Category Archives: Miriam

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A list is a list is a list

Recently, I was challenged by a friend on Facebook to list 10 books that had “stayed with me.”   Normally, I enjoy those types of FB challenges as much as I do folding three weeks’ worth of laundry and I often decline to participate.  But, given my line of work, it feels churlish and ungenerous to refuse any opportunity to share what I consider to be one of my life’s  great passions, so despite the ambiguity of the challenge—“Stayed with me” how?  In a good way?  In a throw-it-across-the-room-in-a-fit-of-rage way?  I mean, I hated everything about The Scarlet Letter, but it stayed with me.  And don’t even get me started on The Goldfinch—I went ahead and posted my list.  

Thing is, I find listing books for any purpose—favorites, tree killers (those that are a waste of paper), recommendations, etc.—a trying activity simply because there is so much to choose from and there is such judgment implicit in every choice.    In fact, no one is as judgmental as a book lover.  Admit it, you have mentally demoted friends and lovers based on their book preferences.  You have gloated (internally or otherwise) about how much better your taste in literature is than anyone else’s.  You have shamed people publicly after finding out they’ve never read a certain author’s work (okay, maybe that’s just me…and, the rest of the DGLMers).  So, there’s no way to pick the best of any category of books without great screeches of dissent, anger, hostility, possible projectile throwing.

And the weird thing is that I love book lists.  Other people’s that is.  I love nomination lists, seasonal lists, lists about books featuring animal protagonists, whatever.  I will happily read lists about lists of books.  In fact, you can keep your Booker and Pulitzer and National Book Awards, just hand me their shortlists.   Given the proliferation of lists on the Internet, I suspect I’m not alone.

To that end, and because it’s back to school, time to get serious about reading again, here’s The Millions’ Lists page where you can get as lost as the kid from The Phantom Tollbooth.   Go crazy and then tell me what your favorite book of the year thus far is.

 

5

The dead zone

This time of the year in publishing is affectionately known as the dead zone.  Everyone is either on vacation or too busy catching up on the piles that grew while they were beachside somewhere to return phone calls or e-mails, the normally swollen river of queries slows down to a babbling brook, and offers are all pending the rubber stamp of a boss who’s in some foreign land drinking copious amounts of wine.  A kind of lethargy sets in during the hazy month of August and it feels like the whole industry has been crop-dusted with Xanax.

For me, this lethargy translates into a kind of reading fatigue.  I find the idea of diving into a new book vaguely exhausting while simultaneously wishing for that reading experience that will act like a jolt of espresso to snap me out of my summer doldrums.  Instead of excited about starting the next book on my list, however, I’m feeling like it’s a chore.   I think that those of us who define ourselves through our crazy, passionate love affair with literature occasionally find ourselves muttering bitterly, “more words, words, words”  at the sight of a shiny  new hardcover 23 people have recommended.  This too shall pass I know from long experience.

When I found myself starting three different books, flipping through a few pages, and putting them down to play Candy Crush this week, I decided I needed a break.  So, I’m reading blogs, magazines, and newspaper articles, Tweets, FB posts (you didn’t think I’d stop reading altogether, did you?).  I’m watching House of Cards and the Little League World Series.  And, I’m processing the coverage of Robin William’s tragically premature passing.   (Here are a couple of sobering and interesting perspectives on the sadness at the core of Williams’ brand of creative genius:  A great essay in Cracked and Russell Brand’s eloquent print eulogy.)  In fact, as in all good relationships, a little time away from the object of one’s affections can be salubrious.

And, of course, during this book sabbatical, I’m making lists of the titles I’m going to dive into when my energy levels pick up.  I’m thinking big biographies might be in my future….

Tell me, how do you guys get over book fatigue?  Or do you never experience such a thing?

Have book, will travel

For me the hardest part of packing for a trip is making sure I have all the books I’ll need to get me through airport delays, long flights, pool lounging, and, of course, for bedtime reading when I’m too tired from a day of strenuous vacationing to fall asleep.  Then, there’s the tricky part:  leaving enough room in my bulging carry-on for the books I will be buying while abroad.  We all have these problems, right? Right?

Well, when I set off for France two weeks ago, I had the equivalent of my bedside table pile on my Kindle, the galleys I got at BEA five years ago of Jonathan Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You, and a couple of back issues of the Oprah magazine. I congratulated myself on my light packing.

While in the beautiful Aquitaine region, I finished the Tropper and Jo Jo Moyes’ One Plus One (for my neighborhood book club) and I had queued up the Lily King novel that’s been getting so many raves for the flight back home.  Then, it was time to head back to the States.  We had five hours to kill in London and a large W.H. Smith store to browse in.  And they were having a “buy one get one ½ price”  sale on books that had made the British bestseller lists.  So…

Books

Having already logged quite a few miles that day and anticipating an exhausting journey home (frankly, the worst part of international travel is getting on the Van Wyck Expressway to and from JFK airport—it calls itself a road, but it’s really a parking lot), I opted for the lighter seeming of the two books to start.  And so, I dug into Letters from Skye, which feels like a cross between The Notebook and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and was not disappointed.  It’s a lovely, easy read with just the right mix of romance and sadness to keep you turning pages.  And, I’m really looking forward to diving into the Wyld book, which appears to be much darker and literary (a bit Gaiman-ish).

The best thing, though, is finding new voices as a result of my travels that I might not have ever stumbled on while on this side of the Atlantic.   Turns out both of the books I picked up in London are available in the U.S., but they were not on my radar.  The fact that they were prominently displayed and discounted at a busy airport store made it easy for me to part with the last of my Euros and take home what is to me the perfect souvenir of my European vacation.

How do you handle books and reading on your trips?  Are you literary over-packers?  Do you have to go into any bookstore you pass—whether in North Carolina or Marrakesh?  Do you jointly archive experiences, scenery, and the narratives you were immersed in while on the road?  What did you read on your last vacation?

 

3

Stranger than life, larger than fiction

So, having spent close to a month as a sitting juror on a federal trial, I’m slowly recovering from the Stockholm Syndrome my fellow jurors and I experienced while cooped up in a courtroom every day, listening to lawyers drone on interminably, seemingly engaged in a contest to see who could make the most repetitive and tedious presentation of their case.

Sitting there day after day, trying to actively listen, even as my eyelids often felt like tiny weights were dangling from my lashes, gave me a new appreciation for legal dramas from To Kill a Mockingbird to The Firm to The Good Wife.  The fact that book and screen writers have been making trial proceedings as compelling and engrossing as they are (or can be in the right hands) is a testament to imagination and the ability to transform dull reality into if not art then entertainment.

A couple of days after the trial ended (with an acquittal in case you’re interested), Jane and I had dinner with David Morrell, who was shooting ideas for his new novel by us.  What struck me anew that night was that it is an alchemical process that transforms a snippet of a real story—whether historical or present-day—into the basis for a full-blooded work of fiction.  The mind of a gifted author takes that reality and spins a fantastic yarn out of it by picking and choosing elements  that are, in actuality, dramatic and entertaining, goosing action and motivation in the process.  The conclusion I draw is that real-life legal proceedings would benefit greatly from talented writers and skillful editors.  (I’m thinking that my trial would have been done in a week, tops, if it had been properly scripted.)

And, perhaps because I feel my lack of imagination would make for a sad fiction writing career, I always wonder how writers choose elements of real life and translate them into successful fiction.  Look at the current headlines in your local paper and tell me what novel you would write if you could rip one off for your fiction debut.   What are the nuggets that you would mine for a book that is more scintillating than my trial?

 

5

Duty calls

So, I got called up for jury duty about 30 minutes past the four-year mark of my last date of service.  Last time, I was in and out by lunch.  This time, I’ve been picked as a juror on a trial and as gigantic a disruption as this is in my already over-booked life, I do feel that it is a privilege to serve and to watch the legal system do its thing up close and personal.

 

objection

All this, however, means that my usually scintillating blog post is reduced to an invitation for you to tell me what your favorite books about the law (be they thrillers, literary fiction, or nonfiction) are.  And since I’m in need of suggestions for good tv series to keep me on the elliptical, feel free to throw in some suggestions for your favorite things to watch in the category.

 

9

Book’s too long or life’s too short?

Jim McCarthy and I spend an inordinate amount of time instant messaging each other about everything from our lunch orders to what horrible fashion choices Lena Dunham has made lately.  This morning, our exchange went like this:

 jmccarthy@dystel.com 9:09 am
have you heard about this 3,000 page norwegian autobiographical novel My Struggle?

Mcgoderich 9:10 amMY STRUGGLE by Karl Ove Knausgaard
uh…no
sounds…deadly

 jmccarthy@dystel.com 9:11 am
it’s getting an absurd amount of press. i decided to give it a shot. i’m 50 pages  into volume 1 (of 6), so i can speak on it pretty authoritatively.
it’s…really good
so far

Mcgoderich 9:12 am
what’s it about?

 jmccarthy@dystel.com 9:14 am
it’s kind of just about his incredibly ordinary life. and it feels like it should be just a whole lot of navel-gazing except for the fact that he’s incredibly thoughtful and brutally honest.

Jim and I tend to have similar responses to fiction (with the glaring, appalling exception of Atonement, which I consider brilliant and he “meh”),  so I generally trust his judgment when it comes to recommendations for new reading material.   But, while we are both voracious readers, Jim still has the will and wherewithal to tackle massive literary novels with relish whereas I often look on them with fear and trepidation.  I feel like what he’s describing above can be handled by Nicholson Baker in under 300 pages.  Three thousand pages full of “the ordinariness of life, which is sometimes visionary, sometimes banal, and sometimes momentous, but all of it perforce ordinary because it happens in the course of a life, and happens, in different forms, to everyone…,” as the New Yorker puts it, makes me just want to take a nap.

Maybe it’s old age, mommy brain, or general crankiness, but I want my fiction to be more…extraordinary.  And shorter.  Yeah, definitely shorter.

What about you guys?  Do you gravitate towards this kind of minutely observed life narrative or do you shelve it in a corner of your mind under “some day I’ll read Finnegan’s Wake”?

9

“Kill your darlings.” No, really, kill them dead.

A big part of my job involves helping writers develop ideas and then editing their work.   Good agents, Jane taught me a long time ago, send out material in its most polished, ready-for-prime-time form.  Even though an editor brings his/her own vision and expertise to the process of making a book ready for publication, it’s our job to get that editor to buy the thing in the first place.  So, a brilliant but bloated novel of ideas about the robot apocalypse (just a hypothetical, although you never know with Jim’s list), will probably get a long edit memo from us suggesting a lot of slashing and some burning.

Now, after a couple of decades of responses ranging from sobs to name calling, I’ve learned that telling authors to kill their darlings is always a loaded proposition.  Some will argue with you like defense lawyers at the O.J. trial, trying to convince you to recant and let them keep every superfluous line of dialogue, every unnecessary adjective, and every irritating dream sequence (a particular bugaboo of mine).  Some will accept your comments politely and then send back a manuscript with infinitesimal changes.  Some will send you six-page letters refuting everything you’ve suggested and insinuating that you belong in a less think-heavy profession.

Seldom (although not never) do we get a reaction similar to that of the author of this piece in the Times.  For every author who loves cutting and throwing out, there are thousands of hoarders.

Be honest, are you able to cut with gusto (or at least without facing a clinical depression) or do you have the impulse to argue with or rail against anyone who suggests it?

 

4

Good sports

Baseball seasonMy life these days revolves around two things: work and baseball.  You guys know all about the work part but I bet you had no idea that when I’m not in the office baseball consumes every other aspect of my waking day.  That’s because I have an eight-year-old who’s obsessed with America’s pastime and who is currently playing for a little league and a travel team.  That’s a lot of sitting on bleachers during an unusually cold, damp spring watching little boys drop routine fly balls, have meltdowns on the pitcher’s mound, and swagger like miniature Reggie Jacksons when they finally get a hit.

So, of course, this baseball immersion has me thinking about sports books.  I can reel off a dozen great baseball titles off the top of my head, from Roger Kahn’s classic The Boys of Summer to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s wistful Wait Till Next Year to Chad Harbach’s acclaimed The Art of Fielding, but I have a harder time with other sports.  Sure, every once in a while there’s a great book about football (Friday Night Lights) or soccer (Fever Pitch) or basketball (Hoop Dreams) or mountain climbing (Into Thin Air), but the conventional wisdom among publishing people is that baseball is the sport that sells books.

Is this a case of publishers not knowing how to reach other sports fans and making the backward assumption that those fans just don’t read, or is it that fans of other sports aren’t as interested in reading about their favorite sport?  Is it that baseball sparks writers’ imagination to a greater degree than, say, tennis (the pace of baseball, soporific as it can be, does allows for a lot of contemplation and rumination)?  Is it that women buy more books than men and there are more female baseball fans (given how many women friends I have who are rabid about football and basketball, I doubt this)?

We like sports books around here and we’d like to do more of them.  But, help us out.  What sports do you like to read about and why?  What are your favorite titles and what do you wish there was more of in this category?

10

Series fatigue

Jane and I had dinner with the delightful and very savvy Abbi Glines last night.  During the course of a delicious meal of tapas-like small plates at ABC Cocina (which, in case you’re wondering, we liked better than ABC Kitchen, its sister restaurant), we talked about a number of interesting topics, from trends in fiction categories—ever elusive and often fleeting—to the lasting power of series.  Abbi pointed out that series can get tired after a while and that readers get tired of the characters right along with them, so an author needs to know when to move on to new pastures.

This reminded me of my love of Patricia Cornwell’s early Scarpetta books and how tedious I found the later ones, Sue Grafton’s alphabet mysteries which I lost interest in at about the letter G, and that by the time my son and I were at the 24th Magic Tree House book, I was ready to chuck them all out the window.  It’s possible that I just have a short attention span, but, Richelle Mead’s wonderful Vampire Academy series, for instance, kept me hooked up to the very last page of the final installment.

Sbook serieso, is it that authors don’t know when to put a cash cow out to graze and so keep adding books to a successful series even when the characters would much rather have retired to their home in Florida?  Or is it the readership that is so enamored of the characters and their universe that they keep clamoring for more even after the passion has faded?

Do you read every book in a series or do you find your attention wandering to that fresh, bright newcomer on the next shelf?  And do your favorite series authors maintain their effectiveness over numerous titles?

Time’s winged chariot

About two weekends ago, I found myself—as I usually do on a Sunday—ensconced in my favorite chair reading manuscripts and proposals.   I was engrossed in a novel which, despite its numerous structural problems, showed a lot of promise.  As I might have mentioned on this blog once, or a hundred times, I’m not a speed reader, so if the fiction manuscript I’m reading is any good I can kiss a big chunk of my day goodbye.

After Jane and I discussed the pros and cons of this particular novel, we offered the author representation if she was willing to do some significant revising.  (We’d had the book for about a week at this point.)  The author promptly responded that she loved feedback and was not at all averse to reworking the manuscript but she had just accepted another agent’s offer.  Fair enough, of course, and yet….

It bugged me that having plowed through the review process in near record time we never had a chance.  It doubly bugged me because I could have spent a chunk of my Sunday hanging out with my husband and son, running errands, taking that nap I’ve been needing since 2005, going for a walk outside on one of the few decent weather days in what’s been an epically bad winter…you know, what normal people do on Sundays.

I love my job and I enjoy the “development” (reading, editing, brainstorming) part of it tremendously so I don’t generally feel sorry for my lack of Sundays.  But, I also don’t like to waste my time.

This is the longwinded way of responding to those of you who ask about multiple submissions and the etiquette involved therein.  Basically, I say common sense rules, folks.    You should let agents know when you query them that the manuscript is out with others.  And, if an offer comes in, you should give everyone who has your material the chance to finish their review.  If the offer of representation is just too good to hold off on, then you should immediately contact the competing agents and tell them that the project is no longer available so that they can move on to the next thing in their piles.

In these days of electronic submissions, no one will get mad because you’ve gone to multiple agents (unless you do one of those mass e-mail things where everyone is listed; then all bets are off).  But it would be doing us a kindness if you were to keep us in the loop as to the submission’s progress.

Does this sound right to you or do you guys hold the Darwinian view that it’s survival of the fittest out there and tough noogies if you aren’t fast enough?  And, is there something you wish we’d do differently during the review process (and why)?