Gather.com, the folks who put together a chat with Jonathan Safran Foer not too long ago, have announced a new writing contest. Online writing contests are a dime a dozen, but the cool thing about this one is that the four winning short pieces (fiction or non-fiction) will be “published and sold on Amazon Shorts,” which would undoubtedly be a terrific venue for any aspiring writer. In fact, it’s along the lines of what I hoped Amazon would do with its Shorts program.
Three flights and twenty hours after departing New York, I arrived in Vilnius, Lithuania, the land of potato pancakes, sour cream, and Baltas beer, where “thank you” is pronounced “achoo,” like a sneeze. Vilnius is the city closest to the geographical center of Europe, and because it’s also at a cultural crossroads, the city has been hit hard by the forces of history. Napoleon’s army liberated Lithuania from the Russians in 1812, and during their later retreat through Vilnius, forty thousand men died. The twentieth century saw both German and Soviet rule and genocides at the hands of the Nazis and the KGB. Independence came less than twenty years ago, when Lithuania was the first of the Baltic States to throw off Soviet rule. Even now, landlocked Vilnius is the hardest of the Baltic capital cities to travel to.I came to Vilnius by way of the Summer Literary Seminars, which is currently holding its first ever Lithuanian conference. Poets and writers have traveled from as far as Australia and South Africa to take classes with writers like Lynne Tillman, Phillip Lopate, Mac Wellman, and Peter Cole. Class days are interspersed with lecture days, and all days usually end with readings. The Lithuanian stage director Gytis Padegimas spoke about the state of contemporary Lithuanian drama and how critical resistance to new playwrights keep many of them from writing. Almantas Samalaviciu, the editor of Lithunia’s largest cultural journal, traced the developments in twentieth century Lithuanian literature, from Soviet rule through the liberation. But not all of the focus is on Lithuanian literature. Catherine Tice of the New York Review of Books gave a lecture on the contemporary essay and its provinces. Max Winter of Fence and Mike Spry of Montreal’s Matrix offered guidance on publishing with North American literary magazines.With Vilnius as our campus, the history of place, as well the new sights and sounds play a large role in the conference, too. Over a handful of entries, I plan to guide you through some of the more interesting discussions and events of the conference, and intersperse some Vilnius culture as well. If you want a head start, Open Letter recently published a translation of Ričardas Gavelis’s Vilnius Poker, the preeminent postmodern Lithuanian novel. Or for more of a historical background, turn to Laimonas Briedis’s City of Strangers. I’m on Lithuanian time, which is notorious for lagging behind, but more dispatches will be coming soon.
On my way home from work on Thursday, I was driving down Sunset Blvd. In the mornings, groggy and unobservant, I will take any old route to work as I focus mostly on getting there on time and the cup of coffee I will consume once I arrive. In the afternoons I am antsy and Sunset Blvd. provides the distractions necessary to take my mind off the ridiculous amount of time that it takes me to get home. While Los Angeles traffic is generally a constant in my mind, the entertainment provided by the prostitutes (trans-sexual and otherwise), the idle rich, and the ambulant insane are the variables that keep me from glazing over entirely. So it came to be on Thursday afternoon that I was amused, but not the least bit shocked as I watched a time-worn scene unfold as I waited at a red light at the intersection of Sunset and Highland. In front of me an over-tan gentleman in a silver BMW convertible leaned aggresively towards the healthful blonde who was sitting on a bench waiting for the bus. I was listening to my Steely Dan Greatest Hits tape, and the AC was turned all the way up. The blonde’s uncomplicated smiles and nods were reflected in the Beamer guy’s wraparound sunglasses, and in some part of my brain I was repeating over and over again, “please don’t get in the car. Please don’t get in the car.” With a shrug and a smile she bounded over and jumped in, and the creepy guy recoiled back into his seat, launching into what I have no doubt was a volley of self-aggrandizing small talk. The light turned green, and we were driving. The anticlimax to this story is best heard now: he dropped her off about four miles down Sunset, at Western Ave unmolested, as far as I could tell. I know because I followed them, out of both morbid curiousity and my wierd protective nature that crops up from time to time. Plus, it was on my way home. In L.A. it seems, it is not hard to stumble upon these representative set pieces grown cliched with overuse, since everyone is an actor, professional or otherwise. In this one, which has multiple showings each day, set in the dusty, smoggy, sunny backdrop we have two characters: the not unattractive but entirely guileless leading lady who has only just arrived in the city via Greyhound in order to give chase to one dream or another meets the older, moneyed man whose false and condescending smile has from overuse etched wrinkles into his leathery face. He quickly becomes the chameleon and embodies the qualities of the dream she has been chasing. Only many years later will she realize that this dream could not have been pursued any other way. What seems like Hollywood magic when you gaze upon it from afar is really just the collective false solicitude of thousands of these men in wraparound sunglasses.When I pulled into my driveway in what is unaccountably considered a bad neighborhood, I looked skyward to see five helicopters overhead, hanging like spiders from silk. Since this constituted about four more helicopters than usual, it could mean only one thing: police chase in progress. I lack even basic cable, and this ensures that if there is a police chase going on in Los Angeles I will be watching it. If the chase happens to coincide fortuitously with one of the local news broadcasts, it will be shown on all of the channels, each from a different angle and with different commentary. I settled into channel four whose newscasters tried on their best shocked and dismayed act as they conducted off the cuff interviews with a police expert and a psychologist and tried their best to delve into the criminal mind who was giving chase (in this case it was a burly man in a florist van who had been approached by an undercover cop who seemed to think that the burly man had turned his florist van into a “motel on wheels” and all that that entails. The burly man then attempted to run over the undercover cop with his “motel on wheels,” and the chase was on). The fact that the chase was occurring in my neighborhood was an added bonus, and each time the florist van barrelled down a nearby street the noise of the sirens and the droaning helicopters mingled with the sirens and the droaning helicopters on TV. For a while I laid on my couch, unguiltily entertained by all this (I have lived here for three years; I’m way past that). Then, just in time for the end of the local news broadcast, the chase reached its frothy climax. The florist van veered onto the sidewalk at the MacArthur Park subway station and the burly man got out and started sprinting down Alvarado. You could see the point at which he lost his delusions of escape (they replayed this moment on TV several times as though it were a game ending touchdown). He slowed to shambling jog, shoulders slackened, waiting for the rush of officers who were closing fast. And then it came and in an instant he was at the bottom of pile of cops.LA is well-known for it’s cliches. After a while though, you begin to detect the vast complexity that underlies it all. Then, after another while, the complexity is all you can see. They key is to focus on the nuances and not the cliches themselves. The dominance of the Los Angeles cliches has given the city a reputation that is at odds with reality. One outcome of this is the perception of L.A. as a city lacking literature. This is, of course, a gross understatement. Over the past century, L.A. has produced a great number of writers. A new collection of criticism seeks to address misconceptions while discussing LA literature as it stands now. It’s called The Misread City. Here is an excerpt.JulavitsOn Saturday night I attended a reading at another bookstore by young author and Believer co-editor Heidi Julavits. She read a passage from her new novel The Effect of Living Backwards. The novel takes place on a plane that is being hijacked, and makes use of copious flashbacks and flash-forwards to fill out the story. The nine pages she read were clever and engaging. During the question and answer period, she told us that she had been aided in the writing of such a claustrophobic book by two books that took on that same challenge. In the The Verificationist by Donald Antrim the narrator is enveloped in the bear hug of a colleague for the duration of the novel. The Woman Who Escaped from Shame by Toby Olson is a many layered frame story that centers on a porn ring and miniature white ceramic horses. Julavits also offered the two writers she felt most influenced by in general, Philip Roth and Joy Williams. The next day Julavits came into my bookstore and we had a nice conversation about The Believer and its astounding level of popularity.
Likely aware that most of us are now jaded to the astronomical sales numbers that the Harry Potter books put up, Amazon has grabbed shoppers’ attention with an interesting ploy. The site is now looking to inspire further frenzies of buying by pitting town against town. “The Harry-est Town in America” is the American city or town that pre-orders the most copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and with that honor comes a $5,000 gift certificate to be donated by Amazon to a charity of the city’s choice. Unsurprisingly, suburban locales make up pretty much all of the top 100 “Harry-est” towns in America, and the D.C.-area suburbs of Northern Virginia appear to have a particular affinity for the boy wizard. Also, following up on yesterday’s “limited edition” post, a new box set of Potter books (pictured above) has been announced. It features “a collectible trunk-like box with sturdy handles and privacy lock” and “decorative stickers.”
Recently, it has come to my attention that (1) not everyone is a librarian on Twitter or Tumblr, ergo (2) not everyone is intimately familiar with every action taken, decision made, and word spoken by Neil Gaiman, foremost living member of the National Dudes Who Wear Only Black Hall of Fame. In some respects, your ignorance is enviable — it is possible to know too much about even this leader of men, this King of all Geeks. But in at least one respect, it is a crying shame, because it means too few of you have heard of Gaiman’s greatest idea: All Hallow’s Read, a Gaiman-invented yearly tradition where, throughout the week of Halloween, participants give their friends and loved ones scary books. As someone who models most attempts to spread her personal taste on the Marshall Plan, I am apt to seize any opportunity for book-gifting with fevered delight and am eager for this tradition to catch on.
Though I am loathe to imply that King Neil created this holiday for personal gain, it’s impossible to deny that he has written some deliciously spine-tingling books for children. While Coraline’s button-eyed Other Mother and The Graveyard Book’s villainous Jack have been giving 10-year olds nightmares for years now, Gaiman’s attempts to traumatize younger readers have been tragically overlooked. So, for this column, I wanted to call attention to his picture book The Wolves in the Walls. In this funny-creepy story, Lucy hears clawing, gnawing, nibbling and squabbling in the walls of her creaky old house. Even though her mom, dad, and big brother insist that it’s something mundane — mice or rats or bats — Lucy knows in her tummy that it’s wolves, and her beloved pig-puppet agrees. And if the wolves come out of the wall, it is all over — everyone knows that. But how is Lucy to keep everyone safe when no one else believes her? The dreamy illogic of Gaiman’s story is matched perfectly by Dave McKean’s nightmarish photo-collage paintings, all weird angles and blurry edges, creating a picture book that’s riveting, strange, and — the end — enchantingly goofy.
For the I-Can-Read crowd, eager to get their scares independently, Alvin Schwartz’s classic In a Dark, Dark Room is tough to beat. Speak to any child born around its publication in 1984 and I guarantee that they’ll recall one of Schwartz’s hauntingly retold folktales. Despite their format-required economy of words, these stories and their brilliant details — green ribbons that anchor severed heads, boys who hitch rides after being dead for a year, and dark, dark rooms in dark, dark houses in dark, dark woods — make a lasting impression on the reader. Balanced nicely between challenging-but-not-impossible sentences and Dirk Zimmer’s R. Crumb-like, pencil drawn illustrations, this book will be a delightful change for beginning readers hungry for something a bit more startling than cats in hats.
Often, once children start being able to read independently, parents and teachers stop taking time to read out loud to them — but when perfect read-aloud books like Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm exist, why would any parent be so foolish? This hilarious and gore-filled adventure sets out to shake off decades of prim, Disney-proper fairy tale retellings and return Grimm’s stories to their bloody roots. Gidwitz takes his heroes from one well-known Grimm’s tale — Hansel and Gretel — sends them weaving through five lesser-known, deeply-gruesome stories to make one overarching adventure, rife with lopped off limbs, cannibals, and truly rotten parents — just as the Brothers Grimm intended. Two things make this book such a perfect read-aloud: first, the woven-together stories give the book a structure that’s half continuous, half-episodic — like a television season. Natural break points are built in, so that the story can be set aside and revisited without its narrative flow deteriorating. Second, Gidwitz peppers each chapter with hilarious direct addresses, ruminating on subjects as varied as the best way to get a girl to fall in love with you (NOT luring her onto a boat and kidnapping her, apparently) and the Devil’s scalp sensitivity. These asides provide a humorous counterbalance to the resurrected Grimmness, making for a tale that’s surprisingly light-hearted despite its protagonists getting decapitated (and reanimated) in the very first chapter.
For independent readers who prefer that all their gory details be factual, Witches: The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem by Rosalyn Schanzer is an excellent choice. This skinny little book about one of America’s most fascinating historical moments is both meticulously researched and tremendously engaging. Schanzer uses historical details with savvy to give the story immediacy, allowing readers to feel the muck of flood-drenched roads or exclaim with horror at the true ingredients of a witch cake — rye flour, ashes, and the urine of the witch’s victim. Similarly, rather than situating the reader outside the Puritans’ belief system to judge them and feel superior, she depicts their beliefs with anthropological accuracy. This empathetic depiction forces the reader to truly inhabit the Puritans’ terrible “Invisible World,” where demons could torment you and God’s will was cruel and unknowable. Illustrated by the author with woodcuts in black, white, and red, this book is sure to give your budding historian the creeps.
Finally, no column on scary kids books would be complete without a mention of John Bellairs and his Edward Gorey-illustrated classic, The House with a Clock in Its Walls, my pick for advanced independent readers. Sent to live with his Uncle Jonathan after the death of both his parents, 10-year-old Lewis Barnavelt is initially delighted to learn that both Jonathan and his uncle’s best friend, Mrs. Zimmerman, are witches. But when, in an attempt to win back his only friend, Lewis uses his uncle’s magic books to summon a spirit, he unwittingly resurrects the wicked witch who formerly owned his uncle’s rickety mansion and discovers just how dangerous magic can be. First published in 1973, this book and its companions — The Figure in the Shadows and The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring — are noteworthy for the way they ground the chills of a Gothic mystery in the everyday woes of being a fifth grader. Bellairs dedicates equal time to sinister spirits and chubby, un-athletic Lewis’s struggles to bond with his baseball-obsessed classmates. Rather than undercutting the tension, this commitment to emotional realism renders the book’s magical villainy more vivid by creating a stronger bond between Lewis and the reader.
This set of five books is, of course, only a small sample of the many terrifying options that exist for younger readers. For further suggestions, you can visit the All Hallow’s Read website or — of course — talk to your local children’s librarian or bookseller. I bet you will find their ability to read your child’s mind positively spooky.
Franzen’s name looms appropriately large on the cover (in a font that recalls Ed Ruscha [edit: or Wayne White]), as does what appears to be a variety of blue jay a Cerulean Warbler. All of this is set atop a lake scene at sunset, the evergreen trees in the background suggesting northern latitudes.
As we noted in our 2010 book preview: “The excerpt from the novel that appeared last year [in The New Yorker] was notable for its return to the more generous ironies that endeared The Corrections to our ‘Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) panel.'”