Monthly Archives: January 2010

Issue of January 31, 2010

Three books are featured in this week’s issue, one rather well-known, two relatively unknown, but all three are worthy reading. So strap on your seat belts for a trip into Literary Land. And don’t forget that you have an opportunity to win four of the books in Lauren Baratz-Logsted’s Sisters 8 series by entering the contest. Details are posted at the end of her column.

Zora Neale Hurston is probably better known to the African American community than to others, but her amazing work is kindling a resurgence among all readers. Nicki Leone’s long ago discovery of Hurston’s Men and Mules, a collection of black folk tales introduced Nicki to a new part of her interest in myths and folktales, and to a brilliant cultural writer in Big Ole’ Lies.

Is one’s culture the one grows up in? Can one be adopted into another to the point where it can overtake the original? Or will there always be a sense of being on the outside? Lindsay Champion shares one young woman’s experiences trying to replace a culture of pain with one of excitement and love in a new book of self- and cultural discovery in Bienvenidos a California.

Lauren Baratz-Logsted makes no secret of her passion for former president Bill Clinton. So when the book written by Taylor Branch appeared she wanted to talk about it, not in the sense of objectively reviewing it but as a admitted fan and admirer of the subject in Unabashedly for Clinton.

The fight started with a press event on Friday and ended Sunday afternoon with a whimper. But for three days it looked as if the big online kahuna of bookselling would enter the boxing ring with one of the largest publishers in the world. Who would win? Would there be a knockout? There was none. One participant conceded, but the parting speech indicates that the fight isn’t over yet, or says Lauren Roberts in The Fight That Fizzled.

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An Editor Extraordinaire

This is the first in an occasional series on BiblioBuffet’s contributors. You’ll get to know a bit about who they are and how they came to be part of BiblioBuffet.

I am the luckiest editor-in-chief in the world, and the reason I feel that way is due in large part to Nicki Leone, Managing Editor of BiblioBuffet.

Nicki and I were both members of a now-defunct book discussion group called Readerville. Though I had long admired her erudite and informative posts, I never corresponded privately with her. Then in mid-2005, Nicki posted a comment that made me take special note: the bookstore she had managed for fifteen years was going to close.

Such news is never good when it means the loss of a job, especially a job one loves. Fortunately, Nicki was immediately snapped up by SIBA or the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance to do marketing, programming, and whatever else might need doing. (She also has an alternate persona there as Lady Banks.) Faster even than SIBA was me. I e-mailed her the moment I read her post to ask if she would consider coming aboard the soon-to-be launched BiblioBuffet. She agreed, and six months later began “A Reading Life,” her bi-weekly column which has continued since then. 

Somewhere around the early summer of 2007, an opportunity—otherwise known as an internal crisis—arose that created the need for additional editorial controls, and Nicki accepted my offer to become Managing Editor. As such, she has become my confidante, my partner, my mentor, and the other half of the heart-and-soul of BiblioBuffet.

I find myself impressed and occasionally awed by her critiques of the writers’ submissions. She doesn’t mince words, nor does she patronize or criticize. Rather, Nicki has the ability to combine a critique, additional information, probing questions, thoughts, humor, and resources into one letter that ends up in the writer producing “writing worth reading.” How does she do that?  

There are a couple of guiding principles I seem to have organically developed. I don’t, for example, like it when writers excuse themselves by claiming ignorance . . . I think I almost always make writers revise when they take that tack in their pieces. I’m a great believer in “owning” your opinions!

I also have learned to watch that every statement or opinion is backed up or justified. So no saying “this is a really great book” without saying why. And I’ll occasionally—very occasionally—offer the columnist my opinion if I think they misinterpreted what they read.

Finally, I try to make sure that all three perspectives are given a fair shake—the reviewer’s, the author’s, and the book’s. Especially that last, since ultimately I assume that BiblioBuffet’s readers want to know about the book.

Nicki and David gave me permission to quote from the critique she sent him on his current column, a review of Shambling Towards Hiroshima. David’s initial submission had some problems, which Nicki diagnosed while offering suggestions of the best kind:

I had real trouble with this paragraph, because your initial angle, that you just “don’t get” satire, immediately undercuts your authority in reviewing the book.  I find myself wondering if it is really true? Do you not understand satire? Can you think of no satire that you found effective? Orwell’s Animal Farm comes to mind, as does the television show (and movie) M*A*S*H.

Here is what Webster’s says [about satire]:

1 : a literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn

2 : trenchant wit, irony, or sarcasm used to expose and discredit vice or folly

In both those definitions, the key is that “wit, irony and sarcasm” are being used to EXPOSE folly. That is a very specific form of attack. In general, I think, satire does this by exaggerating something to the point of absurdity to show its folly or hubris. It sounds like, in the case of Morrow—and I’m extrapolating here from what you’ve written—he’s commenting on the idea of weapons of mass destruction being somehow for the greater good. We’re used to the fact of nuclear weapons. We’ve assimilated their existence into our daily lives. But replace them with, say, giant lizards, and it is obvious how crazy it is to live with such a thing.

The problem  with your approach is not that you didn’t like the book, but that you say the reason you didn’t like the book is because you are too dumb to get satire. (Which I’m sure isn’t true!)  The only conclusion a reader can draw from such a statement is that if you don’t understand satire, then your opinion about the book isn’t valid—you’ve admitted that you aren’t capable of understanding the basic premise of the entire story.

Since I am quite positive that isn’t the case, I think what you should be asking yourself is simply whether Morrow’s satire is equal to the task the author set himself—critiquing an event as horrific as Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If you look at it in this light, you can decide whether his satire is able to overcome all our usual horrified reactions to the bombs in order to make his point. I’m guessing that  in your opinion, it isn’t. That the book is only readable when you are “…not thinking about the deeper significance of what [you are] reading.”

That’s a pretty damning statement on the success of the book, and what I think should be your focal point of your review.

It is possible, of course to read a book and find it just doesn’t “click.” But when that happens, as a reviewer you have to stop and tell your readers why, and you have to be specific. There is always a reason a book doesn’t work, and it’s your job to figure out what that is, even if you suspect the issue is your own preferences, not the writer’s talent.

Tell me what you think. I’d like to see you revise your approach somewhat so that its clear to your readers that the problem you had with the book isn’t that you “don’t get” satire, but that in your opinion, Morrow’s satirical approach didn’t overcome your own natural gravity on the subject.

You can see the result here. Her intent and her success at eliciting “writing worth reading” without interjecting her own voice makes her editing, for all of us at BiblioBuffet, “worth listening to.”

Though she has no formal training in content editing, her managerial experience, extensive reading, instinctive people skills, overriding passion for literary excellence, and high ethical standards has imbued our publication with style and elegance because all of us strive to meet her standards.

Not long ago, Lauren Baratz-Logsted called BiblioBuffet the “New Yorker of the Internet,” and Nicki and I both want to live up to that honorable title. It’s our work together along with the contributors that helps us achieve that. I owe more than I can say to Nicki, whose words you will never see except in her column, but whose spirit infuses the site as much as my own.

Note: I sent this off to Nicki for comment prior to posting it. Her response is worth posting too: You say lots of nice things—thank you! And really, thank you because you gave me the opportunity to try my hand at editing and you’ve been so supportive. So really most of the credit is due to you for being the kind of publisher who allows your employees to find their best level. 

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Issue of January 24, 2010

It’s been a month since Christmas. The holiday decorations are put away, and spring is still a ways off. But don’t despair. We at BiblioBuffet have some darn good reading for you in this issue—from a surprising journey in search of a bookmark’s history to a review of a novel that combines two unlikely elements. Please enjoy.

As a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step so sometimes does a single simple bookmark prove to be the starting point for a historical excursion so surprising and widespread that Laine found herself admiring the man who began it all in The Ludlow Way.

What happens when you lose bookshelf space and have to downsize your collection? Guest columnist Rachel Hozey faced that question when she retired from teaching and a large office and entered the world of freelance writing with a tiny desk and single narrow bookcase in her living room. Find out what her choices were, and how and why she chose them in Books That Made the Cut.

The trend away from discourse and toward acrimony in both books and conversation is creating a disservice to all of us in society. Persuasion is out. Acrimony sells. The question: Is this what we really want? Let’s discuss it in How Do I Know What You Are Saying If I Can’t Get Past Your Hysteria?

Normally focused on nonfiction, Pete recently picked up a sports-related novel to satisfy a craving for fiction. What he found was a potentially good story that was so overlaid with “important themes” it proved distracting. But, he says, he’ll “keep taking the occasional chance” so that he has the opportunity to find himself hooked on a good story. Find out why he feels taking chances is worth it in A Novel Idea.

A book that David says he should have loved because it combined two favorites—science fiction and World War II era—was one he found he couldn’t love. He put it down, but faced with a deadline made the decision to look at it again. This time, however, he read it with his own perspective and expectations rather than that of others. While doing that didn’t ignite his love for this particular book it did provide him with an enjoyable read as he shares in Don’t Judge a Book by Its (Inside) Cover.

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The First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Lawyers

There’s no need to kill them when you can just leave them inside.

At least that was my thought when David Mitchell, one of BiblioBuffet’s contributors and a practicing IP (Intellectual Property) attorney, sent me an e-mail about a recent conference he attended in Orlando, Florida and included this story.

Scene: A conference room in the Orange County Convention Center.

Back Story: Only lawyers are attending any meetings in the Convention Center.

Loud Voice Over Intercom:  “May I have your attention please.  All employees of the Convention Center are to immediately evacuate the building. Contractors should exit via the East Exit. I repeat all employees and contractors of the Convention Center are to evacuate the building immediately. People attending the [Florida Bar] meetings do not need to leave.”

David, I am glad you made it through whatever caused everyone else to leave. And thank you for this hilarious story.

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Copyright Does Not Mean “Right to Copy”

Earlier this week I had a shock when Google Alert sent me the latest news on our name. An author whose book had been favorably reviewed recently had copied the entire page on which the review was posted and pasted it (including the writer’s bio) into her blog. Minus the formatting, every single part of it was there.

I get it. She was excited. The review was outstanding. It will bring some attention to her book. But her willingness to steal our property in its entirety astonished me. Then it made me mad.

This is not a good thing.

Reviews of books, movies, theatre productions are often used in promotion and marketing. How many times have you seen sentences but more often phrases and words that praise or appear to praise—ellipses can work wonders—the referenced work? A lot. It’s impressive for a publisher to be able to say the New York Times loved the work, but they don’t use the entire review. The reason is copyright. The original article belongs to the publication or writer. It is as much theirs as any physical object they own.

So why then do some authors, most of whom I am sure would never steal material from other writers, feel that using a review is not really intellectual theft? Because it’s a review? Because it’s about their book? Because it’s not “real” writing. (If reviewers could really write, why would they write reviews of others’ material?)

I believe that this kind of thing happens for several reasons. But the most important in my opinion is that reviews are not perceived in the same way as other types of writing. Nonfiction demands (ideally) good research and factual accuracy. Literary fiction requires characters that engage the reader. Commercial fiction is plot-driven. But what are book reviews? Just someone’s opinion? After all, anyone can put up a “review” on Amazon, right?

That makes me cranky. Leaving aside book criticism, which is a highly specialized form of writing about books and difficult to achieve, writing reviews is or perhaps I will say it should be a written art form that demands curiosity, a background in literature, and the ability to explore a book in depth with an eye to its role in its genre and sometimes within its author’s oeuvre. So why is it accorded so little respect? And why is a review not viewed with quite the same perspective as other intellectual property?

I didn’t wait around to answer my own question, which was rhetorical anyway. I promptly sent a stern e-mail to the author (and copied the publisher) stating that our copyright had been violated and requiring that the piece either be removed or edited back to what could be considered “fair use.” The author contacted me within an hour, and was apologetic. She cut it back while providing a link to the full article so this particular problem has been resolved. But the question still remains.

Two of BiblioBuffet’s writers are authors. The rest love writing about books. Just because they write about others’ books rather than write their own does not mean their work is less deserving of respect than the books they are reviewing. Novels, nonfiction, poetry, short stories, essays, op-ed pieces, magazine and newspaper articles all have their place in the world of writing and reading. Not a single part of any of them deserves to be stolen by another writer regardless of the reason—and that includes promotion and marketing. If we at BiblioBuffet enjoy your work and say so, then quote us. (We love that!) But do it within the bounds of copyright law and respect for our work. You worked hard on your book. We work hard on our reviews. It’s a two-way door, and no one wants it slammed in her face.

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Issue of January 17, 2010

Sometimes I feel as if I travel around the world and through the centuries with our contributors. This week certainly is one of those. From a novelized inquiry into the effect of Cuban affairs to vampire-ish fun with Jane Austen, and from the role of marriage and love in society to an exploration of the serious (and not-serious) world of young adult literature, we’ve got it for you. We’ll even throw in some rain for your reading time!

Nicki Leone shares her love of a fine, delicate novel set in 1994 Havana that traces the path of an old man’s integrity and character when he is faced with the pitfalls of a political and social system that suddenly changes, and finds that one choice he makes sets him on a path that proves the ruins in his life are no longer those just outside himself in To Be Salao.

Jane Austen never lived to see herself famous, but in an entertaining new novel, that’s exactly what happens. All is not roses, however, since there are a few complications. She can’t make any profit off the Austen craze; she can’t even find a publisher for her new book. And then there’s the secret of her long life: she became a vampire thanks to an escapade with Lord Byron in Lev Raphael’s Posthumous Fame Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be.

A massive storm hit the southern California coast on Sunday afternoon and, if the weather reports are right, it will bring a biblical amount of rain to Lauren’s area over the next week. What’s a girl to do? Why stock up on portable lighting (the better to read by) of course. And choose a book. Lauren Roberts talks about these dual “Rs” in Raining Books.

A new memoir from the author of Eat, Pray, Love turned out to be much more than a sequel. Lindsay Champion, in Commitment Issues, shares her perceptions of a surprisingly “substantial” second book that turns an eye to the study of marriage and love even while continuing the author’s story and her determination to find her own way in a social world that doesn’t particularly like nonconformity in societal institutions like marriage.

Lauren Baratz-Logsted takes to the disrespectful road again in her pursuit of authors to diss. This time around, she captures the author of Little Bee, and in the ensuing conversation manages to uncover the issue of height in an authorial role, plus some more serious ideas in The Disrespectful Interviewer: Dissing Chris Cleave

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Playing Off Yen

Today, Yen of the Book Publicity Blog posted about the reasons why authors should not contact reporters and producers directly about their books but instead allow book publicists to do it. Why? Because, as Yen notes, in a compelling argument:

  • As publicists, we spend careers developing relationships with journalists. We meet with them, talk to them, alert them to interesting upcoming books. Our contact with many journalists doesn’t consist of one message pitching one book one time. It’s an ongoing process.
  • We follow up with any combination of mail, email and phone, depending on the contact. We want to make sure journalists are aware of a book, but we don’t want to overwhelm them.  (At least we really try not to.)
  • We’re familiar with the lead times of various television and radio shows as well as with those of newspapers and magazines which vary from the next few minutes to six months and more.
  • We can distinguish the book editor from the economy correspondent from the news assignment manager. There’s very rarely only one right contact at a show or newspaper or magazine (or even some blogs). We can find reporters who cover cruise ships. Or Salem Radio Network affiliates in the top 20 markets. Journalists based in Eastern Europe. Newspapers for the Armenian community. And a lot more.
  • We’re accustomed to hearing “no.”  We’re also accustomed to not hearing anything at all most of the time. The reality is that there are hundreds of publicists pitching hundreds of thousands of books to hundreds of newspapers and magazines and radio shows (and only dozens of national ones). You don’t need to be a numbers genius to see that means there are a heck of a lot more of us than them.

I agree with Yen on this. Authors tend to take a different approach. Those approaches differ depending on  the experience of the author—and by experience I do not mean the number of books they have published. Experienced in this case refers to their sensitivity to  and awareness of the role of book reviewers in the journey of books from manusript to a reader’s book shelf.

I admit I am still surprised by the number of authors who think, or at least act as if they think, that book reviews are for them. This mode of thinking is not restricted to vanity-published authors either. But it’s unprofessional no matter who thinks it. Book reviews are and should always be for the reading public.

Professional publicists understand this, which is why (from my point of view) they are the preferred contact. We at BiblioBuffet do not discourage authors from contacting us, but unless they can demonstrate at least an understanding of Yen’s points they are often at a disadvantage.  

That said, I try my hardest to hold up my part of the courtesy equation, to answer all e-mails, to alert those who send the books which ones might be reviewed, which will definitely not be, and which ones have been. Publicists’ jobs are hard—I know I wouldn’t want to do it—and if some common courtesy, which these days seems to be distressingly uncommon, helps them, good.

Besides, we gotta get the word about those books out.

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