Saturday, October 19, 2013

Breaking News: Reading Might Be Good for You!

ISBN-10: 0062065254 ISBN-13: 9780062065254 Published: Harper Perennial, 05/01/2013 Pages: 336 Language: English Ingram Discount Code: REG
Flyleaf customers clued me in to a recent study written up in The New York Times that found that "after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence — skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking." Now, it's human nature to try to justify one's hobbies-- hence my somewhat facetious title to this entry-- but, if true, these findings would have fascinating implications. 

The value of reading in intellectual development is both common sense and scientifically proven fact-- however, this study's focus on "emotional intelligence" sets it apart. As the New York Times put it, the findings "suggested a direct effect — quantifiable by measuring how many right and wrong answers people got on the tests — from reading literature for only a few minutes" and "experts said the results implied that people could be primed for social skills like empathy, just as watching a clip from a sad movie can make one feel more emotional." Furthermore, by comparing the effects of different genres of fiction and nonfiction separately, the study suggests that certain kinds of books might be more valuable in producing empathy than others, possibly having implications for school curriculums: "The study’s authors and other academic psychologists said such findings should be considered by educators designing curriculums, particularly the Common Core standards adopted by most states, which assign students more nonfiction."

I buy most of this--to an extent. In one of my favorite books, An Anatomy of Melancholy, frequent mention is made of harsh tyrants who could only be moved by a play or a poem (there's a particular example the author references, I think from Greek tragedy, which is escaping me at the moment). The idea that art is sometimes more effective at creating empathy than real life is one more sad irony we've come to accept. It doesn't seem like much of a stretch to suggest that one could take emotional lessons learned from a master such as Alice Munro--she won that Nobel Prize for a reason, people-- and apply them to real life.

Naturally, I have my doubts about the methodology of the study and blah blah blah-- for now, it's just nice to think about. Ultimately, I share Louis Erdrich's opinion, as expressed in a quote that concludes the article: Writers are often lonely obsessives, especially the literary ones. It’s nice to be told what we write is of social value,” she said. “However, I would still write even if novels were useless.”

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Rashomon Effect

ISBN-10: 0316205850 ISBN-13: 9780316205856 Published: Little, Brown and Company, 09/03/2013 Pages: 176 Language: English
Daniel Woodrell is probably best known for his last novel, Winter's Bone, published in 2006 and adapted into an excellent movie starring Jennifer Lawrence. That novel earned him a  richly deserved reputation as a master of Appalachian-noir and Faulknerian prose, an odd but highly effective mix of genre trappings and lit-fic miserablism. His newest book, The Maid's Version, is no more cheery, but no less beautiful than his previous work. Besides the flecks of bone-dry wit and black humor sprinkled throughout, The Maid's Version is a spare, brutal book-- in other words, right up my alley. 

The Rashomon comparison hinted at in the title is a useful way to consider Woodrell's novel. Like Akira Kurosawa's landmark film, The Maid's Version concerns a central tragedy-- in this case, a dance hall fire-- and how it was perceived by a number of different witnesses. Naturally, each witnesses' point of view is skewed by the complicated web of prejudices and associations that spreads naturally in any small town. The rumor and gossip mills work overtime to produce contradicting theories about the perpetrators, sparking a great deal of collateral damage and undeserved witch hunts. However, unlike in Rashomon, there does seem to be a "true" version of the events, which we gradually close in on as the novel progresses.

The Maid's Version is vastly ambitious in its complicated, inter-generational structure and thematically-laden, gorgeous prose. It's to Woodrell's great credit that he pulls it all off without wasting a single sentence-- The Maid's Version is barely longer than a novella. Really, you can't give enough credit to his writing. For example, Woodrell is able to slip in and out of various voices without disrupting the flow of the story. I was frequently reminded of Faulkner's famous short story "A Rose for Emily," in which he is able to illuminate the individual gossiping people of his made-up small town as well as the group-think, the collective "we" and "they" that result from such a claustrophobic society. Take this passage from Faulkner's story:

"So the next day we all said, 'She will kill herself'; and we said it would be the best thing. When she had first begun to be seen with Homer Barron, we had said, 'She will marry him.' Then we said, 'She will persuade him yet,' because Homer himself had remarked--he liked men, and it was known that he drank with the younger men in the Elks' Club--that he was not a marrying man. Later we said, 'Poor Emily' behind the jalousies as they passed on Sunday afternoon in the glittering buggy, Miss Emily with her head high and Homer Barron with his hat cocked and a cigar in his teeth, reins and whip in a yellow glove."

Compare it to this passage from The Maid's Version:

"And there were the accusations and denunciations also delivered in clusters surrounding the anniversary date: Chuck always has liked fire too much to be left alone anyplace with matches but might have been on that day,-- I don't got any way to know for a fact, I was at Jam Up Cave, myself, that night, but his eyes sure get wide seeing flames. Or: She and him had been stealing from the factory payroll, I'm pretty sure of that, since they had patent-leather shoes a little too rich and shiny for East Side, don't you know, and ate hunks of beef meat when we had greens and fatback, so they likely did the bombing to throw attention away from their own wrongs until they could leave for California with the loot, which they did within a week or so. Or: My husband has been odd since maybe a week before then..."

And so on.  Woodrell's style is more fluid, almost experimental or stream-of-consciousness in a way that recalls As I Lay Dying or even Mrs. Dalloway. Trying to identify all of Woodrell's potential influences is cat-nip for an English major like me, but for anyone simply looking for a great book, I couldn't recommend The Maid's Version more highly. The Maid's Version is simultaneously steeped in the past and engagingly post-modern (just like Rashomon!) without burying emotional depth beneath its technical sophistication. And, unlike me, apparently, Woodrell is committed to the ideal held in highest esteem by busy readers with an enormous stack of books threatening to crush their bedside table-- brevity.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

For the Comedy Nerd in Your Life: An Imagined Conversation, in One Part

ISBN-10: 1455526304 ISBN-13: 9781455526307 Published: Grand Central Publishing, 09/10/2013 Pages: 288 Language: English
Person A: "Comedy nerd"? Can such a person even exist? What is this tomfoolery?

Person B: Of course! Where have you been, my straw-man interrogator? Recently, the popularity of social media, comedy podcasts such as WTF with Marc Maron, and alternative comics such as Louis CK, Tig Notaro, and Maria Bamford has had more people obsessing over comedy than ever before. The comedy nerd is ascendant!!!

Person A:  Okay, okay. Ease up on the exclamation marks.

Person B: Sorry... I get excited.

Person A: So what's this book thingy all about?

Person B:  Oh, yeah. Well, the title kind of says it all: Hollywood Said No!: Orphaned Film Scripts, Bastard Scenes, and Abandoned Darlings from the Creators of Mr. Show.  

Person A: Gee whiz, that's a mouthful! What's Mr. Show?

Person B: It was a brilliant and highly influential sketch comedy program on HBO in the nineties. If you've ever seen Monty Python's Flying Circus, Mr. Show is a clear descendant. Co-creators and co-stars David Cross and Bob Odenkirk (now of Better Call Saul! fame) gleefully mixed the high concept and the low, sending up American culture with biting satire while also making room for spectacular amounts of silliness.

Person A: Sounds neat, but why would I want to read a bunch of passed-over film scripts?

Person B: Besides being gut-bustingly hysterical, the film scripts and attendant notes give new insight into the creative process and how it rubs up against the out-of-touch Hollywood establishment. If you're wondering why the blockbuster landscape has been so loud and samey of late, this book might provide a few clues. Plus, there are some nice extras like interviews, storyboards, illustrations, and a few abandoned sketches. For comedy nerds, it's a must-have.

Person A: What about us Average Joes?

Person B: Mr. Show does have a niche, counter-culture sensibility that will not appeal to everyone equally. Still, funny is funny, and tautologies are tautologies. Just buy it.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Variations on a Theme: Three Shiny Books.

Three shiny books, because that seemed like enough to warrant a picstitch! Or, at the very least, they’re a nice shiny tonic to ward off this dreary, rainy day.

Featured: Marisha Pessl’s Night Film, Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below, and Tao Lin’s Taipei.
While we’re on the subject of these beautiful books, it seems worth mentioning that there’s been a lot of speculation about how print books will fare in a world of internet titans. Robin Sloan did a reading here last week, and one of the most interesting facets of his talk was his discussion of ebooks’ role in making print books better: namely, that designers and marketing professionals will have to level up when it comes to designing covetable physical objects. In all honesty, that’s a trend we’re ok with, because it produces things like these volumes. There’s something tactile and special about a book with shiny, glittering font or, in Sloan’s case, the glow-in-the-dark books on Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore's cover. Hoping this prophecy keeps book in print, and bookstores in business.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

A Little Bit Late (Sorry!)

ISBN-10: 0765334224
ISBN-13: 9780765334220
Published: Tor Books, 09/24/2013
Pages: 304
Language: English
I hate to miss an interesting genre author when he or she comes by Flyleaf, but I was unfortunately waylaid by illness when Steven Brust visited to promote The Incrementalists, a fantasy (in a loose sense) novel he co-wrote with Skyler White (who is, I'm sure, very tired of the Breaking Bad jokes). I was glad to hear the event went swimmingly even without my august presence or my prized official endorsement here on the blog. Still, I thought it would be a shame not to devote a little internet space to a fun and fascinating book. The Incrementalists concerns a kind of secret society that has been operating behind the scenes since the beginning of mankind, whose purpose is to cautiously (with some major exceptions) nudge humanity in the right directions. 

Unlike most secret orders found in books or other media, the Incrementalists stay true to their name by trying to make the world a little better at a time-- the relatively narrow focus of their ambitions is actually one of the most interesting parts of the book's premise. Another interesting aspect: the Incrementalists have no real hierarchy, and opinions as to what constitutes "better" vary widely among the group. This lends an essential philosophical underpinning to the novel, which quickly becomes embroiled in heady arguments and brain-splitting flights of fancy (there's a whole 'nother thing involving a garden made out of memories that I can't even get into). Somehow, this didacticism avoids becoming pretentious or irritating-- no mean feat, trust me. If you're looking for a thrill-ride through a fantastical Las Vegas, you won't find it here. The Incrementalists is much more concerned with ideas than car chases, and if you approach the novel as thoughtfully as it is constructed, the result is much more intriguing. Don't check your brain at the door, in other words, but do buy this book.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

New developments in the digital world of Flyleaf Books

All of this internet work was almost as fun as playing with a little kitten, but not quite as entertaining as observing  a kitten with expert computer skills. 
Chalk it up to reading too much Mr. Penumbra, but lately, I've had an urge to settle on our own little piece of internet territory. Like the great pioneers before me, I have spent long and arduous days journeying an unknown land, developing new areas so that my predecessors can reap the rewards (...actually, it was super easy).

If you'd like to validate the hours/minutes that have gone into retweeting, Instagramming, Tumblring, and the like, check out the following links, and add them to your bookmarks or what have you:

  • Tumblr: Original content, plus lots of cool things culled from around the web.
  • Pinterest: Quick & to-the-point posts about things we like and what we're reading.
  • Facebook: The original internet presence, in which we divulge just about everything.
  • Twitter: Concision (which is hard, for booksellers & writers).
That does it for today. Thanks for helping us spread the word -- or words, as the case may be.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Exchanging Words with: Nathan Kotecki

In a new series (er, post?), called Exchanging Words With..., I'll be chatting up some of our area's authors. This week, Nathan Kotecki, whose book Pull Down The Night comes out next Tuesday, was kind enough to let me pester him with topics both relevant and absurd. A reader of classic literature and a writer of young adult novels that pack a decidedly cultural punch, Kotecki is clearly a smart cookie. Below, read up on our (electronic) conversation, and start picking out your best Goth attire now -- this book launch won't be your typical quiet, mild-mannered bookstore fare, and rumor has it there's a pretty fantastic playlist in the works.

Flyleaf: So you've been through this publishing-a-book gauntlet before, which puts you in a unique position. What's been different about your experience this time around, if anything?

Nathan Kotecki: If anything, I still feel very new to this - the paperback of The Suburban Strange just came out less than a month ago, and I've come to realize that the life of this series may well depend as much if not more on the second book as the first - will the series gain momentum? Going through the process for the second book, I was better able to anticipate the flow, from editing and cover design through advance reading copies and early publicity to planning a release and a promotional schedule. But as an author - someone who wants to make a career of writing books - I feel as though I've barely taken off my coat and found a seat at the table.

FL: In The Suburban Strange, we followed Celia, but this time around, you've centered the story on Bruno. What prompted that decision, and how did it change the story itself? Did that create any challenges as far as writing went, or was it easier for you?

NK: I love Celia, but the moment I considered the series potential of The Suburban Strange, it was clear to me that I didn't want to follow her - I've made jokes about "The Suburban Strange: The College Years," which is what would have happened if I had. Rather, this series is about its silent character: the Suburban High School, the epicenter of this supernatural conflict, of which I've just scratched the surface. So, how to structure the series so no human character got too large? I decided that each book would take place in the subsequent school year, but with a kaleidescopic shift in which all the characters who haven't graduated (or died) are retained, but a new character arrives to drive the story forward with a new coming-of-age story that also advances the series arc. I am very satisfied with how that decision has panned out with Bruno (and Celia) and Pull Down The Night, and I've met some brilliant characters who are waiting in the wings for books three and four. I can't say this structure created challenges - if anything, it breathes new life into the series with each book, from my perspective.

FL: As opposed to a lot of YA series (which stick to some popular tropes -- vampires, werewolves, vampire-werewolves-in-love), the Suburban Strange books are defiantly different. Were you worried at all when you set out to write something so centered in Goth culture & music? How have readers responded to this element of your work? Finally, do you think there's a demand for more YA books that fall somewhere off the typical path?

NK: It's a tough call, isn't it? I wanted to do something that felt distinctive and at least a little original, and that carries the risk of not connecting with readers. But I would rather stake my claim for the story I'm interested in telling, than look for trends to follow. I feel strongly that at the core, authors have to write the story they need to tell, and the commercial considerations come later - or the writing is going to be notably lacking in passion. Goth culture and music are part of my composition, particularly their "outsider" point of view and their aesthetic vantage point. I don't expect all the books I write will be so infused with this genre (in fact the next project I'm writing has no traces of it), but it's incredibly gratifying to work the genre into the Suburban Strange series. Of course there are readers who don't respond to that, and I do try to keep those elements at a reasonable proportion so readers can gloss over them if they desire. But I've gotten some great messages from goth kids who can't believe their music is right there in the books, and from kids who checked out some of the music for the first time and enjoyed it. That makes me very happy.

Is there a demand for YA books that fall somewhere off the typical path? I'm tempted to turn that question around and say only that if a book is a success, and it introduces some sort of new path in YA, then maybe it created that demand. I believe all great books are in some way "strange" - they make us look at the world differently, or hold us at bay, forcing us to conform to their rules. That might be an excessively literary answer, but think of how many great YA books you've read that changed the rules in some way. If they didn't, you're just reading another version of a book you already know.

FL: What's your writing schedule like? How do you fit in writing with your day-to-day work, and is that schedule regimented?

NK: My writing schedule really varies. As an author fortunate enough to be getting things published, there's a lot of project management required: you're simultaneously promoting the book that's out, preparing the book that's going to come out, and working on the next book you hope to get into the pipeline for publication. The balance shifts from week to week. There was a lull this summer before the paperback and hardcover releases this fall, and I made a lot of progress with my next project. These next few months are going to emphasize publicity a lot more. But I do get cranky if I go through a day without scribbling at least a little bit.

FL: Is there anything (or about a billion things) you've learned during the publishing process that you didn't know before you'd written your first book? What are some of the major lessons that you've learned, and what would you impart on folks undertaking a writing project?

NK: Wow, there's so much. But I'm always hesitant to universalize my experience - agents operate differently, editors operate differently, publishing houses operate differently, and projects are handled differently. I can say this: I believe strongly in the core concept of traditional publishing, in which an editor shepherds a project through a refinement process that makes it stronger and more polished than it would have been otherwise. I suppose there are any number of valid criticisms that can be made of traditional publishing, but the bottom line is that I have stronger books going onto shelves because the traditional route has served me very well. I won't discount other routes; the traditional route is the only one I know.

To folks undertaking a writing project: First, follow your passion and don't give a single thought to publishing or the market until you have satisfied your bliss as a writer. When you are finished with that phase and can step back and stop viewing your project as your child or your lover, that is the time to consider its commercial potential. Set your expectations low, so they can be easily exceeded: before you query a single agent, you must be at peace with the possibility that no one may take interest in your project. If you get an agent, you must be at peace with the possibility that she may not be able to sell your project. When your agent (and hopefully, your editor) ask for changes, remember that they are professionals whose income is directly tied to the strength of your work. Of course there are lines you will not cross, but the vast majority (if not all) of the suggested changes will not be that radical - I promise. The better you get at separating yourself from your work - taking criticism of your work and not hearing it as criticism of you - the better off you'll be, and the better you'll do in publishing. (That is just me rambling - I'm sure I'll think of other great advice in ten minutes...)

Rapid-fire round! 140 characters or less:

FL: From whom would you rather take an art class, and why: Bob Ross or Claude Monet?

NK: Claude Monet - he might not be as chummy as Bob, but he changed the way the world sees, and that's an astonishing thing.

FL: What's the scariest book you've ever read, or the scariest villain you've found in literature?

NK: William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist - scared the honk out of me. Scariest villain... Maybe O'Brien in Orwell's 1984.

FL: Favorite spot to go on vacation (and what book you would pack next time you go):

NK: I'm always torn between Paris and Rome, but I'd give Paris the edge. I think I'll go against trend and take Virginia Woolf's Orlando.

FL: You found out you got nominated for a Pulitzer! How would you celebrate?

NK: My goodness - I'd settle for a Printz! :) A brut rose and a reception at Blue Hill in NYC - my favorite restaurant.

FL: If Pull Down The Night was a mixed drink (alcoholic or otherwise), what would it be?

NK: Since it's a YA, I'll go non-alcoholic: cranberry tea (Liz serves it at First Night in The Suburban Strange).

FL: Who would play the major characters in the movie version of your books?

NK: So hard! Celia: Nina Dobrev at fifteen. Cassandra: Christina Hendricks or Candis Cayne. Mr. Sumeletso: BD Wong in his twenties.

FL: Which bands or artists, new or old, would be featured on the movie soundtrack?

NK: Chameleons, Cocteau Twins, Book of Love, Killing Joke, Shriekback, Faith & The Muse - all name-checked in The Suburban Strange.

FL: What is the purpose of literature & writing: to entertain or to teach, or both?

NK: Absolutely both - but I'd go a step further: to help us understand ourselves and the world around us.

FL: If your book series could receive a corporate sponsorship from a big famous company (think Nike or Coca-Cola), who would you choose?

NK: I'd go with Bottega Veneta - I know, not so big/famous, but anything that increases my chances of wearing their clothes...

FL: Think about the best mixtape you've ever gotten: what made it so great?

NK: I've received some epic mixtapes in my life, but the common denominator is curation: the gifter really made a beautiful collection.