Archive for the ‘Books & Authors’ Category

First the NBCCs, then the Orange Prize Longlist, now the American Academy of Arts & Letters literary awards. I am in list heaven!

And no, I’m not going to try and read all these books and authors, too, alongside my Orange Prize Longlist reads and selected NBCC winning books. I’m nuts, but not quite that nuts.

Hey, I heard that!

One thing I’m confused about, there’s an award for a talented young playwright named Karen Russell. The only Karen Russell I know, and/or can find, is the writer who wrote the Orange Prize Longlisted book Swamplandia!, which I’m currently reading. I couldn’t find another Karen Russell who’s a playwright.

So, did they make a mistake or is this other Karen Russell just really obscure? The world may never know.

Anyway, enjoy:

Arts and Letters Awards in Literature

Eight Academy Awards in Literature of $7500 each are given annually to honor exceptional accomplishment in any genre.
Mark Doty, Alice Fulton, John Koethe, Colum McCann, Suzan-Lori Parks, Alex Ross, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Joseph Stroud

Award of Merit Medal for Drama

$10,000 and a medal to an outstanding playwright.   John Patrick Shanley

Benjamin H. Danks Award

$20,000 to recognize a talented, young playwright.   Karen Russell

E. M. Forster Award

$20,000 to a young writer from the United Kingdom or Ireland for a stay in the United States. Award jury: Anita Desai, Margaret Drabble, Paul Muldoon.   Rachel Seiffert

Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction

$5000 for the best work of first fiction (novel or short stories) published in 2010.   Brando Skyhorse, The Madonnas of Echo Park

Addison M. Metcalf Award

$10,000 to a young writer of fiction, nonfiction, drama, or poetry.   Matthea Harvey

Arthur Rense Poetry Prize

Triennial award of $20,000 to an exceptional poet.   David Wagoner

Rome Fellowships in Literature

A one-year residency (2011²2012) at the American Academy in Rome.   Matt Donovan and Suzanne Rivecca

Rosenthal Family Foundation Award

$10,000 to a young writer of considerable literary talent for a work published in 2010.   Monique Truong, Bitter in the Mouth

John Updike Award

A biennial award of $20,000 to a writer in mid-career who has demonstrated consistent excellence.   Tom Sleigh

Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award

$10,000 to a writer whose work merits recognition for the quality of its prose style.   Thomas Mallon


The top 25 book group discussion books of 2010, based on reports by book clubs, according to

I highlighted the titles I’ve read in a lovely shade of maroon:

1. The Help by Kathryn Stockett

2. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

2. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

4. Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

5. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

6. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

7. Little Bee by Chris Cleave

8. A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

9. The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

10. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

11. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

12. Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls

13. Still Alice by Lisa Genova

14. Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

14. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

16. Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace… One School at a Time by Greg Mortensen and David Oliver Relin

17. Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

18. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

19. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

19. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

21. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

22. South of Broad by Pat Conroy

23. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

24. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

25. The Postmistress by Sarah Blake

“The Help has been a mainstay on many bestseller lists for over a year now, and its appeal made it a must-read for book groups even in hardcover,” Carol Fitzgerald, president of, commented. “Also, it was nice to see To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2010 on the list. We are certain that this was a re-read for many of the members of reporting book groups.”

Chances are there’s a Borders store near you that’s either closing or will close within the next year. Fortunately, the store in my town will remain open – for now – though another location 15 minutes north of here isn’t quite so lucky.

I’ve visited the unfortunate Borders store three times since they put up the deadly yellow “Store Closing Sale!” and “Everything Must Go!” banners, and each time felt a bit like a vulture. Every time I visit I’m effectively picking the bones of the carcass that was once a bustling store. And it’s a distinctly cringe-worthy feeling I don’t like at all.

I know it’s inevitable the store must rid itself of inventory, but at the same time it’s just so sad. I’ve spent a lot of time there since it went up, though, admittedly I preferred the Barnes & Noble down the street (better selection, more comfy chairs, more neutral decor), but I still spent a lot of time at Borders, partly because I’m a member of their rewards program and received regular coupons, because I spent that much there (DID I EVER!). There’s another reason I’m shocked it’s closing, that I wasn’t able to keep them in the black with my purchases alone.

But it’s not just the local closings that’s bothersome. It’s more the fact Borders is one of the two book mega-chains, the brick and mortar biggies that were responsible for putting the independents – with few exceptions – out of business years ago. Now they’re going bankrupt, struggling to keep themselves alive by streamlining, cutting jobs and closing less profitable stores. So, without the assurance Borders will make it, everything now hinges on Barnes & Noble. And it’s having its share of problems, too.

Why? I see the reason as two-fold: first, GIANT retailer Amazon is able to undercut the prices of all brick and mortar stores, and second, the spectre of eBooks that require no manufacturing, no shipping and the convenience of instant delivery. Oh, and they’re generally cheaper than regular books.

So, what will happen to books once eBooks eventually take over? Or will they? Look at the music industry. Once there were Victrolas, then reel-to-reel and vinyl records. Along came 8-track tapes (a travesty!), cassettes, then CDs. Now, iPods and electronic downloads.

Recording artists are also having their works pirated, downloaded for absolutely free online, cutting their profits to the bone. Once books go all electronic the same will happen with them, you can bet on it. Writers who’re unable to live off writing proceeds alone will have that much less incentive to write – assuming they’re not in it for the love of the art itself. What will happen to the publishing industry? As goes music, soon will follow books.

Best case scenario, used book stores will thrive. Those of us who covet the written book will be able to get our fix buying lower-priced, pre-owned if you will, books. And there’s always print on demand, too. Not a bad option, at least if they’re priced reasonably.

For the sake of disclosure, though I love books I own a Sony eReader. I even have the Kindle app on my iPhone. And, when Kindles are given away for free – which is rumored to start happening by the end of this year – I’ll take one of those, as well. I do buy eBooks. I love the portability of them, the fact I can load up on library and bookstore books, carrying a virtual library with me wherever I go.

So, have I stopped buying books? Not by a long shot! Instead I’ve been buying way too much, between eBooks and book books. Not the best financial strategy, but I’m putting the brakes on that right now. Right. Now. Or, after I’ve bought the last batch of cheap books at the doomed Borders store that’s a mere 15 minutes away.


None of us can predict what will eventually happen, but the writing is on the wall. Resist though we may, this is already in motion, such a strong tide can’t be stemmed. All well and good to try to fight it, if it makes a person feel better, but in the end logic, and economics, will prove the big publishers get their way. They’re already struggling. Tell me how the prospect of making larger profits on eBooks, which don’t have to be manufactured and shipped, won’t keep ailing publishers afloat. Or at least assure the survival of the most powerful of them. There’s no way around it.

I’ve posted a lot re: eBooks, and with a great deal of passion, but from here on I see there’s not much point in denying the inevitable. The demise of Borders is a dire event. The bell is tolling for bookstores.  Soon we’ll be left with just Amazon, which I predict will still be standing when the mega-chains are shuttered. Where Amazon goes, there goes publishing.

Keep your eye on the Amazon basket. That’s where the remaining eggs lie. But this librarian/book reviewer/manic reader predicts what will be left, when the dust settles, are eBooks and print on demand. What will happen with picture books, graphic novels, etc., is a different kettle of fish. Likewise, children’s books. Maybe specialty publishers will continue to exist for those. But this may turn out to be the exception to the rule.

Probably not what you wanted to hear, and it’s definitely not what I like to say. I’ll take no pleasure in “I told you so!” in this case. And nothing would make me happier than being proven wrong. But I don’t think that’s going to happen.

The question is when, not if. And it may be a gradual shift, as in cassettes and albums giving way to CDs. Like LPs, maybe books will enjoy a renaissance, for the novelty. But I’m afraid to say it’s not looking good for lovers of the book. Never mind I already own more books than I can read in my lifetime. In several lifetimes, I think. I’ll mourn the passing of books regardless.

Just let me be wrong. That’s what I hope.

Current list of Borders closures.

List covers between 1983 and 2008.

I’ll highlight the ones I’ve read:

1. The Road , Cormac McCarthy (2006)
2. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling (2000)
3. Beloved, Toni Morrison (1987)
4. The Liars’ Club, Mary Karr (1995)
5. American Pastoral, Philip Roth (1997)
6. Mystic River, Dennis Lehane (2001)
7. Maus, Art Spiegelman (1986/1991)
8. Selected Stories, Alice Munro (1996)
9. Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier (1997)
10. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami (1997)

11. Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer (1997)
12. Blindness, José Saramago (1998)
13. Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1986-87)
14. Black Water, Joyce Carol Oates (1992)
15. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers (2000)
16. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1986)
17. Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez (1988)
18. Rabbit at Rest, John Updike (1990)
19. On Beauty, Zadie Smith (2005)
20. Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding (1998)
21. On Writing, Stephen King (2000)
22. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz (2007)
23. The Ghost Road, Pat Barker (1996)
24. Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry (1985)
25. The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan (1989)
26. Neuromancer, William Gibson (1984)
27. Possession, A.S. Byatt (1990)
28. Naked, David Sedaris (1997)
29. Bel Canto, Anne Patchett (2001)
30. Case Histories, Kate Atkinson (2004)
31. The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien (1990)
32. Parting the Waters, Taylor Branch (1988)
33. The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion (2005)
34. The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold (2002)
35. The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst (2004)
36. Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt (1996)
37. Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi (2003)
38. Birds of America, Lorrie Moore (1998)
39. Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri (2000)
40. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman (1995-2000)
41. The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros (1984)
42. LaBrava, Elmore Leonard (1983)
43. Borrowed Time, Paul Monette (1988)
44. Praying for Sheetrock, Melissa Fay Greene (1991)
45. Eva Luna, Isabel Allende (1988)
46. Sandman, Neil Gaiman (1988-1996)
47. World’s Fair, E.L. Doctorow (1985)
48. The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver (1998)
49. Clockers, Richard Price (1992)
50. The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen (2001)
51. The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcom (1990)
52. Waiting to Exhale, Terry McMillan (1992)
53. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon (2000)
54. Jimmy Corrigan, Chris Ware (2000)
55. The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls (2006)
56. The Night Manager, John le Carré (1993)
57. The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe (1987)
58. Drop City, TC Boyle (2003)
59. Krik? Krak! Edwidge Danticat (1995)
60. Nickel & Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich (2001)
61. Money, Martin Amis (1985)
62. Last Train To Memphis, Peter Guralnick (1994)
63. Pastoralia, George Saunders (2000)
64. Underworld, Don DeLillo (1997)
65. The Giver, Lois Lowry (1993)
66. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace (1997)
67. The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini (2003)
68. Fun Home, Alison Bechdel (2006)

69. Secret History, Donna Tartt (1992)
70. Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell (2004)
71. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Ann Fadiman (1997)
72. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon (2003)
73. A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving (1989)

74. Friday Night Lights, H.G. Bissinger (1990)
75. Cathedral, Raymond Carver (1983)
76. A Sight for Sore Eyes, Ruth Rendell (1998)
77. The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)
78. Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert (2006)

79. The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell (2000)
80. Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney (1984)
81. Backlash, Susan Faludi (1991)
82. Atonement, Ian McEwan (2002)
83. The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields (1994)

84. Holes, Louis Sachar (1998)
85. Gilead, Marilynne Robinson (2004)
86. And the Band Played On, Randy Shilts (1987)
87. The Ruins, Scott Smith (2006)
88. High Fidelity, Nick Hornby (1995)
89. Close Range, Annie Proulx (1999)
90. Comfort Me With Apples, Ruth Reichl (2001)
91. Random Family, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc (2003)
92. Presumed Innocent, Scott Turow (1987)
93. A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley (1991)
94. Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser (2001)

95. Kaaterskill Falls, Allegra Goodman (1998)
96. The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown (2003)
97. Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson (1992)
98. The Predators’ Ball, Connie Bruck (1988)
99. Practical Magic, Alice Hoffman (1995)
100. America (the Book), Jon Stewart/Daily Show (2004)

Judging a Book by its Cover

Posted: August 24, 2007 in Books & Authors

A recent article in the Guardian discusses the importance of cover art in making book sales.

The publisher Penguin is in the process of reissuing selected classics with blank covers, counting on the fact everyone knows enough about these titles not to need any sort of visual cues as to what’s inside. Well, maybe. Maybe that IS enough, when you’re talking classics. But for other books, cover art can be very important.

I confess I’ve bought books based on the cover art and titles alone. Though I always read the cover blurbs, to get more of an idea what the book’s about, I have picked up books I’ve ultimately bought because the cover art struck me before I knew a thing about the story. Am I sometimes disappointed by the book? Well, sure. But I’m just as often disappointed after I’ve read half a dozen positive reviews of a book, and find it didn’t match my tastes at all. So I’ll go ahead and defend my affection for good cover art. At least it looks pretty on the shelf, even if the book itself does stink.

I collect older editions of Modern Library hardback books based solely on the beauty of the cover art. The dustjackets feature really lovely line drawings that have a retro look to them I really like. A lot of those are classics, too, and many of them I own in other editions. Modern Library editions are really durable. That’s one good thing about them. Not all of them have the cool illustrations, so you really have to look. The illustrated dustjackets are generally more valuable collectors items, unsurprisingly, but you can sometimes luck onto them at book sales.

Another publisher I really love is the now-defunct First Edition Library. They published facsimiles of first editions of major 20th century classics, books like The Grapes of Wrath and The Sound and the Fury. Everything in the book was identical to the original first edition copy, down to every little mistake that got edited out in subsequent editions. Not only do the books have the lovely, pristine facsimile jackets, but they put them in cardboard slipcases, too. I used to belong to this subscription-only club, but gave it up when it started to seem like too expensive an indulgence, so I never did get the full set. But those can probably be found at the used book sites, too, like most everything can these days.

Pulp paperbacks are another group of books collected for their cool covers. Most of those feature art that’s lurid and overly melodramatic, which adds to their enduring appeal. I don’t personally own too many of these, since they can be prohibitively expensive. I’ve procured those only very sparingly. When I learned that a brother of William Faulkner had written a book only available in a pulp edition I had to have that, but paying $ 40ish for a small mass paperback book, no matter how lurid the cover or rare the item, definitely felt like an extravagance. Still, I can’t say I’m sorry to have spent the money, even if it does seem a little nutty. I very much believe in the maxim “It’s only the books you don’t buy that you regret.”

That’s pretty much my philsophy, too.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that an author in possession of a published book must be in want of a venue in which to promote it.

Being an author is truly hard work. Not only must a writer produce an actual written, published product, but once that’s done (which is no small feat), the real work starts. Unless a writer’s name happens to be truly big, like Stephen King, or JK Rowling, promotion and marketing are largely the work of the author. The publishers may subsidize a bit, and set up a few events if you’re lucky, but that leaves an awful lot of work that must be done by the actual writer him or herself.

One of my own personal missions, in case that hasn’t become really obvious, is the promoting of authors whose names you haven’t heard of but should have. Why haven’t you heard of them? It has nothing to do with quality or how much they deserve to be read, but it does have a lot to do with economics. Publishing’s a dog-eat-dog business, and there’s always another book out there waiting to hop in the front of the queue, pushing everyone else back a few spaces. If you’ve written a book you have to get out there and promote, promote, promote, then hope to break through the general apathy of the average reader long enough to claim a smidgen of attention.

And attention, there’s another thing that sticks in my proverbial craw. Don’t get me started on the attention span of the average American, and unless you want to see me turn bright red and risk apoplexy, please avoid two words: REALITY TV.


What IS this addiction, anyway? I don’t understand it. I’ve watched probably a grand total of two episodes of “Survivor,” and maybe four episodes of “American Idol.” And, okay, it’s funny seeing those really bad singers fail miserably. That appeals to the evil, masochistic side of a lot of us, but to watch these things regularly I can’t even fathom. Now, if you watch these regularly but also slot in time for reading and other pursuits more power to you. That’s achieving balance, and that’s a good thing. But what scares me is I know the majority of Americans don’t even consider that. This is what disturbs me. There’s no intellectual achievement in reality TV, and no work of any kind required. RANT OVER.

Despite what you may be thinking of me at this point, I do own a TV. Actually, I think our count is up to four, including the tiny travel TV we don’t ever actually use for travel. One of our TVs is pretty sizeable, too, but that’s because movies look better on a bigger screen and we do love our movies. And, yes, we even have surround sound, so I’m not a purist. Far from it!

However, if you walk into my house on any given evening (knock first, please!), you’re about 80% likely to find the TV off. We sometimes go for days without ever turning on a television, mostly because we’re: a). not at home in the first place, or b). just too busy with other things like homework, the practicing of musical instruments (I now have two children who play the violin, and one who in addition plays the piano, the guitar, and as of last evening – it’s a long story, don’t ask – , the flute), working on the computer (okay, largely consisting of Googling things), and, what do you know, READING. If you walk into my house on any given evening you’re about 90% likely to find at least one or two members of my family engaged in this occupation, and about 95% likely that one of these family members will be yours truly…

These are only a few things authors have to compete against. Even after their book is published the deck’s already stacked against them. First, they have to target readers. Then, if they’re not a household name, they have to hit upon a way to stick in the minds of the readers who are likely to go out and purchase their books. They accomplish this through reviews, interviews and author appearances (signings, readings, etc.), and all this while competing against quick, ready-made entertainment in the form of TV, much of which is the reality variety.

How it pains me!

Self-promotion doesn’t generally come very easily to writing types, either. Those who think it sounds like a lark to sit home at the computer, more than likely alone, and type away all day aren’t always the most socially inclined types. That’s not to say they’re hermits, but there’s a push required to really get yourself out there, and not everyone has that naturally.

This is why I spend a lot of my time promoting wonderful authors and their wonderful books. And, what’s perhaps even more shocking, a whole lot of that time is gratis. Not all of it, as I do freelance and get paid for some of my work, but often I’m handing it out like Halloween candy.

Sometimes I know the author, or I’m a friend of a friend, but often I don’t know the author from Adam, but he or she has written a book that’s impressed me so much I feel the urge to give something back. It does come back to me, too, either in referrals from one author to another, or just a new connection that sometimes turns into a friendship. I consider these deposits into my good karma account, and I could certainly use all of that I can get. Can’t we all?!

All of this is a good preface for another one of these really good up and coming authors, and his name is Jon Clinch. Random House sent me Clinch’s book Finn: A Novel, due to be released in February 2007. Because there’s so much lead time here, I can’t yet publish a review of the book, but I can say I think this one’s going to be a great one. Finn takes a thread from Mark Twain’s classic Huckleberry Finn, specifically the reference to Huck’s father being found dead in a floating house, and expands on it. Though I haven’t yet finished the book, what I have read is gorgeously written. I can tell this one’s a keeper. Keep an eye out for it.


And, keep an eye out for Jon Clinch, as I’m doing my best to convince him that coming to Chicago is a very good idea. Keep your fingers crossed! Oh, and pass the remote. I think Oprah’s on…