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May 31, 2013

The Last of Pepys’s Diary

Filed under: Today in Literature — Tags: , , , , , — Bookblurb @ 10:36 am
Samuel Pepys    (1633 - 1703)

Samuel Pepys
(1633 – 1703)

On this day in 1669, Samuel Pepys regretfully made the final entry in his nine-and-a-half-year diary, citing his deteriorating eyes as cause. Begun when he was a struggling young civil servant, Pepys’s diary covers the beginnings of his rise to wealth and influence in Restoration England. It is praised not just as a priceless historical document but for a range of character, anecdote and detail that is Dickensian in scope, and just as readable.

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May 27, 2013

A Writing Class Focused on Goodbyes

By CHADWICK MOORE
“The suicide note — and I’m being deadly earnest — is moving, strange, harrowing and peculiar literature,” said Simon Critchley, an author and philosophy professor at the New School. “People’s interest in them is almost pornographic.”

Mr. Critchley was teaching a class billed as a “Suicide Note Writing Workshop,” part of a monthlong series of performances, installations and lectures called the School of Death and sponsored by Cabinet Magazineand the Family Business exhibition space on West 21st Street. The glass doors to his storefront classroom were flung open to the chilly rain falling outside, inviting passers-by to stop, listen, and sometimes contribute to the discussion.

The pop-up school came about as a smart-alecky reaction to a program in London called the School of Life, which Mr. Critchley described as “a particularly nauseating philosophy of self-help.”

“It’s also a way of mocking creative-writing workshops,” Mr. Critchley, 53, said. “We’re not mocking suicide. We’re doing this as a way to understand it. And why not be a little insensitive? People are terrified in talking about death.”

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Are Apostrophes Necessary?

NoNot really, no.

By Matthew J.X. Malady

One hundred and eighteen miles north of London, in the town of Boston, England, there lives a retired newspaperman named John Richards who is experiencing an unusually rotten spring. Richards is the founder and chairman of something called the Apostrophe Protection Society. His world, at least as related to the tiny mark that denotes possessives and the omission of letters from certain words, appears to be crashing down around him.

Recent news reports emanating from Richards’ native England, and from across the pond in America, describe a number of ominous developments that could threaten the sanctity of everything his society exists to protect. In March, the Mid Devon district council in southwestern England attempted to banish apostrophes from all area street signs. People went nuts, grammarians groused, and the council ultimately changed course. But celebrations by apostrophe acolytes would soon be contracted. A few months after the Mid Devon switcheroo, the Wall Street Journal noted that the United States Board on Geographic Names maintains a longstanding policy of removing apostrophes from titles proposed for towns, mountains, caves, and other assorted locations Americans like to name. The government doesn’t want us getting the wrong idea about, for instance, whether some guy named Pike actually owns “Pikes Peak.” So that’s why formal place names in the U.S.—aside from a few noteworthy exceptions such as Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts and Clark’s Mountain in Oregon—rarely include apostrophes. English language formalists are now up in arms about that manner of proceeding, too.

With each new controversy, it becomes increasingly clear that we, as a society, have reached a Pikes Peak of our own when it comes to fussing and nitpicking over things like how we denote possessives and contractions. The apostrophe chatter business, according to Chairman Richards, is booming. He gets 30 or 40 apostrophe-related inquiries each month via email. “My website has received over a million hits,” he says.

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A brief survey of the short story part 49: Guy de Maupassant

guyHis prolific output of sensational stories for the popular press should not obscure the incomparable art of his best work.

By Chris Power

“He is a better writer than you think,” Malcolm Lowry once said of Guy de Maupassant. This comment, made to David Markson, indicates the conundrum Maupassant presents to readers. A hugely influential writer of short stories, the sheer mass of his extremely uneven body of work – 300 stories, 200 articles, six novels, two plays, and three travel books churned out between 1880 and 1891 – can obscure his genius like clouds around an alp. Yet while many of those 300 stories fail to rise beyond the anecdotal, nearly a quarter are very good, and within them stands a core of indisputable classics. It shouldn’t be doubted that Maupassant is one of the most important short-story writers to have lived.

It was to the detriment of Maupassant’s work – although not his bank balance – that his career coincided with a demand from French newspapers for stories of around 1-2,000 words. Jostling with news and faits divers, these stories were by necessity laconic and attention-grabbing, and Maupassant, whose severe economy was a model for Hemingway, had a great facility for producing them. The irony, however, is that Maupassant’s best works are much longer. The spareness, learned in his youth from the poet Louis Bouilhet, is still there – as in the opening of “Hautot & Son” (1889), where, as Sean O’Faolain writes, “the scene is brilliantly and swiftly painted, with three lines for the countryside and six for the sportsmen” – but the stories’ scope helps avoid the glibness that can mar his shorter work.

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Rachel Carson’s Sense of Wonder

Rachel Carson    (1907 - 1964)

Rachel Carson
(1907 – 1964)

On this day in 1907 Rachel Carson was born in Springdale, Pennsylvania. Her homestead is now a museum and educational center, though it includes only one of the sixty-five acres upon which Carson learned the life-lesson that she would teach the world: “The lasting pleasures of contact with the natural world are not reserved for scientists but are available to anyone who will place himself under the influence of earth, sea, and sky, and their amazing life.”

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May 24, 2013

Rushdie, Fagan, Gunn on James Tait Black shortlists

Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie

| By Charlotte Williams

Salman Rushdie and Jenni Fagan are among the authors shortlisted for the £10,000 James Tait Black biography and fiction awards. The shortlist for the newly created drama category is to be announced later this month.

Contenders for the fiction prize are Scottish author Fagan’s The Panopticon (Windmill Books), about a 15-year-old who finds herself headed for a home for chronic young offenders but can¹t remember why; The Big Music by Kirsty Gunn (Faber), about a dying man creating a musical composition that will define his life; Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner (Granta), about a young American poet on a fellowship in Madrid, struggling to establish his sense of self; and The Deadman’s Pedal by Alan Warner (Vintage), about a 16-year-old who leaves school to become a train driver and is introduced to a world of glamour.

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Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr – review

Holy-Sht-A-Brief-History-of-Sam Leith relishes an obscenity-strewn journey through Roman, biblical and medieval times.

It’s wonderful stuff, swearing. It stiffens the sinews and summons up the blood, and not just metaphorically. Obscenities actually do act on us physiologically. Swearing increases electrical conductance across the skin, pushes the heart rate higher and measurably increases resistance to pain.

Obscenities are also linguistically interesting in themselves: the more currency they have, the more their emotional colouring and the associations they trigger overwhelms what they actually mean. “Fucking”, these days, only rarely means “having sex”. And they become marvellously plastic, grammatically.

Swearing doesn’t just mean what we now understand by “dirty words”. It is entwined, in social and linguistic history, with the other sort of swearing: vows and oaths. Consider for a moment the origins of almost any word we have for bad language – “profanity”, “curses”, “oaths” and “swearing” itself .

Melissa Mohr’s title, then, is more than just an attention-grabber: the history of swearing is one of a movement back and forth between the holy and the shit. At different times in the history of the west, the primary taboo has been to do either with God, or with the functions of the human body. (The latter, though, does subdivide in a meaningful way between the sexual and the excremental. Really, this book should have been called “Holy Fucking Shit”.)

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10 Reasons Not to Be A Writer

Matt Haig

Matt Haig

By Matt Haig

I worry that sometimes in my blogs I have gone on a little bit too much about the wonders of being a writer, and so this time I’m giving the other side of the story.

 

Indeed, here are just the first ten reasons not to be jealous of writers.

 

1.     They have bad backs. Maybe not the debut writers, but by the time of their third or fourth novel, they can hardly walk. This is why Margaret Atwood has to be winched everywhere with the aid of a helicopter. It is why Salman Rushdie is eight inches shorter than he used to be. It is why Julian Barnes always clenches his jaw.

 

2.     They are depressed. Writers are miserable. Think of some of the saddest people in history – Woolf, Plath, Hemingway, Sexton, Poe, Tom Clancy – and ninety per cent of them are writers. They write because they are depressed. Even Dan Brown is depressed. Every single person you pass in the street has happier brain chemistry than Dan Brown. Probably. That’s why he has to hang upside down like Bruce Wayne between paragraphs. Possibly. And why he believes life is a kind of Countdown Conundrum designed by Dante or Da Vinci or albino priests. Possibly. And look, US website health.com says that writing is one of the top 10 professions most likely to lead to depression. So be jealous of happier people, like undertakers and debt collectors. Being a writer is deciding to live your whole life as if it was soundtracked by Radiohead.

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33 Unusual Tips To Being A Better Writer

“Portrait of the Writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky,” Vasily Perov

“Portrait of the Writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky,” Vasily Perov

By James Altucher

Back in college, my friend Sanket and I would hang out in bars and try to talk to women but I was horrible at it. Nobody would talk to me for more than thirty seconds, and every woman would laugh at all his jokes for what seemed like hours. Even decades later I think they are still laughing at his jokes. One time he turned to me and said, “The girls are getting bored when you talk. Your stories go on too long. From now on, you need to leave out every other sentence when you tell a story.” We were both undergrads in Computer Science. I haven’t seen him since, but that’s the most important writing (and communicating) advice I ever got.

33 other tips for being a better writer

Write whatever you want. Then take out the first paragraph and last paragraph. Here’s the funny thing about this rule. It’s sort of like knowing the future. You still can’t change it. In other words, even if you know this rule and write the article, the article will still be better if you take out the first paragraph and the last paragraph.

Take a huge bowel movement every day. And you won’t see that on any other list on how to be a better writer. If your body doesn’t flow then your brain won’t flow. Eat more fruit if you have to.

Bleed in the first line. We’re all human. A computer can win Jeopardy but can’t write a novel. If you want people to relate to you, then you have to be human. Penelope Trunk started a post a few weeks ago: “I smashed a lamp over my head. There was blood everywhere. And glass. And I took a picture.” That’s real bleeding. My wife recently put up a post where the first line was so painful she had to take it down. Too many people were crying.

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How do you write about life when it’s lived on computers?

Eastern Standard TribeFiction writers face a challenge in depicting the ubiquitous 21st-century experience of virtual existence.

By Damien Walter

We live more and more of our life through the screens of laptops and smartphones, but how do we represent this on the page? In his 2004 novel Eastern Standard Tribe, science fiction author Cory Doctorow explored what it meant to live in a world where our relationships were scattered around the globe, and our lives lived through computers. Doctorow’s novel was published just two years before the release of the iPhone in 2006, and the explosion in smartphone and tablet computer usage which has moved millions of real people are living the kinds of life Doctorow predicted.

Walk in to any public space today, from a waiting room to a coffee shop, and note the disturbing absence of voices. We are there, and we are elsewhere. Our discussions are mediated via social networks, and conducted through touchscreen interfaces. Can we call them friends, this network of professional and social contacts we interact with through computers?

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