Book Review: Multiply/Divide: On the American Real and Surreal, by Wendy S. Walters

This review originally ran in Shelf Awareness for Readers.


"The border between nonfiction and fiction," writes poet Wendy S. Walters in her introduction, "is often porous enough to render the distinction irrelevant." The short pieces collected in Multiply/Divide: On the American Real and Surreal reflect this belief, moving fluidly between nonfiction (personal essays and reporting pieces) and fiction (short stories and fables), with a few lyrical essays that blend the two. 

Celebrating *AHEM* Seven (Not Eight) Years (and Pushing The Dead Ladies Project into As Many Hands as Possible)


Turns out the first lesson I'll be learning as I enter my eighth year of blogging is how to count... this little corner of the internet is SEVEN this year, not eight. Snow White has seven dwarves; a week has seven days; Voldemort had seven horcruxes; I've been blogging for seven years. All of the rest of my sentiments remain the same. Thank you for being here! Now excuse me while I go wipe this egg off my face.

Apparently I've been at this little blog thing for eight seven years. EIGHT SEVEN YEARS. As my five-year-old niece (who is three years younger than my blog, might I add) would say, "Whoa, nelly."

I've learned so much in this space: how to put books that don't work down; how much I value a chance to write about my favorite books (and in my favorite books); how incredible and supportive and lovely and intelligent the bookish community can be. Blogging has led to a few freelance writing gigs and connected me to people all over the world as well as people right here in my new-to-me hometown.

I wasn't planning on doing anything to celebrate here, but I've just finished the kind of book that makes me grateful all over again to be a blogger and have the opportunity to shout, loudly, about the lesser-known books I love. So I'm offering to pre-order a copy of The Dead Ladies Project for one lucky winner. Open to anyone in the world provided The Book Depository can ship to you. I'll pick a winner on Friday, September 4th.

A full, cohesive, "grown-up" review of The Dead Ladies Project will be forthcoming, but in short:

This book left me with a drying-up pen. It's already dog-eared on every other page; it's the kind of memoir that is introspective while also providing a way for us to process the lives of others and how our own connect to them. And connect to places, and moments in history, and moments in the future. As author Jessa Crispin travels the world, following in the footsteps of semi-famous figures (Maud Gonne, Igor Stravinsky, among others) who left behind convention and stability in favor of freedom and exploration, she explores that age-old question of how to live in a way that truly resonates.

Happy reading, and thanks, as always, for being here.

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A Tribute to Merl Reagle (Guest Post from The Beard)


I've been a long-time lover of crossword puzzles, and the puzzles of Merl Reagle in particular. I keep a book of his puzzles by my bed for the nights when I can't sleep or can't stop stressing about whatever it is that day has thrown at me, and the sheer delight I take in his wordplay can pull me out of most any funk. I couldn't quite find my own words to sum up how very sad I am following his unexpected death, but my ever-eloquent husband said all I would have said if I could have found the words. Only better. --Kerry

While I realize this might sound very silly to some people, a man I genuinely admire has died, and I just had a few thoughts. Merl Reagle, who remains my all-time favorite crossword puzzle writer has died. Merl was syndicated in the Hartford Courant, and so his puzzle was inside my home every Sunday. I've been solving his puzzles for almost 15 years. His puzzles were clever, witty, punny, and sometimes downright zany. He was warm, inviting, unbelievably clever (I know I already said clever, but it bears repeating), and had a genuine, honest, almost child-like appreciation for all things involving puzzles or wordplay.

To someone who is not a regular cruciverbalist, it might seem odd that I might feel this way or know so much about his personality without ever having met him. The truth is, solving a puzzle that someone has laid out for you is an exceptionally clear look into how they think, especially if you do it regularly. You become familiar with their sense of humor, you know what they seem to think is common knowledge and what they think is esoteric. You know, as soon as you read a clue, whether the author is being straight with you or throwing you a curveball, even if you don't know the answer to the clue yet. More than any other crossword author I've encountered, Merl's personality came through in his puzzles. There are authors and puzzles where you know the person is being esoteric just for the sake of making the puzzle more difficult, or even intentionally stonewalling you. Merl's puzzles were jocular, inviting, and characterized by that same silly, eager little excitement a friend has when they have a great joke they want to let you in on, but you have to guess the punchline.

His puzzles have been a source of bonding and laughter for my family, and for that I will remain very much in his debt. I'm sharing a YouTube video of him and his simultaneously infuriatingly clever and groan-inducing puns. It would mean very much to me indeed if you, whoever you are, would watch it. You don't even have to watch all 8 minutes of it, but I have a suspicion that if you start watching it, you will.

   

His puzzles were equally infectious. Many of them are online at www.sundaycrosswords.com [editor's note: you can also buy print copies of his books there], if you'd like to solve them. I think you'll really enjoy getting to know him. I did.

Here also are Will Shortz' and Rex Parker's tributes to him, which I found very touching. FAIR WARNING: Rex Parker's website includes the answers to the New York Times puzzles.

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Addendum: Sorry, everyone. I thought I was finished writing about this, but it appears that I'm not. Merl was featured quite prominently in the 2006 movie Wordplay, of which one particular scene has always stayed with me. It's a scene where Merl is driving, and while driving, he's making anagrams of the signs and banners passing by. The one that I remember in particular is him driving buy a store called "NOAH'S ARK" and remarked, "or spelled differently, 'NO, A SHARK!'" I don't believe that he would have said about himself that he was funnier or cleverer or more intelligent than most--although I'm saying it now, and know it to be true--I think instead, words and puzzles just opened themselves up to him naturally. If he ever wondered about the fact that most people didn't seem to see the world in the same way as he, which I imagine he did, I also imagine he found it more amusing than perplexing. As to what my Sundays will be like without his particular view of the world, to that I can say only...I'm puzzled.

-Kevin
[known more commonly to followers here as "The Beard"]

Week in Reading // August 24 (Running, Essays, and End-of-Summer Celebrations)

 

It's officially the last week of August (how did that happen?) and summer is winding down; I even saw a school bus on my dog walk this morning. I've been a lax blogger these past few weeks, and expect that will continue in the next week or two--prepping for a big board meeting and strategic retreat, and then a much-needed beach trip next week to celebrate the end of summer in sun-soaked style. I've got a few review deadlines to meet this week, and then am hoping that my vacation reading can be all backlist... but we'll see how that plan goes. In the meantime, here's what I'm reading:


Week in Reading: August 17

I didn't read anything this weekend, but that's ok, because I ran eight miles (and filled my water bottle from a mountain spring mid-run, which made the two-mile up-hill trek worth every step) and celebrated my SIL's surprise engagement with an impromptu road trip to visit family. While I'm ok with not reading for a few days (life events trump reading sometimes, though I'll admit it's a rarity), the break means my stack for this week is even more ambitious than it normally is:


I've got book club meetings tomorrow night (The Nightingale, which I actually finished on Friday--a fast-paced World War II read that I enjoyed, though there are other WWII historical fiction books I liked far more) and Wednesday night (Narcoland, for a Curious Iguana series on Latin American voices). I'm also eying some September releases: Not on Fire But Burning, which I know very little about, but it sounds somewhat post-apocalyptic--plus, that title!; and Big Magic, the new book on living your best creative life, out next month from Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame (I've never read the latter, but am excited to try out the former).

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What do you have on your stacks this week?

Book Review: The Beautiful Bureaucrat, by Helen Phillips (and a Giveaway!)


The Beautiful Bureaucrat deals mainly in obscurities. In the opening pages, our heroine, Josephine Newbury applies for a job doing some kind of administrative data entry at a nameless company. After interviewing with a genderless, nameless person dubbed "The Person with Bad Breath," she is given a stack of files and told to input a date from the files into the Database. It's a tedious job that makes no sense to Josephine, but it's a job, and after nineteen months of unemployment, she's grateful to have it.

Week in Reading: August 10th

We had perfect summer weather here this weekend, and I spent most of Saturday outdoors: first running a local 5K, then on a 15' sailboat in perfect wind, learning to sail on the Bay. (I PR'ed the 5K; we only capsized the boat once; I'd call the day a success overall.) I haven't yet perfected the art of running or sailing while reading, though, which meant I didn't get much reading time in (though I did make an entire meal out of various recipes and techniques in The Food Lab last night, and I doubt I'll stop talking about this book for a good long time). Here's what's on deck for this week: