Readersforum's Blog

February 29, 2012

What The Hell Ever Happened To… Harry Crews?

By Joshua Chaplinsky

Harry Crews is, was, and always will be a complete and utter badass.

I mean, just look at his face. Would you fuck with that guy? If you’re even remotely considering the idea, I’d advise you continue reading.

Born in Bacon County, Georgia in 1935, this poor country boy lived through more shit by the age of seven than most of us experience in a lifetime. He was only twenty one months old when his father died of a heart attack, leaving his mother to raise the children and work the family farm. It was a burden she couldn’t handle by herself, so she married her brother in-law out of necessity. In his essay, “Mama Pulled The Load Alone,” Crews describes his stepfather as “…a man who might have been a good husband had he not been a brutal drunk.” [1]

But that was the least of his worries. He had a hard enough time doing a little something called “staying alive.” In the 2007 documentary, Survival Is Triumph Enough, Crews tells the story of how baby Harry popped lye like candy and had to be rushed to the doctor. On a horse-drawn cart. If he had swallowed the stuff, it would have killed him from the inside.

At the age of five he contracted polio, which caused the muscles in his legs to tighten, drawing his heels all the way back against his buttocks. He was bedridden for six weeks, and it took almost a year of dragging himself across the ground before he could walk again.* Shortly after regaining the use of his legs, Crews fell into a pot of scalding water used for hog butchering. From his autobiography, A Childhood (which is a MUST read) :

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The Poetry of Ruth Pitter

Ruth Pitter (1897 - 1992)

On this day in 1992 Ruth Pitter died. Although Pitter has fallen into the obscurity we might associate with leap year, she was a durable and prize-winning poet in her day — Hawthornden Prize, Heinemann Award, Queen’s Gold Medal, CBE, eighteen books of verse. The modern neglect may be attributable to her too-wide range, or her unmodern themes, or what Thom Gunn said of her: “Ruth Pitter is the most modest of poets, slipping us her riches as if they were everyday currency.”

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February 28, 2012

Beautiful bookshops? No thanks!

Pile of books: spare me the sofa. Photograph: Toby Talbot/AP

At best, the attractiveness of a bookshop is beside the point. At worst it’s a positively bad sign.

By Rick Gekoski

According to William Morris, one of the major thinkers, and designers, of the Aesthetic Movement, you should “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”. This injunction has always puzzled me, because of that “or”: there seems to be some choice involved between utility and beauty. Presumably a knife is one thing, so useful for cutting lamb chops, and gorgeous cushion covers (from Morris & Co) quite another. But a cushion cover is also useful, isn’t it? So is a well-designed chair or fabulous table, a curtain or bedspread? Morris designed all of them to be both beautiful and useful.

The stronger claim – have nothing in your house that isn’t both beautiful and useful – is more compelling, and is indeed the mantra of most designers of the homeliest artefacts. You want a knife? Why not buy some Georgian silver? Or, if you can stump up for it, one designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh? Surely a choice of such an object is not based on its utility – all knives will cut a lamb chop – but additionally on how attractive one finds it?

It is harder to make the inverse claim: that objects of beauty should be chosen, too, for their usefulness. You might make such a case, even, for paintings: being surrounded by the beautiful works of art is calming and delightful to the soul, and such an aesthetically-enhanced inner organ may well make us perform better in our daily lives.

But I am not much interested in pursuing this, because what I am really interested in here is bookshops. A recent post on this website by Sarah Crown enthusiastically described the “most beautiful” bookshops she has encountered. Readers were invited to add further examples, and pictures were posted of book-lined rooms replete with comfy sofas covered in chintz, tables with pretty little lamps and a vase of tulips, Persian carpets – all the cosiness of a cottagey sitting room redolent of brewing tea and baking scones. Flyers announcing forthcoming poetry readings behind the desk. Mozart playing, soothingly. Nothing that isn’t enhancing to the spirit.

What a delight to enter such a place, pick a book off a shelf, plump up a cushion, accept the offered lapsang souchong (lemon only, ta!) and settle down for a read!

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10 Graphic Novels for the Literary Minded

Filed under: Lists — Tags: , , , , , — Bookblurb @ 5:44 am

By Kelly Thompson

As graphic novels continue to become more widely accepted by the general public, I encounter more and more people unsure about where to start reading.  There’s a lot of product out there, which can make it difficult to find the right entry point.  Additionally, many pick the wrong entry point and tend to run screaming from the medium. But when you read a bad book, you don’t swear off books, you just swear off that author, or perhaps that genre.  The same should be true for Graphic Novels.  And so with that in mind, I offer you 10 graphic novels for the literary minded, broken down by genre to give you a fighting chance at picking something you might enjoy.  I’ve avoided the usual suspects – Maus, Watchmen, and the like, which are both excellent of course, but have also been recommended a million times before – in favor of some more recent offerings that you may or may not have heard about.

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Anthony Horowitz: Do we still need publishers?

Anthony Horowitz. Photograph: Andy Paradise / Rex Features

At an event hosted by children’s booksellers The Book People last week, the author gave a talk questioning the role of the publisher in today’s literary world. This is an edited version.

The title of this talk is, “Do We Need Publishers Any More?”. I was going to call it “Thank Christ We Don’t Need Bloody Publishers Any More” – but I felt that sounded too partisan.

Relationships between writers and publishers are of course very strange and change all the time, rather like a see-saw.

I remember my first meeting at Walker Books. The first question they asked me – and I swear this is true – was what mug would I like my tea in: the one with the teddy bear, the tennis racket or the pink one with the flower? And when I left the building, they asked me if I’d be OK taking the tube on my own. I was 33. I was married with a child. But they clearly saw me as some sort of demented child myself.

Cut forward 20 years: I’ve grown up, and they’re nervous of me. There’s Alex Rider. I’ve created a brand. Walker also resent me ever so slightly because now I’m the one with the SMA powder and the changing table. To a certain extent, they need me and that’s probably tricky for a publisher who might find life so much easier without writers.

Meanwhile, across the river, I have my adult publisher, Orion – and they also have problems with me. Relations between us have been strained ever since they published my Sherlock Holmes novel, The Mouse of Slick, with no fewer than 35 proof-reading errors. Their proof-reader tried to kill herself. She shot herself with a gnu. Even so, we’re doing another book together … a story of murder, suspicion and revenge.

But the truth is, I have other options.

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10 Great Magical Books for Adults

By Emily Temple

We’re just as excited as the next guy over the news that J.K. Rowling is writing a novel for adults, and like everyone else, we’re dying to know all the details. Rowling, however, is keeping a tight lid, which leaves us to sit around and speculate, an activity, to be fair, that we rather enjoy. While we don’t know if her new novel is slated to include any magic at all, we like to imagine that it will — after all, she is rather practiced at writing it — but we hope it won’t be another straight-up fantasy novel. To that end, we’ve compiled a list of wonderful and magical books for adults to inspire the great Ms. Rowling (and tide us over!). Now, don’t get us wrong: while there are plenty of fantasy books for adults — Lev Grossman has made a recent splash with his magical college novel The Magicians and its recent sequel The Magician King, and we don’t think anyone would argue that George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is for children, here we’re focusing on non-genre books (that is, not strictly fantasy or sci-fi) that nevertheless manage to include some awe-inspiring magic. 

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Tom Jones, for “Gentlemen and Ladies”

Filed under: Today in Literature — Tags: , , , — Bookblurb @ 5:22 am

Henry Fielding (1707 - 1754)

On this day in 1749 the publication of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones was announced in “The General Advertiser,” along with an apology: “It being impossible to get Sets bound fast enough to answer Demand for them, such Gentlemen and Ladies as please, may have them sew’d in Blue Paper and Boards, at the Price of 16s. a Set, of A. Millar over against Catharine-street in the Strand.”

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February 25, 2012

The Great American Novel

Salman Rushdie, Nadine Gordimer, John Updike meet the public, 2004. AFP / Getty Images

Will there ever be another?

A couple of years ago, I was asked to give a talk about “The American Novel Today.” It wasn’t my first choice of topic, frankly, partly because I read as few contemporary novels as possible, partly (here we get into cause and effect) because most of the novels that get noticed today (like most of the visual art that gets the Establishment’s nod) should be filed under the rubric “ephemera,” and often pretty nasty ephemera at that. I do not, you may be pleased to read, propose to parade before you a list of those exercises in evanescence, self-parody, and general ickiness that constitute so much that congregates under the label of American fiction these days. Instead, I’d like to step back and make some observations on the place of fiction in our culture today, A.D. 2012. It is very different from the place it occupied in the 19th century, or even the place it occupied up through the middle of the last century.
We get a lot of new novels at my office. I often pick up a couple and thumb through them just to keep up with what is on offer in the literary bourse. The delicate feeling of nausea that ensues as my eye wanders over these bijoux is as difficult to describe as it is predictable. The amazing thing is that it takes only a sentence or two before the feeling burgeons in the pit of the stomach and the upper lip grows moist with sweat. I am not generally a fan of the Green party, but at those moments I feel a deep kinship with their cause: All those lovely trees, acres and acres of wood pulp darkened, and for what? No one, I submit, should pay good money for a college education and then be expected to ruminate over the fine points of what is proffered to us by the fiction industry today.

I know that I am not alone in this feeling. Indeed, whenever I mention the contemporary novel to friends, the reaction tends to alternate between bemusement and distaste. The bemusement comes from those who are at a loss to think of any current American novels I might wish to talk about. “I’ll check my bookshelves when I get home,” one well-read wag with a large private library wrote me, “to see if I have any contemporary American novels.” Those expressing distaste, on the other hand, do have the novels on their shelves, but they have made the mistake of having read them, or at least read in them.

This might be the appropriate moment to issue a disclaimer. I do not deny that there are good novels written today. I think, for example, of the spare, deeply felt novels of Marilynne Robinson, especially Gilead, her quiet masterpiece from a few years back. It might even be argued (I merely raise this as a possibility) that there are as many good novels being written today as in the past.

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LURID: Deadlier Than The Male

LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a twice-monthly guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.

By Karina Wilson

Murder is a man’s, man’s, man’s world, supposedly.  There’s a rigid gender equation at work in both newspaper headlines and airport paperbacks: male killer, female victim(s).  The traditional view has been that female killers are rare, that those of the “gentler sex” have to be provoked into murder most foul by extreme circumstances, usually sexual abuse.  Even in fiction, they have to be (in Shirley Maclaine’s telling categorization) a “victim, doormat or hooker” first, before they are permitted (by their usually male creator) to embark on a vengeful rampage.  In order to be a sympathetic character for the reader, they must maintain their fragile, feminine core.  Yes, Lisbeth Salander, I’m looking at you.

It gets off-putting for female readers if women keep ending up on the mutilated-and-dumped-on-an-empty-lot side of the crime thriller equation. Especially when there are five seasons of Investigation Discovery’s most decidedly Lurid true crime show, Deadly Women, in my Netflix queue that suggest that the tables are often turned.  While male killers seem to grab the headlines and the stereotypes, over the centuries the female of the species has been quietly poisoning, suffocating, and even stabbing and shooting her victims.  It’s just that you never noticed.  She’s clever like that.

FACT: female serial killers escape detection for, on average, eight years, almost twice as long as their male counterparts, and may even go for decades before anyone even realizes that there is a serial killer at work.  Put that in your electric chair and smoke up a side of beef.  No, wait: juries are often reluctant to give women the death penalty, and prefer to hand down life sentences, unless the convicted’s crimes are heinous indeed. Carol Bundy, one half of the Sunset Strip Killers, got a life sentence (although she died in jail) while her partner, Doug Clark, was sent to Death Row.  Not all murderers are equal under the law and sexism cuts both ways.

There is a long-established culture of females who kill (and kill again) that gets less and less underground by the day. The number of women convicted of homicide has exploded since 1970, and on the other side of the law, governments are recognizing that women operatives represent a valuable resource. My top secret source (thanks “J”) tells me that many new Delta Force assassins are women, and I’m sure you all saw that story about Iranian female ninjas.

So where are their fictional sisters, goes the cry? Where are the female Hannibal Lecters, Dexter Morgans, Patrick Batemans, James Bonds, Tyler Durdens and Tom Ripleys?  It’s true they’re more difficult to spot than their butcherly brethren, and are often the far-off object rather than the first person subject of narratives.  Nonetheless, deadly damsels have been a staple of Bad Books for centuries – where would Shakespeare be without Lady Macbeth and Tamora, Queen of the Goths?

Aside from revenge killers, like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, or Dawn Kincaid in the Kay Scarpetta books, female multiple murderers can be categorized into six basic types, according to Michael & C. Kelleher’s Typology (Murder Most Rare, 1998).  Although this list was derived from US studies in the 1990s, the real life categories have plenty of fictional antecedents. You just have to look in some of the less obvious places.

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February 24, 2012

JK Rowling’s new book: clues suggest a turn to crime fiction

Filed under: Authors — Tags: , , , , , — Bookblurb @ 6:08 pm

JK Rowling ... getting involved in crime? Photograph: Joshua Lott/Reuters

There’s no official word on what her new book will be about, but all the evidence points to a crime story.

By Alison Flood

Suspicions that JK Rowling was working on a crime novel have been around for years, though nobody could ever make it stick. Some suggested she could be writing a political fairytale for children or an encyclopaedia of the Potter universe. But yesterday’s (detail-free) announcement about her new book for adults gives a vital clue that she’s been writing a crime novel. It has the fingerprints all over it of the hugely respected editor David Shelley, a man who counts Dennis Lehane, Val McDermid, Carl Hiaasen and Mark Billingham amongst his authors and who comes from a background steeped in crime and thriller writing. And now he’s going to be editing Rowling’s new book.

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