Sunday, November 23, 2014

My Salinger Year

I am a huge fan of well written memoirs (reading at least a dozen per year in recent years), and when I find a good one written by a publishing insider, I feel as if I've hit the memoir jackpot.  

When I read Joanna Rakoff's My Salinger Year back in August, I wrote this review for use on a couple of websites.  Because I did not write the review specifically for Book Chase, it might be a little rough around the edges.  The sentiments expressed in the review, however, are sincere ones:

Joanna Rakoff was fortunate enough to experience the atmosphere of an old-school literary agency, one that managed to represent some of the most respected writers of the 20th century - and she did it just in the nick of time: 1996.

As recounted in her memoir "My Salinger Year," the agency and the agents were nothing like the author expected them to be. Instead of finding a high tech (well, as high as high tech was in '96, anyway), Rakoff walked into an office that still thrived on manual typewriters, carbon copies, dictaphones, and walking down the hall to speak with co-workers. These people thought that having a copy machine was too high tech to fool with and there was no way they wanted computers in the office. When they finally got a copy machine, the typists were overjoyed - but when they got one IBM computer for the entire office and were pretty much told to stay away from it, they were reminded where they worked and for whom.

Joanna Rakoff
Rakoff was 23 years old in 1996 when she found herself working for J.D. Salinger's agent, and her encounters with the man are both interesting and endearing (especially for fans of Salinger's work). She only met him one time, as I recall, but had numerous phone conversations with the hard-of-hearing Salinger during which he shouted into the phone at her.

Joanna Rakoff grew into her job. She was little more than a secretary (1950s-style) when she started at the agency but, by the time she left just a year later, she had sold a story on her own and identified a new client for the agency via a manuscript she plucked from the company slush pile. But, ultimately, Rakoff decided to move on with her life - one in which she finally shed an anvil of a boyfriend, married and had a couple of children, divorced, and finally joined the college boyfriend she pined for throughout the length of "My Salinger Year."

Avid readers will enjoy this insider's look at a New York literary agency as seen through the eyes of someone fresh from school. It is one of the better books-on-books of 2014.

And here's a bonus book trailer featuring author Joanna Rakoff in which her enthusiasm and excitement (almost twenty years after her "Salinger year") is still evident:





This one will appeal to a diverse group of readers, I think: memoir fans, fans of Salinger, fans of books about books...it's a good one.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Backpack of Library Books Stops Bullet

First Book Struck by the Killer's Bullet
The recent shooting outside the Florida State University library should have claimed one more victim than it did.  

According to an article in USA Today, 21-year old Jason Derfuss was the shooter's first intended victim - but two books he had just stuffed into his backpack saved the student's life.  The books were so effective in stopping the bullet, in fact, that Derfuss did not even realize that he had been shot at until he emptied his backpack at home, noticed the damage to the books, and found the spent slug.

The slug passed all the way through the book pictured above but was stopped by a second book.  

To read the entire USA Today article, CLICK HERE.  The article includes a video interview with the student.

Friday, November 21, 2014

"The Top Ten Words Invented by Writers"

I have been a dedicated reader of the book pages of the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper for what must be at least two decades now, and seldom am I disappointed by the offerings there. This morning, for example, I found this little throwaway list of "The Top Ten Words Invented by Writers." 

On the list were several words whose origin surprised me.  In particular, this one:

6. Freelance

i) One who sells services to employers without a long-term commitment to any of them.
ii) An uncommitted independent, as in politics or social life .
The word is not recorded before Sir Walter Scott introduced it in Ivanhoe which, among other things, is often considered the first historical novel in the modern sense. Scott’s freelancers were mercenaries who pledged their loyalty and arms for a fee. This was its first appearance: “I offered Richard the service of my Free Lances, and he refused them – I will lead them to Hull, seize on shipping, and embark for Flanders; thanks to the bustling times, a man of action will always find employment.”
 If you are interested in more from the list (such as the origins of words like: "hard-boiled," "serendipity," and "Banana Republic"), do click on the link to the article. 

And while you are there, take a look at all the fabulous stuff in the Guardian book pages (you can thank me later).
 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Last Kind Words Saloon

First, the bad news.  The Last Kind Words Saloon is Larry McMurtry’s first novel in five years, and, at that pace, it could well prove to be his last.  But the good news is that it marks a return to the kind of fiction for which McMurtry is best known – and most revered – his comic debunking of the mythical history of the American West. 

The Last Kind Words Saloon is filled with real life heroes and villains from America’s past: Wyatt Earp and his brothers, Doc Holliday, Charles Goodnight, Buffalo Bill Cody, the Clanton brothers, Teddy Blue, Johnny Ringo, plus Indian chiefs Quanah Parker and Santana, among them.  Readers familiar with the historical versions of these men, however, might see them a little differently after reading this one because McMurtry, as usual, is more interested in their personal insecurities, drinking problems, general laziness, and womanizing than in the legends they ultimately became. 

Although this is a novel not long on actual plot, McMurtry packs a lot into a relatively short book (its fifty-eight chapters total only 196 pages), catching most of his characters toward the tail ends of the lives that would turn them into “cowboy legends.”  This ramble through the history of the Old West has a feeling of inevitability about it as the Earp family, always in search of a way to make the most money via the least effort required, decides to move to Tombstone, Arizona, just in time to clash with the Clanton clan at the O.K. Corral.  Fittingly, this thirty-second gunfight, one for which both the Earps and the Clantons will be forever remembered, takes up only the last half-page of The Last Kind Words Saloon – a half-page that can be read in approximately thirty seconds.


Author Larry McMurtry
But the best part of the novel is the dialogue between Wyatt and Doc that sometimes rivals that of Woodrow Call and Gus McCrae in McMurtry’s masterpiece Lonesome Dove, with Wyatt often reminding the reader of Call, and Doc sometimes sounding a bit like Gus.  McMurtry has a talent for revealing much about his characters through humorous conversation and he uses it to advantage here.  So while The Last Kind Words Saloon may be no Lonesome Dove, it is Larry McMurtry and that’s a good thing.  His fans will not want to miss this one.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Enhancing the E-Book Experience: Long Way to Go

Publishers are actually doing a little better job these days when it comes to the "covers" they attach to their e-books, but seeing a cheesy, cheap looking cover on an e-book is still one of my biggest turnoffs.  

So let's take it one step further, publishers because, let's face it, reading an e-book is not nearly the experience that reading a physical book is.  There's just too much about physical books that cannot be replicated.  But...there are a couple of things you can do easily and cheaply to bring the two experiences a little bit closer to being the same:

  • Emphasize the cover art by taking as much care with it as you do with your physical book covers - front AND back.  Have the cover appear at logical break points in the e-book presentation, be it at the beginning of chapters or, at least, before already-designated section breaks.  Those books that are written to be presented in multiple parts now generally use nothing to emphasize the section breaks other than two or three blank pages.
  • Take advantage of chapter breaks, especially in books that don't have more than a dozen or so chapters.  Show the cover between chapters or, at the very least, have a separate page between chapters that show the chapter number - and maybe put the cover there every three chapters, or so.
"When reading a book in print, we interact with the cover every time we open and close the book – we see it all the time, it reinforces our perception of the book in our minds," Pelican book designer Matt Young told Creative Review. "Whereas when reading an ebook, the cover often has a much smaller role to play – reduced to a thumbnail, and sometimes never seen again once the book has been purchased. With Pelican, the cover is echoed throughout the entire book: each chapter begins with a full-page/full-screen chapter opener, acting as an important visual signpost and echoing the cover, reinforcing the brand and the series style."
This is a great marketing tool that should create some brand consciousness for e-books, Pelican.  And here's hoping that other publishers take your ideas and run with them.  






Tuesday, November 18, 2014

U.S. Book Sales Up 5.7% Over 2013

According to figures just released by the Association of American Publishers, book sales are doing surprisingly well these days, thank you.  ( I say "surprisingly" because of all the doom and gloom associated with most all of the recent projections having anything to do with publishing.)

Granted, the numbers are only through August 2014 sales, but a comparison with the same eight months in 2013 shows book sales having grown by almost 6% year over year.  Some genres, and some formats, are doing better than others, of course, and that's what makes the numbers interesting.

As measured in sales dollars (total sales of $10.7 billion):


  • Children's / YA e-books             Up 56.5%
  • Adult e-books                            Down 0.1%
  • Children's / YA board books      Up 47.1%
  • Children's / YA paperbacks       Up 21.2%
  • Children's / YA hardcovers        Up 18.3%
  • Adult paperbacks                      Down 0.7%
  • Adult hardcovers                       Down 7.2%
  • Mass Market                             Down 3.4%
  • University press hardcovers     Down 3.5%
  • University press paperbacks    Down 4.7%
  • University press e-books          Up 14.0%
  • Physical audiobooks                 Down 13.4%
  • Downloaded audiobooks          Up 27.7%
I suppose the best news is that, while adults may be buying fewer books for themselves, they have increased what they are spending on books for their children at a healthy clip.  As you can see from the numbers, all of the "Down" categories are in adult books - and all of the children's categories are "Up."

I find interesting, too, the obvious trend away from purchasing physical audio books to downloading them.  And, in the category of "very good news," the percentage gain on downloaded audio is more than twice the amount lost on physical sales of the books.

(For those who really enjoy number-crunching: combined sales of  "children's" categories were $1.08 billion, leaving $9.62 billion for all other categories.  Of this $9.62 billion, $0.014 billion is for audiobook sales and $0.007 billion for University Press sales.  So, despite being a mix of good news and bad news, the takeaway here is that Total Sales are up almost 6%.  And that's a good thing.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Book Trailer of the Week: Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music




I share today a book trailer for the new biography  highlighting the life and career of one of my musical heroes, Ralph Peer.  Peer is not all that well known today, but to those of us who love and collect what is probably best described as "roots music," Peer is the man who made it all possible.  I am already a fan of Barry Mazor's writing, so I expect this to be an excellent history of the period.

This short trailer does a good job of explaining just how important Mr. Peer is to the history of music in this country.  (And that raw, soulful Carter Family song is the perfect soundtrack for this one.)  Even if you are not a fan of the music itself, Peer's story is a fascinating one.  Take a look.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Girl Next Door

Interestingly, as Ruth Rendell has grown older (she is now 84), her novels tend to feature an older cast of characters.  Her latest, The Girl Next Door, for example, focuses on a group of childhood friends, all of them now in their seventies, who are brought back together by the investigation of a crime that happened in their old neighborhood in 1944. 

After, as children, they discovered a carefully constructed earthen tunnel in an open field near their homes, there was no keeping them out of it.  Finally, they had a place to call their own where they could create a little world far away from the prying eyes of parents and neighborhood do-gooders.  But now, some six decades later, a gruesome discovery is made near their secret tunnel.  A little tin box containing the remains of two human hands (one male, one female) has been found – and police want to know what the old friends might remember about those long ago days.

It is not like any of the old group has gone out of their way to keep up with the others.  Whole lives have been lived with varying degrees of success and failure; some are happily married now, with adult children; others have been married more than once and have no children; some stayed in the old neighborhood, and others have not been back for years.  Life has moved on and, now if they think of their old friends at all, most still picture them as the children they were in 1944.  But that is about to change.

The wild card in the deck has always been Daphne.  Two or three years older than most of the other children in their group, she is the one all the boys were in love with and all the girls wanted to be.  Even now, as the group prepares to meet together with a police detective, most of the men are eagerly anticipating a reunion with Daphne – and most of the women will find themselves resenting her when she arrives.  Let the fireworks begin.

Ruth Rendell
The Girl Next Door is a mystery about a crime that even the police don’t seem to care much about.  After all, the victims, even if identified, have been dead since before the end of World War II, and their murderer, if still alive, is likely to be almost 100 years old.  But don’t let that fool you because Rendell has a lot more than that up her sleeve.  Not the least is her reminder that the emotions of childhood relationships, feuds, and passions are every bit as strong in the minds of the elderly as they were when fresh.  And as it turns out, according to Rendell, they are also every bit as strong in the flesh.  Several childhood friends, because of a pair of severed hands, will live out their remaining years much differently than they had anticipated just a few weeks earlier.


Pure Ruth Rendell, this one is a beauty.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

All About Those Books...Start Readin'




These Mount Desert (Maine) high school students have produced a fun takeoff on the hit song "All About That Bass" with a positive message about making learning fun they call "All About Those Books."

Funding for the project was provided by nonprofit, Big Fun Education, a group promoting the theatre arts in schools.



Barnes & Noble on a Cold Houston Saturday Morning

It's long been a habit of mine to wander the aisles of one of the two Barnes & Noble stores near me for an hour or two on Saturday mornings.  So, with two discount coupons in hand, that's where I headed on this damp, cold (hey, it's 45 degrees and this is Houston, after all) morning.  As it turns out, I wasn't really in a book-buying mood, after all.

Maybe it was the sobbing woman who was guarding the front door that did it.  She started saying "sir, sir, sir" while I was way too far from her to understand the situation.  And, of course, I had to stop...or push past her, so what were the options, really?  Still crying, she started babbling about her two...later in the conversation to become three...kids at home with not enough to eat this morning.  Could I give her two dollars and some change?  Now, I'm suspicious of people who beg on the streets, have been suspicious of them for years, in fact.  But I figured it would be cheap and quicker just to give her the two bucks and wish her luck, so I did.  That's when she started to berate me for skipping the "change" part of her request...and never did she say thanks, or "God bless you" or the other usual things that I usually hear in these situations.  So that was kind of a negative "ding" before I even got inside the B&N.

Things, mood-wise, did take a big step in the right direction when I overheard a little girl of about five talking to her mother about a book she wanted to buy.  She was speaking in English and her mother responded - in Spanish - something to the effect that she should practice her Spanish sometimes when talking to her little brother or to the mother.  Keep in mind that this child has zero, absolutely zero, Spanish accent when she speaks English, so someone, somewhere, is encouraging her to speak English instead of Spanish.  Maybe it's the woman's husband, maybe it's her school...but I couldn't resist starting a conversation with the mother and encouraging her to make sure that her daughter learned both languages because of the huge advantage that will give her for the rest of her life.  We went on to have a nice, long conversation about learning new languages, the difficulties she had when she first started learning English, and how much easier it is to read a second or third language than it is to speak them (the woman speaks Spanish, English, and French).  

So that was the positive ding that should have gotten me back to my original mood...a nice wash, and a new beginning, a reset.  Didn't happen.  

So, after ninety minutes of browsing, I came home empty-handed.  Most of you, especially my wife, would say that's for the best if you saw the books already stacked up on, and around, my desk waiting to be read.  

But I'll probably try again tomorrow afternoon...TBR stacks, be damned.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Joyce Carol Oates: 141 Books and Counting

I "discovered" Joyce Carol Oates and her writing in the 1980s and now, some thirty years later, I am as fascinated by what she does as ever.  This woman, to put it mildly, is a book writing machine who has experimented with just about every form of writing there is: novels, short stories, plays, essays, poetry, sports writing, young adult fiction, children's books, book reviews, memoirs, etc. (and I'm probably leaving something out).  Name it, and she's probably done it.

Yesterday I added a JCO bibliography link, one that will require me to pay close attention to it if I am going to keep the bibliography current - and I counted 141 books to her credit.  Think about that for a moment: 141 books from 1963 through 2014.  There may be other authors of her stature who have matched the pace of almost three books per year for fifty years, but I don't recall one (if you do, please let me know).

In the process of looking for a video to attach to the Oates bibliography (as I've done with each bibliography linked at the top of the homepage), I found the one embedded here.  It so perfectly captures the woman, her personality, her environment, and her writing philosophy, that I want to share it in a separate post.

I have had the pleasure of two brief encounters with Ms. Oates over the years, once in the eighties at Rice University in Houston and then last month in Austin during the 2014 Texas Book Festival.  She is exactly the woman you see in this short video: soft spoken, polite, interested in questions no matter how silly they might seem to her, modest, and tiny.  Ms. Oates is 78 years old now - that should give her enough time for another 30 or 40 books.  I can't wait.


Thursday, November 13, 2014

First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen

First Impressions, Charlie Lovett’s follow-up to his very successful debut novel The Bookman’s Tale, shares many similarities with its predecessor, the most obvious, of course, being its “bookish” theme.  Once again, Lovett’s main characters are book people who are happiest when they are surrounded by books, their own or those they can find anywhere else.  This type of book has developed into a recognizable sub-genre in recent years, one that has great appeal to the most avid of readers amongst us. 

For the most part, First Impressions delivers the goods.  Despite being a little predictable because of a plot that readers of this genre have already become all too familiar with, that of a lost manuscript that could change the way the world looks upon a major literary figure from the past (in this case, Jane Austen), the novel gets off to a strong start.  The set-up works beautifully, in fact, as we meet Sophie Collingwood, a young woman who has just taken a job in a London antiquarian book shop.  Sophie loves her new job, particularly working the shop’s “want list” for customers hoping she can find the books they have been unable to locate on their own.  And it turns out to be this same “want list” that will pull her into a mystery that could end up wrecking the reputation of her favorite author, Jane Austen.

Charlie Lovett
As the mystery deepens, Lovett alternates chapters from Sophie’s present day point-of-view with chapters set in 1796 and recounted through Jane Austen’s eyes.  Tension builds as the two story lines begin to converge, Sophie starts to unravel the mystery, and Jane Austen delights in a new relationship with a man four times her age. This man, Richard Mansfield, as it turns out, is the author of a book (A Little Book of Allegories) that has the potential to ruin Jane’s literary reputation more than 200 years after its publication.  


Unfortunately, all of that well-constructed tension is squandered by the book’s rather farcical climax, a climax during which the novel’s characters morph into caricatures right out of a pre-talkie cliffhanger from some 1920s movie theater.  The action grows so ridiculous at one point that the reader almost expects to find the heroine being tied to railroad tracks while her tormentor gloatingly twists his mustache as a speeding train comes barreling toward them.  This jarring change of tone lessens the impact of the other eighty percent of the book, and that is unfortunate because, until that point, First Impressions was good fun.