Aug 16, 2010

Aug 13, 2010

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Book of the Day: Out of the Egg by Tina Matthews

Third in the HMH Book of the Day series is...

Out of the Egg
by Tina Matthews
9780618737413, $12.95

A retelling of the Little Red Hen, Tina Matthews updates not only the illustrations, but the ending as well. The illustrations depict a mix of country and city elements complete with farm, apartment buildings, cars, computers, and telephone wires, yet the simple woodcuts in black, red, and green maintain the classic feel this tale requires.

For those who don't remember the story, the Little Red Hen finds a seed, plants it, and cares for it. She asks Fat Cat, Dirty Rat, and Greedy Pig for help throughout the seasons, but "Not I," they say each time. "Then I shall [insert task here] myself," answers the Little Red Hen. Over the years, the seed grows into a large tree, providing a safe space for the Red Hen to lay her egg. Soon a little chick appears, as does a little cat, a little rat, and a little pig. When the Red Hen would deny the little cat, little rat, and little pig the chance to play beneath her shady tree, she learns a lesson in kindness from her cheeky little chick.

I don't know if the title is a play on the phrase "out of the mouths of babes," but that's what I always think of when I relate the title to this book, for out of the egg came a little chick and out of her mouth comes true friendship.

Aug 12, 2010

What I Learned From My Summer Internship, Part 2

Today I want to share two issues I learned about this summer that had not previously occurred to me as problems editors encounter.

The first issue involves an author an editor has worked with before. Say Editor A has published Book B by Author C. Author C's agent then continues to submit Author C's work to Editor A. Unfortunately, none of the work appeals to Editor A as much as Book B did. This could be for any number of reasons - different subject matter, different genre, not as well written, etc. Yet Editor A doesn't want to lose Author C as one of "their" authors. If Editor A continues to turn down Author C's manuscripts, the agent is no longer going to submit them to the editor. This would disappoint Editor A, because Editor A believes in Author C, and thinks Author C is capable of producing another book as good as Editor A thought Book B was. What's Editor A to do?

I was surprised at this situation, having never thought the continued working relationship between editor and author would be anything other than magical (naive, I know). What should/could/would an editor do in that situation? There's no hard-and-fast rule. Anyone in that situation has a number of options, including acquiring a book the editor is not as thrilled with, just to keep the author as one of "theirs" - perhaps they could work on it together to make it more like whatever the editor liked about Book B; not acquire anything and let the author go elsewhere; or perhaps an unorthodox option would be to talk to the author directly to inquire what else the author might be working on to see if there's anything similar to Book B (I thought of this one myself, so I don't know if it would really work).

The second issue is trickier, and is almost more philosophical or ethical than strictly editorial. Let me make it clear that this is a line of questioning I'm pursuing on my own, not in affiliation with any publishing company. In this scenario, Editor A purchased Book B from Author C. Though several people read the manuscript, it wasn't until after acquiring it that someone realized the manuscript for Book B was awfully similar to Movie Plot D. Names, characters, and general themes were changed, but the basic plot points were eerily similar. Now is that plagiarism of ideas or not? And if it is, what should the editor do? Book B is obviously going to be a huge hit for various reasons. To complicate matters, say Editor A has not worked with Author C before; therefore there is no rapport for Editor to say, "Look, Author C, what's up with this manuscript?" What's Editor A to do? Un-acquire Book B, a book that's sure to be a best-seller? Confront the unknown author and risk having Author C pull the project and hand it to a different publisher? Or ignore the similarities and publish it anyway?

I don't have a ready answer to this second issue myself. Does anyone have an opinion on this?

These are two of the major issues that stand out to me as particularly difficult to negotiate, and are probably indicative of the types of decisions editors deal with on a daily basis (though I imagine situation 1 is more common than situation 2, though I don't know for sure). While a part of me can not wait for the day when I have the power to make decisions like these, it is very clear to me that I will need years more experience before I feel comfortable handling a decision like that on my own. I'm very much looking forward to continuing to work my way up to that.

Aug 11, 2010

What I Learned From My Summer Internship, Part 1

I can hardly believe that one week from Friday, my internship with Houghton Mifflin will be over. Ten weeks wasn't nearly enough time to fully absorb everything, yet I also learned so much from the wonderful editors I've worked with this summer.

Margaret Raymo, Kate O'Sullivan, and Erica Zappy were the Editors "on location" in the Houghton Mifflin Boston office, with the knowledgeable Christine Krones as Editorial Assistant, and the ever-helpful Meredith Wilson as Assistant to the Publisher. Editor Ann Rider also sent me tasks from her home office in Minnesota.

My primary responsibility was to read, read, read - a job with which I had no problem, as you might imagine. I read manuscript submissions for the various editors and wrote reader reports. What are reader reports, you ask? Basically, it's my opinion. How great is that? As I clearly have no trouble stating my opinion, that's pretty much the perfect task for me. What was harder was putting into words the feelings I get from reading manuscripts, both those that appealed to me and those that didn't. What was it I was/was not liking? What about that character was so compelling? Was the dialogue too stilted and unreal? What impressed me about that turn of phrase or plot sequence? Could a paragraph be removed to tighten a scene? I don't know how other interns/editorial assistants work, but nothing seemed too large or too small for me to comment about. Thanks to my MFA and the critical papers I spent the last two years writing, I was somewhat more prepared to describe the answers to these questions using (I hope!) appropriately descriptive language and industry jargon. The hardest part about this? Not knowing if or when I might see the books I liked in print. It IS thrilling, though, to know that at least a few manuscripts I liked were acquired during the time I was at HMH. Sometime in the next few years, I'll be able to pass a bookstore shelf and smile, knowing I'd read the manuscript version years prior.

Other fun editorial tasks I learned included how to write decline letters, catalogue descriptions, and flap copy. For decline letters, I learned never to send them right before a major holiday - even if it clears off my desk, the recipient won't be so pleased. I also learned to say something nice before making a suggestion, much like operating within a writing group structure. Lastly, personal to me, I had to learn to change my tone - I was sounding too condescending (shocker!). Catalogue descriptions are comprised of a one-liner sell-line, a short descriptive paragraph, and maybe an excerpt from the book. This all goes into the catalogue publishers put together to give to their reps who sell to bookstores and other retail accounts. As for flap copy, in April 2011, go take a look for The Adventures of Sir Gawain the True, Book 3 in the Knights' Tales series by acclaimed Arthurian author Gerald Morris, illustrated by Aaron Renier (9780547418551, $14.99). On the cover of the book, on the inside flap, should be printed my synopsis/description of the tale. Book 1 is pictured here; this series has been approved by the eight-year-old boy in the household I live in.

Last, but certainly not least, I also got to go through slush piles. Confession: this was my favorite part, second only to reading the actual solicited manuscripts. Slush piles are unsolicited manuscripts, sent to Houghton Mifflin by hopeful would-be authors who have not made a personal contact with any of the editors. Houghton Mifflin is one of the few publishers that still accepts unsolicited manuscripts; most publishers prefer that potential authors work through agents. The slush piles were my favorite because it was like a treasure hunt AND a project I got to organize at the same time. My fun-loving, slightly-OCD self was in heaven. What's even more exciting is that one of the picture books I plucked from the slush pile might get picked up by HMH! Nothing for sure yet but an editor is taking a second look at it. I have daydreams of helping an unknown author get their work published to the joyful satisfaction of us both. I can't help it; I'm an idealist.

Those are the major day-to-day tasks I work on. Stay tuned for the next installment of "What I Learned From My Summer Internship," when I will be discussing unexpected (by me) issues that editors come across.

Oh, the other thing I get to do? Go out for after-work-drinks with my fellow interns (and co-workers).

Aug 9, 2010

Book Review: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague
by Geraldine Brooks
9780142001431, Penguin, $15

Beautiful, heartbreaking, well-researched, richly envisioned, this book is a must-read for all lovers of historical fiction. Geraldine Brooks imagines what it must have been like for the people of the village of Eyam, in England, who, in 1666, voluntarily isolated themselves from the rest of England and Europe in order to contain the ravages of the Plague to their own village.

Told from the point of view of Anna Frith, a housemaid to the new pastor and his wife, the reader is introduced to this simple, ordinary village, who attempts an extraordinary, self-less act. We learn of Anna's family, her miner husband and two sons; her drunken father, neglectful stepmother, and younger step-siblings; the village healer and her granddaughter; the politics of the new Pastor and his beautiful wife; the rich family on the hill who are patrons and the social leaders of the town; and the various other townspeople - miners, farmers, blacksmith, tavern owner, etc. - who make up small-town life.

When the Plague strikes, it is to a boarder Anna has taken in after her husband was killed in a mining accident. Coming from the city, the boarder doesn't realize the material he has brought as part of his tailor trade is infected with the seeds of Plague. One-by-one, villagers are struck down. The inspiring young Pastor must do what he can to hold the people of the village together, and also to keep the Plague from spreading. As the village closes themselves off, they're left with nowhere to turn with their sorrow and anger but upon themselves. Rumors run wild as people try to determine what keeps causing the spread of Plague; neighbors will not help each other for fear of catching it. It is up to the Pastor, the Pastor's wife, and Anna, to tend the sick, minister to the dying, and try to keep the civil unrest under control.

When will the sickness run its course? When will the year be over? And who will be left alive at the end?

Aug 8, 2010

Book Review: First Contact, Or, It's Later Than You Think by Evan Mandery

First Contact, Or, It's Later Than You Think (Parrot Sketch Excluded)
by Evan Mandery
9780061749773, Harper, $13.99

First Contact combines Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams into sci-fi literary fiction that will have you chuckling almost til the very end. The one problem with it is that the author couldn't keep his own two cents out of it, so begins to interject with his own drivel, particularly toward the end. While I do recommend reading this because it was funny, relevant to the recent political state (as in pre-Obama) of the US, and if nothing else, will instill in you a desire to reread the original great gentleman, do prepare yourself to have the author talk out his own problems at you.

The story is really about Ralph Bailey, the current U.S. President's attache, and the course of his life pre-and-post alien contact. The hyper-intelligent beings from the planet Rigel-Rigel have contacted Earth. They've calculated, you see, that the people of Earth are on a bad personal trajectory, heading for the ruination of the entire planet if they don't change their lifestyles soon. Using drugged bundt cake and fruit punch, the aliens attempt to encourage the people of Earth, or certainly the President and those at the official first dinner, to have an enlightened experience and reevaluate their course in life. As humans tend to have a contradictory nature, not all goes according to plan.

The reader is also introduced to Ned, a Rigelian ambassador, and his wife Maude, who is having some driving issues on their home planet. Jessica Love, Ralph's girlfriend, features heavily, as well, as do Woody Allen movies, Dr. Pepper, Orthodox Jews, hip-hop, YouTube, and the quite religious views of the President of the United States.

Does First Contact work as political commentary? Yes. Does it work as a comedy? Assuredly. Does it work as a platform for either therapy or a personal ad for the author? No. But once you get over that bit, enjoy the other bits, and laugh out loud.

For an excerpt, go to the author's website here, and a big THANK YOU to him for linking to IndieBound.

Aug 7, 2010

Book Review: The Lost City of Z by David Grann

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon
by David Grann
Hardcover: 9780385513531, Doubleday (Random House), $27.50
Paperback: 9781400078455, Vintage (Random House), $15.95

This was the most fascinating book I've read in a long time. It combines the very best of good reporting, action-adventure novel, history, anthropology, and biography. David Grann seamlessly weaves together his modern-day search for  what happened to the lost explorer Percy Fawcett, and Fawcett's own quest for a city he labeled only as "Z", an El Dorado-like city supposed to exist deep within the Amazon rainforest in Brazil.

Colonel Percival Harrison Fawcett was a British explorer in the late 1800s, early 1900s who mapped great portions of South America. With the constitution of an ox, he survived extreme conditions of the worst kind in jungles where it seemed every aspect of the environment was trying to kill you. Unlike most other explorers, Fawcett advocated peaceful interactions with the Native tribes living in the jungles, and survived many tense situations. As he got older, Fawcett became obsessed with the idea of a lost village deep within the Amazon rainforest, one filled with gold and other riches. He gathered Native stories, read the accounts of other explorers, and kept his own journals chronicling his theories and his searches for this city he called "Z". As a member of the Royal Geographic Society, Fawcett expected them to fund his expeditions. Unfortunately, they did not, so Fawcett and his family spent many years in poverty, as Fawcett was equally unable to earn money as he was unable to stop going into the South American wilderness. In 1925, having finally secured enough money for another expedition, Fawcett departed with his son Jack, and Jack's friend Raleigh Rimell, into the Amazon in an area close to the region of Mato Grosso. [This is probably why I find this so fascinating, as my parents spent a year or more living with the Bororo Indians in that same region in the 80s before I was born.] The three explorers were never heard from again.

David Grann admits he is one of the least likely people to go exploring in such conditions. Without even a boyscout background, he nonetheless gathers equipment, Fawcett's research, and contacts people in Brazil who may help him find out what happened to Fawcett. Grann is hardly the first to try this; reportedly over 100 people have died during various rescue, information-gathering, and other attempts to enter the Amazon specifically looking for Fawcett and his lost party.

Grann, with a reporter's instinct for hunting out a story, manages to find a guide, then an interpreter, and eventually speaks with the Kalapalo tribe, who may have been the last tribe to see Fawcett and his group alive. What's even more incredible is that archaeologist Michael Heckenberger was living with the Kalapalo when Grann arrives. Heckenberger, and other archaeologists, may have recently discovered the remains of Fawcett's "Z".

Due to the hot and humid conditions of the Amazon, unlike a stone-based city such as Machu Picchu, any civilization built with jungle materials (wood, vines, etc.) would have rotted away and been swallowed by the jungle within 10 years of desertion. Due to the diseases brought by the first early explorers, hundreds of thousands of Native populations were wiped out, ravaged by diseases their immune systems had no experience with, before the next group of explorers came by. It could be that tragedies of this atrocious nature, combined with the accelerated breakdown of the natural materials used to build the great cities, caused the disbelief of early explorer accounts that detail great, prosperous cities with hundreds of people living in them. By the time a second wave of exploration began, the Native peoples, having been decimated to only a few hundred people, were living in small bands and villages, rather than in large cities. Archaeologists such as Michael Heckenberger are just beginning to map out and put together diagrams of huge, complicated cities, entire civilizations, that existed, often with technology and scientific knowledge that was far superior to that being used in the Western cities at that time.

A true adventure story, I was racing through the last few chapters, marveling at how Fawcett's story and Grann's story were coming together in a climactic ending. We're still learning so much about ancient civilizations thanks to modern technology, there was really no way Fawcett would have found his lost city of "Z". Yet, that doesn't mean it didn't exist.

Also, stay tuned for the 2012 movie version of this story that's reputed to star Brad Pitt.

Aug 1, 2010

Book Review: The Clothes They Stood Up In by Alan Bennett

The Clothes They Stood Up In
by Alan Bennett
Out-of-print hardcover: 9780375503061
Paperback: The Clothes They Stood Up In and the Lady in the Van, 9780812969658, Random House, $14

Why, you might ask, did I give you the out-of-print hardcover edition ISBN? Because it's such a great size - at about 8 inches tall and 5.5 inches wide, this book can be easily slipped into a small purse, backpack, or cargo shorts pocket. Much like the last book I blogged about - the tall, thin, apartment building-esque Keys to the City - the unconventional format is half the draw.

The Clothes They Stood Up In is about the Ransomes, a British husband and wife living in Notting Hill, who arrive home one day to find everything in their apartment is gone, including the furniture, the fitted carpet, and the roll of toilet paper (a hard-to-find shade of forget-me-not blue). The rest of the novel is spent watching Mr. and Mrs. Ransome deal with the outcome of this in their own ways. Mr. Ransome, a solicitor, takes refuge in filling out the insurance forms for a bigger and better sound system than the one stolen; he is a great lover of Mozart. Mrs. Ransome, a housewife, begins to redefine herself by the new possessions she brings into the home, purchased at local shops she had never visited before.

Mostly funny, occasionally sad, often poignant, this little book packs a punch in the range of emotions it evokes as you watch the couple struggle separately and together to come to terms with the loss of all their worldly goods. When their belongings are returned to them just as mysteriously as they were taken, a whole new set of questions must be asked about who would do such a thing and what that means for the Ransomes.