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A scrapbook of stuff I'm reading / looking at / listening to / thinking about...



Aug 22, 2014
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Short was good in a book.
— Charles Portis, Gringos

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Denis Johnson, Train Dreams: A Novella

Novellas hit a wonderful sweet spot, I think, and are perfect for Kindle/Kindle-on-iPhone reading. Anthony Doerr (my wife, I just realized, has his new novel on her nightstand) wrote this appreciation in the NYTimes:


  The novella runs 116 pages, and you can turn all of those pages in 90 minutes. In that hour and a half the whole crimped, swirling, haunted life of Robert Grainier rattles through the forests of your mind like the whistle of the Spokane International he hears so often in his dreams.
  
  In an 1842 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Twice Told Tales,” Edgar Allan Poe said that apart from poetry, the form most advantageous for the exertion of “highest genius” was the “short prose narrative,” whose length he defined as taking “from a half-hour to one or two hours in its perusal.” Novels, Poe argued, were objectionable because they required a reader to take breaks.
  
  “Worldly interests intervening during the pauses of perusal,” he wrote, “modify, annul or counteract, in a greater or less degree, the impressions of the book.” Because you have to stop reading novels every now and then — to shower, to eat, to check your Twitter feed — their power weakens.
  
  Short stories and novellas on the other hand offer writers a chance to affect readers more deeply because a reader can be held in thrall for the entirety of the experience. They offer writers, in Poe’s phrasing, “the immense force derivable from totality.”


This was the first Denis Johnson book I’ve read (I know, I know), and it’s the 3rd good novella I’ve read this year (added to Sleep Donation and The Sense Of An Ending).

Thanks to @robinsloan for the recommendation!

Filed under: my reading year 2014

Denis Johnson, Train Dreams: A Novella

Novellas hit a wonderful sweet spot, I think, and are perfect for Kindle/Kindle-on-iPhone reading. Anthony Doerr (my wife, I just realized, has his new novel on her nightstand) wrote this appreciation in the NYTimes:

The novella runs 116 pages, and you can turn all of those pages in 90 minutes. In that hour and a half the whole crimped, swirling, haunted life of Robert Grainier rattles through the forests of your mind like the whistle of the Spokane International he hears so often in his dreams.

In an 1842 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Twice Told Tales,” Edgar Allan Poe said that apart from poetry, the form most advantageous for the exertion of “highest genius” was the “short prose narrative,” whose length he defined as taking “from a half-hour to one or two hours in its perusal.” Novels, Poe argued, were objectionable because they required a reader to take breaks.

“Worldly interests intervening during the pauses of perusal,” he wrote, “modify, annul or counteract, in a greater or less degree, the impressions of the book.” Because you have to stop reading novels every now and then — to shower, to eat, to check your Twitter feed — their power weakens.

Short stories and novellas on the other hand offer writers a chance to affect readers more deeply because a reader can be held in thrall for the entirety of the experience. They offer writers, in Poe’s phrasing, “the immense force derivable from totality.”

This was the first Denis Johnson book I’ve read (I know, I know), and it’s the 3rd good novella I’ve read this year (added to Sleep Donation and The Sense Of An Ending).

Thanks to @robinsloan for the recommendation!

Filed under: my reading year 2014

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Humor is an antidote to — or at least an analgesic for — a condition we’re all suffering from. I would call this condition clarity, not depression; humor and depression are two different, but not mutually exclusive, responses to it. I know we’re told to regard depression as a disease, its victims no different from people who succumb to cancer or diabetes. But because it’s a disease whose symptoms take the shape of ideas, it can get hard to parse out pathology from worldview. The Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert once told me that “there are people who have no delusions; they’re called clinically depressed.” Depression’s insights aren’t necessarily invalid; they’re just not helpful. Depression uses clarity as an instrument of torture; humor uses it as a setup. Comedy tells us, “But wait — that’s not the good part.” Depression condemns the world, and us, as hateful; laughter is a way of forgiving it, and ourselves, for being so.
— Tim Kreider on the death of Robin Williams

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If you’re not listening to the wonderful Song Exploder podcast already, here’s Spoon drummer/producer Jim Eno taking us through the recording of the song “Inside Out.”

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The Office will not register works produced by nature, animals, or plants. Likewise, the Office cannot register a work purportedly created by divine or supernatural beings…

Examples:

• A photograph taken by a monkey.

• A mural painted by an elephant…

• An application for a song naming the Holy Spirit as the author of the work.

The US Copyright office says you can’t copyright things made by animals, gods, or ghosts

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Using the tools of improv to deal with Alzheimer’s

From a great This American Life segment:

Chana Joffe: Step into their world was a familiar phrase to Karen from the many nights she had spent doing improv comedy. She and her husband are actors. Step into their world is a mantra in improv. You walk on stage, another actor says something, and you step into their world, whatever world they’ve just created. You don’t ever say no. You don’t question their premise. You just say yes. And—

Karen: I didn’t even see it. I didn’t see the whole parallels of improv and Alzheimer’s. And when I did, it with just so obvious. It’s a whole “yes, and” world.

Chana Joffe: If all you’ve got is “yes, and,” you can’t say things like, but you don’t even like pickles, or, you don’t have a sister, Mom. You don’t tell someone they’re wrong, which Karen says is exactly what you always want to do. When her mom says she wants to go home, the most natural response is—

Karen: Oh, but this is your home now, Virginia. Come let me show you your room. But this woman is looking at you saying, I want to go home. And you’re telling her she lives here. So now you’re telling her she’s a liar. You’re going to see her little veins start popping out in her neck and her little fists. But if you look at her and you say— she says, I want to go home. Yes, and tell me about your home.

Chana Joffe: Now she’s not a liar anymore. Karen felt like she’d discovered an instruction manual.

Karen teaches folks how to use improv over at In The Moment.

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Aug 21, 2014
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1946 LIFE magazine profile of Margaret Wise Brown

My kid really loves Little Fur Family and Goodnight, Moon, both of which are actually really strange books, so I wanted to learn a little bit more about the author. Turns out she was pretty wild herself:

She was a lovely green-eyed blonde, extravagant and a little eccentric; with her first royalty check, she bought a street vendor’s entire cart full of flowers, and then threw a party at her Upper East Side apartment to show off her purchase. She was a prolific author, writing nearly a hundred picture books under several pen names and sometimes keeping six different publishers busy at once with her projects. She was known to produce a book just so she could buy a plane ticket to Europe.

She was also a real student of children and their responses to literature:

Brown wanted to become a writer as a young woman, and she once took a creative writing class from Gertrude Stein. But she had a hard time coming up with story ideas, so she went into education. She got a job at an organization called the Bureau of Educational Experiments, researching the way that children learn to use language. What she found was that children in the earliest stage of linguistic development relish language with patterns of sound and fixed rhythms. She also found that young children have a special attachment to words for objects they can see and touch, like shoes and socks and bowls and bathtubs.

Goodnight, Moon, btw, was not an instant bestseller:

The influential New York Public Library gave it a terrible review, and it didn’t sell as well as some of Brown’s other books in its first year. But parents were amazed at the book’s almost hypnotic effect on children, its ability to calm them down before bed. Brown thought the book was successful because it helped children let go of the world around them piece by piece, just before turning out the light and falling asleep.

Parents recommended the book to each other, and it slowly became a word-of-mouth best-seller. It sold about 1,500 copies in 1953, 4,000 in 1955, 8,000 in 1960, 20,000 in 1970; and by 1990 the total number of copies sold had reached more than four million.

Aimee Bender recently wrote a piece on what writers can learn from Goodnight, Moon:

"Goodnight Moon" does two things right away: It sets up a world and then it subverts its own rules even as it follows them. It works like a sonata of sorts, but, like a good version of the form, it does not follow a wholly predictable structure. Many children’s books do, particularly for this age, as kids love repetition and the books supply it. They often end as we expect, with a circling back to the start, and a fun twist. This is satisfying but it can be forgettable. Kids - people - also love depth and surprise, and "Goodnight Moon" offers both.

Though she was so prolific, the story of her death at 42 is extremely sad: a nurse asked her how she was feeling post-surgery — to show her how good she felt, Brown kicked her leg up like a can-can dancer, dislodged a blood clot in her brain, and died.

Aug 20, 2014
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Contact Sheets

After seeing Vivian Maier’s film rolls, I’ve been pawing around online, looking at other photographer’s contact sheets. (The biggest treasure trove is this book of Magnum Contact Sheets — and several of the sheets above came from the site Chasing Light.)

What is a contact sheet?

The contact sheet, a direct print of a roll or sequence of negatives, is the photographer’s first look at what he or she has captured on film, and provides a uniquely intimate glimpse into their working process. It records each step on the route to arriving at an image—providing a rare behind-the-scenes sense of walking alongside the photographer and seeing through their eyes.

Going behind-the-scenes sort of breaks the mythology of photography:

No document gives greater insight into how a photographer shoots and edits than a contact sheet—the direct print, from a roll or negatives, where a film photographer often first sees her work, grease pencil in hand, and marks her best frames. […] “The contact sheet spares neither the viewer nor the photographer,” Martine Franck writes… “By publishing that which is most intimate, I am taking the very real risk of breaking the spell, of destroying a certain mystery.”

Photographers, of course, don’t always like the evidence of their process:

“It’s generally rather depressing to look at my contacts,” Elliott Erwitt [says.] “One always has great expectations, and they’re not always fulfilled.” Henri Cartier-­Bresson, a Magnum founder, so hated the idea of someone pawing through his outtakes that he once bragged about throwing out his negatives “in the same way as one cuts one’s nails.”

And in the digital age, of course, contact sheets don’t really exist…

Related reading: 10 Things Street Photographers Can Learn From Magnum Contact Sheets

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Rolls of Vivian Maier’s film

From the documentary, The Vivian Maier Mystery:

With her Rolleiflex, she had just twelve shots and then had to reload the film. Not easy in the open air. She shot about a roll of film a day. She spent virtually all her earnings on film, equipment, and storage. Unlike most photographers, Vivian tended to take just one shot and move on. Her hit rate was phenomenal.

When the Chicago History Museum had a show of her work, they displayed prints of her rolls of film. Here’s Michael Williams, author of Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows, on what you can learn from looking at them:

This is a roll of film and the order in which they were taken. It’s kids getting on a bus in the morning for school. She drops them off and then she heads Downtown and she starts photographing. You really get this sense of a day in a life… or her diary here and you can see how she moves through the street. If you put it all in a row, you would see one woman’s life unfolding on film…you’d have an unbroken string of images of what she saw, what her experiences were. This is what her big project was. It was her life. It was experiencing life through photography.

Filed under: photography, Vivian Maier

(Top image via a post at The Online Photographer)

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