Monthly Archives: November 2013

The Disaster Artist

Everett Jones -- November 27th, 2013

disaster artist

When I think about how the creation of great art has been represented by other artists, the first thing that inevitably comes to mind is a clip from an old Hollywood film set in old Europe about the life of a famous composer. Starved for inspiration, the composer takes his beautiful fiancée to a nearby park, and during a carriage ride, begins to notice the sounds of nature: the clip-clopping of the horse’s hoofs, the sweet melody of birdsong…Before long, he’s waving his hand in time to the rhythm, his beautiful fiancé is humming to herself, and the kindly old coachman is joining in with his own musical contributions. And soon, the composer is rushing home before he can forget the great symphony that has just spontaneously appeared in his head.

Writers, filmmakers, and other storytellers seem to have a hard time making the creation of great art entertaining or believable, let alone both. Bad art, though, is a different matter, as shown by The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made, by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell. Published this October by Simon & Schuster, the book tells the story of Sestero’s experiences co-starring in The Room, a 2003 indie drama starring one Tommy Wiseau, who, in would-be Orson Welles-fashion, also wrote, produced, and directed his screen debut. Despite a lavish marketing campaign, it quickly vanished from the few theaters it was booked into, only to reemerge as a cult movie to rival Plan 9 from Outer Space and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Fans attend midnight showings in costume, with props and memorized dialogue ready for responding to their favorite moments onscreen. In true 21st century fashion, Wiseau’s film has enjoyed the most popularity as a source for YouTube clips showcasing the maladroit acting and writing that transforms a humdrum story-an ordinary guy (Wiseau) discovers his best friend (Sestero) is having an affair with his best girl (Juliette Danielle)-into an experience of otherworldly weirdness.

the-room-poster

Wiseau’s one-of-a-kind screen presence is a major part of the appeal. His affectless, slightly accented delivery makes for an irresistible combination with dialogue which sounds like it was produced by virus-ridden voice recognition software. Fans of The Room won’t be disappointed by the picture of Wiseau drawn by Sestero, who was not only the enigmatic auteur’s co-star but also his longtime friend and onetime roommate. Even readers who couldn’t care less about modern-day cult classics may find Tommy Wiseau to be one of the more memorable characters they’ve encountered in print for some time. He emerges as a sort of cross between Jay Gatsby and Edward Wood, Jr. (Plan 9 from Outer Space), with elements of a classic American immigrant story. Sestero, who becomes the socially inept Wiseau’s closest friend, never learns his real age or national origin, but does hear oblique references to a childhood in Eastern Europe and to a dark, shady past. He experiences Tommy’s intense adoration of James Dean, whom he longs to emulate, and even more intense patriotism for his adopted country. Sestero does learn that the friend with whom he shares as a small apartment as a young, struggling actor is also mysteriously wealthy, enough to own prime San Francisco real estate and apparently pay for The Room’s $6 million budget out of pocket. But the eternally clueless Wiseau comes across as an unlikely real estate mogu; at one point, while shooting a scene in a flower shop, he asks the owner about her dog:

“Is it real thing?”

The woman kept looking at Tommy, probably trying to figure out if this man who’d taken over her store was really asking if her dog was real. Did Tommy think it was a robot? An android pug of some kind?

“Yes,” the woman said finally. “My dog is a real thing.”

The Room’s cult is based in mockery, as is much of The Disaster Artist’s humor, but the key to the book is that its title is ultimately meant seriously. It’s clear that The Room is a deeply personal piece of work, even if it is does also deserve the frequently-applied label, “one of the worst movies of all time.” Sestero can even pinpoint the exact moment when Wiseau, as in that cheesy old Hollywood film, receives his burst of inspiration: a visit to the local multiplex in 2000 to see The Talented Mr. Ripley, which Wiseau somehow transforms through creative misinterpretation into The Room. By the end, it seems somehow fitting that Wiseau’s enormous, unfulfilled ambition to make a great film has resulted instead in such a terrific book. I can imagine that Tommy would be pleased to know that I was left thinking, “Boy, this would make a great movie.”

Martin Gardner: Undiluted Hocus-Pocus

Peter Cannon -- November 26th, 2013

In the summer of 2006, for a PW author profile, I interviewed polymath Martin Gardner, who’s probably best known for The Annotated Alice, at his home in Norman, Okla. As a boy, I was a fan of Gardner’s “Mathematical Games” column that ran in Scientific American between 1956 and 1981, and over the years I acquired the collections of these columns, as well as Gardner’s dozens of books on such subjects as magic, religion, philosophy, science, and pseudoscience. To spend most of an afternoon and an evening with him talking about these and other topics was a thrill of a lifetime. Gardner, who was then 91, was still working on book projects, still actively corresponding with his many admirers around the world, if via typed letters. (He tried using a computer once, but he gave it up after he decided he was wasting too much time on online chess.) He died in 2010 at age 95.

Last month, while browsing in a Barnes & Noble, I was delighted to discover a new Gardner book—Undiluted Hocus-Pocus, his autobiography, which Princeton University Press published in September. Rambling and anecdotal, this isn’t the place to start for newcomers, but for someone like me it’s valuable for information about his family and early life not available elsewhere. (An important source of Gardner’s philosophical and religious views is his autobiographical novel, The Flight of Peter Fromm, which prompted a letter of praise from John Updike.)  A section of photos of Gardner at various stages of his career is a plus. But when did he write Undiluted Hocus-Pocus, and why was it being published now?

On Oct. 19, at the Museum of Mathematics on Manhattan’s Madison Square, I got some answers. As part of a series of events in celebration of what would have been Gardner’s 99th birthday on Oct. 21, MoMath was hosting a panel discussion that evening on Gardner’s life and work. One of the panelists was Gardner’s son James, an education professor at the University of Oklahoma, whom I had met during my visit to Norman seven years ago. When I asked James about Undiluted Hocus-Pocus, he explained that his father, ever looking to keep busy, wrote it late in life, a couple years of so after my interview. The three years that passed after his father’s death before publication was simply a function of dealing first with a host of more pressing matters related to the estate.

Oct. 19, as it happens, is my birthday, and as a fellow Libra and skeptic, I feel a particular kinship with Martin Gardner, who liked to claim that it’s been astrologically proven that Libras are skeptical of astrology. Did I mention that he was fond of paradoxes and was a great wit?

Winterson’s Witches

Seth Satterlee -- November 25th, 2013

13136119Possibly the bleakest entry on this year’s best books for Fiction is a lurid tale out of 17th century England. Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate fictionalizes the brutal Pendle witch hunts of 1612, which saw ten people hanged after a well documented public trial.

Winterson has clearly done her research.  The locations are precise, the characters all plucked from the record books.  Refusing to aggrandize or belittle the hysteria that inspired the executions, Winterson paints a believable portrait of how a mix of superstition, jealousy, and local politics could mobilize so many people to support such a bizarre and atrocious act.  The awful reality of that historical moment lands hard in Winterson’s unrelenting hands; she spares no detail of the imprisonment and sadistic punishment. The short book captures the swift and arbitrary justice with stark sentences and simple observations.

Where another book could easily delve into the psychology of the time and the peculiar motivations of the accusers, The Daylight Gate only sets up the facts and lets the atrocity unfold. The motives stand faintly in the background for the reader to judge for themselves. This unsentimental style allows the origin story and all it’s irrational turns to land with fullest impact. If you’re into historical fiction–or well constructed sentences–this story will keep you thinking for far longer than the few hours it takes to read it.

6 Ways to Beat Reader’s Block

Rose Fox -- November 22nd, 2013

I spent most of 2013 suffering from reader’s block. Whenever I thought about reading, it didn’t sound like fun; it sounded like effort. I could easily think of any number of things I’d rather be doing. When I needed to read something for work, I had no problem doing so, and even enjoyed much of what I read. But as soon as I closed the file or put down the book, reading for pleasure felt impossibly far out of reach.

Fortunately, there are ways around this problem. Here are six steps for beating reader’s block and getting back that passion for reading.

1. Treat your book aversion like any other sort of anxiety or phobia.

For some people that means gritting your teeth and jumping in. For others it might help to have support from a friend: make a reading date, or read aloud to each other. One might medicate, or meditate, or sit in a favorite peaceful place. Whatever you do to overcome other anxieties can also help you overcome this one.

2. Whet your appetite.

Read an article, a poem, or a short story–ideally a really superb one that reminds you just how great the written word can be. If you’d rather try a longer book, place a bookmark 20 pages in and stop when you get there. Set a timer for reading, or read on your commute so there’s a defined end-point. Leave yourself wanting more.

3. Read something that won’t make you angry or upset.

It can be a book you’ve read recently, or something recommended by a trusted friend who’s aware of your particular hot buttons and concerns. Later on you can challenge yourself to read unvetted books that might be rife with sexism, racism, homophobia, gratuitous violence, or other elements that make you want to throw the book at the wall. Right now, stick with something safe.

4. Read a book that’s very familiar, or entirely unfamiliar.

A book you know backwards and forwards will soothe you. A book in a totally unfamiliar genre, category, medium (such as an audiobook if you’re used to text), or style will shake you out of your rut. If you read professionally, go for something that’s very distinct from the books you deal with at work.

5. Read something lighthearted.

If an immersive or heart-wrenching reading experience sounds daunting, try a book of elephant jokes, or a bathroom reader, or nonsense rhymes, or anything else that’s very much not intended to challenge you emotionally or intellectually.

6. Savor the desire to read.

This may sound counterintuitive, but once you start feeling the urge to read again, don’t immediately or constantly indulge it. Enjoy knowing that you’ve broken the block. Every time you pick up a book, before you open it, take a moment to really feel your desire for it. Do you want to find out what happens next, or encounter old friends among the characters? Do you want the delight of the humor or the thrill of learning something new? Are you enjoying the cadences of this particular audiobook narrator, or of a close friend reading you poems that are dear to their heart? Immerse yourself in the wanting before you immerse yourself in the having. That way, the next time reader’s block threatens, you’ll have a new weapon in your arsenal: the visceral memory of the longing for a good book.

I broke my reader’s block with Patricia Kennealy-Morrison’s Keltiad magical space opera trilogy. I made myself wait four days between choosing it and reading it, and then drew it out over the course of a week. (For me, three familiar novels in a week is a nice moderate pace.) I’ve adored these books for 25 years, and they hold up surprisingly well to rereading. They’re fluffy, sure, but that just serves to remind me that reading doesn’t have to be a tremendous intellectual or emotional challenge, and I can do it even when I’m brain-fried. Instead of analyzing their flaws, as I would probably do with a new-to-me book, I’m eagerly paging ahead to longtime favorite phrases and scenes. This is reading for pleasure, pure pleasure, and I’m loving every moment of it.

When I finish the trilogy, I’m not sure what I’ll read next. I might just take a day or two to enjoy being back in the game. I can read again! It’s not gone forever! I am so glad, and so relieved.

The Discoveries of Graham Robb

Alex Crowley -- November 21st, 2013

On Tuesday morning I had the good fortune to hang out and drink coffee with Graham Robb—while pestering him with questions about his books and his background—as he is in briefly in the US to promote his new book, The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the Lost World of the Celts. Robb is the author of Balzac: A Life, Victor Hugo, Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris, and The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War, all of which have earned PW starred reviews. Not a bad haul, though you’d hardly guess it from how humble he is in person.

As one might guess from the above titles, British, Oxford-trained Robb is rather enamored with France; his background is in French Literature (he received his PhD. at Vanderbilt, where he studied Baudelaire) and his first few books were academic works (written in French). Though the French in which he produced those works was the rigid, scholarly variant, his popular books in English are witty and charming, full of deep insight yet still wicked fun.

disc of mid earthRobb’s ability to straddle worlds is obvious in his latest book, where he goes back through layers of history to the pre-Roman Europe of the Celts. This ease of movement across contexts could easily be chalked up to his time spent in both France and the US. He and his American wife—whom he met during his time in Nashville—live on the English-Scottish border and spend a good deal of time in France. They don’t own a place in France, however; rather they go there to take extended bicycle tours, a practice that has produced its fair share of research for multiple projects, including his work on the Celts. In this latest instance, it was trying to retrace the mythical Heraklean Way in southern France that led to a surprising discovery (which he lays out here in our q&a with him).

As a native New Englander, I’m wholly unaccustomed to walking around outside and finding shards of ancient pottery or other such trinkets of lives lived 500, 1000, or even 2000 years ago. This is not the case in Europe, where the ruins and artifacts of previous human habitations are regular features of the landscape. There, one can bike past mounds that are the overgrown remnants of ancient forts and stumble across pieces of metal or ceramic dug up by some farmer when he tilled his field. If one pays attention, long-disappeared cultures start making their presence known, though in odd ways.

Celtic culture, of course, is mostly known to Americans via Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, but it was continental in origin. They traded and fought with the Romans, among others, though now they’re remembered as being a strange, mystical sort typified by the figure of the druid. Robb told me that there are some cultural hangups in England about druids, as there is a notable neo-druid subculture there whose beliefs (think New Age, pagan, nature spiritualism) have little, if anything, to do with actual Celtic druidry. One of the best aspects of the book is getting to learn about real druids, as we actually know a decent amount about their lives and practices.

He had to run to his next scheduled appearance, so I didn’t get to ask him the 1000 other questions I had in mind (mostly more about druids). But I’ll hopefully get to track him down the next time again soon. Maybe on a bike ride through France.

Oh Canada!

Annie Coreno -- November 20th, 2013

What do these titles have in common, aside from the fact that they are all on PW’s 2013 best books list? The authors are all women, yes, but they are also all Canadian. Pretty shocking, considering the fact that the entire population of Canada is smaller than that of California. Is this a mere coincidence or is it evidence of something larger?

I may be prone to conspiracy, but I have a theory that Canadian women are the new old white men of the book world. In other words, they are taking over publishing. Come to think of it, this plan of theirs has been in the works for years—decades really. The Canadian literary scene is booming, yet completely under our radar in America. (If you don’t believe me, visit Toronto; there’s a bookstore every block and a half on Bloor Street.) Continue reading

Why Don’t More People Read Barry Hannah?

Gabe Habash -- November 20th, 2013

barry hannah

More than any other writer, Barry Hannah might have more pieces written about him that begin by mentioning how underrated he is (see here, among many others). The fact that he’s underread by the reading public is in stark contrast to the gaga praise heaped on him in these glowing articles.

In one such article, Wells Tower writes:

Barry Hannah’s fame is of a peculiar kind. Ask people about him, and either they’ll say they’ve never heard the name (despite his nominations for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize) or they’ll get a feverish, ecstatic look before they seize you by the lapels and start reeling off cherished passages of his work.

Often, it’s as if the fact that Hannah is relatively underappreciated (none of his books has sold more than 9,000 copies since the early 2000s, when Nielsen BookScan started keeping track) is an essential piece of what makes his fans so rabidly obsessed with him. “Why haven’t you read Barry Hannah?” is something that’s probably frequently and frustratedly been said since Geronimo Rex first published in the early ’70s. But just as often as the “Barry Hannah is underrated” piece, you’ll find its parallel, sister article: an apologetic convert who, formerly avoiding his work for some reason, such as pigeonholing Hannah as “Southern,” finally reads one on Hannah’s books and realizes, My God, this guy can write (see this article from Michael Dirda). At which point, of course, the convert will begin grabbing anyone nearby and saying, “Why haven’t you read Barry Hannah?”

Count me as part of both the latter, ecstatic group Tower mentions and, like Dirda, a convert. Barry Hannah is one of America’s great writers. Continue reading

Millay Colony Ruby Anniversary Party

Jessamine Chan -- November 15th, 2013

When was the last time you had a Bennington College professor and award-winning poet read your tarot cards? At the Millay Colony’s Ruby Anniversary Benefit Party on October 28, held at the performance space Roulette, in downtown Brooklyn, Millay alums also provided hypnosis, graphology, fortune telling, silhouette drawing, and palm readings at “Encounter Booths” installed throughout the space. There was even a love artist. In addition to music from the Hungry Hollow Trio and special guests led by Ralph Denzer, the evening’s entertainment included Col. Quince Mountain leading an auction (pictured), with prizes including a sword-fighting lesson with Residency Director Calliope Nichols.

Millay Party Auction[1]Founded in 1973 by poet Edna St. Vincent Millay’s devoted sister Norma, The Millay Colony for the Arts has supported more than 2,500 writers, visual artists, and composers though residencies, artist-led workshops, and public events upstate and in New York City. The colony is located on a seven-acre campus bordered by Edna St. Vincent Millay’s former house and gardens in Austerlitz, New York.

For alum Nora Maynard, serving on the Board of Directors and working alongside Executive Director, Caroline Crumpacker, to plan and orchestrate the benefit party was just a small way of giving back. “It was a joy to see so much creative talent and community spirit packed together in one room—so many alums and friends of the colony coming out to celebrate, socialize, and show their support,” said Maynard. “It made me realize what a strong community The Millay Colony has built over the past 40 years. Community is the lifeblood of the arts.”

It’s Hockey Time

Mark Rotella -- November 14th, 2013

I don’t think it’s just because I spend six days a week on the ice playing hockey or coaching my son’s travel league, and am therefore more aware of hockey books—but this season I’ve seen many more than usual.

Here’s a rundown:

The Game by Ken Dryden, Montreal Canadiens goalie of the 1970s iconic team, is one of the best books written on the sport (I don’t say that simply because I’m a diehard Habs fan). This season, Triumph books released the 30th anniversary edition of the book, with an additional chapter and new photos.

Without a doubt, Canadian publishers are in on the action: ECW Press in September published Don’t Call Me Goon: Hockey’s Greatest Enforcers, Gunslingers, and Bad Boys by Greg Oliver and Richard Kamchen; and in last month they came out with Heart of the Blackhawks: The Pierre Pilote Story by L. Waxy Gregoire, David M. Dupuis, with Pilote himself.

Canada’s big book is by Canada’s prime minister Stephen J. Harper. The title is A Great Game: The Forgotten Leafs & The Rise of Professional Hockey, and Jeff Z. Klein gave it some nice attention in the New York Times. It’s a well-written, solid history—and, yeah, I say that even though it’s about the great Canadiens rival.

This season’s most popular book, of course, is Bobby Orr’s memoir, called simply, Orr: My Story. The Bruins defenseman of the 1960s and ’70s is loved by all, and his book debuted at #10 on our bestseller list. Also on Orr, McClelland & Stewart released the collected articles from Sports Illustrated in Number Four Bobby Orr.

Of course, it really just could be me.

Books to Read

Everett Jones -- November 13th, 2013

sontag

Since a recent post to this blog, which begins with a reference to “my bedside stack of books”, I’ve been thinking about reading lists.  About lists scrawled unceremoniously on loose-leaf, spiral notebook paper; lists organized and kept meticulously updated in computer spreadsheets; and -like Seth’s- manifested in the concrete form of an ever-growing tower of books. And not just about how we organize our books-still-to-be-read, but also why. A list can be a self-improvement tool, a way of prompting ourselves to finally soldier through whatever official classic has escaped us until now, or it can be a wholly guilt-free inventory of pleasures still to come. Or, as with people who daily receive new review copies, it can just be the most practical way to keep on top of a mountain of books.

Keeping a list of the books you should read is the kind of practice that’s easy to make fun of, but it has a pedigree. As a teenager, Susan Sontag, famously, wrote in her notebooks the titles of the books she needed to read to before she could be the famous intellectual she planned to become. Most such lists, of course, don’t lead to a future or a career path like Sontag’s, but it’s good for readers to know that there’s nothing wrong with being aspirational and upwardly mobile. Still, some people will undoubtedly be reminded a little too strongly of school assignments and course descriptions. Once past the point in life where other people can force you to read a canonical classic, the average reader may have little interest in returning, and even less in assigning work to him or herself.

As a counterpoint to Susan Sontag’s autodidactic agenda, there’s a romance fan I know who has a spreadsheet to keep track of the books in the genre she still hasn’t read. With details like author, subgenre, and publisher stored in columns alongside the title, she can apply whatever criteria currently seems important and comb through a huge inventory of an even bigger genre, essentially letting it do the work of making selections for her. She’s not trying to be a new kind of reader (as Sontag says in the recently published Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview, ““It’s exciting to me to subscribe to something that’s foreign to my earlier taste), but to do a better job of being the kind of reader she knows herself to be.