Thursday, April 26, 2012

Poem in Your Pocket

To celebrate national Poem In Your Pocket Day—and in memory of my father.

Buffalo Bill 's
Buffalo Bill 's
            who used to
            ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat

he was a handsome man
                                    and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
Mister Death

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Sometimes You Can't Give it Away…

But sometimes you can.

Maybe it’s because I can’t imagine saying no to a free book, but I was surprised to find that it took a full half-hour to give away 20 copies of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks during last night’s World BookNight event. 

The Stacked family positioned themselves near a subway entrance in Manhattan during rush hour and offered the book to everyone that passed by. I hadn’t counted on the number of people who are plugged into their electronic devices or the number that have their “commuter faces” on—look straight ahead and ignore the people around you as much as possible. But we also got some really nice responses. After taking a book, then giving it back because he has so many books and wanted us to give it to someone who needs it more, one man lingered to tell us how refreshing it was to see this kind of effort. Another man took one happily telling us he’d take anything that’s free. Some wanted to know what the book was about, one decided it was too depressing, and another told us he had too many books already including the two he was carrying in his bag. 

Giving away copies of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

In truth, I don’t think the book will be everyone’s cup of tea. It covers some difficult subject matter, including issues of bioethics, exploitation of African-American patients during the 1940s and 1950s, insights into the workings of the medical research community and the failure of our healthcare system to provide adequate coverage to those in need. But it’s also an important scientific story that should be more widely known and a moving account of a family trying to learn the truth about what happened to their mother.

Being part of this multi-country effort to spread a love of literature was exhilarating despite the non-responses from some. The positive responses reassure me that there are still people who want to hold an actual book in their hands, who are open to the idea of learning about a new subject, and who just can’t say no to a free book.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Mark Your Calendar for World Book Night!

 On Monday, April 23rd, I’ll be participating in this wonderful event.

Here’s a brief description of the event from the World Book Night web site.

World Book Night is an annual celebration designed to spread a love of reading and books. To be held in the U.S. as well as the U.K. and Ireland on April 23, 2012. It will see tens of thousands of people go out into their communities to spread the joy and love of reading by giving out free World Book Night paperbacks. 
World Book Night, through social media and traditional publicity, will also promote the value of reading, of printed books, and of bookstores and libraries to everyone year-round.
Successfully launched in the U.K. in 2011, World Book Night will also be celebrated in the U.S. in 2012, with news of more countries to come in future years. Please join our mailing list for regular World Book Night U.S. news. And thank you to our U.K. friends for such a wonderful idea! 

Additionally, April 23 is UNESCO’s World Book Day, chosen due to the anniversary of Cervantes’ death, as well as Shakespeare’s birth and death.

As an “official” book giver, I’ll be handing out free copies of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot near a subway station entrance somewhere in Manhattan.  Look for other book givers in your community.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Lure of the Library

One of my guilty pleasures is watching the House and Garden TV Network. Besides giving me the opportunity to imagine other places and ways in which I might live, I also get a voyeuristic thrill—albeit a very tame one—from watching couples choose from among three plausible real estate choices or being surprised by a makeover of their home completed by a good-looking and highly animated team of young decorators. 

I also like the relative lack of clutter on display in almost every home. The piles of papers, groceries that have not been put away, cast-off shoes and semi-finished art projects that sometimes adorn my home are rarely in sight. But nor are the books. Perhaps they have been tucked away in closets or attic space. That’s fine for home dwellers when the guests are visiting or the TV cameras are rolling, but for space-starved New York City book lovers who need their reading matter close at hand, where to put the books can be a pressing concern.

One answer can be found in today’s real estate section of The New York Times, which features New York City apartment buildings with common libraries. Okay, you might not want to share your beloved copy of Catcher in the Rye with the teenager down the hall, but you might enjoy the idea of picking up a recent best-seller from the building library, reading it and returning it without the expense of a purchase or the responsibility of finding a place for it on your shelves.

Apartments in the buildings featured in the article all come with a high price tag and the library serves as another amenity along with the gym and or outdoor space (admittedly, more important priorities for many people). It makes me happy to see this trend, especially in NYC where real estate prices often leave one shaking one’s head in disbelief—space devoted to books is not only still considered worthwhile, but is actually a selling point.

Curious about what’s on the shelves? The print edition of the NYT article offers a sampling from the libraries of four luxury buildings:
 A building’s library is a reflection of its residents’ taste, either intentionally or organically. Following are some notable or popular books found in reading rooms in New York City.
Among the choices: The Other Boleyn Girl by Phillipa Gregory; Urban Farming by Thomas J. Fox; The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, and Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.

A partial view of the library at Chez Stacked. Selections from the shelves include
Hard Times by Charles Dickens, The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, and the Giant Book of
Puzzles and Games
by Sheila Anne Barry. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

New Englander

An established author walks into a bookstore to do a reading from the first book he has published in ten years. But no one has shown up to see him. Sound like a writer’s nightmare? Or the set-up for a sad joke? It’s actually the premise of The Reader, a short story that is part of Nathan Englander’s new collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.  Englander’s protagonist experiences a Rip Van Winkle moment that plays out over and over again: the world has passed him by while he retreated to his room to write his novel and his readers have moved on--save for a lone auditor who follows him from reading to reading.

The title story of Englander's collection pays homage to
Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

My discovery of Englander’s work was one of those happy instances of one very talented writer leading to another. At an informal event author Colum McCann (Let the Great World Spin, Zoli, Dancer ) named Englander (his teaching colleague in the MFA program at Hunter College) as one of his favorite authors. This led me to the New Yorker and the story for which the collection is named. Combining a startling mix of orthodox Jewish doctrine, pot smoking and the dynamics between spouses and friends, Englander shows what happens when two couples spend an afternoon together in suburbia playing a dangerous game of “what if”.  What do I like so much about Englander’s work? In contrast to much contemporary short fiction that I've read, things happen in his stories. Events unfold in such a way that unsettling truths are revealed, issues of life and death are confronted, degrees of guilt are examined, faith and loyalty are tested. But there is also considerable humor in the stories and many of the central characters display touching vulnerability.

A few months ago I heard Englander speak as part of an inspired pairing at the NYPL; he was interviewed by the impressive Sarah Jones, a performer and playwright whose work recalls Anna Deveare Smith (though perhaps with a lighter touch.) The issue of whether Englander, who describes himself as “a God-fearing atheist”, considers himself to be a Jewish writer came up that evening, as it has frequently in other venues. Englander prefers not to adopt that term, but rather reports that his writing grows out of his personal experience.  In a lighter moment Englander described his meeting with Philip Roth, in which the older writer complained that Englander had not been punished enough for his sometimes less-than-flattering portrayals of Jewish characters.

The evening at the library felt a bit like crashing a family party. Englander’s mother was in the front row, and various friends and relatives were scattered throughout the audience—including two young people in the row behind me.  Englander greeted a number of them by name.  One had the sense that the extended family might not all agree with Englander’s secular world view, but that they had agreed to disagree. You can watch a video of this lively interview here.   

More from Englander can be found at The New Yorker; bigthink, where he addresses the old writing chestnut, "write what you know"; and on his website and blog. And just in time for Passover, on today's Leonard Lopate show on WNYC: 
Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander discuss The New American Haggadah, their take on a traditional Passover prayer book. The Haggadah recounts, through prayer, song, and ritual, the extraordinary story of Exodus, when Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt to wander the desert for forty years before reaching the Promised Land. Safran Foer edited Englander's translation, and major Jewish writers and thinkers like Jeffrey Goldberg, Lemony Snicket, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, and Nathaniel Deutsch also provide commentary. It is designed and illustrated by the Israeli artist and calligrapher Oded Ezer.