Thursday, May 27, 2010

Crawling Onward: A Literary Bar Crawl Part II

With two stops on the crawl under our belts, Ben and I schlepped down to the West Village to check out The White Horse Tavern, where Dylan Thomas legendarily had his final drinks before dying a few days later at the age of thirty-nine. (Thomas was one of several patrons who made the bar notorious in the 50’s and 60’s. Jack Kerouac was also known to frequent the bar—he was also kicked out of it for misbehavior. It was also where the idea for The Village Voice was founded.)

While their beer list makes the cut (they offer 8 beers on tap and thirteen bottled beers) we were a little disappointed by the menu, which was all pretty standard bar food (our potato skins were quite reasonably priced at $6.95). This was not nearly as underwhelming as the Dylan artifacts, which were considerably less authentic and relevant than the ones we had found at Pete’s. The white horse figurines behind the bar and a giant oil painting of a white horse were eye-catching, sure, but they all looked new (which was confirmed by the date on the plaque under the latter: 2005). The most arresting image by far was a black and white photo of Aeronwy Thomas, Dylan’s daughter, taken at the bar in 2008. Though she isn’t smiling, her eyes—which stare directly into yours upon approaching the photo—betray a lively spirit. It was a haunting and strangely moving image, but still not a relic from the age the bar was meant to celebrate. Figuring we just a needed a guided tour through the place’s history, we asked our harried but friendly waitress where we might find the famous “get out jack” sign that was posted on account of Jack Kerouac’s frequent escorts out of the bar. She told us it was supposed to be in the men’s bathroom, but she was pretty sure that that was “just a tall tale.” A quick trip into the men’s bathroom by Ben confirmed its absence. By then we couldn’t help but have noticed the modern-looking, computerized juke box that looked advanced for our time, nevermind Dylan’s. Not far from it a TV was playing America’s Funniest Home Videos. The only other TV in the room was playing the Miss America pageant. (As Ben cracked, only half kidding, “there’s nowhere to look!”)

On our way out we took a tour around the empty back room (most of the patrons were making good use of the sidewalk dining under beer-festival-type umbrellas) where there were enough posters of Dylan to make a person dizzy. While these, too, were added after his death (a fact made obvious by the small declaration of his birth and death dates at the bottom of the posters) and struck me as a little cheesy, they didn’t leave me totally devoid of sentiment. Seeing picture after picture of the great man who gave us incomparable lines like “rage, rage against the dying of the light” I couldn’t help but notice how conscious Dylan was of the cameras he was mugging for, smoking that cigarette just a little too artfully, clothes just a little too stiff. It had never been clearer to me that these writers who inspire us all and keep alive mediocre bars across the city were just like so many of the city’s current generation of young and aspiring creators—conscious of their contemporaries’ and peers’ opinions, hoping to think of something witty for the friends and fellow writers they’ve come to meet for a drink, just trying to leave some small mark, sometimes succeeding beyond their wildest dream.

On that note, Ben and I decided to put a contemporary spin on our last stop and hit up a bar that featured in a great novel, and a recent one at that. In Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel, Motherless Brooklyn, one of the book’s protagonists claims that everyone who drinks at the Brooklyn Inn “is someone else’s assistant: a district attorney’s, an editor’s, or a video artist’s. The dressed-up crowd at the inn gabbled and flirted every night of the week until two in the morning, oblivious to the neighborhood’s past or present reality, then slept it off in their overpriced apartments or on their desks the next day in Midtown.” While this is delivered with more than a bit of disdain in the book, a concentration of young people willing to work crazy hours for bad salaries in pursuit of a field that inspires them can’t be all bad, right?

Nestled in between rows of cozy, historic brownstones in Boerum Hill, the Inn’s mirrors were all clean, and there wasn’t a picture of a dead writer in sight. It was filled with young, sun-kissed people in funky clothing and colorful sneakers, and it wouldn’t have surprised me to learn that more than one of them had a novel in progress up his or her sleeve. When we struck up a conversation with a young man with a sketch pad and tin set of colored pencils under his arms seated next to us at the bar he told us about the photograph project he was hard at work on. When he found out that Ben and I worked in publishing he had a million questions for us and told us about some writer friends of his. Later, one of our good friends who happened to be nearby popped in for a drink and told us about new songs he and his band had in the works. Everyone was focused on their own projects, instead of those that came to fruition a million years ago.

The verdict seemed to be staring us in the face: if you want a literary bar, write a story and go have a beer somewhere.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Literary Bar Crawl

New York City is by all accounts a literary one. Our number of writers per capita is notorious (who hasn’t seen a movie in which the motivated youngster coming into his or her own who dreams of becoming a professional writer is New York bound on account of it?) and most of the country’s biggest and most well known publishing houses are concentrated here. Consequently, there are a number of bars here that promote themselves as former haunts of literary giants. For a total book dweeb like myself and I suspect many of the other transplants who flock to this city every year to write, edit, publish and just soak up and enjoy great literature, trips to these places could be like a baseball aficionado’s first visit to Fenway Park, or a movie buff’s tour of celebrity houses out in Hollywood. It occurred to me recently how few of these places I had been to firsthand, despite the fact that I had always intended to when I arrived in New York from Ohio five years ago. Figuring there’s no time like the present, I convinced my equally book dweeby beau, Ben, to check out as many places as it would be sane to in one day, and the idea for a literary bar crawl was born. And so, we set out one sunny Sunday morning earlier this month to find out just how much history can be gleaned from these bars, and to what extent they continue to capture the spirit of the writers they identify themselves with. Because we ended up taking a more epic stroll through the playgrounds of the literary set than we originally anticipated (and because I fear boring you all with too much at once!) I decided to use two blog posts to cover it all—two stops today, and two tomorrow.

We started with Pete’s Tavern, the great O’Henry’s rumored watering hole. O’Henry, a Southern boy by birth, was himself a transplant, and his fascination with and love for New York inspired many short stories set here. You don’t even have to step foot in Peter’s, located just northeast of Union Square, to detect the writer’s presence—a street sign just outside the bar warns you that you’re approaching “O’Henry Way.”

Once inside the doors, Ben and I were seated in the booth where O’Henry allegedly wrote “The Gif of the Magi,” arguably his most famous piece of work, in 1905. In addition to a sign announcing this, our booth boasted a shot of the cast from the Broadway musical inspired by two O’Henry short stories; an invitation to a cocktail party hosted by Peter Graves, the star of the O’Henry musical special on NBC in the 70’s; a handwritten letter from O’Henry declining a dinner invitation (signed S.P. for his real name: William Sydney Porter); and a copy of “The Gift of the Magi” as it ran December 21, 1930 in New York’s Sunday edition of The World Magazine.

Our menus claimed that the bar looked exactly as it did when O’Henry himself dined here. With its tin roof, tall wooden booths painted a somber black, brass taps and a giant wall length mirror behind the bar that it looked like it hadn’t been Windexed in a century or two, I was inclined to believe them. As Ben remarked, it looked like the kind of place where one would find Frank Sinatra hanging out. It’s also a historical landmark, and claims to be the oldest operating bar and restaurant in New York City. It opened in 1851 as a “grocery and grog” (a euphemism for liquor store!) and became a tavern in 1864 (even prohibition couldn’t stop it—it covered as flower shop during those dry years).

Despite the wealth of historical touches, and the vests and ties that all of the waiters and bartenders wear, there were some modern details. The music that accompanied our perfectly cooked coconut shrimp appetizer ranged from Karen Carpenter to Jamiroquai. Both the Mets and the Yankees games were on, and a distinguished looking older couple who were intensely engaged in the former wore very high tech looking red and white windbreakers that, paired with their khakis, complimented nicely the bunting at the center of the bar. Pictures of every celebrity from the 1936 heavyweight boxing champion to Kelly Ripa hang on the bar's walls, including Gerard Butler, a very drunk looking Owen Wilson, and John Turturro (they seem to like him especially—the same picture of him hangs in two different spot on the wall). Apparently JFK never came in but they wish he had—a very formal looking portrait of him hangs in a prominent spot.

Ben and I opted not to indulge in any of their considerable lunch and dinner options (they had a nice variety of pastas, salads and burgers, as well as 16 beers on tap, 11 bottles, 11 single malts and 8 frozen drinks), but we did try their 1864 House Ale, which is brewed just for them in upstate New York. It looks a bit like a nut brown ale in color, but it was sweet and a bit creamy. Ben explained to me that it was a “session ale”—a cocktail that, while tasty, isn’t as heavy as some of its peers, and is often enjoyed by those who know they have lots of drinking ahead. This proved perfect for us, as we were still on our first stop.

On our way out, I asked a very dapperly dressed manager if any writers still come to work and he told me he couldn’t give me any names in order to protect there privacy. His response (especially given how proud they seemed to be of their celebrity wall) paired with the fact that most of the people in the bar seemed fairly oblivious to all of the fascinating artifacts that their booths were covered in struck me as a no. Disappointingly enough, the only indication we got from any living, breathing people that an awareness of the bar’s history had any role in their choosing it was one drunk man at the bar’s declaration that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Next up was the Algonquin, the fanciest joint on our list by far, a fact confirmed by the fact that two suited men opened the door for us in unison upon our arrival. Located in lobby of the Algonquin hotel, this bar was the meeting place of the Round Table, where The New Yorker was born (guests of the hotel still receive a complimentary copy of the magazine). A large mural of the groups’ members, including Dorothy Parker and Harold Ross, holds a prominent, sacred-feeling spot in front of an actual round table at the back of the lobby. Several of Parker’s notoriously witty turns of phrase are framed in front of it. We took all this in as Prairie Home Companion floated out from speakers above us.

Ben and I quickly headed over to the bar just off to the side of the lobby. With its dark lighting, leather booths, and Al Hirschfeld cartoons from The New Yorker lining the walls, it had a speakeasy feel. We wasted no time before indulging in the Dorothy Parker mini burgers that were delightfully juicy, and topped with wasabi mayo, blue cheese and cheddar. As perused the drink menu—full of colorfully named drinks like The Texas Millionaire (Knob Creek, sweet vermouth, grand marnier, shaken over ice) and The Hemingway (Stolichnaya, fresh squeezed ruby red grapefruit, simple syrup, sugar rim)—we couldn’t help but take note of the clientele. Directly to our right was a gold spectacled man who looked to be in his early sixties. His colorful scarf and eccentric, uncombed gray hair tipped us off that he was a character before he opened his mouth to answer the bartender’s question about which basketball team he was rooting for in a game against Boston and Orlando: “I don’t look like I’m from Orlando, do I?” To our left was a small group of British tourists in town for a wedding drinking martinis well before 5, marveling at how good it always felt to take that first sip of an after work martini every evening. F. Scott would be proud.

The bartender, Mr. Rodney Landers, proved to be the real highlight of this stop, though. He went out of his way to direct the Brits on where to buy cheap cigarettes and continued to top off my Mimosa with champagne. These early signs of camaraderie inspired us to explain to him our pursuit, and this was all he needed to whip out a small, crumpled napkin on which was the recipe for is own cocktail masterpiece in the works: The Flapper. (He defined if for us several times over the course of our conversation: “flappers were the party girls of the 20s.”) When we asked nicely, he agreed to make one for us, and we became the Flapper’s first paying customers. Made with muddled jalapeno and elder flower, he warned us that there was “some bite on the back,” which there was indeed. It came dressed with a strawberry and a jalapeno, which he warned us would normally be a raspberry—Parker’s favorite—he had just run out. The combination of sweet and spicy was delightful.

On our way out, we asked Rodney for an anecdote about the members of the round table, and he was happy to oblige. He told us that when, as a columnist for the Times, Parker approached Harold Ross about joining the round table he told her that if she could put the word horticulturalist in a sentence and make it funny she was in. Her answer: you can lead a horticulturalist to water, but you can’t make him think.” The rest, as they say, is history . . . Despite the fact that the rest of the information Rodney gave us was sometimes questionable, the experience at the Algonquin was pretty transporting—aside from our gold spectacled friend’s basketball game, every detail felt authentic to the roaring twenties, and Rodney’s excitement about our questions and the bar’s history was palpable. I kept looking around expecting to see one of the celebrated writers in the flesh, and had we not had two more stops on our trip, I would’ve gladly stayed for another round of Dorothy Parker mini burgers. . .

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Ten Questions for Carol Carson

I don’t know about the rest of you, but as I much as I love a good story, I sometimes find myself loving books as physical objects in almost equal measure—the smell of the paper, the sound of a book spine being cracked, and, perhaps most importantly, the arresting and thought-provoking images on the jacket that ends up wrapped around a particular book. Sometimes I’ll be so taken by a particular jacket that calls to me from across a Barnes and Noble or the Community Bookstore in Park Slope that I’ll end up purchasing the book even if the jacket copy is relatively unpromising. When I first started working in book publishing, I was awed by our jacket design department’s stunning ability to find the perfect image, concept, or type for manuscript after manuscript. And, while I caught myself thinking of manuscripts as fully-realized stories or projects long before a jacket was finalized, I quickly learned that a good book jacket can take the reading experience to a new level.

I was thrilled, then, when Carol Carson, the legendary head of Knopf’s art department, agreed to answer a few questions about the art of jacket design. I hope you’ll be as intrigued by her answers as I was!

Have you always been a book lover, or was it originally the artistic aspect of the profession that drew you to it? Luckily, my parents bought a lot of books for us. You have to start early. I still have a book of Poems of Childhood with illustrations by Maxfield Parrish. Then I went on to the great orange binding biographies in the school library. So reading has always been a big part of my life—unless I was drawing!

Are there any book designers whose work inspired you when you first started in this line of work? Louise Fili and Carin Goldberg for sure. And earlier designers like Dwiggins, George Salter, E. McKnight Kauffer, and Paul Rand.

Are there any particular sources you look to for inspiration when you feel “stuck” on a design? Love the Czech typography from the 20s and 30s. German type in the latter 19th c. Old scrapbooks, random art on the internet.

Are there any images you hold very close to your heart that you hope to one day use for a book jacket that you’re kind of hanging on to for the perfect manuscript match? I have a great photograph by Victor Schrager of a small plaster of Paris deer head with blue glass eyes that I tried to use years ago that was rejected. Perhaps he has a second life awaiting him. And I found a 1930s scrapbook of movie star postcards that are lovely.

If you had to guess, how many book jackets would you say you’ve designed over the years? Feels like millions but actually it’s close to a thousand (not counting the multiple versions that are so popular these days).

Do you have a favorite jacket that you’ve designed? Joan Didion’s last book, The Year of Magical Thinking, and some poetry, W. S. di Piero’s Chinese Apples. And a few of the Alice Munro jackets. Maybe the oldest one at Knopf was Scott Bradfield’s The History of Luminous Motion that Barbara and I worked on.

Do you have a favorite jacket designed by someone else? Still think that the first Donna Tartt book that we published is pretty smashing. The Secret History designed by Barbara de Wilde and Chip Kidd. Peter Mendelsund’s A Monster’s Notes by Laurie Sheck. All my designers have done great work.

I know there are many variations of the beloved Knopf borzoi icon that appears on all Knopf books. How many different options are there? Over a hundred and fifty.

Do you have a favorite? Paul Rand’s stick Borzoi is a good one. But the Dwiggins dogs are classic.

Did you always want to be a jacket designer? It’s a great job. Just wanted to make things, collages, paintings, etc. Maybe I’ll get back to it one day if that’s not too big a cliché

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Literary Ball

The tricky thing about a literary ball like the one held in Brooklyn this past Friday is that the generous, talented people who have lent their names in support of a good cause, being known for their clever turns of phrase and powerful prose as they are, aren’t inherently recognizable on sight. Thus, it took a minute or two for me and Katie to recognize that one half of the middle aged couple playfully wrestling to be the first to reach the head of the registration line we were in was National Book Award finalist Jim Shepard, or that the terribly dapper man munching on Hors d’oeuvres next to us in glasses that would have put Gatsby’s friend Owl Eyes to shame was the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Hours, Michael Cunningham. I’m still not sure which of the beautiful blond women in attendance was Eat Pray Love’s Elizabeth Gilbert.

This minor complication did nothing to dampen the magic of the event in question—One Story Magazine’s Literary Debutante Ball, A Celebration of Emerging writers. If the fact that it was being held in Brooklyn didn’t tip us off that the debutante aspect of the event carried a bit of irony, the venue certainly did. Held in an old can factory in Brooklyn’s Gowanus area, the big, industrial space was filled with charming quirks like garage door entranceways and giant light sculptures in the shape of light bulbs. When patrons took their cigarette breaks they did so on old loading docks.

The magazine’s premise is a simple but original one: every three weeks they send subscribers (they have around 10,000 internationally) one short story. As the event’s centerpieces comprised of “bouquets” of past issues proved, these stories are very elegantly presented in small, colorful booklets. The magazine, now in its eighth year, has an open submission policy and takes pride in publishing new writers. In fact, the nine “debutantes” we were there to celebrate were writers whose very first piece of fiction was published in the magazine some time over the past year. Each was escorted by a writer who has inspired, encouraged, or mentored him or her (Jonathan Lethem and the magazine’s cofounder Hannah Tinti were among the escorts, as were the afore mentioned Jim and Karen Shepard and Michael Cunningham).

In addition to this delightful parade of talent new and old, the night also entailed a silent auction of artwork inspired by stories that the magazine has published, ranging from a gold necklace to a light fixture with a basketball figurine valiantly poised underneath the light source, and plenty of oil, pencil and photographic renderings. The night’s master of ceremonies was writer and actor John Hodgman, perhaps best known as the “PC” in the series of Mac commercials he did with Justin Long (when he announced the raffle winner of an IPad half way through the night the jig was officially up). There was plenty of food and drink to nosh on throughout both his presentation and the performance of a short play scripted from one of the magazine’s recent stories.

In the end, the night truly belonged to the new writers. Once the official presentation had run its course and the auction had closed, the music was cranked and the dancing and mingling got underway. It was such fun watching these nine celebrants roam around shaking hands and exchanging cards with agents and editors, all smiles and glow. As any writer or aspiring knows, it’s not easy to bend over a computer night after night spending hours in pursuit of the perfect ending, the perfect sentence, the perfect word, for no other reason than that they can’t not. Watching the work of these nine writers come to fruition and seeing them get their due was indeed a cause for celebration.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Giveaway: Secondhand Bookshelf

It’s Friday, which means this is my last blog post for the week. To celebrate, I’m going to launch a little contest I’ll be calling Secondhand Bookshelf. Here’s the basic idea: I go to Book Culture and purchase an exciting used book. It will, most likely, be a little beaten-up, but that’s part of the fun. Maybe there will be interesting marginalia, or it will be on a dusty and dated subject, or it will feature strange and fantastic illustrations.

And it will be a book that someone no longer wanted. It will likely be, in Herman Melville’s words, “the book in the old morocco cover; the book with the cocked-hat corners; the book full of fine old family associations; the book with seventeen plates, executed in the highest style of art; [a] precious book [that] was next to useless.”

So, moving on! In keeping with the theme of my review of Lighting Out for the Territory, the precious but useless book I have for you this week is Sobriquets and Nicknames, by Albert R. Frey, published by Houghton Mifflin.

It once belonged to the Union High School (of Mansfield, Washington) library!

It was written by the author of William Shakespeare and Alleged Spanish Prototypes, A Bibliography of Junius, and A Bibliography of Playing Cards!

It was published in 1887! (Probably!)

You can find all sorts of interesting nicknames within! For example, did you know that Victor Hugo called Voltaire the Ape of Genius?

Or that Governor Enos T. Throop of New York was known as Small-Light Throop?

Or, on a related note, that William Thomas Fitzgerald was dubbed the Small-Beer Poet?

Plus, this book comes with a neat note that I found tucked inside! Thanks, Patty! I’m glad to hear that Junior is STILL KICKING.

To be entered in the (what will inevitably be very small) drawing, send your name—and the Twainian sobriquet you’d go by if you were an author—to my attention at at gmail dot com by noon next Friday, May 28, and I’ll ask Caroline to announce the winner here. There are no restrictions on who can enter—except, of course, the seven [tk] ladies. I might post all of the sobriquets I receive, so know that when you send them in, and make 'em snappy!

Good luck!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Musings on (What's Been) Lost

Maybe that subject will drive some traffic this way!

A few weeks ago, when I was starting to think about my week of blogging, I had very definite plans for today. I had hoped to live-blog this conference, the first hosted by C19, a new society for nineteenth-century Americanist scholars. Some people whose work I really admire will be speaking today, including Patricia Crain (author of The Story of A, which I read as an undergraduate), Samuel Otter (whose new book, Philadelphia Stories, I’ll be reviewing for July), and Brenda Wineapple (who wrote White Heat, a very good book about Emily Dickinson, and a biography of Hawthorne that I hear is also a fine read). Not to mention a host of other scholars and writers over the course of the weekend—again including, but not limited to, Thomas Augst, John Bryant, John Stauffer, Wyn Kelley, Wai Chee Dimock, Meredith McGill, Hester Blum, Laura Wexler, and Bryan Waterman (that’s in chronological order). Suffice it to say that it sounds like a very fun conference, and I’d love to be there.

Unfortunately, because I’m not from the East Coast, I didn’t realize that Penn State—which is hosting the conference—isn’t in Philadelphia. I had planned to make at least a day trip, but on Tuesday night I found out that the school is actually in central Pennsylvania, a five-hour drive from New York. So this post will not in fact be a live-blogged literary conference, but that is a theme I plan to return to in the future. Be on the lookout in coming months for a post about another, probably less exciting conference.

Luckily, I still have something to write about on what I’m deciding to call Academic Thursdays. (All right, it will probably just be this one Academic Thursday.) This morning on the train I read Lawrence Biemiller’s recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Should Your New Buildings Look Old?” In it, he discusses the phenomenon of univerities commissioning buildings in the predominant campus style. Sometimes it works. More often it doesn’t, as at the University of Virginia: “a 366,000-square-foot basketball arena with a 1,500-space parking garage has no business whatsoever pretending to look like Monticello.”

I responded to the article because I, while not trained in architecture, love the unique place-ness of university campuses. I’m always alert to their differences when I visit. And some of those differences aren’t architectural, as Biemiller notes: “What is it about the design of my campus that I like? It might be the architecture of the buildings, but chances are that it's actually something that's harder to put a finger on—the interplay of buildings, trees, open spaces, views, and other elements . . . On the best campuses, the specific architectural vocabulary is often secondary—what matters is how the elements come together.” When I visited the University of Mississippi two years ago, I discovered in wandering the campus a confederate cemetery. Stanford boasts a mausoleum, home to Leland Stanford, Jr., and his family, and in the middle of some of the Main Quad's Richardsonian arches are little hearts. Both of those campuses are large and spread out; Columbia, in contrast, feels like the singularity at the moment of the Big Bang. All the materials of any Ivy League campus are there—the library, the various neoclassical buildings—but there’s so much less space between them. These are the elements, and they’re the strange things that make any campus stand out.

You can see one of the Stanford hearts on the third column from the left:

Ultimately, Biemiller argues against maintaining—or attempting to maintain—one architectural aesthetic on a university campus. It’s intellectually dishonest, he writes, when one architect is asked to reproduce not merely a style but the work of one other, specific architect or group of architects. (At, for example, Yale, with its elaborate and extravagant residential colleges designed by James Gamble Rogers.) It’s expensive. (Those buildings at Yale cost $2 million to build in the 1920s, Biemiller reports, and in 2007 Princeton paid $136 million to build a Collegiate Gothic residential college.) And it fails to keep the buildings in dialogue with one another, something at which Bowdoin College has apparently been very successful.

You might ask what all this has to do with books. Well, I’ve been thinking about tradition and design in publishing as well. Yesterday I attended a memorial service for Nina Bourne, a much-admired and long-established (she worked in publishing for seventy years) copywriter and advertiser, first at Simon & Schuster and then at Knopf. At the door we were given folders that contained a survey of Nina’s finest ad work, including pieces from the campaigns for Eloise and Catch-22. They were breathtaking. They were funny, they were sharp, they were irreverent—but best of all, they were just so full of text. In Nina’s time at Knopf, she perfected a style that The New York Times characterized thus: “large, clean, heavily bordered ads in black and white, with minimal copy used to create maximum impact.” Knopf still uses that style. It’s effective, it’s straightforward, and it’s smart. But I was filled with some longing. There was a real writerly flair in these ads. You could see Nina flexing her muscle behind them, and you could see wit.

Nina's ad for Catch-22:

To create such an ad now might reflect Biemiller’s argument about intellectual honesty and maintaining a contemporary aesthetic. Does anyone today want to read an ad that is mostly text, one that forms its own story and its own narrative? Would it look hopelessly dated, as much so as that UVA basketball arena, next to the minimalist, sparser ads that you find in papers today? Would it fail to read on its own terms, for its own virtues, instead seeming as much like a move of nostalgia as, say, publishing a book now with a jacket like this one?

(This might interest, by the way: comic books as mid-century paperbacks.)

Our company’s lobby is lined with such books as the above, and again, every time I see them, I’m filled with a wistfulness. There are many, many beautiful jackets designed every year, of course. But there’s something about the stark graphics, the purposeful lettering, and the more roughly hewn paper on jackets like the above that speaks to me. And I’m not sure it’s something we could return to, or really dabble in, today.

In his article, Biemiller warns against hewing too closely to an outdated aesthetic, and against the rigidity it brings with it. But the question I’d like to leave you with is the opposite: what if dedication to a contemporary aesthetic has brought with it an equal amount of rigidity? How do you reclaim what’s been lost?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Handmade Crafternoon at the NYPL

Sorry about the blogging absence yesterday. It ended up being a long, crazy day, and I was up well into the night with good friends and some pretty spectacular goat cheese and sun-dried tomato pizza from Café Viva. Anyway, onward!—to a post whose extreme length should compensate.

Today I’m going to tell you a little bit about what I did last weekend. No, I won’t be discussing brunch, or the farmer’s market, or the evening spent watching highlights of Canadian cinema. Breathe easy, now. What I’d like to talk about here is Handmade Crafternoon, the free event co-hosted by Jessica Pigza (blogger and librarian in the New York Public Library Rare Book Division) and Maura Madden (also a blogger, and author of Crafternoon), which had its last meeting on Saturday before breaking for the summer.

What is Handmade Crafternoon? Once a month, crafting aficionados meet at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on 42nd Street to hear an artist speak and to try their hand at whatever that artist’s speciality is. In addition, Jessica totes along a range of vintage and contemporary books that relate to the topic being discussed, or might possibly interest the artist, or are, more simply, fun. It’s an inspired synthesis, one that began when Jessica and Maura met at a screening for the last episode of Design by the Book.

At the time, Jessica says, she “had had an idea of creating a DIY salon for adults at the library but hadn't figured out how to get started, and Maura had JUST published her book Crafternoon, which is basically the ideal primer on hosting successful crafty gatherings. Maura's also a lifelong library lover. She generously agreed to team up with me, and we've been running the series together since last year. Maura volunteers her time completely, and I squeeze in the planning around my duties as a rare book librarian.” Since then, Jessica and Maura have hosted eight Handmade Crafternoons, beginning with a talk by Jessica Vitkus and Hannah Rogge last September.

Their guest this Saturday was Natalie “Alabama” Chanin, whose label, Alabama Chanin, employs sewers from the Florence, Alabama area to produce meticulously hand-stitched, organic couture. I was lucky enough to be accompanied by my friend Lauren, a senior editor at Atlas & Co (and as both a former resident of New Orleans and editor of Dominique Browning’s acclaimed Slow Love, no stranger to the pleasures of gently paced handiwork in good company). Better prepared than I, she’s responsible for all of the photographs in this post.

(I should note that there was another guest, David Morgan from BurdaStyle, this Saturday. Lauren and I were unfortunately running a little late, so we missed hearing him speak. But if you’re interested in sewing and sharing, you should check out their website.)

After David’s speech, Maura introduced Chanin—who looks like Emmylou Harris and was a daunting enough presence that I feel compelled to use her last name—and talked briefly about the campaign to save the NYPL from the devastating budget cuts proposed by the city. Then Chanin gave a little background on herself, talking about her time at North Carolina State University and the lingering influence there of Black Mountain College. Although it closed in 1954, Black Mountain College—which counted Willem de Kooning, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, and Peter Voulkos among its faculty—impacted the textiles program at NCSU so much that Chanin received, in her words, a “Bauhaus education in North Carolina in the 80’s.”

She also emerged from the program with a keen sense of fashion as both an art and a science. Some of her coursework stressed handmade design, but students were also required to take physics and engineering courses, emphasizing the machinistic aspects of sewing. At Handmade Crafternoon, she gave the audience (entirely female, I believe, and large), some useful tips that were based in that experience:

1) While some sewers use beeswax to coat their thread and keep it smooth, Chanin recommends “loving the thread”: using the natural oil in your fingers to tame the excess tension in the thread, stroking a double-strand of it while also visualizing to yourself and talking to thread about the garment it will help create. She talked about the physics of different fibers and how they look under a microscope: silk is triangular, wool (and felt) have teeth, but cotton is “squiggly” and has been combed into two rows held together by torque and tension, and that’s why loving the thread is so important.

2) Your thread should never be longer than your elbow to your head (“if you have to stand up to pull, it’s too long”), for three reasons: you don’t want to poke the person next to you as you sew, thread knots more easily the longer it gets, and most importantly, every time thread is pulled through fabric it suffers abrasion. Thus the thread closest to the needle grows weaker and weaker as you sew, and if you use the same piece of thread, it becomes more and more likely to break. If you’re one of Chanin’s sewers, who can spend three months on a single project, broken thread can be a real disappointment, one to avoid.

3) Alabama Chanin uses longer stitches, for greater strength, when sewing their garments—stitches that Chanin’s grandmother might say were “so big you’d get your toes caught up in them.”

As you can tell, thread is immensely important in Alabama Chanin’s fashions, and they swear by Coats & Clark buttonhole thread, cotton-covered with a polyester core. It’s strong and floss-like (and affordable), lending itself not only to strong sewing but to some of the more advanced, exaggerated stitchwork pictured below. Chanin brought a handful to sell at Handmade Crafternoon, and I bought one in red and one in slate. They’re also available on the Alabama Chanin website.

Here's the front of one embroidered piece:

And the back:

After Chanin’s talk, the audience attempted the Alabama Chanin signature technique of circle-spiral appliqué, and Chanin also briefly discussed their elegant reverse appliqué. Jessica and Maura had provided some basic supplies, including scraps of jersey cotton and scissors, and Lauren and I went to it. Here’s my effort:

Most of my sewing background comes from working in a musical theater wardrobe shop, where I was required only to do quick fixes on costumes that fell apart during shows. I’m sloppy and untrained, but Chanin and Handmade Crafternoon left me inspired; I’m determined to sew the bandanna featured in Chanin’s first book, Alabama Stitch Book, and which is the pattern given as a test to sewers aspiring to work for Alabama Chanin. Chanin brought an example, and it was beautiful.

After everyone had finished and cleaned up, and after a quick raffle for Chanin’s most recent book, Alabama Studio Style, I chatted with Jessica and looked at the books she had set out. Embroidery, by Federico Rocca, featured a carefully embroidered cover; Early American Design Motifs was full of evocative historical embellishments. Some of the books that Jessica puts out are in circulation and others are limited to the rare books archive, and seeing books from both sources was a treat.

(By the way, you too can see Natalie Chanin in person. She’ll be speaking tonight at the Cooper Hewitt, at 6:30 pm. Tickets are $10.)

All in all, this final Handmade Crafternoon before summer break was a delight, and apparently it wasn’t an exception, although Jessica says that “every Handmade Crafternoon has its own unique qualities. Some events are laid back and super relaxed, while others are full of energy and bounce. We really have a wonderful time every month.” Her favorite events in the past year have included “Kata Golda's event, during which we all embraced playful felt creature making; and our Modern Women of Sewing event that had three special guests—Denyse Schmidt, Liesl Gibson, and Heather Ross (who made a special skirt just for that day)—who each talked about mining Library collections for visual inspiration.” This past Saturday, in particular, was “a truly wonderful example of how the attendees, the guests, and the project all contribute to a roomful of inspiration.”

Handmade Crafternoon is clearly a tradition worth continuing, and let’s hope that it will still be here when September rolls around. And that’s just one more reason to show your support in the coming weeks (and months, and years) by visiting the NYPL site. As Maura says, “libraries rank among the city’s most important cultural institutions, and they are certainly the most accessible. Our libraries keep all of us inspired, educated and engaged with our greater community. We cannot afford to lose their services.” And Jessica makes a compelling case for civil responsibility: “When New Yorkers support their Libraries through donations or speak out to government leaders (or do both), they send a persuasive message that Library programs, collections, and community spaces are important to them. Speaking out in this way is especially during these difficult times as more New Yorkers than ever turn to Library for information, job training, inspiration, and more.” Write, donate, and, this autumn, reap the benefits by attending Handmade Crafternoon.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Concord of Interest

It’s now my week to blog. I’m going to begin by discussing one of the basic tenets of this website, well-established among us reviewers, but not yet explicitly stated here. Namely, I’m going to talk about conflict of interest, and what it’s like to produce a site of book reviews when you work in publishing.

I think I speak for all of us at [tk] when I say that we love our jobs, we love books, and that working with the printed (and digital) word is an essential part of our lives. But an attachment to the literary can also make working in publishing genuinely draining. We here at [tk] spend our days in publicity, editorial, managing editorial, and academic marketing, but we spend our nights and our weekends attempting to maintain other identities. We’re fiction writers, critics, bloggers, and budding journalists who also often work late, and who always have a manuscript or a proposal tucked under our arms. We’re people who love words so much that our jobs—jobs that allow us to do some of the things we enjoy most—aren’t quite enough of an outlet. We need creative expression for that passion too.

And as I say above, maintaining these two identities as publisher and creator can be difficult. Maybe that’s why you see considerable turnover among assistants in publishing. Maybe they decide that other identity—the writer, the scholar—is their true, central one. But I’ve found that sustaining my creative self is difficult for another, more pragmatic reason: conflict of interest.

Working in editorial has given me an entirely new perspective on books, an invaluable one. Maybe books have lost a little of their mystery, a little of their miraculousness—but they’re so much richer now that I’m aware of how many people and conversations lie behind each one. And being one of those people has been great. But I’m not finished relating to books in another way. Three years after graduating from college, I’m not done thinking and learning about literature critically, and I’m not done writing about it in that context either. There are few outlets for me, however. I’m fortunate enough to work for a company that reimburses its employees for tuition, and in my time here I’ve been able to return to the classroom. I’ve written a couple of papers, presented at a few small conferences. I’ve kept my hand in the game. But reviews seem like the best way of producing critical writing frequently and consistently, and conflict of interest—due to my job—has prevented me from reviewing for the few publications at which I’ve inquired.

That was my personal reason for wanting this website to exist, and I think my fellow reviewers had similar compulsions. And it meant that when we first discussed the possibility of [tk] reviews, we were keenly aware of conflict of interest. We decided at that first meeting that we would review only books not published by our house—not just our imprint, but by our entire company. It was a decision that caused some agony. What, some asked, about our imprint’s books, books that we very much want to succeed? And our house is large—wouldn’t avoiding their books drastically limit what we could review?

Well, yes, I respond to the latter question. This policy does limit what we can review. But thanks to other large trade publishers, the academic presses, and the many fantastic small independent presses, no one can say there aren’t enough books available. And in fact, this policy has proven a luxury and a boon. In our first month we were able to review several books that perhaps wouldn’t get as much press coverage as those published by other, larger companies—and in upcoming months, we’ll also be reviewing books that might not be reviewed outside academic journals. Because we’re each writing only one review a month, we also have the luxury of choosing longer books, or books that are more difficult to find, or books whose rewards require a little more digging.

And, we decided, although we felt that we shouldn’t review our imprint’s books, this blog might be an appropriate venue to mention them in the future. Because we here at [tk] are genuinely excited about the books we publish. We want to share them with you—we want you to know about events, we want you to eagerly anticipate what we’ve been working on for months or even years.

Ultimately, though, the website is [tk] reviews: it’s the reviews that are our focus. And I think that by reviewing—whether our own books or not—we can do only good. If we positively review a book and someone buys it, it’s not a win for that publisher—whether Penguin or Oxford University Press or Archipelago—and a loss for us. Even as large houses struggle and small ones vanish, book publishing can’t afford to be a zero-sum game. A book bought rewards everyone—because hopefully behind that book lies a happy reader, a new ally to every publisher, who will return repeatedly to the bookstore.

As an editorial assistant by day and a critic by night, I’m grateful to have the opportunity to write for [tk]—to know that my creative work might do some good for my industry. We’ll write the reviews, you buy the books, and maybe, together, we’ll save publishing.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Graceful, Gorgeous Storytelling on Stage

Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of being in the audience at Seattle's Moore Theatre as NPR's Michele Norris interviewed Rosanne Cash on-stage. I was reminded of this today when I saw a starred review for Cash's forthcoming memoir, Composed (Viking, Aug 10), in Kirkus Reviews, which described the book as "beautifully written meditations on love, death, family and redemption." After hearing Cash in conversation with Michele Norris, during which Cash read a bit from her memoir, I'm eager to experience the full work this summer and I have no doubt that "a generosity of spirit informs her portraits" in the book.

The evening's event, which was taped as a Mother's Day special that aired this past Sunday on NPR, was a touching exploration of words spoken, written, and sung. I've been a fan of Rosanne Cash's since being introduced to her through Black Cadillac. Hearing her on-stage was another experience altogether; her voice was as clear and lovely and passionate as it is on her albums, but also so pure, stripped of any production, that it was like listening to glass turning into water. The two most moving moments for me were when Michele Norris asked Cash about lullabies and she broke into song from her seat, and again when she spoke about the way she wrote songs and prose. Here was a woman whose life's work defines lyricism.

Here, too, was someone clearly committed to her family, and who spoke about the choices she made with her own children and how those choices were both similar and different from decisions made by her parents and stepmother (Cash is the daughter of Johnny Cash and Vivian Liberto, and the step-daughter of June Carter Cash). For the first time onstage, Cash sang with her daughter, Chelsea Crowell, who has taken up the musical mantle of an astonishingly gifted American songmaking family. Another moment in the evening featured a clip of Cash speaking and then singing with her father, from a documentary about Johnny Cash's life that was taped shortly before he passed away (and which can be seen on NPR's site).

I'm writing about this event today because of the review and because I'm listening to Cash's new CD The List , and also because her work brings to mind the question of different forums for storytelling. Both Rosanne Cash and Johnny Cash are exemplars of songwriting that speaks to story in similar ways to prose and poetry. Other songwriters in the same vein for me are Bruce Springsteen, Josh Ritter, Emmylou Harris, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan (see also Dylan's memoirs), Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch and far too many more to name. For me, as for many others, the musicians who are storytellers are most often country, folk, and blues singers--or pop/rock artists leading from those roots. And their stories are often mythic in their specificity: tales of heartbreak and history through individual lives. Which is in line with what superb short story writers do, including some of my favorites: John McGahern, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Frederick Busch, Jhumpa Lahiri, and most especially Andre Dubus.

Who are your favorite storytelling singers? Which songs tell stories that lift you up, draw you in, tell you about people and places you either don't know, or perhaps know too well?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

This Post is Overdue!

Given that these beginning blogging weeks of [tk] reviews are intended, in part, to give readers a sense of who we all are as personalities, it's unsurprising that my first contribution is a day late, my time-management skills being what they are (or, rather, are not). On the other hand, my belatedness led me to an easy title for this post, as what I'd like to discuss is Marilyn Johnson's THIS BOOK IS OVERDUE! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All. I'll be referring to my library copy, which is, yes, overdue.

You may have noticed the banner on our homepage "Don't Close the Book on Libraries." The New York Public Library system is facing $37 million in budget cuts; this state of affairs is depressingly mirrored in library systems across the country and has been for the last several years. Cuts are necessary in a time of severe financial distress, but I believe there is a strong case to be made for libraries to be among the last groups to suffer cuts, rather than (as is often the case) the first to be slashed in the budget balancing act.

I've always been a fan of libraries, as I am of other public services (radio, television, transportation), because of their openness and usefulness for people from every sector of society. They are even more obviously essential in times when a high percentage of the population is job-searching, returning to school for further education and job skills, and otherwise in need of information. As Johnson's book reminded and taught me, the breadth of what librarians do and libraries offer is far-ranging--from specialized research to free entertainment to online outreach and social mobilization.

I found two chapters especially affecting. The first, "Big Brother and the Holdout Company," involved an exploration of the "Connecticut Four," librarians from a Connecticut consortium who sued the U.S. Attorney General over national security letters. These letters, served in secret as part of the Patriot Act, demanded that the libraries hand over their computer records, while at the same time placing a gag order on the librarians--compelling them to remain silent about even the existence of the letters. I encourage everyone to read more about this case, which is chilling in its implications about what our government (under the Bush Administration, but continuing in part today under Obama's) has authorized.

The second, "How to Change the World," takes place in Rome and describes an master's program from St. John's University that teaches students from around the world "how to bend their laptops to the cause of social justice." Here is a composite of one of the graduating classes: "Eugenie Murekatete, who lost her husband in the fighting in Rwanda and was now working at the UN...Parnel Saint-Hilaire from Haiti, who had just become a father...the Vincentian activist from Indonesia who had kept them all posted during protests, the two men who had disappeared from the online community for weeks after a typhoon in the Philippines--they were all graduating, and others, too, a dozen in all." They would go on to use their new skills to chart poverty statistics and AIDS proliferation, connect with other groups across the world, and open their own communities to information that would change lives. It was librarians that made it all possible.

There's much more in Johnson's book that deserves discussion, so I encourage you to buy a copy or, of course, to check one out from your library. To keep up-to-date on issues involving libraries, visit the American Library Association (ALA), which publishes Library Journal, holds conventions and other gatherings, and hosts a number of excellent blogs. (A personal shout-out to Monica Harris, a close friend and one of Library Journal's 2010 "Movers and Shakers"). And add your voice to those who speak up like the Lorax for libraries by using your local branch, donating to library associations, and writing to your representatives, reminding them that, as Walter Cronkite said, "Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation."

Friday, May 7, 2010

You Must Learn The Ways of the Force

Alas, today is Friday, which heralds the end of my inaugural blogging stint. But what better way to end than with a re-cap of the Chuck Palahniuk event I attended last night?

Chuck is probably best-known for his cult classic Fight Club, which got made into a movie starring Brad Pitt. Which is pretty good, as far as first novel success goes. However, he's been writing furiously ever since, and some of his other equally awesome (if less famous) books include Choke, Haunted, Lullaby, Snuff and Pygmy. His latest book, TELL-ALL, went on sale this week and so he's currently in the middle of a cross-country tour to promote it.
To call a Chuck Palahniuk event a "reading" is like calling the Superbowl "a football game." Good writers aren't always good performers -- we've all been to at least one reading where the author was hunched over the podium and mumbling in a monotone -- but that's not a problem plaguing Chuck. He is a consummate entertainer, and any evening with him is probably best described as a "Chuck-tacular," even a "Chuck-a-Palooza." For starters, though the majority of readings usually take place in a cramped bookstore with standing room only, Chuck's are held in venues like Webster Hall or Cooper-Union. Because his modus operandi is a little different (and his popularity high) a bigger and more theatrical set-up suits him well. As always, his fans turned out en masse last night, some even in costume, filling the seats and carrying stacks of books for him to sign.

Broadway legend Julie Halston kicked off the proceedings with a dramatic reading from Tell-All, perfectly channeling the voice of narrator Hazie Coogan, and then Chuck came onstage to announce the first contest of the night. He has a history of incorporating gag gifts into his performances -- apparently before every tour he scours job lot stores to find the perfect theme item -- and, as Tell-All is set in both the spotlights and the shadows of Hollywood's Golden Age, he kept the trend alive with four-feet-tall inflatable Oscar statuettes. The first people to fully inflate them won plastic turkeys, signed by Chuck himself, and the audience whole-heartedly accepted the challenge. It was a mob scene as Chuck and his helpers spun the plastic packages out into pairs upon pairs of grasping hands.

(That's Chuck on the right, in the foreground, exercising his throwing arm). For a few minutes, the only sounds were deep, gasping breaths and the hiss of the little valves, but people puffed them up surprisingly swiftly. After picking the winners, Chuck got back into author mode and read an absolutely stunning brand-new story called "Knock Knock". I won't tell you what it's about, as it's going to be published in the December edition of Playboy -- though I suppose that gives you a clue about its general content -- but I was absolutely floored by his performance. The ovation he received at the end shook the spotlights hanging from the auditorium ceiling, but applause quickly turned into cheering as he began flinging another round of statuettes and turkeys.

The last part of the night was a Q & A with Bill Goldstein, an English professor at Hunter College and a founding editor of Normally I dread Q & A sessions because they can be kind of asinine, but Bill asked some really thoughtful and challenging questions -- he'd obviously read and liked the book -- and Chuck answered all of them with wit and grace. When discussing the perils of gossip and fame (a central theme of Tell-All), Bill asked him if he had ever been the victim of a false story or accusation. "My friends will call me up and say 'I didn't know you were a vampire!' " Chuck replied, but his outlook on the whole thing is actually quite zen. He believes that trying to publicly counter this culture of exaggeration and notoriety actually accords it more power; engaging with falsehood just makes it worse. "It's like a taking a rape whistle with you to prison." I think he might have a point.

What's so exhilarating about Chuck is his innate ability to make reading a holistic and accessible experience. He reaches out to build connections beyond the page; he's not too proud, or obsessed with the idea of himself as an auteur, to distribute his work and ideas through multiple mediums (live performance, cinema, digital media). His reward is a readership rare in its loyalty and diversity -- last night people queued for several hours just to get a chance to talk with him, and they were old, young, disheveled, smartly-dressed, male, female, black, white. There are something like six million copies of his books in print, but he still took time personalize his inscriptions and pose for photographs.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying he's the reincarnation of Mohandas Gandhi or anything, but seeing people so excited abour reading books warmed the cockles of my cynical and bitter heart. I do think that those who bemoan the inevitable death of the printed word might do well to learn from him: he charts a measured middle course, valuing the integrity of literature as a concept while adapting it to reflect the changing culture in which we live.

Let that thought, dear readers -- my Luke Skywalkers of the literary universe -- burn slowly like an ember within you; let it radiate heat and light into the dark unknown of the future. We are the ones in charge of creating that future, and if we fixate on apocalyptic scenarios of a society bereft of books and culture we are in a sense acknowledging that we've already given up. I think it was our friend Gandhi who said "be the change you wish to see in the world." So keep reading, keep believing, keep buying books -- don't underestimate the Force.

I deliver you now into the capable hands of my fellow Jedi Katie Freeman, who will be blogging next week. I'll catch you on the flip side, but in the meantime you can always write to:

May the Book be with you.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Diary of A Dream-Crusher

Sorry for the interregnum, folks -- yesterday was a brief trip to publishing hell. The only (very welcome!) respite was a Bouchon Bakery expedition to celebrate the birthday of another [tk]er, Jess Freeman-Slade. But apart from that delicious hour, this pretty much sums up how I felt:

I was in an especially foul mood because, along with everything else, I had three rejection letters on my "to-do" list. Along with photocopying and formatting manuscripts, this is an aspect of my job that I really, really dislike.

It took me almost an hour to write my first rejection letter to an author. I was an intern, and my supervisor came into my office, dropped a proposal down onto my desk, and said "I want you to read this. And if you don't like it, I want you to draft a rejection."

In retrospect, I can't believe I agonized so long over it. It was an unsolicited proposal from a someone who wanted to write an annotated Little Women; if I remember correctly, her entire pitch was predicated on the fact that she'd developed a successful side gig as an educational Jo March impersonator. But although the entire thing was achingly amateurish, the effort she'd devoted to the materials was palpable. This project was the culmination of a lifetime's devotion, and in one paragraph I was going to tell her that it simply wasn't good enough.

I remember going over and over the wording, flipping back through the proposal and my report, wondering if I was making the right decision. On one level I knew I was -- there was no question -- but I still could not wrap my head around the fact that I had the ability to so drastically affect someone's life. Like everyone else, I've experienced rejection before, and I know what it feels like. You can rationalize a "no" as much as you want, in love or in life or somewhere in between, and tell yourself that it's not personal/just not the right match/them and not you -- but it still really, really sucks. And unless you're Eckhart freaking Tolle, you carry it around with you for a while. It's not easy to move on from that.

Someone once told me that writing rejection letters gets easier with practice, and to a certain extent they were right. With each one I've become more adept at delivering the sentiment, at tempering my "no" with the right amount of praise. As I learn more and more about how much time and money and effort are devoted to each book we publish, it becomes a less emotional and more economic decision -- sometimes the sides of the cost vs. gain equation don't balance, however much you wish they would. And I'm slowly understanding that my taste does not always reflect commercial appeal: declining a plainly sell-able proposal from a "hot shot" agent no longer disturbs me so much because I know it's going to end up somewhere. If anything, the quandary there is acknowledging that the very nature of the game means you will often end up passing on something that turns out to be a runaway success. Every editor has a few of those stories, but every good editor will counter them with what I call Miracles on Ice -- occasions on which they took a risk that risk paid off against all the odds.

However, signing the letter or pressing the e-mail SEND button still makes me feel like a shit. I wonder how the author will feel, if mine is the first or the seventh rejection, if it will be the final defeat that makes them put down their pen. Even the worst submissions, the unsolicited ones that clearly come from a not-quite-rational mind -- the Florence Foster Jenkinses of the literary world -- convey a touching hope, misguided as it may be. Unless these people are made of Teflon, it's got to hurt.

To ameliorate this rather depressing conclusion, here are two somewhat positive things that I've learned from my crash-course in rejection. Though obviously this isn't always the case, the first is that "no" can often be fairly arbitrary. An editor might think a manuscript or proposal is really, really good, but they have to say no because it's about dogs and there are already three dog books coming up in the next 18 months. It might be because a recently published title about dogs absolutely tanked, and other departments like sales and publicity are reluctant to go back out there so soon with a book on the same subject. You know that excuse you heard about why X University rejected you -- that they already had a surfeit of oboists from Florida and so they couldn't justify admitting another when they desperately needed Midwestern tuba players? There's actually some truth in there.

The second is that whatever you do, you need to do it first and foremost for yourself. If you enjoy the experience of writing, not just the end product, then you can still salvage some happiness from the ruins of rejection. Think of Florence Foster Jenkins -- at least, I always do. She may have sung like a bat on helium, but she had a hell of a good time shattering the windows in Carnegie Hall. Life's just too short to do it any other way.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Bettering The World, One Book At A Time

Admitting this probably qualifies me as a borderline candidate for that A & E show Hoarders, but whatever: I hate to part with my books. Someone once joked that I think of my books as children -- and they were right. When I moved into my first apartment here I bought an IKEA bookshelf and, despite my Bryn Mawr degree, failed to assemble it correctly; it slowly devolved from a rectangle into a parallelogram until, on one hot May night, it imploded with a resounding crash. As I ran around picking up books from the floor I felt like I'd stumbled upon the scene of a school bus accident. It was traumatizing.

There's something reassuring about the physical presence of books, perhaps because they remind me of the houses I grew up in. Overflowing shelves were (and still are the norm) at home, and as a little kid I remember feeling anxious when I went to places without any books. Hardcovers especially are soothing in their solidity, and there's something very special about the visual and tactile convergence that occurs when you're confronted with a truly beautiful book jacket.

I think I also like to hold onto books because, in my warped mind, they serve as a tangible chronology of my intellectual and aesthetic development -- each is strongly connected to a different period of my life. When I hold my tattered copy of Middlesex I can instantly remember how blown away I was while reading it, so much so that I started it in the airport lounge at Dulles and had finished it by the time I landed in Cairo 16 hours later. There are books I read in high school and college, full of scribblings in the margins that were intelligible then but now look like squashed insects; books my mother read and loved, and then passed on to me; books I've had the privilege of working on so far in my editorial "career".

However, there's a point at which a book collection can become confining rather than defining. I'm not yet a warped little Gollum, crooning away away in my tiny cave while stroking the spines one by one, but in the spirit of spring cleaning I do acknowledge that a careful culling is in order. I've previously equivocated about this because I'm never sure what to do with my jettisoned titles. I can't bring myself to cart them off to the Strand: it would feel like I was selling my children into slavery. And I can't bear to leave them on the curb, abandoned to the whims of passers-by and the weather.

All hesitation disappeared, though, when I received an e-mail from my wondrous fellow blogatrice, Claire Kelley. She wanted to get the word out about a "book drive" event this coming Saturday for Books Through Bars, a non-profit organization that works to furnish prisons with books. I'm ashamed to say I'd never heard of this project, but spending a few minutes on their website was inspiring. As a lowly publishing worker bee, my wallet is woefully thin -- I certainly can't give financial help to worthy organizations as freely as I'd like. But I can give books. Lots and lots and lots. Details about the event, which is being held at Brooklyn's Freebird Books, are at the end of the post. Several of us are planning to attend, and we'll probably be writing about it next week.

Knowing that my books will be "paying it forward" in the world makes parting with them much, much easier. If you too feel burdened by your bookshelves and/or are inspired by the warm winds of spring to have a massive clear-out, I really urge you to read below about this event -- or, if you can't attend, research another way in which you can help your book change someone else's life.

BBQ and Book drive for Books Through Bars / Saturday, May 8, 2-6 pm
“Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail. What you gain at one end you lose at the other. It's like feeding a dog on his own tail. It won't fatten the dog.”
--Mark Twain

Just a reminder that if you have leftover books and are looking to make space in your cramped apartment, we are leading a book drive on May 8 for the grassroots organization, Books Through Bars, a non-profit which donates books to prisoners across the country.

So in the spirit of spring cleaning (you know those walls are closing in on you) and Mark Twain, whose passing 100 years ago we also note, we will make our backyard a book drop and party space for the occasion. BBQ and beer will be on hand, not to mention Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer T-shirts special for the occasion (from our friends at Novel-T). All Freebird’s proceeds from the sale of the t-shirts will go to Books Through Bars.

ooks donated to BTB are tax deductible. Books Through Bars is especially looking for books in the following categories -- and preferably in paperback, to cut down on postage costs:

African-American history, especially 20th century
Native American history
Latin American history
Radical politics
Social sciences and psychology
Dictionaries, thesauruses, and Spanish-English dictionaries
Learning world languages
How-to (drawing, chess, sign language...)
Mayan and Aztec history
Memoirs and fiction by people of color
Poetry anthologies

That said, we don’t want to turn away any generous offers and what BTB can’t use will either make its way into Freebird’s general population or off to another charitable organization.
Freebird Books: 123 Columbia Street (between Kane and Degraw streets)Brooklyn, NY 11231718-643-8484 hours: Sat-Sun 11 am-10 pm (def); Thurs-Fri 6 to 10 pm (mostly); the rest of the week (by chance)

Monday, May 3, 2010

Smut As Our Savior

Now that we’ve broken the champagne bottle over the bow of [tk] reviews (so to speak), I have the distinct honor of steering this blog through its first week of existence. The search for a worthy subject with which to kick things off was a little anxiety-inducing, but as so often happens when you least expect it, Lady Luck threw me a crumb in the form of this article from the website: “Erotica Gives Book Publishing a Surprising Boost.” When later picked it up under the headline “Erotica May Save Publishing,” I knew we were in business.

I am actually not entirely unfamiliar with the topic, as back in a desperate moment of job searching I actually had two interviews with the editor of several romance and erotica imprints (she, they, and the publishing company will go unnamed). I knew something about romance novels – my special talent in high school was being able to open them straight to the sex scenes – but after my first meeting with this woman I realized I was in waaayyy over my head. Those Harlequin novels of my teen years were primarily old ones donated by aging alumnae, and at their titillating peak they at most threw out a couple of awkward euphemisms (“manroot,” anyone?) and possibly a nipple. The characters were nearly always white-bread Americans, maybe with a dark and mysterious European to mix things up every now again, and the heroine always married her man in the end.

Things now, however, are very different. As is par for the course with editorial interviews, I was given a manuscript to read and report upon: the story began with a woman discovering a naked but very tanned-and-chiseled demon unconscious in her garden. After about twenty pages, I knew that drastic measures were required – I put on some very large sunglasses and hoofed it down to my local Barnes & Noble for a red-faced afternoon of research.

The sheer acreage of shelves devoted to “paranomal romance” made it clear that the naked demon of my sample manuscript was in no way new or shocking; in fact, he was boringly mainstream. Vampires have been sexualized since forever, but werewolves, warlocks, and witches clearly have needs too – and people like to read about them being filled. However, some time spent surfing the web this weekend suggests that the hottest things now are actually “shapeshifters,” adult re-imaginings of the animaguses (animagii?) of Harry Potter fame. I also recently heard the editor of the Sookie Stackhouse series speak at a (work-sponsored, no less!) panel about the difficulties of breaking out zombie erotica. It’s obviously quite difficult to make necrotic body parts sexy, but I have faith that some gifted scribe out there will manage it.

The MSNBC article about erotica “saving” publishing highlights the sub-genre of “urban” erotica, although that’s hardly a new phenomenon either. Specialist small presses have been churning out this stuff for years, a sort of “streets to the sheets” school that reads like sexed-up novelizations of Grand Theft Auto. However, its mainstream explosion is clearly recent: suddenly, all the major houses (including mine) are boasting profitable imprints. I actually found a galley of one not too long ago on the give-away shelf here and gave it to a colleague as a gag gift, a decision I quickly came to regret. These books make no apologies for their content – and rightly so – but further exploration corroborates my field discovery that they are very intense in their depictions of sex and violence, and the way the women in them are treated. If you are not prepared for it, or willing/able to handle the distinction between fantasy and more nuanced reality, some of this stuff can be quite shocking. But I admit I’m kind of curious to see one of the books that Noire (the writer specifically mentioned) has written in collaboration with 50 Cent.

It’s not strictly erotica, so indulge me as I throw in a nod to the emerging marketplace trend of Amish romance. There was an explosion of coverage last year that seems to have only stoked the fire of demand: strongly wedded to a central theme of chastity and abstinence before marriage, this genre seem to have tapped America’s “Twilight” nerve, the one that responds far more to titillation than to actual tongues entwining. Some digging around on does reveal a few, Kindle-only, Amish erotica titles – maybe this will be my inducement to finally fork over $299.99 and get one?

Werewolves, gangstas, and buggy-driving babes were not the only characters I encountered during that fateful afternoon: I spent a good forty-five minutes just browsing the aisles, trying to take it all on board. The truth was (and still is) that, although I like to giggle about it as much as the next person, this sort of stuff isn't really my cup of tea -- if I want to get my literary rocks off I prefer D. H. Lawrence or Anaïs Nin -- but once I got over myself I actually had quite a good time. I even took off my sunglasses, deciding that I didn't give a damn who saw me paging my way through Candy Licker.

My report got written, but despite my graduate-level research skills I didn't get the job. Don’t shed any tears, though -- this rejection was in the end a good thing, for many reasons, and the experience still resonates positively with me. I gained insight into a genre that's often misunderstood, and (I like to think) a new perspective on the American psyche. New York City publishing circles might snicker at these books, but the sales figures tell a different truth: people love this stuff wholeheartedly, and consistently demonstrate it with their wallets.

There is obviously a special alchemy at work here, a magic enacted by very intelligent and interesting people -- just like the editor with whom I interviewed -- and if it is helping publishing over its rough patch, I couldn’t be happier. Like any community facing hard times, we've all got to pitch in and concentrate what unites us rather than on what separates us from each other. We can't afford to ignore the strengths and achievements of our peers, even if they are not the ones for which we ourselves particularly yearn. And, speaking of yearning, don’t forget to keep an eye out for this tasty treat (culled fresh from Publisher’s Lunch), which foretells of a whole new interspecies collaboration:

Leanna Ellis's FORSAKEN, first in the Plain Fear series in which a young Amish woman mourning the mysterious “death” of her beloved, now a vampire, must choose between two brothers, between good and evil, between a lasting love and the damnation of her soul.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Welcome to [tk] reviews

Welcome to [tk] reviews, a new (and, we hope, exciting) venture.

On the first of each month, you’ll discover reviews posted here on the recently published books we find most intriguing, enraging, provocative, and persuasive. It is our aim to represent a wide variety of fiction and nonfiction, produced by an equally wide variety of authors and sources—from academic presses to independent publishers to large trade houses.

Who are we? You can find some information about us and why we started this website at the bottom of this page, but here’s the extended version. We are seven young women working in different departments at a publishing house. We all love books. We all love to talk about books. And that’s why—at a meeting of our imprint’s book club, where we were the only ones who showed up to talk about Cheever—we decided to create a venue where we could discuss literature and our industry.

We hope that as the months pass a sense of our disparate voices, styles, and interests will emerge in our reviews. In the meantime, however—and since we hope [tk] reviews will be a site you’ll want to visit every day—we’d like to invite you to become acquainted with our reviewers through our blog, which will be updated on a daily basis. Each of us will be blogging for a full week, beginning this Monday, about book- and industry-related events. From independent bookstores to favorite reading nooks to author events and festivals, expect to see our passions represented here.

We appreciate your patience as we embark on the first few months of and inevitable bugs to be found in [tk] reviews. Please join us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and suggest new books and events that you think we should be following. Until Monday, happy reading.


Katie, Jess, Carmen, Claire, Joey, Hannah, and Caroline