Monthly Archives: March 2011

Issue of March 27, 2011

Kindness requires little of us. A little time, some thought, and one or more good actions. I sometimes think we overlook how something some small can produce such large effects. Is it because our world seems to be becoming meaner? And enjoying it? Even applauding it? Sometimes, yes, but at least in my case I try to recognize when I am beginning to feel bogged down with that sense of hopelessness and discouragement. If I can see it, I can ward it off. I did some of that this past weekend, and it felt so good. So this week, in addition to enjoying our new issue, I encourage BiblioBuffet’s readers, regardless of how bad their own circumstances might be, to do one thing each day for the week that makes someone else feel good. I can guarantee those people will not be the only ones who benefit.

Sports memoirs that are worth reading are rare. Most tend to follow a formula that keeps their subjects from being honest—and human. While that template generally allows the athlete to avoid being vilified for his human qualities, it also creates upbeat, barely-there memoirs. Pete Croatto pleads for athletes to Speak Out or Shut Up.

When a biographer sets out to write a new biography of a much-chronicled subject, how does he sell it to publishers? Carl Rollyson took a fresh look at old material, contending that Sylvia Plath recognized herself as a “cynosure, a guiding force and focal point for modern women and men.” She became a “genre-breaker and a cross-cultural heroine” and, he argues in Revisionist Biography, her responses to the pressures she put upon herself offer insights into the way we live now.

Doctoral dissertations rarely turn into books of general worth but a recent and “lovely” one became, as Gillian Polack notes, one of “rollicking adventure” that digs “beneath the surface of a society” to discover the “warrior culture” where “masculinity is expressed through military means” in the seventeenth century in On Matters Military and Historical.

With Borders on its second round of store closings the feelings of employees are running high. They are being abused by management and in too many cases by customers. When the only store remaining in the area was given the axe in the most recent round of closings, Lauren Roberts decided to do something. Why? Because It’s a Nice Thing to Do.

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Paradise Lost, Paradise Found

Editors come in all types. Most of them, I think, start out meaning well. They want to do good by their writers and for their publication. But time and experience change some—not for the better. And when that happens it can have a long-lasting impact on an inexperienced but talented writer.

What I didn’t know until recently was that Pete Croatto, our sports specialist and a skilled, confident writer who works very hard, had come from such a background:  

I think a large part of that mania comes from being a reporter at a small-town daily newspaper, where I was overworked, overstressed, and young. As a result, I made a lot of mistakes—which got editors angry—and pretty much meant they treated me like a child. It was a humiliating experience, one that ended with me screaming at the frustrated managing editor over the telephone.

Neither Nicki nor I can even imagine being that kind of an editor. Yes, when you have an unpublishable piece it’s frustrating. And scary. The tension as the clock runs quickly toward a fixed deadline is tremendous, and sometimes it comes out. But it shouldn’t. To me, this is an unforgivable action from someone who is supposed to not just supervise but mentor. Presumably older and wiser, certainly more experienced, the editor has the obligation to work with the writer, to make what the writer wants to say better, clearer, stronger.

That was 10 years ago, and I’ve been rebuilding my confidence clip by clip. But every time I make a mistake I’m filled with that hot shame of being 23 years old, rudderless, and at a complete loss of how something I love could cause such misery. I’m just now seeing that it’s time to get over it, that I’m human.

Fortunately, Pete has moved on. And become the writer he wants to be. I wish I could go back to that editor and tell him that whatever frustrations he had that day that he probably forgot them soon afterward. But his actions lasted a lot longer. It’s what I always try to remember in any interactions I have with writers. Humiliation kills. Kindness grows

Good writers truly are worth growing.

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Issue of March 20, 2011

Come travel overseas with us for in this issue we are going to take you east to Guernsey, a bit south to the Middle East, then west to Washington and beyond. But not to worry. It’s a literary journey and not only don’t you have to deal with airlines and security check-ins you can actually sit right there in your chair, a cup of tea or a glass of wine next to you, and enjoy some excellent writing.

The war in Iraq is more than slogans and political shenanigans—or it should be. This war reflects America’s new militarism, and Lev Raphael explores “the vexed state of our Republic” with author Andrew Bacevich in Who Rules in Washington?

A cookbook that doesn’t require a shopping list? Nicki Leone, though good fortune and perhaps some good timing, acquired one whose recipes “are for familiar foods that are, seasonality taken into account, easy to find and likely to already be in the pantry.” For vegetable gardeners, it’s a dream, for all cooks it’s about The Possibilities of the Pantry Shelf.

She didn’t find a rebel, she didn’t find a debutante, but what Lindsay Champion did find in her latest review, Rebel, Rebel, was a memoir whose author moved from experience to experience, from time to time, and even from event to event without once revealing herself.

Guernsey is not just part of the title of a recently popular novel but of an island that possesses a distinct way of life with much of its roots in writers and writing. The residents decided to take advantage of this by beginning their own book festival, which happens in May. In the meantime, BiblioBuffet is proud to say that we enticed one of the current Guernsey writers to share the fascinating story of his home’s literary heritage, and we succeeded: Guernsey—a Rich Literary Pie.

World Fairs have become obsolete, yet it wasn’t that long ago that they were still a vibrant, exciting event that enticed millions of people. Lauren Roberts looks back to the years 1964/1965 when the World’s Fair, held in New York seemed a distant and more exciting place than the political and social catastrophes that were already changing the world around it in To the Fair We Go.

Rain and more rain is pounding the California coastline this weekend, and the word “drowning” has come up more than once. But the use of he word in relation to overflowing bookshelves as well as rain prompted Lauren Roberts, in Raining and Reading, to find out how many other readers and bibliophiles used the phrase “drowning in books.”

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The Life of Editing

One time I owned a book about life at Life when the publication was in its heyday. Written by staff writer Dora Jane Hamblin, That Was the Life (1978) was probably only ten percent as amusing to read as it was to live but it was still great. Hamblin talked about the craziness, the rush, the highs, and the intense camaraderie that infused the magazine. It’s been years since I read it. Sadly, I no longer own it, a situation I shall have to remedy.

Perhaps the one story that stuck with me the longest is not the funniest, though it did have its amusing aspects, but the most useful—the copyediting process. Or maybe it was fact checking. Or both. At the magazine, both were . . . extensive.

She described the copy editors who used to have to physically dot every word to show that they had actually seen it. And depending on what the word was it rated a different color of ink. These colorful dots over every word in a typewritten manuscript—for it was certainly before the days of computers—grew so ingrained in the (mostly) women who worked at this job that one copy editor was actually found sound asleep at her desk with her hand going up the wall, reflexively making rows of tiny dots.

When I was first hired as the books editor for a weekly newspaper in my town, I was determined to turn in copy so clean and shiny the editor would need sunglasses to read it. Though I hadn’t thought of it in years, this story came roaring back into my brain.

Editing one’s own work can be difficult. There are recommended tricks like putting the piece into a radically different font with different margins, or reading it backwards, or printing it out and moving to a location that has nothing to do with where you created it to edit it. The idea is to break any mental connections so that your brain can look at the material with a “fresh eye.”

But Life’s copyediting process gave me an idea when I first began to write for publication. It’s tougher but it also offers the benefit of forcing me to look at each word individually and with full attention. With the process I now call the Measles Edit, I don’t read paragraphs or even sentences. I read, literally, one. word. at. a. time.

It is astonishingly effective.

Here’s how I do it:

  • Print out the pages and grab that marker.
  • Move to a comfortable chair.
  • Begin reading each word and each punctuation mark aloud. Each word, no matter how simple or complex gets the full amount of time it takes to read it and dot it.
  • Keep my eyes on the single word/mark I am reading until I am done reading it aloud. Then put a red dot on that word. Once I have completely and thoroughly finished I move on to the next one.

This process makes for very slow reading, but I can tell you that I catch almost if not every instance where I  have you in place of your and other silly typos that without such intense scrutiny are easily overlooked. This happens because our eyes fill in or take out what our brain says should be there rather than what is actually there on the page. At least mine does. It takes a long time and it is tedious to “read” in this manner. Below is an example of how the process would look if it were written out. The red dots are indicated by italics, though you wouldn’t say the word dot you would just dot the words/marks:

The dot brown dot cow dot jumped dot over dot the dot white dot moon dot, dot which dot had dot risen dot in dot the dot eerie dot yellow dot sky dot made dot all dot the dot more dot insidious dot by dot the dot black tree dot silhouetted dot against dot it dot. dot

Yes, it’s exhausting. It’s also, as I said, very effective.  And now, having said that, I want to do the same thing to this piece before I post it. What if I didn’t and you found that its was actually it’s? The horror!

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Issue of March 13, 2011

Thought-provoking (we hope) pieces highlight our newest issue, below. Take from them what you can and use it well. With best wishes . . .

Biographies of Marilyn Monroe abound, yet few of them take the true measure of her complex personality. Reviewers of the latest collections of her writings do not realize, as Carl Rollyson argues in Monroe Redux,  that “a cultural shift in attitudes” makes it possible now to appreciate how early in postwar culture she began to shape her sensibility, a sensibility that can be seen in a letter she wrote in her early teens.

What do you learn when you read vs. when you consciously read? Two recent articles, the second commenting on the first, brought home to Lauren Roberts the painful point that simply absorbing words, whether disturbed by them or not, without stopping to question why those words were used often impacts us in ways we might not imagine even long after the original articles are forgotten. In Reading for Truth, you get to decide for yourself.

What do a biography of Marie Curie and a famous novel about the end of the world through  nuclear destruction have in common? Gillian Polack explores some memories that came up for her while reading one book while awaiting another in Marie Curie and the Death of Childhood.

Fifty-one years after the book known as the first sports diary was published, Pete Croatto  re-visits it and reveals in The Triumph of the Ordinary that The Long Season is an excellent choice for fans interested in reading about the “working athlete’s soul.”

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More Contributor Birthings

Last week I talked about an e-mail fluke that resulted in our newest contributor, Carl Rollyson. More commonly, though, we hear from writers who find our website through various means. Some are referred by current writers. Others appear to stumble across it. These are mostly single applicants. But when it is listed on a writers’ blog or website as a paying market we tend to get a slew of applicants all at once. That happened about three weeks ago.

It must have been posted in the evening because I received two interested queries that night. The next day brought about a dozen  more. And the day after that another dozen or so.

When we receive a number of applicants at once, the winnowing down is a multi-step process. In this case, I sent responses to almost everyone requesting more time though I did quickly review the submissions. The level of writing from five applicants was not even close to what we require; they received a form rejection immediately.

This still left me with more than twenty queries for one or at most two openings for regular columnists. About a week later, I read the remaining queries more carefully, separating the applicants into three folders: Yes, Maybe, and No. I then let myself think about my decisions for a couple of days. The rejected applicants in the No category received semi-personalized rejections.  Another seven eliminated.

The third step was breaking apart the maybe category into Yes and No folders. This is where the real difficulty began. “With sufficient editing . . .” I’d hear in my head as I read a piece, so  I had to repeatedly remind myself that I already had more than enough strong applicants, and that we didn’t want to take on applicants who would need a lot of editing. Out of necessity most of them received rejections. End result: one Yes folder, five semi-finalists.

So last night Nicki and I had a phone meeting to discuss the candidates. It was a long conversation but not because we disagreed. We rarely do. But we had reasons and expectations—not just of the candidates but of ourselves and of BiblioBuffet—to discuss.

Even though we pay relatively little, we offer our writers some things they have difficulty finding elsewhere. A “writer’s playground,” as Pete Croatto once phrased it, is one because the columnists have the right, indeed, the obligation, to write what they want, how they want, and when they want. As long as they say it well, we will run it. It’s a heady freedom for most of them, but for us, it’s simple common sense. Hire the best and then get out of their way. And at BiblioBuffet we do get out of their way.

Of course, that doesn’t mean a lack of editing. On the contrary, we are committed to excellent editing, which means that we, Nicki in particular, help the writers find their best writing while keeping our voices (and opinions) out of their work.

Our newest potential contributors haven’t experienced that yet. They are going to be providing individual pieces to BibliOpinions, our guest section for a while. This gives us a chance to see how they write, how much editing they need, and how they meet deadlines. It also gives them an opportunity to learn what it is to work with us and to see if they like it.

While I am always honored to hear from writers who wish to write for BiblioBuffet, it has its difficult moments. I hate sending rejections, especially to those who might make it with more experience. But because it is the readers who come to BiblioBuffet with high expectations—we do promise “writing worth reading, reading worth writing about”—we must adhere to our own standards much as we expect the writers to meet them.

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Issue of March 6, 2011

It’s that in between time for the country—some of it still mired in winter, some in spring, and a few places are hosting summer temperatures. Regardless of what the thermometer says at your home, we know this: it’s always the right temperature for reading!

Trapped in a Cage is Lindsay Champion’s review of a powerful memoir that is more despair than repair but at the same time reminds us that everyone makes mistakes. And when the author is sober, as in this writing, and the language “precise and vulnerable,” it is definitely worth reading.

For the author of a seemingly random collection of essays in which he hopes to find “some commonality, some message or purpose to his life,” Nicki Leone says, it does not seem to work. But the “bits and pieces” found in the book offers something far more for the fortunate reader in Being Awake.

What do a curtseying Scottish lass and a massive iron steam pump have in common? A bookmark. Laine Farley investigates the history behind one of Whitehead and Hoag’s celluloid bookmarks, and finds a history of “family and business values of an earlier age” in Character the Grandest Thing.

Do winter doldrums affect what we choose to read? Maybe. For Katherine Hauswirth, her bedside stand yielded up two recently read books that proved to be “microcosms of these hovering thoughts of doom, loss, and the inkling of hope for renewal” and yet helped her “keep hope in its feathery and ebullient state” in Extinction and the Brink: Notes from February.

How does an de-acquisition zone become an acquisition one? The answer may be obvious but the route to accomplishing that, Lauren Roberts found—at least in this case—was not just a matter of picking up more reading material but of acting as a way station between the old home and a new one: More Tales from the De-Acquisition Zone.

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