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  • Jeff Somers 9:04 pm on 2016/11/01 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , inspiration, , , , philip roth, ,   

    Get Ready for National Novel Writing Month with 5 Fictional Authors 

    It’s that time of year again, the magical, horrible month when authors, aspiring and otherwise, attempt to write an entire novel in 3o days. Some do NaNoWriMo for the challenge, some do it to finally check write novel off of their bucket lists, and some do it just for the experience. Whatever your reasons, it’s always one of the most difficult and most rewarding writing exercises of the year.

    NaNoWriMo is like a marathon: it requires a lot of inspiration to get you over the finish line. This can come in many forms, but every writer knows that fiction itself is the most nourishing thing a writer can take in. Here are five novels about fictional authors that have something to teach anyone trying to crank out a novel-length story between now and November 30.

    Atonement, by Ian McEwan
    Lesson: Fiction is Powerful Stuff

    Spoilers ahead!
    McEwan’s twisty novel tells the tale of Briony Tallis, bestelling author. As a child, Briony commits a terrible act that impacts those around her in awful ways. As time goes by, however, the victims of her immature mistakes recover and go on to live their lives, although they refuse to forgive Briony even as she declares her intentions to do what she can to make things right. The final, devastating twist reveals that Briony has been writing the story all along, and rewriting history to make it happier—in real life her victims never recovered and died young, unfulfilled. The lesson in Briony’s deception is dark and powerful: your experiences are just the inspiration for your stories. Dark or not, the things that inspire you to write don’t have to be rendered accurately. As a writer, you can change everything to suit your purpose, so don’t hesitate to embellish, deceive, and omit.

    Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut
    Lesson: Novels Change Lives
    Kurt Vonnegut was a writer who somehow combined not taking himself seriously with powerful writing that still sparks arguments to this day. In Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut’s alter-ego, writer Kilgore Trout (who appears in many of Vonnegut’s stories), travels to a low-rent convention in Ohio, where he’s destined to meet an insane fan who believes Trout’s speculative fiction is real. Vonnegut uses this premise, as always, to explore free will and existence in various absurd and darkly humorous ways, but the takeaway for anyone who finds themselves depressed and frustrated on, say, day thirteen of NaNoWiMo, is simple: what you write is like wild magic. Once it’s released into the world, you have no control over how it will affect other people. That sort of crackling, electric possibility should inspire anyone to finish what they’ve started.

    The Ghost Writer, by Philip Roth
    Lesson: Think Before You Write

    Nathan Zuckerman may be Roth’s greatest creation, an author avatar who remains fascinating throughout nine novels. In the first of the Zuckerman Opus, Nathan struggles with something all writers should think about: balancing honesty with artistry. As Nathan struggles with the fallout from writing about his own Jewish community in a negative way (prompting questions of his responsibility to not fan the flames of anti-Jewish sentiment versus his need to be honest in his writing), every author working on a NaNoWriMo book should take the hint and ask themselves some honest questions about their inspiration, motivation, and how their work might affect their intimates and the community around them.

    The Dark Half, by Stephen King
    Lesson: Don’t Shy Away from Darkness

    Writing is confessional. In fact, the more you attempt to obscure the personal demons and angels that inspire your work, the more artificial it will seem to readers. King’s horror novel is, on the one hand, the story of a writer whose public works don’t sell well, but whose trashy crime novels written under a pseudonym sell like hotcakes. When he “kills off” his pseudonym, however, his dark half seems to come to life and launch a violent killing spree. You’ll have to read the book to find out if he’s crazy or if there’s some other explanation, but the takeaway for a NaNoWriMo writer is this: don’t fight your true muse. If there’s daylight between the books you think you should be writing and the books you’re actually inspired to write, use this month to indulge your id and just write whatever your Dark Half wants to write. You’ll be amazed how easy writing suddenly becomes.

    Wonder Boys, by Michael Chabon
    Lesson: Just Finish It

    Chabon, inspired by his own out-of-control manuscript, offers up Grady Tripp, a writer who has been working on his second novel for seven years, amassing more than 2,500 manuscript pages. That Grady Tripp should be the patron saint of NaNoWriMo might not be obvious; after all, the point of this month is to finish a novel. But reading about Grady’s increasingly disorganized and hectic life is precisely the sort of inspiration you need, because in a sense that unfinished novel is the cause of all of Tripp’s problems. Reading Wonder Boys right before NaNoWriMo will offer up all the inspiration you need to ensure that on Day 30, you’ll be typing THE END instead of allowing your novel to spiral off into a madness of endless revisions.

    The post Get Ready for National Novel Writing Month with 5 Fictional Authors appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Jeff Somers 8:00 pm on 2016/08/03 Permalink
    Tags: austin grossman, , , , it could be worse, philip roth   

    Keep This Year’s Politics in Perspective with These Insane Fictional Presidents 

    Election Mania ’16, otherwise known as presidential convention season, is in the rearview mirror. In Cleveland and Philadelphia, our two major political parties gathered to officially choose their candidates for president, which means we’re finally in this election’s home stretch, and not a moment too soon. No matter your beliefs or affiliation, this has been one of the most unpredictable presidential campaigns in history. But as always, fiction has a lesson for us. You might think this election is madness, but trust us: it could be worse. (Or better, depending on your point of view.) Here are six fictional presidents who will make you feel a little better about our real-life prospects.

    Richard Nixon, apprentice sorcerer, in Crooked, by Austin Grossman
    Only Nixon could go to China, and as Grossman reveals in this startlingly inventive book, likewise only Nixon could defeat Lovecraftian horrors that hunger to consume the world. Grossman’s reinvention of Tricky Dick as the inheritor of a presidency imbued with magical powers—a man consistently distrusted and marginalized by the people who could have prepared him for the battles to comes—is thoroughly enjoyable. Most importantly, it offers up an idea of a president who has more than a veto up his or her sleeves. Cartainly a little black magic would be very welcome in today’s unsettled world.

    Abraham Lincoln, vampire hunter, in Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, by Seth Grahame
    Similarly, Grahame’s vision of Abe Lincoln, the most iconic of American presidents, moonlighting as a merciless vampire hunter is satisfying for many reasons, chief among them the security implications. Action movies continuously imagine presidents with Bourne-level reflexes and Bondian smarts, but they pale in comparison to the general badassery Lincoln is revealed to possess is this twisted secret history. Seeing a candidate go ax-crazy on live television after a horde of undead bursts in to violently protest your party platform would certainly be a game-changing moment in American politics—and a much better reason to vote for someone than their snooze-worthy tax policy

    Charles Lindbergh, fascist-in-chief, in The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth
    Roth’s ambitious novel pivots from the once very real prospect of a President Lindbergh, a man whose heroism in aviation was balanced by the fascist leanings of his politics. Roth’s slow burn exploration of an America that turns isolationist instead of entering World War II on the side of the allies is tense, depressing, and instructive. Based in real-life events and statements, the story is a solid reminder that who we elect President will always be important, and as a lesson in the way celebrity and charm aren’t always a good gauge of the person underneath the mask.

    Johnny Gentle, insane germophobe, in Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace
    Wallace’s intimidating novel is one of those books people lie about having read, or spend a lifetime aspiring to read “someday.” It’s good to remember that, under layers of postmodern technique and meta-textual references, this is a deeply silly, hilarious book. After all, in Wallace’s imagined future the President of the United States is Johnny Gentle, a former lounge singer applies his personal germophobia to the entire country by turning a huge swath of the Northeast into a toxic dumping ground for the rest of the country. While it might be hard to imagine someone securing the votes necessary for such a plan, Gentle is a towering example of what could happen if you accidentally elect an insane person to the most powerful post on the planet.

    Zaphod Beeblebrox, useful idiot, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
    Beeblebrox, on the other hand, is a towering example of the good things that can come from electing a charming idiot. Presented as one of the coolest people in the universe, Beeblebrox celebrates his election as President of the Galaxy by stealing an advanced starship equipped with an Infinite Improbability Drive. His rise to power is slowly revealed (SPOILERS!) to be a distraction: the President of the Galaxy, we discover, is always a hand-picked moron intended to keep the public distracted so those with real power go about its business of running things (never mind that they are eventually revealed to be no less horrifyingly stupid). Whether or not you see parallels to our current election cycle is entirely up to you.

    John Henry Eden, artificial intelligence-in-chief, in Fallout
    Finally, let’s celebrate the ultimate fictional president, John Henry Eden, from the Fallout video game universe. An artificial intelligence that builds its personality from the combined records of all preceding commanders-in-chief (to the point where it eventually claims to have been “born” in Kentucky, like Lincoln), Eden drips jingoism and violent threats, and is absolutely the president a post-apocalypse America deserves. Someday, we too might have the chance to vote for a computer to lead the hopefully-still-free world (pro tip: if they list their party affiliation as “Skynet,” vote for any other candidate), but until that glorious day, we can content ourselves with playing Fallout after casting a vote for some boring human.


  • Rachel C. Weingarten 3:00 pm on 2015/10/05 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , lorrie moore, mary gaitskill, , philip roth, , ,   

    Now Is The Perfect Time For 100 Years Of The Best American Short Stories 

    As a nation, we’re increasingly known for our short attention spans and appreciation of quick reads, the more bite-sized the better. (Present company excluded, of course.) Most people seem glued to various screens, consuming a constant flow of quick-take gossip, news, and culture. But before you despair that love of literature is dead and buried, take heart: this might be the perfect time for the humble short story to enjoy its moment in the sun.

    Short stories get to the point almost immediately, providing a one-two punch of emotional intensity and a near immediate payoff. Interested in juicy family secrets or decades’ worth of conflict? You don’t have to persist through chapters of purple prose or murky foreshadowing. Love stories, rivalry, murder, and despair are generally laid out and resolved in a dozen pages or less. And sex. There’s almost always a hint of it, the regret of it or the withholding thereof.

    You can’t be coy in a short story. If full length novels are the slow and romantic waltz of the literary world, short stories are more like burlesque. You know that it won’t be too long until you get to the good parts.

    In the introduction to 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories, editor Lorrie Moore writes about the fine-tuned focus on the action taking place in the foreground “which will be sharp and distilled as moonshine and maybe a little tense and witty, like an excellent dinner party.” Moore also reminds us that a story “may also be having a conversation with many larger disturbances lurking off-page.” And yet because these are short stories, if the text is too painful or the protagonist too broken, you’re free to leave both them behind when you turn the page. If you can turn the page, that is. Short stories can be imbued with so many potent layers, their characters might haunt you long after you’ve switched gears or eras and jumped into the next tale.

    Like mini modern soap operas taking place on social media, short stories can draw you with their drama. Other times you’re repelled, or jealous, or inadvertently swept up into a cause you didn’t know you should be passionate about. If the medium is indeed the message, short stories convey urgency and brevity and the need for resolution. In even the happiest of short stories, melancholia never seems too far away.

    Moore, along with series editor Heidi Pitlor, sifted through 2,000 stories appearing in previous editions of the yearly anthology to select the 40 included in the anniversary edition. Though the stories are listed chronologically, another larger thread runs through the collection. The historical elements present shift and change depending on the region or author. Voices and nationalities and cultural norms are teased out through individual experiences.

    I still find myself haunted by the deep sweetness of the nameless homeless narrator of Sherman Alexie’s “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” in which he has 24 hours to get back a priceless family artifact that may have once belonged to his grandmother. “We Indians are great storytellers and liars and mythmakers,” he writes at one point, daring us to doubt his story. But by the last paragraph I was not only a believer, but weeping at the power of redemption both literal and figurative.

    Deep faith in family or religion is another theme running through the collection. In Philip Roth’s “The Conversion of the Jews,” thirteen-year-old Ozzie battles against the stringencies of the faith he was raised with. He quite literally takes a stand by forcing his rabbi and mother to admit that the virgin birth, considered blasphemy by many of his religion, is actually a possibility, if you believe deeply enough in an all-powerful god. And through Ozzie, Roth plainly implores the rest of us to keep matters of faith civil. “You shouldn’t hit me about God, Mamma. You should never hit anybody about God.”

    Friend of My Youth,” by Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro, reminds us that in Munro’s best work, in the words of Joyce Carol Oates, “Life is reduced to a gesture or two, and emotion is withheld.” Moore quotes these words, reflecting on the genre of short stories and not simply Munro when she writes that “characters must reconcile societal demands with moral or emotional ambitions. These stories tell of small but critical occurrences that raise profound questions for both her characters and her readers.”

    “Friend of My Youth,” though meandering, has a quiet, lasting power: I found myself reflecting on the last paragraph days later. Like the final words in One Hundred Years of Solitudeby Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Munro explains an inscrutable and somewhat pitiable character’s inner core of strength and lifetime of questionable actions based on her seemingly outdated faith.

    Along with faith come questions of revelations, remorse, or perceived culpability. In Mary Gaitskill’s “The Girl On a Plane,” two strangers meet by chance while traveling. Awkward conversation ensues. Unwelcome confessions are made, including admissions of alcoholism and rape. “It wasn’t a real rape,” John Morton, says to the woman seated next to him on the short flight. “It was what you were talking about. It was complicated.” In just a handful of pages Gaitskill unflinchingly tackles ongoing discussions about rape culture.

    Short stories pull us in and hit us over the head with great big wrenching messages and themes. And if we’re lucky, we can read between the lines to understand the big picture behind the short works of fiction. If Moore is correct that “a short story is about love. But it is not a love story,” it stands to reason that 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories is the ultimate love letter to a genre ideal for today’s readers.

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  • Jeff Somers 3:00 pm on 2015/05/21 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , , , philip roth, portnoy's complaint, , ,   

    The 5 Worst Mothers in Literary History 

    As Philip Larkin wrote in the Greatest Poem of All Time (GPAT): “Man hands on misery to man/It deepens like a coastal shelf/Get out as early as you can/And don’t have any kids yourself.” This doesn’t hold true for every parent, but it certainly would’ve been good advice to give to any of the mother monsters listed below. Take our quick and terrifying tour through some of the worst mothers in literary history, and feel grateful all over again for your own.

    Margaret White (Carrie, by Stephen King)
    Most people concentrate on the monstrous teens in King’s iconic novel, the cool kids who torment Carrie until she has history’s worst psychotic break. But the kids aren’t the villains of this story, and neither is Carrie: it’s her awful, awful mother. How awful? Not only is everything—including the conception and birth of her own daughter—a sin to Margaret, she also seems to believe disciplining a child should involve locking her in a closet. Constantly. Margaret White is one of the few mothers who completely and richly deserves her terrible fate.

    Charlotte Haze (Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov)
    While Charlotte Haze isn’t the brightest bulb in the literary universe and might be excused for not noticing Humbert Humbert is, how shall we say this, a predatory criminal, her true monstrosity becomes clear when you look a little deeper. Charlotte is enamored with Humbert not because she craves love or companionship, but because she wants “the finer things” and believes Humbert, with his European manners and fussy, academic airs, can provide them for her. She doesn’t so much not notice his attentions towards Lolita as ignore them lest they ruin her chances for a “good life” she can barely define.

    Corrine and Olivia (Flowers in the Attic, by V.C. Andrews)
    The brilliant trick of V.C. Andrews’ novel about incest, greed, and spectacularly bad parenting is that it initially presents Olivia, the grandmother, as the true Monstrous Mother, and Corrine, the mother, as a goodhearted parent who is guilty of incredibly poor decision-making but not true evil…then it slowly turns the tables, not by making the grandmother a better person but by making Corrine the worst person. Poisoning your children slowly (while forcing them to hide in the attic) in order to assure your inheritance is actually more horrible than locking them in closets for days on end. At least Carrie got to attend gym class from time to time.

    Fiona Brewer (About a Boy, by Nick Hornby)
    Sometimes a humorous novel can distract us from the horrible people populating it, as with Nick Hornby’s touching, funny, and somewhat disturbing story of an awkward, unhappy boy and a slick, unhappy man. Fiona Brewer initially seems a bit strange in an amusing way, and fiercely protective of her son—but then you realize she attempted suicide in a way that pretty much guaranteed her son would walk in on her cold, dead body, and that most of his social anxiety and awkwardness is due to her own cynical view of the world. In the end, Fiona does not completely belong in the Hall of Fame for bad mothers, for she rallies over the course of the book to demonstrate true love for her son, which leaves her a long way from the sullen, unhappy, and resolutely selfish woman we meet in the beginning.

    Sophie Portnoy from Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth
    If it isn’t a standard belief that mothers should not stand outside the bathroom while their sons defecate and then demand they not flush so their output can be examined, then by gum, it should be. Sophie Portnoy is the sort of mother only novelists and psychiatrists can imagine, a woman so smothering and domineering she’s at the root of all her son’s “complaints”—including the (frequently awful and disturbing) sexual ones, which push her well into Monstrous Mother territory despite the black humor surrounding her every utterance and action in Roth’s infamous novel.

    So there you have it—the Injustice League of Bad Mothers. Which fictional moms did we miss?

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  • BN Editors 5:15 pm on 2014/06/04 Permalink
    Tags: , beyond repair, brian jay jones, , , goodbye columbus, jim enson: the biography, , my best friend maybe, , philip roth, the accursed, the here and now, theif's magic, , , ,   

    What to Read in June 

    The Here And NowEach month we ask a panel of our bloggers to suggest a book based on what they’re reading right now. Here’s what we think you should read this month!

    Emma: Hard Choices, by Hillary Clinton
    I can’t wait to get my hands on this memoir (out June 10) from the former First Lady—and, potentially, the country’s first female POTUS! In big news for B&N, Secretary Clinton will kick off her book tour at our Union Square store.

    Paul: Thief’s Magic, by Trudi Canavan
    Trudi Canavan’s latest—the first installment of a new, page-turning series—is unarguably top-shelf epic fantasy featuring a rich tapestry of storylines, exceptional world building, and one of the coolest characters to grace the pages of a fantasy in years: Vella, a sorceress who has been magically transformed into a book that has been made from her own flesh, hair, and bones!

    Dahlia: My Best Friend, Maybe, by Caela Carter
    Religion in YA is still a seldom-touched topic, but I loved Carter’s approach to it here, wrapped up in a story of emotional growth, the conditionality (or lack thereof) of love, and reconciling your beliefs with the person you know you are and/or want to be.

    Sara: Beyond Repair, Charlotte Stein
    What if My Dinner With Andre were an erotic novel that starts with a suicide attempt? Stein’s immersive two-hander is, at its heart, a story of two wounded people dragging each other back from the abyss, but woven in with all the emotional heavy lifting is some serious steam.

    Amy: Goodbye, Columbus, by Philip Roth
    Published first in the Paris Review, Roth’s novella—considered by many to be his greatest, most efficient work—is a beautifully devastating young love story masking as cultural commentary on assimilation, classism and sex. It’s tinged with adolescent hardship, poignant and, in a word, heartbreaking.

    Joel: The Here and Now, by Ann Brashares
    I had no idea I wanted to read a book that blends YA romance tropes with the plots of 12 Monkeys and The Village, but Ann Brashares did. So she wrote one.

    Melissa: When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead
    This Newbery winner covers the school year Miranda’s best friend, Sal, drifts away from her, for reasons unknown. The year her crush likes her back. The year her mom finally makes it onto The $20,000 Pyramid. And the year she discovers, through a series of eerie events and mysterious letters, that time travel might actually be possible. Written for middle-graders, meant for everyone.

    Nicole: Jim Henson: The Biography, by Brian Jay Jones
    I’m not a robust nonfiction reader, but if ever there were a biography to fire up the imagination—and the tear ducts—it’s this thorough, thoughtful, and affectionate account of the too-brief life of the Father of The Muppets. It’s good for the soul.

    Molly: My Sweet Audrina, by V.C. Andrews
    I was a Flowers in the Attic devotee early in life, but it was the only V.C. Andrews book I’d ever read until I picked up My Sweet Audrina, and I am telling you, it is the most gothic horror book that ever gothic-horrored. Strange rituals, dilapidated mansions without working clocks, mutilations, people falling down stairs (so many people)— this book has it all! If I had read My Sweet Audrina as a tender, impressionable adolescent, I would probably be a different person today— it is that mind-bending. Pick it up this month; you won’t regret it.

    Rebecca: Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon
    Yes it’s about 800 pages. Yes, it’s a romance novel featuring time travel. No, I am not sorry for recommending it. This is the beach book to end all beach books. Plus, if you’ve never read it, now is the hour. Pretty soon the Starz Network’s adaptation is going to hit the small screen and you can be one of those snooty folks forever comparing it to the book.

    Dell: The Accursed, by Joyce Carol Oates
    Set in Princeton, N.J. at the turn of the twentieth century, this is a heady Gothic mystery, and a chilling, clever addition to Oates’ immense body of work. Clocking in at just over 700 pages, it’s no lighthearted beach read, but, true to the genre, an unreliable narrator lures readers immediately into a dark, cryptic world, and presents an engrossing examination of the devastating effects of the so-called Crosswicks Curse that afflicted the sleepy college town in 1905 and 1906. Filled with vampires, ghosts, and several pre-eminent political and literary figures of the era, this ambitious novel is outrageous, and masterful.

    Lauren: The Three, by Sarah Lotz
    I am never one to pass up a book about creepy (and potentially harbingers of the apocalypse?) children, and this book delivers. Four plane crashes within hours on different continents cause international freak-out, especially when it is discovered that in three of the four crashes one lone child survivor is found. An evangelical minister is sure the kids are three of the four harbingers of the apocalypse. In hiding with their terrified guardians, the kids start acting weirder and weirder. These kids are just the creepiest. You expect to see their heads start spinning around on their necks or something, everything is very ominous. The book is told from various perspectives, via tape recordings, journal entries, letters, interviews, reports, transcripts, and chat sessions, which makes it really fun and engaging. ‘Til the last page.

    What do you want to read in June?

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