Saturday, March 2, 2013

Soup and Salad: Covering Fahrenheit 451, More covers at The Casual Optimist, Ayana Mathis and the "Aha! Moment," Retiring writers, Delayed reviews, Heavy-breathing reviews, Adam Braver's new project, 100 years of bestsellers, Paperback pride, First drafts

On today's menu:

1.  Congratulations to Matthew Owen who won a contest, sponsored by Simon & Schuster and the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, to design a new cover for Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.  Owen's concept (seen above) is simple and brilliant and is sure to draw new readers to the special 60th anniversary printing of Bradbury's classic.  I suspect those who already own Fahrenheit 451 will also buy a copy just to have this beautiful art on their shelves.

2.  Speaking of outstanding design, if you aren't already a subscriber to The Casual Optimist blog, you should start now.  I always look forward to visiting the site for a full course of smart conversation about eye candy--like the British cover design for Laurent Binet's novel HHhH (which, if you'll recall, was reviewed here at The Quivering Pen by Sam Thomas not too long ago).

3.  At The Millions, Matthew Bourne describes how, in his research for an article for Poets & Writers magazine, he visited the "sun-struck jewel box" office of literary agent Ellen Levine to talk about her "Aha! Moment"--that is, "the moment the light went on for [her] about a particular manuscript, the moment when [she] thought, I have to do this project."
As we sat down to discuss the page in question, midway into the first chapter of a first novel by an unknown African-American writer living in Brooklyn, Levine described the writer’s command of language and storytelling craft, but when she reached a key passage in the scene, in which a young mother is about to lose her twin babies to pneumonia, Levine’s voice caught. When I looked up, her eyes had misted over. If you interview a lot of people, you develop a radar for when people are selling and when they are not, and in this case Ellen Levine was not selling. She was genuinely moved by this scene in an unpublished book by a writer nobody had ever heard of. I left her office that day thinking: Something really, really good is going to happen to that book. Sure enough, eight months later, I read that the book Levine and I had been discussing that day, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis, had been published in December, six weeks ahead of schedule, and had been picked by Oprah Winfrey for her newly rebooted Book Club.
Bourne goes on to talk about what we've come to know as the Oprah Fairy Tale Effect: "the sudden reversal of fortune experienced by those lucky few Oprah authors. The poor wretched scribe....toiling away in obscurity in the backwaters of American literary culture until one day the phone rings, and — Oh, my God! — 'Hi, this is Oprah.'"

4. Elsewhere at The Millions, Bill Morris ponders the question "Can writers retire?"  The abrupt end (and in some cases only a pause) of some writers' careers are called into question, including those of Alice Munro, E. M. Forester, J. D. Salinger, Roberto Bolano and Phillip Roth, the latest writer to hang up his pen.

5.  On any given day, you'll find me writhing in agony over the fact that I'm not reviewing books as soon as I finish reading them.  I have every good intention of sitting down and opining about a book as soon as I turn the last page.  Alas, time and circumstance conspire against me, and I often end up not posting a review here at the blog.  In fact, at this very moment, I have at least five novels begging for my attention, even though enough time has elapsed to turn their details into fuzzy mush.  Regrets, I've had a few.  That's why I was happy to see Rena Rossner write a review of Jessica Keener's debut novel Night year after the fact:
I read the book in nearly one sitting – I could not put it down. At the time, I really wanted to write a review of the book, but life got hectic, as it tends to do, and I never got around to it. When I saw Jessica post recently on Facebook that she was celebrating her book’s 1-year anniversary with a 50-state Skype book-club blog tour, I realized that even though I read the book a year ago, so many things still stuck in my mind. And that made me think, wouldn’t that make a great blog post? To talk about a book one year later and specifically highlight the things that stayed with you. What higher compliment to pay an author than to be able to say: “I still remember…”
As an author, I think this is a wonderful way to pay tribute to a book, talking about the specific details which still float sharp and bright on the surface of that fuzzy mush we call memory.

6.  Sometimes, like with Rossner's blog post, reviewers can pull me in with their heavy-breathing earnestness.  At Three Guys One Book, Joseph Rakowski did just that as he opened his review of Mark SaFranko's novel No Strings with this:
Have you ever shot a potato gun, held a Roman candle firework, or lit a propane grill? Then you’ve had the feeling. That feeling right before you light it, the feeling that something is about to go terribly wrong. Well, that point never came during SaFranko’s latest novel No Strings. It built, and built, and almost blew up, but it didn’t. It worked perfectly, just like it was supposed to. The potato shot a mile, the Roman candle did its Jack Kerouac thing, and the grill is fired up and ready to cook.  I was in the tub when I finished reading No Strings…note pad balanced on the soap bar rack. My plan to finish the book, dry off, get ready for the day, and write the review. I am currently dripping wet, sitting at my desk, wiping droplets of wet soap slime from my elbows as I type.
How could I possibly resist Rakowski's eagerness to sell me on the book?  I couldn't--I went right out and bought it.

7.  As readers of this blog know, I'm a big fan of Adam Braver's novels (like Misfit and Mr. Lincoln's Wars), so when Adam wrote to me telling of his latest project, I was intrigued.  He told me in the email that The Madrid Conversations was a special project he and co-author Molly Gessford worked to bring to print: "It's all been a labor of love that needs a little more love."  Subtitled "Normando Hernández González: Persecuted, Imprisoned, Exiled," the book is a transcript of interviews Braver and Gessford conducted with Gonzalez, who was among seventy-five Cuban journalists arrested in the "Black Spring," then were tried and sentenced to Cuba's harshest prisons.  I haven't had a chance to read The Madrid Conversations, but I wanted to mention it here as something worth your attention.  By the way, Braver said he's taking no money for the book--all proceeds go to Gonzalez himself.

8.  My hat is off to blogger Matt Kahn who recently announced he would review every book to reach the No. 1 spot on the Publishers Weekly annual bestsellers list, starting in 1913.  That's right, Kahn is going to subject himself to 100 years of dubious-quality literature--from Winston Churchill to E. L. James.  God give him strength on his journey.

9.  I'll never forget the moment I first learned Fobbit had been accepted for publication by Grove/Atlantic.  The good news: Fobbit was going to be published!  (cue the bombs bursting in mid-chest)  The bad news: it would be published in trade paperback rather than hardcover.  (cue the sound of fizzled fireworks)  Ah, but was that really bad news?  I'll admit the idea of forsaking hardcover publication gave me a moment's blink of disappointment.  But only for a moment because I had seen plenty of "trade paper originals" pass across my reviewer's desk from respectable publishers who gave them just as much attention and love as their sexier "grown-up" hardcover siblings.  It wasn't long before I came to be proud of my TPO status and couldn't imagine Fobbit launching in any other format (though in one month's time it will indeed be published in hardcover in the UK by Harvill-Secker.  Re-ignite the fireworks!!).  So that's why I was interested to read this article in the Virginia Quarterly Review: "Oh Format, Where Art Thou?" in which Kathleen Schmidt reassures us that softcover is nothing to be ashamed of:
[W]hat is an author to do when the choice is to be published in trade paperback or e-book, but not hardcover? For some, the choice is complex because being published in hardcover (falsely) assigns a certain amount of stature to said author. In the past, a hardcover was considered a calling card for an author while a trade paperback was akin to a napkin on which you’d scribble your number. Times have changed, as has the consumer. In other words, the format that sells is the right format for the book.

10.  It's always fun to take the backs off of writers and examine the way the gears whir and click.  At The Millions, Edan Lepucki gathers the thoughts of other authors on first drafts, shitty and otherwise.  Jennifer Egan, Emily St. John Mandel, Emma Straub, Ben Fountain, Antoine Wilson, and others let us inside The Process.

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