Monthly Archives: February 2014

Books Behind the Oscars

Seth Satterlee -- February 28th, 2014
Every Oscar season books of all kinds and reputations enter the refractory spotlight of the red carpet. It’s a good time to remember where directors and producers find their stories, where our silver screen heroes find their statue-winning characters. The process of moving words to the screen has many pitfalls and advantages. A flat story explodes in the hands of a great cinematographer. Or a complex character withers without pages of inner-life. This year the Oscar nominees showcase a range of approaches–some successful, some less so.

12 years
12 Years a Slave is a gripping, eerily terse memoir. Published nearly a decade before the Civil War, the book is written with an open frankness that reads like an attempt to set down the facts (for fear they might be forgotten, or distorted).  Atrocities pile on atrocities, and Solomon guides you through with clear eyes. Quickly the nightmarish unreality of Solomon’s kidnapping and torture turns into the slow tick of degradation. From the beginning, we know Solomon will survive to tell the tale; the true terror is the magnitude of tales we’ll never hear. Steve McQueen’s film version is an amazing tribute to the memoir. Following Solomon’s story very closely, the film brings a visceral life to the characters that the book simply can’t capture. Brutalized into silence, when characters with so much to say are finally given the room to speak, they deliver with Shakespearean fervor and precision.

Captain Phillips brings Hollywood to the memoir A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea. The first successful pirate seizure of an American ship for nearly two centuries, Phillips’s story really didn’t need much screenwriting. His bravery and clever tactics are all detailed and analyzed in the book from the eye of a ship captain; in fact, the memoir is mainly an explanation of how preparation and dedication to the job saved Phillips’s life.  Most of the book is a tutorial on living as a Merchant Marine. It’s a fascinating keyhole into the relatively unknown and unappreciated profession.  We get to know the crew. We get to know the ship. We get to know how hard it is to spend most of the year away from family.  The story of Richard and Andrea Phillips feels conventional, but it’s still singular and romantic–her courage bolsters his. It’s a shame the film is set up as a mano-a-mano death match with the pirates. Phillips’s story is far more interesting than that.

The Wind Rises by Hayao Miyazaki takes its title from Tatsuo Hori’s 1937 novella about a boy following his betrothed to a tuberculosis sanitarium. Hori’s original tale is used like a stanchion by Miyazaki to wrap his own story around: Jiro Horikoshi, a fictional WWII aeronautical engineer. Miyazaki’s cinematographic powers are in full force during the flying and bombing scenes. Sleek wings, the tumult of rising earth. But while he delves into nationalist issues at a touchy time for Japan, Miyazaki also reaches the other direction for a story that speaks to a more peaceful past. This gap gives the film velocity. Hori’s original tale is a quiet ode to young and painful love. The over-analytic narrator is overwhelmed by the scenery of the sanitarium and his muddled emotions. You can see his mind churning over the same questions. As he attempts to reconcile his situation, he begins to write the very words you’re reading: “I began to convert our strange everyday life into an extraordinarily sad but serene story.”

van ronkInside Llewyn Davis takes place in the world of Dave Van Ronk, whose memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street details the folk revival moment of the 40s and 50s in Greenwich Village, New York. Unlike the other books here, the original characters from Van Ronk’s memoir play no important role in the film.  Instead of following the real Van Ronk, the Coen Brothers chose to take his story as inspiration for their own creations. Inside Llewyn Davis is understated and driven by the music, fantastic acting, and great camera work. But it’s really nothing like the world Van Ronk opens the curtain to.  What made Van Ronk special was not his musical ability–you’d probably have his records if so–but his ubiquitous ability to be at all the right places during a revolutionary time. The Mayor of MacDougal street is both a guide to jazz and folk music–the origins, the factions, the instrument styles–as well as a breakdown of the various players on the Village scene. Van Ronk’s in-your-face, loudmouth, and uncompromising style seems light years away from the messily coiffed Oscar Issac, lounging on couches and charming his benefactors. Luckily, the Coen Brother’s chose a tight scope for such ripe subject matter.  Not that it needs it, but this book is begging for a better adaptation.

Lovecraft’s Ladies: New Books from Hippocampus Press

Peter Cannon -- February 25th, 2014

Hippocampus Press, the world’s leading publisher of books related to horror writer H. P. Lovecraft (1890–1937), has just issued the sixth volume in the Hippocampus Press Library of the Collected Letters of H. P. Lovecraft: Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge and Anne Tillery Renshaw, edited by David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi. Lovecraft had few female correspondents, but these are two of the more notable. Toldridge, a poet living in Washington, D.C., began corresponding with Lovecraft in the 1920s. Poetry and politics were prominent among the topics they discussed, though we have only Lovecraft’s side of the correspondence. Anne Tillery Renshaw, an amateur journalism colleague of Lovecraft’s, is mainly remembered for having commissioned him to work on her treatise on English usage, Well-Bred Speech (1936). This edition publishes for the first time several chapters that Lovecraft wrote for that book that were dropped before publication.

Another recent Hippocampus title is Edith Miniter’s The Village Green and Other Pieces, edited by Kenneth W. Faig, Jr., and Sean Donnelly. This follow-up volume to Miniter’s Dead Houses and Other Works (Hippocampus, 2008) collects three unfinished novels, 10 short stories, and two articles, “How to Dress on $40 a Year” (first published in the Boston Sunday Globe in 1891), and “A Rearward Glance,” her affectionate look at her early years in amateur journalism (originally serialized in The Varied Year in 1909–10). Mrs. Miniter (1867–1934) has the distinction of being the first to use Lovecraft as a character in a work of fiction, “Falco Ossifracus,” a parody that appeared in her zine, The Muffin Man, in 1921. One of the characters in the novel fragment The Village Green, a portrait of a literary club patterned on Boston’s Hub Club, is one H. Theobald, Jr., “the man with the long chin.” Fans of S. T. Joshi’s The Assaults of Chaos (Hippocampus, 2013), the latest effort to feature Lovecraft in a work of fiction, will want to check out this early, hitherto unknown appearance of a Lovecraft alter-ego.

For the Love

Rose Fox -- February 19th, 2014

Writers frequently warn one another against working for free, “for exposure”, or “for the love”. Writing is a business, and writers should get paid. To that end, SFWA recently announced an increase in their “pro rates” from 5¢/wd to 6¢/wd, hoping to encourage speculative fiction publishers and magazines to pay writers more.

However, many of those same publications–particularly online magazines that make fiction available to readers for free, and rely on donations to cover expenses–pay editors little to nothing. The staff of the well-regarded Strange Horizons are all volunteers. Other sites, such as ClarkesworldBeneath Ceaseless Skies, and Lightspeed, are more circumspect, but their Hugo nominations in the “Best Semiprozine” category are telling. According to the Hugo Awards site, “A lot of science fiction and fantasy magazines are run on a semi-professional basis: that is they pay a little, but generally not enough to make a living for anyone. The object of this category is to separate such things from fanzines, which are generally loss-making hobbyist pursuits.” What counts as professional? “A professional publication either (1) provided at least a quarter the income of any one person or, (2) was owned or published by any entity which provided at least a quarter the income of any of its staff and/or owner.” So these semiprozines are defined by not paying professional rates for editors, even as many of them pride themselves on paying pro rates (as defined by SFWA) for writers.

The editors of these sites are incredibly talented. They publish stories, poems, and illustrations that win awards and accolades. They provide an important service to the industry and to readers; short fiction is where some of the most interesting ideas in speculative fiction are developed, and many of our most outstanding authors primarily write short works. So why are there no SFWA pro rates for editors? When there’s outcry over the publishing industry’s reliance on unpaid interns, why doesn’t anyone talk about the speculative short fiction industry’s reliance on unpaid editorial staff? If writers or artists were asked to work for free to the tune of dozens of pieces over the course of a year, the practice would be derided as exploitative. But we exploit editors without a second thought.

Money isn’t thick on the ground for anyone in this industry, obviously. Calling 6¢/wd “pro” for writers might have made sense a few decades ago, but it’s absurd now. (By contrast, the Editorial Freelancers Association puts pro rates for fiction at 20–25¢/wd.) Nonetheless, I wish SFWA had put forward a 1¢/wd raise for editors as well as for authors. 1¢/wd isn’t much–those same EFA rates suggest more like 10¢/wd for substantive editing–but it’s a whole lot better than nothing.

Would that mean that readers need to pony up more for fiction, either in subscription fees or in donations? Absolutely. But I don’t think the world will end if publications explicitly state that editors need to get paid for their work as much as writers do, and ask readers to support that philosophy with their dollars. Crowdfunded writing projects should include a budget line item for editing, not as a stretch goal but as an essential component. Patreon appeals for patronage should mention paying editors as well as paying writers. The speculative fiction community happily gives awards for editing: arguably four separate Hugos, if you count Best Semiprozine and Best Fanzine as well as Best Editor, Short Form and Best Editor, Long Form. We name our awards after editors and magazine publishers: the Hugo, the Campbell, the other Campbell. (There’s inexplicably no Merril Award or Carr Award for best anthology, but that’s a separate rant.) This is not a community that’s unaware of the value of editing, or unwilling to acknowledge the tremendous work that editors do. I think it would take very little nudging to encourage a cultural shift toward paying editors for their time and effort and knowledge.

The editors who help our wonderful short fiction scene thrive deserve their award nominations, no question. They also deserve financial compensation. If we don’t expect writers to work “for the love”, we shouldn’t expect it from editors either.

The Best Book You’ve Never Read: ‘Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age’

Gabe Habash -- February 12th, 2014


In 1997, a man fell from the fifth floor of the Bulovka hospital in Prague. He was, said witnesses, trying to feed the pigeons on his window sill when the table he was standing on slipped out from under him. The man was 82-year-old Bohumil Hrabal, called “one of the greatest living European prose writers” by Philip Roth and “Czechoslovakia’s greatest living writer” by Milan Kundera.

This is not an attempt to convince you that an author loved by a long list of writers and critics¹ is proof of his greatness. This is an attempt to get your to read Bohumil Hrabal’s Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age because it might be the funniest book you haven’t read. Continue reading

Educate Yourself for Black History Month

Alex Crowley -- February 12th, 2014

Black History Month should mean more than paying lip service to a handful of notable historical figures; we should actually be educating ourselves on the real struggles of Black Americans, the hidden histories of events we may only know in passing, and the contributions of both groups and individuals whose work has been overshadowed because of pernicious racial privileging. To that end, here are a number of recent books that can help us get closer to that ideal.

•     •     •

The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation by David Brion Davis (Knopf). The beginning is always a good place to start, and this, the third and final installment of Davis’s “three-volume study of the intellectual, cultural, and moral realities of slavery in the West since classical times,” covers the Civil War period and aftermath. Here, he addresses the complexities that arose in the wake of slavery’s abolition, an act that nevertheless failed to stop racism and whose repercussions are still felt today. The whole series is a masterpiece and a must-read for anyone even remotely interested in the subject.

•     •     •

Stokely: A Life by Peniel E. Joseph (Basic/Civitas). Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture) was a leading light in the “heroic era” of the Civil Rights movement. He played a role in the Freedom Rides, was a leader of the SNCC, and held the title of Honorary Prime Minister of the Black Panther Party. Co-credited with coining the term “institutional racism,” his politics were decidedly more radical than many figures in the Civil Rights movement, and he actively espoused Black Power and, later, after splitting with the Black Panthers and going into self-imposed exile, a socialist form of Pan-Africanism.

•     •     •

Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms by Nicholas Johnson (Prometheus Books). The deep and complicated relationship between African-Americans and guns is probably older than the republic itself, but it surely goes back at least to Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass, who both claimed “that gun ownership for blacks helped level the disparity between races,” as guns not only helped keep white antagonism at bay, but also provided occasional work opportunities. That attitude continues to the present day, and notably provided some of the philosophical underpinnings of groups like the Black Panthers. Even supposed practitioners of non-violence like M.L.K., Jr. were known to carry firearms for protection.*

•     •     •

Other recent notables include:

Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear by Aram Goudsouzian (FSG)

An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by Todd S. Purdum (Holt)

The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act by Clay Risen (Bloomsbury)

Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons by Sylviane A. Diouf. (NYU)

Where the Negroes Are Masters: An African Port in the Era of the Slave Trade by Randy J. Sparks (Harvard)

*And on that note, Charles E. Cobb, Jr.’s This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (Basic) just arrived on our shelves and addresses this very phenomenon.

Love and Math: The Problem of Presenting a Subject Only Geniuses Can Understand

Peter Cannon -- February 11th, 2014

Math geeks won’t want to miss Edward Frenkel’s Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality, published in October 2013 by Basic Books. Frenkel, a Russian-born mathematician who teachers at the University of California, Berkeley, invites the reader “to discover the magic hidden universe of mathematics,” but the lay person should be prepared for some highly technical discussion of such things as the Langlands Program, which seeks to unite disparate areas of the field in one grand unified theory. Far more compelling is the author’s personal story, in particular how he managed to surmount the anti-Semitism of the Soviet era that prevented Jews from entering the best universities for the mathematically gifted. He says little about his life in America outside the classroom, though he does invoke Homer Simpson, with his love of donuts, in talking about tori, donut-shaped objects that are important in topology. (Of course, Homer and friends are the stars of Simon Singh’s book about the comedy show and math, The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets, the subject of my January 14 blog.)

I wish Frenkel (or his editors) had looked to the example of John Derbyshire’s Prime Obsession: Bernhard Riemann and the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics (John Henry, 2003). Derbyshire succeeds in presenting the Riemann Hypothesis, a highly complex conjecture that relates to the distribution of prime numbers, in a way to satisfy all readers. In one set of alternating chapters, he gives the history of the hypothesis, beginning with Bernard Riemann, the German mathematician who first formulated it in the 19th century, through the efforts of others to prove it either true or false up to the present day. In the other set of alternating chapters, he supplies the college-level math you need to understand it. Several other books about the Riemann Hypothesis came out around the same time (prompted by the announcement of a $1 million prize to anyone who solved it), but Derbyshire’s is by far the best of the bunch.

From Art Show to Art Book

Calvin Reid -- February 11th, 2014

Social Photography III

Whether you happen to be a single minded author determined to publish your own book or a small gallery space in lower Manhattan, Print-On-Demand publishing is transforming the ability to create and sell books of all kinds. Carriage Trade is small nonprofit gallery catering to contemporary art located in downtown Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood. For the last three years Carriage Trade director Peter Scott has organized a big group show of cell phone photographs called Social Photography, featuring several hundred photos by famous artists, curators, not-so-famous artists, friends-of-Peter, and many others including “a few children and a number of DJs from WFMU.”

While the show is a “random sampling” of photos from contributors mostly from New York, it also includes images from Europe, Australia, Thailand and Canada. Scott says the show is intended to “challenge the professionalism mandated by the [fine art] gallery system. Almost everyone has an image capable cell phone these days, regardless of background, and many people come up with pretty interesting images.” (Full disclosure: this reporter has an image in the show.)

This year Social Photography III: An Exhibition of Cell Phone Photographs (December 12, 2013 – January 18, 2014) featured 204 cell phone photos, and for the first time, a handsomely designed trade paperback book presenting each one of the photos. The book sells for $50 ($45 to those in the show) and includes all 204 images, as well as an introduction written by Scott. While the gallery mounts the show each year and sells prints of the photos, this year marks its first Social Photography book collection available for sale. Every year each contributor emails their photo to the gallery and Scott and his assistants format the images, print them and mount the photos in a precise grid on the gallery walls. The gallery sells the prints in editions of five that also come with a signed certificate by the contributor. All of this helps raise funds for the small nonprofit space which has been around since 2008, when Scott began putting together independently curated shows in a space above Fanelli’s, the venerable SoHo Bar. He moved Carriage Trade to Walker Street in Trebeca in 2010.


The introduction to Social Photography III and an image of the exhibition installation.

This year, Scott says he and the book’s co-designer Nadine Schmied, “realized having done so much work soliciting, formatting and printing the images, that we were halfway there in terms of producing a book.” An artist friend recommended he use MagCloud, a HP owned company that specializes in print-on-demand printing and self-publishing. Scott said he and the designer, “did two proofs and two small print runs of 25 copies each. They were really fast and the quality is very good.” The book was produced, he says, mid-show during the Christmas holidays. “We had two weeks to sell the book while the show was up and the sales mostly took place during the book launch and show closing party in mid-January,” he says.

“In the end it was a lot of work,” Scott said, “but we now have the show ‘out there’ [in the form of a book] archive.” Scott says, and just as important: “We sold what we printed and need to order more.” Scott praised, the “upgrades” in publishing technology. “Advances in desktop publishing and on-demand printing make a show and book like this possible. We produced everything in-house over the course of a few months.” He also emphasized that , “given our limited budget, we were able to order small print runs of books on an as needed basis in terms of orders. The level of quality combined with efficiency and fast turnaround makes it possible for a small nonprofit like ourselves to do ambitious projects that would not have been possible even four or five years ago.”

Next, Scott plans to try to get wider distribution for the gallery’s first in-house book publication.” I’m planning on bringing the book around to book stores/distributors in the near future,” he said. He also hopes to do more books. “I’d love to do books for all the shows, though the tough part is getting distribution,” he said. “An exhibition is limited to the gallery, but a book makes the show portable.”

Power to the People

Jessamine Chan -- February 10th, 2014

pussy riotLately I’ve been thinking about life in Russian penal colonies and how strange it must be to go from the unspeakably bleak conditions of said penal colony to appearing on The Colbert Report in the course of a few months. (Not to mention being introduced by Madonna at an Amnesty International benefit concert at the Barclays Center). As readers of most liberal media know, newly freed Pussy Riot members Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina made media appearances in New York last week as part of their visit to the U.S. to promote Russian prison reform.

For readers who have been following Pussy Riot’s story and anyone interested in contemporary Russian politics and society, I heartily recommend the incredibly vivid, engaging, and compassionate new book, Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot by Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen (The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin), which we also talked up here. Published last month by Riverhead, the book chronicles the budding activism and legal ordeals of Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina, and bandmate Kat Samutsevich. Gessen recently appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition and NBC’s Brian Williams Show to promote the book, and will be speaking and signing copies at Brooklyn’s Bookcourt on Monday, March 3, and McNally Jackson on Tuesday, March 4. Both events start at 7pm.


Penning Up Your Books

Peter Brantley -- February 10th, 2014

Hiding in a bookTwo news reports over the past week together demonstrated just how fragile “ownership” of digital books is for consumers. Of course, alert readers will know that they don’t actually own e-books anyway, they license them, usually under terms that give readers very little actual control over the content. However, it would be pretty to think that I could at least move the e-books that I have purchased from one location to another, or reload them on a new device with ease. That would make it simple to buy books from any vendor that I choose, instead of feeling like I have to go to Amazon, the biggest vendor available, which uses its own proprietary format. But that’s not the case. Continue reading

Ice-T Reluctantly Records a Dungeons & Dragons Audiobook

Rose Fox -- February 6th, 2014

As reported by Paste and The Verge and shared on Twitter by the inimitable @MaureenJohnson (who says “This… may be… the most important thing that has ever happened”), the third episode of Ice-T’s Final Level podcast episode recounts the rapper and actor’s experiences recording a Dungeons & Dragons audiobook with dialogue like “Outside I go, into the sun thereof.” He also complains about the difficulty of pronouncing various invented terms. Apparently a coach encouraged Ice-T through the traumatizing experience. “He was saying people have broken down trying to read that stuff.”

Ice-T concludes, “I told my manager… let me read some porno or something, a sex book. I know about that.” Shhh, don’t tell him about X-rated D&D fanfic!

Full podcast here. The discussion begins at about 2:20.