Sunday, May 16, 2004

BookMania 2003 and
The Spinach Philosophy of Book Selection is my term for the way books are selected at some libraries. For instance, when The Sexual Life of Catherine M. by Catherine Millet, translated by Adriana Hunter, was first offered up for purchase, I recommended it not because it was well reviewed, because it was not. I recommended it because of all the buzz - I knew there would be a demand for it. My supervisor placed it on her order, but the branch manager squashed it. Not one of the 14 branches in the Palm Beach County Library system ordered it, and I can understand why she didn't want to be the first. But we have a contract with a vendor that automatically ships us a set number of copies of any book that lands on the NY Times best seller list. Sure enough, the Millet book hit two weeks after publication and eventually hit the library shelves.

Unfortunately, we don't have that automatic ordering process in place for the NY Times Children's best seller list. A book has been on that list for quite some time now which the Palm Beach County Library System refuses to purchase. Why? They don't like the title. This particular book has been very well reviewed and has been cited as a great book to bring "reluctant readers" to the table. The title of this oh-so-offensive children's book? Walter the Farting Dog, by William Kotzwinkle. Which brings me to my rant on the Spinach Philosophy.

The Spinach Philosophy works this way: we don't provide the public with what it wants, we buy what is good for them. We decide what is good for them, and even more importantly, what is bad for them, then we avoid the bad no matter what. No matter that this is a public library, supported entirely by tax dollars that are paid by the public we serve. They might love French fries, but everyone knows they are bad for you, so instead, we offer you spinach. Have a lovely new reissue of the Black Stallion, a fine piece of literature to be sure, but does it hold the same appeal as the aforementioned Farting Dog book? Maybe. But maybe not. Why not offer both spinach and French fries? Anne of Green Gables and the Farting Dog can happily coexist on the same shelves. They do in bookstores, where the bottom line is providing what the public wants or hey, go out of business. There are no stores selling only spinach. It's the fries, baby, that the public craves, and if they are paying, give it to them.

If the Spinach Philosophy was used for only children's books it would be bad enough, and if it was only used as a prurient-meter for books for so-called grown ups, that would also be pretty bad. But it's also poorly reviewed books or books that haven't been reviewed by an authoritative source [Booklist, Library Journal.] I understand that libraries have to have some standards - I'm certainly not complaining about the lack of Hustler magazines or the latest in sado-masochist erotic fantasy, not that there's anything wrong with that. It just seems to me that a public library should carry what the public it serves wants, and if they want to read a poorly reviewed book or one with an offensive title, they should be able to do so. Sure, there has to be a line drawn somewhere, but personally, I don't think that Walter the Farting Dog is the proper place for that line.

BookMania 2003

Hats off to Martin County. If you've never been there, picture a small beach town, surrounded by other small beach towns that spread into sprawling suburbs as you travel west; so small that the Interstate had a gap through Martin County until just a few years ago. Yet somehow they managed to build a beautiful library with a large auditorium that has become this wonderful meeting place for authors and their fans. I was unable to attend opening night, which featured Elmore Leonard, but I did spend all day Saturday there, and the lineup was terrific.  

The first panel I attended was called "Women Who Craft the Crimes" and featured Carolina Garcia-Aguilera, Christine Kling and Virginia Swift, and was moderated by Scott Eyman, books editor of the Palm Beach Post. Carolina Garcia-Aguilera is the author of the fabulous Lupe Solano mystery series, the most recent one being Bitter Sugar. Her last book was One Hot Summer, (reviewed here) a complete departure for her into the contemporary romance genre, and it was a very successful foray indeed. There was some Miami politics sprinkled throughout that book, and as anyone who lives in Miami can tell you, it's very difficult to write about the area and not get into the politics. Ms. Garcia-Aguilera told me she was crucified for her politics, but I say you go, girl. If you have the forum and something to say, don't let the critics stop you. She also spoke about how reading was her escape from reality when she was a child. She was born in Cuba, and grew up during the revolution there, and then in exile before moving to Miami.  

Ms. Garcia-Aguilera was a private investigator in Miami for many years, and still does some investigative work now and then, which lends real credence to her Lupe Solano character. If you haven't read them, Lupe is a classic private eye with a feminist twist - she's a loner, but wears high heels. She's sexy, but not romantic, for which she has also been criticized; I'm afraid the old double standard is still alive and well among critics and readers. PI's have been having casual sex forever, but when it's the woman who wants it that way, tongues wag (no pun intended.) I am very excited about her next book, a stand alone thriller about Cubans in Las Vegas, called Luck of the Draw. It is scheduled for release in June.

Virginia Swift is the author of Brown-Eyed Girl and her newest book, Bad Company. My friend Judy just raved about her books, but I haven't gotten to them yet. (Judy, when are you going to start reviewing for me?!?) Ms. Swift, or as she is also known in real life, Dr. Virginia Scharff, is a history professor at the University of New Mexico, and has published several books in her area of expertise, women in the American West. She put herself through school as a honky-tonk singer in Laramie, Wyoming and in the oddest of coincidences, the main character of her series is a history professor who sings in a honky-tonk in, you guessed it, Laramie. Ms. Swift told us that historians are very leery of writing anything that is not true, so it was a bit of a stretch for her to write fiction. But nevertheless she'd been starting novels for years and had a drawer full of "false starts" as she called them, until one day she decided it was time to clean them out. She threw them all away, and that night she had a dream about a character she had written who told her "you can't get rid of us that easily." That character became "Mustang" Sally Adler (for the car, not the horse) and thus was born Brown-Eyed Girl, an homage to one of her favorite authors, Carl Hiaasen. Ms. Swift was very bright, funny and self-deprecating, and I would love to take a class with her. But instead, I'll settle for reading her novels. Soon.

Rounding out this panel was Christine Kling. Her first novel, Surface Tension, made my favorite books of the year list for 2002 (review here) and I gave away several copies in a contest, so it was a real pleasure to finally get to meet her. She mentioned how much fun it was for her to be on the other side of the table after so many years as a mystery fan. Ms. Kling's favorite author is John D. MacDonald and his Travis McGee character, and she based her book and her character on him. She said she loved how Travis always got the girl in the end, and then they would go off to the Keys. So in her book, her main character, Seychelle Sullivan, gets the hunky guy in the end and they go off to the Keys. Sweet! The next book in the series is called Cross Current, and has a political twist with Haitian immigration playing into the story.

Next on the agenda was a talk by S. V. Date, author of Black Sunshine, a politically inspired humorous thriller about the race for Governor. Date has been a journalist in Florida for many years, and is currently working in Tallahassee for the Palm Beach Post. He talked about politics in Florida, and his first hand knowledge of the insanity that goes on at the capital made for a very humorous talk indeed. His writing turned to fiction several years ago when Date and his wife took a year off from work and sailed through the Mediterranean and the Caribbean on a 31' cutter. He started writing his first novel, Final Orbit, about a murder on a space shuttle and the subsequent cover-up by NASA (which stands for "Never A Straight Answer") on that sailing trip. Date's novels are most often compared to Carl Hiaasen's.
Barnes & Noble is the bookseller for BookMania and they donate a percentage of their sales to the library. They also brought in Jill Lamar, the Manager and Editor of their "Discover Great New Writers" program. This is a wonderful program that helps promotes undiscovered authors. Booksellers from throughout the chain volunteer to read several books and make their recommendations. There are annual Discover awards as well, which for 2002 were judged by several prominent authors, most of whom were previously "discovered" by B&N themselves, including Anita Shreve and Susan Orlean. Ms. Lamar set up and moderated a panel with six eclectic and very talented new authors of such diverse work as two novels, a collection of short stories, two memoirs and a nonfiction adventure story.  

Jill Bialosky is an editor at W. W. Norton, a published poet but was promoting her first novel, House Under Snow, which was inspired by her image of the house and her characters, the mother and her daughters that were trapped within it. Ms. Bialosky is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, and she credits the workshop with helping her find her own voice. She made a lot of friends there who still critique her work.

Loraine Despres has been writing for TV for years, her claim to fame being the "Who Shot J. R." episode of "Dallas." She started feeling the need for a change, and turned her considerable writing talent to a novel, a wickedly funny Southern charmer called The Scandalous Summer of Sissy LeBlanc. Sissy lives her life based on the Southern Belle's Handbook (soon to be published as well) which includes much of the savvy sayings Ms. Despres heard growing up Louisiana. Ms. Despres told a story that her grandfather liked to tell about a man who walks into a bar and sees his wife with another man. He turns around, goes across the street to the hardware store, buys a gun, goes back into the bar and shoots his wife and her lover dead. The moral of the story, she was told, was "no guns on credit." Words to live by.   
Cynthia Kaplan is an actress who grew up in Weston, Connecticut. Her memoir is actually a collection of essays entitled Why I'm Like This: True Stories. When she decided to write, she thought about the most interesting character she could think of to write about - herself. She says she is "profoundly, deeply connected to the neurotic workings of my own brain." Her stories are an accurate representation of a middle-class Jewish girl, yet they are universal. She writes about the secrets in life that people think about but don't talk about. Her essays range from dealing with Alzheimer's to the "one girl at camp whom everyone hated" to waiting tables to finding a new therapist. She's funny and bright and sensitive - hearing another author speak brought her to tears, which she blamed on "pregnant hormones," but I teared up too and I haven't had a pregnant hormone for more than ten years. The man who caused the tears was Bob Smith.

Bob Smith is the author of Hamlet's Dresser: A Memoir. At 61, he is a first time published author and the self proclaimed "geriatric new kid" of this group. Mr. Smith started a Shakespeare appreciation class for senior citizens. The first class has 7 students, all over 85 years old. Then next class had 25 students, then 100 and by the end of the first year there were 2000 seniors showing up to discuss Shakespeare's work. The New York Times sent a reporter out to investigate, and it ended up as a front page story. Scribners approached him and asked him to write a book, but Mr. Smith doesn't type, so when he met with them he just read from hand written pages. They got him a typist and he slowly began writing his memoir. It started, as most memoirs do, in childhood. He grew up in Stratford, Connecticut and Shakespeare was not only his escape, but also his guide. Mr. Smith has a sister who is profoundly retarded, and he took care of her. But eventually she was institutionalized and he never saw her again. He told Scribner that the book wouldn't be finished until he saw his sister again, which he eventually did. You have to love a book about how books saved a life.

Tim Zimmermann is the author of The Race: The First Non-Stop, Round the World, No-Holds-Barred Sailing Competition, an adventure story in the style of Junger's The Perfect Storm. He talked about the type of people that get involved in a race like that - eccentric, to say the least - willing to only change their underwear three times in a year. He also addressed the "write what you know" school of thought; he likes to write about what he doesn't know, and learn something in the process. That hasn't helped him find another topic to write about though. He needs to feel passionate enough about something to commit to writing a book about it, so meanwhile he continues to write articles for Outside, Sports Illustrated and Sailing magazines.

The last panelist was the short story writer, and the most commercially successful author of the group, (which if you know anything at all about the publishing business, has to be one of the strangest sentences ever written.) Adam Haslett is the author of You Are Not a Stranger Here, which rocketed up the New York Times bestseller list after Jonathan Franzen picked it for the Today Show book club. The stories are an "emotional autobiography, not a literal" one. His writing has been influenced by William Trevor, one of my favorite short story writers. Mr. Haslett is also a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, and is currently in his last year of law school at Yale. He plans on writing a novel after he takes his law boards. While waiting in line to meet him, the woman behind me, an attorney, remarked that "he doesn't look like a lawyer, he looks like a judge." He looks like a writer to me, and I am looking forward to reading more words from this remarkably gifted young man.

Ask the Author was the next panel, featuring James Grippando and Stephen Horn, both of them lawyers now writing legal thrillers. Stephen Horn had a huge success with his first novel, In Her Defense, which was started from a first line and a last line. He just filled in the middle and hit the NY Times bestseller list. When he began thinking about what he'd like to write next, he was inspired by a couple of images. One was of a woman falling from a building in the Bronx (Mr. Horn grew up in the Bronx in the 1950s) and the other was of a man going to work in an overcoat with grass and dirt stains that he got from sitting by the grave of a little girl. Those images formed the basis of his new book, Law of Gravity. Horn, a Washington D. C. attorney, will be bringing back his character, Washington D. C. attorney Frank O'Connell, the Vietnam vet (Horn served with the 101st Airborne in Vietnam) from In Her Defense for his next book.  

James Grippando has written several books including some of my favorites; The Pardon, Found Money and the superb A King's Ransom. Truth be told, every book the man has written has been terrific, he is one gifted storyteller. He is a real planner, working from an outline that he describes as a 30 page "Reader's Digest" version of the book. His books are always rich with character and story, and there is good reason for that. Mr. Grippando feels that a good story needs compelling characters that the reader gets to know, using the analogy of riding a roller coaster versus taking a very fast car ride with someone you'd like to hang around with - he opts for the latter. That analogy works for me - I won't go on a roller coaster but fast driving is, well, never mind. His most recent book, Beyond Suspicion, brought back Miami defense attorney Jack Swyteck, a character from his first book, The Pardon. Grippando is stretching in a new direction by writing a series after writing stand alones. He is contracted to write three more Swyteck books, and the next one, Last to Die, will be published in July. With this new committment, Mr. Grippando was forced to finally give up his law practice. The law's loss is the reader's gain.

The last author I saw spoke to a standing room only crowd. The fabulous Edna Buchanan, wearing her trademark "I Love Miami" necklace, gave a funny, insightful and often moving talk centered around her theme - it's "not easy to write fiction in a place that is stranger." Example: the young police officer who walked into a crime scene where the victim had just been decapitated, and the perpetrator threw the head at him. His involuntary response? He threw it back. She talked about how Florida is "a gun shaped state" and living here often feels like living in an episode of the Twilight Zone - with Rod Serling as Governor. She talked about her early inspiration, her 7th grade English teacher, Mrs. Tunis, who encouraged little Edna with her writing inspirations. She started sending stories out to magazines, and brought Mrs. Tunis her first rejection letter. Mrs. Tunis continued to encourage her and asked her student to dedicate her first book to her.

Unfortunately, she died the following year, but Ms. Buchanan never forgot her or her request, and her first book, her memoir, was dedicated to her teacher. 
Ms. Buchanan spent twenty years as a journalist covering the police beat in Miami, winning the Pulitzer Prize in the process. During the drug years in the 1980s, she had one memorable year that gave her over 650 murders to write about. "I take evil seriously," she said, and that's why she loves writing fiction. In her books, "the good guys win and the bad guys get what they deserve, unlike real life." Her alter-ego, Britt Montero, is helping the good guys win again in her newest novel, The Ice Maiden. It was very pleasant hour with the "Queen of Crime" and a wonderful day at BookMania.

No comments:

Search This Blog