Category Archives: favorites

One Book, Two Book, Red Book, Blue Book

Long weekends like the one we just had are the perfect time to take a break from queries and client manuscripts and catch up on some regular ol’ published books, so I churned through a few recent bestsellers that have been waiting on my nightstand. Naming no names, I found myself underwhelmed by a couple of them.

Now, this is a common side-effect of working in publishing – you hear so much buzz that by the time you actually read a book, your chances of coming into it without expectations are practically nil. And it’s also a side-effect of agenting – our brains are trained to look for flaws and pick apart ways to improve, and it can be really difficult to turn that engine off for pleasure reading.

But I was most intrigued to compare these books – let’s call them Red Book and Blue Book to protect the innocent – to books I read and did love. Red Book came out from the same publisher in the same season as a title in the same category – we’ll call it Green Book – that I devoured and have been recommending non-stop! To me, Red Book was tired and unoriginal, Green Book was twisty and unforgettable; yet Red Book has been tremendously outperforming Green Book in both buzz and sales! And coming from the same publisher, with similar marketing campaigns going into publication. Grrrrrrr, I say to myself, but it’s not fair! Green Book is so much better than Red Book!

I had similar feelings about Blue Book, the editor of which had passed on a manuscript I submitted, Yellow Book. I liked Blue Book fine…but Yellow Book is so much better! Yellow Book would appeal to the same readers now buying Blue Book in droves, and is strong in places that Blue Book is flawed. Ugh, wtf, editor!

So you see, agents are not immune to rejection and confusion. As Miriam recently discussed, the “I’m just not loving it” excuse is as valid as it is frustrating. Miriam described the feeling when you don’t like a bestseller: “I always wonder what’s wrong with me as a reader and then, because I’m judgy and have the power of my convictions, what’s wrong with all the other readers.” I too am judgy, with an unshakeable faith in my own taste, so a case like Red Book and Green Book where there are so many similarities makes me think on the X Factor in publishing. You never know what unseeable details of timing and taste are working for or against the story elements and marketing muscle to make one book a bestseller and banish another to obscurity.

So what’s the takeaway? Embrace the lack of control! Just kidding. I love control. And what you CAN control is being as loud as possible for the books you DO love, especially if you see them missing from Best Book of the Whatever lists! Talk about books you love on Twitter and Facebook, leave a copy in an airport, suggest them to friends in book groups and coworkers with free time.

Don’t waste your energy worrying about books you don’t like –keep yelling (or whispering, if you’re in a library) about the ones you can’t forget.

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Books that spark joy!

As many of you might already know, I’m a bit of the office optimist. I love stories that inspire, delight, and enlighten. I also am a huge fan of Ann Patchett, both her writing and her overall persona. I love that she opened an independent bookstore in Nashville, and I also love that she periodically writes for their blog.

I was pleased to see this post she wrote about books that spark joy. The list describes books she personally finds joy in, and then she gives some suggestions from her staff so there are a lot of good suggestions.

Patchett  got the idea from another employee at the store who had written about books that make you cry. The reason we all read is ultimately for the emotional , spiritual or intellectual response elicited from a writer’s words. Depending on your place in life, the books that have meaning at that time can make a lasting impact.

As a child, Judy Blume did this for me, as well as Torey Hayden’s books about troubled kids. In college, it was fiction like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History that made me want to get into the world of books. I remember walking to campus in Boston reading while I walked because it was so good. This was long before distractions were digital!

When I started working in working in publishing, I worked for Polygram Filmed Entertainment  in development and read Sleepers by Lorenzo Carcaterra overnight after faxing the ENTIRE MANUSCRIPT to LA. Then I found joy and solace in writers like Ann Patchett and Annie Proulx. I loved The Shipping News.

Today it’s more about narrative nonfiction like Brain on Fire and When Breath Becomes Air and psychological commercial women’s fiction from authors like Liane Moriarty and Gillian Flynn. And of course the children’s books I read with my kids. The Harry Potter series is an overall favorite, mostly because my eleven-year-old is obsessed with it, and two out of four are loving Wonder right now. They all loved my client Cecilia Galante’s upcoming touching and heartwarming The World from Up Here.

The idea of books that spark joy, and elicit that positive response that makes us feel good is such a coveted pleasure of reading that I love thinking about it in those terms.

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My 32 Favorite Books

Any book lover hates getting the question, “so what’s your favorite book?” Because it’s impossible to choose just one! Since it’s my BIRTHDAY today, I decided to go for the ultimate act of self-indulgence and list my 32 favorite books – one for every candle on my cake. These are the books I’ve read, re-read, and recommended, the ones I cherish most!

 

  1. Seuss’s ABCs (proud to say this is my 11-month-old-nephew’s current fave)
  2. Go Dog Go by P.D. Eastman
  3. Richard Scarry’s Busytown (probably where my big-city dreams first took root)
  4. The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper (a pen name for Arnold Platt of the publisher Platt & Munk!)
  5. Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey
  6. Meet Kirsten by Janet Shaw (the first book that broke my heart)
  7. Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder (the first book I remember reading on my own!)
  8. Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Beverly Cleary (the author’s 100th birthday was last week so my book club is reading this one this month…life comes full circle)
  9. Betsy-Tacy Go Downtown by Maud Hart Lovelace(the whole series is a fave, but this is the first I read and, as book lover’s bonus, centers on Betsy’s own writing, her Uncle Keith who is an author, and a theatrical production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin!)
  10. A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett(I yearned for the glamor of being orphaned and indentured, in a freezing attic with bread crusts to eat.)
  11. Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild
  12. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (the second book that broke my heart. RIP Beth, it’s an injustice that you died and bratty Amy married Laurie.)
  13. Emily of New Moon (while I of course adore the Anne series, I gotta give the nod to L.M’s slightly less famous trilogy…)
  14. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  15. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  16. The Great Gatsby (I know, me and everyone else in America. But I just love it so and will gladly read any/all Fitzgerald fanfiction you throw my way. #FitzgeraldForever)
  17. Lolita (come for the scandal, stay for Nabakov’s incredible prose…in his second language, no less)
  18. East of Eden by John Steinbeck (vastly more fun than Grapes of Wrath, if you don’t mind the page count.)
  19. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
  20. Paris Trout by Pete Dexter (To Kill A Mockingbird…but better!)
  21. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (I know, I know! Snobby post-college me loved it and post-30 me defiantly still does)
  22. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
  23. The Secret History by Donna Tartt (I’ll pause here to let Miriam yell at me about how much she hates The Goldfinch)
  24. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (the first book I read after moving to NYC and now one of my lifetime faves)
  25. A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse (a book lover’s bookstore book…need I say more?)
  26. Claire Marvel by John Burnham Schwartz
  27. The Round House by Louise Erdrich (suspense, coming-of-age, and marginalized communities all in one amazingly powerful literary novel!)
  28. My Education by Susan Choi
  29. An Untamed State by Roxane Gay (warning: a brutal, beautiful, unforgettable novel)
  30. The Magicians series by Lev Grossman (a lot of fun in its own right and for its nods to other fantasy classics)
  31. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
  32. …??? Leaving this one blank! What will be the next book I love and recommend and re-read?

 

This book-list-as-memoir was a lot of fun…and I think you can see the exact moment where I left the Midwest and started exploring literature outside the classics. Looking forward to a lot more exploration in the next 32 years! Share your favorites in the comments to make sure I’m not missing out! 

And thanks to Kemi for this perfect birthday card: 

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Form & function

Yeats full

Mr. Yeats attended two universities with me and lives his life with paper clips marking the poems I’ve studied and annotated.

H&M

Heaney and Muldoon live on my shelf in many forms, but NORTH and QUOOF actually live at my office. Six months before I began working at DGLM, I turned in my master’s thesis on these two collections. And something about identity and politics. I’m not sure I ever knew what I was trying to say about them. But now they live in my office reminding me of what words can do and why I broker them for a living.

Last week, Sharon and I were discussing a book she wants to read that I own a copy of, and we agreed on the one major failing of borrowing a book:  you don’t get to keep it.  I’m a hard copy person (a trade paperback person, if we’re getting specific), and I not only want to own physical copies of the books I’ve read and loved, I want to own the exact copy I read and loved.  I’ll borrow a galley if I want to read the book before I can buy it and don’t have a copy of my own, but if the book is available for purchase, I’d rather go buy it just in case I love it enough to give it a permanent home on my shelves. 

I mean, sure, I could borrow the book and go out and buy my own if it turns out to be worthy, but then I wouldn’t have an emotional attachment to the book as an object as well as to the book’s contents, and it’s just not the same.  I’ve always wanted to be a library person, since it’s obviously more fiscally sensible, but ultimately I’d rather forego new clothes and expensive dinners and fancy technology and living in a trendy neighborhood so I can curate my own personal library. One day I’m going to be a rich person with a dedicated library and rolling ladder, and I want the books that I fly past Beauty in the Beast-style to tell the story of my reading history.

McCann

To the left, my reading-worn original. To the right, my pristine copy signed by the master himself.

This is such a strong issue, that it turns out both Sharon and I have some books that we own in two copies: the one we read, and the one we got signed at an event.  I’m not really that big on signed books, but obviously, you can’t get rid of a signed copy, especially if it was personalized. But how am I supposed to part with the object I was holding in my hands as I experienced a book that means something to me?  That would just be insane.  So I’ll just persist with multiple copies of Let the Great World Spin on my shelves forever.  

Emma Donoghue signed this, my most coveted BEA galley of all time, after it had been read by me and several friends of mine.

Emma Donoghue signed this, my most prized BEA galley of all time, after it had been read by me and several friends of mine.

Many of the books I own have lived on two continents, in two countries, in three towns/cities, in two boroughs of NYC, and in around ten apartments.  I paid about $100 extra just to get all my books on the plane when I moved home after grad school in Ireland.  And when I’m old and grey, they’ll still be there, physical reminders of the worlds I’ve had the good fortune to temporarily inhabit.

These are some of Sharon's special totems (though she also has the same double McCann "problem" that I do). I'm most envious of her signed copy of Roxane Gay's AN UNTAMED STATE, with that incredible inscription. Though Matt Weiland is no slouch at book signing himself.

These are some of Sharon’s special totems (plus she also has the same double McCann “problem” that I do). I’m most envious of her signed copy of Roxane Gay’s AN UNTAMED STATE, with that incredible inscription. Though Matt Weiland is no slouch at book signing himself.

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Smells like a bestseller!

Like many in publishing, I was an English major…by default more than practicality, because I was pretty good at reading and writing, knew I wanted to spend my life obsessing over commas, and ran screaming from the room the first time a science teacher broached the possibility of dissecting a sheep’s eyeball (still one of the worst experiences of my life). To this day I don’t really understand the principle of gravity and find it highly suspicious.

My science aversion has not kept me from accumulating quite a few science-loving friends, though; in fact, my college roommate double-majored in chemistry and physics and is now a science professor in upstate New York. She’s always trying to trick me into sciencey things, like a poetry reading based on the periodic table of the elements, which actually turned out to be pretty fun. (Plus there was wine there – fermentation is one scientific process I am not averse to.)

So I was not surprised to find this post from her on my Facebook wall today: a scientific breakdown of the smell of books. You know what I’m talking about –  that big whiff of delicious mold when you step through the door of a used bookstore; the fresh perfume released when you crack the spine of a brand new hardcover. Old or new, the smell of books has been a favorite topic of nostalgians and those resistant to the lure of digital reading. But did you ever stop to wonder just what produces those beloved aromas?

This chemistry website did, and their in-depth report will no doubt enthrall those of you with room in your brains for science and literature.

Do you prefer the aroma of old books or new books? What burning literary question do you think science should turn to next?

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Children’s best-of picture books

I know this time of year everyone is compiling best-of-the-year lists. And I take it all with a grain of salt because there are so many great books published every year that it’s hard to pick just a sampling. Although I do love when I see my own titles on there, like Christie Matheson’s beautiful and thoughtful TOUCH THE BRIGHTEST STAR on this best-of list from B&N. I especially love that it’s listed under Books That Are a Feast for the Eyes.

I also saw this great list compiled by a Huffington Post editor, some of which I knew and others I was happy to learn about. All of which look interesting and beautiful. I appreciate the list because it’s incredibly diverse and comprehensive, and she gives the honorable mention books in addition to the winners. There is something about the timeless beauty of a good picture book that warms my heard and makes me happy to have it in my collection.

What were your favorite children’s books this year? And what would you like to see more of next year? I’m working on a few new projects that I think and hope will entertain, educate, and enlighten both kids AND their parents.

Touch the Brightest Star

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“You Gotta Read this Book.”

Publishers (and thus agents) often talk about word-of-mouth. The elusive factor that can make or break a book, especially in fiction. You readers know exactly what I’m talking about! “Oh, oh, you gotta read this book” or “OK…That book is SO good,” often accompanied by wide eyes, clutching your heart, and/or waving hands (personally I usually do a weird STOP motion with my hands, like some kind of frantic reading crossing guard).

 

The contagious excitement often leads to borrows, sales, and more – you read it, you love it, and you enact the same dance with someone else. On and on! This is why publicists often spend a lot of time, energy, and postage on getting upcoming titles in the hands of “influencers” – in addition to important reviewers and bloggers, people who are loudmouths about books in their communities, whether it’s on Twitter, in book clubs, or at the dog park.

But the real question is…just what what makes a book you gotta read? Is it something identifiable in plot, characters, setting? Is it just a lucky perfect storm of everyday readers, and bestseller headlines?

Buzzfeed asked their audience recently what books they can’t stop talking about, and the wide variety of answers seem to suggest a third option: it’s simply different for every reader. On this list you’ll find classics, contemporary award winners, scifi, YA (all genres), mysteries and histories. There’s books I loved on this list, and books I’ve hated! So I spent some time thinking about the qualities common to books I tend to force people to read: things like a big twist that I didn’t see coming will get me yelling about a book; a memoir that makes me laugh and cry; or a true story that leads me into a subject I never realized existed. Whatever the factor, it’s definitely something I’m thinking about when reading submissions – am I excited enough about this book that I am dying to recommend it to people…starting with editors?

What makes for a book you can’t stop talking about? Any of your favorite recommends make this list?

1

A truth acknowledged

The first time I read Pride and Prejudice I was smitten by Austen’s acerbic wit, her depiction of a woman with a mind (and sense of humor) of her own, her good humored (and, okay, sometimes a little bitter) skewering of Regency mores, her prose, her storytelling, and, okay, yeah, the most swoonworthy hero ever.    Over the years, my affection for the book has not waned.  If anything I appreciate its subtleties and charms more than ever before.  And, I get why  the novel has become the prototype of the modern romance novel.  It’s a formula that never gets old: Independent minded attractive female meets disdainful but hot male  and a battle of wits ensues; sparks fly, love blossoms, marriage results.

But, is the formula overused?  Is it time to step back from the P&P retreads?  Should we leave Lizzie and Darcy alone for a while to enjoy the glories of Pemberley without fear of encroaching rodents?  Can we agree that guinea pigs and Austen is just a “No”?

Really.  Despite what Sharon Pelletier may or may not say publicly, just no.

Are you with me blog readers?

 

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New York, New York

When you picture NYC, what comes to mind? Skyscrapers reflecting on the river on a crisp winter night? Tourists snapping photos of costumed characters in Times Square? Writers scribbling away in an overpriced apartment in Brooklyn? Agents reading away in an overpriced apartment in Astoria? (Guess which one of those is drawn from life…).

Me in the fall of 2009 – full of excitement and bangs

New York City is even more diverse and colorful than the version of it you get on Friends or Wolf of Wall Street. It’s a city full of many different neighborhoods, and even each neighborhood can have several vibrant communities sharing the streets. Turn off the TV and turn to a book shelf to get a much broader experience of NYC’s sights, sounds and smells – the New York Public Library makes it easy for you with this fun list of NYC novels by neighborhood.

A couple of my all-time favorite books made the list, but that doesn’t mean I can’t suggest a few additions! These are all books that are tied in my memory to very specific seasons of my life in NYC. A BIGAMIST’S DAUGHTER by Alice McDermott, gives a sample of the Upper East Side neighborhood where I lived when I first moved here, and the Murray Hill location of my first job in publishing.  I couldn’t tell you what part of Brooklyn is the setting for L.J. Davis’ A MEANINGFUL LIFE , because I bought the book at an author signing at Greenlight Bookstore my first week in New York, when I had no idea where anything was. Even seeing the cover will always evoke for me that autumn of fresh excitement, anxiety, and seemingly infinite potential.

More recently I’ve been seeking out books that celebrate the diversity of NYC and call my attention to corners I haven’t explored yet. Books like Adam Silvera’s MORE HAPPY THAN NOT which takes an honest look at both the joy and the danger of growing up in the Bronx – especially when your story is different from that of those around you. And Tanwi Nandini Islam’s BRIGHT LINES took me into Brooklyn’s Bangladeshi community as young girls come of age and learn to navigate among the identities that surround them. Because I think that’s maybe what nearly every novel is really about, in same way: finding out who we are, and learning to love it.

What are your favorite NYC novels? Any neighborhoods this list overlooks?

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Stately, plump Buck Mulligan

Looking through the online catalogue of the very cool Litographs which, among other things, makes literary temporary tattoos, I came across this one, which recreates Molly Bloom’s iconic closing line of James Joyce’s Ulysses, “yes I said yes I will Yes,” purposely devoid of any punctuation save the closing full stop.

It seems appropriate with Bloomsday fast approaching that I should talk about why Ulysses is one of my favorite books. Not for any snooty, ‘looking down my superior and literary nose at the plebeians who have never read it’ reasons, but because of something nearly the opposite. Being shown how to read Ulysses actually taught me so much about how to read—close reading in between the lines—in general.

My senior year of college was spent completing my English degree and fitting in any other required courses my university required for graduation. I realized, also, that I was thisclose to adding on a minor in either French or Irish Studies (you know, those degrees that are super helpful in the real world). I chose Irish Studies, mainly because I hadn’t taken a French class in at least a year and frankly, Irish Studies just seemed more interesting.

That year, I had two classes where I was the only student. The first was a class about feminism in 20th Century Ireland and not only was I the only student to sign up for it, but the university totally forgot the cancel the class, like they’re supposed to do in a situation where there are fewer than I believe five students. The professor emailed me the day before, a letter which basically consisted of “um, well, this wasn’t supposed to happen, but I’m game if you are,” and so without any classroom assignment, we met in a pub once a week and talked about cool Irish ladies. Not terrible.

The other class was one of my own making—I’d always wanted to read Ulysses, but never trusted that I could venture in on my own. An overly confident seventeen-year-old Rachel once decided she would read it over the summer after covering Portrait of an Artist in her senior year English lit class and ostentatiously carried it around with her for about a month before quietly abandoning the book after making it through a chapter and a half with only the vaguest understanding of what was going on. After approaching my advisor with the idea, I found a professor willing to take me on an independent study course where we met once a week in her office to discuss the chapters one at a time.

I loved it. I have never, ever been someone who marks up her books, but boy is my copy of Ulysses littered with as many of my own scrawlings as Joyce’s (not entirely true). I learned how to be an active reader, how to consider in depth references and also to read in virtually any style known to man (up until 1922) since no two of Joyce’s chapters, or episodes as they are called, is written in the same manner. I read each on my own, marking to the best of my ability, genuinely laughing out loud at sentences and allusions that I would never have understood previously, and then marked them up some more in the hour-long sessions with my professor.

It was a truly enjoyable and enlightening experience and I believe it has forever changed the way I approach a novel, no matter how straightforward or complicated it may be. I’ve since reread the book and have found myself able to follow along unencumbered, and I’ll always be forever grateful for the opportunity that I had. There are countless ways to write, countless ways to read and countless ways to interpret a text, which is part of (all of?) the reason why books and literary pursuits in general are so important. There is always a new thing to discover and no two people will be affected by a piece of writing in the same way. All we can do is gather more and more tools with which to approach ever more books, while delighting in going back to old favorites with our newfound perspectives.

I’d love to know, too, if there are any particular books or moments of clarity that stand out to you as a turning point in your reading career!