Writer’s Corner: Getting to Work

train1Now that the dream of the Amtrak writers’ residency is over and done with, it’s time for the rest of us to get back to the business at hand: crafting words and pages from nowhere out of nothing. Place matters; thusly the desire for inspiring places to put fingers to keyboards.

But there’s always that unfortunate reminder that, dream though we may of the perfect place and time to do one’s writing (cabin, nice view of the lake, maybe a dog who only wants to be walked at convenient 3- to 4-hour intervals), at some point one does have to get past inspiration and put one’s tender nose on that unforgiving grindstone.

Per Doreen Carvajal, who wrote about using the TGV train ride south from Paris as a way to unblock a long-dormant book proposal:

I settled into a cushioned seat by the window, thinking of my own family’s love affair with trains and the basic writing lesson they knew better than me. There is no better way to craft a book than to toil like a railroad worker, every day, all day.

Readers’ Corner: Taking Books to the Street

bookmobileMost people who read as children have fond memories of the bookmobile. One had normally thoroughly ransacked the age-appropriate shelves at the local public library and the thin offerings in the school itself. So having an RV pull up with an appropriately stern librarian with some new offerings (or at least the old offerings newly presented) was manna from heaven.

In Portland, Oregon, a phenomenal little nonprofit group is taking that idea in an entirely different direction. Street Books is a small band of dedicated booklovers who spend a few hours each week bicycling books around to the city’s homeless population. From the Times writeup:

The Street Books project is nothing if not messy. The librarians — the three salaried employees, including Ms. Moulton, are paid $60 a week for a three-hour shift — fill their carts based on their tastes and their patrons’ tastes.

Diana Rempe, 48, a community psychologist who recently completed her Ph.D. and pedals the bike one afternoon a week, stops at a day-labor assembly site on the city’s east side, where many Mexican and Latin American men gather, waiting to be hired. So she loads up on books in Spanish. (Her proudest book coup, she said, was getting a hard-to-find book on chess moves in Spanish for two Cuban players.)

You can donate money here, or email them and ask about donating books that people have been asking about.

Reader’s Corner: Run this Bookstore

Wigtown (Shaun Bythell)

Wigtown, book town (Shaun Bythell)

Hey, wanna run a bookstore? If you can get yourself over to Wigtown in beautiful, not-independent Scotland, they’re giving away the chance to learn all the ins and outs of the trade. According to The Bookseller:

The Open Book project will invite interested parties to apply to live in and run a local bookshop, renamed The Open Book, for a period of up to six weeks. Anyone is invited to apply, with preference given to artists, writers, thinkers, and “bibliophiles”. Participants will be given a crash course in bookselling and will be asked to contribute to a blog outlining their experiences, as well as keeping the shop open for a set number of hours a week.

Check it out. Wigtown (it’s Scotland’s National Book Town, don’t you know) is on the western shore, looks remote and positively gorgeous. You’ll get a lot of reading done and perhaps learn why booksellers are both frequently grumpy and at the same time highly content with their lives.

Reader’s Corner: The Books Facebook Users Love

hitchhikers1Does this list say something about who’s using Facebook? In yet another of the listicles that they’re famous for, BuzzFeed shows the Top 20 books most beloved by Facebook users. With the exception of the number one pick (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone?), it’s pretty much what you would expect:

  • Great Modern Novels I Had To Read In School But Actually Liked (1984, The Great Gatsby)
  • Books That I Read 50 Million Times As A Child And Whisked Me Away Somewhere Magical Each Time (The Lion, the Witch, and the WardrobeAnne of Green GablesA Wrinkle in TimeThe Lord of the Rings)
  • Actual Classics That Tend Not To Be Assigned In School Anymore (Jane EyrePride and Prejudice)
  • Self-Help Creed Masked As Literature (The Alchemist)
  • The Only Book I Read In The Past Few Years (The Hunger Games)
  • Outlier (The Handmaid’s Tale, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Bible)

watchmen1When you dig into the full dataset that Facebook made available, particularly the full Top 100 list, a few more surprises pop up. There’s a heavier sprinkling of modern YA, plus the occasional religious text (The Book of Mormon). But what’s fascinating is just how overwhelmingly genre the list is, compared to what it might have been a few years ago. Even though many mainstream readers barely know who they are, Terry Pratchett, Orson Scott Card, Alan Moore, Robert Heinlein, and Robert Jordan all make appearances here.

This begs the question: Are Facebook users geekier than the population at large, or as the percentage of adults who actually read books falls every year, are genre fans just the ones more likely to keep reading books as opposed to tweets?

Also: is it a problem that the number-one book is Harry Potter? After all, according to Scientific American, children who were read to from those books acted more compassionately afterwards.

Reader’s Corner: Great Otherworldly Librarians

(Courtesy DC Comics)

Batgirl, when she’s not shelving (courtesy DC Comics)

Readers of genre fiction—particularly science fiction and fantasy—have a special place in their hearts for bookstores, libraries, and other (preferably dark and quiet) repositories of the written word. While librarians would seem to most like a prickly breed, they tend to show up in works of the fantastic as heroes, or at least very valuable allies.

Thanks to the smart folks at Tor, here’s a look at some of the more awesome fantasy/sci-fi librarians, ranging from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the Sandman comics.

It’s a solid list, all in all (even if it does miss out on the omnisciently Jeeves-ian Librarian from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash), though they do pale in comparison to Barbara Gordon, the occasional librarian otherwise known as Batgirl.

Quote of the Day: Terry Southern on Hollywood, Writing, “Freakishness”

(Library of Congress)

Somewhere in Southern California (Library of Congress)

Today’s bit of perception about one of America’s most over-analyzed, unloved, and misunderstood “cities” comes courtesy of surrealist pie-thrower and comic raconteur Terry Southern (CandyDr. Strangelove). Interviewed at length for The Paris Review‘s occasional series on screenwriters (the interview took place in 1967 but wasn’t published until 2012) the Texas-born Southern expounded on that great Southern California sinkhole of creative energy and dashed dreams:

Hollywood, that is to say, Los Angeles, is not, of course, a city, and its sinister forces are very oblique. There’s no public transportation system whatever, so the people drive around as though they were living in Des Moines, and it has all the rest of the disadvantages of a small town, only filled with displaced persons. On the other hand, life there has an engaging surrealist quality, an almost exciting grotesqueness.

The cultural scene there in general is sped up, sort of concentrated. Southern California is a mecca for all manner of freakishness, beginning on the most middle-class level—hot-dog stands in the shape of a hot dog. If you go there, you’ll immediately see a carnival, Disneyland aspect that is different from any other place in America.

Southern also notes the differences between the ladies of Hollywood and those of the East Coast:

… girls who want to be ­writers come to the Village and girls who want to be actresses go to Hollywood.

Writer’s Corner: James Franco is a Poet Now, Too

At some point, you would think that the whirling creative polymath that is James Franco would settle down. Onetime heartthrob actor turned creator of curious art installment films (Interior. Leather Bar), star of trashy-smart comedies (This Is the End), director of small-scale literary adaptations (As I Lay Dying), author of novels and short stories, and now: poetry.

francobook1Instead of going with a big press for his collection, Directing Herbert White, Franco smartly went with one of the more respected small poetry outfits out there: the expert Minnesota-based indie Graywolf Press. You can read an excerpt from the collection here.

How is the poetry itself? Not that memorable, but not noticeably worse than much of what’s out there and not necessarily contingent on Franco’s name.

As David Orr puts it in last week’s Times‘ Sunday Book Review, it’s:

“Directing Herbert White” is the sort of collection written by reasonably talented M.F.A. students in hundreds of M.F.A. programs stretching from sea to shining sea. Which is perhaps not surprising, since Franco actually has an M.F.A. in poetry…

…uniformly written in the kind of flat, prosy free verse that has dominated American poetry for ages (typical line: “New Orleans Square is my favorite part of Disneyland”), with stanzas that aren’t so much stanzas as elongated paragraphs.

One could argue that it’s just that flat and unadorned poetic style which all too often reads as lazy and slashed-up prose than actual lyricism which has helped reduce poetry to its currently weakened state.

But Orr’s ultimate take on the book is probably the right one. In short, there’s a lot of bad poetry out there. Better that somebody with the name recognition of Franco is at least taking up the flag and giving it an honest go:

Poetry is the weak sister of its sibling arts, alternately ignored and swaddled like a 19th-century invalid, and that will change only by means of a long, tedious and possibly futile effort at persuasion. Perhaps it’s a blessing to have James Franco on one’s side in that struggle.