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This Sunday: Figment, Charles Dickens, Etgar Keret and more

April 6, 2012 |  1:14 pm

FigmentIt’s been a busy week around The Times' book department as we get ready for the Festival of Books in just two weeks (April 21 and 22) at USC. We’ve been planning coverage leading up to the festival and thinking about the great writers, editors and publishing figures coming to town to talk about our favorite subject: books. If you haven’t had time to check the lineup of outstanding panels, conversations and other presentations, please check it here.

   Meanwhile, a relatively new communication platform and a decidedly old one highlight our book coverage on Sunday. The new one is Figment, the social networking site primarily for teens, where budding writers can critique their work and the work of others. The site’s slogan is “Write Yourself In,” and in just 15 months, more than 200,000 young people have done so and more than 350,000 individual pieces have been posted. According to Jacob Lewis, a former managing editor at the New Yorker and Portfolio who is in charge of the site’s day-to-day operation, they add 1,000 new pieces a day.

"It’s essential that our users feel a sense of ownership," Lewis told Times book critic David Ulin, who writes about Figment’s rapid rise for this Sunday's Arts & Book section. Currently on Figment, according to Ulin, is a mix that includes the first chapter of Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” as well as Rachel Hawkins’ third “Hex Hall” novel, “Spell Bound.”  “You’re as likely to find a reference to Tom Waits or William S. Burroughs as to ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘The Hunger Games,' ” Ulin writes.  “Its success, then, simply reaffirms what readers everywhere have always known: that literature and reading aren’t going anywhere.” The site’s founders, Lewis and New Yorker writer Dana Goodyear, will be honored on April 20 at the L.A. Times Book Prizes with the Innovator’s Award. 

The decidedly old platform is letter-writing, and this Sunday we look at 450 examples of Charles Dickens' masterful epistolary prose that have been gathered for “The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens,” edited by Jenny Hartley. Our reviewer novelist Nicholas Delbanco notes that “By the time he died, at 58, he was world-famous and besieged with mail; he answered correspondence promptly and received by his own attestation 'three or four score letters every day.' ”  That’s a lot of mail to keep up with. No wonder he died at 58. Think not? Try sitting down and writing a letter — snail mail, that is — to your Aunt Bruce in Cincinnati.  One of our favorite examples from Dickens, which Delbanco notes with pleasure, is this snippet he wrote, when 21, to Maria Beadnell, who had rejected his advances: “I have often said before and I say again I have borne more from you than I do believe any creature breathing ever bore from a woman before.”

More after the jump

Carolyn Kellogg reviews “Suddenly, a Knock on  the Door,”  stories from the Israeli writer Etgar Keret. Kellogg notes, “There are 35 stories in this slender paperback, and sometimes they are just strange or sad or sweet enough to make you set the book down and walk away, to give them time to sink in.” She calls this body of work “a superlative collection, one that will easily stand up to all comers.”

Martin Rubin reviews “No Time Like the Present,” the latest novel, her 16th, from Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer. In this work, Gordimer brings her readers into the lives of a couple who are both veterans of the war against apartheid. She offers their stories as a window into life in the new South Africa. Rubin notes, “Although she is 88, Gordimer has all the enthusiasm of youth as she celebrates what she sees all around her. Her approach is kaleidoscopic, staccato, sweeping here and there, from urban to rural, reveling in South Africa’s newfound rainbow character, its openness to the rest of the African continent, its rightful place in the concert of nations.”

As the 100th anniversary of the Titanic's sinking nears, Susan Carpenter reviews the YA title “Titanic: Voices From the Disaster,” which, she writes, is a “meticulous recounting of the disaster culled from the accounts of survivors and witnesses, amply illustrated with black-and-white photos, handwritten ship’s logs, letters, menus and ice warnings sent from other ships that bring this eerie story to life in a way that words alone cannot.”

And authors Sam Harris and Alain de Botton take on human awareness in complementary yet distinct reflections in two books -- "Free Will" and "Religion for Athiests" -- reviewed by Richard Rayner.

Our weekly bestsellers lists has Anne Lamott’s latest work, “Some Assembly Required,”at the top of the nonfiction list and Julian Barnes' “The Sense of an Ending” at the top of fiction. If you missed it this week, Mary McNamara, who writes about books just as keenly as she writes about television, reviewed Anne Tyler’s latest novel, "The Beginner's Goodbye."

As always, thanks for reading.

-- Jon Thurber, book editor


Photo: Figment website            Credit: Figment.com