Monthly Archives: August 2013

Hope, Reality, Urgency—A Chat with Jamie Quatro

Jessamine Chan -- August 30th, 2013

jamiequatrocoverSome writers you meet at book signings, some in the classroom, and some in the communal women’s bathroom of the Larch House at the 2013 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Such was the setting for delightful chats with Jamie Quatro, whose debut story collection, I Want To Show You More (Grove, Mar. 5) has been named a New York Times Editors’ Choice and Indie Next pick. Jamie was a fellow at the conference, and I was a work-study scholar (a.k.a., waiter, I can explain…). We often bumped into each other when Jamie was preparing to go running. I recall asking for life advice while we were brushing our teeth, and sometimes sheepishly asking “Jamie, is that you?” when she’d say hello, blind as I am without my glasses. To the abundant praise that Jamie’s book has earned, I will add that her stories are thrillingly intimate and alive. I don’t just yearn with her characters, I breathe with them, and that depth of feeling is a gift. Below is an informal chat that we conducted over email this week, shortly after returning from Bread Loaf.

PW: Your book has become a beacon of hope for my writing group. During the years spent writing this collection, which books served as beacons of hope for you?

JQ: It’s tricky to talk about “beacons of hope,” because for many years, I wasn’t thinking about publishing a book. My biggest hope was to place a story in a literary journal. That was it. It wasn’t until I’d signed with my agent, Anna Stein, that I started to believe the stories might come together in a collection. I do look to Alice Munro, who had a family, raised her kids, and published her first collection in her late 30s. She was, and is, a beacon. But it’s Munro’s sentences and the architecture of her stories that inspire, even more than her personal history. Other lifelines: Flannery O’Connor, Grace Paley, Barry Hannah, Amy Hempel, Denis Johnson, Mary Robison, David Means. I often prefer to read poetry, and my Ph.D. work was in British Romanticism, so: Wordsworth and Blake, Shelley and Keats. Also, Jack Gilbert, Sharon Olds, Dean Young, and Linda Gregg. At Sewanee and Bread Loaf this summer, I heard astonishing newer voices: Rebecca Hazelton, Emilia Phillips, Tomas Morin, Brian Russell, Ross Gay, Hugh Martin, Katy Didden. Inspirations, all.

Continue reading

A to ‘Zibaldone’

Daniel Berchenko -- August 29th, 2013

Zibaldone

Just in time for Labor Day and the end of the beach-reading season, FSG has released the first English translation of Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone—a 2,500-page monster of a book, weighing in at nearly four pounds. The volume collects the author’s posthumously published notebooks, full of observations, aphorisms, and quotations; the full Italian title is Zibaldone di pensieri, which means something like “hodgepodge of thoughts.” It was edited by Michael Caesar and Franco D’Intino of the Leopardi Centre at Birmingham University, and translated by an international team of seven scholars over the course of seven years, with funding from innumerable prestigious Italian cultural institutions.  So, who is Leopardi and why should we care about his hodgepodge?

Giacomo Leopardi (1798–1837) was born and lived much of his life in a small, conservative, backwater village called Recanati, near the Adriatic coast in central Italy. His father, Count Monaldo Leopardi, was a nobleman fallen on hard times.  Isolated from the centers of European learning, both by dint of geography and because of his poor health, young Giacomo spent most of his time in his father’s immense library, which still exists today (according to legend, he was only allowed to leave the family estate with one of his tutors). He became fluent in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, and was producing scholarly translations and volumes of philological commentary by the age of 18. (Nietzsche later said that Leopardi was a model philologist and one of the four greatest prose writers of his century.)

Until recently, his only work translated into English was Operette Morali, a book of satirical essays and dialogues that reads as if it might have been written in the 16th century rather than in the 1820s, and which contains such morsels as “Dialogue Between Fashion and Death” and “Song of the Great Wild Rooster.” Then in 2010, FSG published a translation (by FSG president and publisher Jonathan Galassi, who seems to have a personal stake in reviving the author’s legacy) of the Canti, Leopardi’s book of lyric poetry, which met with some acclaim. The poems were already widely admired in Europe—Beckett quoted them in several books—and to the extent that Leopardi is thought of at all nowadays, he is thought of as a poet.

The 4,526 pages of handwritten text that make up the Zibaldone were written over a period of 17 years, starting in 1819. The notes were likely never intended for publication, and they languished in the trunk of a friend for many decades after Leopardi’s death before being published (in their original Italian) in 1898. The book is massive and unruly—it is filled with quotations in scores of languages from authors as unknown in Leopardi’s time as he is in ours, and the text is frequently interrupted by addenda pointing back to earlier passages—but it is not, strictly speaking, a hodgepodge. As a philologist, Leopardi was a great indexer: he kept meticulous notes, citations, and quotations on tiny note cards, which were themselves carefully organized. If anything, the Zibaldone resembles a database (the editors call it “the first modern philosophical hypertext,” an overstatement but not far from the spirit of the thing), a translation to the page of the mind of its author as he contemplates the universe and interrogates the works of his predecessors. As a result of its complex structure and long, obscure quotations, the English translation requires a fairly elaborate editorial apparatus to unpack it. (In this, and other respects, the Zibaldone reminds me of the English translation, in the earlier 2000s, of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project—another cumbersome, unfinished collection of observations, aphorisms, and quotations, whose page count ran into the four digits and whose endnotes are almost as interesting as the work itself—a book that was much talked about at the time, though not frequently read. Not surprisingly, Benjamin was also a great admirer of Leopardi.) But for all that, the Zibaldone is surprisingly fun to dip into, a nightstand book rather than a doorstopper, and something to think about as you head to the beach this weekend—if you can fit it into your bag.

Poetry Books in the Stack Next to My Bed

Alex Crowley -- August 29th, 2013

Anyone who has been through the PW office and seen our desks (especially the reviews editors) has also surely seen the stacks of books we each have waiting to be taken home. These stacks tend to grow wild, as we live in small apartments already filled with piles of books. It can be difficult to justify taking more books home when you haven’t even made it through the ones that are already there. I happen to be a non-fiction editor here, and thus take home plenty of science and history and art books, but it’s always fun to cover something different, so to that end, here are five excellent poetry collections that I’ve recently read or am in the midst of reading.

bozicevic rise in the fall

Ana BožičevićRise in the Fall (Birds LLC, 2013)

So far my favorite poetry collection of 2013, Božičević somehow combines war and trauma and sex and love in that bizarre paradox world where out of dark themes emerges total life joy. It does what in my mind great poetry is supposed to do, which is leave you reeling and ecstatic that some human made this thing that you barely comprehend but totally understand so that when somebody asks “yeah, so it’s good, sure, but what’s it doing? what’s she do?” and you stammer “I don’t know… like, everything.” (PW review) Continue reading

Graphic Novels: Batman, Hawkeye and Saga among August’s bestsellers

Heidi MacDonald -- August 27th, 2013
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Tracking graphic novels sales is difficult—they’re sold through two channels, the conventional bookstore/Amazon market, which is measured by Bookscan; and the direct sales market which consists of nearly 2000 comic book shops. Sales via comics shops are usually estimates based onsales charts released monthly by Diamond Comic Distributors. To compound matters, Bookscan measures consumer sales, while Diamond measures orders from retailers. Continue reading

A Different Kind of Book Trust

Peter Brantley -- August 27th, 2013

BPL book truck
Recently, Eric Hellman of Unglue.it has begun advocating for future-dated Creative commons licenses to provide greater access to digital books. The idea is that a publisher would specify a future date at which the title would be made available through a Creative Commons license; MIT Press, and a few others, have experimented with this approach This is a solid point for elaboration and experimentation. Eric has iterated the idea for his startup Unglue.it, adding the possibility for individual purchases to incrementally shorten the windowing period. Continue reading

Shadow in the Spotlight: Polanski’s Survivor

Seth Satterlee -- August 26th, 2013
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In 1977 acclaimed director Roman Polanski lured thirteen-year-old Samantha Geimer to the home of Jack Nicholson, star of his recent smash-hit Chinatown, where he coaxed her to drink champagne, take a Quaalude, and proceeded to rape the young girl. The circumstances of this jarring case have been widely known for decades; this has never been a whodunnit?, or a whatdidhedo? situation. In fact, the crime only “grew legs” after the fact. Admitting to the rape and serving over a month in prison, Polanski brazenly fled the country in 1978, but only after the judge reneged on a plea bargain agreement. This judicial snafu and the resulting media frenzy launched Geimer’s life on a bizarre and inescapable trajectory.

In The Girl: A Life in the Shadow of Roman Polanski (Atria Books, Sept. 17), Geimer finally gets the chance to tell her side of the story, on her terms, and the result isn’t what you’d expect. In a 2003 LA Times op-ed titled “Judge the Movie, Not the Man,” Geimer wrote: “the publicity surrounding [the case] was so traumatic that what he did to me seemed to pale in comparison.”  This sentiment, expanded, is the theme of her enthralling memoir.

Unwilling to sensationalize the events of 1977, Geimer aims her fury at the celebrity bottom-feeders that circled her case, opportunists who took advantage of the Polanski spotlight: publicity diva Judge Rittenband, who allowed the plea bargain to come undone for personal gain; DA Steve Cooley, who attempted to extradite Polanski from Switzerland during an election year in 2009; and the ever-present tabloids, which exploited her life and privacy for the sake of selling papers. Raised by a whimsical mother and lawyer step-father, Geimer tells her story like a composite of the two—free love, 70′s sentiment grounded in an erudite understanding of her legal case.  In order to clear the air of malicious and spurious rumors, she narrates much of the story from her perspective as a girl, reliving her unconventional up-bringing and early formative experiences. These are intimate glances into the rebellious, pop-infused headspace of an L.A. teenager in the 1970′s.

Although the crime is diligently recreated, Geimer shifts from the facts of the case to her frustration and powerlessness in the face of a growing publicity maelstrom. She rails against the “Victim Industry in this country…populated by Nancy Grace and Dr. Phil and Gloria Allred,” a system that encourages sensationalism at the expensive of the victim. At each turn she vehemently resists the victim label: “Almost immediately, from the start of the case, I felt the pressure to be damaged… There was this sense of disappointment. If only he’d hurt me worse, in more obvious ways, everything would be better.”  This refusal to play to the wishes of those higher up the power-chain explains Geimer’s reluctance to speak until now. Through the long ordeal, she valued anonymity above any financial gain Polanski’s shadow might have afforded her.

Savvy to her position in this Victim Industry, Geimer explores a few interesting tangents near the end of the book. She includes a letter written to “Jane Doe,” the victim of a recent Steubenville, Ohio rape trial: “You should know your story shined a light on something people needed to see and talk about.” Clearly, the same could be said of her own story. Albeit on a local scale, the Steubenville case strikes eerie parallels to Geimer’s own: the power of celebrity, a character assassination of the victim, a culture of silence and collusion. True to her level-headed morals, Geimer never overstates her claims and refuses to color her past with 21st century standards. Citing a recent New Yorker article on the alleged sexual misconduct of a teacher at the Bronx’s Horace Mann School during the 1960′s, Geimer considers how different sexuality was viewed just forty years ago: “[W]hat we now think of as rape or sexual assault didn’t mean quite the same thing in the age of sexual awakening… If you’re a powerful person and you do things that others respond to because of your power, you may convince yourself that they really love you and this is between two equals.”  Although Geimer’s side of the story has taken decades to surface, it has come at a necessary time.

5 Books of Adventure and Lust

Louisa Ermelino -- August 23rd, 2013

Good books are like lovers. When they’re good, they are impossible to forget. And by good, I don’t mean sweet or kind or endearing. I mean rugged, kick-ass, leg breaking, can’t get them out of your head. These books are usually handed to me by my smart and savvy deputy reviews editor, both past and present, and then I’m cooked. I’m shut down to the hundreds of others that overwhelm PW’s office because I’ve found the one. Sometimes a lot of readers agree with me, sometimes not, and I never care. I’m just grateful. And can’t wait for the Best Books of the Year free-for-all we have every year in the pub downstairs.

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The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock

Gritty and terrifying and powerful, yet smooth as silk, this novel about a cadre of characters living on the border between Ohio and Kentucky, includes a malevolent preacher who douses himself in spiders and drags around his wheelchair-bound sidekick whom he crippled in a religious stunt, a married couple who troll the highway looking for hitchhikers to mutilate and murder, and… you get the idea. Pollack knows his territory and his people. Reading him is like stopping at a roadside bar and listening to some stranger tell stories without ever taking a breath.

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State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett is no discovery, true, but for me, this book broke the bank. I confess, I’ve never read Bel Canto which has been in my pile of “to reads” for years, and what brought me to this book was that it was set in the Amazon. I hear Amazon (the jungle) or Nagaland or Ethiopia and I’m halfway there. Continue reading

5 Underrated Books

Gabe Habash -- August 22nd, 2013

We’re already over the 1.5 million mark for total books published this year, which means it’s more difficult than ever to sift through all the options and find the right book. So, here’s a more manageable number: five. As in five great books with sales that don’t represent their worth. They all deserve more readers.

For variety’s sake, they are: a memoir, a graphic novel, a story collection, and two very different novels–all published within the last three years.

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The Guardians by Sarah Manguso

The Guardians, an exceptional memoir, is Manguso’s struggle with her friend’s suicide. It takes the form of fragments, sometimes discursive, sometimes disjointed, but always true. Over its 130 pages, the messy progression of Manguso’s tribute charts the evolution of her grief, anger, and memory. The result is an unforgettable, moving book.

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The Call by Yannick Murphy

Selected as one of the best books of 2011 by PW, The Call follows the daily life of a rural veterinarian, rendered structure-wise by a book-length series of calls and responses separated by a colon. Like this:

CALL: Sick sheep.

ACTION: Visited sheep. Noticed they’d eaten all the thistle.

RESULT: Talked to owner, who is a composer, about classical music. Admired his tall barn beams. Advised owner to fence off thistle so sheep couldn’t eat it. Sheep become sick from thistle.

THOUGHTS ON DRIVE HOME: Is time travel possible? Maybe time is not a thing. Because light takes a while to travel, what we’re seeing is always the past.

WHAT THE WIFE COOKED FOR DINNER: Breakfast.

And so on. The more mundane events of the first half are expertly contrasted by the extraordinary happenings in the latter half. What may first appear as a structural gimmick elevates the novel, making it something you’ve never really seen before. Continue reading

Lethal Nostalgia: On S.J. Perelman

Everett Jones -- August 21st, 2013

Most of us readers are likely to share at least a few literary heroes in common with each other, as well as new favorites from younger generations of writers. But maybe a better marker of taste, or at least a more interesting one, is the one consisting of your own private heroes, the writers that you find your way to by yourself. One of my favorites, the comic writer S.J. Perelman, has been worshiped by plenty of people in his time, and after it (he died in 1979), but I suspect that he falls into the latter category these days.

Perelman still has a major supporter in Woody Allen, but he doesn’t otherwise occupy too much shelf space anymore outside of the dustier sections of the Strand (or whatever your local used bookstore might be). His personal reputation didn’t benefit much from a 1986 biography by a fan of his work who found she was less taken with Perelman himself, and no one has reissued his short stories, essays and parodies since the Modern Library in 2000. Nonetheless, I’d like to think that there could be a much larger audience for his work, which combines a pop culture-fixated sensibility, not a million years removed from today’s, with a frequency and density of verbal invention that’s difficult to imagine occurring again.

Like so many of the writers of his time (he was born in 1904), Perelman’s professional path took him to 1930s Hollywood. He may even have been luckier than most in finding work suited to his particular talents. I can’t see William Faulkner or F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name two, getting along as well with the Marx Brothers. Perelman’s most lasting imprint on Tinseltown, however, wasn’t made as one of a team of gag-men servicing star comedians, but through a series of pieces Dorothy Parker called “[Perelman’s] blood-curdling experiences with old movies.”

The “Cloudland Revisited” series, which Perelman began in the 1950s after having largely ended his screenwriting career, looked back at the entertainment of his teenage years, which for him meant the 1910s. For subject matter, he didn’t just look to the movies, but also at the bestseller lists, with “Into Your Tent I’ll Creep” and “Why, Doctor, What Big Green Eyes You Have?” dissecting, respectively, the potboilers The Sheik and The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu. In other pieces, a visit to the Museum of Modern Art’s screening room is the framing device that lets Perelman revisit otherwise inaccessible Hollywood artifacts like The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Foolish Wives, and Male and Female.

The narrative path traced by each “Cloudland Revisited” essay is predictable: Perelman remembers a teenage fixation on a book or film that led him to try to imitate, say, Captain Nemo, or Erich von Stroheim. While reading one novel, he tells us, “every last asterisk…was literally engraved on my brain, which, after two hundred and ninety pulsating pages, must have borne a striking resemblance to an old bath sponge peppered with buckshot.” The essays’ resolutions are equally predictable: Perelman is as let down by his return trip as a Star Wars fan on the opening night of The Phantom Menace. The turn-of-the-century pop culture landscape he recreates, populated by consumptive vamps, deposed princes, and some pretty jaw-dropping ethnic stereotypes, is a weird and unfamiliar one, but the lens they’re viewed through can feel surprisingly familiar. Fans of Nathan Rabin’s My Year of Flops or Patton Oswalt’s Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, in particular, might find something similar about Perelman’s mixture of criticism and self-deprecating memoir. Perelman thoroughly dismantles whatever book or film is under his microscope, but he doesn’t spare himself for having once fallen for them (and for still being a little under their spell). The message of the series is captured in the essay “When to the Sessions of Sweet Silent Films…”: “As a middle-aged movie fan, I’ve learned one lesson: Lay off that nostalgia, cousin. It’s lethal.”

Through the E-Ink, Darkly

Peter Brantley -- August 20th, 2013

For the blinkd voter
In May 2013, three large ebook retailers and e-ink reading device manufacturers – Amazon, Kobo, and Sony – filed a petition with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission asking it to “waive the accessibility requirements for equipment used for advanced communications services (ACS) for a single class of equipment: e-readers.” In other words, dedicated e-ink devices are difficult to use for the blind, visually-handicapped, and reading disabled, so the manufacturers are asking to be relieved of the need to make them accessible. I find nothing in this pleading which will “advance the public interest.”

At first glance, it seems like it might be reasonable request. The petition observes that e-reader devices are typically low-powered to preserve battery life, have relatively low resolution screens with slow refresh rates, lack sound capability such as microphones and speakers, and cannot support full-featured web engines. As the counsel for the manufacturer coalition states, although these devices “have a similar shape and size to general-purpose tablet computers, e-readers lack many of tablets’ features for general-purpose computing, including ACS functions.” As some on Twitter caustically noted, these devices “suck” too much to support accessibility.

I can’t help but find the arguments of these retailers pathetic and depressing. As the retailers note, “This Petition demonstrates that e-readers are devices designed, built, and marketed for a single primary purpose: to read written material such as books, magazines, newspapers, and other text documents on a mobile electronic device.” I assert that the affordance the blind would most like obtain from increasingly powerful mobile technology is exactly this: to read text on a simple device. For ebook retailers to set up a straw man argument between blinged out retina-resolution tablets supporting complete software stacks and e-ink devices is poor logic and shameful conduct. The choice is not between a Model T and a Tesla – a Kickstarter project could likely find a happy engineering medium if large corporations cannot manage it.

This is an amazing market opportunity gone missing, and as many advocates of accessibility have noted, helping the blind also means helping a rather large number of individuals who have various incapacities, many of which inevitably arise or increase with age. Vast numbers of the blind do use smartphones and tablets to read – they are a vast improvement on the expensive, dedicated accessibility devices of years past. But they are often overkill, and their complexity frustrates as much as it aids, despite Apple’s long dedication to accessibility support. Building an e-reader device that is not a tablet or smartphone but which does support accessibility would be a huge boon to literally millions of readers whose reading is sharply restricted today.

Furthermore, as law professor James Grimmelmann noted in Twitter, this is not a war that ebook retailers should be fighting. If publishers want to disable text-to-speech and other accessibility functions, then they should petition the FCC, not Amazon, Kobo, or Sony. A cynical observer might think that despite Amazon’s recent acquisition of high-end text-to-speech (TTS) technology, the removal of TTS capability from the Kindle Paperwhite series – when it was present on prior Kindles – might suggest that they are simply forcing consumers upstream to tablets. Gasp: could it be possible that the petition to the FCC is motivated by their own financial interests, and not those of the public?

There is one other omission to note: the complete silence from the International Digital Publishing Forum. The IDPF has spent years working on its new EPUB3 standard, with a stated goal of enhancing accessibility. The EPUB3 specification document calls out: “It is important to note that while accessibility is important in its own right, accessible content is also more valuable content: an accessible Publication will be adaptable to more devices and be easier to reuse, in whole or in part, via human and automated workflows.” Even the American Association of Publishers’ newly launched EPUB3 Implementation Project notes that “Through EPUB 3’s innovative assistive features, people who are blind or have other print disabilities will have access to the same titles, at the same time, as all readers.”

Paradoxically, two of the members of the “Coalition of E-Reader Manufactures” – Sony and Kobo – are members of the IDPF. Although the BISG’s EPUB3 compliance table documents only partial readiness from reading system providers, both Sony and Kobo have publicly indicated more complete EPUB3 support by the end of 2013. Unfortunately, that endorsement seems to falter at one of the format’s core design features. Despite the manufacturers’ naked disrespect for the EPUB3 specification, as far as I can tell the IDPF has yet to issue a press release on the request for FCC waiver, or submit a filing in response to the petition. That is unfortunate if true; the board of a not-for-profit must carry some responsibility.

More fundamentally, corporations able to advance access to knowledge through innovative technology should take gracious pride in the opportunity to open horizons as a fortunate reciprocity for their charters. Instead, in this petition, I see hubris. Make your voice heard: the last date to submit comments to the FCC is September 3, 2013.