Thursday, September 30, 2010

You Don't Want to be Maxwell Perkins Because He's Dead: Publishing Jobs in This Century

You might be thinking that with this title, the post is going to be all about jobs with eBooks and POD (Print on Demand), but honestly no one in this business knows how those are going to shake out yet. Anyone who says otherwise is lying. I'll get back to you in five years.

No, this post is about how many wannabee editors say they want to be an editor because they want to discover the next Hemingway, the next Faulkner, the next Fitzgerald. Really? The next drunk, misogynist ass who also happens to be dead? And whose books would have been out of print 80 years ago if it weren't for required summer reading? This is an excellent example of how not to impress an interviewer. I know I mentioned this briefly in an earlier post, but it merits repeating. Especially if you are a recent college grad.

It's great if you've read the classics. Many would argue it's essential to know the background for how we got to today (although I for one think any humanities degree that involves a lot of reading is just fine for a career in publishing - Poli Sci, History, Philosophy, etc.) But do try to remember what century we're living in. You will be asked what books you've read recently. And they should be recent books. In fact, if you have time before your interview, you should run out and buy some books published by the actual publishing house (and division) where you are interviewing. Drop everything and read. It might be difficult, but you should be able to read a book a day if you otherwise do nothing else, and so you should be able to get through 3-4 before your interview (even if you're in town and free tomorrow, it's best to ask for a couple of days to prep, unless of course that means you'd no longer be in town.)

When applying for jobs in publishing, this is not the time to say to yourself, "I'd really like to beef up on the classics." This is the time to catch up on the New York Times Bestsellers. If that previous sentence made you throw up in your mouth a little bit, you might want to reconsider your prospective career, or at least make an adjustment so you're only applying to university presses. If you want a job at Random House or HarperCollins, they want bestsellers. You don't have to read a bunch of trash in prep, you can pick and choose. There are 11 NYT lists to choose from, and most of the lists actually list up to 35 titles. There are other bestseller lists you can choose among as well. If you want more literary, your best bet are the IndieBound lists.

Turn up your nose all you want; it just proves ignorance. Here is an example of books on the NYT list of 9/17:

FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen
THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett
APE HOUSE by Sara Gruen
THE GRAND DESIGN by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow
THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS by Isabel Wilkerson
THE BIG SHORT by Michael Lewis
LITTLE BEE by Chris Cleave
HALF BROKE HORSES by Jeannette Walls
CUTTING FOR STONE by Abraham Verghese
THE LACUNA by Barbara Kingsolver
ZEITOUN by Dave Eggers
A LONG WAY GONE by Ishmael Beah
And I didn't even have to venture past the top 15 in any category to get this pretty literary list. You need to have read a few of these books. In particular, most English majors haven't read much nonfiction and that's an area you'd really want to catch up in. Nonfiction is easier to promote, which means it's easier to sell, which means it's easier to buy as an editor.

After you're asked what books you've read recently, you might be asked which book you liked most and why, or if your interviewer has read and liked one, you might be asked more specific questions about that particular title; if you liked it or not, what you thought, if you would have done anything differently in the publication of the book, so if you intend to try to bullsh*t your way through this question be careful. I wouldn't spout off a string of books you haven't read. Don't worry at all about saying you dislike a book if you did. It shows you are discerning, have a critical eye (key for an editor), and are willing to give your opinion despite it potentially being in the minority (naturally if any book is a bestseller, disliking it will be a minority viewpoint.)

Additionally, you will be expected to be familiar with the publisher and imprint where you are interviewing. If you go to Minotaur and spout off about horror books, or to NAL and talk about literary fiction, or to Knopf and talk about your love of romances, you've not done your homework. Some of the more mainstream divisions will be harder to pigeonhole than the genre ones, so with those you'll want to spend more time memorizing the lists, looking up the books, and reading descriptions.

If you are asked what kind of books you'd personally like to acquire one day, don't just say literary fiction and narrative nonfiction. 99% of the recent grads say that. Not only do those books normally not sell, but you want to stand out from the crowd. This is a business, not a charity, and publishers want to make money. What makes money? Again, do your homework. Find at least one category that regularly performs well that you can stomach, and be sure to mention that one. Sure I wanted to acquire literary fiction and narrative nonfiction (and I sometimes did) but the books I acquired that were big financial successes were chick lit, pop culture, and humor.

Once you've applied, you're not done with your work! There's plenty of homework before you interview. But the best and easiest advice is read. Read read read. Books published NOW.

My Favorite Reads: Family Secrets by Norma Klein

In My Favorite Reads each week I feature one of my favorite reads from the past. This is Banned Books Week, and so I'm featuring a book by my favorite author of all time.

Family Secrets by Norma Klein

Summary (from Goodreads):
Peter and Leslie's families have had beach houses near each other for years, so it seemed only natural when their friendship turned to romance. Their perfect summer romance is shattered when Leslie finds her mother's diary and discovers that her mother and Peter's father are having an affair and want to get married. Suddenly the two teens find themselves stepbrother and sister, and must learn to cope with their new lives and old friendship.

Why I chose this book:

(I reread this book in Dec. 2009, before I started my blog. Here is the review I wrote at the time:)
This is the first Norma Klein book I reread since high school/college, and it holds up well. This is not one of her deeper novels, which is actually why I started with it. One thing she's truly great at is characterization. The main characters are so different from one book to the next, so real and 3-dimensional, and the peripheral characters are pretty fleshed-out too. I loved Peter's uncle even though he isn't in the book much, and his mother and Leslie's father. Her mother and his father aren't quite as well-rounded, but I feel that's accurate to who they are: self-centered and superficial. They truly aren't well-rounded people. At times with misunderstandings and misinterpretations that could be easily cleared up, I did get a tad exasperated, but again that's true to the characters: Leslie the drama queen, and Peter the shy, socially inept scientist. They aren't good with feelings or relationships, either of them. So their constant volatility and hot and cold does ring true even if it is frustrating.

And one thing I've always liked about Ms. Klein's books is how she doesn't just go for the pat happy ending. Even though probably both Leslie and Peter think they're headed to a happy ending, think they've worked things out and will have a great summer, I think they will spend the whole summer fighting and will not stay together into college. And I think that's pretty obvious to most readers. Ms. Klein totally gets teenagers, and that's what made her books so important to me at that age. And of course, that's the best reason why they shouldn't be banned, and of course it's also why people want to ban them. Because of some misguided belief that teenagers will stay innocent angels if not for the corrupting influence of smut-peddlers like Ms. Klein. Hah. Teens will have sex, and it's a good idea for them to be prepared for the emotional impact and outcome of relationships.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

“Waiting On” Wednesday: Stealing the Mystic Lamb

“Waiting On” Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted here, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating. This week's pre-publication “can't-wait-to-read” selection is:

Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World's Most Coveted Masterpiece by Noah Charney

from the publisher:
Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece is on any art historian’s list of the ten most important paintings ever made. Often referred to by the subject of its central panel, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, it represents the fulcrum between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It is also the most frequently stolen artwork of all time.

Since its completion in 1432, this twelve-panel oil painting has been looted in three different wars, burned, dismembered, forged, smuggled, illegally sold, censored, hidden, attacked by iconoclasts, hunted by the Nazis and Napoleon, used as a diplomatic tool, ransomed, rescued by Austrian double-agents, and stolen a total of thirteen times.

In this fast-paced, real-life thriller, art historian Noah Charney unravels the stories of each of these thefts. In the process, he illuminates the whole fascinating history of art crime, and the psychological, ideological, religious, political, and social motivations that have led many men to covet this one masterpiece above all others.

Publishing 10/5/10 by Public Affairs.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Teaser Tuesdays

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by Should Be Reading

Grab your current read. Open to a random page. Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page. BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!) Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck's the Grapes of Wrath by Rick Wartzman p. 13

"Besides, banning books is so utterly hopeless and futile. Ideas don't die because a book is forbidden reading. If Steineck has written the truth, that truth will survive. If he is mearly being sensational and lascivious, if all the 'little words' are really more than fly specks on a large painting, then the book will soon go the way of all other modern novels and and be forgotten."

These are the words of Kern County, California librarian Gretchen Knief in 1939, and they are so true.

Outsourced Libraries?

Sunday there was a fascinating article in the NYT about a company called LSSI that now runs 14 libraries systems encompassing 63 locations, and for the first time they've taken over a library system that isn't (yet!) in dire financial straits in Santa Clarita, CA. The knee-jerk reaction is that this is horrible. People are being fired, and it's just horrid to have libraries be for-profit (no, they are not "private." They are still public libraries.) But as I was reading this article, I realized I have an interesting angle into this topic.

When I was in high school in the summers, I helped my father, an Economics professor, with a research project, on whether colleges and universities self-operated or contracted our their auxiliary services (dry cleaning, parking, day care, cafeteria, janitorial, bookstores, and so on.) At that time (early 90s) most were self-operating. I asked him about it recently, and he said now it would be so swayed towards contracted-out that it wouldn't be worth it to study this again. While in college, I worked at the Vanderbilt University Bookstore (where my father taught, not where I went to school.) I worked the customer service desk where, in addition to refunds and exchanges, I was in charge of class rings, Cross pens, diploma frames, graphic calculators, stereos (anything expensive that needed to be locked up), student employment, newspaper subscriptions, and anything else that didn't fall neatly into a category. (The picture with the brick wall and the trash can is the best picture I can find of the VU bookstore, which is in the building to the left.)

A year after I left the VU Bookstore, I went to work at Bookstar, a B&N. I was shocked. Physically the stores were roughly the same size. But managerially, they were worlds apart.

Bookstar had a store manager, two assistant managers, and two associate managers. That's five altogether. The store was open 9AM-11PM 7 days a week, and we always needed one manager on duty to cover 98 hours.

The Vanderbilt Bookstore had a manager in Customer Service, Gifts, Sundries, Office Supplies, Textbooks, General Books, a manager over the Cashwrap, and in EACH of these department there were about 4 assistant managers. The store had a Director, who had a Secretary, and the store had a Receptionist. There were two people (manager level) working the check cashing window, and 3 in Accounting. I think at the Vanderbilt Bookstore there were about 30 managers, and 5 hourly employees. It was open 8AM-5AM 5 days a week, only 40 hours. Whereas Bookstar had 5 managers and 40 hourly employees. Which store do you think was a better place to work? Which store do you think had higher payroll costs? Here's a hint: the answer is different to those two questions. Believe me, you do not want to be one of the 5 hourly employees. Funny how everyone thinks they're your boss.

The Vanderbilt Bookstore is now run by Follett. Am I sad about this? Not one bit. Did people lose their jobs? Yes. But some of them should have. There was a woman in Gifts who came back to customer service 2-3 times a week to ring up phoned in orders. I had to retrain her on the register every single time. For 3 years. "How do I get rid of the tax?" "You push the button that says 'Tax Exempt.'" "How do I get the total?" "You push the button marked 'Subtotal.'" This was not rocket surgery. And yet she made more than I did. And everyone was afraid to hire her. Why? Because she'd been there forever and might sue. Even though Tennessee is a "right to work" state (which means you don't even have to be told why you get fired.)

So, do I think contracting out is evil? Nope. Bad habits get entrenched. Without caps, annual salary raises can get ridiculous after just a few years. Someone does a good job and you want to reward them so you give them a promotion. Do that a few times over ten years, and you'll end up with 25 managers. It can be really hard for the current management to overhaul an operation without lawsuits and just really hurt feelings. This isn't the case for a private company that comes in.

Plus there are economies of scale. One way Bookstar could get away with only 5 managers was that 95% of the purchasing was done by Corporate in New Jersey. Our store didn't have to buy books, pay invoices, reconcile accounts, deal with payroll, or any of that. Were there occasional errors with things done remotely? Of course. But believe me, there were just as many local mistakes.

I love libraries (just signed up yesterday to start volunteering at mine), don't get me wrong. But right now it's time to get creative. For a lot of these systems, it's contract out or shut down, not contract out or keep going as they've been. Given those choices, I hope LSSI turns out to be as good at their job as Follett. As long as it keeps libraries open!

Monday, September 27, 2010

My own Banned Book Story

I worked at Bookstar in Nashville in 1996-1997. At one point a controversy came up about a few photography books that we carried (Thank you, Focus on the Family.) The photographers in dispute were Jock Sturges, David Hamilton, and Sally Mann. They often feature nudes, who sometimes are children. A lot of people were up in arms about this around town. The local paper naturally covered the debate, and they called the national offices of Borders and Barnes & Noble for comments. B&N National made some statement about how it's not our job to police what people read, we're simply in the business of selling books.

Well it is truly shocking how many people did not realize that Barnes & Noble owns Bookstar. I have included a few interior pictures here of different Bookstars - don't they look like chain stores? While the overall theme was different - red, blue, and yellow instead of green and dark wood - we often even had the dark green signs, not to mention our gift certificates and receipts were explicit, and really all you had to do was look around to see the fingerprints of the Riggios all over our store.

For several weeks we had a lot of business. People would come in and ask us if we had those awful pornography books out on the floor. We would honestly tell them no, we didn't. We didn't say that was because the press the books were getting thanks to the prudes had greatly increased demand for these titles. The ones we did have in stock were all behind the counter because they were on hold for customers, and we'd ordered a dozen more to cover special orders. Then these self-righteous would-be banners would say to us as we bagged their purchases, "I will never shop at that horrible Barnes & Noble. It's just unbelievable that they would sell smut and porn like that! I'm so glad I can patronize another store, and not give them my money." We'd just smile and say we'd be happy to have them in Bookstar any and every day. It's amazing how far you can get with simply selective truth-telling.
Believe it or not, B&N was indicted in Tennessee (and Alabama) in 1997 for their branded store violating a law involving having material deemed obscene accessible to minors. I am dismayed to see the outcomes were: "Barnes & Noble reached a settlement with the authorities in Tennessee, agreeing to treat the books like material that is harmful to minors. In Tennessee, Barnes & Noble will display the books in blinder racks 5-1/2 feet off the floor or use opaque shrink wrap. The Montgomery, Alabama, case was dismissed on a technicality." (From the Freedom to Read Foundation News.) Bummer, B&N. I thought you stood up to jerks like this.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is now hosted by Sheila at One Persons Journey Through a World of Books.

Books completed last week:
Bitter is the New Black : Confessions of a Condescending, Egomaniacal, Self-Centered Smartass, Or, Why You Should Never Carry A Prada Bag to the Unemployment Office by Jen Lancaster
The Known World by Edward P. Jones

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time by Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson
Nothing Left to Burn by Jay Varner

Up Next:
Beautiful Malice by Rebecca James
The Long Way Home: An American Journey from Ellis Island to the Great War by David Laskin
We Two by Gillian Gill

Sunday, September 26, 2010

100 most frequently challenged books: 1990–1999

100 most frequently challenged books: 1990–1999

I'm doing the last decade instead of this decade as that's when I was in school, so this list is a little more in sync with what I've read. Books I've read appear in blue. I've read 29 which seems low. Of course with all the lists out there of banned and challenged books, I've actually read more than that. And without exception, every single banned book I've read was excellent. Funny, I doubt you could put together a better list of recommended reading!

1.Scary Stories (Series), by Alvin Schwartz
2.Daddy’s Roommate, by Michael Willhoite
3.I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
4.The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier
5.The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
6.Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
7.Forever, by Judy Blume
8.Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson
9.Heather Has Two Mommies, by Leslea Newman
10.The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
11.The Giver, by Lois Lowry
12.My Brother Sam is Dead, by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier
13.It’s Perfectly Normal, by Robie Harris
14.Alice (Series), by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
15.Goosebumps (Series), by R.L. Stine
16.A Day No Pigs Would Die, by Robert Newton Peck
17.The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
18.Sex, by Madonna
19.Earth’s Children (Series), by Jean M. Auel
20.The Great Gilly Hopkins, by Katherine Paterson
21.In the Night Kitchen, by Maurice Sendak
22.The Witches, by Roald Dahl
23.A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle
24.The New Joy of Gay Sex, by Charles Silverstein
25.Go Ask Alice, by Anonymous
26.The Goats, by Brock Cole
27.The Stupids (Series), by Harry Allard
28.Anastasia Krupnik (Series), by Lois Lowry
29.Final Exit, by Derek Humphry
30.Blubber, by Judy Blume
31.Halloween ABC, by Eve Merriam
32.Julie of the Wolves, by Jean Craighead George
33.Kaffir Boy, by Mark Mathabane
34.The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
35.What’s Happening to my Body? Book for Girls: A Growing-Up Guide for Parents & Daughters, by Lynda Madaras
36.Fallen Angels, by Walter Dean Myers
37.The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
38.The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton
39.The Pigman, by Paul Zindel
40.To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
41.We All Fall Down, by Robert Cormier
42.Deenie, by Judy Blume
43.Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes
44.Annie on my Mind, by Nancy Garden
45.Beloved, by Toni Morrison
46.The Boy Who Lost His Face, by Louis Sachar
47.Cross Your Fingers, Spit in Your Hat, by Alvin Schwartz
48.Harry Potter (Series), by J.K. Rowling
49.Cujo, by Stephen King
50.James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl
51.A Light in the Attic, by Shel Silverstein

52.Ordinary People, by Judith Guest
53.American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis
54.Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley

55.Sleeping Beauty Trilogy, by A.N. Roquelaure (Anne Rice)
56.Bumps in the Night, by Harry Allard
57.Asking About Sex and Growing Up, by Joanna Cole
58.What’s Happening to my Body? Book for Boys: A Growing-Up Guide for Parents & Sons, by Lynda Madaras
59.The Anarchist Cookbook, by William Powell
60.Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume
61.Boys and Sex, by Wardell Pomeroy
62.Crazy Lady, by Jane Conly
63.Athletic Shorts, by Chris Crutcher
64.Killing Mr. Griffin, by Lois Duncan
65.Fade, by Robert Cormier
66.Guess What?, by Mem Fox
67.Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
68.Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
69.Native Son by Richard Wright
70.Women on Top: How Real Life Has Changed Women’s Fantasies, by Nancy Friday
71.Curses, Hexes and Spells, by Daniel Cohen
72.On My Honor, by Marion Dane Bauer
73.The House of Spirits, by Isabel Allende
74.Jack, by A.M. Homes
75.Arizona Kid, by Ron Koertge
76.Family Secrets, by Norma Klein
77.Mommy Laid An Egg, by Babette Cole
78.Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo A. Anaya
79.Where Did I Come From?, by Peter Mayle
80.The Face on the Milk Carton, by Caroline Cooney
81.Carrie, by Stephen King
82.The Dead Zone, by Stephen King
83.The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain
84.Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison
85.Always Running, by Luis Rodriguez
86.Private Parts, by Howard Stern
87.Where’s Waldo?, by Martin Hanford
88.Summer of My German Soldier, by Bette Greene
89.Tiger Eyes, by Judy Blume
90.Little Black Sambo, by Helen Bannerman
91.Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett

92.Running Loose, by Chris Crutcher
93.Sex Education, by Jenny Davis
94.Jumper, by Steven Gould
95.Christine, by Stephen King
96.The Drowning of Stephen Jones, by Bette Greene
97.That Was Then, This is Now, by S.E. Hinton
98.Girls and Sex, by Wardell Pomeroy
99.The Wish Giver, by Bill Brittain
100.Jump Ship to Freedom, by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier

Book Review: Bitter Is the New Black by Jen Lancaster

In Bitter is the New Black : Confessions of a Condescending, Egomaniacal, Self-Centered Smartass, Or, Why You Should Never Carry A Prada Bag to the Unemployment Office, Jen Lancaster really does bring a Prada purse to the unemployment office. It is a bad move. She's called "Ms. Prada" by the employees (who I am impressed all recognize the bag - I'm not sure I would, not being much of a label person) who then delay her unemployment benefits. Good to know.

I was laid off last month. I still have a couple more weeks of severance checks to go before I can apply. (In NC it's state law - you can't apply for unemployment until your severance has run out.) I haven't been job hunting too hard yet. I'd like to stay in the book business but in my neck of the woods, jobs are few and far between. I just have to bide my time and keep my ears open. When a job does come open here, I have to hope that my big fish in a small pond position works to my favor. Meanwhile, plenty of time to read!

I have been reading Ms. Lancaster's books all out of order. This was her first one, and it's the fourth one I've read. It was pretty hilarious. She really has personality oozing out of her ears, which makes her a captivating storyteller. You are partly watching out of train-wreck hopes, but also because she's just so hilarious you can't wait to hear what she does next.

Initially she's wildly successful and is making six figures in the dot-com world, and her boyfriend is also making big numbers at a telecommunications company. But then (it's the early 2000s), the dot-com world goes bust and Jen loses her job. Then her boyfriend's company is being investigated (it eventually is revealed to be WorldCom), and so he loses his job too. Lots of bills, and no income. Jen isn't a sit-on-your-butt-and-cry kind of chick - she applies for any and every job she can, she dumbs down her resume, she works temp jobs, but even in a huge city like Chicago she exhausts her options. Eventually they have to sell her car, Fletch's car is repossessed, they move into a small apartment in a bad neighborhood, their electricity gets cut off, they have to ration necessary medications, and they contemplate moving back to Indiana and moving in with Jen's parents.

There are excellent lessons here about saving, planning for the future, not investing so much personal self-worth in labels, but it's really about perseverance and hard work. Jen never gives up. She seems like a negative person but she really isn't. She may be bitchy and snarky but she gets up every days and works like a dog to get a job, while keeping Fletch's spirits up and keeping house and home together. I thought this would be an excellent book to read right now as I begin my job search, and I was right. While Jen's diatribes about the crazy Russian construction crew next door or her nutso dogs or her bitch of an ex-best-friend who stole a job out from under her are laugh-out-loud funny, I kept reading to see if someone as hard-working, determined, and who never truly feels sorry for herself would ever catch a break and get rewarded for her work ethic and follow-through. You can probably guess the ending but I won't spoil it with details. Meanwhile, I was completely distracted by her funny friends, her endless requirements for a new apartment, the hippie neighbors, and her ridiculous interviews. I hope my own job hunt goes better than hers. I am incredibly happy that I have savings in the bank and that the Federal government has extended unemployment benefits so that mine won't run out as quickly as hers did. I am a bit intimidated by her excellent cover letters (which I totally can't steal due to the success of this book.) I am jealous of her wardrobe (even if I have way, way more clothes than enough already.) If you have any unemployed female friends with an ounce of humor, this book would be an excellent pick-me-up gift for them. I was truly and thoroughly amused, and hope I can stay ahead of the eviction notices myself.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Book Review: Are You There God? It's Me Margaret by Judy Blume

Another book that completely holds up upon rereading! And not solely out of nostalgia. In fact, rereading this as an adult, I am surprised at how well told the story is, and at little details that I overlooked as a preteen.

Okay, it was totally hilarious to me as an adult (who is probably the same age as Margaret's parents) that one reason they moved is because of Margaret's grandmother. It's good that Margaret was smart enough to figure that out, and it sure did seem true. She seemed pretty mature to figure out that her grandmother, while loving and thoughtful, is also pushy and overbearing to her parents.

I too, like Margaret, had wanted a dressing table like Nancy's when I was a child, although I was never a particularly frilly girl. I remember Nancy's kissing practice making me worry - should I be doing that too? Was practicing on a pillow even remotely good preparation? Oh and the lawn mowing kid? I get that his nickname is Moose, but he says he's listed in the phone book. It would be pretty unusual for a 14-year-old boy to have his own listing back then, but also to be listed under Moose? I'm sure he had a real first name.

Now as a kid when I read this book, I went to Catholic school. Sure, most of my classmates were Catholic but kids I knew from elsewhere sure weren't (in Nashville, Catholics aren't common, neither are Jews.) In fact I remember I had to ask my Mom what a Jewish Community Center was (we belonged to the Knights of Columbus pool, so neither the YMCA nor the JCC.) But I did understand her wondering about religions, since we were surrounded by protestants of a wide variety. I really like what Margaret's mother told her: "My mother says God is a nice idea. He belongs to everybody."

It was kind of risky to give Margaret a male teacher I think. In fact, not good things are hinted at regarding Mr. Benedict and Laura Danker although they seem pretty untrue (as are all the rumors about poor Laura.) I'm glad Ms. Blume addressed concerns fairy directly with Mr. Benedict's questionnaire where he wanted kids to complete the sentence, "I think male teachers are..." He seems like an excellent teacher though.

I really wanted to be in a secret club at this age. I'll bet most preteens do. I was a little bit jealous that Margaret immediately got into a group of girls who seemed nice, as soon as she moved. I do wish the characters of Gretchen and Janie had been fleshed out a little more - Janie's main personality trait seems to be that she's short, and Gretchen doesn't even get that much. But it's a pretty minor quibble in an otherwise excellent book. And really with a friend like Nancy, I'll bet no one around her is allowed to have much personality or she'd smack it down. Now I like Nancy, but in addition to being dominating and bossy, she's also a tattle-tale and occasional liar.

As an adult, reading about Margaret's parents eloping against both their families' wishes is pretty dramatic. Her mother's family completely cutting them off is shocking. And from some of the comments made about them ("They want to see Margaret! To make sure she doesn't have horns!", you know it was a very fraught, contentious situation. It's interesting that Margaret's friends think the situation was "so romantic." In some ways it was, but it was also terrifying, gutsy, and sad. And when they do come visit, it's even more sad that after fourteen years, after completely missing their only grandchild's childhood, they can't not bring up religion, despite several pleas not to, and they ruin their visit, and any chance they had at a relationship with Margaret, and with Barbara, her mother. It's not outright stated, but you can be sure any future overtures would be met with even more skepticism after their behavior on this visit.

Of course when I was a preteen, the most important parts of this book were the parts that involved bras, spin the bottle, two minutes in the closet, and menstruation. Reading it now, those are secondary. It's just about a year in a young girl's life, dealing with a lot of changes, growing up, making friends, and fitting in. All these girls want is to be ordinary. Not even to be popular - just to be normal. Which is of course why all the rumors about Laura are so mean, and why Margaret doesn't realize how cruel her fight with Laura is when they're working on the Belgium report.

This book is so important to so many young girls for decades now, because it is so reassuring that everything they're going through is normal. Margaret has the additional worry about religion that most kids her age don't have, but that just makes her all the more identifiable. It's a powerful, meaningful, respectful book. I just about wore my copy out at this age.

This review is a part of Kid Konnection, hosted by Booking Mama, a collection of children's book-related posts over the weekend. Also this review is posted in honor of Banned Books Week, as sadly this is a frequently challenged book and has been for decades.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Book Review: The Known World by Edward P. Jones

I have been struggling to write this review for the last few days. I had a very hard time finishing this book. It certainly would have been abandoned if it weren't my book club selection. Yet, it won the Pulitzer. Many other people have found it to be the pinnacle of literary accomplishment. So what is my problem with it? It started with the blurbs at the beginning of the book. It is compared to Cold Mountain (didn't like, abandoned 2/3 of the way through), Beloved (didn't read but hated the movie), Faulkner (who I find tedious and wordy for the sake of hearing himself talk), and Garcia Marquez (I abandoned A Hundred Years of Solitude halfway through, thoroughly frustrated, though I can certainly see the comparison, which coming from me is not a compliment.)

I find any time there's a list of characters, it's a red flag. If even the author is acknowledging that it's just too hard to keep track of the enormous cast, then perhaps more judicious editing was in order, not a list of characters. In addition, not only were there just too many characters, there was too much detail about everyone. For instance: "Ralph would go to live with his people in Washington, for with Clara's death relatives materialized from high and low and he was then without a home. The relatives sold the land to William Robbins, which angered Robert Colfax. Ralph's people in Washington were not as bad as he had always thought. The drunkard had found God a week after a Fourth of July and had said good-bye to the bottle for good."

Clara doesn't die in the course of this book. This whole above paragraph is erroneous information about something that will happen decades after the events of the book. Ralph is Clara's slave, and he only appears in the book for less than 10 pages, never to reappear. Why on earth do we need to know how he lives out his elderly years? Mr. Jones really needed an editor with a firmer hand. This is just one example but this kind of thing happens frequently throughout the novel. The book's events mostly play out over a three-week period (although at the end we zip through another month or so) but we find out most characters' entire life stories from birth to death, no matter how minor or irrelevant. Since the author was not focused enough to weed out irrelevant information, that task is left to the readers. But as we don't know the main plot (in fact I'd venture to argue there isn't one) or how the story will end, we don't know who will prove to seem minor but have a larger impact later, so we have to hold on to all the information. It's exhausting, and a job the author should have done, not the reader.

The story is ostensibly about Henry Townsend, a free black man in the 1830s, his overseer slave, Moses, his widow, Caldonia, and how they deal in the aftermath of his premature death. Henry is already dead when the story begins but then we jump back in town to his childhood, to his parents, to his apprenticeship, his freedom, his education, his purchase of slaves, his courtship of Caldonia, and so on. Do we really need this kind of detail about a character who isn't even alive? Oddly, we never get this level of history about Caldonia, which also makes it hard to judge when the information is irrelevant and can be discarded, as some major characters remain sketches while very minor ones are fully drawn.

The book is rambling. It does not have a straightforward narrative. It jumps back and forth in time, over nearly a century all told, with no discernible path. It is lyrically written but at the expense of understanding which I find unforgivable. In a novel, poetry should never take priority over plot. (And yes, from that statement you can accurately assume I don't like Joyce either.) Aside from the ethics of a free black man owning slaves, I don't know what there really is to discuss at book club. All in all, I was disappointed. I found my fears upon reading the blurb comparisons completely founded.

Book Beginnings on Friday

Book Beginnings on Friday is a meme hosted by Becky at Page Turners. Anyone can participate; just share the opening sentence of your current read, making sure that you include the title and author so others know what you're reading.

Nothing Left to Burn: A Memoir by Jay Varner

"My grandfather Lucky drove to our trailer every Saturday morning, his silver and maroon Chevrolet pickup loaded with garbage bags piled so high they nearly spilled over the sides."

I know from the flap copy that Lucky is going to turn out to be quite a handful (arsonist) so starting the book with setting him up as a bit of a kook seems very appropriate.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

My Favorite Reads: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

In My Favorite Reads each week I feature one of my favorite reads from the past. Next week is Banned Books week and so all September I have been featuring banned books that I loved in this meme. This week, it's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey.

Summary (from the publisher):
Boisterous, ribald, and ultimately shattering, Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is the seminal novel of the 1960s that has left an indelible mark on the literature of our time. Here is the unforgettable story of a mental ward and its inhabitants, especially the tyrannical Big Nurse Ratched and Randle Patrick McMurphy, the brawling, fun-loving new inmate who resolves to oppose her. We see the struggle through the eyes of Chief Bromden, the seemingly mute half-Indian patient who witnesses and understands McMurphy's heroic attempt to do battle with the awesome powers that keep them all imprisoned.

Why I chose this book:
I read this book after seeing the play in New York on Broadway. McMurphy was played by Gary Sinise, and Chief was played by the son of the actor who played him in the 1975 movie with Jack Nicholson. The play was closer to the book, but I was still surprised that the book was narrated by Chief. I had assumed McMurphy would be the narrator. This isn't my usual kind of book and despite it being a classic I never would have read it if it weren't for the play, but I'm really glad I did. It's masterfully written, with great control and it's such an original story. Yes, bad, awful things happen but that's never a reason to ban a book - those are jumping off points for discussion. It's hard to imagine what reading the book in the 1960s would have been like. I'm sure it was much more groundbreaking and shocking then. To read it 30+ years later, long past when electroshock treatment has been discredited and when many reforms in the metal health arena have taken place, it just can't be the same experience. A brilliant critique of society.

Book Job Posts Round-Up

I am starting to run low on ideas for Publishing Career posts. Do you have questions I haven't answered yet? Please let me know! Meanwhile, here is a round-up of some related posts I've seen in the last few months.

Susan Orlean's New Yorker story about how Editors move around a lot. I've heard the average is 3 years. Funny story. More than 10 years ago when I was a buyer, I heard a story about the head of sales at one of my publishers. She had a reputation for moving every 3 years. A company wanted to offer her a job but they didn't like that rumor and they wanted her to stay with them longer. So they brought it up in an interview, and she promised if hired she wouldn't leave after three years. She was hired, and she left after two. Can't say she didn't keep her promise! Just goes to show, specificity and sentence structure can be crucial.

A pretty detailed post on How to make a children's book jacket. Starts off with some seminal ones from the designer's own youth that resonated, then shows different ideas in progress through to the finished product.

Canada's Globe and Mail discusses the importance of re-designs for backlist. Backlist pays the bills people, so you want it to sell, sell, sell. Redesigning book covers allows Sales to resolicit them in bookstores, remind bookstores about these books, hopefully they'll bring in a few more copies, maybe even display a few.

A former copyeditor at New York magazine explains the real life of a copyeditor including how to properly spell and punctuate some rather blue copy! (She even mentions Don Draper of Mad Men as an example!) I can be a copyeditor around the office for presentations and the like, but after taking my copyediting class at NYU, I know I'll never be able to do that professionally. It takes a certain personality. Not mine!

A bookseller describing books in 1 line. In my post about Reader's Reports for hopeful editors, I mention you only should devote one sentence to plot description. Some people find that difficult, so here's some help on how to do it. For more help, read the Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data in the front matter of your books. This also is vitally important for writers when developing your "elevator pitch." Short. Short short short. If you, who knows the work best, can't articulate your storyline cleanly and briefly, your listener will never believe you can be a concise and clear writer.

Jessica at Bookends (my favorite agency blog) recently posted a compilation of interview questions she's asked repeatedly, and they're pretty much all about having a Career as an agent.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Not a Poet and Don't I Know It!

Last night I went to a reading without knowing much ahead of time and one of the readers was a poet. I automatically groaned to myself. And while I liked his poems okay, I thought it was time that I admit something I've not told many people: I hate poetry. Yes, of course there are a dozen or so poems that I do like, but considering that I've read many hundreds, that does not change my mind (the exception proves the rule.)

This is a big secret among literary types. You are allowed to not like genre fiction, or to call literary novels snobby. No one would blink at an adult not liking to read children's books, and it's perfectly acceptable to say one doesn't like nonfiction. But for someone like me - who has centered her life around the written word since age 17 - I am for some reason not allowed to dislike poetry. I get dirty looks, people shift away perceptibly, and start to whisper behind my back. And it's so unfair!

I've read a little bit of everything! I even try to read the popular books I'm sure I'll hate just so that I can speak authoritatively on them and wouldn't fall prey to tarring them based solely on hearsay. I've read romances, horror, even some sci fi and fantasy. I've read pet books, sports books, and even a couple of business books. I try not to exclude anything. But I don't like poetry.

I recently gave up on a book, and my friend K. pointed out something I'd noticed and had chosen to ignore before I started it - the author's bio began by calling him a poet. She considered that a warning sign and I should have too. I am struggling with writing a review for my book club book that I finished a couple of days ago that I did not love. It's very poetic. Funny, when most people say those words they mean it as a compliment, and I do not.

I prefer straightforward. Direct. Simple. Wordy and flowery and romantic are all big turn-offs for me. Yes, I do love a perfect and unexpected metaphor, a sharp turn of phrase, and well-chosen words, but not in a poem. Recently I was listening to a story and a guy was described as having done something very romantic: he wrote his lover a poem. I rolled my eyes and made a gagging face. In New York I was set up on a date by B. with a guy from her MFA program. I should have asked first what he wrote. Because as soon as he started babbling about poetry over dinner, I lost my appetite. In an effort to turn him off I started talking about my therapy, but I should have known better. For a poet, that was more of a turn-on that a turn-off.

So I am going to make a stand here. I am an English major, and I hate poetry.

“Waiting On” Wednesday: The Grace of Silence

“Waiting On” Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted here, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating. This week's pre-publication “can't-wait-to-read” selection is:

The Grace of Silence by Michele Norris

description from the publisher:
In the wake of talk of a “post-racial America” upon the ascendance of Barack Obama as president of the United States, Michele Norris, host of National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, set out, through original reporting, to write a book about “the hidden conversation on race” that is going on in this country. But along the way she unearthed painful family secrets—from her father’s shooting by the Birmingham police within weeks of his discharge from service in World War II to her grandmother’s peddling pancake mix as an itinerant Aunt Jemima.

In what became an intensely personal and bracing journey, Norris traveled from her childhood home in Minneapolis to her ancestral roots in the Deep South to explore “things left unsaid” by her family when she was growing up. Along the way she discovers how character is forged by both repression and revelation. She learns how silence became a form of self-protection and a means of survival for her parents—strivers determined to create a better life for their children at a time when America was beginning to experiment with racial equality—as it was for white Americans who grew up enforcing strict segregation (sometimes through violence) but who now live in a world where integration is the norm.

Extraordinary for Norris’s candor in examining her own complex racial legacy, The Grace of Silence is also informed by hundreds of interviews with ordinary Americans and wise observations about evolving attitudes toward race in America. It is concerned with assessing the truth of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s assertion that vis-a-vis race, ours is a nation of cowards, for often what is left unsaid is more important than what is openly discussed.

This book published yesterday (9/21/10) by Pantheon.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Teaser Tuesdays

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by Should Be Reading

Grab your current read. Open to a random page. Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page. BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!) Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

The Known World by Edward P. Jones p. 70

"About noon Calvin and Louis came down and told Moses the grave should be dug. There was a good-sized plot at the back and off to the left of the house where Henry had planned for himself, Caldonia and their generations to be buried."

Run for Books!

Last Saturday was Rock N Read, a Charity 5K to benefit the local libraries. As I've previously mentioned, their budget has been slashed by more than 50%, there have been hundreds and hundreds of librarians laid off, and all libraries are now only open 4 days a week. A couple of branches are closed completely. In fact, the one nearest to my house is for sale! So they do not intend to reopen it. Two branches have had enough volunteers that just last week it was announced that they can open 1 additional day per week.

My chapter of the Women's National Book Association was a sponsor of the event. I helped to stuff 400 "goodie bags" for participants two weeks ago. And last week I worked two days from 11:00-7:00 at a local running store, handing out the bags along with participants' numbers and information. On Saturday I got up at 5:10 to arrive at the event by 5:45. It was dark and cold, and I was dressed for warmer weather. I am not a morning person so perhaps it is good that we kind of stood around for quite a while. Eventually I was able to set up the WNBA-C table, where we had brochures, free ARCs, and candy! (Yes, that is me in the navy blue shirt.) We had quite a few people stop by and ask questions and pick up books. I am bummed that we've had no emails yet about it, but it's only been 3 days. Patience has never been my strong suit.

The great news is that the event raised over $11,000! Considering that it was pulled off in a crazy-short time frame and it was the first annual, I think that is a pretty amazing amount! Exceeded their goal by over $1000. We had a couple of members run in the 5K, several helped with registration, and a couple manned a water station.

Next is the book sale, which I am very much looking forward to, despite now being on a strict budget. There are over 100,000 books that will be sold! Any bookish people in Central North Carolina should consider making the trip! It's Oct 22-24 unless you are a member of the Friends of the Library (the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library) in which case there are earlier dates.

It was a lot of fun, and I met some cool people. I hope to see many of them at a WNBA event in the future, and maybe I'll also see them at the Book Sale!

Monday, September 20, 2010

I Hate Mean People

Wow, what a controversy to break out right before Banned Book Week! A guy named Wesley Scroggins here wrote a rambling, borderline incoherent letter to his local paper in Springfield, MO complaining about the books at his children's public school including Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, and Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler (which is not required reading but just happens to be in the school library). The first and last book he describes as being "soft pornography" because they talk about sex (Speak is actually about rape), and in Slaughterhouse Five he objects to "the f word," nakedness, acknowledgement of sex, and the treatment of religion. He also wrote a 29-page polemic to the school board which is here. In it he objects to teaching about the separation of church and state, the showing of the movie "The Breakfast Club" at school, and any teaching of sexual education and evolution.

Regardless of whether or not I agree with his obvious religious beliefs, a lot of his statements simply aren't true and his supporting appendices actually prove this. He claims the history textbook says that separation of church and state is a part of the Constitution which would be a problem if it were true, but in his accompanying documents (p.9) it's very clear that the discussion of the separation of church and state is included in a section headed "Other Establishment Clause Cases" as it is about rulings by the Supreme Court. This is just one example but the bulk of his arguments are simply wrong. And Dr. Scroggins, here's some news for you: teenagers have sex. And they don't need instructions to figure out how. They usually do need some instructions on how to prevent pregnancy, disease, and what is unacceptable behavior (rape) that should be reported to the authorities. Not giving them information will never prevent sex. It will only prevent knowledge.

Slaughterhouse Five has since been removed and Twenty Boy Summer is being reviewed according to the superintendent. So in Republic, MO, censorship is winning. I've never wanted to read Slaughterhouse Five before, despite it being a classic and the author being one of my sister L's favorites, but now I want to read it, just to support this now-banned book. I also am adding Speak and Twenty Boy Summer to my To Be Read list.

I have read some blog posts today that have taken my breath away with their honesty and openness. I so admire people who are able to speak the truth even if painful, and who want to spread knowledge and understanding. Check out this one and here and here. Knowledge is power! Read on, everyone. Especially you teens! Don't let ignorance, prejudice, and bigotry limit you.
To read more posts about this controversy, or to link your own post, go here.