Tag Archives: book reviews

Writing by numbers

The end of December is here, a time for reassessing the literary year. Readers are posting their favorite books of 2018 and writers are revisiting their goals. A writer’s number of rejections has become the new brag statistic, especially on the Facebook board Binders Full of Rejects, a spinoff of the Binders that popped up after Mitt Romney’s tone-deaf comment about “binders full of women” in the 2016 election. The theory is that the more you submit, the more you will publish, and the competitive nature of the Binders site has inspired many to post their rejections with same pride they would an acceptance.

In that spirit, I have been examining my literary life in a more quantitative way. I’ve been logging “books read” for about 11 years now, but this was the first year I set submission goals and kept track of my status in meeting them. But for both books and submissions, the numbers only tell part of the story.

 

Reading …

I read 54 books last year, which includes audiobooks listened to in the car. Adding audiobooks to my repertoire has not only increased reading quantity but its breadth as well, and that to me is the more important result. I’ve been focusing my audio listening on a genre I’m trying to break into, historical fiction, and from these books I’ve learned a great deal about the mechanics of pacing and the demands of character.

Among my favorites this year were two by Anita Shreve, Stella Bain, about an amnesiac nurse during World War I, and Fortune’s Rocks, the story of a 15-year-old girl, Olympia Biddeford, whose love affair with a 40-ish married man in 1899 alters the course of many lives. Shreve’s death from cancer in March, at age 71, was a wrenching loss for the literary community; I can only imagine how many nuanced and moving stories of hers will remain untold. Her last book, The Stars are Fire, was set in Maine after World War II and stands among her finest.

I also was captivated by Under a Dark Summer Sky by Vanessa LaFaye, a fictionalized account of the 1936 Labor Day hurricane that wiped away most of the Florida Keys. LaFaye chose to set her story on a fictional Heron Key and also moved the storm to July, but the novel is rich and moving nonetheless. Researching the author, I was dismayed to learn that she, too, had perished from cancer, in February.

Imogen Robertson’s A Paris Winter, set against the backdrop of the Paris floods of 1910, tells the engaging story of a London emigre who is taking art lessons on her own in the city of light when she becomes the victim of a pair of grifters. Although one element of this story was left dangling, I was nonetheless enchanted with the characters and the breakneck pace.

My favorite, however, was Agate Hill by Lee Smith. She’s a Southern writer whose memoir, Dimestore, is also a must-read. In Molly Petrie she has created an orphan heroine as strong as Jo March and as vivid as Dickens’s Pip. How can you not love a girl who hides herself away in a cubbyhole to write down a household’s gossipy secrets? Set before and after the Civil War, the story is marred only by its ambiguous ending.

 

… and Writing

I set ambitious goals for myself in 2018 and, although I didn’t meet all the numerical targets, there were some big-picture victories.

Because I’d written 22 book reviews in 2017, I upped the ante to 24 this year. Unfortunately, I didn’t come close, writing only 15. But I have a pretty good excuse: I spent most of the summer on the last volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s novel/memoir, My Struggle. At 1,157 pages, Book Six was not only the longest in the series but also the most ponderous. Knausgaard’s typically frank and quotidian musings are interrupted mid-book by more than 400 pages of academic digression into the life of Adolf Hitler and a poem by Paul Celan. The effect is rather like finding a student term paper shoved into the middle of a suspense novel. The observations, despite occasional flashes of insight, arrive with all the narrative punch of a Wikipedia page.

But I stuck it out, despite the fact my editor did not want yet another Knausgaard review.

I’d also hoped to write more blogs, setting a goal of one a week, or 52. Counting this one, I wrote 24, not quite half that – but still way more than the two I eked out in 2017.

Other categories found my output also falling short. I submitted one literary piece eight times, for eight rejections, despite the goal of 24. But that was twice the volume of the year before, when I only submitted four times.

I had better luck placing my freelance articles and op-ed pieces. I had hoped to write six travel/arts pieces, instead placing 13, or more than twice that (and one more than in 2017). Op-ed essays – for which I curiously had no goal at all – came in at nine, eight of which have been published, including a letter to the editor that made the New York Times in April.

But perhaps my most important goal was to submit 42 more agent queries in my continued search for representation for my novel. When I signed with agent Christine Lee in July, it was after 32 queries in 2018 and 91 overall, a testimony to the power of persistence.

That one achievement, of course, was far and away more significant than all the other missives sent out into the world. But the point is: If you don’t try, you’ll never get anywhere.

Sifting through these numbers, a few scattered observations float to the top. I have a lot of opinions and so op-ed essays, often written at a white heat, are a good fit. I enjoy writing about travel, history, and art. Literary magazines are harder to break into than newspapers. There were some surprises, including an out-of-the-blue offer to write an institutional history.

As I ponder erasing the whiteboard of 2018 goals, I wonder if the numerical system is really the way to go. Maybe a better motivator would be a list of what I want to write in 2019. Or maybe I should create monthly or weekly goals, rather than having to stare at those hard numbers all year. One thing is certain; while success cannot be guaranteed, failure will be – if we don’t send our work out into the world.

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Worth the paper it is printed on?

 

I wrote 22 book reviews last year, and my goal for 2018 is 24. But the domino effect of newsroom cutbacks and a pending tariff on Canadian newsprint just hit home, so my ability to get those reviews published is now in doubt.

Among the tariffs President Trump’s Commerce Department is considering is on paper imported from Canada, which is the primary source of American newsprint. The paper mills of Maine no longer even produce newsprint. Even the Portland Press-Herald gets its paper from Canada.

The President may try to sell this as a way to protect American jobs, but we all know he won’t be crying any tears if newspapers have to lay off employees, cut back on their newsholes or even close their doors because of the rising cost of paper. The 30 percent duty could be the end of many papers just hanging on in the age of free online content.

The tariff hasn’t taken effect, but already the price of newsprint is going up. And even though it’s been six years since I left the industry, this problem lit up my inbox yesterday in the form of an email from an editor who publishes my book reviews. Rather than a full page every week in the Sunday paper, she’s being forced to cut back to one book review once a week. Since I’m only one of a stable of reviewers, I’ll be lucky to get two or three published a year.

In the scheme of things, this isn’t going to break the bank – I only make $20 a review, and I do it more for exposure than anything else. Indeed, I get many comments from people who enjoy my reviews, and it’s helped me build a following, at least in Rhode Island.

Authors rely on book reviews to publicize their books; readers need them to discern what books are worth paying $25 or $30 for; and the community needs exposure to the ideas they contain. The only other choice: online reviews, which are neither objective nor edited.

Of the most concern is what this signals for the future of print journalism, which wasn’t looking rosy to begin with. I worry about friends and colleagues who still make their living in the business, writers who have regular free-lance gigs, and, most of all, our readers, who are getting less and less from newspapers at a time when they need them more than ever.

 

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Five publishing trends: Skip the subhead

 

As a coda to my annual analysis of books read in 2017, I identify five trends in publishing:

  1. World War II novels continue to be hot. This year I caught up with two recent best-sellers of this genre: Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale and Margaret Hall Kelly’s Lilac Girls, both on audio, and reviewed Georgia Hunter’s We Were The Lucky Ones – based on her own family’s harrowing experiences in a Polish ghetto – as well as Loretta Ellsworth’s Stars Over Clear Lake, set stateside during the war. Whether because this international conflict still resonates in our foreign policy or because it provided so many opportunities for female empowerment, World War II still feels contemporary to modern audiences, despite the fact that most readers are two generations removed from this era. As the daughter of an Army veteran who served in the European Theater under General Patton, I can’t get enough of these stories.
  2. Novelists also are taking inspiration from real lives, especially those of writers and artists. This year I reviewed three books in this category. A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline is about Christina Olson of “Christina’s World” fame, and Isadora by Amelia Gray was inspired by dancer Isadora Duncan and the tragic death of her children. You could also put in this category Caroline: Little House Revisited, by Sarah Miller, an authorized retelling of the Little House books from the perspective of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s mother, Caroline Ingalls. There seems to be no end to this sort of thing (Amy Bloom has a novel coming out in February, White Houses, about the relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and the journalist Lorena Hickok). The writers who take on these subjects must combine the skill of the novelist with the accuracy of the biographer, quite a tightrope to walk; still, they make me cranky.
  3. Some famous writers seem to skate by on their reputation, as publishers will put out just about anything that has a recognizable name attached. Joan Didion’s South and West: From a Notebook was pretty much what its subtitle implies – a disconnected series of episodes from unfinished projects. Richard Russo’s short story collection, Trajectory, was good, but it only included four stories (the best of which, “Voice,” was really a novella).
  4. And while we’re at it, can we somehow put an end to the seemingly endless parade of subtitles, particularly in nonfiction? You can pretty much sum up every title this year as BIG F-ING CAPITALS: What This Book is Really About.
  5. Despite the dire predictions that books are dead, people continue to read them, and publishers continue to produce them, and they find their way to me in sometimes unusual ways. The Providence Journal forwards me packages that turn an ordinary day into Christmas. Publishers mail me books in care of The Day, and authors even send them to my URI address. I can only review so many (this year, I wrote 22 reviews for the Journal – two have yet to appear – and wrote two book-related pieces for The Day). Some just don’t resonate with me as a matter of taste. The Journal, like most newspapers, doesn’t review self-published books. As a writer, I know how tough it is to get your work published and reviewed. So I guess point 5 is: The publishing business continues to be difficult, but all of us, writers and readers alike, should support the writers and publishers who produce books, the bookstores that sell them, and the publications that make space for reviews. Happy reading in the New Year!

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