Archive | December, 2013

6 Best Books of 2013, According to Me

26 Dec

It’s that time of year when everyone’s doing their Best of 2013 lists, so I figured I’d add mine!

I know most people pick 5 or 10, but I picked 6. Why 6, you ask? For arbitrary reasons. Yes, I read more than 6 books this year. No, they weren’t all from 2013. And no, not every book that I read that was published in 2013 made this list. These just happen to be the very best of the books that I read that were published in 2013.

This isn’t a ranking, but rather a listing in a way that one theme flows into the next.

 

paradise

This Is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila

I saw this face-out on a shelf at Barnes & Noble, picked it up, and read the first few lines. The prose was exquisite. I’d nearly given up on fiction, frustrated at how it can be so overwritten yet simple at the same time. This was the type of writing I’d been missing in my life. The language is just gorgeous. I want to reread it already.

 

interestings

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

I had read Wolitzer’s The Wife in grad school and felt it was too heavy-handed, so I cautiously picked this one up after hearing the high praise for it, which almost always dooms a book for me. The Interestings deserves to be on every best of 2013 list. Not only are the story and the themes (the nature of love, the nature of friendships, family, jealousy, career, money, art, New York) thought-provoking on many levels, but the writing strikes that perfect balance of appearing both deliberate and breezy, literary yet conversationally authentic. It’s the type of book I want to now read reviews of and discuss with others, especially women artists.

 

LeanIn

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg

I read this for my Scripps College book club, which is composed of alumni from a wide range of class years from the women’s college. We’re all at various stages of our careers, including stay-at-home moms, working moms with infants, moms whose children have flown the nest, recent grads who have just entered the workforce, and mid-career-level women in relationships and not. Some have Ph.D.s, others want to be yoga instructors. The resulting conversation we had about this book is that, in the end, you have to find out what works for you and that may change depending on where you are in your life.

I also happened to finally get around to reading a book a colleague had given to me a few years ago: Patty Azzarello’s Rise: How to be Really Successful at Work AND Like Your Life, which came out in 2010. While Sandberg’s book is chock-full of important statistics and food for thought, Azzarello’s, though perhaps not as carefully edited, offers tips that are actually practical for people in the workforce.

 

Print

A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett

This book, the true story about a Canadian journalist and her Australian ex-boyfriend photographer who are kidnapped in Somalia, gave me nightmares. Literally. I became obsessed with the story, reading articles,  watching interviews with the people involved, and following them on Twitter. It got me thinking a lot about perceptions of the West, feminism, and ambition.

 

Manana

Manana Means Heaven by Tim Z. Hernandez

The publisher sent me this book, and I was a bit leery going into it that it would come off as fan fiction, but Hernandez’s Manana Means Heaven is an incredibly important book to the Beat canon. Through poetic diction, this novel tells the moving story of one of the little-known people who crossed paths with Jack Kerouac. It gives voice to a woman who didn’t even know she’d been written about decades earlier in On the Road.

You can read my interview with Tim here.

 

heart

My Heart Is an Idiot by Davy Rothbart

I’ve written about Davy Rothbart before, having encountered one of the stories in this book in The Paris Review and comparing him to Jack Kerouac and then going to see him read in Brooklyn, where I met his dad and pulled a sword out of his cohort. This book technically came out last year, but the paperback came out this year, and it is brilliant. I had to stifle my laughter quite a few times on the subway to keep people from staring at me as I read this book. The thing is, though, there’s a lot of heart in this book too. It’s more than just a bunch of stories that make your eyes bug with incredulity over the antics Rothbart gets himself in. It shows the tenderness and beauty and wonder of humanity in all its forms, from an aspiring DJ to a con-artist.

 

Tell me your favorite books of 2013 below in the comments section. I’m looking for some new reads, and I figure if you read my blog we probably have similar taste! …And by similar taste, that probably means all over the board.

 

* * *

Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” is now available as an ebook and paperback!

 

Advertisements

Clip: O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi”

24 Dec

The_Gift_of_the_Magi

Do you have a favorite Christmas story? Burnside published one of the most beautiful stories of sacrifices — and irony — I’ve ever read. The O. Henry story, “The Gift of the Magi,” is published with a short introduction by me.

Kerouac’s Hometown Inspires Charles Dickens

23 Dec

p112sIllustration (not of Mill Girl, fyi) by Marcus Stone, R.A., from Charles Dickens’ American Notes for General Circulation

Many authors have penned Christmas stories, but perhaps the most celebrated is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which has spawned Broadway musicals, a Disney cartoon, a Muppet retelling, a United Nations special by Rod Sterling, a Star Trek version, among so many others.

Is it possible that the inspiration for this Victorian novella came from Jack Kerouac’s hometown?

Natalie McKnight, a dean at Boston University, conducted research with student Chelsea Bray that suggests Dickens was inspired by the stories of the Mills Girls when he visited Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1842.

On one of my trips to Lowell to research Kerouac, my friend George Koumantzelis had given me a stack of newspapers, magazines, and flyers to aid in my studies. Among these was information on UMass Lowell’s seven-month-long celebration of Dickens’ trip to Lowell. I had edited new editions of the British author’s stories including his work American Notes for General Circulation, about 1842 trip to America. About to turn thirty years old, he had traveled from Liverpool (later home to the Beatles!) aboard the RMS Britannia and arrived in Boston, where he then visited mental hospitals, orphanages, and prisons around the country and visited with President Tyler.

Among the dots on his map was Lowell … also known as Mill City. Lowell was founded about twenty years prior to Dickens’ visit, as a center for textile manufacturing. Dickens came about two years after the height of the Industrial Revolution, when there were about 8,000 women working in factories in Lowell. If Dickens was inspired by their stories, it should go without saying that their existence was one of strife. About 80 women were packed into a noisy room from 5 am to 7 pm, working under the direction of two men. However, Dickens actually seemed to think well of the mills.

Dickens wrote:

These girls, as I have said, were all well dressed: and that phrase necessarily includes extreme cleanliness.  They had serviceable bonnets, good warm cloaks, and shawls; and were not above clogs and pattens.  Moreover, there were places in the mill in which they could deposit these things without injury; and there were conveniences for washing.  They were healthy in appearance, many of them remarkably so, and had the manners and deportment of young women: not of degraded brutes of burden.  If I had seen in one of those mills (but I did not, though I looked for something of this kind with a sharp eye), the most lisping, mincing, affected, and ridiculous young creature that my imagination could suggest, I should have thought of the careless, moping, slatternly, degraded, dull reverse (I have seen that), and should have been still well pleased to look upon her.

The rooms in which they worked, were as well ordered as themselves.  In the windows of some, there were green plants, which were trained to shade the glass; in all, there was as much fresh air, cleanliness, and comfort, as the nature of the occupation would possibly admit of.  Out of so large a number of females, many of whom were only then just verging upon womanhood, it may be reasonably supposed that some were delicate and fragile in appearance: no doubt there were.  But I solemnly declare, that from all the crowd I saw in the different factories that day, I cannot recall or separate one young face that gave me a painful impression; not one young girl whom, assuming it to be a matter of necessity that she should gain her daily bread by the labour of her hands, I would have removed from those works if I had had the power.

Though he clearly recognizes that the girls work long and hard, he describes the mills as well as the girls’ dorm rooms in a somewhat positive light, mentioning pianos and libraries.

It would seem that the mills girls were of a literary mindset. Beyond just mentioning the library, Dickens goes on to say:

Of the merits of the Lowell Offering as a literary production, I will only observe, putting entirely out of sight the fact of the articles having been written by these girls after the arduous labours of the day, that it will compare advantageously with a great many English Annuals.  It is pleasant to find that many of its Tales are of the Mills and of those who work in them; that they inculcate habits of self-denial and contentment, and teach good doctrines of enlarged benevolence.  A strong feeling for the beauties of nature, as displayed in the solitudes the writers have left at home, breathes through its pages like wholesome village air; and though a circulating library is a favourable school for the study of such topics, it has very scant allusion to fine clothes, fine marriages, fine houses, or fine life.

What Dean McKnight and Bray suggest is that Dickens lifted ideas from these girls’ stories. Kevin Hartnett at The Boston Globe writes:

Now, new research is suggesting that the book may have borrowed—quite liberally—from the amateur writings of the millworkers he visited.

After reading an obscure literary journal published by Lowell textile workers and comparing it to Dickens’s novella, a Boston University professor and student are arguing that some of the most memorable elements of Dickens’s story—the ghosts, the tour through the past, Scrooge’s sudden reconsideration of his life—closely resemble plot points in stories by the city’s “mill girls” that Dickens read after his visit.

They propose that the ghost trope of A Christmas Carol stems from several selections in The Lowell Offering. Comparing the Mills Girls’ stories with Dickens’, they have found several parallels that they believe go beyond mere coincidence or literary tradition.

Their research has created quite a stir online, and they haven’t even written their paper yet, let alone published it.

It’s well worth visiting The Mill Girls and Immigrant Exhibit at the Morgan Cultural Center to find out more about the fascinating lives these factory workers led.

The Morgan Cultural Center also happens to be where one of Kerouac’s typewriters reside. While Kerouac began writing about a hundred years after Dickens’ visit, he too was inspired by the Mill Girls. He didn’t want to be a mill rat. He wanted to get out of Lowell, to do something more with his life. As a struggling writer, he did eventually end up working for a short time at a mill in America, but he continually worked on his writing. While Dickens had come over to Boston by ship from Liverpool, Kerouac went to Liverpool as a merchant seaman. Like Dickens, Kerouac toured America, writing his own travelogue full of social commentary.

 

* * *

Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” is now available as an ebook and paperback!

Clip: 12 Christmas Trees That Will Blow Your Mind

20 Dec

Burnside published my art post “12 Christmas Trees That Will Blow Your Mind.”

…Because nothing says Christmas like cats?

* * *

Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” is now available as an ebook and paperback!

The Quote that Stuck with Me

19 Dec

dangling

On Tuesday I posted about the 10 Books That Have Stuck with Me. From those books, there is one quote that’s stuck with me the most. It’s from Saul Bellow’s The Dangling Man. The truth is, I don’t even remember the book all that well, but this quote spoke to me when I was sixteen and living in the suburbs of New Jersey, my daily life a boring routine:

It may be that I am tired of having to identify a day as “the day I asked for a second cup of coffee,” or “the day the waitress refused to take back the burned toast,” and so want to blaze it more sharply, regardless of the consequences. Perhaps, eager for consequences.

I wasn’t the type of person back then who would even send back a piece of burned toast. …I’m still not. I was terribly fearful of consequences. Too fearful to even act most of the time. I tried to be invisible, to blend into the background, to not be seen by my teachers or my peers. I was too afraid. Too afraid of attention. Too afraid at failing. Too afraid at even succeeding (no one likes a know-it-all overachiever).

I had actually gotten turned on to Saul Bellow from The Counting Crows. (Hey, I’m not the only one!) In The Counting Crows song “Rain King,” inspired by Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King, Duritz sings:

I belong anywhere but in between

I loved the passion of Bellow’s and Duritz’s characters, but they were not me. I related more to another line from Duritz’s most famous song, “Mr. Jones“:

Grey is my favorite color

I wasn’t a black-or-white person. I didn’t like extremes. I liked the grey, the in between–the safe.

But I was bored. So bored. I could relate to Bellow’s character who wanted a life that consisted of more than just a mild aberration of the routine.

I don’t blame New Jersey or suburban life. Though it was really hard to have a life when you go to school for eight hours a day and then come home to several more hours of homework each night, I can’t even just blame that because I can’t say that I did anything extraordinary in the free time that I did have. I went to the mall. I went to the library. I went to Blockbusters and rented videos with my friends.

It really wasn’t until I left and moved out to California and began taking chances that my life changed. I began to feel more fulfilled as I reached for the things that truly made me happy. I began doing more, choosing more.

All these years later, living in “the city that never sleeps,” I worry I don’t embrace New York City enough. I worry that because I work late hours in the office or find myself at the grocery store instead of at the latest hotspot that I’m not living life to the fullest. That my life is defined by the day there was zucchini bread in the office kitchen or the day the lights eerily went out in the subway for a thirty seconds. And yet sometimes I’m at my happiest when I decide to read a book  instead of going out.

I’m not so afraid of living life anymore, but sometimes I still like the grey, the in between, the routine of toast and coffee.

 

* * *

Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” is now available as an ebook and paperback!

Writing Wednesday: Is Greatness Sabotaging Your Writing?

18 Dec
For better or worse, I don’t recognize a lot of critics’ names. David L. Ulin is an exception. Book critic for The Los Angeles Times, Ulin writes reviews that do so much more than summarize or sweep up a book in a blanket statement. His reviews critique on a higher intellectual plane.
Of course, it helped that he articulated so much of what I felt when I’d read Bruce Bawer’s attack in the New Criterion on Jack Kerouac being included in the Library of America. That’s not to say he unscrupulously defended Kerouac’s poetry—he admitted the Kerouac poem Bawer quoted is “negligible”—but he called Bawer out on spending more time focusing on the so-called Beat label and the people associated with it than on digging into Kerouac’s individual style and innovations.
But I digress.
Ulin has an essay entitled “My First Book(s)”  in the Paris Review Daily that first-time and struggling writers should read. With humorous (not silly—witty) self-deprecation, he writes about what provoked him to write (jealousy, opportunity) and how he got so bogged down in ideas that he incapacitated his body of work. Perhaps my favorite line from the essay:
I was twenty that summer, turning twenty-one in August, and I felt a growing pressure to be (how do I put this without reservation or irony?) great.
That parenthetical itself says so much about not only writing but the human condition. Guarding ourselves through cleverness we can become inauthentic. Sometimes the more we strive to be “great,” the more we lose our true vision and voice. We lose our stories. We lose ourselves.
He writes:
But here’s what is important: I sabotaged my own book. I did this in two ways, first by overthinking and then by overtalking, by telling everyone I knew everything about the work.
Replete with quotes from renowned authors, “My First Book(s)” explores the expectations an author puts of himself, some of which are naïve (“I had gathered so much material—so much unused material—that I’d had the fantasy the book would write itself…”) and some of which are nearly impossible to live up to (“I wanted to write not just a novel but a landmark novel…”).
Ulin’s essay is a refreshing read for all of us who get overwhelmed by our own “big” ideas. It’s also a gentle reminder that all writing—including our unpublished writing—is worthwhile because it teaches us about the process and improves our skills.
In the same link roundup in which they mentioned Ulin’s essay, Poets & Writers linked to a blog post by Percy Jackson author Rick Riordan that also spoke to the slippery idea of greatness:
One thing I’ve discovered. People who believe they are awesome and wonderful at their profession are often . . . not. People who have more self-doubt, who question themselves and are always examining what they did wrong and how they might do better – those folks are often better than they think they are, and they are much more likely to improve. It’s a difficult balance, between self-confidence and self-reflection. No wonder writers are a little barmy. But it is an important balance to strike.
Riordan continues:
Writing is hard. Not everyone can do it. It requires a combination of innate talent and lots and lots of practice and endurance. It also requires the right story, and publishing that story at the right time.
Though they have dissimilar writing styles, Riordan and Ulin both suggest that writing requires humility and stamina.

* * *

Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” is now available as an ebook and paperback!

10 Books That Have Stuck with Me

17 Dec
gypsy
The other night I fell asleep thinking about the books that have stuck with me over the years. My friend had tagged me in a Facebook post about the ten books that have stuck with her—not necessarily the best books or her favorite books, but the ones that come to mind first. She then tagged me and nine other friends to do the same. I figured it would make for a fun blog post because some of the books may come as a surprise.
Without further ado…:
  1. Bread and Honey by Frank Asch
  2. Squiggly Wiggly’s Surprise by Arnold Shapiro
  3. Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White
  4. Gypsy Summer by Wilma Yeo
  5. Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
  6. Sins of the Father by Eileen Franklin
  7. The Dangling Man by Saul Bellow
  8. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  9. The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon
  10. Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller
I could probably write a blog post for each of these titles on why they stuck with me! I could also add so many more books to the list.
There are a few things I’ll point out about the books that actually made the list, though. The first half of the list are children’s books, or perhaps YA. The first two, in fact, are children’s storybooks, but even today their message remains with me. Adult books have a lot more “grey” in them when it comes to morality and message, as we come to understand the complexities and nuances of life, but I think there’s something to be said for the simple and beautiful messages of children’s picture books.
The other thing I’ll point out is that the second half of the list was all read more than ten years ago. Actually, number 6 on the list I read in middle school, and the only book post-undergrad on the list is number 10. It’s obviously not that I haven’t read since then or that I haven’t read good books since then. In fact, I took fantastic literature classes while working toward my MFA and was exposed to books that shaped the way I think about literature and writing. It’s just that when I think of books that have really stuck with me over the years, I was thinking of books that have stood the test of time.
I tag you! What 10 books have stuck with you? Leave them in the comments below.

* * *

Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” is now available as an ebook and paperback!

Friday Links: Aristophanes Edition

13 Dec

swellfoot

Happy Friday! I’m wrapping up Aristophanes week with some link love devoted to this funny dramatist.

Lysistrata is a name featured on the Heritage Floor at The Dinner Party, at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum

Pablo Picasso was so inspired by Aristophanes’ Lysistrata that he made several prints related to it, on view at the Met

Artist Aubrey Beardsley, who is often inspired by literature, also created a print inspired by Aristophanes

Obviously, there’s Radiohead’s Cloud Cuckoo Land

Lisa Borders titled her book about a young female busker’s search for home Cloud Cuckoo Land

On Fernhill Farm in Somerset, there’s a festival called Cloud Cuckoo Land

Festivals may seem very post-Woodstock, but Aristophanes was part of a festival back in Ancient Athens, called Lenaia, where he actually won first prize for his play The Knights

There’s an international architecture journal called Cloud-Cuckoo-Land

In London there’s a delightful period-clothing shop called Cloud Cuckoo Land

Percy Bysshe Shelley (Gregory Corso’s favorite poet) imitated Aristophanes’ The Frogs in the comic drama Oedipus Tyrannus: Or, Swellfoot the Tyrrant

“Aristophanes is ridiculous!” shouted Oscar on an episode of The Odd Couple in which he and Felix are contestants on the game-show Password

 

* * *

Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” is now available as an ebook and paperback!

Writing Wednesday: When Two Words Become One

11 Dec

1560

Welcome back to Aristophanes week!

Yesterday I mentioned that fun bit of trivia that Aristophanes is the creator of the longest word in literature that I gleaned from Oliver Tearle’s Huffington Post article “12 Fascinating Facts About Famous Literature.” Like any dutiful Greek scholar, I read some of Aristophanes’ plays when I was in college. They were strange and wild reads.

What I don’t remember learning back then and which I found while I was reading up on him this week was that Aristophanes had a knack for heaping words together, creating long, tongue-twisting compound words. It’s no wonder he’s the king of the longest word in literature!

Take a look at that last word in this stanza from The Acharnians:

How many are the things that vex my heart!
Pleasures are few, so very few — just four –
But stressful things are manysandthousandsandheaps!

The word Aristophanes used there in Greek was the made-up word ψαμμακοσιογάργαρα, which actually meant “sandhundredheaps.”

Meanwhile, in The Birds (no relation to Hitchcock’s film!), Aristophanes coined the word Νεφελοκοκκυγία, which translated is the compound word Cloudcuckooland. Genius, right?!

Okay, so when writing about the longest word in literature Tearle mentioned runner up James Joyce:

Some may think that James Joyce is responsible for the longest word in all of literature, but the longest he managed was 101 letters long, in Finnegans Wake. (This word, for those who are interested, was Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhoun-awnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk, referring to the thunderclap associated with the Fall of Adam and Eve.)

You word nerds won’t find it too surprising that Joyce appropriated Aristophanes’ penchant for inventing new words since he was more than mildly inspired by Greek literature. You already know that Joyce’s Ulysses parallels Homer‘s The Odyssey. In Ulysses, he created made up and compound words like “scrotumtightening” and “endlessnessnessness.”

Now, I’ve made the point before about the connection between the Greek Classics, James Joyce and Jack Kerouac, and here is another instance in which we see the influence in that Kerouac used compound words as well. He used words like “hangjawed,” “redhot,” and “sicksicksick.”

Through the course of literary history, many authors have used compound words for effect and have coined their own words.

Can’t find the right word? Make up your own!

* * *

Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” is now available as an ebook and paperback!

The Longest Word in Literature Is, Of Course, Greek

10 Dec

Ari

I always take a deep breath before I spell out my name for someone, a nonverbal warning to the person asking for it to prepare themselves. “N as in ‘Nancy,’” I say, then pause. “I-K.” Another pause, just like I heard my mother spelling it out so many times to credit card companies over the phone when I was growing up. The spelling out proceeded like that for some time, til all twelve letters were given.

Most of our friends get used to our long last name over time, so when I recently had to spell out the address of where my parents live in Greece for a family friend, I warned her to make sure she had enough room on the paper. This place name was long even for us.

I was not at all surprised, therefore, to learn via The Huffington Post, run by a Greek woman, that literature’s longest word can be found in a Greek play. Aristophanes’ Assemblywomen, an ancient comedy about the upheaval that occurs when women insert themselves in politics (things like: men must sleep with an ugly women before they sleep with a beautiful woman), contains a word that is 171 letters.

From Oliver Tearle:

Since you’re doubtless itching to know what this word is, I’ll give Aristophanes the final word: Lopado­­temacho­­selacho­­galeo­­kranio­­leipsano­­drim­­hypo­­trimmato­­silphio­­parao­­melito­­katakechy­­meno­­kichl­­epi­­kossypho­­phatto­­perister­­alektryon­­opte­­kephallio­­kigklo­­peleio­­lagoio­­siraio­­baphe­­tragano­­pterygon.

And if you’re curious what that looks like in Greek, I found it on Wikipedia:

λοπαδοτεμαχοσελαχογαλεοκρανιολειψανοδριμυποτριμματοσιλφιοκαραβομελιτοκατακεχυμενοκιχλεπικοσσυφοφαττοπεριστεραλεκτρυονοπτοκεφα-λλιοκιγκλοπελειολαγῳοσιραιοβαφητραγανοπτερύγων.

It’s the name of a dish that has about that many ingredients in it (okay, maybe only 16 or so but that’s still too many ingredients, and it sounds disgusting).

 

* * *

Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” is now available as an ebook and paperback!