Monthly Archives: July 2011

Death & Authors: The 12 Weirdest Stories

Gabe Habash -- July 29th, 2011

There’s something about writers and death: they just can’t seem to stop running into each other. Even if we put aside the well-covered topic of writers and suicide (also here and here), there’s an undeniable, inextricable link between life’s end and those who write–and sometimes, this link isn’t normal. We’re not talking about passing peacefully in one’s sleep here. We mean the link takes the form of a weird, grotesque thing (here’s a great Top 10 list). For instance, did you know Euripides was torn apart by the hunting dogs of Archelaus, the king of Macedonia? Digging even deeper into the demises of writers just yields more strangeness. So, here are the weirdest stories about writers and death.

1. Tennessee Williams choked to death on a bottle cap. In 1983, Williams was found dead with an eyedrops bottle cap blocking his larynx. An empty bottle of wine and several kinds of medications were also found, and their consumption was thought to have restrained his gag reflex.

2. Sir Francis Bacon died of pneumonia after stuffing a chicken with snow. In 1626, Bacon wanted to do a meat preservation experiment so he went out in a blizzard with a piece of meat. He died a month later.

3. Molière was seized by a coughing fit while performing one of his plays and died hours later. While performing his play The Imaginary Invalid (off-the-radar irony) for King Louis the 14th, Molière started coughing and gasping and, after a brief delay, resumed and eventually finished the play. He had been suffering from tuberculosis for years and died hours later.

4. Nathanael West and his wife died in a car accident after he ran a stop sign. In December 22, 1940, West, who was possibly distracted after hearing of his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald’s death the day before, ran a stop sign in California. He and his wife both died, and they were planning to fly to New York four days later to see a play in which his wife was the inspiration for the main character.

5. Daniel Defoe died while hiding from his creditors. Though all of the details are still unknown, biographers and historians agree that Defoe owed some people a lot of money at the end of his life. In a letter to his son (in which he lamented not being able to see him because he was hiding), Defoe claimed he was being perjured by a “contemptible enemy.”

6. Sir Thomas More cheered up his executioner. More was sentenced to be executed by decapitation for committing treason when he denied the validity of the parliamentary Act of Succession, stating “no temporal man may be the head of the spirituality.” When he ascended the scaffold he told his reluctant executioner the following: “Pick up thy Spirits, Man, and be not afraid to do thine Office; my Neck is very short, take heed therefore thou strike not awry for having thine Honesty.”

7. Aeschylus was killed when an eagle dropped a turtle and it hit him on the head. Though this happened in 456 BC and is apocryphal, the story says that the eagle was looking for a place to drop the turtle in order to kill it/crack it open, and mistook the tragedian’s bald head for a rock.

8. Poet Dan Andersson was poisoned by cyanide in a hotel fumigating for bedbugs. In 1920, the Hotel Hellman in Stockholm hadn’t cleared Andersson’s room as they were supposed to, and he was found dead late in the afternoon. Another man, an insurance inspector, also died.

9. Li Bai (aka Li Po) drowned trying to embrace the reflection of the moon. In 762 while on the Yangtze River, Li Bai was drunk, leaned over and saw the reflection of the moon in the water. He fell overboard and drowned, and the story has since become a Chinese legend.

10. Mark Twain birth and date of death both coincided with Halley’s Comet visits. The dates, 74 years apart, were predicted by Twain, who predicted he would “go out with it.”

11. Gustav Kobbé was hit by a landing plane while on a sailboat. In July 1918 off Bay Shore, Long Island, the music critic and author was sailing, a hobby of his. A landing seaplane didn’t see him, and struck and killed him instantly upon landing.

12. Julien Offray de La Mettrie ate himself to death. La Mettrie was a French philosopher and physician who thought of human beings as machines and was known for his hedonistic inclinations. At a feast thrown in his name by the French ambassador to Prussia, Lat Metterie died after eating a massive quantity of food.

Of course, not every writer meets a strange and bizarre end. Dostoevsky, for example, was only made to think he was going to be executed. The firing squad even pointed their rifles at him before the government basically said just kidding and told him to watch out. He only had to endure 4 years of penal servitude before writing some of the most enduring literature ever. Good things happen to those who wait!


The Best ‘Reading’ Ever, And Not A Page Was Read

Gabe Habash -- July 28th, 2011


A few weeks ago, we posted a response to The New York Observer‘s article, seconding their sentiment about how dull readings can really be. But last night at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, David Lipsky and Darin Strauss gave the best “reading” I’ve ever attended. What was so different about this particular reading? Well, neither of the writers read, they just talked.

Lipsky and Strauss, close friends and faculty members at NYU’s Creative Writing Program, treated the event like a laid-back dialogue, trading good-natured barbs and pushing each other with questions. Sure, they were there in promotion of their newest books, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace and Half a Life: A Memoir, respectively, but one got the feeling that the conversation wouldn’t have been much different if there were no audience.

Lipsky’s book, which is an extended conversation between him and David Foster Wallace from Wallace’s 1996 Infinite Jest book tour, was ultimately done out of his desire to present details of Wallace’s life as close to fact as possible.

“When he died, I’d written a piece about him and I didn’t think there was enough there for a book,” said Lipsky. “But, ultimately, the book ended up allowing Wallace to tell things himself.”

Strauss added: “It’s a new way to do a biography. It’s much more faithful.”

For Strauss’ book, a memoir about his car accident that resulted in the death of a young girl, there were challenges in telling facts accurately, but Strauss was also concerned with the craft of the memoir–stating that memoirs don’t work when they’re not crafted because they end up being too solipsistic and cathartic for the writer.

“In bad memoirs people forgive themselves in every paragraph,” he said.

Both Lipsky and Strauss shared the difficulties in the writing process.

For his previous book, Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point, Lipsky transcribed everything from his time at West Point. What’s everything? 40 tapes and 16,000 pages (before being worked down to a manageable 300). What did he learn from the transcriptions?

“People repeat themselves a lot,” he said.

Strauss’ publisher for his previous books was Dutton, a Penguin imprint. Strauss, aware that a problem with memoirs is that the writer tends to repeat himself over and over, wanted to make Half a Life very short and very to-the-point (he originally envisioned it as 30 to 40 pages). But when he pitched the book to Dutton, they told him it had to be 200 pages, minimum. When he asked them what happened if it wasn’t, they said, “pad it with childhood memories.” He ended up publishing with McSweeney’s.

Much of the conversation revolved around writing in general. The topic of “show, don’t tell” came up, but Lipsky was quick to tear apart that notion.

“What’s great about writing is you can show AND tell,” he said. “Saying ‘show, don’t tell’ is like telling you to go into battle and to only use one type of ammunition because you have to win the battle fairly.”

The two also talked about the strange combination of what makes a writer successful.

“The best writers are swaggering pricks but are also incredibly humble,” Strauss said. “On the first draft, you have to go for it but in later drafts you have to cut everything and be ruthless.”

The back-and-forth between Lipsky and Strauss was a rare thing that anyone with an appreciation of writing and craft could’ve appreciated; it was just watching two smart and funny people talk about what they love.

Before the event, the two stood outside in the warm evening, talking and laughing for a good half hour. When it came time for the event to start, they entered the bookstore and just continued their conversation, right where they left off.

If only every literary event were this much fun.




‘Penguin’s Family’ iOS App Giveaway

Craig Morgan Teicher -- July 28th, 2011

It’s time for another iOS app giveaway.  PW has been trying to bring some attention to app developers we think are doing cool things and also giving away a few free copies of the apps to lucky readers who race over to our Facebook page and claim a promo code before they’re all gone.

This week, we’ve got codes for Penguin’s Family, developed by OceanHouse Media, which has been bringing out very nice app versions of classic Dr. Seuss, Bernstein Bears and other books. The apps are great for kids, with read-aloud feature and smart touch screen enhancements that let kids explore language and pictures at the same time, while still offering a pretty traditional book-like experience.

Penguin’s Family is part of OceanHouse’s series of Smithsonian apps–the other is about the mighty T-Rex.  Penguin’s Family, written by Kathleen M. Hollenbeck and Illustrated by Daniel J. Stegos, follows the story of a family of Humboldt penguins as they teach their newborn how to survive in the world.

We’ve got 10 codes to give away, and we’ll post five today and five tomorrow in a note on our Facebook page.  They’re first-come-first-serve, so head over there now and grab one!

The United States of Writers – Which State is King of the Union?

Gabe Habash -- July 27th, 2011

Ever wondered what U.S. states have the strongest literary tradition? Well, we’ve broken down the country into all 50 states, highlighting one singular writer to carry the flag for each. The results are surprising: the Midwest and the Northeast have the highest concentration of well-known writers, and a few states one might believe would have a strong history of pumping out writers are actually not all you’d think. Which state is the worst? The best? Find out below!

1. Alabama – Harper Lee. She put her home state on the literary map with one book.

2. Alaska – John Haines. One of the weakest states for writers…we even had to cheat to pick Haines, who, despite teaching at Alaska Fairbanks and serving as poet laureate of Alaska, was born in Virginia. You can do better, Alaska.

3. Arizona – Jeannette Walls. Another weak state for writers.

4. Arkansas – John Grisham. One of America’s most successful writers comes from a state you wouldn’t expect.

5. California – John Steinbeck. California has a good number of writers, but can’t compete with New York.

6. Colorado – Ken Kesey. The One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author got his start as a champion wrestler in high school in Colorado.

7. Connecticut – Annie Proulx. A strong leader for an otherwise light state.

8. Delaware – Howard Pyle. The legendary children’s author and illustrator is another strong choice in a state with little else to offer.

9. Florida – Carl Hiaasen. One of the weakest states relative to size and population. Without Hemingway propping up the state with his Key West home, would have very little to write home about.

10. Georgia – Flannery O’Connor. No writer better represents her home state.

11. Hawaii - Lois Lowry. Like Grisham, the children’s author comes from an unlikely place.

12. Idaho – Ezra Pound. Idaho holds its own simply because of Pound’s presence. Also home of Marilynne Robinson.

13. Illinois – Ernest Hemingway. The leader of a very strong state.

14. Indiana – Kurt Vonnegut. Another strong showing from the Midwest.

15. Iowa – Wallace Stegner. The Pulitzer winner leads another strong Midwestern state.

16. Kansas – William Inge. The Pulitzer Prize winner carries his home state.

17. Kentucky – Robert Penn Warren. An unlikely leader for a strong writer state.

18. Louisiana – Elmore Leonard. A state with a very strong literary tradition.

19. Maine – Stephen King. The surprise state of the list. Also home to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and many transplant writers.

20. Maryland – Edgar Allen Poe. The leader of the second strongest state in the mid-East Coast, behind Virginia.

21. Massachusetts – Emily Dickinson. One of the Northeast’s stronger states.

22. Michigan – Theodore Roethke. Along with Iowa, Indiana, and Ohio, Michigan anchors the Midwest.

23. Minnesota – F. Scott Fitzgerald. A titan from an unlikely place.

24. Mississippi – William Faulkner. Duh.

25. Missouri – Mark Twain. Be honest. You didn’t know Mark Twain was born in Florida, Missouri.

26. Montana – Maile Meloy. One of the weakest states in the country.

27. Nebraska – Tie: L. Ron Hubbard and Nicholas Sparks. Let’s just stop and appreciate the fact that L. Ron Hubbard and Nicholas Sparks both come from Nebraska.

28. Nevada – Walter Van Tilburg Clark. More cheating: Clark was born in Maine but grew up in Reno. He’s most famous for The Ox-Box Incident.

29. New Hampshire – John Irving. A solid literary state.

30. New Jersey – Philip Roth. Who is more inextricably bound to his respective home state: Roth or Faulkner?

31. New Mexico – Angelico Chavez. New Mexico is one of the least writer-rich states in the country, and though Chavez is best known as a priest and activist, he also wrote prolifically in fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.

32. New York – Tie: Walt Whitman and Herman Melville. New York is the unchallenged king of the U.S. when it comes to pumping out writers.

33. North Carolina – O. Henry. Much stronger than the other Carolina.

34. North Dakota – William H. Gass. One of the least-populated states in the country is home to the winner of 3 National Book Critics Circle Awards.

35. Ohio – Tie: Toni Morrison and James Thurber. A very strong state.

36. Oklahoma – Ralph Ellison. A big writing figure for a not-so-big literary state.

37. Oregon – Raymond Carver. The father of the modern short story carries the Northwest.

38. Pennsylvania – John Updike. A state surprisingly light on literary sons and daughters.

39. Rhode Island – Cormac McCarthy. Though he now lives in New Mexico (which boosts that state’s literary stature), he was born in Providence.

40. South Carolina – Dorothy Allison. Carries an otherwise weak state.

41. South Dakota – No one of note. The closest South Dakota has to literary tradition is that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s itinerant childhood stopped through Dakota territory in 1880.

42. Tennessee – James Agee. The Pulitzer Prize winner tops a respectable literary state.

43. Texas – Katherine Anne Porter. Along with Pennsylvania, Texas is the most surprisingly barren writer state. Who knew?

44. Utah – Thomas Savage. The western writer was nominated for a PEN/Faulkner and received a Guggenheim Fellowship.

45. Vermont – Dan Chiasson. Chiasson has received a Guggenheim Fellowship for Poetry, as well as a Pushcart Prize. If it weren’t for him, Vermont would have little to offer, especially in comparison to neighbor New Hampshire, which is even the home to famous literary rocks.

46. Virginia – Willa Cather. The strongest state in the mid-coast; also home to William Styron.

47. Washington – Chuck Palahniuk. A decently literary state; also home to Orson Scott Card.

48. West Virginia – Pearl S. Buck. Another surprise state. In addition to the Pulitzer winner, West Virginia is also the home state of Breece D’J Pancake, a writer who made a name for himself on only one story collection before his suicide.

49. Wisconsin – Laura Ingalls Wilder. Props up both South Dakota and Wisconsin.

50. Wyoming – C.J. Box. A bottom-of-the-barrel state for writers.

Agree? Disagree? Which state is underrated by this list? Which is overrated? Let us know!

The Worst Writing Awards

Gabe Habash -- July 26th, 2011

The 2011 winners of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which asks entrants to create the worst possible opening sentence for a theoretical novel, have been announced, with Sue Fondrie of Oshkosh, WI taking top prize with this gem:

Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.

Fondrie’s 26-word sentence is the shortest winner in the contest’s history, which was started back in 1982 at San Jose State University to celebrate the worst writing the human brain could create. The name of the contest is a nod to the novelist and playwright Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, whose “It was a dark and stormy night” begins with the following:

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

Other 2011 lowlights:

Jack Barry, Adventure Winner:

From the limbs of ancient live oaks moccasins hung like fat black sausages — which are sometimes called boudin noir, black pudding or blood pudding, though why anyone would refer to a sausage as pudding is hard to understand and it is even more difficult to divine why a person would knowingly eat something made from dried blood in the first place — but be that as it may, our tale is of voodoo and foul murder, not disgusting food.

Joe Wyatt, Vile Puns Winner:

Detective Kodiak plucked a single hair from the bearskin rug and at once understood the grisly nature of the crime: it had been a ferocious act, a real honey, the sort of thing that could polarize a community, so he padded quietly out the back to avoid a cub reporter waiting in the den.

Mike Pedersen, Purple Prose Winner:

As his small boat scudded before a brisk breeze under a sapphire sky dappled with cerulean clouds with indigo bases, through cobalt seas that deepened to navy nearer the boat and faded to azure at the horizon, Ian was at a loss as to why he felt blue.

John Doble, Historical Fiction Winner:

Napoleon’s ship tossed and turned as the emperor, listening while his generals squabbled as they always did, splashed the tepid waters in his bathtub.

Ali Kawashima, Romance Winner:

As the dark and mysterious stranger approached, Angela bit her lip anxiously, hoping with every nerve, cell, and fiber of her being that this would be the one man who would understand—who would take her away from all this—and who would not just squeeze her boob and make a loud honking noise, as all the others had.

James Hearn, Dishonorable Mention:

She held my hand as if she were having a swollen barrel of fun which was off considering that my teeth were sitting on my bathroom cabinet (eight miles away, no less) and my elbow was peeling like a soggy coconut, the fine hairs of which were standing on edge in fear, as if the coconut had been reading “Dracula.”

The World of Warcraft of Books is ‘The Wheel of Time’

Gabe Habash -- July 25th, 2011

In case you’re one of those rare people who has started World of Warcraft and thought the word “ENOUGH,” boy, is there a book series out there for you.

The Wheel of Time (abbreviated as WoT) is a fantasy series by Robert Jordan from Tor Books started way back in 1990. Since then, 13 books have been written (with the fourteenth and final book due in early 2012). Some numbers for the series:

11,308 total pages

4,012,859 total words

It will take you 17 days, 11 hours, and 30 minutes to listen to all the audiobooks

44 million copies sold worldwide

For comparison purposes, George R.R. Martin’s current “it” fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire currently sits at 4,304 total pages and has moved a paltry 15 million copies (though it should be noted the series began six years after Time). For even more context, here’s a listing of the longest fantasy series.

Jordan’s series was supposedly heavily influenced by The Lord of the Rings, with the books closely following the successful aspects of Tolkien’s franchise. Briefly, here’s the series’s premise: Good (“the Creator”) and Evil (“Shai’tan” or “Dark One”) have been warring opposites since the beginning of the universe, which is heading toward the Dark One’s inevitable breach of his prison, an event that will be battled by the Creator in the form of Dragon–a being that, it has been told, will bring about the destruction of the universe in the process of trying to save it.

The series not only has a rabid following but also has its own convention. I’d link to a message board for the series, but searching for “wheel of time message board” on Google turns up 3,510,000 results.

What can be made of these epic fantasy series like The Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire? They’re part of a literary fantasy tradition that’s surely spawned the creation of more interactive fantasy universes like World of Warcraft. The stigma with this latter kind of interactive fantasy universe is that it sometimes becomes a stand-in for a player’s real life, substituting a pretend existence for a real one, which is how things like LARPing happen. But these are extreme cases and not the norm, most times occurring in people already predisposed to an addictive (and delusional) lifestyle; just like how every one who’s on medication is not necessarily a drug addict.

With the literary series, there’s something commendable in a fully-realized world–one with a map at the front of the book (I can still remember cross-referencing Martin’s journey in Redwall)–that can completely swallow up a human’s imagination. The fact that The Wheel of Time is 11,000 pages and people still want more is a remarkable thing. There’s a measure of youth in reading these fantasy books; they’re reminiscent of stories we read when we weren’t distracted by other things and when we could totally immerse ourselves in something completely transportive.

Are there any other favorite series out there? Is Tolkien still at the top of the epic fantasy mountain? Let us know in the comments.

2011 Eisners: ‘Wilson,’ ‘Return of the Dapper Men’ Tie for Best Graphic Album!

Calvin Reid -- July 23rd, 2011

Drawn & Quarterly's Peggy Burns accepts Dan Clowes's Eisner for Wilson. Photos by J. Culkin

Although we didn’t get a confirmation, we don’t ever recall there being a tie for the winner of the Best Graphic Album-New award at the annual Will Eisner Comics Industry Awards, held Friday night at the Bayfront Hilton as part of the 2011 Comic-Con International. But that’s what happened.

Daniel Clowes’s Wilson (Drawn & Quarterly) and Jim McCann and Janet Lee’s Return of the Dapper Men (Archaia) ended up in a flat-footed tie for the big book prize that brings the awards event to a close.

Joyce Brabner (l.) and daughter Danielle at the induction of Harvey Pekar into the Eisner Hall of Fame

That was certainly a highlight moment of the comics industry’s big gala awards show, “the Oscars” or “The National Book Awards” of the comics industry depending on your preference for gala media events. But there were other captivating moments throughout the evening (an evening that clocked in at about 3 hours this year). Among them: Paul Levitz, former president and publisher of DC Comics, winning his first Eisner award (Best Comics-Related Book) for 75 years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking (Taschen); two trips to the podium by Fantagraphics publisher Kim Thompson to accept Eisners (Best U.S. edition of International Material and Best Reality-based Work) on behalf of French cartoonist Jacques Tardi; Fabio Moon and twin brother Gabiel Ba citing the comic book reading of their mom when they accepted their Eisner (Best Limited Series) for Daytripper (Vertigo); the pure screaming delight of Raina Telgemeier when she won (Best Publication for Teens) for Smile (Scholastic/Graphix) and the backslapping and boozy grins of Shannon Wheeler (Best Humor Publication) and his publisher Chip Mosher when Wheeler won for I Thought You Would be Funnier (Boom!).

Joyce Brabner and daughter Danielle were on stage for the induction of her late husband, the great autobiographical comics writer Harvey Pekar, into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame. Brabner also used the occasion to remind the audience of her campaign to raise funds to build a statue of Pekar in Cleveland and she outlined–in classic Brabner fashion–how she insisted on a statue that would truly represent the spirit of Harvey.

And we have to confess a moment of pride and connection at the induction of the great underground cartoonist and historian of the Texas Republic, Jack Jackson. For a brief moment in 2003-2004 I was the graphic novel editor at Reed Press, a short-lived trade publishing imprint at Reed Elsevier, and had the honor and privilege of somehow convincing Jackson (who was both skeptical and encouraging to me) into letting us reprint his classic work of graphic nonfiction Comanche Moon, the cover of which was used to illustrate Jackson’s induction into the Eisner Hall of Fame. He was a great cartoonist and an equally great and engaging historian and bringing that book back into print for a short while was without a doubt the highlight of my short career as a comics publisher.

Last and certainly not least, we’d like to send a shoutout to our colleague at PW Comics World, Heidi MacDonald, who was nominated for an Eisner (Best Comics-Related Periodical-Journalism) for her pioneering comics news and culture blog, The Beat. She didn’t win (congratulations to Comic Book Resources on their Eisner award) but she’s still a winner! For a complete list of Eisner winners go to the Comic-Con International Website.

What’s the Most Depressing Book Ever?

Gabe Habash -- July 22nd, 2011

A while back, AbeBooks posted a feature about the 10 Most Depressing Books, and then did a follow-up of readers picks. Let’s face it: we love to see other people’s pain in books–it’s fascinating and it can take a little bit of our own away from us. Some popular picks were The Road, The Trial, The Stranger, and Miss Lonelyhearts, but in my opinion, none of them compare to Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.

AbeBooks user Barbara commented that “Yates’ books are upsetting because they involve everyday people in common situations,” and that, to me, is what makes his books so powerful and so effective–that we see so much of ourselves in the experiences of the characters. Revolutionary Road, more so than any other book I’ve read, captures the fascinating (and instantly relatable) dichotomy of being mired in unhappiness (or discontent, sadness, pain, or whatever you want to call it) yet also possessing the indomitable desire to fight against it.

The book is a portrait of effort. Structurally, it’s a series of sequences in which Frank and April Wheeler, the married couple at the heart of the book, rearrange themselves and each other psychologically. Their alternate push-and-pull forces them, first, down into itchy stagnation; then, in the middle of the book, up into wary then unbridled (if self-deceiving) hope; then, ultimately, plummeting back down into a place beneath it all. This final state for the Wheelers is hard to put into words, but it’s as if they’re stuck in a completely lightless room, together, aware of each other but uncertain of the distance.

I haven’t read all of the books AbeBooks highlights here, but the selections I’ve pointed out above, to me, all have something that mitigates the “depressive” quality. The Road is, at its center, about the most unfaltering of bonds. Revolutionary Road‘s central relationship is about what has been lost (and whether it was ever there to begin with), not what is still constant. Both The Trial and The Stranger succeed in portraying a virulent system, an environment that poisons from without. But Revolutionary Road is about the dilapidation–the dulling and the gradual falling apart–between two people that have at one time sworn themselves to each other; the sadness of losing the closest person to you (or the inability to love that person, or any person) is far more tragic than a society-wide soul-tamping. And Miss Lonelyhearts (which certainly has claims of being one of the most depressing books ever) has a humor that Revolutionary Road doesn’t. In Miss Lonelyhearts, the letters shade the faceless characters’ afflictions too lightly, and consequently, they don’t feel as real to us, just as they don’t feel as real to the Nathanael West’s main character (which is intentional–disconnection and distance is a huge part of what makes the story work). The results, in West’s book, is that you get a jet black humor. Yes, there are funny parts in Revolutionary Road: the play being botched in the opening and the subtlety of the Campbells’ and the Givingses relationships come to mind. But the really sad thing about the humor is that though the characters seem to be in on it and are winking right along, they understand the serious things it is covering up. The fact that they’re aware of their own deception is absolutely crushing.

But whatever you opinion is on the subject of depressing books, they are invaluable because they give us psychological access to a psychology that is infinitely complex and infinitely unpredictable. Revolutionary Road is a masterpiece. Along with many of the other books on these lists, it makes us consider what we think and why we think it.

So, I’ve stated my case, but what’s yours? Disagree? Let us know in the comments!

The Worst Book Ever is ‘How to Avoid Huge Ships’

Gabe Habash -- July 21st, 2011

A few weeks ago, we did an article about the most hilarious Amazon customer reviews, a selection of snarky writings that poked fun at their respective subjects. But for as fun as those reviews were and for as bad as those books were, one book in particular, more so than any that appeared on that list, has unleashed the full fury of internet sarcasm: How to Avoid Huge Ships.

Currently only available from nine sellers, the lowest price sitting at $131, details about this mysterious book are scant. What we do know is that it’s written by Captain John W. Trimmer, and that it’s 112 pages. And that’s about it. But it has a deep underground following, appearing in both a New York Times article and a Cracked article, partially because of its oddness, but also because of its slew of customer reviews, which set all kinds of new sarcasm records.

Here are some of the highlights:

A book for the ages, December 12, 2010

I was jogging around the block when all of a sudden I was almost struck by a huge ship! Thankfully I had read How to Avoid Huge Ships. I have lived to tell the tale and now I only hope future generations read this lifesaver.

Reads like a whodunnit!, December 21, 2010

Citizenfitz (The salt grainery) – See all my reviews
I bought How to Avoid Huge Ships as a companion to Captain Trimmer’s other excellent books: How to Avoid a Train, and How to Avoid the Empire State Building. These books are fast paced, well written and the hard won knowledge found in them is as inspirational as it is informational. After reading them I haven’t been hit by anything bigger than a diesel bus. Thanks, captain!

Wake Up, Haters!, December 13, 2010

I’m a little annoyed with the sarcastic “reviewers” of this book. You all seem to think it’s funny that some people would honestly like some expert advice on ways to avoid huge ships. What, you’ve never been traveling at a very, very slow speed straight toward something really, really big that you could see for miles and miles away, and wished you’d known what steps you could take to avoid crashing into it? Well, all I can say is “congratulations!” What’s it like to be so perfect? You haters just keep on enjoying your huge-ship-collision-free little fantasies. I for one am going to buy this book and learn something, because I live in the real world, where huge ships and the dangers they present to people like me are actually a serious issue.

Large beamed, please!, January 6, 2011

Altair Voyager (Registered, Bahamas) – See all my reviews
I am a huge ship. Imagine having an entire book devoted toward actively avoiding you and your kind. I have always been bigger than other ships – and yes, I have endured years of being moared in the distance, never being able to enter the shallower bays, requiring tugs to guide me in – but now THIS! Mr. Trimmer, you sir, should be ashamed! Please do not be swayed by his drivel. I ask that you judge me not by the size of my cargo hatch but rather the content of my wheelhouse.

A HUGE ship changed my life, December 13, 2010

Chester Huffy (North Stripper Pole, NV) – See all my reviews
It is a perfect example of the cruelty of fate- my life was forever changed by a huge ship. It was the winter of 1991, 2 years before Cap’n Trimmer published this masterpiece. If only I had known… the wanton destruction that only a huge ship can do to life and limb and all smaller vessels. My bonnie wife and I had set sail in our beloved scupper, ‘Nam Chowder (a pun from my years in the Navy). We were heaving to in the deep and treacherous waters off Cape Hatteras, when lo and behold a ship appeared, as sinister as Poseidon in denim cutoffs.

“O wife!” I called out. “A huge ship approaches!” But right at that moment, the huge ship sounded her horn, and my cries were drowned out in the overwhelming din. My fair wife continued to snack upon Exxtreme Olestra Pringos with reckless abandon- and so focused on these leakage-inducing sweetmeats that she failed to notice the huge ship, barreling towards us at a blinding 6 knots. I screamed like a hyena, bellowed like a bull, but so intense was her snack craving that my warnings were ignored. Finally I rushed towards the bow, to snatch the bushel of crisps from her unsightly maw and force her help in avoiding our certain shiply doom, but my extremities became tangled in the rigging and I could do nothing but struggle as the huge ship continued its advance, closing within a few hundred cubits.

“Lord, hail this ship and allow us safe passage, I beg of you!” I cried, but it was no use. God and his minions have no time for foolish adventurers upon his seas, who disregard the dangers of huge ships. And so it was, that a huge ship smashed our boat into splinters, and my wife was keelhauled for an eternity, her lifeless, bloated body finally floating to the surface in he wake of the huge ship, still clutching her snak pak. My body was torn assunder, and I sustained such horrific injuries that I shudder to recall that terrible day. Know that I peck out this review with my eyelashes, for the huge ship took everything from me save the use of my facial muscles.

Although he will not admit it, Cap’n Trimmer wrote this book in honor of my late wife, Grossinda, for her memory lives on in every book sold, so that the world may know of the dangers lurking in the bowels of every huge ship. Make no mistake, huge ships are out there and their hunger for fresh souls know no bounds. May everyone read this book and commit to memory its passages, and Grossinda’s demise will not be in vain.

It is my creed- to find the huge ship that took everything from me. Armed with this book and the grace of God, I will get my revenge. HUGE SHIP- I COME FOR YOU!

Much better than the sequel book, “How To Run Over Little Boats.”, December 13, 2010

After reading this book, I relized exactly what I was doing wrong everytime I was run over by bardges on the mighty Mississippi. I always played dead and hoped the boats would go away, like I was taught by a book I read, “How To Survive Bear Attacks.” I guess I thought the lessons taught by that book applied to everything life, but it clearly meant just bears. Now I am surviving the waterways better than a BP oil rig.

TOO Informative., December 25, 2010

Dan (Ontario Canada) – See all my reviews
Read this book before going on vacation and I couldn’t find my cruise liner in the port. Vacation ruined.

Now I know what that steering wheel thingy is for, January 30, 2011

This book really is one of the best huge ship avoidance references I’ve come across, not just for the effective methods it teaches as to avoiding huge ships, but also for exploding some of the huge ship avoidance myths that many of us take for granted.

For example:
- Do not charge the huge ship at full speed in an attempt to scare it off. This may work with coyotes, but it is less effective with huge ships.
- Similarly, do not roll your boat over and play dead. Unless the huge ship is captained by a grizzly bear, this will not work.
- Do not attempt to go under the huge ship. This is typically not successful.
- Do not attempt to jump over the huge ship.

Captain Trimmer presents a rather novel technique for avoiding huge ships – move your boat out of the path of the huge ship. I know what you’re thinking, this goes against conventional wisdom, but Trimmer presents significant empirical evidence to support his theory. Indeed, over the long run, moving out of the way will dramatically decrease the number of huge ship collisions you will have to endure in your daily life.

A Parent’s Review, February 20, 2011

As the father of two teenagers, I found this book invaluable. I’m sure other parents here can empathize when I say I shudder at the thought of the increasing influence and presence of huge ships in the lives my children. I certainly remember the strain I caused so long ago for my own parents when I began experimenting with huge ships. The long inter-continental voyages that kept my mom and dad up all night with worry. Don’t even get me started on the international protocols when transporting perishable cargo. To think, I was even younger then than my kids are now! huge ships are everywhere and it doesn’t help that the tv and movies make huge ships seem glamorous and cool. This book helped me really approach the subject of huge ships with my kids in an honest, open and non judgmental way. Because of the insights this book provided, I can sleep a little better and cope with the reality that I can’t always be there to protect my kids from huge ships, especially as they become adults. I’m confident that my teens, when confronted by a huge ship, are much better prepared to make wiser decisions than I did. At the very least my children certainly know that they can always come to me if they have any concerns, questions or just need my support when it comes to the topic of huge ships.

Book Lies: Readability is Impossible to Measure

Gabe Habash -- July 20th, 2011

One of Amazon’s best and little-known book features is its “Text Stats” page, a tiny link that’s tucked three-quarters down a book’s page under the “Inside This Book” heading. Clicking the link takes you to a page with graphs and numbers, the most interesting (and objective) of which is word count. It’s always fun to compare War and Peace‘s word count (590,000) to major textbooks, and to see that Tolstoy smashes most of them with his stern Russian will.

But there are other figures on the page, and these are meant to tell you, as close to objectively as possible, how readable and how complex the book is. We put these measurements to the test to see how accurate they are in determining how readable and how complex a text is. The six books we sampled are Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards, The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, and Moby-Dick by Herman Melville.

For “Readability,” Amazon lists Fog Index and two indices developed by Rudolf Flesch under commission by the Navy. Keeping it brief, the Fog Index estimates the number of years of formal education required to understand the book. The Flesch-Kincaid Index similarly measures the U.S. grade level likely needed to understand the book, meaning Fog and Flesh-Kincaid numbers should be, in a perfect world, quite similar. The regular Flesch Index is based on a 100 point scale, with 100 being the easiest to read (for frame of reference, a college degree is considered necessary to read a book with a score of 0 to 30, while a 5th grader should be able to understand a book with a score of 90 to 100).

Got all that? Here’s what our sample books scored (Fog, Flesch-Kincaid, Flesch):

Finnegans Wake: 11.8, 9.3, 57.8

Where I’m Calling From: 5.7, 3.9, 84.2

The Great Gatsby: 14.4, 11.8, 48.8

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter: 7.5, 5.6, 76.7

The Tipping Point: 12.6, 10.1, 55.7

Moby-Dick: 13.0, 10.8, 57.9

According to the numbers, Gatsby requires the most education and is the most difficult book to read from the group, and Where I’m Calling From requires the least education and is the least difficult. Other interesting finds: Gladwell’s bestseller is more difficult than both Moby-Dick and Finnegans Wake, two books notorious for being picked up but never finished, the latter often cited as unreadable. So, there are some flaws in the numbers. But why?

Looking at the formula each index uses, we can see they all include words per sentence, as well as accounting for “complex words,” or longer-syllabic words. Conveniently, Amazon’s “Complexity” section on the Texts Stats page breaks down those numbers as well. The book with the most number of words per sentence? Moby-Dick, followed by Gatsby, with Where I’m Calling From last. In fact, except for the switch at the top between Melville and Fitzgerald, the order of books from “hardest readability” to “easiest readability” exactly corresponds to the number of words per sentence.

The conclusion: the main “objective” way we try to measure a book’s difficulty is ultimately determined by how long its sentences are.

So what does this all mean? It means that we can get a general idea of how difficult a book is through these numbers, but not really enough to call it reliably accurate. The Great Gatsby is read by high school freshmen and sophomores around the country, but it has an 11.8 Flesch-Kincaid score, meaning high school seniors should be the youngest to read it and understand it. Finnegans Wake, a book famous for its own language, is only moderately difficult to read according to the figures, mainly because it has a 1.6 syllable per word average (even though many of those words are made up). And Carver? According to the numbers, his stories could be read by fourth graders or very precocious third graders (3.9 Flesch-Kincaid). Which is probably true, they could read it. They could read “Collectors” and see that it’s about a traveling vacuum salesman trying to sell a vacuum cleaner to a man. They could read it, but no fourth grader could ever really read it.

But, for all the shortcomings here, there are some good numbers. The Memory Keeper’s Daughter could probably be read by most sixth graders, and the same with The Tipping Point and tenth graders.

Ultimately, however, there’s no substitute for picking up a book and seeing for yourself. Most people have the common sense to put down a book that opens with the word riverrun.