Saturday, December 04, 2004

100 Notable Books of the Year


This year the Book Review has selected 100 Notable Books from those reviewed since the Holiday Books issue of Dec. 7, 2003. The book titles are linked to the full reviews [if you click on the link at the end of this piece, it will take you to the linked list.] Next week we'll present the 10 Best Books of the Year, chosen from this longer list.

FICTION & POETRY

ALOFT. By Chang-rae Lee. (Riverhead, $24.95.) The developments of Long Island are the setting for a tale of a self-made American on the rise.

THE AMATEUR MARRIAGE. By Anne Tyler. (Knopf, $24.95.) An ambitious exploration of domestic dislocation, ranging over 60 years of American experience.

AMERICAN SMOOTH: Poems. By Rita Dove. (Norton, $22.95.) In this collection, dance is an implicit parallel to poetry, each an expression of grace performed within limits.

BANDBOX. By Thomas Mallon. (Pantheon, $24.95.) Two glossy magazines wage a circulation war in the twilight of the pre- Depression era.

A BIT ON THE SIDE. By William Trevor. (Viking, $24.95.) Stories about enduring love without purpose and adultery without passion.

CLOUD ATLAS. By David Mitchell. (Random House, paper, $14.95.) A novel that covers about 1,000 years in narratives involving a New Zealand stowaway, a book editor, a goatherd and others.

COLLECTED POEMS. By Donald Justice. (Knopf, $35.) Justice (1925-2004) spent most of his life around universities, and much of his attention looking behind him, preoccupied with the evocation of nostalgia and the endings of things.

THE CURSE OF THE APPROPRIATE MAN. By Lynn Freed. (Harvest/Harcourt, paper, $13.) Tough fiction whose theme is women's desire.

THE DARLING. By Russell Banks. (HarperCollins, $25.95.) A privileged American girl grows up to see her life ruined in a war in Liberia, and winds up caring for chimps.

THE FALLS. By Joyce Carol Oates. (Ecco/HarperCollins, $26.95.) The falls are Niagara and the advent of sin as well in this novel of high pressures and ungovernable forces.

THE FIRST DESIRE. By Nancy Reisman. (Pantheon, $24.) An impressionistic debut novel about the tensions and rivalries within an extended family.

FOUR SOULS. By Louise Erdrich. (HarperCollins, $23.95.) A vengeful, partly comical plot that ranges about in time and space, rising in pitch to conclude in gorgeous incantations and poetry.

GILEAD. By Marilynne Robinson. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23.) A demanding, grave and lucid novel in the form of a long letter from an aging preacher to his young son.

THE HAMILTON CASE. By Michelle de Kretser. (Little, Brown, $24.95.) A beguiling, multilayered novel that spans much of the 20th century.

HARBOR. By Lorraine Adams. (Knopf, $23.95.) This first novel, based on Adams's reporting for The Washington Post, captures the immensity of the terrorist challenge.

HEIR TO THE GLIMMERING WORLD. By Cynthia Ozick. (Houghton Mifflin, $24.) A novel of ideas, incarnated in an 18-year-old orphan girl who takes a job in 1935 as secretary to a scholar of an ancient Jewish heresy.

I AM CHARLOTTE SIMMONS. By Tom Wolfe. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28.95.) Campus debauchery as seen through the oh-so-innocent eyes of a God-fearing young woman.

THE INNER CIRCLE. By T. Coraghessan Boyle. (Viking, $25.95.) Alfred C. Kinsey, premier American sex scientist, strives to perfect humankind in Boyle's skeptical novel.

THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB. By Karen Joy Fowler. (Marian Wood/Putnam, $23.95.) A comic novel, set in a California college town, that is more about how to read than about book groups or Jane Austen.

JONATHAN STRANGE & MR. NORRELL. By Susanna Clarke. (Bloomsbury, $27.95.) A fantasy, involving a Yorkshire magician (Norrell) who comes to London in 1806 and takes on the handsome Jonathan Strange for a disciple.

THE LEMON TABLE: Stories. By Julian Barnes. (Knopf, $22.95.) Old age and getting there is the scene of this collection by the author of ''Flaubert's Parrot.''

THE LINE OF BEAUTY.By Alan Hollinghurst. (Bloomsbury, $24.95.) This year's Booker Prize novel concerns a gay intellectual whose heart has room in it to like Margaret Thatcher.

LITTLE CHILDREN. By Tom Perrotta. (St. Martin's, $24.95.) Adultery and childraising in a generic suburb.

MAGIC SEEDS. By V. S Naipaul. (Knopf, $25.) A writer's restless world travels lead him back home to India and into the center of a revolution.

THE MASTER. By Colm Toibin. (Scribner, $25.) A deeply considered, crisply delivered novel whose hero is Henry James.

MEN AND CARTOONS: Stories. By Jonathan Lethem. (Doubleday, $19.95.) Brooklynite fiction by the author of ''The Fortress of Solitude.''

NATASHA: And Other Stories. By David Bezmozgis. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $18.) A loosely linked anthropological collection that succinctly and unsentimentally depicts a world of Russian Jews in Toronto.

OBLIVION: Stories. By David Foster Wallace. (Little, Brown, $25.95.) Narratives in an exhaustive mode, told by people who notice absolutely everything.

OUR KIND. By Kate Walbert. (Scribner, $23.) A novel in stories, collectively narrated by women who came of age before 1960.

THE PERSISTENCE OF MEMORY. By Tony Eprile. (Norton, $24.95.) Part fable, part coming-of-age story, Eprile's first novel concerns a burdened South African Jew and his country's endless ''Border War'' in Namibia and Angola.

THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA. By Philip Roth. (Houghton Mifflin, $26.) Charles Lindbergh is elected president in 1940 on a pro- Nazi platform, and a Jewish family in Newark suffers the consequences.

THE PRODIGAL.By Derek Walcott. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $20.) A verse memoir by the world wanderer who took the 1992 Nobel Prize.

RUNAWAY. By Alice Munro. (Knopf, $25.) Her 11th collection of short stories about people who do what our neighbors do but far more vividly.

SNOW. By Orhan Pamuk. (Knopf, $26.) The line between farce and tragedy is drawn in blood where secular and Islamic Turkey seem to explode on contact.

THE STONE THAT THE BUILDER REFUSED. By Madison Smartt Bell. (Pantheon, $29.95.) The final novel in Bell's huge Haitian trilogy.

SWEET LAND STORIES. By E. L. Doctorow. (Random House, $22.95.) Like Doctorow's novels, these stories affirm the American theme of self-creation.

TRANSMISSION. By Hari Kunzru. (Dutton, $24.95.) An Indian programmer, thwarted in his plans to make his fortune in California, unleashes a killer computer virus.

THE TYRANT'S NOVEL. By Thomas Keneally. (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $25.) In a country very like Iraq, a fiction writer is ordered to produce, in one month, a novel to be published under a tyrant's name.

AN UNFINISHED SEASON. By Ward Just. (Houghton Mifflin, $24.) Just's 14th novel captures the ethos of Chicago and its suburbs in the 1950's.

VILLAGES. By John Updike. (Knopf, $25.) An old man reflects on his sex life, after the pill and before AIDS, in a sincerely raunchy novel.

WAKE UP, SIR! By Jonathan Ames. (Scribner, $23.) A plot of fine inanity involves an artists' colony, where the hero improbably acquires a sound grasp on things and people.

WAR TRASH. By Ha Jin. (Pantheon, $25.) A moral fable whose suffering hero passes from delusion to clarity as a Chinese P.O.W. in Korea.


NONFICTION

AFTER SUCH KNOWLEDGE: Memory, History, and the Legacy of the Holocaust. By Eva Hoffman. (PublicAffairs, $25.) Hoffman renders the catastrophe as it is revealed to a generation drastically affected by events it is too young to remember.

AGAINST ALL ENEMIES: Inside America's War on Terror. By Richard A. Clarke. (Free Press, $27.) An insider's account of President Bush's early concern with Iraq after 9/11.

ALEXANDER HAMILTON. By Ron Chernow. (Penguin Press, $35.) A biography of the founder who created American capitalism and died in a duel with Aaron Burr.

AMERICAN DREAM: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation's Drive to End Welfare. By Jason DeParle. (Viking, $25.95.) A reporter finds ending welfare did not notably increase happiness.

THE AMERICANIZATION OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN. By Gordon S. Wood. (Penguin Press, $25.95.) An engaging study of the most engaging founder.

THE ANCESTOR'S TALE: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution. By Richard Dawkins. (Houghton Mifflin, $28.) Back through time from our own branch of the tree of life.

ARC OF JUSTICE: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age. By Kevin Boyle. (Holt, $26.) An account of the murder trial and eventual acquittal in 1925 Detroit of a black doctor who fired on a mob that had come to drive him from the house he bought in a white neighborhood.

AT THE TOMB OF THE INFLATABLE PIG: Travels Through Paraguay. By John Gimlette. (Knopf, $25.) An eccentric, hilarious, horrifying — that is to say, utterly faithful — picture of a country as strange as any on earth.

BEASTS OF EDEN: Walking Whales, Dawn Horses, and Other Enigmas of Mammal Evolution. By David Rains Wallace. (University of California, $24.95.) A history of the ''bone hunters'' who have scoured the earth to elucidate mammal development in geological time.

BLUE BLOOD. By Edward Conlon. (Riverhead, $26.95.) A memoir by a New York City police officer with a Catholic education followed by a Harvard one.

CHAIN OF COMMAND: The Road From 9/11 to Abu Ghraib. By Seymour M. Hersh. (HarperCollins, $25.95.) What went wrong in Iraq, by the dogged New Yorker reporter.

CHRONICLES: Volume One. By Bob Dylan. (Simon & Schuster, $24.). A memoir — idiosyncratic and revelatory — by the peerless singer-songwriter.

DANCING WITH CUBA: A Memoir of the Revolution. By Alma Guillermoprieto. (Pantheon, $25.) A memoir by a reporter who, as a 20-year-old dance student, took a teaching job in Castro's Cuba in 1969.

DEVIL IN THE MOUNTAIN: A Search for the Origin of the Andes. By Simon Lamb. (Princeton University, $29.95) A geologist's rich account, rock by rock, page by page.

THE FABRIC OF THE COSMOS: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality. By Brian Greene. (Knopf, $28.95.) A discussion of the irreconcilable differences between the cornerstones of theoretical physics — the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics.

FATHER JOE: The Man Who Saved My Soul. By Tony Hendra. (Random House, $24.95.) An account of an English Benedictine monk who passed God's love along to someone who couldn't find it alone.

THE FIVE BOOKS OF MOSES: A Translation With Commentary. By Robert Alter. (Norton, $39.95.) The first five books of the Bible in a version rich in literary insights.

GHOST WARS: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. By Steve Coll. (Penguin Press, $29.95.) An evenhanded account of the battles involving the White House, the C.I.A. and other agencies at a time when terrorism was not Washington's top priority.

HIGH NOON IN THE COLD WAR: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. By Max Frankel (Ballantine, $23.95.) This fast-paced history argues that the danger of an all-out nuclear war was less acute than we may have been led to believe.

HIP: The History. By John Leland. (HarperCollins, $26.95.) A lively study of the well-known but hard to define antiestablishment posture.

HIS BROTHER'S KEEPER: A Story From the Edge of Medicine. By Jonathan Weiner. (Ecco/HarperCollins, $26.95.) A cautionary tale about the promise and peril of biomedical research.

IN THE SHADOW OF NO TOWERS. By Art Spiegelman. (Pantheon, $19.95.) An album, a monograph and an intimate memoir by the author of ''Maus,'' who witnessed the attacks on the World Trade Center at close range.

THE ISLAND AT THE CENTER OF THE WORLD: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America. By Russell Shorto. (Doubleday, $27.50.) A history of the first multiethnic upwardly mobile society in America.

JEROME ROBBINS: His Life, His Theater, His Dance. By Deborah Jowitt. (Simon & Schuster, $40.) A grand survey of the great and popular choreographer of both ballet and Broadway.

JOHN JAMES AUDUBON: The Making of an American.By Richard Rhodes. (Knopf, $30.) A biography that also shows a nation taking form.

THE LIFE OF GRAHAM GREENE. Volume Three: 1955-1991. By Norman Sherry. (Viking, $39.95.) The final installment of Sherry's authorized biography.

LIFE ON THE OUTSIDE: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett. By Jennifer Gonnerman. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24.) The hard life and times of a young mother of four who drew 20 to life for her first offense — selling cocaine to an undercover police officer.

THE MISSING PEACE: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace. By Dennis Ross. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $35.) A virtual encyclopedia of the ''peace process'' as seen by the special envoy who was the central figure in American Middle East policies for 12 years under two presidents.

MY LIFE. By Bill Clinton. (Knopf, $35.) From hardscrabble days in Hope, Ark., to the brink of impeachment, by the 42nd president.

NATALIE WOOD: A Life. By Gavin Lambert. (Knopf, $25.95.) A wistful and humane account that captures Wood as an industrious performer and vulnerable woman.

THE 9/11 COMMISSION REPORT: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. (Norton, paper, $10.) How and why the government failed to protect us from Al Qaeda, with sweeping recommendations for reorganizing American intelligence.

1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs — the Election That Changed the Country. By James Chace. (Simon & Schuster, $25.95.) A history that sees the presidential election of 1912 as setting up the conflict between progressive idealism and conservative values.

NUCLEAR TERRORISM: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe. By Graham Allison. (Times Books/Holt, $24.) A Harvard scholar's report on the nuclear threat and how it might be reduced.

ON THE WING: To the Edge of the Earth With the Peregrine Falcon. By Alan Tennant. (Knopf, $25.) An eco-thriller about studying falcons.

OSAMA: The Making of a Terrorist. By Jonathan Randal. (Knopf, $26.95.) A reporter's guide to the vain, ascetic, humorless man and the Islamic geography that made him.

THE OUTLAW SEA: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime. By William Langewiesche. (North Point, $23.) A report from the empty three-fourths of the globe, where 40,000 merchant ships operate with virtually no oversight. OUT OF GAS: The End of the Age of Oil. By David Goodstein. (Norton, $21.95.) A physicist warns that the world's supply is headed toward depletion.

PERILOUS TIMES: Free Speech in Wartime, From the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism. By Geoffrey R. Stone. (Norton, $35.) A study in historical perspective that shows a constant expansion of free-speech rights.

PLAN OF ATTACK. By Bob Woodward. (Simon & Schuster, $28.) A behind-the-scenes look at the administration's decision to invade Iraq.

POLITICS: Observations & Arguments, 1966-2004. By Hendrik Hertzberg. (Penguin Press, $29.95.) A collection of almost 40 years of articles by an observer whose chief watchtowers have been The New Yorker, The New Republic and Newsweek.

THE PRICE OF LOYALTY: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill. By Ron Suskind. (Simon & Schuster, $26.) A detailed account of the forces driving the Bush White House, as described by former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill.

PUBLIC ENEMIES: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34. By Bryan Burrough. (Penguin Press, $29.95.) A history of the desperadoes called forth by the Depression and of the government's response, organized by J. Edgar Hoover.

RISING '44: The Battle for Warsaw. By Norman Davies. (Viking, $32.95.) The story of the rising of the Polish Home Army against the Germans in 1944 and the destruction of Warsaw by the Nazis.

RIVERS OF GOLD: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, From Columbus to Magellan. By Hugh Thomas. (Random House, $35.) An absorbing account of the extraordinary speed and scope of Spain's imperial expansion.

SONTAG & KAEL: Opposites Attract Me. By Craig Seligman. (Counterpoint, $23.) An appealing meditation on two widely discussed, influential critical icons who arose at the same historical moment (the mid-1960's).

SOUL MADE FLESH: The Discovery of the Brain — and How It Changed the World. By Carl Zimmer. (Free Press, $26.) How a brilliant group of 17th-century thinkers, centered in Oxford, created the modern scientific methods for understanding the human mind and body.

STALIN: The Court of the Red Tsar. By Simon Sebag Montefiore. (Knopf, $30.) An intimate portrait of the Soviet dictator and his henchmen.

STRANGERS: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century. By Graham Robb. (Norton, $26.95.) A work of social archaeology by a writer who comes to gay history by way of writing the lives of Rimbaud and Balzac.

SURPRISE, SECURITY, AND THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE. By John Lewis Gaddis. (Harvard University, $18.95.) Gaddis argues that three salient elements of President Bush's security strategy — pre-emption, unilateralism and hegemony — have deep roots in America's history.

THE SURRENDER: An Erotic Memoir. By Toni Bentley. (ReganBooks/HarperCollins, $24.95.) The writer and onetime Balanchine dancer extols the joys, physical and spiritual, of anal sex.

THE UNDRESSED ART: Why We Draw. By Peter Steinhart. (Knopf, $23.) A charming report on the renaissance of drawing, led by amateurs who eagerly practice it in recreation centers, museums, private ateliers and living rooms.

UNFORGIVABLE BLACKNESS: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. By Geoffrey C. Ward. (Knopf, $26.95.) A life of the first black heavyweight champ, who drove white America nuts.

UP FROM ZERO: Politics, Architecture, and the Rebuilding of New York. By Paul Goldberger. (Random House, $24.95.) The story of the long and complex struggle over what should go up in the place of the World Trade Center.

WASHINGTON GONE CRAZY: Senator Pat McCarran and the Great American Communist Hunt. By Michael J. Ybarra. (Steerforth, $35.) A sweeping narrative life of the Nevada Democrat who was a smarter, more effective edition of Joe McCarthy.

WASHINGTON'S CROSSING. By David Hackett Fischer. (Oxford University, $35.) How a daring venture across the Delaware on Christmas night in 1776 defeated the British at Trenton and changed the dynamic of the Revolutionary War.

WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. By Thomas Frank. (Metropolitan/Holt, $24.) How, according to Frank, the rich and powerful have built a cynical alliance with culturally alienated heartlanders.

WILL IN THE WORLD: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. By Stephen Greenblatt. (Norton, $26.95.) Enlightening scholarship on the life and the universe it was lived in.

THE WORKING POOR: Invisible in America. By David K. Shipler. (Knopf, $25.) The story of the millions of Americans who work steadily but fail to escape upward into the middle class.



The New York Times > Books > Sunday Book Review > Holiday Books: 100 Notable Books of the Year

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Jacket Flak
Do Book Blurbs Bear Sincere Praise Of Peers, Or False Fawning Of Friends?
By CAROLE GOLDBERG
Courant Books Editor

November 28 2004

Think of them as tiny billboards clamoring for your attention:

"A stunning debut from an emerging writer!"

"Another richly conceived novel from one of America's most beloved authors!"

"Once I picked it up, I could not put it down!"

Book blurbs - those back-of-the-jacket hugs-and-kisses from one author to another - have been around for about 100 years and are essential weapons in the ever-more-competitive arena of book marketing. Editors and publicists play matchmaker to marry appropriate blurb-writers with the book being launched. Authors agonize over whom to approach for blurbs and, if they've become well known themselves, often complain they are overwhelmed with requests to write them.

Yet as integral to the publishing process as they are, blurbs still engender some controversy. Are their always-generous sentiments always genuine? Do some authors scatter them so indiscriminately that they earn the nasty epithet blurb whore? Are readers misled if they aren't aware the blurber may be the good friend, lover, editor, teacher, mentor or publishing-house colleague of the blurbee?

Giving And Getting

Stewart O'Nan, the Avon-based author of "The Night Country" and co-author with Stephen King of the about-to-be-released "Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season," frequently provides blurbs. And, he says, he's more than happy to write them - and get them.

"I like to champion the work of first-time novelists or overlooked authors," O'Nan says.

And because "my own work is all over the place" in genres and subjects, he says, the right blurb can "tell the reader what kind of book it's going to be." A blurb by Stephen King, for example, is a tip-off that the novel will be "foreboding," while one from Amy Bloom signals it's a book about family issues.

"They're a clue," he says.

Steve Almond, author of the story collection "My Life in Heavy Metal" and the delicious memoir "Candyfreak," says book blurbs offer the reader "collateral filtering - if so-and-so likes this book, then it must be cool."

"It's quality by association."

And readers aren't the only ones who may be impressed by a blurb from a respected author, Almond says. "Inside publishing houses, they don't necessarily know whether what they have is good or not or how well it will do," so a bigfoot blurb can spark extra effort to promote the book.

"People have to do everything to draw attention to their books," Almond says, but he acknowledges that seeking a blurb can be daunting.

"It's inhibiting to ask so nakedly for praise," and it feels like an imposition to ask a busy writer. Almond says that requesting a blurb amounts to asking: "Will you like me, and write that you like me, so other people will like me?"

The Art Of Blurbing

Writing a blurb can be tricky, says Wally Lamb, the Connecticut author whose first novel, "She's Come Undone," became a bestseller after Oprah Winfrey praised it.

"If you are going to do one, you owe allegiance to that writer and to the readers - you don't want to steer them in the wrong direction. Once, Lamb recalls, he was "accosted by a reader who hated a book I blurbed."

He says "no" more than "yes" to requests, and if he agrees to write one, he reads the entire book first.

"I don't ever not finish a book or walk out of a movie," he says.

Yet even savvy blurbers can make mistakes, Lamb says, noting that he passed up the chance to write one for Arthur Golden's "Memoirs of a Geisha," which went on to become a huge seller.

Elinor Lipman, a novelist who lives in Northampton, Mass., wrote a piece on blurbing for The New York Times in 2002 that she hoped they would headline "Confessions of a Blurb Slut" (they didn't). Lipman says that even though she has tried to impose "a blurb moratorium" on herself, she still writes about a half-dozen a year.

"I've run out of adjectives," she laments, laughing. "It's hard to come up with something fresh and new."

Many do fail to find something original to say.

Tom Payne, writing for the website www.telegraph.co.uk, excoriates those who rely on such hackneyed terms as "achingly beautiful," "darkly comic," "like (insert name of another author) on (insert name of mind-altering drug)," "vast, sprawling epic" and many other clich├ęs.

Still, says Lipman, she hates it "when people say you can evaluate blurbs by how often an author writes them. That's not true, and it's unfair," she says. "Can you not love 10 books a year?"

But before she agrees to write a blurb, she has to love the book, says Lipman, whose most recent novel is "The Pursuit of Alice Thrift."

"I feel I have to give it a standing O," she says.

"If I'm reading it, and I'm thinking about who I know that would love the book, then I'll blurb it. I take my own pulse, and if I realize `this is doing nothing for me,' then I won't."

She's also surprised when booksellers say, "I saw your name on the book and then ask, `Did you really like it?'"

She tells them, "If you saw my name, it's sincere."

Almond says it's "a huge compliment when you are asked to blurb a book. You think, `Oh, wow; I matter.'

"The blurber gets to do a profound thing - to represent an artist who might really need it - but writers should never blurb books they don't really believe in."

Bagging Those Blurbs

For publishers and publicists, the process of bagging the right blurb is a challenge.

"It's a huge amount of work to find amenable writers," says Caryn Karmatz-Rudy, a senior editor at Warner Books in New York who has pursued blurbs for 11 years. They may be on deadline themselves and lead very busy lives.

"If you are a desirable author, you get solicited by every editor in town," she says, "and plenty politely decline.

"But there are incredibly benevolent souls who say, `I'll give a new author a leg up.'"

Karmatz-Rudy says that to land a blurb, you must "tailor each request letter to each person and use any connection you can think of."

Lipman agrees. "Here's my advice to editors," she says. "Personal cover letters flatter the author."

A standard generic request tells her that the editor really can't be bothered to do the job right.

Blurbs from respected authors help get booksellers excited and help energize publicists, Karmatz-Rudy says. "People take notice because they know how hard it is to get certain people to blurb."

Lynn Goldberg, founder and CEO of Goldberg McDuffie Communications Inc., a New York City public-relations firm that works with publishers and authors, says they try "very, very strongly to get writers who truly like another's work to write blurbs."

It's important to match them in terms of substance and style, Goldberg says. "We're always trying to envelop our projects in royal robes.

"If it's a first novel, we do a LexisNexis search to find reviewers who liked similar books."

What can be off-putting to readers, she says, is when the blurb comes from a celebrity who has little credibility as a judge of good writing.

Goldberg knows the ins and outs of getting the marketing machinery up and running.

"First the book must be sold in-house, before you can sell it outside," she points out. "You sell it in to the stores and sell it out through the media or directly to readers via the Internet."

One bookseller who says she's rarely influenced by book blurbs is Roxanne Coady, owner of R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison.

"I don't find them very useful, but customers do," especially if the blurber "is a huge name," Coady says.

"I think they need to tell more about what the book can do for the reader and less about plot."

Reading Between Lines

While blurbs can serve a legitimate purpose, readers sometimes need a skeptical eye.

Penguin UK, for example, used a quote from a letter by Charlotte Stoker for its 1993 edition of the 1897 classic "Dracula":

"No book since Mrs. Shelley's Frankenstein, or indeed any other at all has come near to yours in originality, or terror - Poe is nowhere...," the enthusiastic letter writer told the author.

Charlotte, of course, was Bram Stoker's own mum.

John Freeman of New York, who frequently reviews books for The Courant and other newspapers, says that while blurbs can show how well connected an author or publisher is, the process often is altogether too cozy.

Authors are often indebted to each other for their livelihood, he says.

"Writers attend MFA programs together, become friends and then tap their friends for teaching assignments. When their books finally make it into print, they can ask one another for blurbs, for an agent, for publishing contacts.

"Three out of four blurbs can usually be labeled as suspect, or even blatant logrolling, " Freeman says. (Spy magazine, you may recall, ran a snarky column called "Logrolling in Our Time" that outed authors engaged in mutual back-scratching via gushy blurbs.)

"Thomas Pynchon, for example, has blurbed books by several writers represented by his wife, agent Melanie Jackson; Jay McInerney blurbed his classmate Robert O'Connor's novel `Buffalo Soldiers,'" Freeman says. "Almost every back jacket flap contains blurbs by writers from the same publishing house. Find a back flap where all three or four blurbs come from house authors, and something begins to smell a little fishy."

One way to detect such connections is to check names of those the author thanks in his dedication or acknowledgments against those who provided the blurbs. Another is to do an Internet search on the blurbers to see if they, like the blurbee, all write for the same publishing house.

Almond, who teaches writing at Boston College, says he would not hesitate to blurb a book if a student of his managed to publish. "You can be effusive about any literary book that gets published," he says.

Freeman says an insincere blurb can be spotted by the way it is written. Ask yoursel, "What exactly is this saying?" he suggests.

A good blurb, he says, should "be a travel agent" that tells you you're going somewhere "unlike any other place you've ever been."

He cites as a fine example what Jonathan Lethem wrote about "House of Leaves" by Mark Z. Danielewski:

"This demonically brilliant book is impossible to ignore, put down, or persuasively conclude reading. In fact, when you purchase your copy, you may reach a certain page and find me there, reduced in size like Vincent Price in `The Fly,' still trapped in the web of its malicious, beautiful pages."

Stewart O'Nan says his favorite interpret-it-any-way-you-like blurb reads: "No praise is too high for this book."

Readers must remember, says Almond, that blurbs are "the collision of promospeak with a writer's advocacy for art. Promotion keeps moving the product, while what artists say moves people."

Or readers can follow O'Nan's advice when choosing a book:

"I ignore the blurbs and what the author did last time. I want to read this particular book," he says.

"As Ezra Pound said, `Go to the work.'"
Copyright 2004, Hartford Courant



Connecticut Entertainment - Movies, Music, Dining News from The Hartford Courant - ARTS & THEATER

Monday, November 29, 2004

Library offenders could go to jail

BAY CITY, Michigan (AP) -- Keeping library books too long could soon land some readers in jail.

Frustrated librarians want the worst offenders to face criminal charges and up to 90 days behind bars.

"We want to go after some of the people who owe us a lot of money," said Frederick J. Paffhausen, the library's system director. "We want to set an example."

Paffhausen, who took over as director in October, is asking the Bay County Library Board for permission to seek arrest warrants for offenders who ignore repeated notices.

The board plans to consider the crackdown next month.

One patron from Bad Axe owes $1,190 for 73 items -- mainly science-fiction books -- hoarded for more than a year, Paffhausen said.

Patrons keep an average of $25,000 in overdue materials out of the library system each year, officials said.

That costs taxpayers money, because the library often must buy copies to replace unreturned materials, leaving less for new books, CDs and DVDs, Paffhausen said.

Currently, the library cuts off an offending patron's privileges and sends overdue notices. Daily fines of 5 to 10 cents per item are assessed. If the material is worth $75 or more, the patron receives a form letter from the prosecutor's office warning that it's a crime to keep library items.



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