I know this is old news, but I thought I’d give my brief thoughts on the stories from the New Yorker debut fiction issue. I wasn’t bowled over any of the stories, but I was most impressed by Umwem Alpem’s “Ex-Mas Feast,” not so much for writerly virtuosity as for the glimpse of the exotic the story provides. Perhaps because so many short stories seem to be set in the suburbs, I am always drawn to stories set in faraway places. I was somewhat less impressed by Karen Russell’s “Haunting Olivia,” which I thought would have been a more successful story if it had been half as long. I did, however, enjoy how Russell injected a bit of the surreal into her story. I was also dutifully shocked upon discovering that she is only 23 years old, even though I should know that the New Yorker loves to find these fiction savants. Least interesting of all to me was Justin Tussing’s “The Laser Age,” which, at first glance, I thought was going to be a story of the twisted not to distant future, but instead was just another mismatched boy-meets-girl tale.
The numbers are huge, 8.2 million copies sold in 24 hours in the U.S., 2.65 million in the U.K., but Harry Potter isn't necessarily a boon for book stores. The big chains, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and the like, discount the book sharply in order to compete with one another, and then they hope that customers will pick up some other books where the profit margins are better. Independent bookstores are far less likely to discount at all. They don't get the books in large enough quantities to get a deal from the publisher, and, less efficient than the chains, they can't afford to trim profit margins much.Generally, this is the case for most any bestseller, where the chains discount 20%, 30%, even 40% or more, and the indies sell books at full price, getting by on atmosphere, customer loyalty, and skillfully selling non-bestsellers that may not be on the front tables at chain stores. In the case of Harry Potter, however, a whole nother layer of retail establishments gets in on the action. The big box stores, like Wal-Mart, Costco, and Target, have already put the squeeze on the bookstore chains with bulk quantities of deeply discounted bestsellers, so a book like Harry Potter fits nicely into their business plan. But the net is cast even wider for Harry Potter. Grocery stores, usually not likely to have much in the way of books aside from the occasional rack of mass-market paperbacks by the register had stacks and stacks of the final boy wizard installment. Even Best Buy, whose products are probably more typically responsible for a decline in reading, had customers lined up at midnight so it could sell the book, placing Harry Potter alongside the Wii and the PlayStation3 in the pantheon of must have products hawked by the electronics giant.And so, by selling the book at full price and getting by on charm, it's likely some of the indies got a bottom line boost from the Potter madness, but for the chain stores, squeezed by other giant corporations, profits may be tougher. On a much smaller scale, this challenge was evident in Malaysia, where book chains protested the price slashing of grocery giants, who sold Harry Potter at below cost, by boycotting the book (imagine Barnes & Noble trying that!) Eventually, the Malaysian booksellers worked out a deal with Penguin, Harry Potter's distributor in the country, but the episode highlights the high stakes competition that book retailers face when they are forced to go up against retail heavyweights.
What do you do when your nemesis (who you secretly sort of love) up and moves away? How do you fight the emptiness? How do you carry on? These are the questions I imagine Gawker has been pondering for the past two weeks. Lost in the to-do over the 9/11 anniversary was the last night of MisShapes. For those not in the loop (for shame, people, for shame), MisShapes are a trio of DJs whose weekly dance parties at Don Hill's were, for a time, a modern day Studio 54. With their motley collection of absurdly hip hipsters, sporting self-styled monikers like Jonny Makeup and Tommy Hottpants, MisShapes created a party so phosphorous-hot hip it attracted a diverse crowd of celebrities, artists, and trust-fund brats. Max Minghella, Cindy Sherman, David Byrne, Leelee Sobieski - they all partied at MisShapes.While MisShapes flourished as a media phenomenon (the trio themselves became darlings of the fashion world), the backlash against them proved more entertaining. Nowhere was the bile better than on Gawker's weekly feature Blue States Lose. Each week, Gawker took the best photos from websites like MisShapes, Last Night's Party, and The Cobrasnake, and lampooned the partygoers pictured within. Dubbing MisShape member Leigh Lezark "Princess Coldstare," and referring to the crowd at Misshapes as "hiptards," Blue States Lose became weekly reading for anyone who ever saw a guy wearing American Apparel stretch pants, aviator sunglasses, and a Cherokee headdress and thought, "Maybe I should just kill myself now, if people like this are going to be free to breathe my air?" But all of that's over now. Blue States Lose will have to soldier on without the MisShapes. They won't have Leotard Fantastic to kick around anymore.To cope with the loss, Gawker is following MisShapes' lead and publishing a book. It's a first for the blogging giant, and it's still unclear exactly what the Gawker book is all about. Is it a chapbook of old posts? Is it new material? Is it really a "guide to conquering all media?" Regardless of its content, the Gawker book should be a litmus test for how well the blog format can translate into print. Gawker, with its of-the-moment focus, its pithy snarkiness, is the epitome of "blogginess," at least from where I stand. It's sort of the Platonic ideal of a blog, so to imagine it in book form is, well, difficult. If it's successfully carried off, readers can expect to find The Millions Guide to Reading on Public Transportation (Forward by Kaye Gibbons) at their local Barnes and Noble sometime in the near future.
Susan is taking it all in. The stories are more than she had hoped for. She was discovering the tales that I had hidden from her, but disturbingly they were changing my own memories of those events. Uncle was changing what I remembered. In The Cousin, the latest novella from John Calabro, our narrator is a reluctant explorer, bringing his Canadian wife Susan with him to a Sicily shifted in his memories from his childhood. He's detached, reluctant, full of loathing for his Sicilian uncle, and haunted by past events. His wife is more enthusiastic, more engaged, connecting the reader with the setting, while our narrator goes from harboring some hang-ups to dealing with his demons. In the last act, The Cousin turns twisted and surreal, as the narrator takes the astonished reader on a mind-bending journey unlike anything I've read. The Cousin is one of a series of novellas released last fall by Quattro Books, a Toronto outfit which counts Calabro himself as a founding publisher, and which mandated itself to champion the Canadian literary novella. They've even come out with a manifesto outlining six rules that must apply to any novella that they publish. Some of the rules are structural: the qualifying novella must be between 15,000 and 42,000 words long and between 60 and 150 pages. Other rules deal with the time-frame covered within the story, the number of characters, locations, and as Quattro is championing Canadian literary novellas, the author must be Canadian and Canada must factor in the plot or setting or character. The most interesting rule is that there must be either a reversal of fortune or some kind of realization or revelation. From Quattro’s manifesto: It is a narrative that draws heavily on a geographical and cultural landscape, real or imagined, or on the concept of a journey, physical or metaphysical, to carry it. It must be of a form and content that excites and surprises while exploring the underbelly or fringe of civilization where savage instincts and/or extreme otherness lie hidden. These rules are reflected in other novellas released by Quattro last year. In A Pleasant Vertigo, Egidio Coccimiglio tells the story of Gerard, a New York-based artist longing to make a comeback, and suddenly being wooed by rival dealers. The writing style is fast and free-floating, culminating, in the second half, in a dark and comic set-piece along the shores of the Mississippi. Brenda Niskala's Of All The Ways To Die is an inventive ensemble ghost story. A missing girl is the catalyst for Urma to summon (actually invite to dinner) an eccentric group of departed souls, to help shed some light on the whereabouts of the girl, and on life itself. Throughout the dinner, we learn not only their stories, but their connections to Urma. The dinner, by the way, is pot-luck, and each guest shares with the reader a special recipe. Harbour View is Binnie Brennan's lovely and amusing story of a Halifax nursing home. Characters - the residents and workers of the home - bounce off each other, their stories revealed as we briefly see and hear the world through each of them. There's warmth to the wit. Here are Buddy's thoughts on assorted nursing home staff: Sam speaks softly, unlike Muriel and the others who are trained to speak so that the deaf may hear them. Sam's quiet is a relief, like the silence when an aircraft cuts out: you don't really notice the racket until it's over. The novella has always been a favorite literary form, and while writers have never stopped writing short forms of fiction, Quattro is to be commended for giving this literary form some formal shape and focus. And there's plenty of room within the structure for all sorts of tales to be told, and voices to be heard.
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The concept of self-improvement through reading has always struck me as hopelessly vexed. I was surprised and delighted, then, to discover in Megan Hustad's How to Be Useful an erudite, pragmatic, funny, and endearingly humble "Beginner's Guide to Not Hating Work." It was the kind of book I wish someone had given me when I was fresh out of college.Back then, in the giddy afterglow of the Clinton years, my enormous sense of entitlement hid behind a contorted ideological posture. Sure, I would benefit financially from global capitalism, but I would maintain my purity by doing a really mediocre job. (Take that, Milton Friedman!) What's refreshing about How to Be Useful is that it presents an ethical, rather than a moral, argument for working hard. Hustad doesn't attempt to say that you should work for The Man; rather, she argues that if you have to, you might as well do it well.Surprisingly, the secret to success, according to Hustad's meta-analysis of a century of business advice, is making yourself indiscriminately useful to those around you. At some point, she argues, people will want to return the favor. And in the meantime, while you may not have addressed global economic inequality, you will have made the world around you a little more pleasant for your coworkers and for yourself.This week, we've invited Ms. Hustad to give us some "Usefulness Training" based on our own first-job hijinks. Every day, one of our contributors will post an anecdote about his or her misguided work ethic. Hustad will rate us on a scale of 1 to 5, with one being Mildly Useless, and 5 being Irremediably Useless. She'll also try to tease out the misguided assumptions we held upon entering the workforce, and to explain how we might have conducted ourselves more helpfully. These links will become active as the posts are published:Welcome to the Working Week 1: MaxWelcome to the Working Week 2: EmreWelcome to the Working Week 3: GarthWelcome to the Working Week 4: AndrewFinally, we invite our readers to contribute their own first-job stories (ideally 100 words or less) in the comments box. At the end of the week, perhaps we'll ask Ms. Hustad to respond to one of them.
Subscribers to the literary magazine One Story receive, you guessed it, one story in the mail about every three weeks. The magazine isn't as chic as it could be (the choice of title font, for instance, sometimes makes me cringe), but the issues are lightweight and easy to stuff in your purse or back pocket. The stories vary in style and content, and I've been impressed with quite a few. And plus, they're fun to receive in the mail, and even more fun to give away once you've finished them.The magazine recently unveiled a prettier website, which still includes the features I've always liked. You can check out the first lines of every story published by the magazine, as well as short interviews with each writer about his or her story and the process of creating it. It's interesting to see how different everyone's process is: one writer wrote his story in three nights, while another worked on hers for over a year. In these interviews, One Story always asks the writer to share the best writing advice ever received. Some people quote secondhand advice, while others share nuggets of wisdom from a past instructor. On a few occasions, I've written this stuff down, either for myself or for my students (or both).
Why is it that so many people are turned off by the classics? Is it because would-be readers are afraid they won't "get it?" Or does reading a well-known tome on the subway or in a cafe exude an air of pretentiousness, when it's more likely that the reader just never followed through on that English lit assignment?In talking about his latest book, Classics for Pleasure, the Pulitzer Prize winning critic, Michael Dirda, said he not only hopes to make the classics appear less daunting and more accessible to the general public, but he also wants to "encourage people to read more widely."Dirda, a columnist for The Washington Post's Book World, said his goal is to get people to "read beyond the recognized classics and read beyond the contemporary." He made his remarks Tuesday during a lecture, co-sponsored by the English-Speaking Union, at the Women's National Democratic Club in Washington, D.C.Classics for Pleasure consists of about 90 essays, written by Dirda, that describe the importance of lesser-known authors such as Sheridan Le Fanu and Abolqasem Ferdowsi as well as literary giants like Henry James and Christopher Marlowe.Each essay, ranging from two to five pages, serves as a primer on the era and author, with excerpts from famous works. They also offer some much-needed perspective, even for the seasoned reader, and are grouped together with topical headings such as Realms of Adventure, The Dark Side and Love's Mysteries.But why should these classics, or any others for that matter, deserve a kind of sacred reverence?"Truly distinctive voices, once heard, ought never to be forgotten," Dirda writes. "More than anything else, great books speak to us of our own very real feelings and failings, of our all-too-human daydreams and confusions."From Dirda's point of view, some of those failings and confusions are commonplace on the Web, perpetrated by those who dabble in his trade. He said that while "blogs and the online bookish universe are a wonderful thing... there are no oversights for the most part," meaning no editorial review like the kind he gets from The Washington Post.He went on to say that some online book critics have a tendency to make a name for themselves by writing "vulgar, rude, outrageous" reviews, and such pieces should not be the standard for literary criticism.While that eventuality seems unlikely, Dirda's nonetheless uses the book to re-establish his high bar for criticism while drawing in readers to "discover" the classics of yesteryear. One is certainly easier to achieve than the other.See Also: Classifying Classics; Nothing is Dead Yet: The Era of the Trusted Fellow Reader; Literature and History
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