Archive for January, 2012

January 28, 2012

If At First You Don’t Succeed, Read “The Success of Failure”

We’ve all heard it before: You have to fail to succeed. It’s a sentiment that’s true, but often daunting. As a writer, how many rejection slips do you collect before you throw up your hands? How many drafts do you write before you decide the piece just plain stinks?

Before you toss that story away forever, there’s good news, fellow failurephobes!  CNN has posted an inspiring piece called The Success of Failure in their ongoing series on creativity. The piece mentions many successes who have endured their fair share of failure including Abe Lincoln, George Clooney, J.K. Rowling, Steve Jobs, and Conan O’Brien. But the piece centers on writer Jennifer Egan (remember her from two posts ago?)

In the piece, Egan reveals that her novels go through about 50 or 60 drafts, and she has abandoned writing projects altogether. Knowing when to abandon projects can prove to be tricky. Egan says she struggled with this conundrum when writing The Keep.

A lot of it is trying to understand what kind of dead end it is, because they aren’t all the same,” she says. “With ‘The Keep,’ I was essentially at a dead end for the first many months of working on it, because I couldn’t find a voice for it. And if you don’t have a voice, you’ve got nothin’. You can try every bell and whistle and good idea in the world, but if the book doesn’t have a voice, you don’t have a book.”

But for some reason I kept hammering away at it, which certainly in retrospect could have been a terrible waste of time if I hadn’t found a way,” she said.

In the end, the article focuses on soldiering through, even when you’ve given up on something, or refuse to give up on a project even though it’s looking grim. As Egan says during the interview: “The key is struggling a lot.

January 27, 2012

So This is What Happens After Everyone Leaves the Bookstore

This video has been making the rounds on the web for a while now, but I wanted to feature it here, too.

Sean Ohlenkamp and his wife, who run a bookstore called Type in Toronto, made this lovely little film of books dancing around their book store. Check it out here. You can also see a stop-motion film of them organizing their bookshelves here.

January 25, 2012

Jennifer Egan Gets Shout Out on Gossip Girl

Last night on Gossip Girl (yes, I watch Gossip Girl), Jennifer Egan got a shout-out. For those who don’t know, Jennifer Egan is a  fiction writer whose novel A Visit From the Goon Squad won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. She’s also a former student of the Writer’s Studio where I take classes.

The scene went like this: Dan Humphry, the young literary virtuoso whose novel just came out as a smashing success, is walking down the street with his agent. She’s telling him to break off his relationship with Serena whose blog isn’t literary enough for him to be associated with. She says, “Publishers see you as Jennifer Egan or Chad Harbach.”

Ten points for Gossip Girl.

January 24, 2012

Watch that Language! You Dropped an “F-Bomb” Behind the Couch

Over at The Hot Word, there is a post on swearing toddlers. In a recent episode of the sitcom Modern Family, a cursing two year old was featured, which apparently has been causing a big rukus.

A swearing toddler in the media isn’t a strange sight these days. It happens a lot in films and if anyone’s seen Will Ferrel’s hilarious video short from Funny or Die of him getting chewed out by his tiny daughter, they’ll know what I mean.

It’s all funny and cute until your kid drops an “f-bomb”. Well, yeah it is still funny. Sometimes.

As a mother of a very verbose five-year-old boy, I wanted to burst laughing and scream simultaneously the first time I heard my son say, “Mommy, what the fuck?” Kids are verbal sponges and I’d obviously hadn’t been aware of all the “f-bombs” I was dropping around the house here and there.

And then there was the day he came home from preschool and gave me the finger. It wasn’t given in an F- you,-Ma-I’m-flipping-you- the-bird manner. He just lifted up his middle finger and said matter-of-factly, “This is the middle finger.”  And then he smiled that devious little boy smile. I exploded. All my vows to be an enlightened, tolerant mother of the 21st century went up in smoke. “Who taught you that?!” I yelled. I had suddenly become one of those uptight mothers who hate “foul language.” He shrugged. I continued: “It was one of those kids at school, wasn’t it?  One of them has an older brother and he learned it from him and now you know it and. . .”   You get the picture.

No matter how closely you monitor your own mouth, the swear words are going to fly out of someone else’s, especially at school. And even more when they get older.   Timothy Jay, a psychologist who studies psycholinguistics and obscenities at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts sheds some light on the subject. In an interview with Live Science he said: “Preschoolers are pretty well-versed in the lexicon, and by 11 to 12, we are looking at adult swearing patterns.” He added: “Kids say swear words as soon as they talk. We have 1- and 2-year-olds who say ‘f—‘ and ‘s—‘ in our sample. . . We don’t learn how to swear from television — nobody does. We learn how to swear from our siblings, from our parents, from the backyard.

So what do you do with a swearing toddler? Everyone has a different method when handling this situation. When it happened to me, I realized I was about to become a blazing hypocrite, but I sucked it up and had “the talk”. I told my son that swear words are “grown up words that grown ups shouldn’t use”. Hypocrite.  And then I told him that while I’d be watching his language, he should also correct me if I let a bad word slip out.

You wouldn’t believe how many times I hear his little voice say, “Mommy, can you please not say that word?”

January 21, 2012

Say What? Como Se Dice? Huh?

My mother-in-law is visiting from Peru. I understand Spanish and she understands a good deal of English, but neither of us speak the other’s language. This leaves my husband to play translator when we hit a wall and can’t understand each other. Alone, my mother-in-law and I actually do pretty well. For instance, we spent the whole day together yesterday speaking our own languages, a bit of each other’s, and signing. We did fine.

While I’ve been with my husband for about fifteen years, I’ve never learned his native language. Sad, I know, but he’s only ever spoken English with me. When I’ve pressed him to speak Spanish, he’s told me he doesn’t like to because his parents used to make him practice his English all the time and now he doesn’t want to practice Spanish with me. Fair enough. I enrolled in a couple Spanish classes, but life got in the way and I finally gave up.

Every time we travel to Peru I pick up a more Spanish. One time I even traveled to Machu Picchu with an English-speaking friend and was able to navigate the trip as the Spanish speaker, which is pretty scary if you could hear how bad my Spanish is.

Anyway, Peter Constantine of The New York Times Book Review reviewed a new book called Babel No More by Michael Erard. The book addresses the language-learning wizards of the world. Constantine calls it “part travelogue, part science lesson, part intellectual investigation. . . an entertaining, informative survey of some of the most fascinating polyglots of our time.

Constantine writes: “Linguists warn Erard that some self-­proclaimed polyglots may say they speak any number of languages, when in fact most of them know only a few grammatical rules, and have only a smattering of ready words and phrases.”  

I can speak half-ass Spanish; I took a couple Russian courses and can read cyrillic, I studied Italian in high school and can’t remember a damn thing except that Bolognese is tasty; and I studied French for years but since the “use it or lose it” rule applies, looking at French now is like seeing an old friend whose face you recognize but whose name you can’t really place, even though you hung out for years. Does this make me a polyglot? Hardly. The consensus is that you have to know at least six languages to be considered a polyglot and you must know those languages well. I kind of figured.

Tonight, my mother-in-law said that she fed my “cut” her food and I told her I loved animals and wanted to get a *fart, too.

* Pedo (fart) sounds like perro (dog) in Spanish when you can’t roll your rs correctly.

January 20, 2012

Happy Edgar Allan Poe Day

Today would have been Edgar Allan Poe’s 203rd birthday if he were still alive. One person who most likely won’t be toasting him is the “Poe Toaster” – a mysterious figure dressed in a wide-brimmed hat and white scarf, who for 60 years, left a half bottle of cognac and three roses at Poe’s Baltimore grave every year on his birthday.

The Poe Toaster hasn’t shown up for three years in a row now. The last time he was spotted was in 2009, which marked the 200th anniversary of Poe’s death. Poe House and Museum Curator Jeff Jerome declared the tradition officially nevermore.

Well, that rots. To fill the void, here’s Christopher Walken reading The Raven because even Poe would have wanted a little more cowbell.

January 17, 2012

Jack the Ripper = Jack the Writer? Manuscript Mystery Unfolds in the UK

Last week, The BBC reported that a manuscript by the alleged Jack the Ripper was unearthed and will be published worldwide. Reported to have been written in the 1920s, the manuscript was found in Somerset, UK in October of 2009.  It is said to have been typewritten and bound with a cardboard cover that reads The Autobiography of James Carnac. The book is dedicated “with admiration and respect to the retired members of the Metropolitan Police Force in spite of whose energy and efficiency I have lived to write this book”.

And just who is James Carnac? No public records show that he ever existed. Could it have been a pen name? Jack the Ripper historian, Paul Begg, however, has warned that the manuscript may be a piece of fiction. After studying the piece, Beggs said that the first two parts are reflective of the actual murders and the last part is “very contrived, very poor fiction”, however; there is a part that stood out to him:

“There is a throwaway remark where James Carnac is in the act of murdering the last of the victims, Mary Kelly, where he sees a reflection of himself in a mirror – and this has a profound effect on him.

“I found one newspaper report from an American newspaper which referred to a mirror in Mary Kelly’s room… it is interesting it was found in one newspaper and it plays a profound part in Carnac’s account.”

This story gets weirder when you learn where that the manuscript was discovered at the  Montacute TV and Radio Museum with things that belonged to S.G. Hulme Beaman, a children’s author who created the character “Larry the Lamb“. Beaman claimed to have known Carnac and wrote the introduction to the book/manuscript and in it claims that he took out the more disturbing parts which describe the grisly details of some of the murders.

Begg states that the manuscript looks toyed with in odd way – pages added on, numbered incorrectly, and parts looked to be produced from different typewriters. Begs states,”The main thing for people is that it isn’t as obvious as it appears to be.”

Call me a cynic, but the whole thing sounds like a sham and it was probably written by Beaman himself.

January 16, 2012

My Towering Pile of To-Reads

This is what my “to read” pile looks like at the start of this year. This is just the starting pile and is in front of the bookshelf that I have of books to read in the upcoming year.

So far, I’m reading the two on the top – A Moveable Feast by Hemingway and Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan.

Last night at the Lobster is a great little book about the closing of a Red Lobster and the people who work in it. I got it as a gift because it takes place in the area I grew up in and at the mall I used to work at. O’Nan does such a fantastic job of capturing that area and that mall parking lot, in particular, that I felt like I was back there, ready to get out of my car and open the store I used to work at. He begins the book with:

Mall traffic on a gray winter’s day, stalled. Midmorning and the streetlights are still on, weakly. Scattered flakes drift down like ash, but for now, the roads are dry. It’s the holidays – a garbage truck stopped at a light has a big wreath wired to its grille, complete with a red velvet bow. The turning lane waits for the green arrow above to blink on, and a line of salted cars takes a left into the mall entrance, splitting as they sniff for parking spots. . . 

The characters who work at this doomed “Lobster” are sympathetic and real. The mood of the book is somber, but enjoyable and I look forward to reading the rest.

A Moveable Feast is a both geographically and atmospherically a world away from the dirty-snow-packed mall parking lot in O’Nan’s book. Every time I pick it up, I’m transported to Hemingway’s Paris, quaint cafes, and Gertrude Stein’s apartment crammed with artwork. The worlds of these two books couldn’t be more different, but they are both filled with engaging characters and wisdom on being human, whether working a shitty mall job or writing in Paris.

After I finish these two, I intend to change worlds again, this time traveling to the ’70s landscape of teen hookers and trashed out pimps in the long lost Steffie Can’t Come out to Play.


January 15, 2012

A Book about “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is a Bargain as an E-Book

The LA Times reports that Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. by Sam Wasson is now available on Amazon for $2.99 as an e-book. The book is based on Truman Capote’s classic novella, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but is more about what happens on the set of the film. The subtitle of Wasson’s book is Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at TIffany’s, and The Dawn of the Modern Woman.


At least that’s what I thought when I first read the title. But after further research, I see that the book is more interesting than its title. The description promises more than just Audrey Hepburn:

With a colorful cast of characters including Truman Capote, Edith Head, Givenchy, “Moon River” composer Henry Mancini, and, of course, Hepburn herself, Wasson immerses us in the America of the early sixties before Woodstock and birth control, when a not-so-virginal girl by the name of Holly Golightly raised eyebrows across the country, changing fashion, film, and sex for good.

I’m interested in the early ’60s culture and Capote, the New York scene back then, the little black dress, etc. but no one will ever convince me that Audrey Hepburn is the face of Capote’s salty siren, Holly Golightly. Sorry. Hepburn doesn’t cut the mustard in my opinion. I hated the film. I even wrote a column about how much I hated the film.

But for $2.99, Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. is probably a great find for any fan of the film and of Hepburn. You can also buy the paperback for $10.10. Curiously enough, Capote’s classic isn’t for sale as an e-book.


January 14, 2012

Amanda Hocking’s Urge to See The Muppets Landed Her a Book Deal

Anyone who knows about Amanda Hocking, the young woman who decided to publish her paranormal novels herself on Amazon, may not realize her decision to self-publish was inspired by the Muppets. Ed Pilkington of The Guardian reported yesterday:

“To understand the vital Muppet connection we have to go back to April 2010. We find Hocking sitting in her tiny, sparsely furnished apartment in Austin, Minnesota. She is penniless and frustrated, having spent years fruitlessly trying to interest traditional publishers in her work. To make matters worse, she has just heard that an exhibition about Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets, is coming to Chicago later that year and she can’t afford to make the trip. As a huge Muppets fan, she is more than willing to drive eight hours but has no money for petrol, let alone a hotel for the night. What is she to do?

Then it comes to her. She can take one of the many novels she has written over the previous nine years, all of which have been rejected by umpteen book agents and publishing houses, and slap them up on Amazon and other digital ebook sites. Surely, she can sell a few copies to her family and friends? All she needs for the journey to Chicago is $300 (£195), and with six months to go before the Muppets exhibition opens, she’s bound to make it.”

She sure made it, all right. The twenty-seven-year-old writer has made over a million dollars selling her e-books from 99 cents – $2.99 each.  While many accuse her of that frightful term, “vanity publishing”, Hocking’s success is indicative of the quickly changing publishing world. A recent survey reported that only six of the top 25 bestselling indie authors on Kindle had ever had book deals with publishers.

So what does this mean for those of us who keep collecting rejection slips and refuse to give up trying for a book deal? Do we throw in the towel and start publishing ourselves? Will this make us less reputable? I guess I’m not reputable at all since I haven’t published my novel IN ANY form. But for now, I’m not ready to give up. I just want to see my book in print in book form. Is that bad?

When all’s said and done, by doing what I’m refusing to do (for now), Hocking has finally landed herself a book deal with St. Martin’s Press and can now see the Muppets anywhere she pleases.

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