Thursday, March 31, 2011

Books Can Be Dangerous

There have been times over the years that books have literally threatened my life.  Since you know how I feel about the word "literally," you know I'm not talking about that time that the Houston Public Library threatened to send the fine I didn't think I should have to pay to collections.  I'm talking about occasions when books have threatened my physical well-being in one way or another.*

(*Actually, more often than not, it was my own stupidity that threatened my life, exacerbated by the presence of books.  But still, I'm just saying that books can add a dash of adventure to your life if you let them.)
  • LINDSAY-WITH-AN -A's NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCE #1: 
    I had the bad habit in college of loading myself down with books and, rather than putting them all in by backpack, I'd be like Sandy-from-Grease and clutch them cross-armed over my chest.  Now, for those of you who have never been to the UCLA campus, there are some serious hills and stairs to contend with, and while going up was never that much of a problem, there was one time that going down was expedited by my heel catching on the edge of a stair.  My dental life flashed before my eyes as I envisioned smashing my face at the bottom of the stairs, and while I narrowly missed actually injuring myself, I learned enough to stuff all my books in my backpack whenever possible.
  • LINDSAY-WITH-AN-A's NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCE #2: 
    More recently, I decided to put all of my books in the space above my cabinets in my kitchen (the space normally reserved for cooking paraphernalia, but whatevs).  The reasoning behind this was pure spendthriftness, since I didn't want to buy bookshelves if I didn't have to.  Unfortunately, some of the cabinets were above the refrigerator, which meant (naturally, because I'm me) that I had to climb up on top of the fridge to put all of my college textbooks up there. 

    Cue the realization that a refrigerator is a lot taller when you're sitting on top of it, followed by the realization that if I managed to hurt myself coming down, no one would be able to help me because the front door was locked and my phone was in the other room.  I sat up there for a little bit mulling over my situation (and wondering if I was too young for one of those LifeStation necklaces old people get in case they fall down in the shower) before I finally decided to just go for it.  Unfortunately, as I began easing down, the freezer door came open from under my right hand, propelling me towards the tile floor.  My fall would have been broken by my cat, but she moved before she could be of any use.  I did land on my feet, but in the back of my mind I couldn't help but remember that I heard once that, if their owners die, dogs will starve to death next to their cold bodies while cats will pork out on their cold bodies.  Near miss, especially considering the appetite my cat has.
  • LINDSAY-WITH-AN-A's NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCE #3:
    Finally, and perhaps most dramatically of all, was the time I put a candle on a set of glass bookshelves, lit it, and promptly began a yoga sun salutation. You probably know that smoke rises, so by the time I got to tadasana (a standing pose) the smell of smoke had filled the room and I had a distinctly un-zen WTF? moment.  Turns out the candle was under a copy of Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass, which was now charred and blackened atop an equally blackened glass shelf. 

    What was really unfortunate about the whole thing, however, was (a) the book didn't belong to me; (b) the book didn't belong to the person from whom I borrowed it; and (c) I was unable to finish it, since it was pretty much unreadable.  On the plus side, I didn't go into savasana and burn to death in a post-yoga comatose state.

Advice from Billy Joel: "Vienna"

Recently I've been comparing/contrasting this with "Keep Your Day Job."  Not particularly "literary," but so much of literature is trying to figure out that messy internal stuff, so work with me here.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

TV Sharks and Shakespeare

You know how sometimes you have a really great idea and then you hear about someone else who had that same idea and made bank?  Yeah.  Apparently there's a show on ABC called Shark Tank (which I had to be told about, by the way, because I still don't actually watch TV) which features a bunch of venture capitalists who invest in the companies of people with good ideas, one of whom was
"a teacher who was having a hard time relating Shakespeare to his class. He composed songs that helped his class relate to Shakespeare. The song was actually pretty good, a class set with 30 CD’s and a teachers guide would sell for $499. Shakespeare is the most taught playwright in the English language but Marc had plans to expend to different subjects." (In the Shark Tank)
Well, he got a deal with "the sharks," as they're apparently called and now he has his own site writing music about Shakespeare.  How freaking cool is that?  Of course, I wouldn't have wanted to go on national television and be raked over the coals, so good on him, but I have to say that would be an awesome job and I would have jumped at the chance to work for royalties and not actually own the business. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Comic Strips Made Funny

How have I never seen these before? There are some seriously funny people on-line.
  • First up, we have The Nietzsche Family Circus, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like and the only thing that can make The Family Circus bearable.
  • Are you on Facebook?  Have you become a fan of Not-So-Gentle Reader yet?  How about "Removing His Speech Bubbles Turns Dagwood into a Faulknerian Man-Child"?
  • In other comic strip news, check out 3eanuts, an exploration of how "Charles Schultz's Peanuts comics often conceal the existential despair of their world with a closing joke at the characters' expense. With the last panel omitted, despair pervades all." It's pretty much about 1000% better than the original Peanuts.  Example:

Having a Child Become a Poet is a Fate Worse Than Death

Dear Advice Columnist,

Please help.  I don't know to whom else to turn and I'm getting desperate.  I'm faced with that most awful of circumstances, that which makes parents wish they'd never brought their children into this cruel world.  That's right: my daughter wants to be a poet when she grows up.

I'm waiting by my computer for your reply.

Sincerely,
A Concerned Parent

I kid, I kid.  Actually, this reminds me of that one time my dad threatened not to pay for my English degree, or when he introduced me to someone at Ace Hardware as "my daughter, who's going to UCLA for a degree in English.  So proud, and yet so disappointed." 

Good times, good times.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Not-So-Gentle Viewer: Blackadder Rides Again (2008)

Hey, guys, check out the 2008 documentary that I just discovered which the BBC did on one of my all-time favorite series, Blackadder.  (Interestingly enough, you can actually get a copy of the scripts of the seasons and go to a signing to get the writers' autographs.  How many shows have writing that goood?)

The Problem With Books...

... is that they weigh the same amount as a pile of bricks but are like cocaine in paper form when it comes to getting rid of them. Regardless of whether or not libraries actually sink under the weight of books, my arms will be sinking this week as I begin packing my books up in preparation for moving apartments in a couple of weeks. 

(And for those of you who think this would be a good opportunity for me to begin purging books from my collection, rest assured that I'm like those people on Hoarders or Intervention when it comes to my books.  It doesn't matter if I haven't read Robin McKinley's The Blue Sword since high school. I might want to read it tomorrow and am emotionally invested in keeping it around.  Pity my parents--they have nine boxes of my books in their garage still, and (knowing me) I won't be getting rid of any of them.)

Friday, March 25, 2011

Not-So-Gentle Viewer: How It Should Have Ended: Lord of the Rings

In celebration of The Hobbit Cafe, check out this How it Should Have Ended.  It's pretty much awesome.

Houston Literary Culture: The Hobbit Cafe

I love geekery in all of its myriad forms, so I was in heaven the other day when a friend and I went to Houston's Hobbit Cafe, a restaurant off of Kirby that is Hobbit and Lord of the Rings (LOTR) themed. 

It is decorated with Hobbit decor.  The menu is Hobbit themed. (I had the Fatty Lumpkin, which proved to be the largest tuna sandwich in the history of existence.  That's right, the entire history of existence.)  The servers wear Hobbit-themed t-shirts.   Of course, the food was excellent, as well, which is always a plus in a restaurant.  Check it out if you're ever in the Houston area.

*Slightly off-topic, this was all I could think about the entire time we were there:

What They Should Have Said: Wuthering Heights

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Advice from The Grateful Dead: "Keep Your Day Job"

Shout out to all my corporate sell outs!  Here's some practical, but not very idealistic, advice.


Maybe you collect or maybe you pay
Still got to work that eight-hour day
Whether you like that job or not
Keep it on ice while you're
lining up your long shot
Which is to say
hey-ey

     CHORUS:
     Keep your day job
     Don't give it away
     Keep your day job
     Whatever they say

Ring that bell for whatever it's worth
When Monday comes don't forget about work
By now you know that the face on your dollar
Got a thumb to its nose and a
Hand on your collar
Which is to say, hey-ey

[CHORUS]
Punch that time card
Check that clock
When Monday comes
You gotta run, run, run
Not walk

[CHORUS]

Steady, boy, study that eight-day hour
But don't underrate that paycheck power
If you ask me, which I know you don't,
I'd tell you to do what I know you won't
Which is to say
Hey-ey

[CHORUS]

Daddy may drive a V-8 'Vette
Mamma may bathe in champagne yet
God bless the child with his own stash
Nine to five and a place to crash
which is to say...

[CHORUS]


Day Jobs, Creativity, and Copyright Law

Oh, wait, he managed to make this his day job.  Color me bitter.
There's a really interesting interview by Bill Morris with artist Alfred Steiner over at The Millions entitled "Is Copyright a Guardian Angel or a Killer of Creativity?"  In it, Morris and Steiner discuss "day jobs" vs. creative endeavors and the different role that copyright law plays in the art world vs. the world of literature.  You should check it out.

For those of you interested in the tension between creativity and day jobs, check out this video of author Scott Belsky on creativity plateaus and how to conquer them.  I love this kind of stuff.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Not-So-Gentle Viewer: Beatles Shakespearian Skit (1964)

This wouldn't be half-bad without all the screaming... or with people who could act.  (I kid, I kid.)

Wednesday Dog Ears

This week's Dog Ears track the unholy appropriation of my favorite Dr. Seuss book as well as a nerdy appropriation of J.K. Rowlin's made up sport: 
  • The Atlantic Monthly joins in on the e-literature hysteria, this time focusing on the possible disappearance of marginalia.  (How many people who take notes in margins would actually buy an e-book, anyway?)
  • Ursinus College lets scholarship winners sleep in J.D. Salinger's old dorm room, and The New York Times interviews Ursinus students to find out where they'd rather be.  (It's a pretty funny article, actually, for all my complaining yesterday about The Times.)
  • Ah, The Lorax, the charming tale of "a boy who searches for a way to win the affection of the girl of his dreams"... wait, what?  Is Hollywood really going to mess this up this badly? 
  • I'm trying really hard not to be politically divisive, but this quotation from Sarah Palin really pisses me off, considering how little we spend on the arts and how much we spend killing people:
    "NPR, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, all those kind of frivolous things that government shouldn't be in the business of funding with tax dollars — those should all be on the chopping block as we talk about the $14-trillion debt that we're going to hand to our kids and our grandkids ... Yes, those are the type of things that for more than one reason need to be cut."
  • Did you hear that the OED is "To Add 'Skype' And 'Coat' To Latest Edition"?  It's true, according to America's Finest News Source.
  • It's a proud day for Bruins everywhere--the UCLA quidditch team is "bringing people together around a book series."  And yes, it is "just nerds running around with broomsticks."  All right, everyone, I feel an Eight Clap coming on...

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Not-So-Gentle Viewer: Sassy Gay Friend: Romeo and Juliet (2010)

I don't know how I missed posting this one, but it's hilarious.

"I think you're fourteen and an idiot.  You took a roofie from a priest.  Look at your life.  Look at your choices."

New York Times to Alienate Its Readers

Did you hear that The New York Times is unrolling a digital subscription plan on March 28th?  (We all knew it was coming, of course, but it's still sure to annoy a lot of people.)  To be honest, I can't remember the last time I read a really great article over there--actually, yes, I can.  It was April 5, 2010.  Something tells me I won't be signing up to pay $15 a month to read a bunch of boring reviews of books that haven't come out yet.

Of course, when God closes a door, somewhere he opens a window.  I just discovered an amazing book page over at The New Yorker, called The Book BenchSeriously interesting stuff, and I don't know how I missed out on it this long. 

Monday, March 21, 2011

Americans Apparently Not As Sexually Adventurous as Jane Austen

For a truly impressive show of stereotypes and cliches mixed with an unnecessary and shameless Jane Austen referencing, check The Guardian's "America's Jane Austen dating methods," in which Hadley Freeman accuses Americans of... well, I'm not sure of what, exactly.  She writes,
"The British approach to dating could easily be described as "chaotic" to the point of non-existent. I, however, see it as a decidedly just, nay, DEMOCRATIC state of affairs: you go to a party, you get drunk, you go home with someone, and the next day you either move in with them or you never speak to them again. It's such a free-for-all kind of approach; one that would have made the founding fathers proud. [...]
"Here is how dating works in New York: you meet a gentleman at a party. Phone numbers are exchanged. Three days later he phones you. Three days later you phone back. Formal dates are held involving things such as restaurants and bowling alleys. Only after three dates is disrobing legally allowed, and, presumably, he first has a sherry with your father to ask his permission and obtain his promise of 17 acres of land before proceeding."
Cannot. Compute. This is how I read that:
England (Democratic Hookups) > America (Stratified Social Structure Masquerading as "Dating")
I guess I get that some people feel comfortable making sweeping generalizations about groups of people. But where the hell does Jane Austen play into this?  Oh, wait: "In New York City, the alleged hub of dating, the whole dating farrago is freighted with so many rules that Jane Austen would bang her head against the parsonage wall and snap her little bit of ivory in half."

Of course Jane Austen would prefer promiscuity--it worked out so well for Lydia and Mr. Wickham in Pride and Prejudice.  (Although I bet there's some fanfiction out there in which it really does work out well... if you know what I mean.)

I guess what I'm trying to say is this is an embarrassing display of begging for page hits.  I guess it worked, since I read it, but you'll notice I didn't link to it.  I do have some standards.

These Analaogies are as Good as a Five-Year-Old Thinks Spaghettios Are

Check out the "56 worst/best analogies of high school students" from The Lost Eyeball.  They're as hilarious as Two and a Half Men, if Two and a Half Men were actually funny.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Not-So-Gentle Viewer: Amanda Seyfried "Lil Red Riding Hood'

I haven't said anything about the recently-released Red Riding Hood because, as interested as I am in the impact that fairy and folk tales may have on our collective subconsciousness, the film looks like the kind of movie that would list its inspirations as Twilight, New Moon, and Eclipse, and my faith in humanity is shaken every time I think about the impact that Stephenie Meyer may have on our collective subconsciousness.

Still, check out Amanda Seyfried's cover of "Lil Red Riding Hood."


Exciting "Evolving English" Exhibition

Want to take part in a linguistic research project?  Check out the VoiceMap project from "Evolving English" from the British Library.  You can record yourself reading either six words or the great literary classic Mr. Tickle and to aid in "a unique opportunity to capture contemporary English voices from around the world." 

What's cool is you can also listen to recordings of other people from around the world reading the same text.  The Irish accents make it sound almost beautiful, while it is creepy and not beautiful when I read it, by the way. 

What They Should Have Said: The Great Gatsby

Welcome to my first "What They Should Have Said."  I'm in an experimental mood, and this is what I really wish someone had bothered to say to Jay in The Great Gatsby:


Secondly, I know I'm a dork, but I figure Epictetus had it right, and she who laughs at herself never runs out of things to laugh at.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Completely Creditable Except-For-That-One-Time Nonfiction Writer James Frey Now Writing Fiction

All right, I probably shouldn't make fun of him, not having felt the publisher's pressure to come up with an outrageous tale of drug use and prison time to sell books.  I'll also say this: he's a brave man for publishing this book under his own name, because I don't know a single person who would actually buy it.

Speaking American

Have you seen PBS's collection of articles and essays by linguists from around the country about the development of American English, "Do You Speak American?"  I'm fascinated by linguistics, in a "I don't want to put much effort into learning the phoenetic language" kind of way, and the develoment of accents among individuals and groups of people has always been a particular point of interest for me.  (Hence my habit of watching those videos on youtube of actors running through twenty accents in two-and-a-half minutes.  Have you watched those?  You should. (The American accents in the video below start at 1:34.))


But back to the articles.  As a self-identified Californian (despite my love affair with Colorado), I was interested to learn in "Getting Real in the Golden State" that in 1941, "California English was no different from the English of the East Coast. But, over the decades since the 1940s, a distinctive accent has developed among much of the population of the state."  Apparently, since then, the white American California accent has moved vowels "forward" in the mouth, and certain discourse markers have appeared ("I'm like," or "She's all").  How cool is it that a new accent can appear in just seventy years, despite the "Standard American" that is spoken on television and nowhere else?

I was also particularly interested in "Drawl or Nothing: Is Texan a Thing of the Past?"  First of all, accents differ between West and East Texas, neither of which is present at all in those I've met who've grown up in Houston.  I've always assumed it is because Houston is (a) urban, and (b) made up of people from all over, so that the accent has been diluted.  Interestingly enough, I wasn't far off, although what I didn't know is that in mid-size cities (like Lubbock), the Texan accent is actually growing more engrained:
"[University of Texas at San Antonio linguistics professor Guy Bailey] was intrigued to find that those who described the state as an 'excellent' place to live were five times more likely to use monopthongs as residents who characterized it as 'poor.' Of course, people who are proud to be Texan are proud to talk like Texans. But Bailey sees it as no coincidence that people are now, more than ever, claiming their Texan identity through language, whether that choice is a conscious or unconscious one. 'The Texas identity is threatened,' he said. 'There was a large influx of people who moved here in the seventies. Oil was big, and the auto industry and the Rust Belt were on the decline. Suddenly, in the seventies, Texas attracted many new residents from outside the state. The arrival of so many outsiders can make people circle the wagons, linguistically.'"
Bailey points to the example of President George W. Bush, whose West Texas accent actually got stronger after he moved to the White House--because he was holding on to his Texan identity.  How awesome is it that in a subconsious way we choose to hold on to an accent because it is so much a part of how we see ourselves?

I love this stuff.  Check it out.

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

This is one of my favorite holidays, if only because growing up my mom always made us (American) corn beef and we would listen to The Chieftains.  As an adult, I've come to realize the holiday is more closely associated with alcohol than almost any other day of the year, but to me it's cabbage and potatoes and step dancing in socks in the kitchen.

I think part of what appeals to me so much about Irish folk music is that almost every song is a story--it introduces the characters, introduces the problem, the characters address the problem, and they generally die in the end.  Each three-minute song is a complete, compact story arc--and what's more, the characters are often specifically named, as opposed to a lot of contemporary American music, when an anonymous narrator is singing a song about "you" and "me."

Seriously.  Listen to some Irish folk music and you'll hear what I'm talking about.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Wednesday Dog Ears

This week's Dog Ears traces the battle of the Brontes (which is not nearly as interesting as Dude Watching with the Brontes) as well as a new Brandon Sanderson project that's in the works:
  • I may have just vomitted in my mouth.  The Daily Beast traces "The Battle of the Brontes," because of course we have to compare Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights... based on their film adaptations.  And mentions in Twilight.  Blech.
  • The LA Times reports that "Fitzgerald Gatsby's house is doomed"... although the house itself is in New York.  Strange.
  • Everyone seems to be talking about Téa Obreht's Tiger Wife, but let me just say here that I'd almost rather be a disappointed-novelist-cum-blogger than have been published in The Atlantic Monthly at age 23 and be the biggest thing to hit publishing at age 25.  There's nowhere to go but down from there...
  • A Brit has put together a list of "The 10 best American poems," only two of which I remember reading.  Either Parini of The Guardian has obscure tastes or the California Public School system failed me... and I'll leave you to decide which it is.
  • What?! Brandon Sanderson is writing another Mistborn novel?  It takes place 300 years later, so the characters will be different, but I'm still more psyched about this than any other book I've heard about recently.

The Houston Oatmeal Book Signing

There are lots of things to like about The Oatmeal--it's clever, it's generally easy to relate to, and it so often says what I'm thinking about a million times better than I could.

This is why a friend and I went to a book signing several days ago to see Matthew Inman (the founder of the webcomic who referred to himself, I believe, as "Mr. Oatmeal").  He was promoting his book, 5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth (and Other Useful Guides) although he didn't actually sell too many copies that night.

I was a little curious as to how a reading of a comic book would go.  There was apparently supposed to be a projector present, but Mr. Oatmeal did well enough without it, instead explaining how The Oatmeal came into existence, how he chooses the topics to write about, and how he has chosen the particular style of drawing for which the comics are known.

Also notable was his enthusiasm for the internet as a medium for accomplishment--he is a one-man show who has managed to rocket to national attention, making money not from annoying ads on his site but from merchandise sales.  He now has a book on sale for less than $8.  This is a man who knows the power of the people.

In order to make this somewhat relevant to a "literary" blog, I'll link here to some of The Oatmeal comics that have been somewhat  "literary" in nature and let you fools poke around his site for yourselves if you haven't already:

The 3 Most Common Uses of Irony
How to Use a Semicolon

Bite Me, Ennui

"The spreading wide my narrow Hands / To gather Paradise"
I try not to post too much about "real life" on the internet (because it's somewhat disturbing to know strangers can read about what I had for breakfast if I put it out there), but I woke up this morning feeling so incredibly great that it would be a shame not to share that positive energy with the world.  Maybe it's because my passport came in the mail the other day, or maybe it's because it finally hit me this morning that I'm almost done with a twelve-month-long commitment, but I'm feeling distinctly full of possibilities this morning, as evidenced by being up at the ass crack of dawn and not being mad about it. 

It was a year ago today that I was officially offered a job in Texas, and it was a year ago today that I became a full-fledged member of the Fatalism Club, thereby acknowledging that everyone has a price and my price was pathetically low.  Now it's nice to know that pretty soon I'll have a say in what goes on around here again...  not that I'm planning on going anywhere anytime soon, but it's really pleasant not to be afraid of the Lindsay-with-an-A-of-forty-years-from-now looking back on the Lindsay-with-an-A-of-today with a slight feeling of disappointment and distaste.  It's like the world is unfolding from around me rather than crumpling in, which is what an office at work with no windows often feels like.   

What makes this happy feeling so unusual (of late), though, is that it is accompanied by the spark of creativity, and it's been a while since I felt that particular tingling. I am not exaggerating when I say it's been literally years.  In the words of Emily Dickinson,
I dwell in Possibility--
A fairer House than Prose--
More numerous of Windows--
Superior--for Doors--

Of Chambers as the Cedars--
Impregnable of Eye--
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky--

Of Visitors--the fairest--
For Occupation--This--
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise--
I'm so freaking excited about the future right now.  Thank God... ennui is so boring.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Not-So-Gentle Viewer: Rinse the Blood Off My Toga

In honor of the Ides of March: "With apologies to William Shakespeare... and Sir Francis Bacon, just in case."

By the way, it's totally cheesetastic a la Murder By Death.  Don't say I didn't warn you.

How Not to Host a Book Signing

I went to a booksigning with a friend last night (at a bookstore I won't name) and walked away with some clear guidelines as to how not to host a booksigning:
  1. Don't provide refreshments.  It's hot and crowded and if there's one thing people may want (like a bottle of water), you should definitely make sure they don't get it.  It's not like your customer can go find a 7-11, since she showed up early to claim a seat and there are hipsters hovering in the doorway waiting to swoop in on it as soon as she stands up.
  2. Walk around and remind everyone that they must buy a book from the store in order to get something signed by the author... regardless of whether or not you have the author's book in stock.  Which you don't.  Which brings me to...
  3. Don't order enough books.  Over three hundred people RSVP'ed for the event on Facebook, and over a hundred people showed up for the event.  How were you supposed to know you needed more than 25 copies?
  4. Talk a lot before you introduce the writer.  This is the perfect opportunity to hear the sound of your own voice falling on two hundred ears that don't care.
  5. Emphasize that your email distribution list is free and act like it's a service for the community rather than shameless self-promotion.
  6. Make sure you mention you hadn't heard of the writer until he started his tour.
  7. Wander around and make noise while the author is talking.  Turn the building lights on and off repeatedly and look concerned, distracting both the audience and the speaker.
  8. Ask your customers to put their chairs away before they leave. It's not like you want to pick up your own store.
Um.... yeah.

Not-So-Gentle Viewer: Sassy Gay Friend: Macbeth (2011)

The product placement is cheesy, but my God these videos crack me up.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Whaddya Mean, "Civilized"?

Try this entertaining (educational) game to find out if you would have survived the Victorian Era.  I scored a 903 out of 1000, which probably means I've read too many Regency Romance novels.

Posts From Last Night

... or, Why I want to move to a cave somedays--today being one of those days.

Ridiculous Blurbs: A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson

This isn't the first book I've read by Bill Bryson, having somewhat enjoyed Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language of the United States last month.  Bryson's writing style is conversational and entertaining, so I was willing to try another of his novels and had several people mention this book specifically as one to try.  You can pretty easily look up the book's plot summary and other bloggers' reviews if you're interested, so I'll say it was a great read and I enjoyed it immensely.  Instead, I'm going to focus today on the blurb on the front cover, from Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, New York Times:
The best way of escaping into nature is to read a book like A Walk in the Woods... The reader is rarely anything but exhilarated.
Hmm, really?  The best way of "escaping into nature" is to "read a book"?  I'm sure Emerson would agree whole-heartedly... NOT.

(By the way, I know that Lehmann's original observation was trimmed for the cover, and he doesn't sound quite so ridiculous in his review of the novel.)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Not-So-Gentle (Re)Viewer: Adaptation (2002)

Coincidentally enough (since we were just talking about this movie on Not-So-Gentle Reader, and by "we" I mean "some readers" and by "talking," I mean "were making fun of me for not having seen it"), I got the opportunity to watch Spoke Jonz's Adaptation, which is about "a lovelorn screenwriter [who] turns to his less talented twin brother for help when his efforts to adapt a non-fiction book go nowhere."

Let me get this out of the way, first: I would recommend you watch this movie.  It's interesting and layered, and had I known a little bit more about the screenwriter who wrote it, I would have enjoyed it much, much more.  (Here's what I would have liked to have known: Charles Kaufman is a real person.  He is also a character in this screenplay.  He does not have a brother in real life.  You're welcome.)

While the one thing that stands out most about the film is probably the running thread of metadrama, art-imitating-life-imitating-art-etc., what I liked most about the film was the exploration of the creative process--specifically the writing process.  Charles and his brother Donald have two completely different methods of approaching the blank page, both of which are valuable in their own ways.  Charles' struggle to get his screenplay started pretty accurately represents what it's like to stare at a computer screen for hours waiting for inspiration.  If you've ever tried to write anything, you'll identify with him.

For a little nugget of awesome from the film, here's a clip of Robert McKee (who's also, confusingly, a real person) giving a screenwriting seminar.  Keep an eye out for the mistakes he mentions in the clip.  I lurve that.  (By the way, profanity abounds.)

Not-So-Gentle Viewer: Pride and Prejudice and 367 Pages of Balls and Young Men (2011)

I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this juvenile mash-up of the Pride and Prejudice audiobook: it's simultaneously mildly amusing and way too long.  (And yes, keeping with the juvenile theme--that's what she said.)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Houston Literary Culture: Please, Sir, I Want Some More

I found myself at Houston's Hermann Park yesterday, basking in the beautiful weather and in general just enjoying myself.  (For those of you who don't know, Hermann Park is in the Museum District and borders the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the Houston Garden Center, the Houston Zoo, and the Miller Outdoor Theatre.)

It also includes several sculpture gardens and other various pieces of art. First up, we have the International Sculpture Garden that houses statues celebrating national heroes of other countries--for example, the  India Culture Center and the Consulate General of India donated a sculpture of Dr. Gandhi to "commemorate Dr. Gandhi’s liberation of India from the British Empire through the peaceful use of passive resistance."  Pretty awesome, but not that surprising.

At least, I wasn't surprised until I came across a bust of Robert Burns, donated in 2003 by the Houston Heather and Thistle Society:


Say what?!  There's a statue of Robert Burns sitting alongside Benito Juarez and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?  How awesome is it that a poet can be considered a national hero?

Next up, we have what in my opinion may be a joke: the Oliver Twist statue, situated near the Miller Outdoor Theatre:


(This was supposed to be a "Please, Sir, I Want Some More" expression but instead looks more like a myspace shot.  God help those of us who are not photogenic.)

What's funny about this is that  it stands right in between a plaque praising donations by the Wortham Foundation... and the ATM (which you can see in the picture behind my head).  Subtle, no?

Friday, March 11, 2011

The (Literary) Times They Are A-Changin'

Anyone who even casually skims litblogs is aware of the growing tide of hysteria over e-readers and the decline of books in contemporary America.  (One example is C. Max Magee, editor of one of my favorite literary blogs, The Millions, has co-edited a collection of essays entitled The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books.

I've written about this subject myself here (and here), and I've come to realize I must be one of the few readers in the world who isn't terrified that we're all going to hell in a handbasket. 

I know this may come as a surprise to some people, but there was a time not so long ago (geologically speaking) that most people didn't have access to books.  The printing press wasn't invented until the 15th century and yet mankind managed to muddle through the Dark Ages and come out of the Renaissance relatively better for it.  Novels weren't popularized until the 19th century, largely a product of their time as the middle class grew and women began to enter the intellectual scene.  The world is always changing, and to try to deny that evolution is not only naive, it's reactionary and incredibly conservative.

Not all change is a bad thing--and to be perfectly honest, I'm not all that thrilled with the current state of the publishing industry, anyway.  If you ask me, the people who have brought us such literary gems as The Da Vinci Code and Twilight could probably stand to be a little shaken up.  I'm looking forward to it.

Review: 5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth (and Other Useful Guides), by The Oatmeal (aka Matthew Inman)

Basically, if you like The Oatmeal, you'll like this book.  It includes a number of the webcomics in expanded form and "25+ never before seen comics." 

If I had to sum up the book in one word, it would be: "awesome."  If I had to sum it up in two words, they would be: "totally awesome."

Seriously.  I just sat in a coffeeshop by myself for forty-five minutes and giggled.  Totally awesome.  Check it out.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Killing Time Online: Thought Catalog

Heard of Thought Catalog?  It's a "no brow and nonpartisan" cultural blog that I recently stumbled across that features some interesting writing (emphasis mine, to point out that a lot of interesting blogs have interesting things to communicate in a rather mundane tone).

While I can't claim that the entire site is 100% awesomesauce, there are a selection of pieces I thought were interesting, including the essay that first brought me to the site, "You Should Date an Illiterate Girl," by Charles Warnke.  It's so well-written that it almost depresses me that Warnke is only 21.  Le sigh.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Killing Time Online: This Recording

I stumbled across a really interesting cultural blog this morning called This RecordingWhile the format is a bit difficult to navigate (just because the posts are so long), there's a lot of really interesting stuff on there.  (For example, on the book page, one post features Samuel Beckett's reminisces on James Joyce, including a series of interesting photographs.)

Anyway, you should check it out.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Not-So-Gentle Viewer: Organizing the Bookshelf (2011)

I can't even begin to imagine how long it took to make this, but it's freaking cool.  I also love that it lists the books that were used at the end.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Review: Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers, by Lois P. Frankel

One of my co-workers lent me Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office, saying it helped point out some of the mistakes that women make at work.

Frankel does not make the argument that women should try to act like men--there are some stereotypically "feminine" traits which can actually be a strength in the office.  Rather, women should just avoid some of the "nice girl" behavior which is trained into us from a young age.  She offers a quiz to explore where a reader's weaknesses may lie, then offers specific "mistakes" that they may unconsciously make. 

Some of the mistakes that stuck out to me the most included going by full first names rather than cute nicknames, as well as introducing oneself using both her first and last name.  When was the last time you heard a successful man introduce himself as "Jimmy" or "Mikey"?

In addition, when composing communications, women are more likely to soften their language by using words like "I think" and "maybe," while men are more likely to go straight to the point.  The result is that men sound confident and strong while women come across as uncertain.

While I can't say that I sat down and read the whole book from cover-to-cover, it was interesting enough that I flipped through all 101 mistakes and read the ones that particularly caught my attention.  I would definitely recommend this book for any woman looking to be successful in a professional setting.

"Literary" and "Speed-Dating": Two Words I Never Thought I'd Hear Together...

... and it takes place at a library, too.  Says one librarian, "There is no alcohol, so you don’t have to worry about people saying 'Oh, baby' one night, and then the next morning waking up and going, 'Yikes!'" 

This whole article is incredibly funny to me for some reason.

Not-So-Gentle Viewer: David Mitchell's Soapbox (2010)

Watch it or don't.  I could care less.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

"Dr. Johnson, I presume?"

For those of you on Twitter, I just stumbled across a hilarious tweeter (am I even using that properly? My cultural ignorance is showing) that you should check out.  Even you non-tweeters should peruse the Twitter account of Dr. Samuel Johnson.  It includes such definitions as:
  • Stability (n.) most desirous Form of Govt., a Polity built 'pon twin Pillars of benevolent Monarchy & Tear-Gas.
  • Valentine (n.) Patron-Saint of avaricious Florists & the MAWKISH: his Feast mark'd by Consumption of pinkish Victuals
  • Superbowl (n.) gaudy Parade of Merchants hawking their Wares, occasionally disturb'd by thrown PIG-SKIN
as well as general observations such as:
  • Perusing the Twitterment of Mister Charles SHEEN is the verbal Equivalent to prodding a Hornet's Nest with one's MEMBRUM
  • The Puritans wishing to bowdlerise Huckleberry FINN should also remove Mister TWAIN'S endless Dirge 'pon FENCE-PAINTING
  • I find neither Books nor Wenches at this Conference-Centre, yet I may have my Britches press'd in four-and-twenty Hours.
Damn you, Samuel Johnson!  I swore I'd never return to Twitter!

Luckily, the man behind the tweets has a book you can purchase if you, like me, have forsaken your Twitter account for all time.

Deep in the Droghte of Marche...

... which, in Houston, apparently consists of 75-degree days that make me want to play hooky and go run through a sprinkler somewhere while "Zephirus eek[s] with his swete breeth / Inspire[s] hath in every holt and heeth / The tendre croppes".  But I digress.

I woke up this morning feeling completely nostalgic for my days studying literature.  Something about copy-editing a 50-page engineering mechanical integrity document makes me look back fondly on the days when I read Shakespeare and Chaucer and genuinely believed that the knowledge I was gaining would be useful some day.

Not that reading Chaucer was all that enjoyable--it generally made me want to tear my hair out, and I was told by one professor that my Middle English accent was lacking in authenticity (which made me want to ask her for a recording of Edward III to support her argument, but I held off for obvious reasons).  And the Chaucer was actually easier than some other Medieval texts (cough--Pearl manuscript--cough) which had additional letters that made additional noises that made me additionally crazy.

No, it wasn't always easy or enjoyable, but it was so satisfying to know that I was one of a pretty limited number of people in the country who could laugh at the jokes in the Wife of Bath's tale. Unfortunately, these days I think I'd be lucky to even get past the first 18-line sentence of the Prologue, let alone read with any kind of comprehension.  Four years after graduating with a Bacherlor's in literature, I'm much more likely to use the skills I got from Ms. Stave's 8th grade grammar class than I am anything I, my parents, and the state of California paid tens of thousands of dollars for me to learn.

Oh, well.  At least I can giggle at the introduction of Chaucer in A Knight's Tale at 15:00.  "Chaucer. Geoffrey Chaucer, a writer? [...] You probably read my book, The Book of the Duchess? ... Fine, well, it was allegorical."

As the kids say these days, "lol."
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