Category Archives: reading

2

Under Pressure*

Earlier today, I gave up. Looking at the bookmarks toolbar on my web browser, I thought that I should really read some of those articles over lunch, because they’re timely and important or potentially edifying and I will be a better person if I read them or a terrible person if I don’t.  At first I thought about how I could send them to my Pocket app and read them this weekend, but then I realized that would cut into the time I’d planned to set aside to crack open one of the new books I’ve bought myself lately.  Then it occurred to me that my list of subrights reading is growing at such a fast pace that I wouldn’t have time for a pure pleasure read till late May at earliest.  And there are three books for two different book clubs sitting next to my TV, shaming me every time I pick up the remote.  Though those aren’t quite as time sensitive as those requested manuscripts sitting on my iPad, so I’d have to tackle them this weekend instead.  Which naturally lead me to count up the books on my weekend to do list of reading and editing for clients—which is pretty much going to dominate every minute I’m home this weekend except for those I’ll need to spend sleeping.

And while I love reading and feel grateful to have the career I do, I won’t lie:  when the piles of obligations get so high they look like they might topple, the idea of how much I have to (or “have to”) read really stresses me out.  It’s a lot harder to love a book if all you can think about is that you’re reading it too slowly.

So I was honest with myself:  I’m just never going to read all those can’t-miss articles I’d flagged for later because there was no time to dive into them during work.  Instead of reading through as many as I could at the fastest possible clip during lunch, I deleted them.  Going through, some of them seemed so important that at first I was conservative in ditching them.  That technological development sounds like it could be relevant to publishing five years down the line, so I should definitely take a look.  Or that essay on contemporary fiction by Julian Barnes, he’s one of my favorite writers so I can’t skip that.  But when I realized that some of those links were from best books of 2012 lists, I knew I had a problem.  I mean, sure, that summer reads of 2013 list would be kind of handy to have as the warm weather approaches (one assumes!) and those books hit paperback release dates, but that doesn’t mean I actually need to read it.  After all, there are stacks and shelves and stacks and more stacks of books in my apartment and office, so it’s not like I’m short on ideas of what to read next.  So I deleted all those bookmarks and gave myself the favor of a blank slate.  And, I told myself that if I don’t read the 15 books I impulse bought in the last month before the end of 2014, it’s probably going to be okay.

I still have a ton of reading to do this weekend, but the load on my shoulders feels just that little bit lighter. There’s a seemingly infinite amount of writing in the world, much of it worth reading.  Sometimes we just need to let ourselves off the hook so that we can give our best attention to what we do read—and maybe even have some time to enjoy it.

*If you saw that title and thought of this interview, you are my favorite person today.

2

When worlds collide

Inspired by a recent posting on Buzzfeed compiling a great list of some of the most mouthwatering foods in literature (with recipes, thank goodness), I started thinking about food and meals in books. Again. Because, if we’re being honest, I think about food a lot anyway, so it wasn’t much of a stretch.

More than that—because sure, I could list even more foods from books that are great and that we should all eat all the time when reading about them and just whenever we feel like it—I’m thinking about the thrill I (and obviously most readers out there) get when a book references a real place, phenomenon or some other specific and actual thing that I can picture in my head through personal experience. There are so-so books that take place in New York that are elevated in my perception in quality because I can envision the exact locales a character may be wandering around. I’ve bought books that take place in the particular region of South Jersey where I grew up (okay, there was just the one, but it was SO local) solely because of their setting and for no other reason.

As a child, I cajoled my family into taking not one, but two trips to Colonial Williamsburg, not because I was super into the culture, but because I could go to the Governor’s Palace and the same sweet shop that Felicity did in the American Girl books.

Even more recently, I was finishing up Rules of Civility by Amor Towles the other week (sidenote: highly recommend) and coincidentally had to run an errand on the Upper West Side. Coming out of the subway station, I was faced directly with an awning on a residential building that predominately stated “The Beresford.” I stopped, stared, considered and then looked at the actual address of the building (211 Central Park West) and concluded that yes, this was the exact building that one of the main characters in the book I had currently in my bag resided. I had had no idea that it was a real building and it delighted me to no end to be faced with its reality so blatantly. I’ve since told several others about that moment and they were more unimpressed than I’d have liked, but maybe because they hadn’t read the book…

I don’t necessarily fall to pieces when books reference popular songs or television shows, but for some reason, very stable things like food, location and iconography really get me and it’s true that I remember the book more distinctly—and generally more fondly—for that fact. There’s a reason people flock to King’s Cross Station to try and see if they can spot Platform 9 ¾ and why all of a sudden The Frick was flooded with book lovers who wanted to get a glimpse of Fabritius’ The Goldfinch.

Planting these notions and references in literature allows sense memory to take over, whether it’s a smell, taste, sound or sight. The story becomes that much realer, the characters that much more relatable to the point where you can’t forget about it. Intentional or not, it’s a truly fascinating combination of literary artistry and the science of brain synapses firing off and making connections that makes at least certain passages of a book memorable.

6

Life Stories

The other day I was excited to hear that Neil Patrick Harris is publishing a memoir this fall, and told my friend Brian about it. “What?!” Brian yelped. “Already? He’s only 40!” I was a little surprised by this reaction – NPH has been in every corner of showbiz, from TV to film to internet series to Broadway. I’m certainly interested in a behind-the-scenes glimpse of his fascinating and creative life.

But Brian’s response got me thinking about the genre of memoir itself, and whether there’s a difference between memoir and autobiography. For some readers, autobiography and memoir may be synonymous terms for any story of a life that is written by its liver. For others of us, autobiography is based on chronology, while memoir focuses on a theme, experience, or period. For example, Stephen Fry’s The Fry Chronicles is a hilarious and moving account of his upbringing and early career, peppered with anecdotes about his best friends Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson – yes, that Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson. I think of this as autobiography because of the linear narrative. In contrast, Unbearable Lightness by Portia de Rossi is both a Hollywood gossip-fest and a moving account of struggling with an eating disorder. And Cheryl Strayed’s Wild relates the months she spent hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, which turned into a powerful way to process and grieve her mother’s death. The latter two might not tell a full story of their authors’ lives – and those authors might not have as prominent a place in history – but they are still worth reading for their candor and introspection.

Whether you call it autobiography or memoir, many readers can’t resist the lure of a true story well-told. Keeping the nuances in mind might help you as you structure your own personal story or refine your narrative non-fiction projects.  (But I will tell Brain to cut NPH some slack considering that Justin Bieber has published TWO memoirs. At the age of 20, he’s not even old enough to enjoy a writerly glass of whiskey while he writes his third!)

Do you distinguish between autobiography and memoir? Whose yet-to-be-written memoir would you be most excited to read? What true stories do you recommend?

 

 

 

4

Nine Years and Counting

Nine years ago today, I started my first day at DGLM.  Every person who worked here on my first day (Jane Dystel & Miriam Goderich, naturally, but also Stacey Glick, Michael Bourret, and Jim McCarthy) is working here still.  I’m lucky to be part of an agency that’s grown and changed and evolved so much in my nearly a decade here.  Publishing isn’t an easy business, agenting maybe even less so than working for a big corporation where income isn’t commission based, so I’m lucky that Team DGLM of early 2005 is still the core of Team DGLM of early 2014.  If you’re interested in how I feel about being here for nine years—and clearly you are, because the inner workings of my mind are oh so fascinating—the answer is: pretty similar to how I felt about being here for seven.

Still I wanted to mark the occasion somehow on the blog.  I mean, with my DGLMiversary falling on my blog day, it’s just too convenient not to.  Fortunately, through the magic of Twitter (and the help of @MichRichter1, @HopeDellon, and @PicadorUSA), I found inspiration in this Atlantic round-up of answers as to who is the greatest fictional character of all time.  I was thinking that I can’t imagine answering that, as such questions always paralyze me.  Greatest?  Of all time?  That’s too many to choose from!  I can’t decide what to eat if a menu has more than 15 options, so how could I possible do that??  But I think what I can do is tell you my favorite 9 new non-DGLM books of the last 9 years.  Obviously all the DGLM books are equally perfect and superior to all other books, so you’d be here all day if I didn’t exclude them.  So without further ado:

  • Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love is nothing short of exquisite.  I loved it so much more than I ever thought was possible.  And despite years of people telling me to check it out, which normally makes something basically unlovable to my contrary soul, it’s one of few books I really thought lived up to the hype.
  • Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me is a middle grade novel that is absolutely spot-on in its understanding of its characters and its audience.  There aren’t too many novels I read that I’m confident will stand the test of time, but if there’s any justice in this world, this one will.  It made me want to re-read my favorite books from childhood, so I could linger in that feeling a little longer.
  • In as much as books can really be for a person, I didn’t think that Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One would be for me.  It’s so involved in the minutiae of its deeply nostalgic world, and my knowledge of videogames and geek culture doesn’t run nearly deep enough for me to love the novel on that level.  And yet it’s a captivating story, and one which my book club loved more than virtually anything else we’ve read, despite having no knowledge of nearly any of the references.  A real testament to the fact that some of the best books are the ones that anyone can love.
  • Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang is a story of family dysfunction that’s moving and delightful and hilarious and strange.  It has tons of heart and is a lot of fun, which is an impressive feat given that it could easily have gotten bogged down in theories of art and morality.  Wilson has a beautifully light touch.
  • The World Without Us by Alan Weisman is precisely the kind of interdisciplinary narrative nonfiction that I really adore.  It’s a fascinating subject compellingly explored.
  • Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette is every wonderful thing every person you know whose read it said it was.  It’s funny and charming and touching and original—and I can’t wait to see what Semple does next.
  • What can I say about Emma Donohue’s Room that hasn’t already been said?  It’s narrated from the perspective of 5-year-old Jack, whose unusual circumstances color how he sees the world in ways I would call unimaginable if Donohue hadn’t somehow managed to imagine them down to the most intricate details.  It’s a difficult premise in more ways than one, but Donohue explores it with enviable skill.
  • Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End is compelling and accessible and beautifully written and ambitious and all around extraordinary.  I was confident that the structure was going to annoy me fairly quickly, but the perfection of the voice carried me through to the last page, where I was truly sad to put it down.
  • Colum McCann blew me away with Let the Great World Spin.  I think this must be my absolute favorite book of the last decade.  I was already a fan of McCann, who I’d first come across when reading his Everything in This Country Must in college, so I had high hopes for this novel.  But I didn’t realize when I first began reading that I would wind up loving this book so much that it would become my favorite of his novels—and among my favorite of anyone’s.

Honorable mention to Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances, Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, and Patti Smith’s Just Kids, which I was definitely going to include before I realized that I already had 9.

So…what am I forgetting?  Which books am I going to hate myself for leaving off the list the second you mention them?

10

There are no rules…okay, maybe just one

Ask weary DGLMers  how I felt about The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and they will tell you about the whining, screeching, streams of invective, and endless tiresome commentary  I inflicted on them in the roughly two years it took me to finish that unfortunate doorstop of a book (spoiler alert: I didn’t like it). I won’t go into the details here.  Let’s just say, I had issues.

That unhappy reading experience, however, led me to think quite a bit about the things writers do that drive me absolutely batty—from the macro (indefensible plotting and character choices) to the petty (starting a sentence with a numeral)—and about all the rules we inflict on the process of fiction writing which, really, are mostly discretionary.

As nitpicky as I can be when I line edit a proposal or a manuscript to get it ready for submission, and as much as it annoys me to find typos or anachronisms that momentarily stop you cold during an otherwise pleasant reading experience, my one hard and fast, inviolable rule is “Don’t bore your reader.”

Ethan Hauser, writing in The Millions, seems to agree.  As many rules as everyone, from your first grade teacher to your fellow novelists or journalist colleagues, throws at you, the only real literary crime is boring your reader silly.  So, knock yourself out ending sentences with prepositions, sticking a digital clock in a 19th century drawing room, or opening your magnum opus with five pages of landscape descriptions.  Whatever!  Just don’t bore me, I mean, your reader.

What are your favorite rules to ignore when you’re writing?

7

Trains, planes, reading and writing

I love long train trips almost as much as I hate flying.   To me, there is something both soothing and exciting about zipping across a changing landscape in a powerful machine that hasn’t lost contact with the ground.  Whereas planes are claustrophobic, uncomfortable (unless you don’t need to put your kid through college and  you fly first class), and occasionally panic inducing, trains are throwbacks to a slower, more genteel age when no one expected you to get to where you needed to be so fast that you had to fight jet lag for days once you got there.

I also love reading on trains.  One of my fondest travel memories is of racing through Look Homeward, Angel in a mostly empty compartment on a trip from Zurich to Bruges.  Not that I’m such a seasoned world traveler, but I really enjoy the vaguely surreal dislocation of reading about America while traveling abroad.  And this feeling, I find, is heightened by the foreign and sometimes oddly familiar scenery you glimpse when you’ve snagged a good window seat.

I’m not a writer, but I can only imagine that the sensations and emotional states I’ve experienced while riding railroads in the U.S. and around the world are fairly common and that they might serve to rev up the creative process.  That’s why I dig the idea of Amtrak offering a writing residency for writers.   If I were writing a novel, I’d book my ticket to California, pack up my laptop, a copy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, and hit the rails.

What about you guys?  Do you think you could write on a train?  Would you want to?

1

Embracing Valentine’s Day for all its corniness

I’ve always liked Valentine’s Day. I liked it in first grade when we spent the day making cards from construction paper for our parents, I liked it throughout elementary school when the holiday meant bringing in cards and cupcakes for everyone in your class and I’ve liked it every year since then, getting cards and hugs and silliness from friends and family is one of my favorite things anyway, so it’s nice to have a day when everyone does it all over the place and you have an excuse to be extra lovey to the people in your life who mean something to you.

I know there are plenty of people out there who disparage the day as a “Hallmark holiday” or some kind of “Singles Awareness Day” and approach February 14th with fury and bitterness unmatched on any other day of the year and this is something I have never understood. Yes, I’ll concede that giant white teddy bears holding hearts and the like do make me roll my eyes, but regardless of the actual token of affection, can’t we just ignore all of that and have fun with cheesy emotions? No?

For Valentine’s appreciators and condemners alike, but for readers only (new members welcome), Buzzfeed has put together a list that pretty much covers all the bases of a romantic evening…only with books instead. If you’re determined to shield yourself from any and all human interaction tonight, then I suggest you buy yourself some chocolate, draw a nice bath, light some candles and have a romantic evening all to yourself. Well. Yourself plus all the characters racing across the pages of an old favorite or an exciting new read.

Besides, I think we can all agree that the best part about Valentine’s Day is that candy is going to be so very cheap tomorrow.

5

Audiobooks, who knew!

As everyone in the office can tell you, I’ve been sick this past week, though thoroughly denying it every morning and trying to pretend I can work anyway. Thankfully, I’m better now because even lying in bed all day can get pretty boring after a while. When I’m not in a right enough mind to focus on a screen to watch or a page to read, what else is there to do?

I keep meaning to start in on audiobooks as I think it’s a great way to pass the time hands-free and a nice alternative to listening to music. As a kid, I spent nearly every night being read to sleep by my dad, and I don’t just mean picture books or short stories. I “read” the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy that way! I’ve got a history with listening to long books being read aloud…just not recently, and it’s something I’d like to start getting back into, but I don’t know where to begin!

What kinds of books do you feel work best as an audiobook? Personally, I would think more fantasy, adventure, exciting exploration stories would work well, but I think that’s just because I’m imagining a narrator with an elastic voice (possibly accented) telling a story to children. Have you read any excellent audio adaptations of novels you’d like to recommend?

I’m all ears…literally! (Give me that joke, please, I’ve been sick).

2

The old man and the lists

Because of a client’s Facebook post, last week I ordered a copy of The Hemingway Cookbook by Craig Boreth.  Now, most everyone who’s known me for a week or twenty years knows that my devotion to Papa Hemingway started early and has never really wavered.  It has survived the bad publicity, the parodies, the mediocre later works, the disdain of my feminist friends who think of him as a sexist blowhard who could write a little….

Thing is, I still find that despite the reams written by and about him, this author continues to surprise and delight.  Every once in a while I’ll read a book (The Paris Wife) or an article about Hemingway and his intimates and cronies that makes me think, “Man, those people lived large!”  And despite the tragic ending and the many missteps I’ve always felt that he possessed great generosity of spirit.

Many years ago, I read in the local paper about a young man who wanted to be a writer and went to Hemingway for advice.  He was given two lists of books to read.  I dimly remember that both lists contained classic titles, but one featured books Ernest considered masterpieces and the other those he considered terrible.  He suggested that the young author become familiar with both, the logic being that you can learn a lot even from a bad book.   This notion has served me well professionally and so I’m always thrilled when I come across stories of Hemingway’s reading lists, like this one.

I think great writers learn to write by learning to read and I think a properly curated list is an invaluable tool.  Do you agree?  And, what books would be on the list you make up for someone looking for advice?

BTW, the cookbook is a treasure.  I’m gonna try the burger recipe this weekend.

0

“Why are librarians so lonely?”

“They’re always by them shelves…”

Sorry about that. I thought I’d start this blog off with a little joke to break the ice, because what I’m about to write is a little nerdy—and to be honest, I’m a little nervous.

I love libraries.

Some people can read anywhere. In the subway. Walking down the street. Even at the gym while taking a stroll on the treadmill. I can’t. Or to be more accurate, I can—I just prefer not to.

Reading can be a powerful thing. Stories have the ability to transport us to a different place, a different time, allow us to experience life through the eyes of another and make us see the world in a whole new way.

And where we read has an impact as well. The world around us influences everything we experience, and in some of the more beautiful libraries, surrounded by rich mahogany and windows that let the sunlight of the world beyond slip through, in that quiet stillness, we are at peace and can truly absorb the words on the page in front of us.

Here are some snapshots of that type of elegant serenity I’m talking about:

 

 

 

Some more of the world’s most beautiful libraries: http://www.lovethiscitytv.com/top-10-most-amazing-libraries-in-the-world/

 

Oh, and on a lighter note, some more jokes for your reading pleasure: 

“Want to hear a joke about a library?”

“Sur-”

“SHHHH!”

 

“Why did the librarian slip and fall?”

“Because she was in the non-friction section.”

 

So, I was working in a library and this guy comes up to me and asks, “Do you have a bookmark?”

I said, “Yes, we have hundreds…but my name’s Mike.”