Saturday, April 02, 2005

Have you heard about The Quill Awards?

From the April 4th edition of Publishers Weekly comes news of a brand-new awards ceremony in the style of the People's Choice Awards. The Quills, sponsored by PW's parent company, is "designed to be an industry-qualified "consumers choice" awards program for books, honoring the current titles readers deem most entertaining and enlightening." In a bid to become the Oscars of the literary world, The Quills "[w]inners will be revealed during an awards ceremony similar to that of the Golden Globes—including a ritzy dinner party and celebrity presenters. The NBC Universal stations will broadcast the event in major markets on the evening of October 22."

Now, I enjoy a good awards ceremony as much as the next gal, but somehow I don't think this will be a ratings bonanza for NBC...

But lest we think that The Quills are designed to honor "quality" or even "entertaining" literature, the PW article reveals the method behind the madness (yes, rereading Hamlet is indeed paying off!): "What will the publishing industry gain from yet another literary prize? In a word, sales. That's the goal, anyway." (I'm feeling the confidence there...)

And to reach that goal? Well, PW suggests publishers push their titles aggressively (think of the ubiquitous film ads in the trade publications leading up to the Oscar votes...): "Instead of passively waiting to get the nod —and then hoping someone will notice and care about the award— publishers can lobby voters on behalf of their books during the competition, then capitalize on the honor afterward." Rather baldly put...

Just in case you didn't get it, the PW article (press release?) continues with a pithy example: "Think of how television uses the Emmys and movies use the Oscars—to build buzz and demonstrate quality. Think of how that could translate to books with The Quills." Thinking... thinking... head exploding...

The explanation of the rules is also quite interesting -- note the sources from which the books are to be culled:

Competition in the book genre categories will begin with a slate of about 1,800 eligible titles. To make the long list of nominees, a book must have been published in its original format in North America between August 1, 2004, and July 31, 2005, and marketed in the United States. It must also meet one of the following criteria: a starred review in Publishers Weekly, Barnes & Noble's Discover Great New Writers selection, one of the ABA's Book Sense Picks, a Borders Books & Music Original Voices title or has made it onto the bestsellers list of Publishers Weekly, Book Sense, Barnes & Noble or Borders.
That's just the first step. Then it's time for a select 6,000 to create shortlists for each category:

A nominating board of about 6,000 members, invited from the subscriber base of PW, mostly booksellers and librarians, will narrow the list to five contenders for each category, beginning in May. Each month, the board will create a shortlist for five or six categories. In August, the voting will open up to members of the public, who can cast ballots online for their favorites among the shortlist for each category. Consumers will also vote on a "Book of the Year," choosing from the finalists in all the genres.
But Borders, B&N, and co. will not determine the candidate pool for best novice author: "For the "Rookie of the Year**" award, each publishing division [does that mean each imprint?] is invited to nominate two debut authors."

But people, don't get too excited if you like film adaptations or book design; it seems consumers are not qualified for THAT part of the judging, since "[f]inalists for the "Book to Film" and "Design" awards will be named by committees of experts." And then something I don't understand -- and I swear that these two sentences go after the ones just quoted: "For each of the awards, consumers will have the final say on who wins. One other prize, the "Book Club Award," will be chosen by Bookspan." Is it me, or is this confusing?

The Quills Calendar, as printed in PW:

April: PW publishes lists of eligible titles for May categories: Audiobooks, Children's picture books, Religion/spirituality, Poetry, Health & Self Improvement, Romance

May: PW publishes lists of eligible titles for June categories: Children's novel for pre-teen and younger, Science fiction/fantasy, Biography/memoir, History/current events/politics, Sports, Business

June: PW publishes lists of eligible titles for July categories: Rookie of the Year, Literary fiction, Graphic novel, Suspense/mystery, Thriller/horror, Young adult, Humor

April 15–July 15: The Quills Nominating Council votes on the shortlists for each category.

August 15: Shortlists announced in PW and released to national consumer media.

August 15–September 15: Consumers vote online or at participating bookstores.

October 11: Winners announced during The Quills awards ceremony

October 22: NBC airs the event in major television markets [11 days after the ceremony itself, so even we book fanatics who might be interested already know who won...]
And finally, here are all The Quills categories:
Book of the Year
Rookie of the Year*
Book Club Award**
Children's [would this include young adult?]
Best Book to Film**
Graphic Novel of the Year
Literary Fiction
Suspense/Mystery or Thriller [interesting grouping...]
Science Fiction/ Fantasy or Horror [another interesting grouping...]
Biography / Memoir
Religion / Spirituality
Health / Self Improvement
History / Current Events /Politics [so I guess a book about ancient Rome will compete with one about the current Bush presidency...]
So, fellow citizens of the literary blogosphere, what do you think?

Strange pairings at Amazon

The current issue of Publishers Weekly comments on a little-known marketing program at Amazon where a bestseller is paired with an unknown author's book, calling it "The Strangest Program You've Never Heard Of."

In a little-known but eyebrow-raising program, Amazon is pairing well-known authors with nearly any publisher or author willing to pay the fee. It's a
program that evokes strong reactions: while the site's willingness to let unknowns mix with celebrities is hailed by small publishers, others say it raises significant questions about Amazon's responsibility to protect an author's brand or to disclose its own financial arrangements.

The program, known as BXGY to publishers (for Buy X Get Y) and appearing to customers under the header "Best Value," has existed in some form for several years. But anecdotal evidence suggests a recent increase in small-publisher participation. Under the program, houses or authors interested in pairing with a bestseller are sent a list of eligible bestsellers, which, according to participants, includes nearly every author who isn't taken. They can then pay $750 per month to be linked with one of Amazon's bestselling authors, sometimes paring for multiple months and rotating among several bestsellers. The program is distinct from the similar-looking "Better Together," where the choices are made, without sponsorship, by Amazon—though no such distinction is made on the page.
Mmm... I've got nothing against free enterprise, but some of these book pairings are rather frightening:
Jared Diamond's scholarly but accessible Collapse draws History: Fiction or Science, which is described in part by its publisher, an outfit called Mithec Press, as "Eminent mathematician proves that: Jesus Christ was born in 1053 and crucified in 1086."

Yikes! Reader beware.

Now you too can comment! Changes in comments section

Now you can post comments to Bookish Marginalia even if you're not a Blogger member -- I finally figured out how to enable everyone to post. So please feel free to express yourselves!

In today's NYT...

... there's possibly the weirdest news photograph I have ever seen. I wish my scanner were working so I could post it here; it's worthy of sharing.

This is a large photograph: on the foreground there is the headless body of President Bush with his hand on a podium bearing the presidential seal. His wedding ring is quite prominently displayed. In the center portion, framed between the podium and the president's body is the disembodied head of Laura Bush, who is looking at his body... the effect is eerie, to say the least, and subversive as well. A headless husband, a bodiless wife; a (figurehead?) president without a head (or maybe without a thought in his head?), a first lady who is nothing but a face...

The photo is credited to Doug Mills of The New York Times, so this was taken expressly for the paper. (Not like the Corbis archival photo in that same page of President Bush flanked by prominent Republican senators (all looking like little lead soldiers...).)

If you want a look, it's on page A11 of the Saturday New York Times.

Friday, April 01, 2005

All I know about papal succession...

... I learned from Dan Brown. Mmm... that realization gave me pause, as I watched tonight's coverage of Pope John Paul II's death vigil. Angels and Demons is my reference source for the process of choosing a new pope. I was too young in 1978 (1979?) to pay much attention to Vatican politics then (even if there were two papal elections in as many months).

So now I wonder -- how accurate was Brown's depiction of the arcane rules governing papal succession? I suppose we'll find out in the next few days. I'm definitely plenty old now, and will pay close attention to the process. Even feminist lapsed Catholics are interested in the strange ritualistic (masculinist, conservative...) politics of the world's smallest nation!

Not April Fool's

Via Maud Newton:

A New York Daily News article about how Jonathan Safran Foer is asking his friends to buy his new book now:

In an E-mail to "Friends, Romans, Countrymen," Foer acknowledged some tough reviews and added, "So I'm going to have to rely heavily on word of mouth."

He described last week as "very, very important for the book. Perhaps the most important week."

He added: "If you were thinking of buying a book, or know people who haven't bought books but are intending to, this, right now, is the time to do it."

Sounds like an April Fools prank but apparently isn't; the reporter checked with Foer...

Thursday, March 31, 2005

On Haunted Ground

I'm reading a new book -- hey, after last night's disappointment I had to do something. My pick this time is a mystery, Haunted Ground by Erin Hart. It's the first in a new series featuring Irish archeologist Cormac Maguire and American pathologist (and bog body enthusiast) Nora Gavin. (The second one in the series, Lake of Sorrows, was published in hardcover this past October.)

I'm really enjoying it -- the language is so lovely and richly nuanced. The characters are interesting and well-drawn. Such a relief after that other dud!

A little taste:

Here Cormac is driving his jeep when it is surrounded by a flock of crows:

"A second bird joined it, then another, and another, in rapid succession until the topmost part was enveloped in a whirling mass of dark wings and a cacophony of croaking calls. The sight touched that place inside him, unrevealed to anyone, where he tucked away such otherwordly images and impressions, things connected somehow to myth and memory, to times and places that humankind could not completely understand" (p36).


This Blogging Thing

Over at MJ Rose's Buzz, Balls & Hype there's a new feature where guest bloggers talk about why they blog and how they deal with the pressures of blogging (not to mention why blog at all if no one's paying you to do it). The premiere installment is by Robert Gray at Fresh Eyes: A Bookseller's Journal. Go check it out and leave a comment! I left my own little comment there about why I blog...

Reader's regret...

It doesn't happen often, but once in a while I buy a book that I just cannot stand. I encountered one such book yesterday. It's a hardcover novel by a NYT bestselling author whom I had never read before (with good reason, apparently). I ordered it from my local indy bookstore after seeing an ad for it, just because the premise sounded interesting and reminded me of a Judith Michael novel I read and liked as a teenager...

Well, beware of book ads. I would never have bought this book if I just even flipped through it:

* Margaret's pet peeve alert -- when there are mistakes in the flap copy. I know this is not the author's fault, but it still denotes a carelessness that annoys the hell out of me. In this case, the flap identifies the main character's boyfriend as Jonathan; the first sentence of the novel makes clear his name is Jonathon.

* Margaret's second pet peeve alert -- male characters with precious names -- Jonathon instead of Jonathan... please. And yes, I am well aware this is also minor, but it's like having a paper cut, insignificant but painful.

* Margaret's third pet peeve -- too much emphasis on the state of the female protagonist's stomach (not too mention unimaginative, lackluster writing):

page 2, 3rd paragraph: "... her stomach executing a slow cartwheel at the thought."

page 2, 5th paragraph: "... Her stomach did another lazy half turn."

page 3, the protagonist describing good looking men: "This was the kind that made you go limp all over, as if you'd been punched in the stomach."

* and still more dismal writing:

page 4, the heroine thinking about herself: "Though she'd lived in New York City the better part of fifteen years, her naturally blonde hair, peaches-and-cream complexion, and body that looked equally suited to pitching hay or riding down Main Street on a parade float, screamed cornfed."

page 5, on women's hesitance to trust men: "the firewall she, like most single women in Manhattan who'd been dashed against the rocks of their romantic aspirations, had erected around herself."

page 5: "making slow, luxuriant love"

page 9: "Jessie's nerves were frayed"

page 10:"Jonathon's blue eyes looking out at her from Ruth's lined face framed with crisp iron hair"

Need I say more?

[In the interest of full disclosure, I could only make it to page 20 before I flung the book under the bed....]

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

A little taste of kira-kira

Kira-kira means 'glittering' in Japanese -- it's also a recurring image in Cynthia Kadohata's novel of the same name. Glittering sea, glittering eyes, glittering stars. Kira-kira is the first word big sister Lynn teaches Katie, the novel's narrator; it is also a way of seeing the world that Lynn helps Katie to learn: "My sister had taught me to look at the world that way, as a place that glitters, as a place where the calls of the crickets and the crows and the wind are everyday ocurrences that also happen to be magic" (p243-44).

Lynn, though just four years older than Katie, acts as a surrogate mom to Katie, teaching her not just words, but also the facts of their life as two of only thirty-one Japanese people in their small southern town. Katie is perplexed by Lynn's assertion that some kids at her new school may ignore her: "'Why wouldn't they want to know me?' Who wouldn't want to know me? This was a new idea for me. Our father had always thought we were quite amazing, and Lynn, of course, had always thought I was perfect, so I thought of myself as rather amazing and maybe even perfect" (p50). And moments like this, full of quiet, understated wit, are why I liked this novel (though I'm pretty sure that as a child I would have been less than thrilled with it!).

Just finished: Cynthia Kadohata's Newberry Medal winner

When I was little, I hated books that won awards for children's literature. I always found such books depressing (if Oprah's book club selections were all about women overcoming trying circumstances, these award-winning books were all somehow related to death). Perhaps it is my early aversion to such books which now makes me seek them out.

I just finished kira-kira, the Newberry Medal winning novel by Cynthia Kadohata.

I did like it, though it does fit my childhood preconceptions of award winners: the narrator, a preteen Japanese American girl, tells of her big sister's illness and death in 1950s Georgia (yes, the South again, but this novel is blessedly free from specifics of setting -- there are no vivid, detailed recreations of time or place. In fact, the novel could have been set anywhere, anytime and still worked). I liked that the writing is sparse and quiet and Kadohata doesn't try to beat the reader over the head with the meaning of life; she trusts you'll get it without the need for preachiness.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The ingredients for 'good motherhood'

What makes a good mother? Not being a mom myself (and being, I often suspect, temperamentally unsuited for motherhood), I frequently wonder about mothers, good and bad. I was blessed with a wonderful, caring mom (who was far from perfect; among other things she was much too concerned --and quite vocal-- about the shape and heft of my body). My good mom was herself cursed with a nasty mother, who told her repeatedly throughout childhood she was just a piece of meat with eyes.

Good motherhood is a little like pornography; you know it when you see it, though in theory it's perhaps hard to define. Ayelet Waldman, in her Modern Love piece for Sunday's New York Times, defines a good mother by what she is not: a good mom is not someone who continues to make her husband the center of her 'passionate universe', thus relegating her kids to the periphery of that love, little moons to the father's sun. By this measure, Waldman judges herself lacking in the motherhood department; if not a bad mother, she is at best a 'good enough' mother... And yet... shouldn't our definition of good motherhood be broad enough not to require the abrogation of the wife and lover in favor of the mother and nursemaid? Shouldn't a good mother model for her children a strong, passionate relationship that is essential to but independent of the parent-child bond?

Some may wince at Waldman's admission that her "children are satellites, beloved but tangential" because "I love my husband more than I love my children." And yet -- it's the children's job to grow up and move away, to outgrow the nest. Why shouldn't the bond between the parents be most important, when it is the parents who will remain once the children grow into their own lives?

As the daughter of parents who loved each other first and best, I agree with Ayelet Waldman when she concludes her essay with the words she will tell her children if they question why their father comes first in her affections:

"I will tell them that I wish for them a love like I have for their father. I will tell them that they are my children, and they deserve both to love and be loved like that. I will tell them to settle for nothing less that what they saw when they looked at me, looking at him."

Monday, March 28, 2005

Launching off with Hamlet

Tomorrow I start a new unit with my British lit students. After reading Beowulf (in the Seamus Heaney version), Grendel by John Gardner, and Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, we will be studying Hamlet. I wonder what this journey will be like. There are 25 students in the class; a handful are excellent -- responsible, bright, engaged, fluent in English. Another handful are terrible -- silent, ghostly presences just occupying space. The rest fall somewhere in the middle of the bell curve -- sometimes engaged, often not, occasionally putting in the effort and surprising me (and I suspect themselves) with an insightful observation on the text under consideration.

Teaching Hamlet is also a much welcome chance to reread the play, and to check out some books I have been hoarding for a while: Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World and Marjorie Garber's Shakespeare After All. I'm particularly interested in Garber's book, because it's based on the lectures for her venerable Harvard Core courses on Shakespeare. I have fond memories of sitting in Mem Hall with hundreds of other students listening to Garber. (For some reason the image of her standing at the podium in a cream, knee-length skirt with knee-high boots sticks in my mind, as well as a particularly memorable lecture on family romances in Shakespeare -- memorable perhaps because until then I had ascribed only one possible meaning to the word 'romance'). Unfortunately, I took her course in my senior year, which was blighted by my first debilitating bout with depression... I regret not being fully present (sometimes not present at all), and having a book of her lectures feels like I'm getting an unexpected second chance to learn from her.

On finishing The Secret Life of Bees

Well, I finished The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. Iliana, from BookGirl's Nightstand, put it best in an email to me -- this novel would have been the perfect Oprah's Book Club pick: a quirky story about a downtrodden but spunky girl who finds love, acceptance, and a stronger sense of self within a community of independent older women. I did get involved in the story, mainly because I wanted to find out who Lily's mom really was and what actually happened to her (and no, the husband didn't kill her and blame the kid, like I expected).

The Secret Life of Bees also has some good lines -- for example, when Lily (the 14-year-old white narrator) finds out the reason her mother married her father:

"You think you want to know something, and then once you do, all you can think of s erasing it from your mind. From now on when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I planned to say, Amnesiac." (p.249)

Or when Lily, the Calendar Sisters, and the Daughters of Mary are celebrating Mary Day by ritually feeding each other bits of honey cake:

"I did not know one thing, really, about the Catholic Church, but somehow I felt sure the pope would have keeled over if he'd seen this. Not Brother Gerald, though. He wouldn't have wasted time fainting, just gotten busy arranging the exorcism." (p.226)

Still, I'm not enthralled by the setting -- small town (Southern) USA in 1964-- or by the overall tone of the novel, which I found a little too quaint and at times even a bit maudlin.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

McEwan's Henry Perowne on love

One of the most seductive aspects of Saturday for me is the narrator's deep love for his wife. Here's a little taste:

"When he thinks of sex, he thinks of her. These eyes, these breasts, this tongue, this welcome. Who else could love him so knowingly, with such warmth and teasing humour, or accumulate so rich a past with him? In one lifetime it wouldn't be possible to find another woman with whom he can learn to be so free, whom he can please with such abandon and expertise."

Now, don't tell me that is not a wonderful, inspiring passage! Add to that Henry's knowledge of himself, and we can see that his love is grounded not only on his passion for his wife, but also on his awareness of his own deeply-rooted needs and qualities:

"By some accident of character, it's familiarity that excites him more than sexual novelty. He suspects there's something numbed or deficient or timid in himself. Plenty of male friends sidle into adventures with younger women; now and then a solid marriage explodes in a firefight of recrimination. Perowne watches on with unease, fearing he lacks an element of the masculine life force, and a bold and healthy appetite for experience. Where's his curiosity? What's wrong with him? But there's nothing he can do about himself. He meets the occasional questioning glance of an attractive woman with a bland and level smile. This fidelity might look like virtue or doggedness, but it's neither of these because he exercises no real choice. This is what he was to have: possession, belonging, repetition." (p40-41)

A faithful man who is neither virtuous nor dogged, just accepting of his own nature. Perhaps I'm getting old, but self-knowledge and acceptance are inmensely appealing qualities in anyone, a narrator included.

The neurosurgeon writes

In Ian McEwan's new novel, Saturday, narrator Henry Perowne is a London neurosurgeon at the peak of his powers. Yet, he is also a writer, not of fiction (which he disdains --to great effect-- when he discusses the reading lists his poet daughter gives him), but of medical notes. Here he describes an annoying attack of writer's stumble:

"What dragged him back was an unfamiliar lack of fluency. He prides himself on speed and a sleek, wry style. It never needs much forethought --typing and composing are one. Now he was stumbling. And though the professional jargon didn't desert him --it's second nature-- his prose accumulated awkwardly. Individual words brought to mind unwieldly objects --bicycles, deckchairs, coat hangers-- strewn across his path. He composed a sentence in his head, then lost it on the page, or typed himself into a grammatical cul-de-sac and had to sweat his way out. Whether this debility was the cause or the consequence of fatigue he didn't pause to consider. He was stubborn and pushed himself to the end." (p21)

I like this image of writer's stumble, not block. I think that when one tries to write that is what most often happens, we fumble around and stumble against all sorts of obstacles, from perfectionism to anxiety to a surplus of ideas (not necessarily good ones)...

Meandering through "The Secret Life of Bees"

Mmm... I'm not sure this kind of book is for me. I'm just not that into stories set in the American South. Sue Monk Kidd's novel reminds a little (just a little!) of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (motherless white girl narrator being raised by kindly black mother figure in a little Southern town where segregation is alive and well), but where Scout has a decent, stable father with a penchant for doing the right thing, Lily has an abusive, repulsive father, and no sibling to distract his attention from her. From chapter one Lily tells us that she killed her mother in a tragic accident. I suspect (I'm only about 1/3 of the way through) that we'll all discover that the father was the one who killed Lily's mother and then blamed it on his four-year-old. We'll see if my prediction is correct...

After Saturday

by Ian McEwan, comes The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. No rhyme or reason to the selection, just practicality: I needed something portable to tuck into my bag for the daily pilgrimage to Starbucks, and I know Kidd's second novel will be published soon.

I loved Saturday, by the way, even though those pages on the racket ball game were indeed hard to get through. The rest of the book was a pleasure, though, a true window into another person's consciousness. I strongly disagree with Deirdre Donahue's review of Saturday in Thursday's USA Today, when she called it "a chore to read." But then again, what else could you expect from a review that starts "Few writers can sustain excellence, particularly if they publish more than one book a decade"?

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