Saturday, August 29, 2009

Just Press the De-Frost Button.

An article in this past week's New York Times stuck out to me about teenagers' disinterest in Twitter. The article goes on to discuss the latest technological and internet crazes that have not been influenced by the younger generation, such as YouTube or iPhones or electronic readers. Which is interesting, because a lot of the fuel for the e-reader fire is driven by the concept that younger generations are growing up reading -- books, news, etc -- on screens of varying shape and size.

Most teenagers I know don't know what a Kindle is and the idea of purchasing their college textbooks as an electronic file is repugnant to them. (I'm sure, for their parents who most likely are responsible for footing the bill for the purchase of these textbooks, it's a different story.)

Of all my friends and family I know only one person who owns an e-reader and who is excited about it. That's my father-in-law, a recently retired school teacher who is an obsessive reader of the New York Times and the New Yorker, who has spent probably ninety percent of these last two years since his retirement travelling the world. An e-reader for him makes absolute sense and if I were in his position I would most likely own one as well (although, probably not for book reading).

In an interesting post on the new lit-site, the discussion of the younger generation's e-reader malaise is boiled down to this snippet: "[Technology is] so much a part of our lives that we feel comfortable finding new ways to use it -- like Twitter or Facebook. But our parents can only understand it if they use technology to replace something else that they're already familiar with. So they feel comfortable reading books on a Kindle, but we don't."

I guess it's kind of like the microwave: you can heat food up faster but it will be tough to chew around the edges and still frozen in the center, which makes for an uncomfortable experience.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

I Blame It on The Wire.

I was really looking forward to reading Richard Price's Lush Life, having set it aside for several weeks as a reward for finishing work. I couldn't help but be disappointed. Nearly all of the characters felt flat and lifeless or resembled rehashed composites from any other book in the genre.

On the upside: it's a breeze to read.

It might also be that all of the tremendously positive praise the book received set my expectations way too high, or simply that The Wire raised the bar as to what a story of crime fiction could entail. I think I'll stick with the latter.

This is Rad.

My experience with reading Dave Eggers is such: I was nonplussed by the last 350 pages of Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, thought How We Are Hungry was just okay, and loved everything about You Shall Know Our Velocity from the writing to the Scorpions song lyrics to the title to the stripped, skeletal cover design (McSweeney's edition). My point being, I'm not that well versed in the man's writing.
Eggers has become a weirdly polarized figure, probably because he's so likeable. LA Weekly ripped him a new one for the script he co-wrote for Away We Go, and he got a lot of gaff for his optimistic remarks concerning the state of print.
I can't help but think that irregardless of whether he's actually a good writer (which according to every new review of Zeitoun, he most certainly is), he's a really important cultural figure. He releases his hardcover editions through the indie press he founded and helped set up centers for disadvantaged inner-city youth. I mean, the guy has film reviewers giving top-billing to the screenwriter (do I just not read film reviews or does that not happen very often?). And, his readings (see above pic from LA's Skylight Books) incite the type of turn-out ordinarily reserved for Jodi Picoult or Stephanie Meyers.
Pretty rad.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Termite Parade Cover

Big thanks to the super-talented Aubrey Rhodes for designing the cover to Joshua Mohr's second novel, Termite Parade (due out June 2010). [Click on the image for a closer look at the detail.]

I encourage you to check out more of the artist's work at her website.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Joshua Mohr Reading.

Joshua Mohr, author of Some Things That Meant the World to Me and the forthcoming Termite Parade, reading as part of The Rumpus Reading Series in San Francisco:

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Uniquely Calibrated Cultural Noise Filters

By Emily Pullen

After a somewhat frustrating week where it seemed like computers and databases and websites were crashing at every turn, it was refreshing to open a book and have it still work. There is something to be said for a technology that has been pretty reliable for the last 500 years or so. (RIP 8-track players and virtual reality.)

But it also got me thinking about the relationship between art and technology, and how there seems to be a certain proto-phase of development where the vision for the art is there, but the technology is still being honed by scientists. I'd like to look back, way back, to photography as an example, and then forward to digital as a literary medium.

In the early 19th century, polymaths who wanted to use technology to improve their art (like Louis Daguerre) partnered with inventors and chemists to attempt to create lasting photographic images. Fine artists probably thought the scientific tinkering was more akin to alchemy than art, and it took several decades for the technology to develop into something easily utilized by artists. Even today, photography hasn't lost its technical roots -- after framing the shot and clicking the shutter, you still have to develop the film properly, expose the paper to the right amount of light, and chemically develop the photograph itself: art and technology swirling together. Digital photography offers the same swirling, but the chemicals have been swapped for pixels, and now pretty much anyone can do it.Just as chemists and inventors developed the technology that allowed photography to become an art, programmers and tech geeks are developing the technology that will allow digital to evolve from a format to a literary medium. When treating digital as a format, programmers simply take the text a writer has created and make it available digitally -- almost like translating the text. However, creating digital literature and harnessing the medium's unique capabilities requires a specialized knowledge of programming languages. As such, it is software engineers and computer programmers (the techies) who are best suited to use this new literary medium, not the traditional Writer. The only area where digital technology seems to be democratizing literature is in print-on-demand self-publishing (which I'm not yet convinced is a positive development). And this is still very much on the level of format, not medium. In a perfect world, developers will continue to hone the technology, the public will continue to gain knowledge, and they will eventually meet somewhere in the middle.

I think what the photography analogy suggests, more than anything else, is that we may be expecting too much too soon, digitally. In New Media Poetics (due in paperback from MIT Press in October 2009), the editor Adalaide Morris brings up an interesting visionary from the early years of the 20th century: Gertrude Stein. Morris writes, "For Stein, we are, each and every one of us, nimble citizens of an always newly technologized, mediated world that hasn't yet entered, much less altered, our categories of thought" (Morris 2). Now, as then, we're living IN the technology even as we're developing the categories and language to conceptualize its significance. Merriam-Webster added the phrase "personal computer" to their dictionary in 1976. "E-mail" in 1982, "internet" in 1985, "e-book" in 1988 (surprisingly), "blog" in 1999, and "google" as a verb in 2001. We're talking IN MY LIFETIME, people, and we all know how quick Merriam-Webster is to allow new words into its fold.

A huge difference, however, between this new century and the last, is the exponentially growing beast called consumer culture. We've been conditioned to expect huge speed, both in the development of technologies and in their dissemination over the last few decades. At the LA Festival of Books in April, Richard Nash asserted that publishers perfected the art of supply in the 20th century, but to survive the transition to the 21st, they will have to turn their attention to consumer demand. More specifically, I think he's suggesting that large publishers try to learn something from the scrappy way independent presses and bookstores have been surviving for decades: by acting as cultural noise filters that are uniquely calibrated to what their readers want. In a lot of ways, I believe the public is ready to consume digital literature. But the technology is still, quite obviously, developing. If fact, as publishers strive to fulfill consumers' growing desire to read digitally, they may complicate things by trying to get it done themselves rather than encouraging broader, more unified development of the technology itself. That's why we have so many formats and so many devices, and none of them can do as much as we imagine they should.

In an artistic time continuum that, in the past, went from technological development to creative production to public appreciation, where will consumer demand figure in? And is digital technology ready to become a popular literary medium (rather than an experimental one)?

EMILY PULLEN grew up, went to college, and cultivated her love for books and corn in Iowa. She discovered her love of bookstores in Boston, and currently works at Skylight Books in Los Angeles. She believes strongly in the symbiotic relationship between indie bookstores and indie publishers, and one day she hopes to be involved in some sort of hybrid of the two. She is also currently serving on the Bookseller Advisory Council of the ABA and the Emerging Leaders Council of young booksellers. Her favorite authors include William Faulkner, Don DeLillo, and Jeanette Winterson.

Friday, August 07, 2009

OH! A Mystery of Mono No Aware, by Todd Shimoda

OH! is a novel by Todd Shimoda. The subtitle is A Mystery of Mono No Aware. NPR said the book was "a triumphant kick in the pants for anyone who doubts the future of paper-and-ink books."

OH! is about an emotionally dysfunctional technical writer named Zack Hara, who abruptly quits his job and quasi-girlfriend and splits for Japan. Once there, Zack searches for his grandfather's mysterious origins, falls in with a cryptic professor who takes to counseling him on mono no aware, and becomes obsessed with Japanese suicide clubs.

The book itself is gorgeous. Interspersed amongst the chapters are notes from Zack's research on the concept of mono no aware, along with wonderful artwork by LJ Shimoda, which all goes a long way toward creating a very atmospheric reading experience.

'Mono no aware' is loosely defined in Zack's notes in the novel as "embod[ying] the essence of human nature - how we think and feel, as well as how we express those thoughts and feelings, particularly through the arts."

Todd Shimoda took a few moments to explain how he crafted the novel, mono no aware, and how the puzzle of the book was fitted together:

Todd: "I first heard about the concept of ‘mono no aware’ when I was working on my second novel The Fourth Treasure. It seemed like what writers, really any artist, was trying to do: get across some emotional reaction through their works. I researched the idea some more and found there wasn’t much written about it, at least in English. So I put together a non-fiction monograph on the subject and tried to get it published. That didn’t work out and I realized I wasn’t fully capturing the feeling of the idea. So I wrote a short story to illustrate the concept which got published (it’s the cherry blossom viewing party scene in OH!). I gradually expanded on the short story into three chapters of a novel, built around Zack Hara’s search for an emotionally fulfilling life. I submitted the chapters and a synopsis to Bruce Rutledge at Chin Music Press. He was very enthusiastic about it from the start and helped me shape the story.

"The art is really a separate project of Linda’s, giving her interpretation of ‘mono no aware’ in the form of visual haiku, small works showing an expressionistic reaction to objects. The text exhibits are “excerpts” from Zack’s research and attempt to understand the concept in a more didactic way. The art and the exhibits don’t literally illustrate the story, but rather supplement it. To integrate the story, art, and text exhibits, Linda selected a piece of her art that went best with a chapter and I dispersed the exhibits based on what Zack was experiencing. But it was Chin Music’s book designer, Josh Powell, who put them together so well. His design made the whole greater than the sum of the parts."

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Sorry Entertainer, An Interview with Daniel Johnston by Joe O'Brien

By Joe O'Brien.
It’s hard to try to sum up Daniel Johnston in the intro to an interview and I don’t want to embarrass myself by attempting to pontificate on mental illness and tortured genius and all of the things that people usually say. There is a documentary out, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which provides an in-depth look at the man’s life and times. There’s also the catalog of hundreds of songs and drawings that he’s created in the past 20 plus years. Ever since I heard Daniel Johnston’s music for the first time, I’ve wanted to talk to him. I was excited to finally get the chance to do it.

You’re known to tell a joke on stage once in a while.
Some jokes, yeah. But I have some jokes that I was asked not to tell. I have one joke where I said, “Tonight the Jews are having a pajama party at the concentration camp.” And it didn’t go over very well.

Yeah, holocaust humor is always a risk.
I mean, the audience laughed but the record company president came backstage after the show and said, “Don’t say that joke, I’m a Jew.” So I was criticized for that joke. And then my other joke was “I had a dream that this guy was sentenced to death for attempting to commit suicide.” But that was an actual dream that I really had.

Are you happy with the way The Devil and Daniel Johnston documentary came out?
Yeah. The movie is sort of a comedy too, in a way. It does seem to have a little bit of a sense of humor. I wanted to tell them that maybe they should add a laugh track. It might help it a bit, you know. Because it’s sort of serious too much I think.

How long was the process of putting the film together?
They took forever to do it. They came over, the first time, for five days. Then they kept coming again and again with different ideas, you know, and they’d meet us in England, New York, Los Angeles, places like that.

You live just outside of Austin, right?
Just outside of Austin, towards Houston. Out in the countryside. There’s a lot of countryside towns all through the countryside here. We’re just another small town. I’m buying a house now. I’m really excited to have a house of my own. Right here, next door to my parents. So I’m really happy about that.

I go through moods where your songs get stuck in my head for days on end and I play them over and over again. Lately it’s been “Living Life.” It cheers me up. When did you write that?
It was one night when I had my birthday and my mother wouldn’t let me play my piano for some reason. So I left my house and went down to my cousin’s house and wrote the song. That’s an old one. I was probably 18 or 19.

Do you listen to your own songs a lot?
I do, occasionally, just for something to do when I’m bored, you know. I do listen to some. The one I listen to the most is the Fear Yourself album. That one really entertains me the most and I have listened to that one more than others. So when I’m smoking or taking it easy sometimes I put some of them on.

I’ve never really tried to quit smoking, have you?
Oh, no. I love to smoke. I love to smoke. I’m a chain-smoker, you know.

How did you end up collaborating with Mark Linkus from Sparklehorse on the Fear Yourself album?
They sent me Sparklehorse singles and they were so excellent. And it was really scary music, you know. And I got some of their CDs and really enjoyed the music a lot. It’s very Beatle-ish. And I really love the Beatles. And then the president of Gammon records called and asked, ‘Would you like to make an album with Sparklehorse?’ And it was so cool because I had a notebook with enough songs for an album that I had no idea what to do with. So it worked out perfectly. We really want to get together again. We talk on the phone and every time I get a really good song I save it for him.

You always say how much you like the Beatles. What do you think of the Rolling Stones?
I was just thinking about them the other day. How great their music really is, you know. I was thinking about “You Don’t Know What You Got” and that choir of angels and stuff. I mean, their music is exceptionally great, there’s no denying. One time, years ago, at an antique store, someone brought in like a complete collection of Rolling Stones albums. And I got them all.

What’s the story about you being scared of Metallica?
Well I was in the mental hospital and my manager kept visiting me trying to get me to sign with Elektra. And Metallica was on Elektra. And I was thinking about it and then I thought, “Metallica will kill me.” I was so stupid, I could have been on Elektra, you know? I didn’t have any money. I could’ve been a millionaire. And then Steven Spielberg tried to sign me. And I turned him down. I told him, “I don’t want to be another E.T.” My own decision, my own brain.

So you just want to do it on your own terms?
Well, I was on Atlantic for a while. I hope to be on a major label again.

I was just listening to your new song “Rock This Town.” I couldn’t find a lyric sheet, but there’s this line I love where I think you say, “I took my guitar to heavy metal school.” Is that what it is?
Yeah, “I took my guitar to heavy metal school and told them all about the golden rule. They just laughed in my face and said I was a space case. The last of the human race.”

Would you rather be a dwarf or a giant?
A giant, for sure. Any dwarf would agree they’d rather be a giant.

I always think so too. You figure a giant is looked at with awe but a dwarf deals with being mocked so much.
Of course a giant might think, “I’m too big, there’s nowhere to be.”

Yeah, driving a car, flying in an airplane.
Exactly. Everything’s too small. But when you’re a dwarf everyone always says, “Hey, you’re a dwarf.” I guess I’d rather be just like I am.”

[This interview originally appeared in the great Flop Sweat Magazine and is posted here with permission.]