Wednesday, December 31, 2008

year-end reflection, EdAss-style

I shall use my last post in 2008 to reflect on the most delicious things I ate in the last 12 months.

1. Asure (the "s" is pronounced "sh")--a Turkish rice pudding that is literally the most delicious thing ever. It contains rose water, rice, barley, hazelnuts, beans, banana, pistachio, pomegranate seeds, and dried figs, among other things. The waiter who recommended it to me at the Turkish pastry shop showed me a whole case of dessert, but pointed to the asure and shook his head. "That one... It's just really special." Glad I took the hint. In her book The Bastard of Istanbul, Elif Shafak includes a recipe for asure which I have yet to make good on. Hmm, maybe there's a resolution for me--in 2009 I will learn to make asure.

2. Fesenjan--Persian chicken stew made with pomegranate juice and walnut flour (literally, that's all that's in it). I know it ain't much to look at in a picture, but when you put it in your mouth it will change your life.

3. Rice Benedict--no picture of this online, alas. But there is a pan-Asian-South American restaurant microchain called Rice in the New York area, and they do a mean brunch. If you've ever been to visit me I've probably taken you there. My good friend from college who grew up in New York introduced me to this magical place this spring and I've been like 15 times since then. The Rice Benedict is the traditional two poached eggs, only served on cornmeal cakes with Canadian bacon and guacamole instead of hollandaise, salsa on the side. Accompanied by jalepeno grit fritters, coffee, ginger juice, and a strawberry champagne cocktail... I probably shouldn't be giving away my secrets.

4. Jalea--Peruvian appetizer of fried fish chunks, shrimp, and calamari served with onion salad, cilantro, and lime over a bed of roasted corn kernels and fried yucca. Oh man. Actually, I ate this for the first time in 2006, but I hope you guys don't mind that I included it. Nummm. There was some trauma in November when I showed up at my favorite Peruvian restaurant in Queens only to find it dark and shuttered, but after 5 minutes of weeping I discovered it had merely moved next door. Scientific examination has proven that the jalea is tasty as ever.

5. Spring Vegetable Tempura--Ok, I have a weakness for all foods Japanese. But this spring Marie took me to Blue Ribbon Sushi, where I had some life-changing tempura. The sushi wasn't bad either.

Uh, I'm going to stop at 5. Lest I go on all day. I think I'll go pop down to the kitchen and have a snack.

Hope you're celebrating all YOU accomplished in 2008 and all the delicious things you're about to eat in 2009!


Tuesday, December 30, 2008

the Invisible Library

Ed Park, the author of last year's acclaimed Personal Days, is also a blogger. This morning, he wrote an article for the LA Times about his new blog, the Invisible Library.

Ed and another avid reader friend started the Invisible Library as a catalog for fictional books. That is, books that don't actually exist that characters in novels read.

A noble (or at least whimsical) cause! Although I don't believe two men can do it alone. I plan to go forward in my life with the Invisible Library always at the back of my mind, cataloging imaginary books as I go.

For example, Ed, what about Aristotle's Comedy, which is featured in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose? Or does that not count because it might have existed, but we'll never know?

via Sarah Weinman

Sunday, December 28, 2008

upcoming book club discussions

Hi everybody. My life is a co-dependent democracy. (Originally I typed "democrazy.") Please help me manage it by casting your vote!

I know a lot of people have read Toni Morrison's A Mercy now--I hope those of you who would like to will check in on New Year's Day (when family obligations and/or hangovers allow!) for a discussion.

I wanted to announce the upcoming months way ahead of time. Angelle just posted this review of A Pale View of Hills, by Kazuo Ishiguro, and has driven me crazy all over again with questions about the book. (Warning: the review contains lots of spoilers, so only read if you've already read the book!) Have a number of people already read this? I'm thinking about rereading--would anyone be interested in discussing?

And THEN (being super organized)--I noticed a couple of people mentioned they have copies of Edinburgh, by Alexander Chee. Are there enough people that that might be a good choice for March?

Any other suggestions?

a Socratic apology for ABBA

YT: Are you going to watch MAMMA MIA with us?

Dadrat: I don't think so.

YT: But you are an ABBA fan, right?

DR: No.

YT: No?!

DR: No.

YT: Whyever not?

DR: Ugh, the problem with ABBA's like bubblegum. I don't like sugary pop.

YT: ABBA? Bubblegum?! Have you ever heard ABBA?

DR: Like what you and your sister were singing all morning?

YT: Exactly!! It's the edgiest pop music that ever played on the radio! My theory is that ABBA is able to say things so honest in their lyrics only because they are not native English speakers. "I apologize/if it makes you feel bad/seeing me so tense/no self-confidence"? Can you even imagine an American saying that?

DR: You're telling me that's not bubblegum?

YT: You know what? I just think you're uncomfortable because everyone thinks you look like Bjorn.

[Eight hours later. Mother is singing "I Have a Dream" in the kitchen, sister is singing "Lay All Your Love on Me" in the living room, and I'm singing "Mamma Mia" in between.]

DR: I remembered what the problem with ABBA songs is.

YT: Oh yeah?

DR: It's not that they're bubblegum. It's that after you hear them, you can't get them out of your head for the rest of your life.

Saturday, December 27, 2008


Today, I have, at various times, sat on the couch, in my dad's Lazyboy, at the kitchen table, and in front of the computer. Aside from at one point righting the Christmas tree, which spontaneously fell over, sitting is literally the only thing I have done. (Well, to be fair, there were also some periods of lying down.)

Someone please rescue me. Vacation is killing me.

Friday, December 26, 2008

just finished reading

Away, by Amy Bloom. My review here. Anyone else read it? Any thoughts?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


Merry Christmas, my darlings.

May we all have a blessed holiday season of peaceful reading, writing, revising, and/or eating, pick your personal poison(s)! I, personally, choose all four.

Much ratty love,


Tuesday, December 23, 2008

just finished reading

Land of a Hundred Wonders, by Lesley Kagan. My review here. Anyone else read it? Any thoughts?

I know what she means.

Grandma: I'm a hundred and thirty-three years old.

Carter: That's impossible, Grandma--

Grandma: --and I've spent my life trying to figure something out. And you know what? It's not going well.

--In the Land of Women(2007)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

this night IS different.

Happy Hannukah, my celebrating friends.

Friday, December 19, 2008

just finished reading

Edinburgh, by Alexander Chee. My review here.

Whew. Chills. Has anyone else read it?

75 books every woman should read

Here's Jezebel's list. I've read 25. Oops.

The article was in response to Esquire's list for men. I've read 16 of those.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

I lost the paperback conversation.

You guys remember this whole string about whether a debut novel should be a hardcover or a paperback in this climate. Although I didn't realize it at the time, rereading my post makes me see that I was really, really hoping for the blessing to go ahead with a paperback original on this beloved debut novel I'm working on.

Alas, I was overruled today. I wasn't surprised, but I was a little frustrated. I know that I as a reader and, apparently, most other hobby readers like I am tend to buy mostly paperback originals. But what I can't overwhelm is the fact that the profit-to-cost ratio on hardcovers is, for the publishing company (and, after a fashion, the author) three times as high as it is for a paperback. What that means is that in order to be able to afford our first print run at all, we would have to be able to have good faith that we could sell at least three times as many paperbacks in the same time period as we would hardcovers. And unfortunately there are no safe numbers right now; there are no guarantees.

So the hardcover is actually the less risky path; as long as you're anticipating a solid library sell-in ("solid" being about 1,500 or 2,000 copies), you've broken even on your hardcover, even if it totally flops in trade sales. But, sadly, flopping in trade sales (if that happens) will still hurt the lifespan of the book, regardless of how many copies libraries took.

Solution? Cross all fingers and hope for miracles. By "miracles" I mean "well-timed publicity hits that might, please gods, land during the first four weeks the book is on the shelves."

Thanks, everyone, for the feedback.

Monday, December 15, 2008

more on returns, the end of this era of publishing, and our book campaign for hope and change

Thanks, Maree, for referring me to Richard Curtis's mind-blowing essay about how the publishing industry has to change. I'm gratified to see that we seem to agree on a lot. After all, Richard is a pretty dang smart guy (read the article and see why).

just finished reading

The Passion of Tasha Darsky, by Yael Goldstein Love. My review here. Anyone else read it? Have any thoughts?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

no, seriously, tell me how do you REALLY feel about Twilight?

This made me laugh really hard. Am I a bad person?(Thanks for the link, Angelle.)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Saturday Morning Indie Rock Moment

A long time ago, I posted a link to Wormburner and apologized that there was only one video for them on youtube. They were way, way way under the radar.

Wormburner--The Little Things

Last night, I saw them live at the Yule Dogs concert (a bunch of indie bands who come together to sing Christmas songs once a year) and they made a big announcement--they heard themselves being played on mainstream radio last week. Woohoo! How exciting! Maybe soon other people will have heard of them, too!

Or try this one, if you want another video--Astronauts.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

to cloth or not to cloth? (or, the age-old paperback original conundrum)

I have a tricky decision to make, and I have to make it soon.

In an upcoming catalog, I'll be listing a debut novel I have quietly and ecstatically been working on for almost two years. We've done tons of re-writing and fine-tuning and the thing rocks.

Normally in the past (at least at my company), no questions would be asked--the novel would have debuted as a hardcover, with the plan to convert to paperback after a year of sales (unless things really took off). But there's compression in the industry all around us--consumers are buying fewer books, the chains are stocking fewer books, and everyone is tightening their belts in general. In this strange and rapidly evolving book climate, should we maybe be considering skipping the hardcover altogether?

I've been fretting about this a lot, because I want the best for my author. I want to believe she has strong backlist potential and this book will be a classic or a bestseller or both. But alas, I can't actually inflict my opinion on anyone--I can only be really enthusiastic and hope other people will find my enthusiasm catching. But is enthusiasm enough to sell a hardcover book?

In an interesting coincidence that I think can only happen when you're at your most confused and lost, I was quietly panicking about this cataloging decision a couple of weeks ago on my way to a book people event. The book I was reading at that moment--I was about halfway through--was Alice Mattison's Nothing Is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn, which a friend at Harper had recommended to me. I'd never read anything by Alice before, but was enjoying what I'd read so far.

When I got to the event, I looked around the room for a familiar face. I only saw one, but I couldn't pin how I knew her. Then I realized I'd been staring at her picture in the author bio of the book I was just reading. I walked up to her and said, "Sorry, but are you Alice?"

"I am," she said.

"I'm half a fan," I told her. I pulled out my very coincidental book and showed her how far I'd gotten.

"Don't decide you're a fan until you've read the whole thing," she warned me. "The second half might all be downhill." I liked her immediately. (I loved the second half, by the way--my review is here if you're curious.)

Poor Alice, who was at the event with a number of other writers to talk about other issues, was really kind and let me bend her ear for a long, long time with my worries about the paperback or hardcover problem. Nothing Is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn was published by HarperPerennial as a trade paper original, despite (or unrelated to) the fact that Alice's previous book, The Book Borrower, was a bestseller. But her paperback original debut couldn't have been timed better--her book hit shelves in September 2008, one of the darkest months in publishing history, ever. How many people picked up her paperback that would never have sprung for a hardcover? (I, for one. Not that I'm sure I should count. But since I liked Nothing Is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn so much, I've also now bought two of her other books.) Her publication story was kind of perfect for me at that moment.

Unfortunately, I can't see into the future, and there are a number of concerns and allegiances at stake no matter which way we end up deciding to go. So let's lay out some of the issues in point and counterpoint.

*Frequently, authors are upset by the idea that their books aren't going into hardcover. It just doesn't look or feel as nice. Then, their agents get upset because they think you're not giving the author star treatment. This becomes a serious author relations issue. Everyone WANTS their book to be a hardcover, after all.
Alas: Not everyone wants to BUY a hardcover book. I, for one, only buy a hardcover when I'm supporting a friend who's been published. When buying books for myself, it's always, always paperback, always (after all, I make $0.50 a week).

I asked Alice Mattison whether she was pleased or upset when she first learned that Nothing Is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn was going to be a paperback original. "I was upset," she told me.* "I hadn't known about this kind of publication and it seemed not quite legitimate. When my agent first told me about the offer, I was afraid there would be no reviews and no library sales. Right from the start, though, I had to admit that I myself buy few hardcover books, and that I often read intriguing reviews and think, 'Gotta get that--when it comes out in paperback.'" I know what she means--I feel the same way about most books, if I'm being honest. Sadly, in our current climate, a lot of books won't even be made into paperbacks if they flounder as hardcovers; your day may never come.

"When my last few hardcover books came out," Alice continued, "I noticed that after a reading, audience members were more likely to buy a paperback or two than the new book, which was much more expensive. After I'd thought about it, I began to feel hopeful about a paperback original. At the start of my career I had hardcover books with poor sales that never made it to paperback, and that was infinitely more frustrating, I assure you."

*But what about the opportunity cost? If the book breaks out, you would be giving up thousands (or more) dollars in hardcover sales. Think of Kite Runner and how long that was in hardcover!!!
Alas: no one can MAKE a book break out. They can only pray. And unfortunately, in this economic climate I'm not sure how hard you'd have to pray to even have a shot.

Furthermore, bookstores (especially the national accounts) have what they call a model. Basically, they make a "model" number that they'll carry of your book, based on how many copies you've already sold. Oh, you're a debut novelist and you haven't sold anything? Yeah, they'll take a really, really small number (and a much smaller number of your hardcover than of your paperback original). This is a self-perpetuating downward spiral, unfortunately--if your book has a limited presence in bookstores, it's going to catch fewer eyes, and it's going to sell fewer copies. So maybe, just maybe, would it be better to have, say, three paperbacks present in a store than one hardcover, turned spine out?

And yet further problems. That "model" that the chains make of your book--your paperback model next year would be based off your hardcover performance this year. In this climate, when no one's buying books, never mind hardcover books. If your book only sells 500 copies in hardcover, they might actually decline to even carry it in paperback. Then that might be the end of your career.

For Alice, the paperback original experiment couldn't have been timed better. "Since my book came out just as the economy crashed, I 'm delighted that it's a paperback original, and I make sure to tell everybody," she said. "It has certainly sold better than it would have in hardcover, and I'm grateful that I don't have to try and push a hardcover book right now."

*From the publisher's perspective, though, the bottom line isn't met by retail sales; it's often met by library sales. Library sales are nearly three times as profitable in hardcover as in paperback, and normally we count on library sales to pay for the print run and the ongoing backlist-ability. How much money are we giving up with a pb original? And will libraries even want it?
Alas: libraries, too, are striking their budgets. And honestly fiction is never their favorite choice. Will the library sales alone be enough to make up for all the copies you won't sell into the stores because you're not in paperback? But on the other hand, if you can't count on a hardcover library sale, can your publishing company even afford to print your book? Yikes, conundrum.

Although some of her other misgivings about the paperback original v. hardcover tradeoff have been allayed, Alice Mattison admits that she's still not sure how the library sale has gone for Nothing Is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn. But even if we knew, would we be able to pinpoint whether or not retail sales made up for it? It's hard to say. My mind conks out at that level of data.

*The age-old review concern--historically, it's been said (has it been proved?) that paperback originals get less (or little, or no) press attention compared to cloth debuts. After all, if a book is a paperback debut, it basically looks like the publishing company isn't taking it seriously. And if your book gets no review attention, it doesn't matter how cheap it is, no one will find it, right?
I conferred with my publicist on this--she says it doesn't actually matter, although there will always be people who revive this argument no matter how much you try to kick it to death. HarperPerennial (Alice's publisher), for example, debuts tons of paperback originals, and they still get major review coverage.

Alice admits that she was worried about what would happen with her review coverage on this book, and she's a perfect test-case. She's a bestselling author who has previously been heavily reviewed in all the big venues; if she didn't get coverage, we'd know for sure that paperback originals are mistreated. But it didn't work out that way. "The New York Times Book Review reviewed the book two days before publication, so that was decidedly pleasant," Alice told me. "There have been other reviews, one of which was syndicated and picked up by newspapers across the country. In all there have not been as many reviews as my earlier books have sometimes received, but I keep hearing about book editors laid off, book sections in newspapers cut. My guess is that if in the end there are fewer reviews altogether, it won't be because it's a paperback original but for a combination of other reasons."

As it is, we don't really have substantive proof that paperback originals, especially debuts, are NOT mistreated, though. One example I might offer to make us feel a little more optimistic is Sloane Crosley's I Was Told There'd Be Cake, which has sold at least 85,000 copies in trade paperback original since August 2008, and which has been reviewed every which where. Of course, hers was a collection of literary essays and not a novel. But a literary debut nonetheless. Would I have bought her book if it had been a hardcover? Unlikely.

In terms of my author, I can't actually make this decision. Ultimately, it falls on Robert the Publisher. Inside, I have a nagging feeling that the thing that's best for the author, for the longevity of her career and for her breakout potential, is a paperback original. I maybe-not-so-secretly believe that all publishing is or should be moving in a paperback (and electronic!) direction (after all, I repeat, I never buy hardcover books for myself!). But Robert needs to make his bottom line, and it's still to be decided whether our publishing model has been able to evolve quickly enough in this very difficult moment to even break even with a paperback.

Right now, I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a sign from above. Although our catalogs are due in a hot minute, there is a little time before we have to make the ultimate decision.

This is an issue, though, that is going to come up with more and more frequency among soon-to-be-published debut novelists. So it might be a conversation relevant in a lot of our lives. (Fingers crossed, again.)

*interview 11/23-11/24/08

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

editorial Christmas

Heehee. Via Language Log.

More substantive posts to come just as soon as I have time, I promise.

Monday, December 08, 2008

is she cheating?

Classical music fans, please weigh in. Am I seeing this wrong, or is Sarah Chang absolutely NOT playing Air on the G String on the G String at all?!?!? I love Sarah, and I want to believe she's NOT playing on the A string.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Best-Ever Suggestions for Books as Gifts

Forget doom and gloom! Embrace proactivity! Help me make the perfect gift book list!

So we're all already saving the world by buying a book. A lot of us have committed to only (or mostly) buying books for gifts this year. But what do you buy for that annoying aunt who thinks she doesn't like to read? Or what do you buy for a thriller writer if you've never read a thriller in your life? (These are two real-life problems that people... ahem, I... have.)

I've put together a list of my favorite gift choices for the various kinds of people in my life. But you'll notice some people always stump me, because they prefer genres I don't read. So consider this an interactive gift list! Please submit your suggestions, in any or all of the categories below, and also your suggestions for new categories! We'll compile them into one holiday book-buying guide that's more meaningful and helpful than any other dumb list people are putting out right now. (I've seriously found ALL the lists I've seen this far to be dumb, or with agenda. We have no agenda but saving the world.) We'll keep updating all the time so people can do weekend shopping!

For the sake of our budgets, I'm sticking mostly to paperback. It goes without saying that published Mischief authors are lots of fun to support. (Published authors, drop me a reminder of your title and I'll make a holiday sidebar with Amazon links for easy-access among us friends.)

The categories:

My top 5 books-as-gifts of all time, that I find excuses to buy for everyone in the world (and why I can find excuses for almost everyone!):

The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. A love story, told in counterpoint, about a normal woman and her husband, who inadvertently time travels, and how they make their relationship work. This is just such a crowd-pleaser. I would have described it as "women's fiction" except that a couple of months ago on the subway I heard two pretty burly men hashing it over; one had had it recommended to him by his brother-in-law, and was giving his used copy to the other. So I do think there's something there for everyone (now!). Who I've bought it for: my mom; my Irish friend, who read it in one sitting; my sister; at least 15 other people.

The Spanish Bow, by Andromeda Romano-Lax. A poor boy from a Catalan village becomes a virtuoso cellist in early 20th century Spain. It's a story of love, friendship, and music, set against the backdrop of one of the most volitile moments in Spanish history. Why: the themes are just so universal and lovely. Who I've bought it for: my mom; all my friends interested in Spain (I have a lot); all my friends who are or have been musicians (a lot of those too).

Autobiography of Red, by Anne Carson. This is called a novel in verse, but don't let that put you off--it's one of the most extraordinary books I've read in a long time. It's a beautiful modern retelling of a Hercules myth, starring a little red monster named Geryon. It's also one of those rare pieces of poetry that people who aren't into poetry won't find totally alienating. Who I've bought it for: poet writer friends; poet friends; my publicist, who loved it; a friend who is a teacher and doesn't have much time to read but had time to read this because it's so skinny.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union, by Michael Chabon. A speculative potboiler set in a fictitious all-Jewish community in Sitka, Alaska. Obviously, I have a special place in my heart for my secret boyfriend's work, because he's just such a fantastic writer. But this book is a really obvious gift choice because it appeals to avowed readers of a bunch of different genres--literary fiction, sci fi, historical fiction, detective fiction, "Jewish" fiction. Who I've bought this for: my dad, who bought it for my mom. who went crazy for it; an old friend who refuses to read anything but hard-core science fiction (not fantasy!); my publicist (again), who then went and bought the rest of Chabon's stuff; almost everybody else in the world last year for Christmas (erm, Chanukah?). Yeah. He's gotten some royalties from me.

Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri (although Interpreter of Maladies works equally well if you want a paperback). Yes, it smells like a collection of short stories, but in this case this book is as precious and moving as five separate novels. Talk about getting your money's worth. Who I've bought it for: my mom; my sister; a bunch of other people who might read this blog so I'm not going to list them so they'll still be surprised when I give it to them.

Now some categories with further choices!

Alas, I read a lot of girly books; I'd especially enjoy some chiming in from people who read more across the board. Or just chime in in general!!!

Your friend who doesn't read much, and needs a really compelling story to hold his/her attention:
Again, The Time Traveler's Wife is pretty fail-proof. But also:
My Sister's Keeper, by Jodi Piccoult. When young parents learn their baby daughter has an aggressive form of cancer, they create a younger sister for her who is a perfect genetic match so the sick sister will have spare organs/tissue available if hers fail. Ten years later, the well sister is tired of operations. I gotta be honest, I couldn't put this book down, no matter what editorial critiques I might have had. And I still think about it years later.

The Girls, by Lori Hensen. The very nicely written counterpoint of two sisters who happen to be conjoined at the head. A really nice, accessible read.

The Kitchen God's Wife, by Amy Tan. Everyone's read The Joy Luck Club, but this, I believe, is a better book. It's the story of a woman struggling to survive the horrors of World War II and a very, very bad marriage. Classic mother-daughter themes, plus a great story to back it up.

Your friend who reads a ton, and needs something slightly off the beaten path:
Oh goody, my favorite.
The Teahouse Fire, by Ellis Avery. A nine-year-old French orphan girl becomes stranded in Japan in the 1860s. Over the next twenty years, she is an invisible servant in the highly aesthetic and xenophobic world of a classical tea house. A really absorbing read, and a step up for anyone who liked Memoirs of a Geisha.

Kiss of the Spider Woman, by Manuel Puig. Yes, it's the same story as the movie, but the book is so rich and colorful and fabulous and wonderful to read. There are millions of vignettes, not just the one featured in the movie.

The Translator, by Leila Aboulela. A young Sudanese widow is left alone and heartbroken in Scotland, where she works as an Arabic translator. Really finely polished and interesting to read.

Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger. Everyone had to read The Catcher in the Rye in school, and as a result might be stupid like I was and think they hate J.D. Salinger. These stories are almost all about the precocious Glass children (same as in Franny & Zooey) and they're heartbreakingly wonderful.

Your friend who only reads off the beaten path and normally turns up his/her nose at everything except incredibly erudite things you personally find insufferable or uninteresting:

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susannah Clarke. Even my aunt who only reads literature in translation couldn't put this one down. My dad, diehard fantasy/scifi reader, loved it, too, and bought it for all his relatives this year.

Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages, by Phillis Rose. For the terribly literary, this is a real-life marriage breakdown of some of their favorite nineteenth century characters.

Your mom or other relative who likes to read but pretty much sticks to mysteries:
I brought Momrat in as consultant on this. She recommends the following:
The Various Haunts of Men, by Susan Hill. The first book in a detective series that takes place in a small British town. Momrat warns you that it's a real psychological thriller and a little bit "dark."

The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood. The mysterious suicide of her sister leads Iris Chase to unpack family secrets decades old. Momrat recommends the book, even though she figured out the mystery 2/3 of the way through (I, um, didn't).

Your dad or other relative who likes to read but pretty much sticks to sci fi and fantasy:
I brought Dadrat in as consultant on this. I've already mentioned Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, as well as The Yiddish Policemen's Union, but Dadrat cited both of these as favorites of his. Dadrat would like to specifically recommend, though:
Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay. It's "fantasy" by label, but the world Kay creates is so rich you think it's historical fiction.

For your mom, or someone else's mom:
Unless, by Carol Shields. A mother struggles to see into the mind of her teenage daughter, who has suddenly run away to be homeless on the other side of town. This was recommended to me by someone else's mom, and I've bought it for several moms since.

Your "serious" reader relative who only likes interesting nonfiction:
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman. The story of one epileptic baby in California and the good and bad facets of the American medical establishment that tries to help her--but actually the story of her Hmong family, the Hmong genocide in Laos that has forced thousands of Hmong refugees to come to the States, and the ups and downs of culture gaps in forced cohabitation. This book reads like a novel, and is jam-packed with interesting and important information.

Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madam X, by Deborah Davis. Another one that reads like a novel--the story of Sargent in Paris, the circles he moved in, and the painting that nearly brought down his career.

Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World, by Nicholas Ostler. The subtitle just about says it all. This one is Dadrat-approved.

Your friend who prefers hip chick lit, like Nannie Diaries or Shopaholic:
Branch out, and get her (or him) a memoir that will appeal. There are some awesome faux chicklit memoirs these days.
The Year of Yes, by Maria Devahna-Headley. A Twenty-year-old woman realizes she has really, really bad taste in men, so she can't trust herself anymore. Instead, she makes a vow to try new things--for one year, she will say yes to a first date with anyone who asks (first date only). Hilarity ensues.

Foreign Babes in Beijing, by Rachel DeWoskin. The author recounts her adventures about the five years she spent in China, when she was accidentally cast as the star of a Chinese soap opera. Hilarity ensues.

I Am Not Myself These Days, by Josh Kilmer-Purcell. The author recounts his years working as a drag queen named Aqua, whose schtick is water balloon breasts with live goldfish in them. Hilarity ensues.

For your white friend: Buy a book by a black author! God, the marginalization in book publishing and marketing ticks me off. How are we still doing "separate but equal" for black writers? No one else has their own separate-but-equal section (except gay writers in some stores). But anyway, Carleen Brice put together this great list to help you get some ideas beyond Toni Morrison and Alice Walker.
In case you can't tell from the shamefully white (and maybe slightly Asian) character of this list otherwise, I'm one of the regrettable and regretful victims of this curse and am sorely under-read in non-Morrison/Walker/Hurston black authors. But so far, this year for the holidays I've bought
Orange Mint and Honey and

Song Yet Sung (both of which I might give to other white folks or I might keep for myself, depending on how guilty I feel about spending money on books for ME) (Jury's back. Not that guilty.).

My sister-in-law recommends Daughter, by Asha Bandele. She just recommended it to me yesterday.

A kid who loved HARRY POTTER but has never read any other book:
Dealing with Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede. (This one is probably more appropriate for girls.) Princess Cimorene is not interested in marrying an insipid prince. She would rather be captured by dragons. But when no dragons kidnap her, Cimorene sets out to live with them herself.

Anyone have a good recommendation for boys?

A kid who loved Twilight but has never read any other book:
Before I Die, by Jenny Downham. A sixteen-year-old girl, in the last stages of her battle with cancer, makes a list of the ten things she wants to accomplish before she dies. I know there is a whole genre of books like this, but this one is a cut above, and the romantic tension will appeal to Twilight readers a lot.

A really kid who's read everything recently published for children and YA:

Catherine, Called Birdy, by Karen Cushman. In the 13th century, Catherine, the daughter of a (very) minor lord, gets involved in many shenanigans in the effort to avoid getting married off. One of my favorite books of all time, and one my mom, a sixth grade teacher, now reads every year with her class (and then has them act out at the end).

The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin. Sam Westing, a multimillionaire, dies, but instead of designating an heir in his will, he designates sixteen heirs. To win his entire fortune, the heirs have to figure out which among them murdered Sam Westing. Another awesome classic, and another one my mom teaches every year.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. Just the best book ever. It's in the adult section, but there's no sex or violence in it. It's about a junior high school girl growing up at the edge of poverty during World War I.

Perfect gift "host" gift (to bring to a party instead of a bottle of wine):
For when you don't know your book recipient well. One of my friends made both these suggestions, which are her constant fall-backs and seem awesome:
Everyday Food: Great Food Fast, by Martha Stewart. She says this is a great choice because the recipes are straightforward and divided up by seasons, so a perfect choice for hosts.

Creepy Cute Crochet: Zombies, Ninjas, Robots, and More! by Christen Haden. This is a quirky one, but what with the knitting craze these days it's not really THAT much of a stretch.

Some categories I could use help with: sci fi, mystery, romance (which is missing entirely!), children's, any of your ideas!

Saturday, December 06, 2008

why facebook is extremely interesting

You guys know everything about me... but I didn't even know things as basic as names (or blog identities) for some of the lurkers who've come out of the woodwork with facebook! Also, now I know re: frequent commenters what you do, what you like, what you look like, etc. It's REALLY cool!

Uh, yeah, for anyone who wasn't clear, I'm a facebook addict.

Friday, December 05, 2008

special present to me, please.

I'm feeling needy. Make my day and add me as a friend on Facebook. (I'm "Moon Rat.")

inexpensive holiday gift and decoration ideas?

Besides books, the most bang you could ever get for your buck... (and here's our book gift suggestion list for everybody you need to buy for)

Can't imagine why this never crossed my mind before. (Thanks for the link, Froog.)

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Publishers Lunch calls it "Black Wednesday"

Normally we are a happy blog, and we have been ignoring all the things that are happening in publishing right now. I pointedly haven't been trying to compete with the many (and better) publishing industry news blogs out there in keeping up with the layoffs, reformatting, and gloom. But it's a little artificial for me to be ignoring it here completely, and also a little unfair to people who come here first.

Briefly, for some of today's news--and this is today's news only:
Random House parcels out Doubleday and Bantam Dell groups (complete with personnel changes, including, most likely, the resignation of their top executives) (also here)

Thomas Nelson lays of 10% of its team--here, Michael Hyatt cites the terrible results of the Sept/Oct cash flow, which you'll recall we talked a lot about here

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt lets the other shoe drop from their acquisitions freeze of last week--some layoffs already and talk of many, many more to come

Simon & Schuster eliminates at least 35 positions (Children's president Rick Richter has resigned) (via Publishers Lunch--unfortunately I don't have a public link I can attach, but I'm sure GalleyCat will cover this shortly)

So I don't have much to say, except that a lot of things are going to change this year, and I suspect it will be the kind of change in publishing that hasn't occured in our lifetimes. There was much talk of the freeze on Houghton Mifflin Harcourt acquisitions last week, mainly (as I was following it) about how it would affect authors and a new writer's chance of selling a book right now. But on our end, sitting nervously on our thumbs inside our publishing houses, the freeze was even scarier. Without acquisitions and new products, there is no future billing. We saw a company that was basically declaring they were in such a desperate place that they needed to give up the potential of any incoming billing in the next little while--a very, very frightening business decision, more frightening to us because the company seemed forced to make it public.

But specifically, I am worried about my friends across the industry, and about what we'll be when we get out of this. I have already watched several good friends be summarily told their services were no longer required or that their positions were being discontinued. I can't believe I'm the only person at a house right now whose heart starts pounding crazily everytime I get a new Publishers Lunch update in my mailbox or Mediabistro post in my Google feed.

I know we have spent a lot of time on this blog talking about some of the flaws in the institution of publishing, and I am hoping desperately that these sorry changeovers--which will, of course, hit some people who deserve to have much better--will not make the current structural problems even worse.

I could go on and on, but I don't think there's much of a point. Others have said it all much better. Please do, though, consult those better news sources if you are interested in more information. Maud Newton, for example, is a fine source of news and smart opinion; you can read her essay on what it all means here. Also, please read GalleyCat, a faithful source of first news about everything, if you're interested in the blow-by-blow.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

speaking of getting agents (another one for the Mischief!!)

Kate Lord Brown, a faithful reader of many months, has signed with Sheila Crowley of Curtis Brown UK. Congratulations, Kate! (Also, you sneaky thing, tell us more about your book so I can advertise it properly.)

Jan 1 Book Club Choice: A MERCY, by Toni Morrison

By popular demand! I think there is TONS to talk about in this book. Although I've already publicly declared some of my (mixed) thoughts, I have lots of others, and some people have suggested their intents to read over the holidays. So... January 1!

National Day of Listening Stories

Read our collection!

Ello's dad's story about finding a motel, racism, and the American dream

Merry's story about her Sicilian grandparents

Queen of the Road's story about dog adoption

Ann Victor's story from her dad about Apartheid-era South Africa

Pamala Knight's story, The Other Mary

Charles Gramlich's ghost story

just finished reading

What Was Lost, by Catherine O'Flynn--click for my review. Anyone else read it? Any thoughts?

Monday, December 01, 2008

December Book Club: WHEN THE ELEPHANTS DANCE, by Tess Uriza Holthe

Welcome to the December Book Club Meeting!

Today, we're honored to have Tess Uriza Holthe, author (most recently) of The Five Forty-Five to Cannes, here to talk about her bestselling debut novel, When the Elephants Dance. (Check out the author's website here for information about her other book.)

A brief synopsis:

In the waning days of World War II, the Japanese and the Americans engage in a fierce battle for possession of the Philippine Islands. The Karangalan family and their neighbors huddle for survival in the cellar of a house a few miles from Manila. Outside the safety of their little refuge the war rages on—fiery bombs torch the beautiful Filipino countryside, Japanese soldiers round up and interrogate innocent people, and from the hills guerillas wage a desperate campaign against the enemy. Crowded together in the cellar, the Karangalans and their friends and neighbors tell magical stories to one another based on Filipino myth and legend to fuel their courage, pass the time, and teach important lessons. The group is held spellbound by these stories, which feature a dazzling array of ghosts, witches, supernatural creatures, and courageous Filipinos who changed the course of history with their actions. These profoundly moving stories transport the listeners from the chaos of the war around them and give them new resolve to fight on.

Tess kindly subjected herself to the standard interview, and she'll be checking in later today to answer any reader questions.

Moonrat: Thanks again, Tess, for joining us! How did you land your agent?
Tess: I found my agent, Mary Ann Naples of the Creative Culture, at the Maui Writer’s Conference. I was an accountant and I’d been working on a novel for ‘fun’ each evening after work and my writing group suggested we attend the conference as a group. Our biggest goal at the time was to have someone, anyone (the concierge at the hotel even) say they were interested in the manuscript and to send them a query letter with a portion of our work. We all agreed it would be great practice for when we were really ready. A month before the conference I began working on finishing what would become When the Elephants Dance I didn’t even have a title at the time. But I thought it would be good to have an entire book I could pitch. I worked on the premise during a family barbeque. I read somewhere that the premise should be 25 words or less, which was also very helpful in tightening my focus for the next draft. It helped to put the sub-themes in perspective and let the main theme stand out which was. Philippines World War II: What if a group of civilians hiding in a cellar tell mythical tales in order to survive? I liked the idea of posing the premise as a What If? because it allowed me to think of the book as the ‘answer’ to the question I posed.

Anyway, I signed up to meet about ten agents and one editor. I thought, “Why not? Since I’m already here. Why not pretend I’m really serious about selling this?” Which of course we all were, but pretending to not really be, more to ourselves really, so we wouldn’t be too crushed by the rejection that was surely coming. We could only hope there would be words of kindness in the rejections. Something like, “But your typewriting is very neat,” to lessen the blow. Nothing at all like the beautiful rejection letter the character Briony gets in McEwan’s Atonement. I read that and thought how big my head would’ve been if I received such a wonderful rejection.

Prior to the conference I had purchased a book called Your Novel Proposal from Creation to Contract, by Blythe Camenson and M. Cook. It was very helpful in creating the synopsis and query letter. There was a very helpful little section on what to do when sitting across from an agent and pitching your story. It’s such a short anxiety causing meeting to begin with that I think writers forget that sure they’re interviewing you, but you’re also interviewing them, so have some questions ready that are important to you. Like perhaps, how the agent would pitch your book, to what publishing house, what have they sold in the past, and equally important is it a good fit? Do you feel comfortable with this person as your agent? This will help you to go to the right agent. It also prompted me to research the agents that would be present so I knew a little bit about their clients, which opened up more questions for me. Mostly it helped keep me from staring at them with the deer in the headlights stare.

Sitting with the various agents was a real learning experience; I picked up little things as I moved forward throughout the day to ask the other agents. After each meeting, I adjusted to making my pitch more efficient and my questions for them more specific. I would highly suggest signing up to meet a nice group of agents and not just one or two. When else would you be able to have such a great gathering without having to send out separate query letters? It cuts the whole query, then excruciating waiting period in half. This way they say they’re interested, or what they might be interested in.

There were a lot of terrific agents present, but the minute I met Mary Ann, there was just this connection. I gave her one page of the synopsis and breakdown and one page which had a sample of my writing, the opening scene to the novel on one side and the first short story that’s told in the cellar on the other side. Sitting across from her I felt so relaxed, like I was talking to a friend, and she said she was interested in seeing the manuscript and to send it to her. I went back home to California, tightened the book and sent it to her in two weeks along with an email saying “It’s coming, do you remember me?” And she said she did and that she would look out for it.

To my great and perpetual surprise, (yes I’m still surprised, I think), Mary Ann called the Monday after I sent it to her. She had read it overnight and wanted to represent me. She then described the various editors who were interested and I learned what an imprint is (the different houses within a publishing house like Doubleday, Crown, Knopf these are different imprints within the Random House family) and who the different editors were who could purchase the manuscript from these imprints.

Moonrat: And how did you get the Book Deal?
Nary Ann sold the novel to Crown, an imprint of Random House, in a week and a half, and the paperback to Penguin, and I’m still reeling from the experience. When I see my books in a bookstore it’s still a surreal experience, like an alternate universe or something, where my double wrote the book. I haven’t got my head around the fact that I sat and wrote something and there it sits. I can say that over and over in my head and still, it’s just too big for me to comprehend, so I no longer try. Instead I spend my time thanking God over and over and over again in case he thinks I’m not being grateful enough. Now with my second book, The Five-Forty-Five to Cannes, up there beside it, gathering real estate like on a Monopoly Board, as my friends say, it’s even more disconcerting. It’s a very beautiful, humbling, experience, and every now and then when He’s not looking, I gloat at the memory of an old neighbor saying very smugly, “So your husband tells me you’re writing a book, ha, ha, ha.” And then I become immediately pious again.

Moonrat: When the Elephants Dance is full of magic, folklore, and oral history; at the same time, it realistically and vividly captures one of the worst moments in world history. I was able to absorb the darkness of the history because of the spellbinding digressions the family uses to distract themselves from the war around them. How did you select the digressions you were going to use? And are they all products of your imagination, or are some of them based on established lore?
Tess: Thank
you, I like that spellbinding digressions…Well, it’s interesting. Up until I took a writing class at our neighborhood bookstore, I had no idea I would or ever could write a novel. I’ve always just been a big reader and journal-er (is that a word?). I was learning as I went. The first assignment in our three month introduction to writing class called Life into Literature and taught by Linda Watanabe McFerrin, was to write a one page section about a Myth in the Family and another section on a myth. So, I came to class with the first opening action scene. It was a fictionalized version of something which my father experienced as a young boy during World War II. He was captured by Japanese Soldiers and interrogated overnight. The second was a myth I’d heard, but only a tiny kernel--which became the first story they tell in the cellar, "A Cure for Happiness"--sprouted from this little story my father use to tell about a church that sunk into the ground. Supposedly, an angel came in the form of a dog to test the arrogance of these parishioners who were too proud of their beautiful church and when they scoffed at the dog, it wiped its paws clean and the second the dog/angel left the church it sunk into the ground. From that I created this whole story of the mysterious faith-healer, Esmeralda and the church that sank into the ground.

Writing those two little pieces was such a profound experience for me, and then to be encouraged the next class meeting by Linda McFerrin and the rest of my classmates, well, it was like a drug to me, I just couldn’t stop. To realize I could write something that could be understood by others as a storyline they could follow was just incredible. I went home and could not stop writing. It was like I’d tapped into oil somehow and all these stories came in a flood. I wrote the “digressions” first actually, for fun. And then I saw that I could frame them in the context of World War II, so I wrote three separate segments or they wrote themselves. Structure is an interesting thing for me, I’ve learned that once I’ve set a strong premise and foundation for a story, all of the creativity begins to flex and reward me by opening up. Only when the foundation is truly set-up, truly ready does the story bloom and unfold like petals. If the foundation or the blueprint of the manuscript is faulty, I get nothing in return but wrestling. I guess what I’m saying is I’m a total premise girl. Some people like to write and just see where the story takes them but I have to have a point I’m aiming for otherwise I’m lost.

Moonrat: Was writing it more of a creative or a personal project for you?
I grew up in a huge extended family. My father and grandmother were oral story tellers. It was basically passing along our folklore and history around a campfire tradition only it was around a mahjong table. We had this little community of Filipinos in Bernal Heights San Francisco where I was born and the way we socialized was around my mother’s Catholic St. Kevin’s church group or the mahjong games at our house. Almost every night we had three or four mahjong tables going and each night everyone would tell stories. I basically grew up in a gambling den but didn’t realize it; it was so fun, like one sustained slumber party over 30 years. I presented at the National Kidney Foundation last year with Martin Cruz Smith and Annie Lamott, who are just super warm people, and I described how I grew up in such a household and Martin said that the experience was a gift. And it’s funny, I’ve always thought of it that way but couldn’t articulate, but it was a gift because there were all of these wonderful characters to observe over an intense period of time. I’d never met anyone else who saw it the same way I did, but he just got it.

Moonrat: Do you have plans for your next project?
I am working on something new, finishing up in fact. I can’t really talk about it right now but I’m very excited about it and hope to sell it very soon. It’s set in the Philippines and then crosses over to America and I guess I’d better just leave it at that.

Thanks, Tess! Can't wait to hear reader reactions.