Bookminded

books, art, culture, and other things I love

Month: July, 2014

A Monogram Monograph.

A literary monogram is the kind of crossword puzzle solution that calls for an author’s initials. The most famous literary monogram is probably TSE–for poet T.S. Eliot, with RLS–for Robert Louis Stevenson, as a close second. There are also others I have come across (no pun intended) in crossword puzzles over the years, like EBB, GBS, EAP, EBW, RWE. Clues are sometimes leading–e.g. “Treasure Island author”–but are sometimes a bit more generic e.g. “19th c. adventure writer” for RLS. As much as I love the literary monogram in my puzzle solving, I also have a particular affinity for the monogram in daily life.

Despite the recent trend toward mass-market personalization (like this)–itself an oxymoron–monograms actually have quite a storied history. Cynthia Brumback’s 2013 book, The Art of the Monogram, introduces the reader to the backstory of monograms dating back to Charlemagne alongside beautiful images of these graphics.

Historically speaking, a true monogram is made from the overlapping of various letters or graphic accents to form one symbol–however, most people today refer to cyphers (a series of initials–i.e. TSE) as monograms as well.

German painter Albrecht Dürer's (1471-1528) iconic monogram.

German painter Albrecht Dürer’s (1471-1528) iconic monogram.

Whether you call them monograms or cyphers, I am fond of them! Especially on linens and tote bags.

A sign of a problem, or a mark of a true New Englander? :)

A sign of a problem, or a mark of a true New Englander? 🙂

There's more where these came from...

A monogram Instagram! There’s more where these came from…

This short video, “The Secret Language of Monogramming,” about monograms and clothing featuring style writer Glenn O’Brien and other fashion insiders is terrific. 

What are your thoughts on monogramming as a practice? Are there any things you would (or wouldn’t) monogram?

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Bookminded Recommends: Crazy Rich Asians

Texts from my reading twin K. often fall into the genre of what I would call the micro-review. A quick summation about whether a book is really great or falls flat. See below.
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From this quick message I learned that Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians was a book worth reading (and, as an aside, that we had a similar response to Emma Straub’s The Vacationers).

So, on the heels of the Commonwealth Games, I thought Kwan’s book would be a timely read, as it follows many UK-educated power players as they move between Singapore, Hong Kong, and other exotic Eurasian locales.

The book is a fun social satire that name-drops designers and other markers of the super-rich with aplomb, but instead of being a tiresome topos, it only serves to emphasize the world wherein the characters circulate.

The book begins when Rachel Chu, an economics professor at NYU, is invited by her boyfriend to spend the summer traveling to Singapore and throughout Asia with him–the precipitating event being his Best Man duties in his best friend’s wedding. After some convincing, Rachel agrees, and sets off for the summer on the ten-week excursion.

What Rachel doesn’t know is that her boyfriend, Nicholas Young, is not simply an NYU history professor that happens to be from Singapore. Rather, Nick is from one of the world’s most wealthy and powerful families. Thus, though a member of the cultural elite in the US, Rachel quickly finds out that Nick’s society of origin is less penetrable than academia. (Which is saying something.)

Last night I stayed up until the wee hours to finish this smart and thoroughly engrossing, thoroughly entertaining book. For a wonderfully contemporary comedy of manners for which you will forgo your bedtime, read Crazy Rich Asians.

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Literary B-sides

Back when records were the medium through which musicians released their music, single 45s would have an A-side–with the song predicted to be a hit–and the B-side, often a track of the artist’s own composition. Sometimes these B-sides were better than the A-sides. For example, songs like the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” The Beatles’ “Revolution,” and even Gloria Gaynor’s iconic “I Will Survive” were originally B-sides.

In the literary world, we have the same phenomenon. Some books are really pushed by publishers as A-sides, when there may be other works by the same authors that are equally as good–or better–but they get overshadowed or overlooked because of the big hits.

So, here are six of Bookminded’s Literary B-sides (three classic, three contemporary):
Classics
A Long Fatal Love Chase by Louisa May Alcott
This romantic cliffhanger by the author of Little Women was written two-years before her best-known work but deemed too scandalous for publication during the author’s lifetime. It was rediscovered in 1995 and though it is a late-nineteeth century work, it reads as a contemporary page turner.

Romola by George Eliot
Set in Renaissance Florence, the author of Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss wrote this about Romola: ‘There is no book of mine about which I more thoroughly feel that I swear by every sentence as having been written with my best blood.”

The Basil and Josephine Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Before the publication of Gatsby and Tender Is the Night, Fitzgerald wrote these fourteen stories about life growing up in Buffalo, New York that were published in the Saturday Evening Post. Basil is a stand-in for Fitzgerald’s younger self beginning at age eleven, and Josephine is written as his female counterpart. These stories are charming and innocent and offer an interesting counterpoint to his later works.

Contemporary
The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan
Egan’s first novel (actually made into a 2001 movie starring Cameron Diaz) is set in 1978 and focuses on Phoebe O’Connor, who is fixated on the death of her sister Faith, who died in Italy in 1970. A novel about family and personal histories that I really enjoyed. (More than A Visit From the Goon Squad, actually!)

How To Be Good by Nick Hornby
Leave it to Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy) to take up such an existential question within the context of a really novel about a do-gooder doctor who is having an affair and is ready to end her marriage until her husband (who has been–at least by her measure–bad) undergoes a transformation of character after meeting a faith healer named Dr. Goodnews.

A Change of Climate by Hilary Mantel
An early novel about a missionary family’s secrets and redemption set in England and Africa from the author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies that is readable and thought-provoking.

What Literary B-sides would you add to the list?

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Memoir Monday: Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up

It was a passing reference in David Orr’s piece in last week’s Sunday Book Review that got me to finally read Steve Martin’s 2007 memoir, Born Standing Up, which had been sitting on my shelf for the last three years.

The piece itself was about James Franco’s newest publication, a book of poetry titled Directing Herbert White, recently published by Graywolf Press–itself a serious publisher of poetry. Ott’s review of Franco’s latest show of dilettantism was not what kept me reading–rather, it was this question he posed: “why it is that artists who are vastly successful in one genre feel the need to dabble in another?” In the next breath, he mentioned Steve Martin–as one who is quite talented in multiple genres (comedy, film, writing, and music) and I was reminded that this book was still on my to-read list.

Though a lean volume that is written with the kind of chronological pattern that may recall Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography for readers (especially some of the archival pieces included, like notes on various comedy acts, are reminiscent of Franklin’s daily schedule list), there are enough moments of emotional impact that intrude upon the orderly sequence, allowing the reader a glimpse into Martin’s interior world. After recounting an early fissure in his relationship with his father, Martin writes, “I have heard it said that a complicated childhood can lead to a life in the arts. I tell you this story of my father and me to let you know I am qualified to be a comedian.”imagesThe book covers Martin’s childhood and his early adolescent desire to become a magician–his comedy act (infused with his banjo playing) was something that evolved largely out of a lack of resources (the various accouterments needed by a magician were quite expensive). Slowly, Martin grew a stand-up career that sprouted out of jobs at Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, and eventually the small clubs of San Francisco. Along the way, he also took college courses in poetry and philosophy and “half believed [he] might try for a doctorate in philosophy and become a teacher, as teaching is, after all, a form of show business” (love that).

For readers interesting in knowing how someone builds a career in the creative arts–step by step–and for fans of Martin’s work in any genre, read this. And then read his 2011 novel, An Object of Beauty, one of my favorite reads in recent years. Fun fact: sometimes New Yorker contributor Martin also teamed up with cartoonist Roz Chast on this 2007 project.

 

The Weekender: Boston’s Thinking Cup Coffee Shop

Sandwiched in between various shops, residences, and Emerson College properties–and with a view of the Boston Common, The Thinking Cup is the perfect cafe for readers and writers alike.

I usually pop in here on Sunday mornings after church and go for a latte (expertly made by award-winning baristas) and an almond croissant or a delicious Croque Monsieur. On Thursday afternoons, before my writing class here, I will often stop by to work for a while and to enjoy a delicious salad or light sandwich (usually with a macaron as a treat!) along with an iced coffee.

There are three Boston locations–North End and Back Bay are the others–but I frequent this Boston Common location since it is close to my other activities.

The Thinking Cup serves Stumptown Coffee, which is the best. Coupled with a relaxed, friendly atmosphere, The Thinking Cup is an ideal place to people-watch or get started on your next novel.
The Thinking Cup. 164 Tremont Street, Boston, MA.

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The Weekender: Boston’s Highball Lounge

Designed to look like a vintage attic (Greg Brady, anyone?) the Highball Lounge is tucked into an upper floor of Boston’s Nine Zero Hotel at 90 Tremont Street, two blocks away from Park Street station.

There are plenty of classic cocktails on the menu, as are interesting bites like tater tot nachos, ramen, and kale salad.

Wednesday-Saturday, there is a DJ spinning an eclectic mix of vinyl–from throwback Tina Turner to 90s R&B favorites and more recent tunes. In addition to the music (which was fantastic!), patrons can play board games like Sorry!, Battleship, Connect Four, and Trouble. So much fun!

The crowd was a good mix of ages and though it got busy, the space is open and airy and the mood is relaxed–not too much. Though last night my husband and I were there for a date night, I could just as easily see myself having fun there with a group of friends, or even my parents if they were in town. Definitely something for everyone. Check it out!

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Friday Culture Watch: What to Read, Listen, Make, and Do.

To Read
For thirty years, John Carey has been a professor of English literature at Oxford as well as a prolific reviewer of books. He is perhaps best known for his “literary activism”—or his emphatic insistence on the value of reading. In fact, the final chapter of his autobiography, released earlier this year, contains a final chapter titled “Why Read?,” which concludes, “Reading is freedom. Now read on.” Readers might be familiar with his argument in What Good Are the Arts, where he suggests that literature is the only art capable of reasoning, and the only art that can criticize. In Carey’s mind, Literature has the ability to inspire the mind and the heart towards practical ends far better than any work of conceptual art. I have been thinking quite a bit about Carey this week after having an impromptu conversation with an employee at my favorite clothing store. She told me how she was reading a classic work of literature each month as a self-improvement project and enthused about how much she was learning about the world and herself from this endeavor. I didn’t need any convincing about the benefits (and likely results) of such a project, but for those who do—or those who appreciate confirmation of their perspectives—John Carey is one to read.
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To Listen
Have you seen the movie Begin Again? If not, you should. Afterwards, you are going to want to run out and download the soundtrack featuring Keira Knightley and (yes), Adam Levine. It is a great summer soundtrack. Download it, pour yourself an ice-cold lemonade, and enjoy this perfect blend of indie-pop.

To Make
This simple meal—Shrimp with Orzo and Feta—has been a staple in my house since I discovered it in a Sunday Boston Globe feature on easy dinners back in 2009. Though the recipe calls for frozen shrimp and spinach, you can easily substitute fresh ingredients (I do). It is super-easy and SO delicious. Trust me! Serve with a leafy green salad and a glass of Vermentino and you will be in heaven.

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To Do
Learn a new skill. Have you heard of Skillshare? It is an online learning community where you can acquire valuable real-world skills in tech, media, design, and the creative arts. Want to take an online screenwriting course with James Franco? Done. Want to learn how to do fashion watercolors? Try it (I did!) Learn the tools to take better photographs? There are many classes to choose from. Most courses are less than $20, or you can sign up for a monthly membership for unlimited courses.

What are your suggestions for things to read, hear, make, or do this weekend?

A Room of One’s Own: Where are you most creative?

I am always interested in hearing about how other creatives–especially writers work. From their daily rituals and habits to their physical workspaces, it always intrigues me because everyone is so different.

I work best parked at my dining room table with a laptop with a legal pad and a blue pen (this kind specifically) at hand. This, even though I have a designated desk in my home with a nice big iMac and a work office with the same–still, I prefer my 11-inch MacBook Air. There must be some
reason that this setup works best for me (streamlined?), but I am not sure.

Last fall, the New York Times Magazine featured the rooms of writers that were releasing new novels in the last quarter of 2013. Here are a couple that looked like happy working spaces to me:

Jhumpa Lahiri is like, my idol. Studied with Leslie Epstein. Learned to speak Italian. Moved to Rome. Wrote NYT-bestselling novel. Done.

Jhumpa Lahiri is like, my idol. Studied with Leslie Epstein at BU. Learned to speak Italian as an adult. Moved to Rome. Wrote NYT-bestselling novel. Fashionable (a bonus). Done.

Jonathan Lethem. You know you want his green Converse. (I do.) This is his writer's room in Blue Hills, ME. He must need the calm to conjure up Dissident Gardens, a (wonderful) novel about societal upheaval.

Jonathan Lethem. You know you want his green Converse. (I do.) This is his writer’s room in Blue Hills, ME. He must need the calm to conjure up Dissident Gardens, a (wonderful) novel about societal upheaval.

Here are some other writers’ spaces that I could visualize settling into:

Food goddess Nigella Lawson. Books and a cozy corner. Doesn't get much better!

Food goddess and cookbook author Nigella Lawson. Books and a cozy corner. Doesn’t get much better!

Confessional poet Anne Sexton and her bad, mod self. Love it.

Confessional poet Anne Sexton and her bad, mod self. Love it.

Where do you work best? Are there any things you need nearby to spark creativity?

Bookminded Recommends: Podcasts

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am a longtime fan of radio–which is probably part of the appeal of podcasts for me. While podcasts are similar to radio, how there are a few key differences. First, podcasts do not have to fit into traditional network formats (this can include things like FCC regulations or time restrictions), they do not have to appeal to a broad audience (hence the availability of niche podcasts that cover any topic you can think of), and finally, anyone can create and produce a podcast, which allows access to voices that might never hit the airwaves of network radio.

Podcasts are also convenient–you can listen to them on demand via your computer or other device, or they can be downloaded so you can listen to them at a later time. If you are using iTunes, you can also subscribe to most podcasts so each new episode of your favorite will automatically appear in your iTunes Library upon release.

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Here are three of Bookminded’s favorite podcasts–check them out!

Literary DiscoFor serious readers, this podcast made by three friends,  Julia Pistell, Tod Goldberg, and Rider Strong is one to put on your list. At present, there are 58 episodes, each running about an hour in length. The format is this: a book club of three where you (the listener) are essentially a fly on the wall. They will introduce the work or works (sometimes they’ll cover short stories) for the episode and then they discuss it. And since all three creators are also serious writers, they will sometimes have writers on–not to interview, per se–but to select a book for the group to discuss. It is funny and interesting and a reminder of why you love your book nerd friends!
Episode Recommendation: #55 The Stranger. This episode features high school English teacher (and established book reviewer) Heather Partington leading a discussion about Albert Camus’ The Stranger. She talks about everything from Cat Mysteries, the state of reading in our public schools, how she gets students excited about reading and writing, and then leads a discussion of the book. It is witty and entertaining.

Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin–Say what you want about Alec Baldwin, the guy is a natural born entertainer. But what you may not know is that he is also a Class A interviewer. The format of Baldwin’s podcast, which is broadcast on NYC’s WHYY, is that of a traditional interview show, however, the public figures that he gets to open up are so relaxed and engaging that you feel as if you are listening in on a conversation between friends. Baldwin’s vast knowledge of the theatric and literary worlds is astounding. He is quicker than quick with a reference or a comeback and a humorous aside. I love this one! There are more than 50 episodes and include interviews with people like Jerry Seinfeld, Lena Dunham, Elaine Stritch (who played Baldwin’s mother on 30 Rock)–plus many more. Check it out!
Episode Recommendation: #4 Chris Rock. In this episode, Baldwin and Rock discuss standup comedy, New York theater, and women.

99% Invisible–Roman Mars, the creator behind this podcast is super cool. It is hard to describe this one as it is about a little of everything–but Mars calls it “a tiny radio show about design, architecture & the 99% invisible activity that shapes our world,” which is an apt description. There are more than 100 episodes and I am slowly working my way through them with enthusiasm.
Episode Recommendation: #117 Clean Trains. This 21 minute episode talks about NYC subways and the graffiti phenomenon (and the subsequent movement to eradicate it). Really interesting stuff!

Tuesday Trends: Ditching Cable Television

Let me just start by saying that going cable-free is not for the faint of heart. Yes, there is lots of content out there that you can stream via your Roku or Apple TV or Google Chromecast, though it definitely requires more of an effort. I, too, enjoy the relaxing downtime that a premium cable package and a remote can provide (when we visit my parents, I binge-watch lots of International House Hunters!).

But, and this is a big but: there are lots of unexpected side effects that come with cutting the proverbial cord. Namely getting several extra hours back in your day.

My son saw this picture and said he could "picture me doing something 'wacky' like this and putting it in our living room." Ha!

My son saw this picture and said he could “picture me doing something ‘wacky’ like this and putting it in our living room.” Ha!

We decided to cut the cord nearly seven years ago, after I wasted hours of my life watching a marathon of this.

Yes, I watched a six hour marathon of this tripe. Why, I don't know.

Yes, I watched a six hour marathon of this tripe. Why, I don’t know.

Seriously. My husband and I laughed about it, but then decided that there were not enough hours in each day to do all of the things we wanted to do. So one of us suggested (can’t remember who, actually) that we get rid of the cable AND the television. UPDATE: Husband says “it was definitely you who suggested getting rid of the cable and TV!”

The next day, we posted the TV on Craigslist, and just like that, it was gone! People thought we were crazy. I thought we were maybe a little crazy. But it was rather liberating. We kept our Netflix subscription so we could still watch movies on our iMac and in time, we saw the market shift in response to this new trend: people were starting to cut their cable subscriptions and now there were services that acknowledged the change. Netflix started streaming movies, Amazon followed suit, and soon enough, Hulu was on the scene to address the needs of those not wanting to miss network series. We even subscribed to MLB.tv, which allowed us to watch live regular season baseball (save for my hometown team because of blackout restrictions) and playoff games.

We didn’t have traditional television (in terms of live broadcasts), but we didn’t really miss it. I read this book, which was useful, and found other things to fill my time. And around me, more and more, I saw people ditching their cable subscriptions.

A significant change to the cable-free movement came when fellow NU alum Chet Kenojia founded Aereo–enabling us to access live network TV via our Roku player (which was handy for watching real-time sports or keeping up American Idol!). On June 25, 2014, however, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that shut down Aereo. Networks successfully sued the start-up for copyright infringement arguing that Aereo’s use of antennas–the rental of which allowed subscribers to view live network television in much the same way that traditional Rabbit Ears would work–was “rebroadcasting” their content without permission. This was a sad day for us, and one for many others, I think because a growing number of people want to be able to consume visual content in a more deliberate way rather than paying for a bunch of channels that they really don’t need. It will be interesting to see what happens with this.

As they say, stay tuned…

What are your thoughts about cable television in the Internet age? If you have cut the cable cord, do you find that you have more free time for other things?