Category Archives: great books

1

Vacation Reading

I spent much of last week at a family reunion, where I stayed in a cabin on the shores of Lake Erie. I had a wonderful holiday, but no time for pleasure reading.  It gets dark very, very late in Northern Ohio.  By the time the sun had dropped into the lake and the sky had cooled from orange to pink to violet to blue, and by the time my sons and their cousins had run themselves ragged catching fireflies, then begged bedtime snacks, drinks and stories, it was an impossible hour.  Way, way beyond Past-Your-Bedtime.  It felt like Scandinavia in summer, only with shorter people.

The cabin in which I was staying was laid out in such a way that no reasonable light could be left on for reading. I could squint at my smartphone, but the books I brought with me remained in my suitcase.  That is, until the last day, when I finished one, (Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis—riveting) started another (David Mitchell’s  complex and fantastical novel The Bone Clocks) and reacquainted myself with the singular pleasure of knowing I’m in the midst of a good book. Subtle and intoxicating, the sensation of something to look forward to makes me feel like a kid again, when even my impatience to return to a book just heighten the delight of reentry.

Before acquiring the galley for The Bone Clocks at BEA, I’d not read anything that Mitchell wrote, nor seen the tepidly received film adaptation of Cloud Atlas. It took me a few sections before I oriented myself to his style of interlocking stories, and a few more still before I started to see how they all fit together, but what a magnificent imagination that Mitchell has!

Now that I am back on the east coast and it’s reliably dark by 9:30, I’ve finished the book and am looking, hungrily, for another.  What book have you read recently that left you longing to get back to it?

2

New friends, old books

Last week I went on a great big adventure and travelled the farthest west I’ve ever been in my whole life. Which is only as far as Colorado, but sometimes adventures can be done in baby steps, right? Not only is it a gorgeous state with absolutely beautiful weather (at least while I was there), but I was attending a wedding that was equally gorgeous and beautiful and all those other nice adjectives combined. I was a little nervous, though—I’ll admit it—since I didn’t know anyone else in attendance besides the bride and groom and wow that’s a whole lot of people to meet in unfamiliar territory.

Luckily, people love bonding over shared interests and passions and when they’re even the slightest bit obscure, well then that makes for excitable, easy friend-making. I’ll be honest, I don’t quite remember the start to the conversation, but when I heard someone talking about one of my favorite, but rarely referenced books, I couldn’t help but jump in uninvited to animatedly begin extolling its virtues. The book itself is unimportant, and I’ve definitely talked about it on this blog before, but I’ll divulge anyway lest you die in the frustration of not knowing. Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle is a well-enough known (I think) book, but continually under the radar. I never meet people who either have read or remember it, sadly.

However! This time I did! And from there, we all got to talking about various other books, books in general and then who knows what else. All I know is that it was the perfect icebreaker as I was left to my own devices at the time. There’s something really lovely about initiating a friendship (or acquaintanceship) over a love of a particular book. So much less dull than “so, what do you do?” or “oh, this is your first time to Colorado?” which can really get old after a while. Similar taste in literature, however, speaks to an entirely more personal, relatable aspect and you’ll either have a great person to bounce other interests and ideas off of…or someone with whom to engage in lively arguments with and both are pretty cool.

I even made another friend over liking another book, but I’ll admit that this other person was two and three quarters and the book was made almost entirely of pictures. And we both also had curly hair and were born in the same month and were wearing tulle skirts, so actually that was the best friend I made on the trip…

Read this piece (aka more on Stephen King)!

I am really not obsessed with Stephen King. I do think he’s amazing and a genius, and I’d like to spend a day living inside his brain, but I really don’t follow his every move. Which is why it’s kind of funny that I’m doing another post about him.

I recently shared a link with what I thought was some great advice from Stephen King, and now I want to share with our readers an article I came upon this week while cleaning out my bathroom (I store much of my best reading material there!). It’s from an August, 2013 issue of the New York Times Magazine, and it goes into some detail about the immediate King family, all of whom have storytelling in their blood. I find it beyond fascinating that this entire clan lives and breathes books and writing, stories and ideas. Not to mention they genuinely seem to have a strong affection for one another, despite some very rough and rocky times.

One of my favorite anecdotes is about how when King’s kids were little and he needed books to listen to while driving, he’d have them record the books he was interested in hearing. It’s brilliant! I’m going to get my kids to start recording books immediately. I can’t think of a better family activity.

I also loved reading about King’s daughter in-law, Kelly Braffet’s, entrée into the family. Can you imagine being an aspiring writer (she met King’s son at the Columbia MFA writing program in 2001) and meeting your future in-laws named Stephen and Tabitha King for the first time?

And yet another great anecdote comes from King’s son, Joe, who struggled as a writer for years unwilling to use his dad’s name to sell books. He went beyond using a pseudonym, Joe Hill, refusing to even admit who he was to his literary agent for 8 years (a time during which he did not sell a book)!

The stories go on. Anyone interested in writing should read this article. To me, it illustrates how important it is that the environment we create for ourselves and our families be one that allows for thoughtful and creative thinking. If you surround yourself with smart people who have similar interests and ideas, you will naturally find yourself gravitating in that direction.

I hope you enjoy learning more about the King family, and that they inspire you to be better writers, readers, and storytellers.

3

Holiday gift ideas

Today it snowed in Manhattan for the first time this season. You know what that means? The holidays are here.

It may not officially be holiday season until Black Friday hits stores, transforming shoppers across the country into characters straight out of Lord of the Flies, but it’s never a bad idea to get a head start. In fact, rather than wait in an endless line for the new iPad, try giving a book as a gift. I always enjoy unwrapping a good story, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

The key is to choose the right book. That’s why I’m coming to you. I need suggestions. And don’t be afraid to get creative. In fact, it’s encouraged. Nothing says “I didn’t really try” like buying someone a bestseller they’ve already read (although I suppose that asking for ideas over the internet comes close).

What you need to know

Dad: likes legal thrillers, sports books, military history

Mom: likes any controversial nonfiction (especially something health-related), thrillers, romance

Sister: likes everything from YA to literary fiction to books on psychology, no science fiction or fantasy though

So get in the Christmas spirit! Share your suggestions!

8

Quintessentially aughts?

Buzzfeed is one of my current guilty pleasures.  Its layout suits my ever diminishing attention span and…well, there are cute dog, cat, and Paul McCartney pictures.  But every once in a while, they make random picks in a category, lump them together and give them a header like “19 Quintessential Books of the ‘90s” (the numbers are never even, it seems, and that’s another BF affectation), and off I go to spend five minutes that I’ll never get back growing increasingly disgruntled by their choices.

I remember the ‘90s in literature quite well and this list is disappointing.  Where are The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, The Hours, The Hot Zone  (Remember when we were all worried about Ebola? Simpler times…), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, for goodness’ sake?

Which got me thinking that now that the “aughts” are over we should be able to put together a list of the quintessential books of the first decade of the 21st century.  I’ll get us started (let’s keep it simple and list only fiction):

  • The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
  • Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
  • Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
  • Atonement by Ian McEwan
  • Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

What would you add to (or delete from) the list?

 

4

Bookscapes

It’s impossible to quantify the power of books.  Books are comfort, knowledge, strength, humor, heartache, faith, experience, society, joy…and pretty much everything else you want to ascribe to them.

This TED talk by Lisa Bu which I found through Galleycat is a wonderful reminder of the power of books.  Take a look and think about the notion of comparative reading, but also about how books have gotten you through particularly challenging periods in your life.

Myself, I need books to help me interpret grief and come to terms with it.  I also need books to help me understand confusing events, whether personal or global.  (And I understand Lisa Bu’s comparative reading as perhaps only those of us with feet in two cultures can.)  Most of all, though, I just need books.

How about you?  What kind of comparative reading do you do?  And, what books do you turn to when things are topsy turvy in your life?

9

Seuss up!

For someone who had never read many children’s books at all before her own child showed up, I’ve become a Dr. Seuss fanatic.   Something about the cadence, the crazy, made-up names (the man would go to any length to make a rhyme happen), the awesome message of tolerance and forbearance, and the cockeyed optimism in the face of greedy Grinches, howling Hakken Kraks, and Horton-taunting bullies, is never less than inspiring.   Which is why this story about drag queen Martha Graham Cracker being disinvited to read a Dr. Seuss book to kids in an after-school program is so un-Seussian.   Ironic, right?

The story has a happy ending, as you’ll see if you follow the link, but it got me thinking about how Dr. Seuss would have addressed some of the more controversial issues of our day.   What would Horton say about gay marriage?  How would the Cat in the Hat feel about the inability of our two major political parties to come to any kind of consensus about anything?  What kind of lectures would the Sneetches deliver to all the haters still clinging to racial and ethnic prejudices?

One of my favorite lines from the Seuss canon is:  “So be sure when you step, Step with care and great tact. And remember that life’s A Great Balancing Act.”  If more of us operated with care and tact, it would be a much more friendly world, no?

What are you favorite Dr. Seuss quotes and characters?

Why some authors hate publishers

A long-time client, who is very dear to our agency, pointed us in the direction of a piece by Michael Levin in the HuffPost that I’d missed when it ran last week.  Our client was distressed by Mr. Levin’s assertions about the nefarious tactics mustache twirling publishers use to victimize authors.  Understandably, since Mr. Levin writes with such passion and seeming authority, she was concerned that the picture he paints is an accurate depiction of the culture of book publishing as 2012 draws to a close and we count down to the  Mayan apocalypse (which, of course, if it comes to pass will make this discussion irrelevant).

After reading the piece Jane and I had basically the same reaction which boiled down to “Why do the people talking trash about our business always seem to be the ones who understand it the least or who have a bag full of sour grapes they’re carrying around with them?”  And, then I got all happy because I didn’t have to scrounge around looking for a blog topic this week.

We promised our client that we’d go through Mr. Levin’s arguments and respond to them from our point of view and this, more or less (with my usual digressions and irritating asides), is what I hope to do here.

Mr. Levin’s argument boils down to four salient points:  (1) Publishers hate authors even though authors and the work they produce are their lifeblood. (2) Publishers are reducing advances and royalties across the board with the added perk of also reducing marketing and promotion for their titles. (3) Publishers’ dependence on BookScan (the tracking system for sales) guarantees that unless an author has a boffo success, their career is over faster than you can say “reserve for returns.”  And (4) by lowering the quality of the product because they refuse to pay what good authors are worth, publishers are ensuring that the public stops buying books and turns to other sources (the Internet) for their information and entertainment kicks.

Alrighty, then!  This should be quick(ish).

(1)   Publishers are the partners and adversaries of agents.  We work with and against them for the good of our authors, who have our first allegiance.  That said, most publishers (and the term includes all the people who make books happen at a publishing house from the CEO to the intern who opens the mail) we deal with daily, sometimes hourly, are incredibly hard working, thoughtful, engaged, and compassionate.  I’ve said this before and it bears repeating, very few people go into our business to achieve their dreams of Trump-like wealth.  Salaries are low in publishing compared to those in other media, and the work is painstaking and, often thankless (Exhibit A: Mr. Levin).  Publishing types do their jobs—which entail long hours after they’ve left the office sitting with a manuscript that needs to be shaped on a granular level—because they LOVE books.  Period.  With all the challenges publishers are faced with in this increasingly digital world, the level of care they bring to the curating of great (and even not so great) books is impressive.

(2)  Not sure which publishers Mr. Levin is talking about but our agency has had its best year ever.  We’ve sold over 100 books this year and have been paid advances, ranging from five to seven figures, on every one of them.  Perhaps there are some tiny houses that are embracing the “no advance” model but we work with the Big Six as well as many, many smaller independent publishers and have not seen this no-advance/lower-royalty model Mr. Levin describes.

(3)  We depend on BookScan too when we are considering signing up an author.  It’s a tremendous tool that lets you know what you’re up against when trying to find a new home for a previously published author whose book didn’t do well.  Has BookScan ever been a deciding factor in not signing up a book?  Probably, but only if we were very much on the fence about it anyway.  I’d venture to say that this is the same process publishers go through because we’ve had numerous authors whose BookScan sales, how to put it delicately?, were in the toilet and we still sold their next book and the book after that.  Bottom line, if your next idea is great or your genius undeniable, or your platform has reached critical mass, BookScan will not destroy your career.

(4)  Really?  Take a look at the best books of the year lists that are cropping up all over the place right now and tell me if you think important, brilliant, exciting fiction and non-fiction isn’t being published any more.  And, given the fact that book sales have risen in the digital age, it seems that a new generation of readers is turning to…books…for their information and their entertainment kicks!

Seems to me that publishers don’t hate authors any more than authors hate publishers.  In this complicated new world we live in, we all (on both sides of the business) need to take responsibility for our own failures and flaws as well as advocate for our strengths and successes rather than succumbing to paranoid fantasies about how much “they” hate us.

5

Lincoln Love

I can’t say that I’m much of a history buff, but there was an interesting article that caught my eye in the Wall Street Journal last week about the overwhelming amount of books there are in the market about President Lincoln. Of course it’s clear that books about Honest Abe sell nicely—just take a look at Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s Killing Lincoln or Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. And according to the article, a minimum of 20 more books about Lincoln are set to be published in the next year!

But what I hadn’t thought about before that the article explained so well is how one subject—or one person, really—can reach such a wide audience. Besides for the obvious fascinating and fatal historical events, Lincoln as a man was beyond extraordinary. For one, he’s the perfect example of someone who achieved the American Dream, all while experiencing personal tragedies. But, part of what makes him so interesting is that, as the article points out, he is still mysterious: “Scholars continue to debate how and when he came to the decision to end slavery.”

But, if you’re already sick of him, the buzzed about Lincoln movie with Spielberg directing and starring the masterful Daniel Day Lewis is sure to rekindle the flame!

What about you all? Are you a Lincoln buff or is there someone else in history that you prefer to read about?

4

Read what you like

One thing I’m almost embarrassed to admit is that it’s only in the past five years or so that I’ve managed to finally reach the realization that reading isn’t a contest. Not that I ever actively pursued a book or number of books with the conscious thought towards winning or understanding or reading more than anyone else, but I also won’t deny the certain pleasure I used to get when I’d already read a book we were reading in school or when people were impressed with either the books I chose to read or how quickly I read them.

I have a list somewhere I made in a notebook a few years ago while sitting in Borders (R.I.P.) going through the entirety of one of those 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die compendiums, making note of every single one that I had read—occasionally scoffing at some of the books that were included, whether or not I had read them. I don’t remember how many books I ended up having on that list, but it was definitely less than 100. Obviously I declared the list unrepresentative and inaccurate.

Similar lists like the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels and the sort still present themselves as obstacles to me to this day. While I no longer care that much about whether or not I’ve read the Top 10 Most Difficult Books, I still find all of these lists incredibly fascinating. Of course, as it’s literature, it can only be subjective. Yes, there are the “great books” that everyone is meant to have some understanding of, and there are those that are widely regarded as the epitomes of modern literature, but there’s always going to be someone to disagree.

What are the criteria for these lists? What makes a book great? What makes a books difficult? There’s really no answer to those questions that are universal, and the lists themselves are there only so people like me can get some kind of perverse pride out of having read some of them. But it really doesn’t matter, does it? As long as you read what you like, what you like is good. The only opinion that matters is your own, and simply because you haven’t read Finnegan’s Wake,* known throughout the land as virtually impossible to get through, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy the books you do choose to read.

We’re not in school anymore, though, and you don’t have to read anything if you don’t want to! So while it’s incredibly entertaining to tick off a list or check them out for inspiration (I’m of the belief that lists in any shape or form are just fun), they don’t have to be the be all end all. If the books you like to read aren’t revered by a great intellectual community, or you just don’t get what the big deal is with Catcher in the Rye or Pride and Prejudice, then you shouldn’t feel any pressure to try and slog through them.

Reading, at its core, is about exploring your own interests, losing yourself in the words, the story and the characters. It’s not about peeking over your book to see who can see what important work you’ve chosen or comparing yourself with others.

 

*(Which, I will say, is the only book I have ever actually thrown across a room, and yes, I did try and read it when I as sixteen because we were going to be reading Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man the next year in school and yes, I thought it would be better if I had read something else of Joyce’s beforehand and yes, I remember flushing with pride when my English teacher was impressed that I had tried to read it at all, and no, I did not make it past page 20.)