Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Bookish Nerd Bait: Vol 9

Friday, July 20, 2012

What is Oulipo?

Glad you asked. It’s an interesting concept. According to Wikipedia:
Oulipo (short for French: Ouvroir de littérature potentielle; roughly translated: "workshop of potential literature") is a loose gathering of mainly French-speaking writers and mathematicians which seeks to create works using constrained writing techniques. It was founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais. Other notable members have included novelists Georges Perec and Italo Calvino, poets Oskar Pastior, Jean Lescure and poet/mathematician Jacques Roubaud.
The group defines the term littérature potentielle as (rough translation): "the seeking of new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy."
Constraints are used as a means of triggering ideas and inspiration, most notably Perec's "story-making machine", which he used in the construction of Life: A User's Manual.  As well as established techniques, such as lipograms (Perec's novel A Void ) and palindromes, the group devises new techniques, often based on mathematical problems, such as the Knight's Tour of the chess-board and permutations.

What do they mean by “constrained writing techniques” exactly? Well, Perec’s novel A Void,  for example, is a three hundred page book constructed entirely without the letter ‘e.’ I don’t know if I could write a blog post without the letter ‘e,’ let alone a whole freaking book. That’s pretty amazing. The question is, is it any good?

They also use other constraints like palindromes- the most famous of which is the old “Lisa Bonet ate no basil” line, which appears exactly the same whether you read it backwards or forwards. But they get much longer than that one.

I’d be interested in learning more about Oulipo. But while you consider whether or not to join me in my curiosity, take a look at the winners of this contest put on by the Outlet. The constraint they imposed was to write a story where no single word could be used more than once- not ‘and,’ not ‘the,’ not 'a,' not anything. Go ahead and read the winners. They’re all pretty short, but it’s interesting to see what people came back with. (Warning, some language in the first two- they seem to have been picked for their edginess. But the third is pretty impressive for its length and the story it tells.)


Thursday, July 19, 2012

At The Bindary

Yesterday's videos raised a specter from my own past: this catchy little diddy from a Reading Rainbow episode I haven't seen in twenty years, but whose words I could have sung to you even without YouTube's assistance. Enjoy:

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

We've come a long way, baby...

I came across this time capsule of a video on the Paris Review Daily:

Pretty interesting, right? Makes this next video even more impressive:

And seeing them side-by-side reminds me of this classic, demotivational poster:

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

More on Little Blue Books

Alright. I imagine some of you may have turned your noses up at yesterday’s post simply because you can’t appreciate the awesomeness that is Louis L’Amour. (Now there’s a writer who deserves a post of his own if I’m ever to make a clean breast of my earliest reading influences). But it got me thinking about the Little Blue Books publishing line that he mentions. It turns out L’Amour is far from the only author to remember the series fondly. Here’s more from Wikipedia:

“Many bookstores kept a book rack stocked with many Little Blue Book titles, and their small size and low price made them especially popular with travelers and transient working people. Louis L'Amour cites the Little Blue Books as a major source of his own early reading in his autobiography, Education of a Wandering Man. Other writers who recall reading the series in their youth include Saul Bellow, Harlan Ellison, Jack Conroy, Ralph Ellison, and Studs Terkel.
“The works covered were frequently classics of Western literature: Goethe and Shakespeare were well represented, as were the works of the Ancient Greeks, and more modern writers like Voltaire, Emile Zola, H. G. Wells.”

Monday, July 16, 2012

What they were reading: Louis L'Amour

"Riding a freight train out of El Paso, I had my first contact with the Little Blue Books. Another hobo was reading one, and when he finished he gave it to me. 

"The Little Blue Books were a godsend to wandering men and no doubt to many others. Published in Girard, Kansas, by Haldeman-Julius, they were slightly larger than a playing card and had sky-blue paper covers with heavy black print titles. I believe there were something more than three thousand titles in all and they were sold on newsstands for 5 or 10 cents each. Often in the years following, I carried ten or fifteen of them in my pockets, reading when I could. 

"Among the books available were the plays of Shakespeare, collections of short stories by De Maupassant, Poe, Jack London, Gogol, Gorky, Kipling, Gautier, Henry James, and Balzac. There were collections of essays by Voltaire, Emerson, and Charles Lamb, among others. 

"There were books on the history of music and architecture, painting, the principles of electricity; and, generally speaking, the books offered a wide range of literature and ideas. I do not recall exactly, but I believe the first Blue Book given me on that freight train was Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."

-Louis L'Amour, in his fascinating  memoir about 
reading and roaming, Education of a Wandering Man

Friday, July 13, 2012

Thursday, July 12, 2012

An Inside Look at Shelf Actualization HQ

A big thank you to all who entered our contest, and congratulations to April Simms, who was our undisputed winner- with 37 out of 50 correct answers, it wasn’t even close. Unless you tell us otherwise, April, we’ll send you a $100 Amazon gift card by email.

Now then, to sate the curious among you, let’s identify each of the 70 authors pictured in our latest stroll through the halls of ShelfActualization.com. Let’s start out in the lobby:

On the mezzanine level to our left we see Roberto Bolaño hunched over the railing next to Albert Camus. Jhumpa Lahiri and Zora Neale Hurston stroll down the hall, while Walt Whitman, Margaret Mitchell, Sinclair Lewis and Hermann Hesse take in a view of the lobby below. Ensconced in the easy chair on the landing above, Henry James watches over all.

At the foot of the stairs Thornton Wilder watches J.M. Coatzee shake hands with an unseen guest, and Ray Bradbury looks up from the floor. Meanwhile, Robert Louis Stevenson and Saul Bellow make their way to the gym on the basement level while Virginia Woolf and Willa Cather trade a few quiet words, Gabriel Garcia Marquez talks on the house phone, and Samuel Beckett studies something through a magnifying glass. 

On to the billiard room, where testosterone levels are admittedly high:

Let’s start at the back of the room on the left. Dostoevsky, in his long coat, and Nabokov, in short-pants and knee socks, gather around the far table with a white-suited Mark Twain, a shirtless, shouting Hemingway and Englishman George Orwell. James Joyce sticks his head through the doorway to see what’s going on, and Wallace Stegner looks on in amusement.

Reading the paper at the back of the near table is William Faulkner. Perched at the front of it is Aldous Huxley. Cormack McCarthy, Edgar Allen Poe and Franz Kafka huddle behind a seated John Cheever, who pets an unseen canine companion. Standing at the far right is John Steinbeck, and in front of him rests Joseph Conrad.  Scott Fitzgerald turns halfway around to face the camera while Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo watch over a napping Kurt Vonnegut. Gazing out the window to the left is Jack Kerouac.

So where are the ladies, if not in the Billiard Room? Many of them tend to congregate in the Gallery:

Here, ladies’ men Jules Verne (seated) and Ivan Turgenev (standing) vie for the attention of (from left to right) Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Edith Wharton, Harper Lee, Pearl Buck, Toni Morrison, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Carson McCullers.

And in the Dining Hall a small crowd is already gathering for tea:

At the table on the left John Dos Passos entertains Alice Munro and Ayn Rand. On the right, Salman Rushdie, Ralph Ellison and Italo Calvino shoot the breeze. Over Ellison’s shoulder, Leo Tolstoy and Gertrude Stain catch up on the latest gossip. And Alexandre Dumas waits at the table to the left while Don Delillo stands in the background.

High overhead, Herman Melville, David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen look down from upper floor windows.

Because it leads out to the gardens and the indoor swimming pool, the Conservatory is often a place you’ll see people start to let their hair down a bit. 

As he stretches for a run, Haruki Murakami watches William Saroyan toss a hat onto Marcel Proust’s head.  J.P. Donleavy tries to interest J.D. Salinger in a game of soccer, while Jorge Luis Borges, lost in his own world, makes a crayon rubbing of the stone pillar behind Donleavy. This amuses Umberto Eco, who straddles a chair like the cool customer he is. On the right , Jack London stands ready for his afternoon swim and Thomas Mann looks up from his crossword puzzle.

There's lots more to show you, but we'll let them get back to their work for the time being. Until then, you can continue to follow all your favorite writers as we talk about their books, their lives and their writing on the front page.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Another Month in the Can

Thanks for hanging out with us! Above are the authors we mentioned this past month, and here are the most popular posts from the same period:

And of course, the wacky search terms that led some of you here:

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Review: A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini

Good and evil. Love and war. Politics, family, culture- you get all of the above and more in Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns.  He’s an author we’ve mentioned exactly once on this site, and that was to wonder if he didn’t owe a great deal to George Bush and Osama bin Laden for the success of his books. Now having actually read one of them, I can say that Hosseini is much more than an author who stumbled into the perfect moment for a man of his background.

A Thousand Splendid Suns  is a skillfully crafted book that is beautiful to read, and one that transforms the western view of Afghanistan as a barren pile of beige rubble into a rich and colorful culture that captures the imagination. It’s heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time, and it manages to educate and uplift. I’ve said nothing about the plot, because any summaries I put down here will just feed the stereotypes that western readers will bring to the book. But it’s much more than a history or a peek into Islamic culture, it’s a story of human endurance above all else.

The one criticism I’ll offer is that the book seems to carry on far past its natural ending. The wind-down is still engaging and beautifully written, but once the main emotional conflict is resolved, there follows an inordinate amount of wrapping things up, tying loose ends and bringing everything to a satisfying standstill.

At this point, one feels like Hosseini is checking boxes, paying off each important conversation or detail delivered in the early pages. I kept asking myself, ‘Is this it? Is the curtain coming down on this image?’ And he’d continue for pages. He even redeems characters that had nothing to do with the protagonists left standing at the end of the book. Discoveries are made that would have no impact on the living. He really didn’t have to do this. The emotional punch he delivers is rewarding enough as it is. But what do I know? The man can write. And I loved the book.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Fidel Castro, Beta Reader

You already know him as the Cuban revolutionary turned controversial human rights villain, but did you know he was also one of the secrets to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s literary success? That's right, he's a trusted beta reader for the Colombian author.
“Our friendship was consolidated by books. He’s an excellent reader. I bring him the originals before I publish the book. He’s like an editor. That’s the exact word: editor. He points out contradictions and inconsistencies that professionals miss. He’s very thorough and reads all the time. His car has a light and he reads at night on long trips.”
Start at the 0:37 second mark:


No sooner did I post this than I came across this article, which bears the sad news that Garcia Marquez's writing career is essentially over. Dementia is the culprit. Castro's career as a beta reader may just have come to an end.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Denis Johnson's Train Dreams: Revisited

Two messages landed in my inbox when I posted my review of Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams  the other day. The first was an email from my dad that can basically be summed up as “Ouch, that’s rough.” He was reacting to this paragraph in particular:

“There was just... not much there. This book felt less like a well-crafted piece of fiction than the kind of cursory memoir that people goad their aging parents into penning for posterity. It was a list of memorable events, sure, but there was no discernible theme stringing them together. It didn’t really say  or mean  anything to me."

Apparently my dad, who is in the throes of penning his own memoir for posterity, read these words as an indictment of his efforts. Nothing could be further from the truth. So let me say, unequivocally, to all the parents out there, keep writing those memoirs. Your kids and grandkids need them. They help us understand who we are and where we come from, and allow us to get to know you in ways we otherwise wouldn’t. I repeat, memoirs are great.

I’ll add here that I read Train Dreams  during a week that will forever be defined by the slow, agonizing passage of my first (and I pray, only) kidney stone. It was, as the French say, not fun. For all I know, I could have read The Great Gatsby  and still come away unfulfilled. Which brings me to the next email I received.

The second message was from a publicist at Macmillan, who invited me to include an audio excerpt from Train Dreams  alongside my review. I thought this was generous, given the negative impression I gave of the novella- the subtle message being that, good review or bad review, the book should stand or fall on its own merits- not the amateur ravings of some internet hack. And with that I agree completely. 

So without further ado, or any more overly personal medical history, here is the excerpt they provided. Be your own judge.

Friday, July 6, 2012

First Line Friday: (Copy)Cat's Cradle

We all know the first line of Moby Dick  by heart.

Melville’s “Call me Ishmael” Is probably the most recognizable first line in all of literature. It’s simple, it’s personable, and it’s got the reader asking  questions right away. It just works.

But that’s not the first line we’re looking at today. No, today’s opening comes to you from Kurt Vonnegut’s satirical, apocalyptic classic, Cat’s Cradle.  Here it is:

“Call me Jonah.”

Hold on- wait a second. Hear me out before you send a fusillade of spitwads Vonnegut’s way. Here’s why it’s brilliant. Cat’s Cradle  is a book about man and his madness- much like Moby Dick.  So it’s an homage to Melville in that regard. But Vonnegut uses the familiar (some would say trite), opening as a pivot into his patented humorous style. It quickly becomes a parody, as he spits out lines 2, 3 and 4 in a kind of bumbling narrative that tips us off to the fact that we are about to read something funny, sad and absurd.

“Call me Jonah. My parents did, or nearly did. They called me John.
“Jonah­­­‑John- if I had been a Sam, I would have been a Jonah still- not because I have been unlucky for others, but because somebody or something has compelled me to be certain places at certain times, without fail.”

I think that opening sets the tone of the novel beautifully, even if it is  made from 100% recycled materials. What say you?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Behind the Scenes Tour, and $100 to the Winner

We launched this site eight months ago with a contest. As you may recall, we gave you a peek into the Billiard Room here at ShelfActualization.com, and asked you to name as many of the twenty authors pictured as you could:

Well, today we’re going to up the ante a bit. We’re taking you back behind the scenes at Shelf Actualization headquarters to show you four more of our storied spaces: the Grand Entrance Lobby, the Gallery, the Dining Hall and the Conservatory

Milling about, you’ll find fifty more unidentified authors. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to name as many of the authors as you can. Up for grabs is a $100 Amazon gift card (or credit to your local indie bookstore if we can swing it.) Click on each picture for a larger view, and scroll to the bottom for contest rules.

Grand Entrance Lobby:


Dining Hall:


Feel free to conjecture, obfuscate and mislead in the comments below, but email  your entry to editor@shelfactualization.com, listing your guesses for each room from left to right as in the example below:

Lobby (Mezzanine Level):
2 Author A
3 Author B
5 Author C
8 Author D
9 Author E

Lobby (Main floor)
1 Author  F
3 Author G
4 Author H
5 Author I
8 Author J


Just leave blanks where you have no good guesses. Each correctly named author nets you one point. The entry with the most correct answers wins. Any ties will be settled with a random number generator, based on the order in which the entries came in. Blog or tweet the contest and we’ll add five points to your tally (Just include a link in your entry email.) Any questions? No? Then good luck! We'll announce the winner one week hence, on the morning of July 12th.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Author Look-Alikes: French Heritage Edition

It's Independence Day here in the US. And really, what better day is there to focus on the doppelgangers of some prominent French-speaking writers? (We'll say it's in honor of General Lafayette, d'accord?)

Born to French Canadian parents, Jean-Louis "Jack" Kerouac bears a striking resemblance to Clive Owen.
And with the bags under his eyes and the plump, playful jowels, who can deny that Roland Barthes has got a little Jon Lovitz in him?
Jean-Paul Sartre's prominent laugh lines and funky lips brought Monsieur Buscemi to mind...

Still don't see it? Have a gander at those eyes. Zut alors!
Finally, no single writer has had more artsy, black-and-white publicity stills taken of him than Samuel Beckett. The near flat-top, the sunglasses, the futuristic, otherworldly quality of his portraits- all say one thing to me: This is what an octogenarian Max Headroom would look like, n'est pas?.
Am I wrong?

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

From the Pen of Jeffrey Eugenides

There are few words to describe how bad that floral print shirt is in combination with the bus driver's vest, but what does Jeffrey Eugenides care? After all, there are even fewer words to describe how good his writing is in combination with the short, to-the-point introductions of characters, cities and sports below. 

I literally laughed out loud when I came across this first example, and had to rewind the audio book two or three times before I'd had my fill. All emphasis is mine:

"Phileda’s hair was where her power resided. It was expensively set into a smooth dome, like a band shell for the presentation of that long-running act, her face." 
"Hygenically bald, with a seaman’s mustacheless white beard, Zipperstein favored French fisherman’s sweaters and wide wale corduroys."

"Saunders was a seventy nine year old New Englander. He had a long horsey face, and a moist laugh that exposed his gaudy dental work."

"The window gave onto a view of dove-gray roofs and balconies, each one containing the same cracked flowerpot and sleeping feline. It was as if the entire city of Paris had agreed to abide by a single understated taste. Each neighbor was doing his or her own to keep up the standards, which was difficult because the French ideal wasn’t clearly delineated like the neatness and greenness of American lawns, but more of a picturesque disrepair. It took courage to let things fall apart so beautifully."

"There was something about tennis - its aristocratic rituals, the prim silence it enforced on its spectators, the pretentious insistence on saying “love” for zero and “deuce” for tied, the exclusivity of the court itself, where only two people were allowed to move freely, the palace-guard rigidity of the linesmen, and the slavish scurrying of the ball boys - that made it clearly a reproachable pastime."

Monday, July 2, 2012

Bookish Nerd Bait: Vol. 1

We thought we'd start sharing some of our favorite quotes from the books we love, and do it in a way that's easy for you ladies to share on your pinboards. Here is the first installment. Enjoy.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Future of Print

Thought this was kinda cool. And since it's Sunday, you've probably got time to watch it. Enjoy.

EPILOGUE: the future of print from EPILOGUEdoc on Vimeo.