Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Weekends are Difficult: Elephant & Piggie Edition

...& it represents postmodern death-denial
Over-thinking, over-analyzing, taking the fun out of reading. There are a lot of negative associations with intellectual, academic interpretation and deconstruction, with having to crank out a five-page paper about a book you love or feeling pressured to throw jargony words around in class, and I do agree, there is a lot of joy and value in just giving yourself over to a book, turning off the part of your brain that asks questions and submitting yourself to the events, images, and emotions of a book. That said, and maybe I'm just kind of a weirdo, but I think deconstructing and over-analyzing something can be, well, fun. To me, it's an exciting and challenging exercise to see just how far I can stretch the meaning of someone else's words. And, to be honest, I think there's a point where super literary critical language starts getting, well, funny. It can land in this very strange, and, to me at least, entertaining zone that is equal parts eye-rolling sarcasm and wide-eyed sincerity. You're able, simultaneously, to poke fun at and celebrate the almost limitless potential for meaning contained in even the simplest collections of words.

So last Saturday, a customer came in and said, "I don't know anything about the book I need, just the names 'Gerald' and 'Piggie.'" Of course, that was more than enough information for me to lead him to the section with Mo Willems' absolutely brilliant, staff favorite, Elephant and Piggie series. But the phrasing of the customer's question snagged in my brain, just enough to lead me to wonder on Twitter:

The real question is, Why is Gerald nominally self-actualized while Piggy is indelibly tethered to species-level identification?

Or to put it in a less Josh-sometimes-likes-to-write-about-silly-things-in-the-voice-of-an-over-the-top-literary-critic, why does the "Elephant" in "Elephant & Piggie" have a name, but the "Piggie" doesn’t? The exploration continues:

Paradoxically, identity-stability undergirds identity-fluidity
Or, is Piggy asserting a politics of identity fundamentalism that Gerald eschews, or objects to, through nomenclature?
Apparently, I wasn't the only one asking the question.:

Kazia Berkley-Cramer ‏@cateyekazia I have actually thought about that a LOT and still have no answer.
Nor was I the only one offering potential answers.

Alexander Danner ‏@alexanderdanner Piggy's rich internal life obviates such limitations (e.g. I Am a Frog). Gerald's human nomenclature masks deep insecurity.

Which lead me to speculate:

@alexanderdanner Gerald does experience anxiety in a way Piggie doesn't. Maybe he retreats to "Elephant" when "Gerald" becomes stressful.
Or perhaps it goes in the opposite direction: "Gerald" represents a permanent retreat from a traumatic event suffered as "Elephant."
Which raises the possibility of a pre-narrated "Elephant & Piggie," a "Gerald origin story," if you will, not shared, by Piggie or with us.
But I was far from finished mining this vein of consideration:

One could argue this has more to do with plot than anything, raising the possibility that there could be an "Elephant" that is not Gerald.
Although, as our friends at Politics & Prose point out, the opposite is, in fact, true.

P&P Kids and Teens ‏@KidsandProse This becomes even stranger when you consider we've met other pigs, but not a single other elephant.
P&P Kids and Teens ‏@KidsandProse  The pigs even have their own DAY, while Gerald has no elephant community at all.
The key to friendship is changing "on you" to "ennui."
P&P Kids and Teens ‏@KidsandProse Piggie claims a pig identity because she knows what it means, whereas Gerald has no frame of reference for elephant identity
And this all before leveraging any of the canonical interpretive structures and expanding the consideration to other works in the Willems canon, as Lynne Doncaster points out:
LynneDoncaster ‏@LynneDoncaster Are we going to explore a Freudian analysis of Pigeon's hot dog obsession?
Fear not! The Lacan reference did follow the Freudian question. (Who says I don't know how to have a good time!)
Actually, the hot dog functions as a Lacanian transcendental signifier, or as Freud said, Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
Of course, as I described above, the point of this kind of intellectual exercise isn't necessarily to determine definitive answers to our questions but to explore possibilities. This is an act of free play in the void bounded by an agreed upon foundational text. That said, I think we made progress towards a more stable understanding--with its own interpretative potential--by borrowing terms from another critical lexicon.
One could easily also apply the Unified Theory of Muppets to Gerald & Piggie. Gerald=Order Muppet Piggie=Chaos Muppet.
Narrative requires conflict, conflict is a function of chaos, thus, Piggie almost always asserts agency as the subject in the titular phrase
The conflict is resolved through the interactions btw chaos & order, as Piggie interacts with Gerald. It is important to note…
...that this is an "interaction" not a "competition" so conflict is not resolved by the supplication of chaos to order but through…
...order & chaos finding accord in a dynamic yet stable relationship.
Duh Perhaps it's "Gerald the Elephant" & "Piggie" as in "Kermit the Frog" & "Miss Piggy." "Piggie" is just the child version of "Miss Piggy"

Yes, "Duh," is a high specialized, highly technical critical term derived from Deleuze & Guattari's Thousand Plateaus. (The fun! It just, it just won't stop!)

And, of course, the result is not some kind of finality, but rather, an impetus for further intellectual exploration, which means there was only one way to close out our discussion.

NO! Tear not the the veil from my blissful ignorance
Well, now it has become clear that someone needs to write the bildungsroman of Piggie becoming Miss Piggy. "Gerald, I want to be a star!

Sure, it's little ridiculous to use this kind of language in relation to a book designed to help teach literacy to young children, but I think that ridiculousness is exactly what makes this kind of thinking so much fun. And besides, exploring the identity politics of "Piggie" and "Gerald" as proper character names in the context of the series title "Elephant & Piggie" is way easier to teasing out the interpretive threads of author/reader relationships in the context of meta-fictive exercises in which the very concept of "talking back to the text" is inverted, present in We Are in a Book.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Interview with Matthew Quick


Matthew Quick (aka Q) is the New York Times-bestselling author of several novels, including THE SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, which was made into an Oscar-winning film, and THE GOOD LUCK OF RIGHT NOW. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages and has received a PEN/Hemingway Award Honorable Mention, among other accolades. Q lives with his wife, novelist-pianist Alicia Bessette, in North Carolina. He’ll be reading from his latest book LOVE MAY FAIL on July 14th, at 7PM. David asked him a few questions.

Your other books involve characters with somewhat “obvious” mental disabilities. Here it’s more subtle – Portia’s mother and her hoarding, for example – but the subject of mental illness is not front and center. Thoughts about that?

MQ: Many people who struggle with mental-health-related issues function just fine and without detection, but that doesn’t diminish their struggle. When I began speaking openly about my own battles with depression and anxiety, many of my former students were surprised. I tried not to show that side of myself in the classroom. It took a lot of energy to hide my depression and anxiety, but I was a pro. There were hints, of course, and if you knew what to look for you would have seen that I was struggling. Portia struggles with depression in LOVE MAY FAIL. So does Nate Vernon, and in a pretty intense way. You don’t have to spend time locked up to be a part of the mental health community. You don’t have to be on a certain type of meds. And you don’t have to be a label either. I am not a depressed anxious person. I am a person who sometimes struggles with depression and anxiety. At almost every event I do, mental health comes up in the Q&A. There are readers who admit their struggles in front of the crowd and then there are those who simply give me a look that lets me know. The important thing is to be open to talking about our problems with someone. And, while it’s not my primary goal—I try to tell a good story, first and foremost—whenever my work helps start conversations about mental health, I’m very grateful.

A follow-up to that last question – in both this novel and the last one, THE GOOD LUCK OF RIGHT NOW, you’re able to use the behavioral peculiarities of characters as a significant source of the humor in the book. To do that you have to walk a thin line between empathy and ridicule (which by the way I think you manage very skillfully) – how do you navigate that?

MQ: I try to mine the absurdity of life, not humiliate anyone. Pretty much everyone can tell the difference. There’s nothing funny about my own special brand of depression and anxiety, but both give me a unique view of the world that can often lead to surprising and sometimes hilarious revelations. I’ve heard that we laugh at what surprises us. When a movie character trips and doesn’t get hurt we laugh because the fall is unexpected. When we metaphorically trip and don’t get hurt too badly, it helps to laugh too. My wife is always telling me to laugh more. She and I laugh a lot, but it’s still good advice.

You’re writing here about the experience of publishing a novel. I think it’s always challenging for a writer to write fiction about writing. Was that always meant to be a central focus of the book? Does it pose special challenges?

MQ: I’d say it’s more about the disillusionment that occurs when my character makes the transition from "person who dreams of publishing one day" to "published author." It’s quite a step. And it’s not always a safe one. Most writers I know, whether they admit this publicly or not, struggle with the publishing part of the writing life. Everyone is grateful, everyone is hopeful. But it’s not always all fun and games. Fiction writing is—for me and many others—a private act. Publishing is anything but. You don’t really grasp the full implications of that contrast until you publish. I’m not sure writing about writing or publishing about publishing poses special challenges. Maybe there are taboos? Maybe someone somewhere says, "Thou shall not do this?" I don’t know. I write about what interests me. I create characters and try to make them authentic. Portia had an unrealized dream. I took the story where it needed to go. "Serve the story," they told me in the MFA. I always do my best.

How did your experiences as a high school teacher inform the character of Mr. Vernon, and the way he relates to his students?

MQ: Mr. Vernon’s character is 10% informed by my former teachers and 90% informed by my own experiences as a high school English teacher battling it out in the trenches of public education. Most teachers start out with grand notions about making a difference in the world and inspiring the next generation. That’s how they get young people to teach. They appeal to our youthful hearts. We’re not lured in by the money, believe me. I never worked harder for less money and I used to roof for $8.50 an hour. I had a good teaching friend who used to say, “If you’re doing it for the kids, then you’re doing the right thing.” I really believed that. Unfortunately, the people who do it for political gain or their own advancement usually end up controlling public schools. That was a spirit-crushing lesson to learn in my twenties. When I left teaching it was partly out of protest. I fought a few political battles and lost. I began to realize that the values I held up in my literature classroom were never as highly regarded as winning sporting events or SAT scores. Too many people simply want teachers to shut up and, by any means necessary, get their kids into top colleges. I felt badly beaten up by the system when I left. It grinds you down. You have to be a saint to survive it long-term. (There are saints teaching in every high school. Please thank them if they have taught you or are currently teaching your children.)

You have the good fortune, well-deserved, to have had a blockbuster movie made of your first novel (your first novel for adults, that is). Has that affected your writing since then? – in other words, do you write with a thought of how the book might translate to film?

MQ: I’m influenced by film because I watch so much of it. That was true when I was writing SILVER LININGS in obscurity, years before my trip to The Oscars. When I write a book, I try to tell the best story in novel form that I possibly can. I’m working on a screenplay for The Weinstein Company now. When I write a screenplay I try to write the best film I possibly can. Whenever people want to make films of my books, I’m grateful. But the first thing they do is write a screenplay, which is always different than the book. Just the way it is. Different forms.

Ken Humes, whom we meet in the first pages of the book, is an absolutely unsavory character who is not only personally but also socially odious. Anything in particular behind the decision to have a pornographer as a character? Did you create him solely from your imagination or did you spend time talking to people in that industry to flesh out (bad pun intended) what it’s really like?

MQ: Ha! No research was necessary. The book isn’t about pornography or Ken. Spoiler alert. Spoiler alert. Once more, spoiler alert. The idea of Ken—a pornographer—cheating on his wife with a woman half his age and then becoming more religious as a result was funny to me. I had that twist in my mind all along and the scene where Portia cries for her failed marriage on the hotel balcony overlooking the Gulf of Mexico is one of my favorites. When Portia leaves Ken, it sparks a series of events. There is a line in the book that goes something like this: When you do nothing, nothing happens. Action creates action. I don’t admire or particularly like Ken, but I primarily see him as a mismatch for Portia. He is definitely holding her back. But could she be holding him back too? That question was/is interesting to me.

The book presents a first-person female narrator. How difficult was it for you to assume that voice, and what did you feel you needed to do to make it read as authentic?

MQ: I’m not one of those people who think that men are from one planet and women are from another. Everyone—regardless of gender—has unique quirks, thoughts, and personality traits. My job as a writer is this: climb into a skull for a while, figure out the character, and then present her/him as authentically as possible. I know many women from South Jersey. So it would be much harder for me to write about a man from, say, the Czech Republic than a woman from South Jersey. That said—several women, including my wife, edited the manuscript.

Last question - any sharks?

MQ: I haven’t seen any in Kill Devil Hills. I’m seeing a bunch on TV. It is Shark Week after all. (Did I just plug TV via a bookstore? What?)

Hear more from Matthew on July 14th, at 7PM.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Guest Post: Phillip Hoose on Young Heroes

We're excited to be hosting National Book Award winner Phillip Hoose on July 28. He'll be here to discuss his new book, The Boys Who Challenged Hitler. Since Phillip has been writing about young people taking a stand for more than a decade now, we asked him to tell us what makes young activists so fascinating.
Knud Pedersen and the other Churchill Club boys took on the German army with paint, gasoline and nerve. They struck on bicycles, usually in broad daylight since they all had curfews. They had no military training whatsoever. Had they enlisted in an armed forces unit, they would have been desensitized through boot-camp like experiences and rebuilt as warriors. But the boys had no army to train with; they had to make it up themselves. They soon discovered that there’s no sticking your toe into a war. You are drawn in quickly. They loudly debated the ethics of killing, even as they practiced shooting their stolen machine gun in a monastery loft during their father Rev. Edvard Pedersen's Sunday church services. They trusted no one. They were bright, sensitive, deeply patriotic ninth-graders who were ashamed that their government had given in to German forces without a fight.

What resonated for me is that the boys made up their own minds about resisting the German occupation of Denmark. The adults in their lives cautioned them not to mouth off, not to rouse the sleeping Nazi giant who had settled so comfortably among them. The boys thought it over, read and talked and listened to BBC radio broadcasts—and then followed their hearts. Knud Pedersen later said he could imagine himself as a peace activist at another time, but when he reached his personal crossroads, he had to fight.

Stories of teens making a difference have been a hallmark of my work for decades. Teens are passionate, judgmental, caring, idealistic, self-righteous, courageous, and energetic. Young people often see life dramatically, and many are inclined to take action. Some grow up in times of convulsive social change, as did the tens of thousands of students caught up in Brown v. the Topeka Board of Education. During such times, even a single act can spark monumental change. At such a moment, Claudette Colvin entered history's spotlight while simply riding the bus home from school. Her historic decision to keep her seat was, she later said, impulsive, but based on a lifetime of anger and frustration: "I felt Harriet Tubman pressing me down on one shoulder and Sojourner Truth pressing down on the other," she later said. "History kept me in my seat." Fourteen-year-old Knud Pedersen and his friends likewise made a decision at a tinderbox moment that set major events in motion.
Teenagers' stories go untold. Until the Internet—adults wrote nearly all the stories. One thing I learned during my research on We Were There, Too!: Young People in U.S. History (Farrar, 2001) is that adults and young people can experience the same phenomena very differently and write from greatly different perspectives.

I hope my work will encourage more young people to tell their own stories.
And we hope you'll join Phillip Hoose here on July 28!

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Market Basket fan? Tell us about it.

Who has a Market Basket story?
Later this summer we're hosting Grant Welker and Daniel Korschun, authors of the new book We Are Market Basket: The Story of the Unlikely Grassroots Movement That Saved a Beloved Business
The book draws on the stories that both employees and customers love to tell about the store -- and we'd love to hear yours.
Share a story in the comments, or email josh@portersquarebooks.com.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Weekends Are Difficult: Pre-Bloomsday Edition

Ulysses is commonly considered one of the most difficult books in the English language and, though I think some of that reputation is unwarranted, it’s certainly up there. And I do think there is value in having these avatars of certain concepts, like The Great Gatsby as “The Great American Novel,” or Shakespeare as “The Greatest Writer Who Ever Lived,” because they give us a starting point for conversations that get beyond the facades of archetypes. (Though we do have to get beyond the archetypes for the conversation to have value.) How we read Hamlet or The Great Gatsby informs how we read everything else and teaches us how to talk about everything else. And so how we read Ulysses, when we think of it as “The Most Difficult Book,” teaches how to read everything else we consider difficult.

So with that in mind, here is one simple tip (Clickbate FTW!) for how to read Ulysses that I think will help you climb any literary Everest you might attempt.

Relax. I know, I know. Yeah, there can be more to it, like reading it with a friend, brushing up on your classics, having a historic map of Dublin handy, remembering that it is supposed to be funny and dirty, getting used to the absence of quotation marks, developing your ability to parse internal monologue from external speech or third person narration, accepting that Ulysses is one of those books that doesn’t always fit into your reading life no matter how noble your intentions are, some people even recommend skipping the first three chapters of Stephen Daedelus being super-Stephen Daedelus and starting with Leopold Bloom making breakfast in chapter four (I don’t like that idea, but well, it’s an idea), and all of those do or could help and not only make for a successful first read, but allow for deeper more satisfying reads.

But really, it’s just relax. Yes, there will be parts of Ulysses that don’t understand. I’ve read it six times or so and there are parts of it I still don’t understand (Oxen in the Sun, I’m looking at you). Ulysses and difficult books in general are written so there is always something just out of reach so that you can return to them over and over, so there is always something to learn or discover, so they can speak to imaginations born decades or centuries after they were composed. Unless you actually have a test on Ulysses the next day, you don’t have a test on Ulysses the next day. You don’t need all the answers. And you don’t need to feel, inadequate or frustrated if you get to the end of a sentence or paragraph or chapter (or the book) and feel like you didn’t understand a thing you read. Get what you can get out of the first read (you’ll probably surprise yourself with just how much that is) and just know that you’ll get even more the next time.

OK. There is one more thing. (It never really is “One Simple Trick.”) Joyce did not pour his life into Ulysses so people wouldn’t understand it. He didn’t endure poverty, censorship, and struggle just to prove how smart he was. I think a lot of the problem readers have with difficult books is they start reading with the assumption of difficulty and so build a barrier between themselves and the book. So, before opening the book, assume you will understand it, assume you will enjoy it, assume it is a work of profound humanism written to speak to everyone.

You still might not get through and you still might not enjoy Ulysses, and that’s fine. Ulysses isn’t for everybody. But even if this difficult book isn’t for you, others will be and this one (OK, two) simple tricks will help you read them.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Scandalous Romances Selected by Caroline Linden

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.

Caroline Linden, critically acclaimed romance author who will be reading from her latest, Love in the Time of Scandal, on Thursday June 18th, created this list of scandalous romances. Historical romance, like The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, dark fantasy romance like Dark Lover, comedy, like Lady Be Good, and more, this list has something in it for everyone, including Caroline’s favorite romance of all time. Assuming everyone is looking for a little scandal in their reading--and I’m just going to go ahead and assume everyone is looking for a little scandal in their reading. See the whole list here or get more information and download the Kobo reading app here.

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.

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