anyone.  I’m reading Karen Rusell’s Sleep Donation right now, and it’s pretty entrancing.

Gizmodo lists 25 essential books about space travel.

io9 lists 21 books that changed science fiction and fantasy forever.  To which I can only say:  yep, those.

Tor.com suggests a way to circumnavigate the globe through genre fiction.

Remember the fuss over whether grown-ups should be reading young adult literature?  Well, it’s still a subject for debate.  Alicia Lozano discusses why young adult literature is good reading regardless of your age.

Literary Criticism

Public Books has an excellent discussion of The Arabian Nights by Madeleine Doby, using as her starting point a new retelling of 19 of the tales by London-based Lebanese writer Hanan al-Shaykh in One Thousand and One Nights: A Retelling and moving on to Marina Warner’s work of criticism, Stranger Magic.  Both look well worth the reading time, but I’m especially excited to learn of Warner’s work, as I’ve enjoyed her previous work with European fairy tales.

Motherboard discusses feminist science fiction.  Stories by Tiptree, LeGuin, Russ and others certainly informed my thinking when I was a teenager, and they can do the same for you, or your daughter, or your granddaughter, today.

It’s time to take comics seriously, and Public Books gives us a discussion of three compilations that are worthy of close attention.

For Writers

Stephen King has 22 pieces of advice for writers.  They seem pretty straightforward for the most part — nothing I haven’t seen elsewhere — but I’ve never thought of writing as a form of telepathy before.  It makes sense, and it’s a good image.

If you write science fiction, fantasy or horror but don’t have an agent, you’ll be interested to know that four major genre publishers do not require that manuscripts be agented.  As one who reads widely in these genres, I’m happy to report that these publishers are, in fact, quality houses that publish much of what I read.


Doesn’t it seem that books are getting longer?  It’s not your imagination; they actually are increasing in length.  BookRiot gives us the statistics, and then discusses the whys behind this trend toward length.

Yes, Amazon and Hachette are still at war.  Amazon gave some specific reasons for the dispute in a letter to authors and readers.  Chuck Wendig reminds us that, whatever Amazon says, it’s in this for its own profit, and writers forget that at their peril.

HarperCollins is trying a different means to get around the Amazon juggernaut:  selling its own ebooks.  My guess is that the books are not available directly from the publisher in .mobi format, which is proprietary to Amazon and the best format for reading on the Kindle, so this doesn’t make buying from the publisher an option for me — which is a shame, because I’d surely be doing it.  The Guardian doesn’t seem to think that this venture will make much of a dent in Amazon’s hide.

io9 discusses why ebooks cost what they do.

Collecting Books

Many of us who love the printed word also love the packages those words came in.  Indeed, there are many who do not really read much who nonetheless love books merely as packages.  Whichever kind of collector you are, you’ll wish you could afford these books.  If I had to choose from the list, I’d plump for the second edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.  It’s what they mean when they say “Great American Novel” in my estimation.

There’s a notion that one can have too many books and become a book hoarder — or a tsundoku, as the Japanese call it.  I think it’s a silly concept; one can never have too many books.  (I suppose that sentiment automatically makes me a tsundoku, eh?  Especially as the Los Angeles Times defines “more than 1000” volumes a problem — I’ve got about 15 times that many.)

One of the methods of collecting some pursue is to obtain every edition of a particular book.  For that purpose, this article on the changing covers of iconic books might come in handy.

Libraries and Kindle Unlimited

Have you heard about the new Amazon offer?  All you can read on your Kindle for one low, low price — well, so long as “all you can read” doesn’t include any books published by the Big Five publishers, who aren’t participating.  So why not just go to your local public library?  Still, a 30-day introduction to the service is available for free, which might make it worth trying.  Me, I have too much to read as it is.

Cool Stuff

Children’s books are sneakier than you might have thought.  I guess that’s one way to make certain that parents will continue to read to their kids!

If you’ve ever read Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel Dune, you’ll appreciate this recreation of the story in gummy candies.  I’ve rarely seen anything sillier or more awesome.

Kirkus wants a few sequels — not a demand often heard these series-filled days, but an absolutely valid request as to the books featured in its article.  I’d love to read the sequel to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke’s dense, heavily footnoted, and absolutely enchanting story of rival magicians.

Dorkly lists the best Dr. Seuss mash-ups on the internet.  The list captured me immediately with the depiction of The Cat Woman in the Hat.

Ayn Rand’s take on Harry Potter?  I thought you’d never ask.


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.)