Friday, April 22, 2005

How JSF found an agent

Ever wonder how writers and agents get together? I have. Here's an interesting tidbit about how Jonathan Safran Foer found his agent:

For my novel, I knew that writers got agents, the very typical route. And so I went to authors that I loved. I went to their acknowledgments page and saw if they thanked an agent. And that was the agent I would send it to. So I remember I went to Howard Norman and he thanks Melanie Jackson. I went to a number of authors who thanked Nicole Aragi, who ended up becoming my agent. It’s a really great way to do things.

This is part of a much, much longer interview (which is sometimes interesting and often quite boring, as it is a transcription of an actual conversation).

Just read: Bee Season by Myla Goldberg

The students at my college campus have been on strike --protesting the first tuition hike in 13 years-- so I have had a little extra time to commune with the books. Yesterday I read Bee Season, the debut novel by Myla Goldberg (and again recommended by Jenny Davidson of Light Reading). I liked it, but I can't quite say I enjoyed it. It's a book about people searching for their missing pieces, both literally and figuratively, through many different methods: stealing, religion, spelling, a child's newfound potential for transcendence...

Protagonist Eliza Naumann is a 10-year-old never-been; since she was bypassed for TAG (Talented and Gifted) glory, she has been invisible to her parents, and her realization that her older brother was the unheroic and uncomplaining victim of bullying estranged her from the only family member she had been close to. But everything changes when Eliza's hitherto unsuspected genius for spelling leads her to the national spelling bee. Her father suddenly sees her as his true pupil, the one who will be able to achieve the perfect mystical communion with God through the permutation of letters. While Eliza and her father throw themselves into the words, older brother Aaron starts dabbling in religions, finally falling in love with the immediacy --and fellowship-- of the Hare Krishna. Eliza's mother, meanwhile, is spinning quietly, inexorably, and imperceptibly out of control, compelled by powerful internal forces to steal, or as she sees it, reclaim the objects that complete her.

The mysticism, particularly towards the end of the book, left me mystified -- I'm not sure what it all adds up to. And I also have trouble understanding the final scene of the book -- is Eliza rising above it all? Reacting to her mystical revelation of the night before? Exacting revenge on her father? Or merely growing up? I guess in the end I find Bee Season unsettled, and unsettling. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Writers want Oprah!

Word of Mouth, an association of women writers, has just sent Oprah Winfrey this letter begging her to focus once again on contemporary fiction. I've always liked the Oprah Book Club (if not the selections themselves) and I would love to see it revived. I'm keeping my fingers crossed!

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Just read: Trapido's Brother of the More Famous Jack

Yesterday I breezed through Barbara Trapido's Whitbread-winning novel Brother of the More Famous Jack. Loved it! (Thanks to Jenny Davidson of Light Reading for turning me unto Trapido!)

This novel chronicles protagonist and narrator's Katherine's relationship to the Goldmans, a large Bohemian family whose patriarch was Katherine's philosophy professor. Katherine becomes friends with Jane, Prof. Goldman's wife, and lovers with their eldest son, Roger, who keeps his relationship with her a secret from his family. It was a less than ideal relationship, but Roger was Katherine's first love, which may help explain the depth of her otherwise inexplicable attraction to him. It certainly wasn't the sex:

Roger and I, let me confess, never altogether got it right in bed, though we enjoyed the comforting proximity of flesh on flesh. It was never much different from PE classes at school, I found, and left me similarly sweaty, exhausted, and sneaking glances at my watch to see how much longer it could possibly go on. Roger once caught me in the act of looking at my watch and took offense, being an arrogant and insecure young man. I had not yet realized that somebody as beautiful and clever as Roger could be as morbidly riddled with inadequacies as the next man. I was a rather hesitant person myself with a different collection of self-doubts. Thinking back, I realize that I had instinctively built my inadequacies into my public persona, in the hope that thereby I could bestow upon them the dignity of a presence. (p75)

When Roger unceremoniously dumps her, Katherine flees all the Goldmans, spending the next decade teaching English in Rome. Finally, tragedy pushes her back home to England, and prompts her to seek out the Goldmans once more. This time, she accepts their love and understanding, and finally, fully, comes into her own.

Ayelet Waldman on Oprah

I missed it (I was napping!), but Ayelet Waldman was a guest yesterday on The Oprah Winfrey Show. She was there to talk about her controversial Modern Love piece for the NY Times (about how she was in love with her husband and not her four children). I liked that piece (I know many people didn't) and wish I had seen the show. Still, there's a slide show on Oprah's site that gives the highlights.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Truth, beauty, friendship & the writing life

Last week I read Ann Patchett's memoir of her friendship with the late Lucy Grealy, poet, autobiographer, and tortured soul. Truth & Beauty is a beautifully written, compelling and painful account of the complicated relationship between two women who couldn't be more opposite: Patchett was (and is) well-grounded, disciplined, mature; Grealy was child-like, obsessive, demanding, due perhaps to the childhood bout with jaw cancer that left her permanently disfigured and forever in search of the next surgery that would miraculously restore her face and her looks.

I wonder at the enormous amount of energy it took to be Lucy Grealy's friend. And she had many, many devoted friends -- even when she was so damaged by her addictions that there was not much of her left inside the battered body, her friends took care of her. As the book barrels towards the inevitable outcome of Lucy's descent into self-destruction, we become stand-ins for Lucy's friends, drained like them of hope and energy but still hanging on to Lucy's potential, the fading light of her extraordinary spirit.

Lucy's quest for love, her inability to accept what was, could well be linked to the fact that her face, that metaphor for the self, was always a work in progress. In the end, what is surprising is that Lucy hung in there as long as she did -- probably a testament to the strength and will of her devoted friends. But where was her family? In her obits, it says that Lucy was survived by her mother and sisters. Where were they? Patchett certainly never mentions them.

Patchett tries valiantly to show why Grealy aroused such passion and devotion in her friends, but frankly, I can't really see it. And yet, I can identify more with the tortured, self-destructive Lucy than with the responsible, grounded Ann. I suppose that says something about me...

Ann Coulter as Time cover girl

I was surprised to see that Time magazine chose to write a cover story on Ann Coulter... Thankfully, this article by Eric Boehlert articulates my feelings much more cogently and coherently than I could ever have hoped to.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

(Un)Cover the Butter

A few days ago I finished my very first advanced reading copy since becoming a litblogger: Cover the Butter by Carrie Kabak. I have been mulling it over; after all, it's not every day that I get review copies (though I'm perfectly happy to get them -- so please, keep them coming!). Overall I liked Cover the Butter; it's a nice mix of chick lit and women's fiction (with a dash of Peggy Sue Got Married and Under the Tuscan Sun thrown in).

Publisher's description (with my comments in brackets and italics):

In this mesmerizing tale [I really liked it, but mesmerizing is not exactly the adjective I would have used; engaging, perhaps, or charming... maybe even enchanting...], Kate Cadogan is a middle-aged housewife coming to a crossroads in her life. She doesn't realize it until one Sunday morning when she discovers the callous destruction [once again I have trouble with the adjective] visited upon her home [really, it was just the unpleasant leftover mess left by her teenage son's overly rowdy friends], a home she lovingly restored [she actually decorated it and carefully made it into a nest "twig by twig" for her son, who seems curiously unaffected by the post-party state of said nest]. It seems her teenage son threw a party the night before and her husband, Rodney, is too busy with his latest sports program to care. Kate opens a bottle of wine, vows never to sleep with Rodney again [it turns out to be a decision only marginally influenced by his sports obsession and completely related to his behavior during their last sexual encounter], and wonders how she reached this point; how she became just another "sports widow" to an ineffectual, uncaring husband [he's much worse than merely ineffectual]. A few glasses later, Kate finds herself falling down a "tunnel", only to land in 1965 -- in the moment she got her first bra [landing implies awareness of herself as an adult travelling back in time -- there is no such awareness there]. What follows is an exhilarating series of adventures with two spirited and devoted friends, one crazy mother too repressed to leave the butter uncovered [yes, the point of the title does become clear very early on, thankfully], a few wayward men, and one hell of a foundation garment. Through it all Kate rediscovers the woman she once was. Delightfully imaginative, Cover the Butter is an over-forty coming-of-age novel that proves it's never too late to move to Provence and start over.
Things I liked about Cover the Butter:
* The episodic nature of the narrative -- it skips time, clusters it.
* The distinctive voice of Kate the protagonist and first-person narrator, as older teen, young woman, middle-aged woman.
* The tone of the narrative -- it's usually light and filled with humor. Just a little taste:

The double-decker pulls up with a whoosh of brakes. We toss coins into the mouth of the Please Proffer the Exact Fare box, and squash together one seat because we have so much to say, so much to look forward to, and too much to laugh about.
This, I call freedom.
My parents: out of sight.
How I wish I could say: out of mind. (p73)
* How Kate's complicated relationship to her parents was treated -- no easy answers there. Her mom, Biddy, is a self-involved, controlling woman who even monitors her teenage daughter's periods: "Biddy knows the very timetable of my body. She's familiar with every root of hair on my head, every toenail, every eyelash, every mole, and freckle. The invasion is both comfortable and disconcerting at the same time" (p167). Her dad is both emotionally overinvolved with his daughter and chronically unwilling (or unable) to defy his wife (even for his beloved daughter).

What I had problems with:
* The fact that the Alice in Wonderland thing is only for the prologue. Nowhere in the rest of the narrative is there even a hint of awareness of the time travel (not even when the events of the prologue are (re)lived). That just makes it gimmicky, something that feels tacked on as merely a hook or tease but isn't really integral to the story.
* The protagonist as a 14-year-old girl -- I'm still not sure if my discomfort with these chapters reflects a lack in Kabak's writing or merely that it took me a while to hit my stride as her reader, but I found the chapters involving 14-year-old Kate shallow and uninspiring. I had to force myself to read them, but once the narrative shifted and 17-year-old Kate took over, I found both the writing and the story much more compelling -- in fact, I was hooked!

If you want a light, entertaining novel with an engaging protagonist who has her share of misadventures and emerges triumphant, happy, and fulfilled, do give Cover the Butter a try. You won't be disappointed!

And I'm certainly looking forward to Carrie Kabak's next novel!

More information on Cover the Butter:
* It will be published on June 17 by Dutton in hardcover.
* It has been chosen as a Book Sense selection for June, which qualifies it for consideration for the Quills Awards.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Just Read: Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger

On Sunday I read another YA novel, Hard Love, by Ellen Wittlinger. I enjoyed it, particularly the zine articles by some of the characters that Wittlinger pastes into the main narrative. These articles (and also some letters and poems) serve to illustrate how Wittlinger's characters turn to writing as a way of coping with life, reaching out to others, and coming to understand themselves. As Wittlinger herself has said: "And although I don’t set out consciously to say this, my husband tells me that all my books are about how art can save you. Kids who have no one to turn to, turn inward and find an art form—writing, video, drawing, singing—which gives them a way to express themselves and feel good about who they are. In the process, they often find that their art is a bridge to other people."

From the publisher's description:

Since his parents’ divorce, John’s mother hasn’t touched him, her new fiancé wants them to move away, and his father would rather be anywhere than at Friday night dinner with his son. It’s no wonder John writes articles like “Interview with the Stepfather” and “Memoirs from Hell.” The only release he finds is in homemade zines like the amazing Escape Velocity by Marisol, a self-proclaimed “Puerto Rican Cuban Yankee Lesbian.” Haning around the Boston Tower Records for the new issue of Escape Velocity, John meets Marisol and a hard love is born.

While at first their friendship is based on zines, dysfuntional families, and dreams of escape, soon both John and Marisol begin to shed their protective shells. Unfortunately, John mistakes this growing intimacy for love, and a disastrous date to his junior prom leaves that friendship in ruins. Desperately hoping to fix things, John convinces Marisol to come with him to a zine conference on Cape Cod. On the sandy beaches by the Bluefish Wharf Inn, John realizes just how hard love can be.

With keen insight into teenage life, Ellen Wittlinger delivers a story of adolescence that is fierce and funny—and ultimately transforming—even as it explores the pain of growing up.

John Galardi is a loner, unable to express his feelings except in the pages of his zine, Bananafish. He finds inspiration in another zine, Escape Velocity, created by Marisol Guzman, a self-proclaimed rich spoiled lesbian private-school gifted-and-talented writer virgin. Her sharp observations make John laugh out loud and he decides he must meet this witty author. By planting himself in Tower Records the day she drops off the latest issue, John manages to arrange a coffee date that extends over several Saturday mornings. They discuss everything from Johns inability to feel and his parents divorce to Marisols problems with her suffocating adoptive parents. When Marisol casually tells John that she likes him, he is flabbergasted:" Honest to God a shiver ran through my body... Nobody ever said that they liked me. Ever. Not even [my friend] Brian, who probably actually doesn't." After a disastrous just friends junior prom date and a weekend zine conference spent together, John realizes that his feelings for Marisol are more than platonic. And Marisol, who is exploring her identity as a young lesbian, has no idea how to let John down gently without losing her new best friend.

Like Barbara Wersbas's Whistle Me Home, Hard Love tackles the delicate issue of unrequited love between a straight and gay teen. But what sets this novel apart from similarly themed books is Wittlinger's choice to present the story from John's straight male point of view. Funny and poignant first-person narration will engender empathy for John as he attempts to connect with his emotionally distant parents and an understanding of how his need for their affection has manifested itself in romantic feelings for a girl he knows is unavailable to him. Hard Love is a thoughtful and on-target addition to the growing canon of gay and lesbian coming-of-age stories. (Ages 12 and older) Jennifer Hubert

For more information:
  • Ellen Wittlinger's website

  • Lyrics to the Bob Franke song that inspired Hard Love

  • Interview with Ellen Wittlinger

  • Another interview (and profile)

  • PDF file of "How Art Can Save You: An Interview with Ellen Wittlinger": "I first tried to write a novel for teenagers when I was thirty. But I hadn’t read many YA novels, and I hadn’t written much fiction. I think I thought writing for young adults would be easy and I could dash out a book in no time. Of course, that book neversold. If I had a preconceived idea, it was probably that books for teenagers were kind of insipid and that I would shock everyone by writing a really good one. How arrogant I was. Then I got a job in the Children’s Room of our local library, and I started to actually read YA novels. There were so many great ones! I realized there were things that I needed to learn about this genre if I wanted to write for it. Brock Cole’s and Katherine Paterson’s books gave me the underpinnings that I needed to start writing."

  • Ellen Wittlinger in her own words
  • Sunday, April 17, 2005

    The House of the Scorpion

    Yesterday I devoured The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer. It's a young adult novel that won the Newberry and the National Book Award (among many prizes) in 2003. [For some reason, I have been really attracted to children's and YA fiction lately.]

    The House of the Scorpion is set in an unspecified but not so distant future, where Mexico no longer exists (it has become Aztlan), the US is no longer paradise to immigrants, and a country called Opium has sprung up between Aztlan and the US, born of a treaty between the US, Mexico and the powerful drug dealers of the borderlands. Opium, named for its obiquitous poppy fields, is a feudal state; the most powerful of the lords is El Patron, Matteo Alacran, a 140 year old man who owes his extreme longevity to medical experiments using clones created in labs and grown within cows. Cloning is a fact of life in this world -- and highly regulated. By law, clones are no better than cattle. At birth, each clone receives a tattoo of ownership and a chemical lobotomy, which ensures the clone will remain properly animal-like. A similar chemical process is used to turn all ilegal immigrants unfortunate enough to be caught by Opium Farm Patrols into eejits, zombie-like creatures that can only perform what limited functions they are especifically ordered to do. Most eejits are then used to tend the poppy fields.

    The protagonist of the The House of the Scorpion is a clone, but not an eejit, because as El Patron's clone, Matt is spared the chemical obliteration of his brain. However, being anyone's clone is no picnic -- clones are both feared and loathed by ordinary humans. We follow Matt from conception and harvesting through to age 14, and get to experience his bewilderment at his situation, plus his eventual acceptance of his condition. While it's not a cheerful novel, and many parts are hard to stomach, the ending is optimistic (but never pat). Farmer does an excellent job of showing the effects of this society (and its choices about technology) without resorting to preachiness or heavy-handedness. This novel is well-worth the time of any reader interested in cloning, enslavement, and the treatment of the weakest people in society. I can't wait to see how Farmer's The House of the Scorpion compares to Ishaguro's Never Let Me Go, which covers some of the same territory.

    For more information:

  • Read an excerpt of The House of the Scorpion.

  • Here's another.

  • A biography of Nancy Farmer

  • Nancy Farmer's acceptance speech for the National Book Award for The House of the Scorpion

  • Excerpts from a Locus interview with Nancy Farmer

  • Another interview with Nancy Farmer, mainly about her African-themed books: "Growing up in a hotel on the Mexican/U.S. border taught me that good people are an endangered species that need to be protected at all times. I have a bleak viewpoint of all governments and dislike borders of all kinds."

  • Interview with Nancy Farmer, mostly about her new novel, The Sea of Trolls : "Nancy Farmer never intended to be a writer. Rather, the award-winning childen's author says, "I wanted to be an explorer . . . to go out and have adventures and have fun." Although she's no Christopher Columbus, Farmer has certainly had her share of adventures, from spending three years in the Peace Corps in southern India to living in a California temple with a group of Hare Krishnas. Eventually, she says, "I wanted to do something interesting, so I bought a ticket on a freighter to Africa." She ended up spending nearly 20 years in Africa, where she met and married her husband, Harold."

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