Monthly Archives: March 2010

Issue of March 28, 2010

Daylight savings time is in effect. Birds are building nests. Humans are planning outdoor barbecues and cold menus. And BiblioBuffet is handing out springtime treats in the form of reviews, essays and interviews. Join Nicki, Lauren, Lindsay, Janice, and me in a writerly and readerly celebration of the joy of books.

Stories and history, Nicki Leone writes in Holding Time, often come to us in “bits and pieces, out of context and disorganized, an upturned box of puzzle pieces with only fragments of the picture visible.” But in a tale of fathers and sons, she finds the story and the history embedded in it to be not snippets but rather a sweeping chronicle that takes its readers in hand to journey through time.

Lauren Baratz-Logsted is an unabashed admirer of the late Senator Edward Kennedy. But rather than “review” his book she shares the inspiration she found in it for her own life, as well as for life in general in Teddy & Me.

From city slicker to cowpoke would be far too simplistic a description for the incredible story of a modern woman who, Lindsay Champion says, “creates an indelible bond with nature” as she learns to live with a man, a land, and most of all, herself in A Heart as Big as All Outdoors.

What do Hemingway, McMurtry, and a coal mine tour have in common? The ability to teach. Guest columnist Janice Horton explores the power of learning whether from books, movies or even coal mine tours in Hooked, Line and Sinker.

Travelogues are not a one-type-fits-all genre. Some are horrifying, others humorous. Some encompass history and some simply record a series of adventures. In A Road to Somewhere Then and Now Lauren Roberts takes up with a traveler who does more than explore the road; he explores the world on a particular road and finds it a spectacular series of encounters.

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Thank you!

Every day, my e-mail brings me book review requests and notices, queries from potential columnists, press releases, copies of e-mails between BiblioBuffet’s contributors and Managing Editor Nicki Leone, updates from blogs to which I’ve subscribed, return comments from e-mails I’ve sent out, and more. I consider myself lonely if they number less than two dozen. But that’s rare.

Regardless of how many I receive I answer all of them, excluding only spam. Perhaps I learned old-fashioned manners, but I have never considered not answering. I intensely dislike the trend toward not answering if the answer is “no.” To me, that’s rude. If someone has taken the time to contact me, I owe them a polite answer. This is especially so in the case of working publicists who, in my opinion, have one of the toughest jobs in the industry.

In-house publicists like Yen (who works for a major house) have overwhelming jobs. They are responsible for gathering as much publicity as possible for their assigned authors, not an easy thing to do when trade books—those published by commercial houses and geared to a general readership—are published to the tune of perhaps 140,000 per year. There are certain trails the marketing and publicity departments follow: trade publications, book review and magazine book sections, and in the last several years, book bloggers, literary websites and forums, and even book clubs.

In addition to in-house publicists there are freelance ones ranging from single entrepreneurs like Lisa Roe to good-sized agencies. (Even a few literary agencies who sell manuscripts to publishers now have in-house publicists to work with their clients.) Some specialize in genres, others in types of publicity (television, blog tours, article placement, etc.). Most are hired by authors looking to supplement their house’s efforts, and their livelihood depends on being able to produce results for their clients.

And they are all looking for publicity for their books. This is where BiblioBuffet and other literary concerns come in. And these generate a substantial amount of my-email.

They often take different approaches. Some like to develop a relationship so that they know what you like. Others pitch more diversely. Most are efficient, nice, and even funny on occasion. Only a couple have been rough to the point of near-rudeness. But in all cases, I have treated their e-mails with politeness and sensitivity. Their jobs are hard, and in the case of their current client the results they get foretell their own future and livelihood. I understand and appreciate this. Even the publicist who expressed a strong preference that a review of his current client’s book appear on the date of publication was gently albeit firmly notified that we would let him know if we reviewed the book at the time we reviewed it. BiblioBuffet does not, after all, cater to publicists, publishers, or authors. We are there for readers.

But responding to him quickly and politely was the right thing to do. It helped him to get on with his work. It maintained our image as a literary site that believes in respecting other people’s time and work. It is good manners. And perhaps it made his job just a bit easier and his day that much more pleasant.

So to all the publicity people out there who have us on their speed dial (or in their address book), thank you. You have our respect. I wish I had a hundred more reviewers so more of the great books could be reviewed. Alas, it may never be. But our size will never affect our goal of being a place of quality, decorum, and a damn fine place to learn about good books. Thank you for your work.

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Issue of March 21, 2010

This week, BiblioBuffet’s contributors turn their eyes backwards—into the lure and passion of history.

Baseball as great literature? It’s true if you read Roger Angell’s collection of twenty-one New Yorker pieces that, Pete Croatto says, combines “the sights, sounds, and feelings” . . . [and] “graceful wordplay” in a classic sportswriting book that captured his attention this week in From the Diamond, a Unifying Voice.

What makes a good translation? In No Starch, Please Lev Raphael examines that complex question in terms of a novel that changed his life, one he’s been in love with since elementary school and has just re-read in its latest translation: The Three Musketeers.

It started with a bookmark and ended up with a life. Laine Farley began investigating an advertising bookmark designed to promote a book. Her research ended up taking her into the life of the illustrator who created the skyline image of New York that dominates the bookmark’s front, and in doing so she found a man worth knowing in Edwin J. Meeker.

Spring is the time a young man’s fancy turns to . . . baseball, and David Mitchell is among that legion of passionate fans who despite team disagreements share a common love of the history of the game. A new collection of sports reminiscences offers, he says, the opportunity to move beyond one’s personal favorite players and get to know and understand the favorites of other fans in Diamond Greatness.

When you read book reviews do you ever notice certain . . . recycled words, those that are repeatedly wielded by a lot of book reviewers? Lauren Roberts looks back at her use of “pre-used” words to explore how she talks and writes about the books she reads in Reviewing the Words.

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Counting the Gifts

Lev Raphael came to BiblioBuffet courtesy of Nicki Leone. The two have been longtime friends, mostly via mail and e-mail, and are great respecters of each other and of their mutual passion for books. Nicki often talked about her writing and about her new role as Managing Editor. And at some point he offered a piece to us. Titled Stet! Stet! Stet!, it was an erudite rant about the role of a particular copy editor for his (at the time) upcoming book. It appeared in early August 2008, and it attracted attention.  I wanted him to write for BiblioBuffet on a regular basis, but was too intimidated to ask.  Lev was on his nineteenth book, had been the host of a National Public Radio show where he’d interviewed some *big* names, and had written for the Washington Post, the Boston Review, and more.

Let’s face it, I cannot yet pay the writers much, certainly  nowhere near what they are worth. In Lev’s case, it was a particularly daunting request given his credentials. I hemmed and hawed and bounced around the issue, not wanting to insult him yet wanting him very much. I evidently waited too long because in January 2009, Lev wrote to me asking if I’d like him to become one of our regular contributors.

Would I?

The resulting wind as I reached out to grab him probably set off alarms in his hometown, and he began writing the Book Brunch column in February. So while I did get him, I didn’t get everything I wanted. He has stayed just outside my tightest grasp by writing monthly rather than bi-weekly. But he’s worth it.

I’ve mentioned before but perhaps not in detail the editorial freedom BiblioBuffet’s contributors have in determining the direction, pace, and choices of their work. Other than a couple of ethical guidelines (no reviews of books by those with whom the contributor has a personal, financial, or business relationship; no selling of review copies) every contributor makes her or his own choice. I don’t always agree with their choices or points of view, but I fully support them. The reason: excellence.

Nicki Leone and I firmly believe that passionate writing comes from writers who write about their passion in the way that best suits them. Regardless of what subject they choose or how they approach it, if given complete freedom they are going to produce writing worth reading. It’s not because they can’t produce it under tighter restrictions; they could and they do. Professional writers do it every day of their working lives. But when they have genuine fun with it, the writing goes to a whole new level, as Lev noted in a private e-mail:  

I don’t think I ever mentioned that I stopped subscribing to Salon.com because I got tired of seeing them review the same books that everyone else reviews: big books from large houses. Like today. The NYT reviews Lorrie Moore’s new book, and so does Salon.com. Boring. Inevitable. Copycatting. Seeing the two reviews reminded me of this point.

With few exceptions, Salon.com tends to ignore independent publishers. I had been published in Salon and had a good email relationship with several of the writers there as well as with the publisher, but when I raised this whole question I got absolute silence, which I thought was pretty rude, given that I’d been a contributor (ok, one-time, but a contributor just the same).

When I had my mystery column at the Detroit Free Press it was important to me to review as many indie books I could, or books by lesser-known authors, or foreign authors, or whatever—even trade paperback originals. The pressure from above was to keep focusing on big names in one way or another. I explained to the editor that those books got plastered all over the book store and the Internet and what readers needed to hear about was the books they would likely miss that deserved their attention.

When I had my radio show, I loved interviewing stars like Erica Jong (who wouldn’t?) but I leaned towards authors most people wouldn’t come across.

Another reason why I love reviewing for Bibliobuffet: it’s not the same-old same-old.  It’s not bound by “status” or even by “timeliness.”

It’s hard not to have one’s head turned by a compliment of this nature. Or by these, arriving unbidden but by no means unappreciated:

Writing for BB reminds me of the glory days of writing for the Detroit Free Press when I could review anything, and the editing was topnotch.

It was you and Nicki who did it! BB has revived my enthusiasm for “print” reviewing.  I love working with you both.

It’s such a joy to come across a book and think, “Oh, I’d love to review that for BB!”

I’m delighted at the growing renown of BiblioBuffet and proud to be part of it. You’re the New Wave!

BB is a thing of beauty.

Once again, I love writing for BB.  . . . Working with you and Nicki is very satisfying and stimulating.

I’ve thanked Nicki and Lauren privately, but hey, why not go public: I LOVE WRITING FOR BIBLIOBUFFET. 

Lauren, you’re on the cutting edge, or the cliché of your choice.  🙂 

I’m so glad, btw, to be part of the BiblioBuffet team.  I love writing for/with such great colleagues.

His enthusiasm is shared by all of our contributors (including our newest, Gillian Polack, due to join us next month). Nicki and I try to be the best editors possible, and I think we manage to do a good job. Certainly, the e-mails from our contributors bring broad smiles to our faces—thank you, Lev!— in the same way that we hope all our efforts bring joy to the hearts and minds of you, our wonderful readers.

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Issue of March 14, 2010

Moving into the middle of March—and the first week of daylight savings time—when winter is loosening its grip is a change for Mother Nature. Similarly, it’s an opportunity for change for humans as well. This week, Nicki ponders size, Lindsay thinks about small, and both Laurens looks homeward. Join us; I think you’ll like it.

Sometimes nothing is just what you want in a book. Well, not nothing exactly, but a relaxing, soothing book. And Lindsay Champion found that comforting read in a memoir whose essays are “almost entirely devoid of drama of any kind.” Dull? Not a bit. On the contrary, she found it a place in which to meditate on life’s small things, a literary comfort food that satisfies the urge to live within for a while in The Book About Nothing.

Novels long enough to be called “doorstops” are one of Nicki Leone’s favorite “genres.” Even though it means fewer books read in her lifetime, she has given her heart to books with “extravagant intricacy” and “gorgeous excess” of their imagined worlds. And this week she shares those doorstopper books she has not only read but often reread in In Defense of the Doorstop.

For her latest disrespectful interview, Lauren Baratz-Logsted turns inward, er, rather, homeward. Husband to her, father to their daughter, and YA author Greg Logsted allows himself to be put on the line in this playful, revealing dialogue between writers and spouses in The Disrespectful Interviewer: Dissing Greg Logsted. (P.S. Don’t forget to enter the contest to win Lauren’s latest book, Crazy Beautiful.)

Lauren Roberts puts her heart and soul into various things—some literary, some not—as life moves forward, backward, and in the case of mutual book love not far at all in Our Mutual Reading.

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Writers’ Guidelines

All good writers are readers. So why, I sometimes ask myself, don’t those who send us queries read our writers’ guidelines. Many do, but a surprising number of applicants don’t. Or at least their submissions give no such indication. Real life examples of writers who waste their time and ours:

  • Writers who assume we are a content site. BiblioBuffet does not publish “content,” defined by me as anything designed to attract website hits for advertisers. Content does fill up otherwise empty space, but provides very little in the way of good literary nutrition.
  • Closely related to “content” producers are writers who propose articles on topics unrelated to what BiblioBuffet does publish: beauty, cars, finance, travel, etc. Their modus operandi is to create generic e-mails that they send out to websites without having any idea what the site is about. To their credit, they are generally polite when sent form rejections. 
  • Writers who possess less than excellent English skills. Having these doesn’t assure good writing, but it is the starting point for every good writer. If a writer’s first language isn’t English but the writing is powerful and close to what we want we will definitely work with that writer on small grammatical errors. But when a writer tells me she has a Ph.D. in English yet her query letter is no better than a fourth-grade American student would put out, not only are we not going to respond but we are going to put her on our spam list. Along that same line: if a writer claims that Ph.D. and has a website that appears to back that up (excellent English, good writing) but his query is riddled with errors all we can deduce is that he is in the habit of attempting to scam editors into giving him a chance. It won’t work. The writer just made *the* list. And we will never have to worry about either writer clogging our in-boxes again.
  • Writers who don’t understand that there is writing and then there is writing. “Writing worth reading” is writing that is worthy of a time commitment from readers. Today, there is so much competition for readers’ attention that the value of that attention has risen. Our writing must give readers such a good return on their “investment” that they choose to spend it with us every week.
  • Writers who haven’t read BiblioBuffet but are just looking for outlets are not usually writers who impress us. By reading BiblioBuffet writers learn what types and level of writing we seek. And writers should be honest with themselves: do they want to write what we write about, and if so are they able to write to our standards?
  • Writers who don’t read the our guidelines before they query. Anyone who has knows that we do not accept book reviews from guest contributors, that our word count requirement runs between 600 and 6,000 words, that our guest column area carries no deadline, and that we accept darn near any type of writing except poetry as long as it relates to books, reading, or related subjects.  

So there it is. Not quite in a nutshell, but well laid out, I think. Treat us right. Don’t try to overstate your credentials. If you don’t fit our requirements now, write more. Get into a critique group that isn’t hesitant to be brutally honest. Make yourself work harder to become better. Don’t think that publication should be easy just because the Internet allows it to be easy. Push! Trust me, the reward will be worth it regardless of where you dream of seeing your writing published. 

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Issue of March 7, 2010

Want to go into the locker room with sports reporters who just happen to be women, read a wonderful poem you likely don’t know about, explore another, human side of the most notorious figure of the twentieth century, or hear about a virtual convention of bookmark collectors? Then come along with us this week. David, Pete, Frank, and I have ways for you to do just that—and more.

From bookmarks as a personal passion to bookmarks as the focus of a virtual convention, Lauren Roberts recounts her involvement with this form of ephemera and what led her, a notable non-collector of anything, to start her collection of them to her recent stint as co-founder of the inaugural Bookmark Collectors Virtual Convention in Bookmarks: A Personal and Convention Passion.

David Mitchell’s passion is to learn and understand the history of warfare and the role assumes in society. Perhaps there is no stronger a position it has taken than in World War II, and no participant more notorious than that of Adolf Hitler. Often described as a monster, Hitler nevertheless had a  personal life that some of those in it—his secretary, valet, and chauffeur—saw and felt in very different ways from what history has shown the world in What Does Evil Look Like?

Why do women still have a tough time writing about sports? It’s not because they are uninformed, Pete Croatto says, but  because their looks keep getting in the way of their primarily male readers. And in his review of an anthology of women’s sportswriting, Pete notes that the book is both illuminating and burdensome and in fact leaves the scene open for women to keep the stories behind the scores coming in Keep Writing, Ladies.

Guest columnist Frank X. Roberts introduces BiblioBuffet readers to one of the world’s best-hidden poems by Walter de la Mare, the respected poet, short story writer, and literary critic, a poem celebrating the “sweet witchery” of books in Books, “Reservoirs To Rest In.”

Has it been a stressful week for you? If yes, why not join Lauren Roberts in a week of reading. If not, do it anyway. It’s a good thing for everyone at any time she says in Later, Alligator.

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