Sunday, May 24, 2015

How to Read Krasznahorkai


Laszlo Krasznahorkai is the most recent winner of the Man Booker International Prize, delighting a small, but passionate following of fans, and introducing him to a whole new audience of potential readers. But Krasznahorkai can be difficult and if his idiosyncratic, odd, and, to me at least, delightfully off-center, interview (quotes are near the end) is any indication, he’s not terribly interested in making himself accessible. But he’s nothing if he’s not intriguing and so here are some tips for how to read Krasznahorkai if you’re intrigued enough to give what might be the world’s greatest living writer a try. These thoughts will be applicable to at least Satantango and his latest Seiobo There Below, even though they are vastly different books.


A Different Kind of Beauty.
Krasznahorkai’s topics are often bleak, dark, and sometimes downright depressing, but in his hands, everything from a mud-drenched road in rural Hungary to a terrible day in Athens to a disintegrating alcoholic doctor to an ancient Japanese ritual, is rendered beautiful. His prose finds its way into the cracks of broken people and ideas to shine a light on what value remains, making everything he writes about, even the most awful things, glow. Look for the glow while you read.


Both Precise and Vague
Krasznahorkai is one of the most precise writers I’ve ever read, especially in Seiobo There Below where he writes specifically about precision and obsession. He can be precise to the point where your mind swims in the relentless but, in my opinion, perfect details. You will be rewarded if you take your time and read as precisely as he writes. That said, it is easy to be overwhelmed by his prose, especially during his many page-long sentences. When that happens rather than getting frustrated and giving up, just let yourself go and drift along the river of his prose. Even if you don’t get everything (you won’t) you’ll still get a lot from a vague reading of his precise prose.


A Different Project Than Most American Books
Through school, through what’s popular, through various literary awards, we develop over our reading lives a sense of what a book is “supposed” to do. We expect characters to do certain things or change in certain ways. We expect types of things to happen in the plot. We expect ideas and themes to correspond to other images and events. Krasznahorkai will not meet those expectations. But he’s not trying to. He has different projects, different goals, different priorities. But that’s one of the real joys of reading books in translation; they show you just how much potential there is, beyond anything you could imagine yourself, in books.


There’s been a lot of discussion in recent years about the roles and responsibilities of literary awards. In general, I think awards are free to reward whatever the organizers think is valuable. That said, I think awards are most important and have the biggest impact when they draw attention to great books and writers that are otherwise unknown. I doubt Krasznahorkai will ever really become popular, but I am very excited that this challenging and beautiful writer will be now be discovered by many more people who would have otherwise passed him over.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Books with Family Secrets from Celeste Ng

One of the advantages of digital reading is the ability to dive deeply into a topic or genre you’re excited about. Perhaps it is Civil War novels, histories of orange farming in California, or travel guides to places you never plan to visit? In a few minutes you can fill your phone or ereader with as many books as you like on your latest obsession, the topic you want to research, the genre in which you want to become an expert. So we’re asking authors to curate lists of books in particular genres, exemplifying particular traits or exploring particular topics to help you take a deep dive in your reading.

Celeste Ng, who will be reading from the paperback edition of her critically acclaimed debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, on Tuesday May 12th, put together a list, focused on books that contain family secrets, including Where’d You Go Bernadete, Tinkers, The Suicide Index, and more. If you're interested in families with something to hide, see the whole list here or get more information and download the Kobo reading app here.


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Libromancers of Independent Bookstore Day

Have we told you about Independent Bookstore Day? We have? Like, a hundred times? Oh well, did we mention the amazing booksellers who will be working that day? OK, good.

Every now and again you’ll see a new website or app or update to an existing website or app that is supposed to, finally, make it easier for people to find a book they’ll enjoy. Whenever someone writes an article about this new miracle technology, I find a little mantra pops into my head. For every “problem” the article identifies, I think, “Well, then you just have to ask a bookseller.” (You know, “bookseller” doesn’t really seem to capture the nature of the job, so I’m going to go with “libromancer.”) It’s not the books on the shelves that make a bookstore, it’s the intelligent, passionate libromancers, committed to finding the perfect book for every reader who walks in. It might be a bit much to imagine the concept of “celebrity libromancers,” but a part of me believes the world would be a much better place if there were at least some paparazzi camped out desperate to get a picture of whatever Dale is reading. So here are the “celebrity profiles” of our libromancers of Independent Bookstore Day.

Nathan likes to read novels, memoirs, history, and biographies. He likes to alternate his reading, although, sometimes he goes through a phase and reads about a certain subject for months. For example, he’s been reading a lot about France and its history. That would include novels by Irene Nemorovsky, Paris: The Secret History by Andrew Hussey, How to Live or A Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell, Seven Ages of Paris by Alistair Horne, Edmund White’s Le Flaneur and Monsieur Proust when he feels like a slow waltz. Since he wrote his master’s thesis on Edith Wharton, he likes to re-read her work occasionally. Her short story, "Roman Fever," rivals James Joyce’s "The Dead" as the most brilliant piece of short fiction ever, in his opinion. Before he worked as a bookseller he was in show business.

Tildy likes books. Seriously. She really likes books. When she was in grade school, she got in trouble in math class for reading under the desk. She doesn’t remember what she was reading but that one math class was not the only time covert reading occurred. Her favorite book is Ender’s Game. She’s into children’s literature ranging from picture books to realistic fiction for middle grade, young, and new adult. She likes taking pictures of people, and especially of people doing stuff they’re passionate about. She’s really good at starting crafty things (crochet, knitting, embroidery, etc.) and not finishing them

Jennifer is the gift and card buyer and visual merchandiser. She likes reading a little bit of everything but she especially loves artist bios, horror and Ann Patchett. When she’s not reading, she's stitching or watching TV series, like The Walking Dead. Her most interesting bookstore customer was Glenn Danzig.

Sarah organizes bookstore events when she's not behind the counter, assembling office furniture, or memorizing the inventory. In high school and college she was voted most likely to use the phrase “But the methodology of the study has been criticized,” in casual conversation.

Mackenzie is a west coast transplant to Boston, and loves books for tiny people--picture books, middle grade, and young adult--and anything set in the past. She is a writer, fangirl, fast walker, Diet Coke addict, Frankenstein fanatic, Star Wars quoter, former blacksmith, amateur ukelele-ist, book hoarder, sweater wearer, and author of the forthcoming YA steampunk novel, This Monstrous Thing.

Marika loves children's books and works with them in some capacity as a bookseller, writer, illustrator, and professor. She's always been drawn to postmodern children's books, stunning illustrations, fairytale retellings, and graphic novels. A few favorites include This One Summer, The Eyre Affair, and Maggot Moon. When she's not in danger of being buried by books, Marika can be found Telemark skiing, or twirling much too quickly on a dance floor. She's also slightly obsessed with NPR quiz shows.

Robin is the Children’s floor manager and sidelines buyer. She hails from New York (Go Sox!) and worked on Wall Street in her former life. When she's not reading all types of kid’s books and adult fiction, she likes to snow shoe and ride bikes with her dapper librarian husband.

Katie likes to read a little bit of everything, particularly fiction and YA, though recently she's been into memoirs and food writing. If she's not behind the counter she can usually be found unleashing her inner librarian by re-alphabetizing the messiest corners of the store or rounding up titles for new end cap displays. Other than reading, her hobbies include cooking and/or eating (vegetarian cookbooks are her weakness), making things, and travel. Next up is a trip to St. Petersburg and Stockholm this summer.

Dina is the store's general manager and, with her husband David, co-owner. Dina's passion is introducing young children to books. Before PSB Dina spent many years as an elementary and then pre-school teacher. Dina loves her whole staff at the bookstore, including Maxie, the store mascot and faithful family dog. When not at Porter Square Books, Dina loves being active on her bike, in her hiking boots, and in her kayak. Dina also enjoys the Boston theater scene, playing board games, and hanging out with her daughters when they're home from college.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Cokie Roberts on women's history, the Civil War, and "heavy old toads"

All of us who listen to NPR grow to be familiar with the voices of the anchors and journalists whom we hear regularly, but perhaps none is as well-known as that of Cokie Roberts. She is also no stranger to audiences of ABC News, where she has been broadcasting for more than 25 years. And, as though her career as a journalist weren't impressive enough, she is also an accomplished author, having written, among other things, two books of the history of women in the late 18th century, Founding Mothers and Ladies of Liberty. Now she's written a new work about the women of Washington D.C. during the years before and during the Civil War, called Capital Dames: The Civil War and the Women of Washington, 1848-1868. We're absolutely thrilled that she's coming to be coming to Porter Square Books next week, and will be doing two events with us – a tea at the Charles Hotel from 4 to 5:30, and then an evening at the Regent Theater in Arlington at 7. We hope you'll come to one or both. In preparation for the visit, PSB owner David Sandberg had a few minutes on the phone with Cokie last week, the day before publication day, to talk a little about the book.

DS: You work simultaneously as a journalist who is concerned with what's happening right now, and as a historian who's doing a very different type of research and a very different type of reporting. How do you navigate the back-and-forth?

CR: I actually don’t think it's that different. Even though I can't interview dead people, I can read their mail, which I can't do with living people. But it is the same kind of trying to know them and know what they were thinking. And for that, you read what they've written, both in letters and diaries -- and these women, a lot of them, published as well. And then the newspapers at the time -- and that is really the great serendipity of this book. I did not realize that I would have access to the same news they were reading. Now the entire New York Times archive is online, and there are a couple of excellent websites that give you newspapers from the early 19th century on. And the whole newspaper, where you see the ads and all of that, which are so interesting and so much fun. So I feel like in some ways it's not all that different. The one way that is different that is great is that they can't argue with you.

DS: In terms of the availability of sources: you moved 70 years further in the future with this book. Did you have a lot more available to you?

CR: Yes, absolutely yes. For two reasons: one, there just is more available from that period and as I say, also, these women did do some writing themselves. But the other reason is that because I wrote the earlier books, the university libraries and historical societies and historical homes now are acquainted with my work, and so they are very, very helpful. And digitization is the other huge thing. So it's both a difference in time that I'm researching, but also a difference in time in the time that I'm writing.

DS: So in terms of the former, do you think women made a lot of progress during those 70 years?

CR: Well, they certainly did during the war, which is the thesis of the book. But in the course of those 70 years it was kind of back and forth because the Revolutionary women were out there, and had to be, and then there was kind of this 19th century "be delicate and be at home." They were still politically interesting and interested, but the war certainly turned them into activists in a huge way.

DS: But history, though -- looking who's writing the books. I think most of the books you just mentioned, as well as yourself, Jill Lepore, Megan Marshall -- most of the people writing the history of women in this country are still women. Doris Goodwin writes about men, but most male historians don't write about women. Does that have to change also?

CR: Probably yes. Yes, I do think that has to change. There's an exception in Paul Nagel who wrote about the Adams women, but he didn't really like them.

DS: You must have contemporary historians whom you admire, or whose work you rely on. Who do you think are some of the people writing the best history today?

CR: Well, it depends on the subject, but I certainly relied on both Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals and James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom for this book. This book is set in Washington and there are also two very good books that are about Washington in the Civil War, one is Ernest Furgurson's Freedom Rising and the other was the classic, which is Margaret Leech's 1941 book Reveille in Washington. But she cites no sources, which makes me crazy. Because now I know so much about it, I can figure out where most of that sourcing is, but that doesn’t do it.

DS: Part of the point of all three of the books, the history books that you've written, is that these are people who are really important to our history and yet their stories don't get told.

DS: How are we doing? How many more books have to be written before you feel that the women's stories are viewed with the same status [as those of the men]?

CR: I actually do think we're doing better. When I wrote Founding Mothers, aside from a couple of good Abigail Adams biographies, there really weren't modern, good biographies of some of these women and since then there's a good Martha Washington, an excellent Dolley Madison, a few on Elizabeth Bonaparte -- there's a lot more happening. But is there forever to go? Sure. It's just unbelievable. We've essentially said that half of the human race doesn’t count in our history. Which means we've distorted our history.

DS: And what about fiction? When you're reading for entertainment and not work.

CR: You know, it's interesting because working on this book -- I'm always late. And I was doing so much research that I didn’t really allow myself to read fiction. The only fiction I read was that fiction -- you know, Capitola and The Hidden Hand. Written by E.D.E.N. Southworth -- her name was something like Emily Danielle whatever, and her byline was E.D.E.N., each with a period after it. Of course the huge, the enormous, enormous, enormous best-selling fiction at the time was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But, you know, once I finished and I sat down and said Oh, wow, I can actually read some fiction, how much fun, I immediately went to Ellen Gilchrist, because she had some new short stories out and I love her work.

DS: So this book is about Washington, but the last two books dealt a lot more with Boston. What's your favorite Boston story from the colonial period that we might not be familiar with?

CR: Actually, let me tell you one from this period, because I have a lot of unpublished letters of Abigail Brooks Adams -- this is Charles Francis Adams’ wife, so she would be the granddaughter-in-law of Abigail, the daughter-in-law of Louisa. And she is in Washington and he is in Congress, in that very infamous Secession Congress, the 36th Congress, before he went off to London to be the Union ambassador to the Court of St. James. And she writes these hysterically frank letters from Washington home to Henry Adams. She calls Buchanan, the president, a "heavy old toad". And she's furious with Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, who's her friend, but she gave him "a piece of my mind -- he expects us all to go out and show ourselves and entertain and work all the time for the cause and he did nothing, not a thing." This is my favorite: "I would advise any young woman who wishes to have an easy quiet life not to marry an Adams." And she also says "The Senate behave like children, and silly ones at that."

DS: Certainly you can tell whose grandchild-in-law she was.

CR: Yes, the strongest men in each generation did marry these very strong women.

DS: One last question -- what are you working on next?

CR: That's like asking someone who's just had triplets when she's going to have her next one. I'm not going to do more Civil War. I did not get this book in until February, so I am still suffering the after-effects of getting up at three o'clock in the morning and writing for fifteen hours straight, to make it into the stores by the end of the sesquicentennial of the war.

DS: OK, so then we'll let you go back to your day job.

CR: Thank you. There is a presidential election coming up. You might have noticed that.

DS: Good luck with the launch, and we can't wait to see you.

CR: I'm so looking forward to that.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

What is Accessibility in Literature?

On April 17th we'll be hosting a reading and discussion with contributors to the anthology The Force of What’s Possible: Writers on Accessibility & the Avant-Garde and I can't be more excited. For a bookstore, often the last link in the chain that connects a writer to a reader, we are professionally concerned specifically with the term "accessibility" in the title. As we try to match readers with books, we always have to have some idea of "accessibility" in the back of our minds. We have to surmise what a reader will actually enjoy. Many readers do enjoy being intellectually challenged by books often considered "inaccessible" and we do our best to match that. So ahead of the event, I asked the editors and the presenters: "What is accessibility in literature?" Here's the first response from anthology editors Lilly Hoang (LH) and Joshua Marie Wilkinson (JMW).

LH: So Josh Cook has asked us to examine the role of accessibility in literature. We began this project to question and interrogate exactly that. Nearly 100 essays and an anthology later, is there any take-away you can offer?

JMW: Well, for me it's about not ventriloquizing market capitalism in order to make sense of art. There's a book that was really important to me called Just Being Difficult? that was edited by Jonathan Culler. When I want to see what literature can do, I turn to Spivak's and Judith Butler's and Michael Warner's pieces in that collection. Warner is writing about 1984 in his essay called "Styles of Intellectual Publics" when he says,
For whom does one write or speak? Where is one's public? These questions can never be answered in advance since language addressed to a public must circulate among strangers; neither can they be dismissed, although the answers necessarily remain mostly implicit. One does not stand nakedly to address humanity.

I love Warner's response as well as his reading of Orwell. It's never the innocent question it’s cloaked as, asking somebody or something to become "accessible" so that a public can "get it." The question itself implies something dangerous about whatever the "public" or "common reader" is concocted to become. Poetry can disrupt normative reading practices and form new, strange, sometimes lovely, and maybe harrowing modes of feeling and thinking. That's what I want from art. What are you after now, Lily? What are you obsessing over?

LH: I was listening to Eugène Ysaÿe yesterday and my roommate came in and I said, Isn't it amazing that a person—a real person—is making all that music?, and then I explained that I was listening to the gala from the Henri Wisniaski Violin Competition and shit dude, they probably practice like more than eight hours a day, and he said, Can you believe people still play that stuff? It just seems so, you know, like old. Like who still plays stuff like that? By play he doesn't mean listen. He isn't that big of an asshole to insult me directly. But regardless, my roommate is a filmmaker and I am a writer and he is new and I am old. I am like the classical musician who insists on practicing and performing Eugène Ysaÿe and who the fuck cares anymore? Well, I do. I am still listening. And culture. Culture needs people for musicians to continue to play Eugène Ysaÿe. Or maybe I mean high art. I don’t know what I mean.

Eugène Ysaÿe is accessible to me. I used to be a violinist—please don’t call me a fiddler, it's insulting, not to fiddlers but to the instrument itself. Form. When I changed private teachers in high school, he wouldn't let me pick up my violin for three months because I didn't know how to properly hold my bow. I mean: I was hard core about it. So Eugène Ysaÿe is accessible to me, but to my roommate, "classical" music is a remnant of a time so long ago it may as well be age of Egyptians.

Furthermore, my roommate doesn't read.

I'm not picking on him. Rather, I'm using him as a case study. He is not your average American. He's into arts—if you choose to call making horror films art, which you may or may not, it really doesn't matter to me. My roommate writes scripts and directs films, he edits them. And he doesn't read. He doesn't listen to classical music. He isn't going to art openings. I'm sure he doesn’t give a flying fuck about architecture or what terms are the most politically correct. What's my point? Here we are, worrying and defining accessibility, which is so important to us in our world, but who outside of us cares? This makes me sad. I didn't answer your question at all, but I'm really talking about audience. More people care about Eugène Ysaÿe than all of my books and anthologies combined—and probably yours added to mine, too.

Yes, I care about audience. But I wouldn't sacrifice my devotion to the concept and the sentence to gain audience. Besides which: what kind of audience do I really think I'd gain if my writing were more accessible? I pose this question to you too.

JMW: I wonder about audience. I'm suspicious about a work that tries to imagine its audience too precisely in advance. Then again, maybe it's impossible not to think about audience in some way. But to try to imagine what an audience—a reader, a listener, a participant in meaning—is capable of thinking and of feeling seems to me like a failure. Perhaps I want to not know what's possible for a work to bring up in the audience—that the yet-to-come of whatever response (however intelligent or indifferent, capacious or unsettling) isn't for the writer to try to determine prior to making any work public. Yet, I hope for an audience more various and unlike me to encounter it. I hope for a smarter audience who will think thoughts beyond my ken and feel, beyond my influences and understanding, my emotional registers or political imagination. Love to hear you answer your same question, Lily…

LH: I know quite a few "experimental" fiction writers who have tried and tried to write their "sell-out" novel, the one that will launch them into more mainstream literary fiction, and they always fail. I think we can only write what we write. Like: my brain thinks in little pieces, so I write modular or flash. Whereas I am able to write a longer, more traditional novel, it’s exhausting—and probably unpublishable.

That being said, I also think that my own perception about how accessible my books are is skewed: I suffer from book dysmorphic disorder. We just got back from AWP, where this anthology got so much sugar, but also, a lot of random people—youngins too—gushed their adoration. (I know for a fact you had the same "problem.") This tells me that no matter what I think, my writing is accessible, and maybe the goal isn't to have a wider audience, maybe it’s just to have a better audience.

To participate in this discussion with Lily and the other presenters please join us on Friday April 17th at 7PM

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Ripe for Change: Books for a Sustainable Future

One of the advantages of digital reading is the ability to dive deeply into a topic or genre you’re excited about. Perhaps it is Civil War novels, histories of orange farming in California, or travel guides to places you never plan to visit? In a few minutes you can fill your phone or ereader with as many books on your latest obsession, the topic you want to research, the genre in which you want to become an expert. So we’re asking authors to curate lists of books in particular genres, exemplifying particular traits or exploring particular topics to help you take a deep dive in your reading.

Jane Hirschi, who will be reading from her book Ripe for Change on April 10th at 7pm, gave us this list of books, for both kids and adults, to help lead us into a sustainable future. Hirshi’s list touches on a range of topics from our relationship to nature, to the politics of the environment, to what and how we eat. See the full list here.




Announcing The Cleaver Quarterly

“In the heart and soul of every great cook, everywhere in the world, I think there’s a Chinese guy.” Anthony Bourdain

I am a huge fan of Lucky Peach, in particular, and food writing, in general, that uses food as a way to seek a greater understanding of the world and all the cultures and people who fill it. What we eat, how we eat it, and the architecture of cooking reveal much about ourselves, both as individuals and as members of a culture. You could have a pretty intense (and lengthy) debate about which culture had the biggest impact on world cuisine, but whatever conclusion you come to, you would have to include Chinese cooking in that debate.

So, I am very excited to announce that Porter Square Books is now carrying The Cleaver Quarterly, an English-language magazine of long form writing about the world of Chinese Cuisine, produced in China. Here’s a sample of what they offer from their manifesto:

At any given moment, more people on Earth are eating Chinese food than anything else. They’re enjoying flavor combinations that have been field-tested by hundreds of generations of peasants and palace chefs, innkeepers and nomads, fisherfolk and soldiers and daughters-in-law and ingenious beggars.

Chinese cuisine is an evolving kaleidoscope of cooking techniques and regional styles. It’s also an eager ambassador, a globalizing and globalized cuisine. As people realize how much more there is to Chinese food beyond the menu at their local takeaway, there’s a hunger to know more – and it’s that hunger that we aim to feed.

In each issue of The Cleaver, we’ll bring together enough voices to fill a banquet table. We can’t wait to get started. There’s so much to talk about, and all of it is fair game: from earthy staples to impossibly refined delicacies, from recipes that are older than the Great Wall to the sweet-and-sour concoctions that have served as so many people’s first exposure to Chinese culture. And we’ll serve it up in the form of long-simmered essays, pungent features, organically sourced reporting, crisp vignettes, and saucy interviews with people who produce, prepare and pine for Chinese food.

We intend to be as tirelessly curious, resourceful and versatile as the cuisine itself. In short, our aim at The Cleaver is to tell you everything you wanted to know but never knew to ask about Chinese food. We’ll leave no wok unturned in order to bring you an irreverent takeaway on the real China.

Order the latest issue of The Cleaver here. We also have copies of Issues 1 & 2 while supplies last. Let us know in the order comments if you'd like a back issue.

Blog Archive