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Books (143 posts)
There's also the little matter of how to properly write a thank-you note. There is the school of thought that the exact gift and its uses ought to be detailed, but I admit that sometimes I feel uncomfortable writing things like, "Thanks for the money!" And of course, there is the phenomena of uber-polite people like my mother-in-law who will actually write you a thank you note for your thank you note. (Where does it end?)
All of which is to say, what is the right way to thank a person? In her interesting piece on The Millions, novelist Henriette Lazaridis Power writes about that most literary of thank yous, the authors' acknowledgements: "Every book comes with a second narrative, that of its creation."
Every Monday, we'll be letting you know about new releases the editors at O and Oprah.com couldn't stop reading. This week, the unique short story collection:
In this collection of eight vivid stories, Melissa Pritchard introduces you to the most fascinating people you've never heard of, placed in situations that seem stolen from fairy tale...except that they really happened. For example, meet Norbert Pearlroth, the researcher for Robert LeRoy Ripley (as in: Ripley's Believe it or Not) who spent a lifetime in the New York Public Library, leafing through 364,000 books into order to come up with earthy splendors like a timetelling horse and a world champion chicken picker. Or Pelagia Ivanovna Surin Serebrenikova, a 19th century holy "fool" of a girl who spun around Russia, raising her skirts to every man in town (only to become, later, a local saint). The star of the book, however. is ho-hum Captain Brown who is put in charge of the Royal Victoria Hospital during the invasion of Normandy in World World II—a mammoth dinosaur of a building with therapeutic swimming pools and a museum-quality taxidermy collection, but no heat or medication. Brown's efforts to save not just the American and English wounded, but also the life of a female French Resistance Fighter—end up presenting him with the hardest kind choices: to love or not to love, to be courageous or sit by. Though all the stories in the collection display the whimsy and intelligence of a writer at the height of her powers, there is novel in the short tale of Captain Brown, one that illustrates how even the most ordinary feelings are sufficiently fantastical to transform a life.
January's best reads
Novels to inspire a new you in 2012
At least for the next few weeks. And so it goes in the world of New Year's Resolutions. Which is why I was so pleased to learn about the 50/50 challenge. The 50/50 challenge is the kind of year-long-commitment that actually sounds fun and enriching and—what!—like I might actually do.
The idea is to read 50 books and see 50 movies in 2012. (That's about one book and one movie a week, mathematicians.) You can sign up on the website, but don't be scared by words like "commit" and "rules." You don't have to know what you're going to read or watch. They don't even have to be "good." As the website says, "Go ahead, read Kardashian Konfidential, we won't tell."
So I could really relate to the wonderful piece that Lev Grossman wrote
for Conde Nast Traveler about his childhood hero, who inspired in him a lust
for travel–not his parents, or even anyone he actually knew, but the
moon-faced comic book teenager Tintin.
Grossman loved Tintin for his sense of adventure go-getter attitude, and choice of exotic conveyances (seaplanes!). But also, “Like me, and so many other children of the American
suburbs, Tintin was nobody, and he lived nowhere, and he did nothing. In order
to do anything or be anybody, he had to travel.” Like Annie, Tintin was
fearless and unfettered by the rules binding most kids–bummers like school
and parents. Even better, Tintin is "about as close to a cipher as
a hero can get.” On this relatively blank canvas, Grossman suggests, anyone can
project his or her own self.
After all, there are the usual heroes— firefighters, astronauts, legendary
presidents, famous do-gooders, reality show stars – those brave wonders who do
what most of us can only dream of—and then there are those heroes (sometimes 2-dimensional
and blank-eyed) who inspire us because they allow us to imagine that we too
have within us such potential.
What if you were locked in your body, without a way to communicate with the world around you? What would be your first words after being “unlocked”? This is what Kate Winslet asked some of her famous friends, from Anna Wintour to Meryl Streep to Ricky Gervais, including their responses along with self-portraits with the hat in question in her new book, The Golden Hat. The book, a moving attempt to raise awareness for autism, was inspired by Winslet’s work narrating a documentary about a mother seeking help for her non-verbal autistic son.
I can’t get through the documentary trailer without getting weepy. The documentary focuses on Margret, a mother who embarks on a quest to get help for her 11-year-old son – she’s not even sure he understands what’s happening around him, or what is going on in his head. What these families go through, having kids they can’t communicate with – what the kids go through, unable to interact with the people around them! The thought of not being able to communicate makes me immediately, dramatically uncomfortable, maddeningly squirmy in my own skin. I’m sure that my first words after being “unlocked” would be, “Thank you.”
Jenny McCarthy Battles Autism
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Still, there is something about seeing that image that makes the author human, that reminds us of the mind behind the world we are about to enter. Which is why, let's admit it, we all peek, and feel disappointed when a publication is too sensible to include an author photo. It's also why we are always looking for new images of beloved authors like Shakespeare and Jane Austen, who had the bad manners to live before Google Images. Luckily for lovers of all things Austen, a new portrait of her has been found. Dr. Paula Byrne, the Austen biographer who found the image, told the BBC that right away she recognized the long, straight "Austen nose" and that the pencil sketch presents a very professional woman writer at the height of her creative powers." It certainly presents a different image than the sweet, bonneted Jane we are used to seeing reproduced on mugs and totes the world over.
As to why there aren't more images of the celebrated novelist, "When Jane Austen was writing, she wrote her novels anonymously. People didn't really know who she was at all and even after her death, when her name appears in print for the first time, she's not at all popular." Apparently, she didn't even tweet, either. Check out the BBC story for more on the controversy over authenticating the image, and to see the picture itself.
A new book by Jane Austen (sort of).
Celebrities share the classic books that changed them.
Trivia is also weirdly memorable. Why, despite considerable effort, could I never memorize the Pythagorean thereom in school, but I can still recall from history class that Abraham Lincoln was the tallest U.S. president (6'3") and James Madison the shortest (5'4")? Our brains, it seems, have an endless capacity for quirk. And isn't quirk more fun? Aside from a bright smile and a warm hug, I'd argue that nothing trumps trivia when you're making small talk. So imagine my delight, as we enter the Month of Making Yueltide Small Talk, at cracking open the new book Listomania: A World of Fascinating Facts in Graphic Detail, an engrossing (and sometimes gross) buffet of trivia.
From the top 14 beauty-queen scandals through history to the countries with the greatest number of Nobel Prizes per capita (go, Faroe Islands!) to the most popular ways locals from around the world eat their hot dogs (think: shrimp salad, sauerkraut, carrot sticks), the book touches on topics both significant and, well, trivial. To prep you to deliver a surprising left turn to the next "So, where are you from?" question, consider these random bits: It takes 30 seconds for killer whales to mate, 21 days to sun-dry a grape into a raisin, and 5 months for a newborn to recognize its own name. You can thank us post-party.
Every Monday, we'll be letting you know about new releases the editors at O and Oprah.com couldn't stop reading. This week, the dreamy and thought-provoking novella collection:
The Artist of Disappearance
by Anita Desai
We're all looking for the one moment of greatness in our lives. Sometimes we may even fantasize about it: we rush in front of the bus and save the toddler, we come through (impossibly) with the two million dollars needed to save the school for orphans. In Anita Desai's collection of three novellas, each character is presented with an opportunity to save something much more realistic, and paradoxically, much more magical. A bored young bureaucrat stumbles upon a forgotten museum in a rural Indian village, filled with exotic treasures from the Far East including a live elephant; a meek, lonely school teacher discovers a novel written in a dialect that's never been translated into English; three very urban-minded Bombay filmmakers find a mysterious, artistic garden hidden in the wilds of the mountains. In each case, the treasure under consideration is described with lavish, joyous detail. The museum, for example, is housed in a decrepit old mansion, with room after room of masks, porcelains, carpets and "jewel-like illustrations of floral and avian life, tiny figures mounted on curvaceous horses in pursuit of lions and gazelle, or kneeling before bearded saints in mountain cave." The question in all three cases is not just how saving (or ignoring) the object in danger will (or will not) transform each character's life as a whole, but how this decision reflects the direction of Indian society as it modernizes and Westernizes so rapidly. What does it mean to a culture when an object of great history and beauty disappears without have been discovered in the first place? You'll find yourself whipping through pages to find out what will happen to these endangered rarities—stopping only to drool over their descriptions, which is the real treasure of this book, sentences as wondrous as the wonders they bring to life.
I love a good mixtape. The mix cd my husband made for me when we first started dating is firmly lodged in my car's cd player (yeah, cds!), and I probably even have somewhere the actual tapes my best friend and I exchanged in high school, complete with collaged covers. I'm always happy to come across a great playlist, that newfangled cousin of the late, great mixtape. But what, I know we've all asked ourselves, would our favorite fictional characters listen to?
Flavorwire knows. Here, from the wish-I'd-thought-of-that files, are literary character mixtapes. Characters like Elizabeth Bennet, Captain Ahab, Nancy Drew, and The Little Prince are given their own playlists of songs that so perfectly capture their essences you just have to laugh, stream the songs, and pick up your well-worn paperbacks to read along. The song choices are spot-on, and you have to love commentary like, "We think a donkey who counts the days since anyone spoke to him would nod glumly along with the intro to this song." (That's Eeyore, loving "Comfortably Numb," by Pink Floyd)
And not to be completely nerdy (too late, I know), but it occurs to me that imagining playlists like this would be a great project for reading-averse students or even writers trying to flesh out a fictional character. Or someone who just really wants to commune with her inner Lady Macbeth. Or, you know, Tigger.
Read more about books:
Great short stories
The best winter reading
A new book suggests that, awfully enough, my husband might be onto something. Can objects tell a story, or even the history of the world? This is the conceit behind the British bestseller called, accurately enough, A History of the World in 100 Objects, now out in the United States. The book's author, Neil MacGregor, is the director of the British Museum (where all the objects in the book currently live), and he recently spoke to Jeffery Brown at PBS News Hour about the selection of objects and what stories they tell, One of the objects they discussed was one of the oldest tools in existence, a 2-million-year-old stone chipped into a sharp edge that MacGregor said is the "kind of tool that lets us all leave Africa and live everywhere, because this lets you strip the meat off the animals to get more protein, break the bones to get the marrow...This is what lets us...become us."
From here, they discuss objects as diverse as the Rosetta Stone and a solar-powered lamp, each of which has implicit in it an entire story about a certain time and place. As MacGregor puts it, "a single object lets you explore a world that you want to know about....a thing lets you journey immediately into another world. And it's a thing made by somebody like you with hands like yours, a mind like yours. And you're on a journey of poetic imagination to a place that you could never reach otherwise."
This got me thinking about the objects with which we surround ourselves. It's that old "alien archaeologists" scenario (that's an old scenario, right?)—essentially, what is the story the aliens would construct about my life based on the objects in my home? It's the toaster oven we use to make our toast; it's the dog bed we picked out and purchased for the mutt that lives in our house. As MacGregor puts it, "if you take one object and go into it in-depth, then you learn a lot about the people that made it, why they made it, the world it was for, and what it is to be a person needing objects and making objects." It could be that my husband has a point, that our things tell the story of our world. (Which is why I'm still throwing out that old dial-up modem.)
For more, including a video of the interview and a photo essay, check out PBS NewsHour's Art Beat blog.
Let go of an object without letting go of memories.
6 everyday objects that can save your life.