Category Archives: Miriam

2

So, this happened…

These days, it seems that everyone and their pet snake has a memoir.  The category is jam packed with offerings that range from the sublime (beautifully written literary narratives) to the ridiculous (vapid celebrity p.r. releases masquerading as books), as Sharon discusses below.  So, I don’t know how to feel about the news that the great Barbra Streisand has a memoir in the works.  On the one hand, the woman’s had a fascinating life and career and if she chose to write about it candidly (and has an accomplished ghost writer helping her) it could be great.  On the other hand, this is the lady who filmed herself through a Vaseline coated lens in The Mirror Has Two Faces.  On the other, other hand, even if the book is a panegyric  to herself, won’t it still be compelling?

All of this makes me think about memoirs I’d like to read, based on the perhaps misguided idea that these authors would knock my socks off  in the way Patti Smith and Keith Richards did with their books.  Can you imagine Jack Nicholson reliving his wild days in print?  Or Toni Morrison using her prodigious gifts to tell us about her journey from poverty to international acclaim? (In 2012, Morrison scrapped plans for a memoir, claiming her life was not interesting enough…whaaat?) Basically, it’s the people who probably wouldn’t ever write this kind of narrative whose books I would most want to read.

Whose memoir is on your fantasy bedside reading pile?  

3

Weather or not…

This piece in Salon about how rain is often used in literature and film to create or punctuate a mood, advance the story, or simply provide an arresting backdrop to the goings-on, tickled me because it immediately led me to run a mental list of rain-filled books and movies.  And, sure enough, rain as metaphor and plot device is everywhere, in ways big and small.

Of course, I’ve been railing for years about weather.com writing, imploring authors not to open their work with long descriptions of weather or geographic conditions.  While I get how irresistible it is to set about capturing in words/images the awesome power of nature, very few authors can make non-catastrophic meteorological events compelling over a large span of narrative. 

That said, there’s no denying that weather is great for atmosphere (tautological pun intended).  From the foggy moors of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, to the feverish heat of Lily King’s Euphoria, skillful depictions of weather conditions help make literary works unforgettable.  Many years later, you may not remember other details of a story, but you probably recall the sense of humid discomfort in the bayous or the crispness of a spring day in southern France. 

What are your favorite weather sequences?  And, which authors do you feel use weather most effectively?

Lake

Be careful what you wish for?

So, I came across this piece in Buzzfeed about the dark side of being a debut author and, man, did it depress me.  Not just me, either.   Sharon tells me she found it to be a total downer, too.  Courtney Maum’s message of isolation and despair is positively Hobbesian.  It makes me feel guilty about all the debut authors I’ve had a hand in throwing into this bottomless pit of misery. 

Which is not to say that Ms. Maum doesn’t make some valid points.  The comedown after years of intense yearning for the pot of gold at the end of the publishing rainbow can be vertiginous.  As with most of the things we covet, success, as represented by a first-time book deal, is not the cure-all for all our problems nor the magic carpet ride to a suddenly fabulous life. 

And, yet, I think that celebrating the validation of oftentimes years of chipping away at one’s craft should be the greater impulse than bemoaning the problems that come with a new state of authorial life.  No, having your novel published isn’t the ticket to nirvana you may have hoped and dreamed it would be as you sat in your roach infested apartment eating ramen noodles at every meal while your parents relentlessly hinted at you to get a real job…with insurance.    But, it’s a pretty great accomplishment and, hopefully, the beginning of a long publishing career.   And, even though (to quote the immortal lyrics of Taylor Swift) haters gonna hate, writers, both published and un- are a lovely community to be a part of.

What’s your take on being a debut author—both from the wishing-that-was-me to the been-there-done-that-and-survived perspective?

4

A killing spree

I was scrolling down the feed on Facebook looking for inspiration for this blog post, when I saw a friend’s link to this piece from Bookriot.  I had  one of those moments of instant recognition that happens when someone says something you weren’t even sure you’d been thinking about but which, when articulated, seems to reveal buried fragments of ideas and convictions you’ve had bubbling beneath the surface all along. 

Like the author of “Why I Need a Break from Books about Dead Girls,” I too have been immersed in a lot of narratives that feature dead girls/women lately.  Tana French’s hypnotic In the Woods is about the murder of a young ballet dancer and the ensuing investigation.   I just finished the second season of The Fall with its charismatic serial killer who targets young brunettes.  A manuscript that kept me engaged all weekend featured an unreliable narrator and the violent deaths of several women and a 12-year-old girl. 

Now, I read plenty of fiction and nonfiction where women are not murder victims, per se.  My recent forays into pleasure reading include The Paying Guests and The Silent Wife in which male protagonists did not, shall we say, fare well.  But, it does seem that dead girls/women are a recurring trope in all kinds of storytelling.  Of course, the underlying psychological and cultural reasons for this are myriad and complex, but it makes me wonder what it is about killing off females that appeals to a writer’s imagination.  Why is it easier to kill the girls?  Does it reflect a more misogynistic societal bent?  Or is it simply a matter of storytelling convenience (is it easier, for instance, to plot the physical overpowering of a woman by a larger male assailant)?

All I know is that now that this idea has been unearthed for me, I’m going to be paying a lot more attention to the female body count in the books I read and the films/programs I watch.

Honeymoon’s over. Can this marriage be saved?

So, the talk lately (around here at least) is that e-book sales are slowing down—significantly enough that doomsday prophecies about the health of the format are being bandied about by the ever-unflappable* publishing community. Through several Amazon initiatives that are too complicated and, well, tedious to go into here, that monolithic company has undermined the Indie publishing world it mostly created as well as undercut sales of  traditionally published books.  Then, there are the studies that say that print reading gets absorbed more efficiently into your bloodstream.  And, finally, there’s the “Hipster Effect” which makes anything retro cool again—so the youngsters are all reading paperbacks on the subway instead of Nooks–combined with the “Geezer Effect” which makes all this newfangled technology suspect and terrifying.Kindle and Book

All of these things really add up to just this:  there’s been a correction in the digital book market.  The quick growth of the last few years has slowed down as consumers have gotten used to the idea of a new product, road tested it, and decided that, while nifty, it’s not the be-all, end-all.  Does that mean e-books are over.  Uh…no.  This format has legs, in my opinion.  But, it does mean that it is going to have to get creative about competing against its print counterpart and all the other media we’re collectively obsessed with.   And, that means that publishers, e-publishers, and e-tailers as well as authors are going to need to come up with ideas on how to make this a category that works on its own terms but also complements the underlying publishing rights—i.e., the copyrighted content.

For my part, I’ll just keep doing what I usually do—read both my Kindle and the thousands of print books cluttering my house and office—and wait to see how sales actually look once the dust finally settles. 

What do you guys think about the long-term health of the e-book market?  Is the slowdown a good thing or bad, in your opinion?

 

 

*sarcasm

 

3

Criminal minds

Most avid readers are probably like me in that I go through phases where I can’t get enough of one category of book.  I’ll gobble up the narrative nonfiction/women’s fiction/historical/fantasy/romance/mystery titles until I have to take a break.  I find myself led from one book to the next because I must read everything that author has ever written, because something about the setting of Book A has me looking for a similar backdrop in Book B, because I’m currently obsessed with India or Ireland or Iceland, or because I’m wrapped up in a riveting television series and I need to find its print counterpart.    The reasoning is never linear and sometimes it’s very specifically bizarre—specific to me that is.

Right now, I’m really into thrillers/mysteries.  I’ve always loved this category and there are a number of titles and authors I think back on with great fondness (the first Patricia Cornwell Scarpetta book was perfection; James Lee Burke’s Black Cherry Blues is a marvel; and who wasn’t smitten with Thomas Harris’ decidedly odd coupling of FBI newbie and serial killer in Silence of the Lambs), but there are a lot of books out there and a lot of genres to get through and it had been a while since I dug in and picked up one thriller after another as I’m doing now.

I blame Lauren Abramo, who turned me on to the BBC’s gripping series The Fall about an English cop in Belfast hunting a pretty boy serial killer.   That show led me to Tana French’s gorgeous In the Woods, her Edgar Award winning police procedural set in Ireland.  Next up, I’m diving into The Bones Beneath by Mark Billingham, which takes place in Wales, for the DGLM book club.   Concurrently, I finished watching the second season of The Fall and I’ve started Luther with the very easy on the eyes Idris Elba as a British detective with anger issues.  You might say I’m in a criminal state of mind.

So, the point of all of this is that I would love to have a meaty, smart, well-written thriller or mystery that within the parameters of its crime fiction formula gives us something that feels fresh and exciting cross my desk in manuscript form.  Any of you want to keep my crime streak going?

2

Youth is wasted on the young. Or is it?

Every “semester” we have an office lunch for the purpose of getting to know our current batch of interns and to answer any questions they might have about the, undoubtedly, bizarre goings-on in publishing (and in our office).  Yesterday, over a Middle Eastern spread (the baba ganoush was delicious!) we asked everyone to tell us what they read for pleasure.  Overwhelmingly, the response was YA.  And, for some reason, that surprised me and even made me a little wistful for the days when youngsters couldn’t wait to get their grubby little hands on “adult” literature.

I still remember when, in seventh grade, a beat up copy of The Other Side of Midnight (which was already a decade old at the time, in case you were wondering about the timeline) was surreptitiously passed around at my school.  The book, of course, opened naturally to the “sexy” parts and we would have all been mortified if our parents had caught us reading it.  By the time I was a young adult, myself, my peeps and I were interested in SERIOUS fiction that dealt with IMPORTANT subjects, and if you wanted some sex and scandal, you turned to grown-up bestsellers like Marguerite Duras’ The Lover  or Josephine Hart’s Damage.  You know, stories about older people behaving badly….

The thing is that, traditionally,  YA was considered “aspirational”—kids younger than those depicted in the books were the primary market for it. Now, I know that YA literature has exploded as a genre and that, in many ways, it’s tackling tough subjects in ways  sometimes more inventive and provocative than we’ve seen in what is considered adult fiction.  That said, is it narcissism, solipsism or fear of growing up that accounts for young adults actually preferring YA books in general?  In recent years, with blockbusters like  the Harry Potter  and Twilight series playing havoc with readership demographics (as evidenced by 40-something moms reading YA and NA alongside their tweens and teenagers), it seems that the category now even appeals to its own namesakes.   Crazy, huh?

How do you account for this shift?  Are there broader cultural implications that I’m missing here or is this trend just a function of how sophisticated the category has become?

 

0

Look it up!

Remember that corny cliché about every book ever written being found within the pages of a dictionary?  I’ve always gotten such a kick out of that because I love dictionaries.  I love the tiny print,  the sometimes incomprehensible pronunciation guide for each word, the prefatory material that tells you how to use the book, the illustrations that accompany some of the entries (why is Sally Ride pictured but not Richelieu?), the fact that you go in to look something up for an editorial memo you’re crafting only to get distracted by a bunch of beguiling words (xylem, yurt) that you will be desperate to use in your next heated match of Words With Friends.Dictionary

As with other books, I love old print dictionaries—at last count I  had about a dozen at home, elegantly bound ones and dog-eared paperbacks; Spanish, Russian, French and German as well as English—but I also adore the convenience of my Dictionary.com app.  How excellent to have the ability to look up a word whenever and wherever you hear it, thereby appearing to be more   sesquipedalian than you really are (see what I did there?).

This ease of access, unfortunately, has made me more intolerant of authors who routinely use the wrong word in their work and other communications.  I mean, how hard is it to look it up if you’re not 100% sure whether you loath something  or loathe it?  (BTW, I always have to look those two up myself.)

The democratization of the dictionary in this age of supreme access is a great thing, in my opinion.  But, that means that there’s no excuse for lazy usage, at least not in your writing.  Just look it up, people!

4

Learning to read

Here’s the thing.  I’ve become deeply attached to my Kindle Fire.  I can watch Orange Is the New Black on it while I work out.  I can play the twentysome games of Words With Friends I’ve got going at any given time.  I can read The Washington Post—helpfully delivered free for a trial period by the very thoughtful Jeff Bezos, who now owns the venerable publication.  I can look at the fashion magazines I used to subscribe to physical copies of.  I can find recipes for my weekend cookfests (the chili-polenta dish I tackled last week was delicious).  I can impulse buy (that little clothes steamer is a marvel)….

However, the thing I seem to do the least on my Kindle these days is read the more than 300 books stored in it.  Part of the problem is that, while I am a fan of digital content and really appreciate how much kinder this device is to my perennially aching back—which, of course, got that way from a lifetime of lugging around hardcovers and manuscripts and hunching over thousands of pages (my eyesight is bad too)—I still prefer the heft and feel of the paper product.

As this piece in The Guardian tells us, we actually absorb less information electronically because part of the reading experience involves an array of sensory input that helps us recall the physical space the words appeared in (as well as our own physical space) while immersed in the narrative.  I used to pride myself on my idiot savant ability to find a passage in a paperback I’d read 20 years ago fairly quickly by visualizing where in the book I’d come across it.  You can’t really do that on a Kindle or other e-reader, as these devices flatten the reading experience and turn it oddly two-dimensional.  Also, my Kindle doesn’t smell like anything other than plastic and maybe nail polish remover that I spilled on it while using it as a platform to do my nails.  Real books smell like musty old shops, like winter evenings, like nostalgia, like adventure.

THE DISAPPEARING SPOON

My point is that I need to learn to read better on my digital devices and I need to do more of it.  Because with all of the distractions (see my first paragraph above) these devices allow and foster, it feels like books are an afterthought.   And, I don’t mean to be overly dramatic but when books become an afterthought, civilization as we know it is over.

So, given that e-reading is better for my back, I’m going to make a concerted effort to get more acquainted with the book side of my Kindle.  If nothing else, it should save me money on all the duplicate copies of titles I have lying around my house and hibernating in the Cloud.  What about you guys?  Do you have these problems or is it just me?

 

0

Listing

Our office book club is a lovely thing, in theory.  We each pick a different book from a predetermined category and we report on it to the group.  We write a pitch letter, as if we were sending the project out on submission, and then tell our colleagues what we really think of the title in question.  It’s both fun and sobering to see how adept we all are at false praise and how mean spirited we can be when an author disappoints us.

Given that book club is an extracurricular activity for all of us and that, ironically, none of us has a lot of free time for reading, our picks are a hotly debated (sometimes hostilely so) subject.  If you’ve been following this blog for a while, it won’t surprise you that the most vituperative battles usually erupt between Jim McCarthy and myself.  I like to think that’s because we are the most passionate about book club.  Our co-workers think it’s because we’re the most immature.

But I digress.

It’s time to select our next round of titles and we decided (as we usually do at this time of year) to choose from the “best of the year” lists.  Jim forwarded a link to the New York Times Notable Books of the Year and I perused it with a gimlet eye.  Like the Academy Awards, the paper of record seldom goes for fun over (heavy) substance when it crowns its winners.  Its year-end list is always full of unimpeachably good-for-you books, and if you’re looking for the literary equivalent of junk food, you’re out of luck.  So, I went hunting and found the Goodreads list (via Buzzfeed), a more, shall we say, democratic round-up of the year’s best.  After looking at the offerings there—Rainbow Rowell! Stephen King! Anne Rice!—I ended up choosing from the Times list after all.  The Goodreads titles are must-reads by excellent authors, sure, but the Sarah Waters novel on the Times list looks like it’s going to be both healthy and delightful in a Downton Abbey sort of way.

What list are you choosing your holiday reading from?  Or are you going to ignore both the cognoscenti and the rabble and go your own way, picking your next book from a clever flap copy or an arresting cover?

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