Thursday, March 29, 2007

My Son the Rapper (and Political Satirist)

The smartasses at are at it again. In response to the appearance of MC Rove at the Radio & Television Correspondents Association dinner, the SA crew have been posting raps for Karl Rove (poster boy for white guys who can't dance). The Boy Wonder composed these, which I think are brilliant:
Allow me to reintroduce myself
My name is ROVE, R to the OV
Used to hate liberals in the OC
Now I'm fightin the DMC, Rove!
Right out the gate I wanna kill Hussein
All those bombs I'd make it rain

With so much drama in GOP
It's kinda hard bein Karl R-O-V-E
But I, somehow, some way
Keep bustin on them 'crats like every single day
Well I might just get a few contributions (yeah)
After '06 I need some retribution (yeah)
Eight in the evening and the fundraiser's still rakin' in dough
Bitches payin eight grand for some chicken and potatoes

If you havin girl problems I feel bad for you son
I got 99 problems and Clinton ain't one
I got 'crats crushin my strategy in 06
Tryin to put me down just for kicks
Bitches like Kerry want me to testify
He just tryin to rectify

So transcribe this: fuck off, you lost
Obama tryin to make a run for it
All the contributors with their money, pourin it
Best listen up, you ain't no Lincoln
Closest you'll get is lookin at mine
With the tail light blinkin

Colorado: All Weather, All the Time


Jenny playing her favorite game. I'm the pitcher.


My backyard.

P.S. The rain that was predicted all last weekend for the VaBook Festival didn't materialize. (Whew!) But in Denver it poured all day Saturday--the first time in many months. And like this morning's 6 inches of snow (which is still coming down), it wasn't forecast.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Quote for the Ages

I'm beginning to wonder if being young is all it's cracked up to be. We dream of youth. We remember it as a time of nightingales and valentines, and what are the facts? Maladjustment, near idiocy and a series of low-comedy disasters. That's what youth is. I don't see how anyone survives it.
Cary Grant in "Monkey Business" (1952); screenplay by Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer and I.A.L. Diamond. (I suspect Diamond wrote the above, as it's reminiscent of dialogue in films he wrote with Billy Wilder.)

Back in Ol' Virginny II (More on VaBook Fest)

Audience at my "Book Publicity Basics" panel. Some people are serious note-takers!

Continuing with my excellent adventures at the VaBook Festival, last Saturday I woke up early to have breakfast with a friend at the incomparable Albemarle Baking Company. It's as good--or better!--as any bakery in New York, maybe even Paris. I've yet to find one remotely like it in Denver. SIGH....

I'd say I woke up bright and early, only it was heavily overcast and correspondingly humid. My aching head and pounding sinuses reminded me why I was eager to move away from Charlottesville. I love the people and the scenery speaks to me like noplace else, but oh, the pain and puffy-eyed dullness!

A handful of vitamins, a couple cups of serious coffee and a marvelous apricot brioche got me into shape to face the masses (well, about 80 people) at my 10am "Book Publicity Basics" program. The panelists were indie publicists Lauren Cerand, Elizabeth Shreve and Gene Taft; Callie Oettinger cancelled due to a wicked upper respiratory infection (I persuaded her to stay home & keep her germs to herself, for which I was roundly thanked). There was much good discussion, and all three stressed that authors need to be 1) REALISTIC, 2) professional and 3) prepared. The audience (very few of whom walked out, to my great relief) soaked it all up, asked a lot of questions and then stormed the podium afterward for one-on-one with the panelists.

Next I moderated Sam Horn's "Here's the Pitch," which frankly needed very little from me as Sam is a force of nature. She's quiet and softspoken till she picks up a microphone and then...vavoom! Sam told everyone to take notes and they obeyed. Not a single person walked out. After imparting the secrets of crafting and presenting a winning pitch, she had five volunteers from the audience stand up and give theirs.

I've been doing pitch sessions in my Book Promotion 101 workshops for nearly 5 years, but still I never cease to be amazed at how poorly writers speak about their work. (Think of Miles in "Sideways" when he's asked to describe his novel.) One guy wouldn't even say whether his book was fiction or nonfiction. I and more than half the audience thought it was nonfiction (I took a vote). Eventually, I wormed out of him that it was in fact a novel. When I asked him to describe it more, he told me "You'll have to read the book." WARNING: Don't try this at home, or in a TV/radio studio. The last time an author told me that, I killed the magazine piece I was going to write about him and wrote up an interview with another author.

After that, I had lunch with my friend Stefanie at the Omni. The menu stated "Soup of the Moment," which got us laughing. I asked the waiter, "What's the soup this moment?" "Beef vegetable," he answered in a thick Slavic accent (much of the help there seems to be imported from the former Eastern Bloc), "but next moment it's onion." He got a big tip.

At 4pm, I went to the Agents' Roundtable, which as always got a crowd of at least 200. Panelists were Sloane Harris of ICM, Simon Lipskar of Writers House, Deborah Grosvenor of Grosvenor Literary Agency and Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary Agency. The panelists kept cracking up because Kleinman kept cracking wise; however they were quite serious when it came down to business.

Main message points:
1) Good writing trumps all.
2) Do research & find out which agents represent your type of book.
3) Write a crackling query letter. (See #1.)

Then I went to the festival reception, where I drank much water and shmoozed with old friends and new acquaintances. After that, Mary Sharratt and I had dinner with Sam Horn and her son Tom, who daringly wore a Virginia Tech cap (Charlottesville is home to arch-rival UVa). Tom answered a question that's been bugging me and countless others for many years: Why does Hawaii have an Interstate highway? (Answer: For the military.)

After THAT (yes, I was still standing, though a bit hoarse), I made a quick sweep of the Omni bar, where I chatted with MJ Rose, Katherine Neville and Simon Lipskar, who were at a table together; and then bade a weary goodnight to the even wearier festival assistant director, Kevin McFadden, who was counting down the hours till his 30th birthday.

Sunday morning I was up early for coffee with Mary Sharratt and Louis Bayard, author of THE PALE BLUE EYE, a marvelous historical mystery-thriller starring a youthful Edgar Allan Poe. From there, I went for breakfast with friends at their peaceful spread in Ivy, then took my favorite drive of all--through Free Union and Earlysville--to have lunch with other friends in Forest Lakes, conveniently near the airport.

I printed out my boarding pass at the latter's home, but when I checked in not two hours later, I was told that the Northwest flights I had confirmed were "grossly oversold." Instead of going on a tiny prop plane to Detroit, I was switched to a Delta jet through Atlanta and then to Denver. I'd only bought the less-desirable Northwest fare because it was hundreds of dollars cheaper than on Delta. So I got the route I'd wanted in the first place, PLUS a bulkhead row all to myself from Atlanta to Denver, PLUS a $200 Delta voucher for my "inconvenience," PLUS I chowed down on fried chicken, collards & okra at the Atlanta airport.

And yes, I was exhausted on Monday. But I dug up and moved some plants anyway because, hey, it's spring and my sinuses were happy to be high and dry again.

Chris Greene Lake Park, where I hung out for a happy half-hour when I was bumped for a later flight.

Life (or Death) Sentence & Pronoun Abuse

Stanley Fish has a sprightly Op-Ed piece in today's NYT: Murder, I Read. (Sarah Weinman at Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind annotates the entire piece--and filets Fish in the process.)
You’re at the mystery section of an airport bookstore and the loudspeaker has just announced that your flight is in the late stages of boarding. You have maybe three or four minutes to make a choice. (That is your assignment, if you choose to accept it.) How do you go about deciding?
By reading the first sentence of the book. (Well, duh!) He gives some examples of real-life losers, then offers this as a near-winner:
“Stromose was in high school when he met the boy who would someday murder his wife and son.”
Pretty good, huh? Fish goes on:
High marks for compression, information and what I call the “angle of lean.” A good first sentence knows about everything that will follow it and leans forward with great force, taking you with it. As you read this one you already want to find out (a) what was the relationship between the two in high school (b) what happened that turned a “boy” into a murderer, and (c) what sequence of events led to his murdering these particular people? The only thing wrong is that the author is as impressed with the sentence as he wants you to be; it is written with a snap and a click of self-satisfaction.
Actually, the only thing wrong is that the sentence--from T. Jefferson Parker's new STORM RUNNERS--has a glaring grammatical error. (I leave the comments about Fish's snaps and clicks to Weinman.) Did the boy later murder his own wife and son, or Stromose's? How the hell did that imprecise "his" get by Parker's editor? Or the William Morrow copy editor? Or the PW reviewer? Or Stanley Fish? Or Sarah Weinman? I know I sound like an old schoolmarm, but does no one care about good grammar and precise language anymore?

[OK, rant over.]

On the other hand, Fish makes a statement so important that it bears repeating:
A good first sentence knows about everything that will follow it and leans forward with great force, taking you with it.
Damn straight! Wannabe writers, such as some who comment on Miss Snark, kvetch that agents often don't read very far into manuscripts before rejecting them. Well, yeah. That's because if the writing is bad at the beginning--where, presumably that's where it's best--there's no reason to read any further. Jeff Kleinman made this point at the Agents' Roundtable at the VaBook Festival last Saturday.

When I read slush, I could tell if a manuscript was any good by its first paragraph. I'm sure that almost any agent or editor would say the same.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Back in Ol' Virginny I

Last Thursday thru Sunday I was at the Virginia Festival of the Book, held in my most recent (and keenly missed) home town of Charlottesville. From the time I hit the ground in VA at 4pm, almost every waking moment was scheduled.

From the cute little Charlottesville-Albemarle Regional Airport, I went directly to the Cville Barnes & Noble. There, consulting client Lynne Olson, author of TROUBLESOME YOUNG MEN: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England (just out from FSG), was on a panel about the build-up to World War II. The audience was mostly older and male, some of whom had very definite ideas about history, which they expounded upon at great length during the Q&A session and one-on-one during the booksigning session afterward. I thought the moderator was going to have ask them to take it outside. The only more opinionated and contentious book festival audience I've seen was at a Civil War panel. Those guys know what happened in every single freaking second of the Woe-wuh (as it's pronounced in the South) and are only too eager to share their knowledge.

Thursday evening I went to the synagogue (there's only one in Cville) for "Repeating the Past: Historical Fictions, Present Day Truths" with Katharine Weber (Triangle), Gabriel Brownstein (The Man from Beyond) and Michael Lowenthal (Charity Girl). I felt that we should have said a barucha or two, as the panelists were Jewish and practically everyone in the audience was a temple member. (A conspicuously goyische couple--she was in a flashy panne velvet ensemble--left halfway through.) Weber et al. exemplified how authors should perform: read clearly and with feeling, speak intelligently and SUCCINCTLY, interact with each other, express admiration for each others' writing, crack wise.

Friday morning I had a breakfast meeting, then an appointment with my homeopath, then a fabulous Literary Ladies Luncheon, followed by an impromptu drive out to beautiful Lake Albemarle ( I miss it!) with an LLLer. At 5pm, I met Mary Sharratt (The Vanishing Point) and Peter Orner (The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo) for coffee, then we had our "Displaced Persons" panel at 6:00. Their books are wildly different: Mary's is about a 17th century English girl who goes to the wilds of Maryland in search of her older sister; Peter's is about a boys' school in drought-stricken rural Namibia a few years ago. I didn't put the panel together; still, we managed to find common--and fertile--ground between the two authors and their works. When I (uncharacteristically) ran out of questions to ask, the audience supplied some good ones; Mary and Peter had a real conversation too, which doesn't always happen during a "panel discussion." No one walked out and people bought books afterward, so we all left happy.

From there, I went to dinner at Bashir's Taverna with Mary, Ken Foster (The Dogs Who Found Me), Aimee Liu (GAINING: The Truth About Life After Eating Disorders), and agent Deborah Grosvenor and husband Ed. Ken and I got there early, so we staked out seats on the couch along one side of the massive table (everyone else sat on chairs). We had a long, leisurely dinner that was almost like being at home--only better, because I didn't have to serve the food, or worry that everyone was having a good time, or clean up.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

I'm Ready for My Close-up, Ms. Talese!

"Can video save the literary star?" (oy!) is the lede in an article by Julie Bosman in today's NYT: Favorite Author Not on Tour? See the Movie. British writer Ian McEwan is featured in a 23-minute film, which will debut at BEA and then be shown at bookstores in the U.S., most notably Powell's in Oregon. Seems McEwan has "declined to do traditional bookstore appearances to promote his new novel," ON CHESIL BEACH, coming June 5 from the Nan A. Talese imprint at Doubleday.
Such films could eventually take the place of in-store book readings, which attract fewer attendees all the time, many booksellers say. “Some authors go to events and are really captivating personalities,” said Dave Weich, the marketing manager at Powell’s Books. “That does not describe most of them.”
Oh yeah, like some author with a non-captivating personality is going to sparkle on camera. And who but someone who's already a literary star (which by definition means an author who's already logged many bookstore appearances) can afford to make a film like McEwan's? And let's not forget shelling out for media coaching so said author can act "naturally."

Bosman seems to have overlooked the fact that authors have been doing A/V presentations for some time already. Companies such as produce websites with streaming video and book "trailers."

Though it may be hard to pull in audiences for in-store author events, I don't think they'll be supplanted by videos. Readers want to see and interact with the real, live person who wrote the book that they cuddle up with for nights on end. And a TV screen can't write a personalized inscription.

Quote for the Ages

"Here is what we have to offer you in its most elaborate form -- confusion guided by a clear sense of purpose."

--Gordon Matta-Clark, from his handwritten notes on the subject of Anarchitecture, circa 1973-76; on display at the Whitney Museum through June 3.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Big Picture (Bella's Excellent NY Adventure Part 5)

View from a senior publicist's office at Random House.

It's taken me so long to recap my New York trip two weeks ago, that now I'm ready to go on another trip--to my last hometown, Charlottesville, VA, for the Virginia Festival of the Book. More about that in later posts.

From Friday, March 9 thru Sunday, March 11, I:
  • Met with a publicist at Random House.
  • Visited a long-lost cousin of my father's on West End Avenue, where she's living alone and mostly forgotten (most of her friends and family are dead) in one of the last rental apartments in a fancy co-op building. She's been there 50 years, and I don't think her place has been painted in at least 30. She's a writer too; seems to run in the family.
  • Had lunch with a literary agent at the Stage Delicatessen. It was one of my father's favorite hangouts, but now it's a shade--and a vastly overpriced one at that--of its former glory. I'll never go back.
  • Met a friend at the Whitney to see the Gordon Matta-Clark exhibit, then had dinner. I can't remember the last time I saw art that made me see differently. This truly did.
  • Gave my Book Promotion 101 workshop & went to an Irish pub afterwards with most of the attendees.
  • Went to a preview of "Curtains" on Broadway. Got amazing seats, 6th row center, thanks to someone I know with the show. Wow! It's pure fluff, but also pure fun. In the first act, there's a great production number decrying critics, which fit right in with all the NBCC events.
  • Went to Sardi's after the show. This was another of my father's haunts, and happily it did not disappoint--except that no one dresses up anymore. Tatty jeans and ratty sweaters go poorly with the lush red decor and gazillions of caricatures of actors and actresses lining the walls. As soon as we were seated, I remembered being there as a little girl, looking in vain for a cartoon of my dad. I had a lot of time to reflect throughout the night, because we were served caffeinated coffee instead of decaf. Which brings to mind one of my all-time favorite movie lines, from Preston Sturges's CHRISTMAS IN JULY: "If you can't sleep at night, it isn't the coffee, it's the bunk!"
  • Had brunch with a longtime friend at Cafe Luxembourg. Love the Eggs Benedict with smoked salmon instead of Canadian bacon. And since I was in New York, I had to have cheesecake (oink!).
  • Dragged my exhausted carcass to LaGuardia, where my flight was delayed--natch!-- fortunately by only a half-hour or so.

Backyard Drama

Mexican standoff, Denver style, between Max and a squirrel (aka "the one who got away").

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Everyone's a Critic (Bella's Excellent NY Adventure, Part 5)

The NBCC Awards on March 8 were covered in great detail at Critical Mass and GalleyCat, so I won't go over them here. EXCEPT that I found Mary Gordon's introduction to Lifetime Achievement Award-winner John Leonard waaaay too long. And I was thrilled when the only book I'd read of the 30 nominated, THE INHERITANCE OF LOSS by Kiran Desai, won the fiction prize. Read it! It's wonderful.

No matter how crazy you are about the person you're extolling to an adoring audience, your speech shouldn't be longer than the honoree's. Which Gordon's definitely was. Much longer. Leonard's gracious acceptance, however, was a complete delight. So was that of Excellence in Criticism Award-winner Steve Kallman, which was shorter and thus perhaps sweeter. My only quibble is that Kellman's glowing red visage belied his description of book critics' "pallid faces." (He explained to me later that he lives in Austin, hence he's sunburned.)

A couple hundred people went to the NBCC's post-awards reception. The New School has a terrific auditorium, but the reception room--in another building connected by an atrium-- is a big, bare box with concrete floors, served by a single, slow elevator. Once again, I gave up on the elevator and joined the herd of people huffing and puffing up four lengthy flights of stairs. And once again, I missed the thickly carpeted and graciously FURNISHED (with actual chairs to sit on!) ground-floor reception room at NYU Law School, conveniently just across a wide hall from the auditorium.

However, I stood and schmoozed with the best of them, and enjoyed myself thoroughly. Along with several business cards, I gleaned a restaurant recommendation, so a friend and I ended up the evening with a fabu--and reasonably priced!--dinner at nearby Cafe Asean.

Hail Springtime!

'Moongold' apricot tree in my backyard.

My correspondents in New England may be buried under snow and ice, but in Denver it's least this week. Locals keep telling me that March and April are the snowiest months, and I've seen with my own eyes how quickly the weather changes here. One afternoon last April it was sunny and in the 70s; by 6pm it was in the low 40s and we were being pelted with 1/2" hailstones.

The last of the snow only melted in the backyard a week ago, after covering the ground for 2-1/2 months. I was sad to be the winner of the family bets on when the Unbearable Whiteness would be mostly gone. The Boy Wonder predicted February 8. I told him he was deluded; he said he was optimistic. I predicted March 15. BW told me I was a pessimist; I said I was a realist--as was proven. Darling Husband, who came in later, hedged and picked February 19. Loser.

So now that the snow is gone it's time to water the yard, as rain is but a concept here--something that happens in movies, or on TV, but hardly ever for real anymore. I'm almost looking forward to the thundershowers that are predicted for the Virginia Festival of the Book this weekend. Almost.

Max takes a dust bath. Jenny tests the snow-free turf.

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Old Home Turf (Bella's Excellent NY Adventure, Part 4)

Glitz, not goombahs. Former site of the Ravenite Social Club, the Mafia hangout on Mulberry St. Photo by Sam Simpson.

After the NBCC luncheon on Thurs., March 8, I met a literary agent for tea at McNally Robinson Booksellers on Prince Street. How strange it felt to be there! It was like a dream: I knew the neighborhood and yet I didn't know it. The buildings and streets were mostly the same, but there were trendy little shops--and hordes of shoppers, even in the frigid cold--everywhere.

At the left end of the bookstore, where the cafe is now, there used to be a place that sold and slaughtered live chickens (referred to by some of us locals as "Chickenwald"). At the right end was a luncheonette. The mob-run garage next door on Mulberry, where the Ex used to park, is now an upscale grocery store.

Next door to that on the south--now a chichi clothing store--was the Ravenite Social Club, which I saw John Gotti and two hulking bodyguards stroll into one hot summer day. There used to be a Doberman that was always inside the Ravenite, day and night. It was suddenly gone one day, and I asked the guy hanging out by the door what happened to the dog. "He died," was the laconic answer. "Of natural causes?" I smirked. No response, but more than 20 years later I read that the Feds, who'd kept surveillance from an apartment across the street, accidentally overdosed the dog when they went to sneak in to search the club.

From my seat in the McNally Robinson cafe, I could see the window of my former apartment on Mott Street overlooking the graveyard of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral, immortalized in "Mean Streets." (Read this and weep: When I moved out in March of 1988, my rent--originally $175--was still under $300. And my bathtub was still in the kitchen. And I had thighs of steel from climbing five flights of stairs for 10 years.)

After happily thawing out over a pot of mint tea and Publishing Talk, I walked back to the New School. I peeked into the window of Fanelli's, my old hangout on Prince & Mercer, and was horrified to see someone with whom I'd had a romantic interlude occupying the same bar seat and black leather jacket as he had when we'd met 29 years ago. EEK! I scampered across the street toot sweet.

More changes: The Prince Street Post Office substation, home of the nastiest and slowest P.O. ladies EVER (they wore fuzzy bedroom slippers and moved like Tai Ch'i masters on 'ludes) is now an iPod store. One of the ever-changing boutiques just east of West Broadway is now Cleo & Puket, purveyor of scandalously priced leather goods. There were enormous SALE signs in the window so I went inside, as much to escape the cold as to buy anything. But after wiping my streaming eyes and nose, I found the Bargain of the Year: a black leather bag with a shoulder strap that zips apart so it can be worn as a backpack, for $69--on sale from $389. If there had been a price tag, I would have worn it like Minnie Pearl.

One thing that's unchanged is Soho Wines, still in the same spot on West Broadway that it was when the Ex and I bought a dozen bottles of Freixenet for our wedding party way back when. Same owner too, whom I saw through the window, standing in the same spot as always. Maybe you can go home again...

Who ISN'T Sorry Now!

There's an interview in today's NYT with author Lionel Shriver: After Lean Times, Prizes and Not One Apology. Along with shedding her birth name of Margaret Ann, Shriver also cast off the "feminine" habit of undervaluing herself.
Her observation that women — meaning her fellow [Orange Prize] nominees — are generally “uncomfortable with naked ambition, trained to have low expectations, embarrassed by head-to-head competition, and virtually obliged to act abashed when they win,” was seen as embarrassingly direct.

...Ms. Shriver made no excuses then and makes none now. “I’m as capable as anyone of manipulative self-deprecation,” she said recently, speaking in her apartment in South London. “It’s obviously a ploy, but I don’t think it’s an obligation. I do think I have the reputation increasingly as someone who is insufferably arrogant. I don’t want to be.”
If it was Mr. Lionel, instead of Ms., you can bet that Shriver would be hailed as "confident" instead of arrogant.
“...a lot of it has to do with the fact that I’m an American. Perhaps, owing to my nationality, I tend to be more forthright and less apologetic. For Pete’s sake, I have been utterly obscure for most of my life. I’m supposed to apologize now? No.”
Hooray! Though I shudder to think that English women are even more apologetic than Americans.

(On the other hand, the Brits are masters of aggressive apology: Think of John Cleese as Basil Fawlty, simultaneously cringeing and sneering over his despised guests in "Fawlty Towers." I used to channel him when dealing with obnoxious customers in my waitressing days.)

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Who's Sorry Now

Women (especially white ones, I've noticed) are constantly apologizing for themselves. We apologize whether or not we've done something wrong; sometimes even when we haven't had anything to do with whatever it is we're apologizing for. Everything is somehow our fault--or at least we feel it is. It's our responsibility to make everyone happy; we're to blame if they're not, no matter the reason.

We're also sorry for our opinions, and sorry for not being qualified to voice them. Because, of course, we're never smart enough, or accomplished enough, or important enough. Or pretty enough, or thin enough; or have big enough breasts, or slim enough hips, or small enough nose, or full enough lips. Or, or, or...

Basically, we're sorry for simply existing and taking up space. (Were women just as sorry a century or two ago, when their voluminous hoopskirts and enormous hats took up much more space?)

Two women I know--one a nice Southern Methodist girl who helms a prestigious cultural organization, the other a nice New York Jewish girl with a PhD and daunting CV--pepper their conversations with so many apologies that it gets to be annoying. Or funny.

Several times, I've told each of them to stop apologizing so much. Their response: "I'm sorry."

We were on a committee together, where most of their statements were prefaced with, "I'm sorry." Their one-on-one conversations took twice as long as necessary because they constantly interrupted each other to apologize. I wish I'd kept count of how many times each said "sorry"; I could have sent the tally to Guiness for the record book.

In my Book Promotion 101 workshops and consulting practice, I've noticed that women are constantly apologizing: for being inexperienced at publicity, for not writing the "right" kind of book, for reading poorly aloud, etc. One author--an excellent writer, tall, gorgeous, naturally blonde and pencil-slim (with year-old twins!)--apologized because her first novel, a futuristic urban fantasy, wasn't "literary."

I said to her and the class, "Don't apologize for your work. You write the book you need to write, the only way you know how. If you could write a 'literary' novel, you would."

I've been mulling over all this for the past couple of months, but my thoughts were crystallized this morning by a piece I read in the NY Times: Stop the Presses, Boys! Women Claim Space on Op-Ed Pages. The article focuses on author Catherine Orenstein, who leads workshops that train women to write opinion essays.

Of the next four women who spoke, three started with a qualification or apology. “I’m really too young to be an expert in anything,” said Caitlin Petre, 23.

“Let’s stop,” Ms. Orenstein said. “It happens in every single session I do with women, and it’s never happened with men.” Women tend to back away from “what we know and why we know it,” she said.

Next she asked the participants why they thought it important to write op-ed articles....She then proceeded to create ... [a] list that included fame, money, offers of books, television series and jobs.

The Rev. Dr. Katherine Hancock Ragsdale, an Episcopal priest and the executive director of Political Research Associates in Boston, frowned. “It’s not why I do it,” she said.

That, Ms. Orenstein declared, is a typically female response: “I never had a man say, ‘That’s not why I do it.’ ”

“What I want to suggest to you,” she continued, is that the personal and the public interests are not at odds, and “the belief that they are mutually exclusive has kept women out of power.” Don’t you want money, credibility, access to aid in your cause? she asked.

Cristina Page, a spokeswoman for Birth Control Watch in Washington, leaned forward. “I’ve never heard anyone say that before,” she said. “What you’ve just said is so important. It’s liberating.”


It's time for women to channel Benjamin Disraeli:
"Never apologize, never explain."
And Erich Segal, with an important revision:
Having XX chromosomes means never having to say you're sorry.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Critical Confab (Bella's Excellent NY Adventure 3)

Author photographer extraordinaire Miriam Berkley snapped James Marcus, Ken Foster, Sarah Gold of PW and me at the National Book Critics Circle luncheon at Cafe Loup on March 8.

Last Thursday was the annual membership meeting of the National Book Critics Circle, followed by a luncheon, then awards and reception in the evening.

Those who accuse NBCC of being a secret society are partially right: it's the only professional organization I've belonged to that doesn't offer a membership directory. I received one when I joined 8 or so years ago, and every meeting since then I've asked when we're going to get a new one. It's always "in the works"; only now online instead of in print. I think I'll start calling for a secret handshake in the meantime.

Organizational irregularities aside, I love going to NBCC meetings because I so enjoy being with my tribe. I may not be writing reviews these days, but reviewers are my people and we speak the same language.

For the past few years, the second half of the annual meeting consists of a panel discussion with invited guests, moderated by an NBCC member. This year the topic was "The Mandarin at the Minimart: What We Talk about When We Talk about Mass Market Fiction."

Moderator Lev Grossman, Time book critic, sat on the far right. In a line next to him were Reagan Arthur, Little, Brown executive editor; Thom Geier, Entertainment Weekly book editor; Louisa Ermelino, Publishers Weekly reviews director; and on the far left, novelist Walter Mosley (with carton below).

The discussion was quite lively, though it only addressed one of the stated topics: "Why does genre fiction get so little critical attention?" The others were glossed over: "Why do critics review genre fiction so condescendingly? Who are the hacks, and who are the pros, and how do we tell them apart – and do literary critics have the skills to do it?"

Mosley was the bad boy on the panel, though as usual he provided the most memorable (to me, anyway) lines. He berated NBCC three times for being all white--despite a clearly African-American member sitting directly opposite him. (I'd only seen photographs of the light-skinned Mosley, and before he was introduced to the group I thought he was some old Jewish guy.) The third time, board member Marcela Valdes called out from the back of the room, "We're not all white!" Mosley also made clear early and often how incensed he was at the bad review his "sex" book, Killing Johnny Fry, got from EW and others. Thom Geier was sitting well away from him--by prearrangement, I learned later.

The conversation turned to how books are classified. Various speakers noted that when certain authors write genre fiction, it's considered "literary." For example, Philip Roth's The Plot Against America is actually science fiction--and not very good sci-fi at that, several in the audience rumbled. Someone (Mosley?) said that science fiction is by our smartest writers, which was widely affirmed.

"Good writing is good writing," said Ermelino. Damn straight!

Arthur and Geier pointed out that PW and EW review genre fiction. It was generally agreed that romance sells whether it's reviewed or not. Sybil Steinberg, former fiction editor at PW, said that when she assigned reviews to romance enthusiasts, often the reviews' prose was as purple as the books'. My thought, which I didn't get to voice, is that "literary" reviewers look for good writing, whereas romance readers look for a satisfying story; they don't mind clunky prose. (I still remember a mastodon described as a "ponderous pachyderm" in Clan of the Cave Bear, which cured me of reading any more of the series.)

Mosley observed that he's only shelved in the Mystery section, never in African-American, whereas Toni Morrison is in Literature and Af-Am. "I would like to be in two sections," he said. Classifying books, he continued, "is pure capitalism: How do we sell it best?" In reference to his "straight" fiction, which doesn't receive the glowing reviews his mysteries do, he said, "You can only write one way. The publishing company won't support you if you write a different kind of book."

Chauncey Mabe, book editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, opined that literary fiction itself is a genre and has its conventions. (Hmm, maybe.) He said that his paper reviews genre fiction--except for romance, which elicited grimaces and grumbles from around the room.

The best quote of the day came from Mosley: "Fiction grows in the mind of the reader. And gains in meaning."

Despite his sometimes inflammatory statements, Mosley acted the consummate promoter by offering to sign copies of his latest book, This Year You Write Your Novel, which his editor, Arthur, had conveniently brought a carton-full. I took it as an omen (I've been procrastinating on several magnum opi for years), and had him sign one to me. I started reading it, and it's good: inspiring, sensible and succinct. If...ahem, when!...I finish my novel, I'll have Mosley to thank.

Monday, March 12, 2007

NBCC Finalists' Reading (Bella's Excellent NY Adventure 2)

I expected there would be the usual 10-15 authors presenting their work at the NBCC finalists' reading on Wednesday evening. But when I arrived at the New School's Tishman Auditorium, I found that only 3 of the 30 nominees wouldn't be showing up.

I groaned inwardly (OK, outwardly too) at the thought of sitting through TWENTY-SEVEN (!!!) readings, remembering with a shudder the year that the first of 14 readers went on for 25 minutes without interruption (I was ready to yank him off the stage myself). I'd had a yogurt before I came downtown, so I knew my stomach could make it through. But I wasn't so sure if my tush would, especially after having been on a plane for 4+ hours. Happily, the pace quickened throughout the evening, so that Fiction, Poetry and General Nonfiction, which came after an intermission, only took one hour--versus 90+ minutes for Autobiography, Criticism and Biography.

With a few notable exceptions--Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, for one--overall the NBCC finalists lived up to the stereotype of the pale, bespectacled, slightly rumpled author. Another stereotype some lived up to was the author as lousy performer: Few of them set up what their books were about, perhaps assuming (wrongly) that everyone in the audience knew already. Several read passages that gave no clue as to the book's overarching theme--or even its subject (I was as ignorant of Frederick Crews's FOLLIES OF THE WISE: Dissenting Essays after his reading as I was before). Some also had a sleep-inducing drone: Karen Emmerich, translator of the late Miltos Sachtouris' POEMS (1945-1971), did the classic poetry singsong voice in English and Greek. Snore.

Poet Daisy Fried (MY BROTHER IS GETTING ARRESTED AGAIN) gets the prize for worst career move/fashion accessory: She read with her two-month-old daughter strapped to her chest. Some in the crowd said "Awww!" when Fried went to the podium, but my reaction was "UGH!" The kid was sound asleep, but, as babies often do, emitted little squeaks and sighs, which were duly picked up by the microphone. The great thing about giving birth is that you no longer have to carry a big, heavy lump on your abdomen all the time. (The Boy Wonder was 9 lbs, 12 oz, so I know whereof I speak.) Surely Fried could have handed the baby off to its father, or a friend--or even her editor or publicist--for the 3 minutes she was onstage. During the awards ceremony the next night, Fried had to make a hasty exit from the packed auditorium when Baby Dumpling started squalling (as expected by me, if not by her doting mama). I was fresh out of sympathy.

  • Alison Bechdel showed slides from her graphic-book memoir, FUN HOME: A Family Tragicomic, to accompany her reading. It barely mattered that she left off the last sentence of her text, which was eaten by her laptop.
  • Alexander Masters gave the first emotional reading of the evening, from STUART: A Life Backwards. He was also the first of several authors from the UK Commonwealth, who were by far the best performers. In fact, thinking back on all the readings and panel discussions I've attended, I'd say that Commonwealth natives (except Canadians--sorry!) are overwhelmingly better public speakers than Americans. And it's not just because I'm a sucker for an accent.
  • Daniel Mendelsohn, who had the loudest and most resonant voice of the autobiographical authors, gave a very expressive and funny reading from THE LOST: A Search for One of Six Million, complete with gestures, facial expressions and a Yiddish accent.
  • Terri Jentz read an intense, horrifying account of her near murder from STRANGE PIECE OF PARADISE, which had the audience enthralled. I had a very hard time with it, though, as I'm still suffering from PTSD. If the reading had gone on any longer I would have stopped my ears and/or left the hall. Afterward, an NBCC member said that Jentz should have gotten an award just for surviving. Very true.
  • After two deadly dull readers, Lawrence Weschler (EVERYTHING THAT RISES: A Book of Convergences) woke us back up by engaging the audience (what a concept!) with wit, humor and that old standy, an expressive voice.
  • Debby Applegate (THE MOST FAMOUS MAN IN AMERICA: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher) and Jason Roberts (A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler), besides giving lively readings, were among the few who gave a full sense of the book's subject. Coming away, I actually wanted to, y'know, read the book.
  • I could have listened to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's (HALF OF A YELLOW SUN) rich and plummy voice all night. Sure hope she does the audio book herself.
  • Kiran Desai, whose THE INHERITANCE OF LOSS was the only one of the 30 I'd read, gave an electric reading, which made me even happier because I LOVED that book.
  • Troy Jollimore (TOM THOMSON IN PURGATORY) and Mark Doty, who stood in for W.D. Snodgrass (NOT FOR SPECIALISTS: New & Selected Poems), more than made up for Fried & Emmerich with wit and (once again) expression.
  • Simon Schama (ROUGH CROSSINGS: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution) and Sandy Tolan (THE LEMON TREE: An Arab, a Jew and the Heart of the Middle East) brought the evening to a close with stirring readings that exemplified their work.
NBCC president John Freeman remarked at the beginning of the evening that there is something magical about a text coming alive through the person who wrote it. Very true--as long as that person can conjure up the magic to make the text come alive. The best of the group did that.

Bella's Excellent NY Adventure, Part 1

The view from Room 1003 at the Helmsley Middletowne Hotel.
I blew into New York last Wednesday afternoon with more on my calendar for the next four days than I'd had in the past four weeks. The wintry weather we'd had in Denver the preceeding week had made its way east; it was 21F when I landed. I was thanking my lucky stars that I'd thrown my silk long johns into my suitcase at the last minute, because thru Friday the cold and wind were bone-chilling.

I've learned a thing or three about the vagaries of air travel, so didn't make any appointments for Wed. Good thing too, as my flight was delayed two hours due to 1-1/2 inches of snow at LaGuardia. (I'm still rolling my eyes at that. Buncha weather wussies!)

After settling in at the hotel, at 6pm I was at the National Book Critics Circle Award finalists' reading at the New School, which will get its own post later.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Burning Books--and Their Buyers

Baghdad book market bombing kills 30
A car bomb ripped through Baghdad's oldest book market on Monday, killing 30 people, setting shops ablaze and leaving body parts scattered across the symbolic heart of Iraq's intellectual life.

At least 65 people were also wounded in the powerful blast on Mutanabi Street, an ancient centre of learning and culture and a rare pleasure for the capital's war-weary citizens, a security official said.

Many shops packed with books caught fire and the market was littered with blood-splattered pages after the attack, the latest assault on a US-Iraqi plan aimed at stemming bloodshed in the capital.
Full story from Agence France-Presse

How fortunate I am to live where it's safe to visit a bookstore (especially when there's one just a few doors up the street).

Quote of the Week...Make that the Century

I don't think any one individual can either indulge himself in the luxury of personal morality or put himself against what I feel today is the security and safety of the nation.
--Robert Rossen, Hollywood writer & producer, in the course of naming 47 people as Communists to the House Un-American Activities Committee in May 1953.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

What Rhymes with Turdblossom?*

Today's NYT has an obituary of someone who should have been far better known than he was: Myer "Mike" Feldman, who died two days ago at 92.

Mr. Feldman’s importance was suggested in The New York Times Magazine in an article in 1962 about the prestige of having a low license-plate number in the District of Columbia. His number, 116, was the lowest of any White House official’s.

But an article in The New York Post in 1964 called Mr. Feldman “the White House’s anonymous man.”

Feldman was also the Renaissance man: law school prof, exec assistant to the SEC chairman, adviser to JFK and LBJ, back-door liaison to Israel, founder of a law firm with 100 attorneys, buyer & seller of radio stations, real estate tycoon ("he helped finance the condominium boom in Washington in the 1970s"), adviser to political campaigns, chairman of the executive committee of the Special Olympics.

But wait! There's more. Read this and weep:
Mr. Feldman was a book review editor for the Saturday Review of Literature and helped produce six plays. In the Kennedy White House, where wit and intellect sometimes seemed a competitive sport, Mr. Feldman and Mr. [Theodore] Sorensen traded memos in rhyming couplets.
If only we could have a White House like that again. SIGH...

*Nerd possum

It's the Story, Stupid

John Sutherland, a UK visiting English lit prof at Caltech, hits the obsession with Anna Nicole Smith right on the head in today's LA Times: Dickens, Trollope -- and Anna Nicole?
This story was destined from the outset to take over Page 1 — precisely because it is a classic, a melodrama with exactly the kind of plot that has fascinated people as long as there's been literature and stories to tell. Following its twists and turns, it's impossible not to get the blurry feeling that one is reading a good old-fashioned novel.
He compares the Smith plot to two by one of my all-time favorite authors, Anthony Trollope: Is He Popenjoy? (just moved to the top of my TBR list) and The Eustace Diamonds (one of the Palliser series, though it stands fine alone). And Smith's baby, "the child without clear parentage who ultimately stands (when his identity is finally revealed) to inherit a vast fortune" is straight out of Dickens. Sutherland cites Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, but there's also Bleak House (the ultimate hellish lawsuit tale) and Nicholas Nickleby.
The fact is, we need [stories] as much as we need oxygenated air. By my estimate, at least three-quarters of network prime-time TV is fictional narrative. Bookstores, walk-in and Web-based, sell more fiction than any other kind of book. The vast, vast portion of what is shown in our film theaters and on the cable movie channels is fiction. Stories, that is....

Why are we so hung up on stories? Not because we're narrative junkies, zombified fiction addicts — but because of the truth their falsehoods tell us. It's the paradox that Aristotle noted, 2,500 years ago, in the Poetics. A fiction like "Oedipus Rex," Aristotle asserted, was "truer" than history. Why? Because fiction can deal with the essence of our human condition, unlike history, which is tied to what actually happened.
To quote Henry James:
Fiction is history, human history, or it is nothing. But it is also more than that; it stands on firmer ground, being based on the reality of forms and the observation of social phenomena, whereas history is based on documents, and the reading of print and handwriting — on second-hand impression. Thus fiction is nearer truth.