The Fault in Our Stars

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NYC’s Difficult to Name Reading Series Ends with Screenwriting Tips, Mid-Aughts Angst, Drake Takes

Conceived and curated by Ryan Sartor since April 2014, the Difficult to Name Reading Series ended its New York run at the Brooklyn indie bookstore Books Are Magic on Friday, July 20, with rousing readings involving Pac-Man, funny performances revisiting angsty mid-2000s internet culture, and in-depth conversations on screenwriting and rap.

In the bright and airy front room of the shop, music critic Charles “Otter” Holmes kicked off the night by sharing his expert opinion on Drake. Holmes expressed his disappointment with the rapper’s latest album, Scorpion. “The one good part of [the album] is ‘Ratchet Happy Birthday,’” he said. His imitation of the song and a personal anecdote about a fourth-grade birthday party gone awry was a highlight. Holmes stressed that Drake is still “the greatest living rapper” and that “not even trying makes Drake great.” When it came time for a giveaway, as one of the only attendees with a CD drive, I was gifted with an unconventional but oddly harmonious combo: Disc 2 of Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach Cello Suites and Side A of Drake’s Scorpion, both slipped inside the case for Hospitality’s 2014 album Trouble.

Artist Molly Soda presented a multimedia piece. Accompanied by electronic music, she read from hot pink or green text that flashed against a black background. The contents? Entries from her Xanga circa 2004. She pleaded with her dad to let her get a lip piercing at 15. She skewered anonymous users who were constantly hitting her up for help with their pages, shutting them down with lines like, “Stop asking me for layout help if you are 1) not my friend, 2) I am not subscribed to you.” While this could be read as a criticism of an internet culture that privileges anonymity over real moments of connection, in light of recent Facebook data use issues, it was nice to retreat to the mid-2000s, when the burgeoning World Wide Web was full of promise and possibility.

Kevin Nguyen is an editor at GQ and a veteran of DTN, having read at it “seven or eight times.” He returned to the podium with a story featuring a unique character: Margot, who plays Pac-Man and “loved video games. They were both your enemy and your friend.”

With lines like, “Sprinkles are for closers,” Alex Watt had the room in stitches with his piece, “Everything I Learned about Business I Learned from Mister Softee.”

New Yorker staff writer Hua Hsu gave a reading of a work-in-progress in which the narrator writes his friend’s eulogy in a San Diego Wendy’s near the funeral parlor. Hsu also explored the idea of a “memory palace,” leaving audiences with a thought-provoking meditation on memory, grief, and loss.

 A comedian and co-host of the weekly live comedy show SAVAGE, Hoff Matthews eschewed formalities, declaring, “You can’t do stand-up behind a podium, or it becomes a graduation speech.” In a cruel twist of fate, after Matthews was named Most Likely to Succeed in his senior year of high school in 2006, the yearbook editors decided to give the superlatives “funny alternate titles.” The result? Matthews was named “the next Donald Trump.” Not the same thing.

The highlight of the night was undoubtedly the far-ranging conversation between Sartor and screenwriter Michael H. Weber. Together with his writing partner Scott Neustadter, Weber has penned unforgettable original movies such as (500) Days of Summer (2009), as well as adaptations such as The Fault in Our Stars (2014), based on John Green’s runaway YA hit novel of the same name. The evening provided a fascinating glimpse into Weber’s writing process; those aspiring writers who forgo outlines in favor of a looser approach may want to note that Weber spends about a month crafting an airtight outline before writing a first draft. When asked about (500) Days, Weber stated that its genesis was “a statement about how studios were making romantic comedies…In the late ’90s and early 2000s…they were built around wacky trailer moments and all of our favorite ones growing up were basically people talking…[We said,] ‘Let’s go back to the ones where the obstacle is just someone doesn’t feel the same way about one person as one person feels about them.’” Having never lost that spirit of originality, Weber has cultivated a successful career in screenwriting without moving to L.A., which gives hope to aspiring East Coast screenwriters who are very happy where they are.  

Speaking of L.A., the new iteration of Difficult to Name will kick off at Stories in Echo Park on August 24. After a long sigh that seemed filled with premature homesickness for the vibrant literary scene and easy public transportation of NYC, Sartor, who’s moving to pursue screenwriting, went on to say that on Aug. 30 he is also starting a monthly table read series for scripts. He is having trouble finding diverse actors and appreciates any leads.

Afterward, as the sun began to set over the bustling streets of Cobble Hill, I caught up with Soda outside of the venue. She’s currently working on a video game with an independent game designer, Aquma, about the internet in the mid-2000s. When I drew a parallel between this new venture and the work she just presented, she replied that she works a lot with that time period (I should have known better; even her website, with its collage of conflicting images and links, is an artistic statement on internet culture).

When I caught up with Weber back inside, he mentioned that he has been a fan of The Millions since the beginning, expressing his excitement over The Great Second-Half 2018 Book Preview.

As the crowd got ready to migrate over to 61 Local for beers, I asked Sartor what Difficult to Name—this institution of the New York literary scene—has meant to him: “Sitting down and listening to people read is like the joy for me.” I’m sure all literary scene regulars share the same sentiment. Despite the ubiquity of readings in NYC, many may find themselves at a loss now that this iconic series—with its unique format and colorful characters—is heading to the City of Angels.

The Book Report Episode 12: ‘Signs Preceding the End of the World’ by Yuri Herrera

Welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, Janet and Mike discuss Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman. It is about a young woman who may be dead. But maybe she’s not. Or maybe she was not dead at the beginning of the book but is dead at the end. We’re not entirely sure, but we love it.

Topics discussed in this episode: Mexico, border crossing, sinkholes, Gabriel García Márquez, death, family, peace, journeys, immigration, the end of the world, The Odyssey by Homer, childhood, badassery, New Orleans, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.

Filmed for this episode, but edited out by C. Max Magee: Janet and Mike debut their new comedy novelty band, Millions of Laffs!, with a song performed on kazoo and ukulele about the National Book Critics Circle Awards and pizza.

The Millions Top Ten: July 2014


We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for July.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
2.

A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World
3 months

2.
1.

Beautiful Ruins
5 months

3.


The Round House
1 month

4.
6.

Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction’s Most Beloved Heroines
4 months

5.
3.

The Son

4 months

6.


Reading Like a Writer
1 month

7.
4.

Bark: Stories
4 months

8.
8.

Americanah

2 months

9.


We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
1 month

10.


My Struggle: Book 1
1 month

 

July is the month of revolutions, writes Tom Nissley, and the theory is borne out in our July Top Ten. Not only do we have a new number one, but we also have four newcomers to our list — this in spite of the fact that not a single book from our June Top Ten graduated into our hallowed Hall of Fame. Are you intrigued? Then let’s get right to it.

Rachel Cantor’s A Highly Unlikely Scenario continues its months-long ascent up our list. When it debuted at #8 in May, I attributed its success to its placement on our Great 2014 Book Preview, but it looks like Millions readers have grown more and more intrigued ever since. Last month, Cantor’s book rose all the way to #2, and now it’s finally edged Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins out of the top spot. What will August hold in store for Cantor’s novel about “competing giant fast food factions rul[ing] the world?” Only time will tell.

Of the four newcomers to our list, the appearance of Karen Jay Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is probably the easiest to explain. The novel, which has been described by Khaled Hosseini as “a gripping, bighearted book,” won this year’s PEN/Faulkner award, and was also recently longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

Likewise, the debut of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book 1 is understandable — and, frankly, overdue — considering the immense hype it’s been getting lately. When Jonathan Callahan reviewed the book’s early installments for our site last year (which feels like ages ago…), he wrote of the autobiographical project:
With astounding single-mindedness (or monomania, if you prefer), Knausgaard conceives of and then executes the writing project that both consumes him and sequesters him from life. He’s Ahab, only with the final volume’s publication — which reportedly concludes with whatever the Norwegian is for “I am no longer an author” — he’s gone and caught the whale.
At the time, it seemed an unlikely candidate for breakout success. But oh, how wrong we were. Since last year, Knausgaard’s earned himself praise in the New York Times, the New Yorker, and more. He’s packed standing-room-only bookstore readings and he’s been talked about about just about every bar in New York. In fact there were rumors recently that the book was so popular in the author’s native Norway that the country had to institute “Knausgaard-free days” in order to keep its economy humming.

Also joining the list this month are books by Louise Erdrich and Francine Prose. The Round House has been knocking on the Top Ten’s door since its publication in 2012, and Reading Like a Writer seems like it’s perfectly suited for most of our readers.

Near Misses: The Good Lord Bird, Jesus’ Son, Just Kids, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and The Fault in Our Stars. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: June 2014


We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for June.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
2.

Beautiful Ruins
4 months

2.
9.

A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World
2 months

3.
4.

The Son
3 months

4.
3.

Bark: Stories
3 months

5.
8.

The Good Lord Bird

3 months

6.
7.

Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction’s Most Beloved Heroines
3 months

7.
5.

Just Kids
6 months

8.


Americanah

1 month

9.
6.

Eleanor & Park
3 months

10.
10.

Jesus’ Son: Stories
3 months

 

As I predicted in last month’s write-up, the ascension of The Beggar Maid to our Hall of Fame means that Alice Munro has now officially graduated to the “Top Ten Two Timers Club” (working title) — a nine-member cohort of authors who’ve reached the Hall of Fame for more than one book.

Consequently, space on the Top Ten has opened up for a new number one — Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter — and for a new addition to the list: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which saw a sales bump after it was released in paperback last March, and then again after it was announced that a film adaptation could be on the way. (Of course, being featured on a surprise Beyoncé album never hurts, either.) Millions readers looking for an additional Adichie fix are welcome to check out her contribution to our Year in Reading series, as well.

Meanwhile, Rachel Cantor’s A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World continues to enjoy breakout success among Millions readers. The book takes place in the not-too-far-off future, where “competing giant fast food factions rule the world.” (One could be forgiven for wondering how, exactly, that’s different from the way things are right now.)

Next month, I expect to see multiple books from our recent Most Anticipated list to make it into our Top Ten. After all, two Millions staffers did just publish books last week, you know

Near Misses: Little Failure: A MemoirStories of Anton Chekhov, My Struggle: Book 1, The Fault in Our Stars, and Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade. See Also: Last month’s list.

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