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What to Watch: Page One: Inside the New York Times

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If you’re looking for a take down of the New York Times, Page One: Inside the New York Times, is not for you. This documentary, which premiered at Sundance in January and is now available on DVD, is a look at the future of the newspaper industry through the lens of the New York Times’ media editors and reporters.

Director Andrew Rossi, previously the Associate Producer of Control Room, the 2004 documentary about Al Jazeera, had 14 months of considerable access at the Times. His footage even includes scenes from the twice-daily meetings where executives and desk editors meet to decide what stories would make it onto the front page, the coveted spot after which the movie is named.

When asked by The Huffington Post why he allowed Rossi such access, Bill Keller, who was the paper’s Executive Editor at the time of filming, said, “Andrew had what sounded like a smart angle — follow the media desk as it covers the implosion of our own industry”. More importantly, perhaps, “Andrew passed [David Carr’s] smell test.”

For those of you who don’t already who know David Carr is, you will by the end of the film. Former editor of the Twin Cities Reader and the Washington City Paper, now media columnist for the paper, David is the star of the film. He’s brash, incisive, scrappy—and incredibly likable. Despite his rough demeanor, he’s a fair journalist. In an interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, Carr explains that he doesn’t trick sources into giving him good quotes. He doesn’t feed them false pleasantries hoping to lower their guard. If the story’s going to be a rough one, he tells them so they have a chance to defend themselves.

Carr’s media desk cohorts include Brian Stelter, a former anonymous blogger now Times reporter known for his fantastic Twitter skills, reporter Richard Perez-Pena, and department editor Bruce Headlam. Together, with a few other contributors, they form the site’s Media Decoder blog, which according the Times is “an insider’s guide to the media industry . . .  a showcase for the extensive media coverage throughout The New York Times and a window on how the business of connecting with consumers is changing in the digital age.”

The film sets out to chart the wave of uncertainty that swept the newspaper industry starting in 2008—and continues to this day. As part of the investigation into new media’s role in people’s consumption of news and the status of traditional news outlets, Wikileaks acts as a case study. As the paper who released the Pentagon Papers 30 years earlier, Times reporters and news analysts are able to make direct comparisons.

The film allows the editors at the paper to discuss the gaffes that had taken place in quick succession—the Judith Miller Iraq War reporting and the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal—in their own words and how they affected traditional media’s integrity.

In a short segment on the encroaching online outlets both Gawker founder, Nick Denton, and Arianna Huffington, owner of The Huffington Post, said the future of the media is giving people what they want to read. Notable push back on this philosophy, one of hit-driven content, came from former Baltimore City reporter and Wire creator David Simon and Katrina vanden Heuval, Editor and Publisher of the liberal weekly magazine The Nation. ProPublica, an independent, non-profit investigative news outlet was praised for its model and efforts: serious reporting on issues that matter to the health of civil society and their willingness to partner with traditional media outlets for occasional content and distribution.

Also worth mentioning are the interviews with Clay Shirky, a prominent thinker on Internet technologies, and Jeff Jarvis, similarly, a media theorist, both of whom play something of a foil to the more positive predictions for traditional media outlets.

For media junkies, the talk about the future of print journalism, the behind-the-scenes footage, and David Carr’s show-stealing personality makes this documentary well-worth watching. Highly recommended for a lazy Sunday.

::[Links]::
Page One’s official website
Page One on Netflix
Q&A with Andrew Rossi
David Carr and Andrew Rossi on NPR’s Morning Edition
David Carr on Fresh Air
David Carr on Twitter
Brian Stelter on Twitter
Michael Kinsley’s review of the film for the New York Times
Slate’s review
Review on NPR’s All Things Considered

On the Shelf: books by people featured in the film

The Night of the Gun: A reporter investigates the darkest story of his life. His own. by David Carr
David Carr is outspoken about his history with drug addiction. He speaks a bit about it in the film. In this book.

“In his ambition for connection Mr. Carr decides to report on his own life as if That Guy were a stranger. If This Guy can’t clearly see That Guy through the chemical and temporal blur, perhaps others can. Across many months, equipped with tape recorder and video camera, he tracks down figures from his past: friends, antagonists (including old editors), drug dealers, former girlfriends, members of his immediate family. He even interviews his own daughters. He hopes all of them will fill in some of the blanks. For the most part they do. The emerging self-portrait is not pretty.” [Pete Hamill via New York Times]

You can listen to his 2008 interview on Fresh Air about the book and there’s a 3-minute video at the New York Times where he recounts an incident in the book.

Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators by Clay Shirky
“Shirky’s hypothesis is that a lot of the 20th century stuff we used to take for granted — most people didn’t want to create media, people didn’t value homemade and amateur productions, no one would pitch in to create something for others to enjoy unless they were being paid — weren’t immutable laws of nature, but accidents of history. The Internet has undone those accidents, by making it possible for more people to make and do cool stuff, especially together. . . . Cognitive Surplus fizzes with great insights about how people use networks and interact with each other [and] continues to prove that Clay Shirky is one of the best thinkers and advocates the net has. It’s a delight to read and will change how you think about the future.” [via BoingBoing]

You can check out his profile and videos at TED

Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way we Work and Live by Jeff Jarvis
“Privacy has its advocates. Jeff Jarvis has made himself an advocate for publicness. In Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way we Work and Live, the original Internet optimist argues that if we become too obsessed with guarding all personal information on the ‘Net, we’ll miss important opportunities that come with making information available.” [via Fortune at CNN Money]

You can listen to an interview with Jeff about his book on the Six Pixels of Separation podcast

The Kingdom and the Power: Behind the Scenes at The New York Times: The Institution That Influences the World by Gay Talese
Gay Talese, a former reporter for the Times, appeared in the film. He also wrote a book about the paper.

“The classic inside story of The New York Times, the most prestigious, and perhaps the most powerful, of all American newspapers. Bestselling author Talese lays bare the secret internal intrigues behind the tradition of front page exposes in a story as gripping as a work of fiction and as immediate as today’s headlines.” [IndieBound]

You can listen to an interview with Gay on NPR’s Talk of the Nation about his other book A Writer’s Life.

What’s on your shelf? Comments are open.

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Written by Gabrielle

November 17, 2011 at 6:39 am

On the Shelf: NaNoWriMo!

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Beginning on the 1st and ending a second before midnight on the 30th, November is National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo for short.

Now in its 13th year, NaNoWriMo has grown from a small group of idealistic, aspiring writers in the San Francisco area to an organization with an office, 501(c)(3) status, international participation, and celebrity author recognition in just a few years.

In its first year, 1999, founder Chris Baty rounded up 21 participants. By 2010 involvement had grown to 200,000 with 30,000 writers making it to the end with the 50,000 word count goal.

“It’s all about quantity, not quality. This approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly,” the website says. By focusing on producing pages, the writer does away with the endless, sometimes obsessive, retweaking and editing that can stymie creative efforts.

While writing can often be a solitary experience, NaNoWriMo, for one month, makes it feel like a communal happening. Not only is the internet flooded with encouraging stories and helpful tips, there is also plenty of evidence of collective suffering: sleep deprivation, skipped dinners, unwatched television shows, and showers not taken—all in the name of word count.

The rules were developed, reluctantly, the second year as more writers signed up and demanded clarification, but they are simple: 50,000 words, from scratch, written within the month of November.

If you’re in the San Francisco area the organization puts on some great events throughout the month. If not, many bookstores and libraries around the country and across the oceans host write-ins. When you sign up for NaNoWriMo you receive pep talks from some great authors, including Erin Morgenstern, author of The Night Circus.

Unfortunately, if you write nonfiction your work won’t count for NaNoWriMo but you can benefit from the month’s spotlight on writing—both on the process and philosophy of it: setting aside time to bang out a word count, not worrying about a perfect first draft, paying attention to bad habits like procrastination and working to fix them, and reading some great articles on the craft from fellow writers at all stages of expertise and development.

There’s much more information and interactive material on the National Novel Writing Month site including a detailed history of NaNoWriMo and a link to an article about NaNoWriMo’s participation jump in its 3rd year. I encourage you to check it out, even if you aren’t participating.

Around the Web:
GalleyCat is posting all month, you can keep up to date and scroll their archives here.
io9, has a great post on how to write a sincere first draft of a sci-fi novel or fantasy epic.
The Christian Science Monitor has five reasons why you should participate.
Mental Floss is there to taunt you with 6 famous novels that were written in under a month.
Watch a short interview with Erin Morgenstern about how her book came out of a NaNoWriMo session.
Lifehacker has tips on how to harness the mental, creative, and emotional benefits of regular writing.
Flavorwire has a slideshow of advice from history’s fastest and most prolific writers.
The Electric Literature crew came up with a mixtape to listen to for the month while writing.
And if anyone tells you you’re crazy or wasting your time, The Los Angeles Times has 12 reasons to ignore the naysayers.

Helpful Writing Sites:
Poets & Writers, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips, Merriam-Webster online, Daily Writing Tips, Beyond the Margins, Writer’s Digest, Grammarphobia, Center for Fiction, Terrible Minds

Writing Advice Podcasts:
I Should be Writing and Writing Excuses have regular episodes and Tin House magazine has a great lecture of Dorothy Allison’s where she talks about crafting dialogue

What’s on the Shelf:
Now that you’re all geared up to write, here are some books to help you along the way:

The Associated Press Stylebook
More people write for The Associated Press than for any newspaper in the world, and writers-nearly two million of them-have bought more copies of The AP Stylebook than of any other journalism reference. It provides facts and references for reporters, and defines usage, spelling, and grammar for editors. There are separate sections for journalists specializing in sports and business, and complete guidelines for how to write photo captions, file copy over the wire, proofread text, handle copyrights, and avoid libel. [via IndieBound]

The Associated Press Guide to Punctuation
In the no-nonsense, authoritative tradition of the best-selling AP Stylebook, the top editors at the AP have now written the definitive guide to punctuation. [via IndieBound]

The Chicago Manual of Style
Clear, concise, and replete with commonsense advice, The Chicago Manual of Style, fifteenth edition, offers the wisdom of a hundred years of editorial practice while including a wealth of new topics and updated perspectives. For anyone who works with words, whether on a page or computer screen, this continues to be the one reference book you simply must have. [via IndieBound]

Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English by Roy Peter Clark
I can’t recommend Roy Peter Clark’s books enough. I loved Writing Tools and refer to it on a regular basis. It’s also my most recommended book of all time—fiction or nonfiction. You can read my essay about it here.

Glamour of Grammar is his most recent book and in their review, The New York Times picked up on why I like him so much: “Clark wholeheartedly endorses breaking the commandments that make no sense, as long as in the breaking, the writing still holds up.” I’m a rule-breaker and Clark is an encourager of such practices—as long as it’s an informed breaking. They called it “a welcome addition to the bookshelf of anyone who cares about language — and is willing to argue about it.” You can read his Q&A with the Times, follow him on Twitter @RoyPeterClark, and you can find outstanding articles and archived live chats from him on the Poynter Institute’s website.

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg
“The secret of creativity, Natalie Goldberg makes clear, is to subtract rules for writing, not add them….Proof that she knows what she’s talking about is abundant in her own sentences. They flow with speed and grace and accuracy and simplicity….It’s the simple style of a Zen archer who looks like he’s not even aiming, yet sends arrow after arrow to the bull’s eye, time after time.”—Robert Pirsig, author of “Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” [via Natalie’s website]

Here’s an interview with Natalie on Beliefnet about what failure can teach us.

Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing by Mignon Fogarty
Written with the wit, warmth, and accessibility that the podcasts are known for, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing covers the grammar rules and word-choice guidelines that can confound even the best writers. From “between vs. among” and “although vs. while” to comma splices and misplaced modifiers, Mignon offers memory tricks and clear explanations that will help readers recall and apply those troublesome grammar rules. [via publisher]

No Plot? No Problem: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days by Chris Baty
As mentioned above, Chris is the founder of National Novel Writing Month and it only makes sense to have his book included here.
Chris Baty, motivator extraordinaire and instigator of a wildly successful writing revolution, spells out the secrets of writingand finishing a novel. Baty puts pen to paper himself to share the secrets of success. With week-specific overviews, pep “talks,” and essential survival tips for today’s word warriors, this results-oriented, quick-fix strategy is perfect for people who want to nurture their inner artist and then hit print! Anecdotes and success stories from NaNoWriMo winners will inspire writers from the heralding you-can-do-it trumpet blasts of day one to the champagne toasts of day thirty. Whether it’s a resource for those taking part in the official NaNoWriMo event, or a stand-alone handbook for writing to come, No Plot? No Problem! is the ultimate guide for would-be writers (or those with writer’s block) to cultivate their creative selves. [via IndieBound]

Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury shares the wisdom, experience, and  excitement of a lifetime of writing. Here are  practical tips on the art of writing from a master of  the craft-everything from finding original ideas to  developing your own voice and style-as well as the  inside story of Bradbury’s own remarkable career  as a prolific author of novels, stories, poems,  films, and plays. [via IndieBound]

On Writing Well by William Zinsser
If you’re searching for a motivational manifesto and how-to manual in one, this is it. Zinsser, a veteran writer and writing teacher with numerous books and magazine articles to his credit, lays it out straight in a refreshingly no-nonsense tone. [via Dailywritingtips]

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
In the years since its original publication, Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life has become a staple must-read for aspiring writers of all walks. Perhaps this is because her approach to the creative process manages a kind of golden ratio, a balance of magic and pragmatism that continues to reveal its depths to writers of the 21st century. Plainly, this is not a field guide. Dillard does not draw a tidy map. She does the opposite, acknowledging the unknown and unknowable wilderness that every writer must face. [via Center for Fiction]

How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card
You’ve always dreamed of writing science fiction and fantasy—tales that pull readers into extraordinary new worlds and fantastic conflicts. Best-selling author Orson Scott Card shows you how it’s done, distilling years of writing experience and publishing success into concise, no-nonsense advice. You’ll learn how to utilize story elements that define the science fiction and fantasy genres; build, populate, and dramatize a credible, inviting world your readers will want to explore; develop the “rules” of time, space and magic that affect your world and its inhabitants; construct a compelling story by developing ideas, characters, and events that keep readers turning pages; find the markets for speculative fiction, reach them, and get published; and submit queries, write cover letters, find an agent, and live the life of a writer [via Writer’s Digest]

The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House
The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House combines the best craft seminars in the history of the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop with a variety of essays written by some of Tin House’s favorite authors, offering aspiring writers insight into the craft of writing.

Dorothy Allison, Jim Shepard, Aimee Bender, Steve Almond, D. A. Powell, and others break down elements of craft and share insights into the joys and pains of their own writing. This cast of deeply respected poets and prose writers explore topics that vary from writing dialogue to the dos and don’ts of writing about sex. With how-tos, close readings, and personal anecdotes,The Writer’s Notebook offers future scribes advice and inspiration. [via Tin House]

What are your favorite writing books? Are you participating in NaNoWriMo? Do you have a favorite NaNoWriMo article? Comments are open. 

Written by Gabrielle

November 9, 2011 at 5:40 pm

On the Shelf: What is Dark Fantasy?

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The parsing of genres into subgenres and then into sub-subgenres has its champions and its critics. Many who oppose it feel it’s a disingenuous marketing gimmick created by the publishing industry to sell more books. Those who encourage breaking down science fiction, fantasy, and horror into further subsections feel it’s easier to discuss the books they like and to find other authors like the ones they’ve just read.

This won’t be the last I mention categorizing books, and I won’t go as in-depth here as I will in the future, however, a brief acknowledgment was is in order before mentioning a recent SF Signal round table discussion that took place on their podcast.

The topic, one I’d been eagerly awaiting, was “Dark Fantasy”. It’s a term I use often to describe a story that is mainly fantastical in nature but has a creepy element to it.

The panel of well-read experts was largely in agreement with the definition: Karen Burnham, editor of Locus magazine’s Roundtable Blog, said that horror is not the main thrust; Paul Weimer, blogger and SF Signal contributor, said that fantasy is the key and the horror is merely lurking; and similarly, John Stevens, writer and bookseller, said that with dark fantasy, the horror elements are there to intensify the fantastical. All agreed that the term was ambiguous and subjective, which is apparent from their selection of books they accredit with the moniker. If you want to know what they suggested, you’ll just have to listen.

Have you read any dark fantasy lately? How would you define it? Who are some of your favorite dark fantasy authors? Favorite books?

On the Shelf for Halloween
Here’s a mixture of dark fantasy and horror titles to get you in the mood for Halloween.

The Complete Grimms’ Fairy Tales by Brothers Grimm (1812)
This was interesting: The first volumes were much criticized because, although they were called “Children’s Tales”, they were not regarded as suitable for children, both for the scholarly information included and the subject matter. Many changes through the editions – such as turning the wicked mother of the first edition in Snow White and Hansel and Gretel to a stepmother, were probably made with an eye to such suitability. They removed sexual references—such as Rapunzel’s innocently asking why her dress was getting tight around her belly, and thus naïvely revealing her pregnancy and the prince’s visits to her stepmother—but, in many respects, violence, particularly when punishing villains, was increased. [Wikipedia]

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1823)
To those who have not read the book, the name Frankenstein is often associated with the monster rather than its creator. The mistake is perhaps not altogether erroneous, for as many critics point out the creature and his maker are doubles of one another, or doppelgängers. Their relationship is similar to that between the head and the heart, or the intellect and the emotion. The conception of the divided self–the idea that the civilized man or woman contains within a monstrous, destructive force–emerges as the creature echoes both Frankenstein’s and narrator Robert Walton’s loneliness: all three wish for a friend or companion. Frankenstein and his monster alternately pursue and flee from one another. Like fragments of a mind in conflict with itself, they represent polar opposites which are not reconciled, and which destroy each other at the end. For example, the creature enacts the repressed desires of its maker, alleviating Victor Frankenstein’s fear of sexuality by murdering his bride, Elizabeth Lavenza, on their wedding night. Identities merge, as Frankenstein frequently takes responsibility for the creature’s action: for instance, after the deaths of the children William and Justine, both of which were caused by the creature, Frankenstein admits they were “the first hapless victims to [his] unhallowed arts.” [Brandeis]

Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)
By this time I had finished my supper, and by my host’s desire had drawn up a chair by the fire and begun to smoke a cigar which he offered me, at the same time excusing himself that he did not smoke. I had now an opportunity of observing him, and found him of a very marked physiognomy.

His face was a strong, a very strong, aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils, with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion. The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth. [BBC]

Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe from 18 Best Stories by Edgar Allan Poe
The vengeful Montresor repays the supposed insults of his enemy, Fortunato. Luring Fortunato into the crypts of his home with the promise of Amontillado sherry, Montresor entombs Fortunato in a wall while the carnival rages above them. [Sparknotes]

The Gormenghast Novels by Mervyn Peake (1946 – 59)
Classic epic fantasy:
Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls. They sprawled over the sloping earth, each one half way over its neighbour until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the great walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock. These dwellings, by ancient law, were granted this chill intimacy with the stronghold that loomed above them. Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow. [Titus Groan. Book 1]

Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)
The ghost story is a small genre to begin with, but its subgenre, the psychological ghost story, the category to which The Haunting of Hill House and Henry James’ tales belong, is tinier still. The literary effect we call horror turns on the dissolution of boundaries, between the living and the dead, of course, but also, at the crudest level, between the outside of the body and everything that ought to stay inside. In the psychological ghost story, the dissolving boundary is the one between the mind and the exterior world. [Laura Miller, Introduction to the Haunting of Hill House]

Hellboy by Mike Mignola and John Byrne (Character’s first appearance: 1993)
Hellboy is one of the most celebrated comics series in recent years. The ultimate artists’ artist and a great storyteller whose work is in turns haunting, hilarious, and spellbinding, Mike Mignola has won numerous awards in the comics industry and beyond. When strangeness threatens to engulf the world, a strange man will come to save it. Sent to investigate a mystery with supernatural overtones, Hellboy discovers the secrets of his own origins, and his link to the Nazi occultists who promised Hitler a final solution in the form of a demonic avatar. [Indiebound] Check out some Hellboy Art

The Blade Itself by Joe Ambercrombie (2007)
Dark fantasy meets sharp-edged war story in the standalone tale of a single great battle for control of the North, set in the world of The First Law.  Taking place over three days, it follows the misadventures of six varied people on both sides of the conflict and at all levels of command, their stories played out against an epic backdrop of intrigue, ambition, betrayal and, of course, a lot of edged weapons used in anger. [Joe Ambercrombie]

The Years Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2011 edited by Paula Guran (2011)
With short stories from Neil Gaiman, Gene Wolf, George R.R. Martin, Tim Powers, and more.

Welcome to the dark. It comes in more colors than you may have imagined. Quiet blue shadows, a glimpse of ghostly white, a once-dim corner deepening to stygian black, the sudden scarlet stain in the basement, the flash of flesh turning to fur, crumbling ash-gray memories, deep jungle greens, mottled-glaucous full moons, the brown of fresh-turned earth, a cutting slash of silver, the tempting glint of gold, bruising purple, alien orange, urban neons, the iridescent shimmer of colors the human eye cannot always see…Find them all in the words of these masterful storytellers. The best dark fantasy and horror from 2010: more than 550 pages of dark tales from some of today’s best-known writers of the fantastique as well new talents. Chosen from a variety of sources, these stories may help you see the many colors of the dark. [Prime Books]

What are you reading this Halloween?

Written by Gabrielle

October 27, 2011 at 5:49 am

On the Shelf: So Subversive

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Bookrageous is one of the best podcasts out there. Every other week its three hosts discuss books centering around one theme. The topics, as well as the hosts, are always interesting, informative, and loaded with great suggestions—I always have a list of new titles by the end. Their latest show on subversive books is one of my favorites so far.

In this episode Josh from Brews and Books, Rebecca of The Book Lady’s Blog, and Jenn, the event coordinator at WORD bookstore talk about the subversive books they read while growing up. Their reminiscing made me think back to my own experience with books, read amongst the backdrop of hormone rushes and a desperate search for identity

Starting in my preteen years, I’d had a sense that I didn’t fit in. School life was often uncomfortable. It was an alien world of fashionable clothes, makeup, and boyfriends; when I found the energy, my attempts never came out quite right. My efforts always manifested themselves into an unintended parody.

It was in books that I found kindred spirits, whether they were fictional characters or stories about other misfits who rose above the constraints of society. I found role models in those who couldn’t care less about the opinions of others and over time the notion took.

According to Merriam Webster, “to subvert” means:
1. to overturn or overthrow from the foundation
2. to pervert or corrupt by an undermining of morals, allegiance, or faith

And “subversive” is:
1. the act of subverting : the state of being subverted;especially : a systematic attempt to overthrow or undermine a government or political system by persons working secretly from within.

Although it’s not a new idea and not at all surprising, I love that a book can prove so powerful that it has a profound effect on someone’s worldview—ideally in a way that makes them a better person and not causes them to do evil, although that’s been known to happen.

Josh, Rebecca, and Jenn’s conversation—and choices—reminded me that the right book put in the hands of teen can provide a burst of self-acceptance and inspire a quiet rebellion. As expected, many of our choices overlapped but there were a few I still haven’t gotten around to that are worth noting. Briefly, as they have an extensive list on their Tumblr page, they are: A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, The Giver by Lois Lowry, Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson, and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Here’s what’s been on my subversive shelf over the years (in no particular order):

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe
I remember hiding this one from my parents in fear that they would think (or more accurately, know) that I was doing drugs. I was a big fan of the Grateful Dead and like any kid with a tendency towards OCD and manic-consumption I read anything by or about them or anyone within their circle. Tom was one of the founders of New Journalism in the 60s and 70s and in this book he goes on the road with Ken Kesey and his group of Merry Pranksters as they drive cross country in a bus doing drugs and going to Dead shows.

The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff
Stemming from, or maybe riding parallel to, my interest in the Grateful Dead was an interest in Buddhism. I remember the Eastern philosophy flipping my Western upbringing somewhat on its head. Like many teen outcasts, I had a feeling something was wrong. I couldn’t place it but something about the surrounding culture felt off. The Tao of Pooh opened my eyes to a different way of seeing the world in a way my 15-year-old brain could grasp. This book paved the way for many years of on-again-off-again study of Buddhism and probably kept me sane.

Native Son by Richard Wright
As a white girl from the suburbs of Long Island, Richard Wright was my first glimpse into the black experience. Native Son, the story of a 20-year-old black kid living in 1930s Chicago, led me on a long varied journey through other black writers with books like Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin, Soul on Ice by Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, the gritty, pulp memoir Pimp by Iceberg Slim, and feminist books by Bell Hooks.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Or any book by S.E. Hinton really. I have a vivid memory of my mom going to the library one afternoon and asking what book I wanted. I’d just finished The Outsiders and was craving more like it. “Anything by S.E. Hinton,” I said; but what I really meant was, “anything with screwed up teenagers”. Hinton’s books brought me inside the lives of tormented kids and I took comfort in their pain. The torment the characters experienced spoke to me and I could never go back to The Baby-sitter’s Club again.

Go Ask Alice by Anonymous
My friends and I passed this one around amongst ourselves. It’s the diary of a girl whose writing perfectly captures the “torture and hell of adolescence”. While I don’t remember the details, I do remember there being some sort of decent into drug-fueled self-destruction. Apparently it was written with the intention of being a deterrent. Oh well.

Ishmael by Daniel Quinn
This book did more to change the way I saw the world than any book I’d read before or since. It was the first time I’d thought of the implications of our society’s structure. Told through the point of view of a telepathic gorilla, Ishmael, Quinn explains why the agrarian culture—keeping food under lock and key—was the beginning of the end of our freedom. Reading this powerful book was one of my first eye-opening experiences.

Generation X by Douglas Coupland
I credit Coupland with rekindling my interest in reading after the long, hard slog through assigned books. He made me realize that there were books out there that could speak to the modern world in a way I could relate. While the story itself is a bit hazy in my memory, I remember how the structure was something I’d never seen before. The layout was playful and creative. It wasn’t merely text on a page, there were sidebars with odd definitions and random pictures. The story itself was about dropping out of our growing materialist culture and the search for meaning along the way. Coupland showed up at the right time with just the right tone.

Radical Thinkers Series from Verso
If you’re currently looking for subversion in theory form, I highly recommend Verso’s Radical Thinkers series. There you’ll find mind-blowing thinkers such as Slavoj Zizek, Jean-Paul Sartre, Antonio Negri, Chantal Mouffe, and others. It just goes to show that just because you grow up, the subversion doesn’t need to end.

What subversive books influenced your worldview as a kid? Did you ever hide any books at the bottom of a clothing drawer?

Written by Gabrielle

October 20, 2011 at 6:14 am

On the Shelf: Fangirl about Town, Insomnia in Paradise Edition

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Blake Butler at BookCourt

On Sunday night at BookCourt, Atlanta-based HTMLGIANT editor and novelist Blake Butler read from his latest book, Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia, his first work of nonfiction. Stemming from his own long battle with insomnia, which he owes in part to his racing mind, Blake set out to explore the many aspects of the subject, not just his own experience.

For the book, he researched insomnia’s “role in history, art, and science through its unexpected consequences on [his] personal imagination, creative process, and perspective on reality. . . . Invoking scientific data, historical anecdote, Internet obsession, and figures as diverse as Andy Warhol, Gilles Deleuze, John Cage, Anton LaVey, Jorge Luis Borges, Brian Eno, and Stephen King, Butler traces the tension between sleeping and conscious life.” For anyone familiar with the website he created, Blake’s mad-intelligence will not come as a surprise—he’s one of the most intimidating minds out there today.

I’d seen Blake read from his debut full-length novel, There is No Year, this past April and while that was fiction and this one is nonfiction, his reading style is the same for both: manic, driving, machine gun-intense, which one can assume is how he hears it in his head. It’s an infectious intonation and once listen to, his voice is forever with you as you read his words.

HTMLGIANT is a frenetic blog, now with many contributors, and has the feel of an ongoing experiement in boundary-pushing. On a daily basis it features literary and film criticism, behind-the-scenes looks at writing and writing programs, author interviews, and occasional matters of highly-structured irrelevance. When visiting the site, you’re bound to learn about something you didn’t know existed, possibly stumble onto smart commentary regarding an otherwise mundane topic, and a bookmark a bunch of posts worthy of quiet contemplation.

Butler is someone you should know about if you don’t already. He’s an original, mind-blowing voice with a trustworthy sense for talented, contemporary thinkers.

You can listen to an hour-long interview with Blake about insomnia, writing fiction vs. nonfiction, and David Foster Wallace on the Other People podcast with Brad Listi. You can follow him and HTMLGIANT on Twitter at @blakebutler and @htmlgiant.

A Night at McNally Jackson

On Monday night, three ladies of the literary world took to the floor of McNally Jackson for an intimate conversation about the writing life. Diana Abu-Jaber, author of four novels, her most recent Birds of Paradise, was joined by her editor Alane Mason and agent Joy Harris, both of nearly 20 years.

Diana began with a short reading from the book described by the publisher as, “the story of a runaway daughter, Felice, and the effect of her absence on her mother, father, and brother.” And, in the broader sense, one that “illuminates the silent crosscurrents of guilt, anger, blame, and grief that can plague a family,” which promises to “resonate with all those who have sought adolescent independence and then yearned to reconnect with their families once they are grown up.”

When Alane and Joy claimed the seats next to Diana, the mutual admiration and respect was palpable. You could feel their years together in the air. The three launched into what a touching reflection on their triangular relationship, a behind-the-scenes look inside the writing and editorial process. The night drove home the notion that a book is not always a solo act, that editors and agents matter: Alane and Joy allow Diana to indulge her “fugue state,” as they called it, and Diana knows that she has those two to ground her work in reality when the first draft is done.

As is the intention with these multi-person events, Diana was not the only draw. Her editor, Alane, is the founder and president of Words Without Borders, a groundbreaking website founded in 1999—with its first publication in 2003—dedicated to publishing, translating, and promoting contemporary international literature. You can watch Alane discuss her motivation and mission in a 2009 interview at the Big Think. You can also follow Diana on Twitter at @dabujaber.

What’s on the shelf?

The Innovator’s Cookbook: Essentials for Inventing What’s Next by Steven Johnson
Steven Johnson’s books are quickly becoming popular with help in part to the fun videos that go along with them. His last book, Where Good Ideas Come From had this awesome trailer that’s now been viewed over a million times. His latest book’s video shows the creation of the 3-D letters used for the cover image.

The Innovator’s Cookbook “features a number of conversations with creative minds from technology, business, education and the arts, talking about their methods.” In Steven’s own words, the book is an “anthology of classic essays on innovation” with “many important essays by some of [his] heroes” includig Stewart Brand, John Seely Brown, and Erik Von Hippel. Aside from the essays, it’s also a collection of conversations he’d had with innovators. Some of the innovators interviewed are “Ray Ozzie on software; Brian Eno on music and art; Beth Noveck on government innovation.”

You can check out Steven’s website here and follow him on Twitter @stevenbjohnson.

The Best American Comics 2011 edited by Alison Bechdel
The Best American Comics is a collection of work from both new and established artists. Cult comic artist Alison Bechdel, creator of “Dykes to Watch Out For” and author of the biographical graphic novel Fun Home, is the editor of this series’ latest edition. In compiling the book, Alison grabbed from graphic novels, pamplet comics, newspapers, magazines, mini-comics and webcomics. Some of the artists featured are Joe Sacco, Jeff Smith, and Dash Shaw. You can read an Interview with Alison with the AV Club where she talks about the selection process, past projects she’s worked on, and the importance of zines.

What’s on your shelf this week? Comments are open. 

Written by Gabrielle

October 13, 2011 at 5:18 am

On the Shelf: Fangirl About Town

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Largehearted Lit at WORD
Last Sunday at WORD in Greenpoint, Largehearted Boy hosted his monthly Largehearted Lit series where every month he brings together two authors and a musician to bring fuse his two loves: words and music.

September’s theme, as each reading has a theme, was the modern golden age of young adult fiction. Brooklyn writers Libba Bray and Steve Brezenoff, came out to read their work and discuss music. Steve read from his book The Absolute Value of -1, a coming-of-age love story, and his latest, Brooklyn Burning, “a love letter to Brooklyn, a love letter to music booming from the basement, and most of all, a love letter to every kind of love (but especially the punk rock kind).”

Alicia Jo Rabins, a classically trained violinist of Girls in Trouble, along with bassist Aaron Hartman, played an incredible short set of songs based on stories of women in the Old Testament. They were at once highly original, dark, and whimsical. You can find their music on their Myspace page.

Libba, author of Going Bovine and most recently Beauty Queens, read an original humor essay, an “aural biography,” about growing up in rural Texas, using music as an escape, and the role bands played in the relationship between her and her brother throughout the years. She then ended the night by serenading the crowd with Tom Petty’s American Girl.

As if the authors and music wasn’t enough, Kiesha, “The Brooklyn Baker,” provided amazing cupcakes.

The McSweeney’s Crew at McNally Jackson
John Warner, who was, up until recently, the editor of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, celebrated the release of his latest novel, The Funny Man, with McSweeney’s writers Ben Greenman, Teddy Wayne, and Sarah Walker at McNally Jackson in SoHo.

Ben Greenman read his hilariously cynical piece called “Blurbs,” a piece comprised entirely of blurbs. For anyone in the book publishing business, anything related to it, or an astute reader, this is an amazingly entertaining exercise. It appeared in his short story collection, Superbad: Stories and Pieces. You can read through his McSweeney’s archive here.

Sara Walker writes an advice column for McSweeney’s called “Sarah Walker Shows You How”. That night she read “How to Cure a Hangover,” a funny piece that may or may not help if have a hangover. She also read the first piece she published in McSweeney’s, “When Dakota Fanning Travels to Spain for a Junior Semester Abroad, She Will Take Full Advantage of the Experience”, a bitingly funny sketch about what Dakota Fanning will do while studying in Spain, which was accepted by John when he was the editor. Her full archive can be found here.

Teddy Wayne is, at that time of this post, the most frequent contributor to McSweeney’s online. He’s also the author of author of Kapitoil, a novel about a young man who comes to New York from Qatar and creates a computer program named Kapitoil that predicts oil futures, earning his company record profits. Soon he begins to question its moral implications.

Teddy read his article from McSweeney’s, “Listmania!: Other Books Useful (or Not), for Americans to Read, Beyond William Blum’s Rogue State, by Osama B. L.,” which was a satricial look at the Amazon bestseller list through the eyes of the notorious terrorist. Some of the suggested books include: The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom, The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks, and The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger. You can read his other articles at McSweeney’s.

John closed the night by reading from his new novel which is (surprise, surprise) a satirical look at the comedic novel. A meta-fiction as only a McSweeney’s author can do. Here’s a bit of a description from IndieBound:

The funny man is a middling comic in an unnamed city. By day he takes care of his infant son, by night he performs in small clubs, sandwiched between other aspiring comics. His wife waits tables to support the family. It doesn’t sound like much, but they’re happy, more or less. Until the day he comes up with it. His thing. His gimmick. And everything changes. He’s a headliner, and the venues get bigger fast. Pretty soon it’s Hollywood and a starring role in a blockbuster, all thanks to the gimmick.

What’s on the shelf?

As someone who is perpetually early, even when trying to be late, I wind up with a lot of time to peruse the shelves of bookstores while waiting for readings to begin. Here’s what I came across this week:

The Stranger: The Labyrinth of Echo—Book One by Max Frei
The cover on this one grabbed it. The textured surface, the brown tones with the creepy typeface, and the great illustration that makes you want to know what’s going on with the boy in the picture. It’s billed as “part fantasy, part horror, part philosophy”.

Nobody Move: A Novel by Denis Johnson
I loved the pulpy artwork on the cover of this one and when I read on the back of the book that it was noir, I was sold. Denis Johnson has been getting a ton of attention among the literary crowd, giving him the air of “a safe bet”.

From IndieBound:

Jimmy Luntz is an innocent man, more or less. He’s just leaving a barbershop chorus contest in Bakersfield, California, thinking about placing a few bets at the track, when he gets picked up by a thug named Gambol and his life takes a calamitous turn. Turns out Jimmy owes Gambol’s boss significant money, and Gambol’s been known to do serious harm to his charges. Soon enough a gun comes out, and Jimmy’s on the run. While in hiding he meets up with a vengeful, often-drunk bombshell named Anita, and the two of them go on the lam together, attracting every kind of trouble.

Pirate Palooza by Erik Craddock
It’s never too early to introduce kids to the wonder of comic books. They show young readers that books can be a lot of fun and in the process maybe inspire them to create their own visual stories. My five-year-old nephew loved the graphic novel B.C. Mambo I picked up for him a few months ago. With his birthday coming up and his unwavering obsession with pirates, Pirate Palooza seemed like the perfect gift.

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
I’ve been meaning to read this classic science fiction novel for a while. Heinlein is a staple of the space-based scifi novel and Stranger is possibly his best-known work.

A description:

Stranger in a Strange Land, winner of the 1962 Hugo Award, is the story of Valentine Michael Smith, born during, and the only survivor of, the first manned mission to Mars. Michael is raised by Martians, and he arrives on Earth as a true innocent: he has never seen a woman and has no knowledge of Earth’s cultures or religions. But he brings turmoil with him, as he is the legal heir to an enormous financial empire, not to mention de facto owner of the planet Mars. With the irascible popular author Jubal Harshaw to protect him, Michael explores human morality and the meanings of love. He founds his own church, preaching free love and disseminating the psychic talents taught him by the Martians. Ultimately, he confronts the fate reserved for all messiahs.

What’s on your shelf?

Written by Gabrielle

October 6, 2011 at 5:55 am

On the Shelf: Child Protagonists and Compelling Interviews

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The first panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival featured three outstanding authors who recently featured children protagonists in their adult novels. The title of the talk was “Kids on the Skids” and was moderated by Richard Locke, author of the nonfiction book Critical Children: The Use of Childhood in Ten Great Novels.

Locke’s book explores 130 years of child representation in adult literature. He examines such characters as Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and Pip in Great Expectations; Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn; Miles and Flora in The Turn of the Screw; Peter Pan, Holden Caulfield, Lolita, and Alexander Portnoy of Portney’s Complaint.

The panelists included Justin Torres who recently published We The Animals, a semi-autobiographical novel of three brothers growing up in a poor, dysfunctional household—although he would dispute that last term; Tayari Jones whose recent novel, Silver Sparrow, is about a young girl with a bigamist father who learns she and her mother are the secret family out of the two he’s chosen to have; and Kevin Holohan whose book The Brothers’ Lot is a satirical look at Catholic priest abuses through the lense of students at a boys school in Dublin.

It was a question I’d never thought to ask: how do authors use childhood and child narrators in novels meant for adults? It’s easily overlooked as you settle into a book—absorbed in the story, taken in by the dialogue, and intrigued by the characters. But how do books differ when told by someone without life experience, a person inherently naive, and by someone who might not have the language to explain the world around them. The answers the authors gave were thoughtful and eye-opening.

In his book, Kevin used children as a way to critique an institution. To him the child characters act as a counterpoint to the nastiness of adults. His explanation echoed Richard’s findings that children in literature offer an ethical alertness and a fresh perspective untainted by the cynicism of adulthood.

Tayari’s characters came about through her personal feeling that “children matter,” that young people belong to the world just as much as grownups, and that they often suffer from their marginal status in society.

Justin’s novel is informed by looking back on his childhood as an adult making sense of an experience. He wanted a view absent of the language “pop-psychology” has injected into our lexicon—words such as “dysfunctional” and “abusive”. This intentional exclusion echos the childhood experience, the one where our lives appear normal.

It was a great discussion by four insightful authors, one that undoubtedly add layers to how I view stories from a child’s perspective.

What was the last adult novel you read that had a child protagonist? Were you aware of the point of view?

On the shelf . . .

Tin House: The Ecstatic vol. 13 Summer 1
Tin House is a quarterly literary magazine now in its twelfth year. Their issues, featuring fiction, poetry, essays, interviews, and beyond-book-report-style reviews, are always worth reading from cover to cover. The latest, entitled The Ecstatic, has eye-catching cover art from Matt Hansel, fiction from Small Beer Press founder and author Kelly Link, an essay on drugs from Peter Berbergal whose book is forthcoming from Soft Skull Press, some thoughts on Joey McIntyre formerly of New Kids on the Block by the lovely Emma Straub, poetry from Meghan O’Rourke, and an interview with poet and novelist Ben Okri. Tin House is the perfect place to get all your edgy, literary kicks in one place. You can keep track of them through their website, on Facebook, and at Twitter: @Tin_House.

The Book of Cthulhu edited by Ross E. Lockhart
H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu has had a lasting effect on science fiction, fantasy, and horror writers. This collection includes mythos-inspired stories from Charles Stross, Cherie Priest, Elizabeth Bear, and many others.

Before I get to the next three books on my list, it’s worth noting that a great author interview make me take notice of a book. There were three interviews this week that grabbed my attention. The first two, Catherynne Valente and Genevieve Valentine, were archived shows from the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy, a great sci-fi oriented podcast hosted on the popular website io9.com. The last one was a public radio interview with Toure about his latest book.

Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente
Catherynne is an author as well as the Fiction and Poetry Editor at Apex Magazine, a monthly mag for science fiction, fantasy, and horror. In her interview with the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy she talks about the books she read as a kid, her love of myth, and how she came up with the term “mythpunk.” She also talks about roasting lamb on a spit while reading the Illiad and how young writers can start publishing their work. You can check out her website here where she has a great FAQ page and a lot of stuff available for free.

Here’s a description of Palimpsest, the story of a “sexually transmitted city” from IndieBound:

Between life and death, dreaming and waking, at the train stop beyond the end of the world is the city of Palimpsest. To get there is a miracle, a mystery, a gift, and a curse—a voyage permitted only to those who’ve always believed there’s another world than the one that meets the eye. Those fated to make the passage are marked forever by a map of that wondrous city tattooed on their flesh after a single orgasmic night. To this kingdom of ghost trains, lion-priests, living kanji, and cream-filled canals come four travelers: Oleg, a New York locksmith; the beekeeper November; Ludovico, a binder of rare books; and a young Japanese woman named Sei. They’ve each lost something important—a wife, a lover, a sister, a direction in life—and what they will find in Palimpsest is more than they could ever imagine.

Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine
Genevieve writes both fiction and nonfiction—including movie reviews where she loves to skewer really bad films. You can keep track of her movie-going here. You can find all of her writing and links to other projects through her website.

In her interview with the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy she discusses how she came to write—and appreciate the many layers of—steampunk, her inspiration for writing a book about the circus, and—of course—some very bad films that are still worth watching, or not.

Here’s a brief excerpt from Mechanique on my Tumblr page.

Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness: What it Means to be Black Now by Toure
Toure discussed the premise of his book on The Leonard Lopate Show—that the notion of blackness has changed over the years. Using pop culture and politics, Toure shows that a younger generation is navigating the new landscape based on their experiences rather than their parents’ and grandparents’.

From IndieBound:

Toure begins by examining the concept of “Post-Blackness,” a term that defines artists who are proud to be Black but don’t want to be limited by identity politics and boxed in by race. He soon discovers that the desire to be rooted in but not constrained by Blackness is everywhere. In Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? he argues that Blackness is infinite, that any identity imaginable is Black, and that all expressions of Blackness are legitimate.

The New York Times, in a timely review, called it “one of the most acutely observed accounts of what it is like to be young, black and middle-class in contemporary America.” And went on to say that “Touré inventively draws on a range of evidence — auto­biography, music, art, interviews, comedy and popular social analysis — for a performance carried through with unsparing honesty, in a distinctive voice that is often humorous, occasionally wary and defensive, but always intensely engaging.”

What’s on your shelf this week?

Written by Gabrielle

September 29, 2011 at 6:00 am

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