Welcome to the January State of the Thing. The long-awaited lists feature has arrived, there's a weeklong ReadaThing coming up, and the 75-book challenge readers are at it again for 2012! We've got author interviews with Shalom Auslander, Theodora Goss, Susan Goodman, Jay Wexler and Susan Cain. There are 2,069 free Early Reviewer books and thousands of Member Giveaway books available in January.
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News and features
New feature: Lists! We've just released an updated version of our new lists feature; there's more to come, but feel free to create new lists and add to others. By way of example, check out the Best Dystopias list, or Books That Made Me Cry. Come talk about the feature here.
February ReadaThing. The ReadaThing group has planned a weeklong ReadaThing for early February, and since we'll be celebrating the bicentennial of Charles Dickens' birth on February 7, there's an optional "Dickens of a ReadaThing" component. See the blog post for all the details, and reading recommendations from a Dickens expert.
Up for a Challenge? For the fifth year in a row, an intrepid group of LibraryThingers has started a 75 Books Challenge group (with more than 550 members so far). I've joined the fun this year, and am having a grand time. With monthly themes, group reads, meetups and readathons, the challenge group's got something for everyone (and don't worry if you don't read 75 books in a year (or if you read many more than 75) ... it's really more about the fun of it than the numbers of books. For more information, check out the blog post, or visit the group page.
Legacy Updates. Newly-completed Legacy Libraries include those of Evelyn Waugh and Phillis Wheatley. Also new: the Legacy Library clouds now link to sortable lists of results. Watch the blog for a possible Legacy Library flash-mob cataloging project in mid-February.
Free books: Early Reviewers
Read and review free books, before they even hit the shelves! We've given out a grand total of 101,774 books so far through Early Reviewers.
The January batch of Early Reviewer books contains 2,069 copies of 86 different titles. The deadline to request a free book to read and review is January 30 at 6 p.m. EST. The February batch will be up at the beginning of the month.
The list of books
The most requested books so far this month:
Interview with author Shalom Auslander
Shalom Auslander is the author of the short story collection Beware of God and the memoir Foreskin's Lament. His first novel, Hope: A Tragedy is out this month from Riverhead Books.
Which of these characters came to you first? Which was the most fun to create?
Kugel, the main character, came first; I liked the idea of a character whose tragic flaw was hope, the very thing we're supposed to never give up or go without. And yet here was a person, it seemed, whose hope was getting him hurt, who might be better off if he gave up and just accepted things as they are, i.e. crappy. Mother, though, was the most fun to create. She is eternally hopeless and finds glory in suffering and pain in joy; I was given birth to by people just like that. Also, she moans about being in the Holocaust, which she never was, and that makes me laugh.
Your main character, Kugel, frequently thinks about famous last words. Do you have a favorite example of last words? And if you could choose yours, today, what would they be?
The idea of last words is funny to me, because the whole notion of "last words" suggests they matter. Which they don't, of course, but this hope we carry that there will be some wisdom or some insight at the last moment, other than "Oh, fuck it, fuck this fucking shit" is so sadly human, I just love it. Personally, I like the idea of saying something, then wanting to change it, and dying before you can. For example, "This most important thing is love. No, wait, I mean..." Or "I leave it all to Stan. Not Stan Epstein, the other one, Stan..."
Is there a particular part of the novel-writing process that you found the most fun or rewarding? Or, on the flip side, was there a part that you really disliked?
It's all great, and it all sucks. I think most writers would agree with that.
Can you describe your writing process for us? Any quirky methods or habits?
Not really. I get some coffee, go to my office, take off my pants, put on my clown shoes and get to work. "Apply ass to seat," who said that?
Read the rest of our interview with Shalom Auslander.
Interview with author Theodora Goss
Theodora Goss writes short stories, poems, and essays, and teaches at Boston University. Her latest book is The Thorn and the Blossom: A Two-Sided Love Story, published this month by Quirk Books. You may want to watch the book trailer to get a sense of the book's interesting design.
How did you come up with the idea to have the book designed this way, as a "two-sided love story"? Can you describe the design process bit for us?
I actually didn't come up with the idea of the two-sided design myself. My wonderful editor, Stephen Segal, came up with it and called me to ask if I could write a story that would fit the format. It was quite a challenge! We didn't want a story that would simply have two sides to it—that wouldn't really be using the format. We wanted a story that could only be told in this way, that would use the format as part of the reading experience. And I think when you read the book, you'll find that it does. You can only understand the story, particularly the conclusion, by reading both sides.
But I was the one who decided that it should be a love story (after all, what other kind of story is so particularly two-sided?), and who came up with the story of Brendan and Evelyn. And after I had come up with it, the basic plot and the characters, then the characters started talking to me, as they do anytime you write a story. They started telling me what they wanted to say and do.
I should also mention the wonderful artist, Scott McKowen, who captured the feel of the story so perfectly. I can't think of a better way to present this book than the way Scott has presented it, with the gorgeous slipcase and the illustrations inside. I think in the end, the book was a collaborative effort between the three of us. And once it's read, the readers will become a part of the collaboration as well, because this story isn't just on the pages. In a sense, it exists between the two sides, and that's the story the readers will have to put together themselves.
Did one of the characters come to you first, or both at the same time?
Both of the characters came to me at the same time, but I wrote Evelyn's story first. Perhaps it was easier for me to write in a female voice first? Or perhaps that's simply our default as writers: when we write love stories, it's almost always from a female perspective. It was very interesting, actually, to write Brendan's story and realize that usually in a love story the male character doesn't get his own narrative. We follow Elizabeth Bennett, not Mr. Darcy. So it was fascinating to give him his own life, to realize that he did have a life of his own, struggles of his own. It made me reevaluate the romance novels I read as a teenager, where the male character is simply a dashing lord or pirate rather than a real person. In some ways, I think readers will actually find Brendan a more satisfying character than Evelyn. He's more active, less troubled. But I loved writing them both.
For your readers who finish this book and want to read more of the mythologies outlined in the story, what books do you recommend?
I suggest reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which is a medieval poem that is in some ways related to those mythologies, and Arthurian legends and Celtic mythology in general. But I have to tell you—all that stuff about The Tale of the Green Knight and the Green Man legend in Europe? It's based on actual mythology, but The Tale of the Green Knight exists only in my head, and the legend of the Green Man and the magical woman who loves him is my own extrapolation from a variety of sources. I love writing about imaginary books and stories that don't exist. So all the translations of The Tale of the Green Knight come from my imagination. I do think it would be fascinating to actually write a Tale of the Green Knight, maybe as a small booklet.
Describe your writing process for us. When, how, and where do you tend to write?
I write whenever I can! I teach full-time at the university level, so whenever I can find the time, I sit down at my desk and start working. I usually write first drafts out longhand in notebooks from Bob Slate, the stationery store in Harvard Square. And then I type them up, so the first typed draft is usually my second draft. And then I revise. At the moment, I'm trying to write poetry, short stories, and a novel, to make sure I'm focusing on different types of writing. I like writing in a variety of genres, and I think each genre helps me with the others. So, for example, writing poetry makes me a better short story writer. Some people really are novelists or poets, but I find that I like writing everything.
Read the rest of our interview with Theodora Goss.
Interview with author Susan Goodman
Susan Goodman is the H. Brown Fletcher Chair of Humanities at the University of Delaware. She is the co-author of William Dean Howells: A Writer's Life, and the author of Edith Wharton's Inner Circle and others. Her new book Republic of Words: The Atlantic Monthly and Its Writers, 1857-1925, was recently published by the University Press of New England.
The Atlantic Monthly's founders laid out quite an ambitious goal for themselves in 1857, "to be the exponent of what its conductors believe to be the American idea." How did they manage to make a success of their magazine when so many similar ventures did not last?
As the country's most intellectual and literary city, Boston brought together men and women who from the beginning of the magazine made it a powerful voice in American politics as well as the arts. Its success depended on a loyal group of contributors, informed and curious readers, often intent on self-improvement, and good management. Luck also played a part. The first issue, for example, contained Ralph Waldo Emerson's poem "Brahma", which provoked a craze of parodies and made readers eager for the next issue.
You've structured Republic of Words as a collection of short chapters, most of which revolve around one of the Atlantic’s writers and "feature an episode or phase" from the writer's life. These episodes all connect with the Atlantic, and allow each chapter to "speak in its way about the magazine's self-made responsibilities and the writer's sense of an underlying national consciousness." Tell us a bit about how the magazine managed to attract and retain such an impressive group of contributors, and why you think the writers played such a key role in the magazine's development.
I think your own fine laying out of this question really answers itself. People wanted to be associated with the Atlantic Monthly not only because it had a reputation for fair dealing but because it stood for the best in American arts and culture. It had, if not a snobbish appeal, an appeal to readers' intelligence and better nature. One Midwestern farm wife and mother wrote to say that reading the Atlantic made her feel more interesting to herself as well as others. From its beginning, writers hoped to make their reputations in the Atlantic. Mark Twain, for example, insisted that an Atlantic review of Innocents Abroad made his career, and Edith Wharton asked why she hadn't been asked for a story. At least one editor was challenged to a backwoods duel, or a war to the knife. Writers still see an Atlantic publication as announcing their arrival.
Your book examines the ways in which each editor of the magazine molded it to his own style and preferences. Can you give us a few examples of the way these editorial practices shaped the Atlantic during its early decades?
Each editor left a stamp on the magazine. More than thirty years separated the editorships of James Russell Lowell and Walter Hines Page, but each weighted its pages more heavily toward politics. The third editor, William Dean Howells, worked to make the Atlantic—which readers associated with Boston and New England—more "southern, mid-western, and far-western" in its range of writers and topics, while his successor, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, emphasized poetry. Beyond all this, and however different their personalities and interests, every editor adhered to the magazine’s original principles, which included dealing "frankly with persons and with parties" and publishing the "best."
Read the rest of our interview with Susan Goodman.
Interview with author Jay Wexler
Jay Wexler teaches law at Boston University, and writes a wide variety of humor pieces and essays for various publications. He is the author of Holy Hullabaloos and the new book The Odd Clauses: Understanding the Constitution Through Ten of Its Most Curious Provisions, published by Beacon Press.
You write in the introduction that you first got the idea for writing a book about the Constitution's "odd clauses" while you were working in the Office of Legal Counsel for the Clinton administration. Do you recall a particularly odd question the OLC was called upon to advise on while you were there?
There were all sorts of odd questions, but the one I spent most of my time on had to do with whether the President had the authority to create a national monument in the middle of the ocean. President Clinton was interested in creating a giant national monument in Hawaii to protect coral reefs, but it's not immediately clear that the relevant statute giving the President the authority to create monuments (it's called the Antiquities Act) gives him the authority to make monuments in the ocean. The question required a good bit of statutory analysis as well as analysis of the proper scope of the so-called "Property Clause" of Article IV of the Constitution. The legal opinion that came out of all that work is here. As it turned out, it was President Bush, not Clinton, who ultimately made the Hawaii monument.
How did you settle on which "odd clauses" to include? Were there a few that came close but didn't quite make the cut (and if so, which)?
This was the hardest part of writing the book. I had to think a lot about what I meant by "odd." Thinking about what makes something odd in turn makes you think about what makes something "normal." So I thought a lot about what kinds of clauses are typically expected in the Constitution, and then what sorts of clauses are not quite like that. Ultimately, I decided that for me what makes a clause really odd is when it's very specific—when it carries out or illustrates some key constitutional principle in a very specific way. Once I settled on this understanding, I was able to exclude some clauses—like the Property Clause, for instance, or the Pardon Clause, that didn't fit my meaning of "odd."
Tell us a bit about how you've structured the book, using each chapter to highlight an odd clause and also connect that clause to a broader constitutional principle.
I wanted to do more than just convey a bunch of interesting and weird constitutional trivia (though I wanted to do that too). So I decided that I could try to use these weird clauses as an entertaining way of giving readers an easy in to understanding the different purposes of the Constitution. By linking each odd clause to a broad principle, I figured the reader would end up after reading the book with a general understanding of the primary functions of the Constitution without having to trudge through some massive boring tome on constitutional law to do it.
In the chapter on the titles of nobility provisions (Article I, Sections 9 and 10) you note that an amendment originally proposed in 1813 which would enact a blanket ban on American citizens accepting titles of nobility could theoretically still be ratified by enough states to become part of the Constitution (as happened with the 27th Amendment, originally proposed in 1789 but not enacted until 1992). Are there other proposed-long-ago amendments still out there which could possibly be ratified?
I'm actually not entirely sure about this. I know that the Equal Rights Amendment, which was never ratified, is no longer open because Congress set a deadline for when it had to be ratified. I think there might be a Child Labor Amendment that was proposed in 1924 that could theoretically be ratified, but there's no need, because everyone now agrees that Congress can prohibit and regulate child labor (this wasn't always the case).
What was the most surprising thing you discovered while researching this book?
I think that Thomas Jefferson helped pass a bill of attainder through the Virginia legislature. The bill basically condemned a specific individual to death and authorized the population of the state to hunt him down. This didn’t seem too "Jeffersony" to me.
Read the rest of our interview with Jay Wexler.
Interview with author Susan Cain
Susan Cain has worked as a corporate lawyer and a negotiations consultant. Her first book is Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, published this month by Crown.
You describe in your opening chapters the rise of what you call the Extrovert Ideal. Give us the nutshell version: what is this, and how did it come to be such a powerful force in American culture?
The Extrovert Ideal says that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight. Our schools, workplaces, and religious institutions are designed for extroverts, and many introverts believe that there is something wrong with them and that they should try to “pass” as extroverts. The bias against introversion leads to a colossal waste of talent, energy, and happiness.
In my book, I trace how we shifted from a "Culture of Character" into a "Culture of Personality" at the turn of the 20th century. Big business, the media, the self-help industry, and advertising all went through radical changes that had the effect of glamorizing bold and entertaining personality styles. I also tell the surprising life story of Dale Carnegie, who morphed from shy, awkward farm boy into bestselling author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, and is a fascinating example of this cultural transformation.
And I talk about why the Culture of Personality is not a great model for the 21st century.
Shyness and introversion are often conflated, but they're not quite the same thing, right?
Right. Shyness is the fear of disapproval or humiliation; introversion is simply a preference for quiet, minimally stimulating environments. Shyness is inherently painful. Introversion is not. But both personality styles often spring from a careful, sensitive temperament that has great value.
There are, as you point out in the book, some marked differences between the tendencies of people from Eastern and Western cultural backgrounds when it comes to intro/extro-version. What do you think the two cultures can learn from each other?
In many Far Eastern countries, particularly in the Confucian belt, quiet and introspection are signs of deep thought and higher truth. Group harmony is valued, so words are seen as potentially dangerous weapons that reveal things better left unsaid. This Japanese proverb says it all: "The wind howls, but the mountain remains still."
Westerners believe deep down that it's natural for the bold and sociable to dominate the reserved and sensitive. But East-West personality differences show that each way of being—quiet vs. talkative, careful vs. audacious, inhibited vs. unrestrained—is characteristic of its own mighty civilization.
In the book, I show how Eastern personality styles are associated with everything from academic success to political "soft power." I spend an entire chapter in the majority Asian-American town of Cupertino, California, where I talk to Asian-Americans who have conflicted feelings about the brash, back-slapping style of American schools and businesses.
Read the rest of our interview with Susan Cain.
Author Chat lets you talk to authors—ask questions, get answers, and find out more about how or why a book is written. The schedule of upcoming chats is posted too, so you can plan to read the author's book ahead of time.
Upcoming chats: Bart Astor will discuss The Baby Boomer's Guide to Caring for Aging Parents from February 27 - March 2. Frederick R. Lynch will discuss One Nation Under AARP from March 5-9.
Take me to the chats!
More free books: Member Giveaways
At any given time, there are hundreds of books available from our Member Giveaways program. Member Giveaways is like Early Reviewers, but isn't limited to select publishers—any author or member can post books. Request books, or offer your own!
Hot titles this month
- 11/22/63 by Stephen King
- Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
- Inheritance by Christopher Paolini
- 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
- The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
- The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
- The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
- The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco
- Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
- Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson
Questions, comments, ideas, suggestions? Send them our way.
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