Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Jim talks about himself (and books)

by Jim

Another summer’s drawing to a close, and we in publishing only have one more summer Friday left. Post-Labor Day, submissions will be kicking off in a big way, and we enter the busiest season of our year. Before then…well, let’s just say it isn’t the most stressful week of the year. Half the DGLM staff is on vacation. Every other email sent is greeted by an out-of-office reply. Phone calls are going straight to voicemail. And for the first time in months I feel really, truly, almost caught up on reading. I left my Kindle at work yesterday! On purpose!

Which just means that instead of talking about anything terribly serious like the future of publishing, the agency model, or potential sexism at the New York Times, I’m going to talk about something more fun: me. Well…me and books I like and what I want to find.

Without going into a lengthy discourse on the merits of Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins which I read last Tuesday night (yeah, I was one of those), I will say that despite some initial quibbles, I came around on the book and ultimately loved what Collins accomplished. I would fall all over myself trying to get at a new young adult series that blended the commercial and literary worlds as well as she did. Katniss Everdeen is a genius heroine—flawed and conflicted but tough as nails and with a powerful sense of morality. You love her not because she’s perfect but because she’s trying, against all the odds, to do the right thing. Any author who can make their characters’ motivations feel this honest and deeply considered is a-okay in my book.

Reading Mockingjay put me in mind of another YA dystopian novel that I recently read, one which I will not name because I’m about to be less than friendly. Suffice to say, it’s getting a huge push for its pending release and has lots of buzz. I read it in galley form while at a conference in Pennsylvania. I was hyper-invested for 75 pages then felt myself growing away from it. At around 200 pages, I hurled the book across my hotel room. Literally. It was a book of squandered potential. One of the hardest things to do in a fantastical world, especially a dystopian one, is establish laws and rules that make complete sense. And this book’s central logic disintegrated line by line. When I’m reading a fantasy novel of any sort, the last thing I want to do is sit around pondering whether the universe it’s set in makes sense. It pulls you out of the action and makes you question the author’s grasp on their own material. Without a solid structure, you’ve got nothing.

On the adult, non-fantastical front (which I’d love to see more of), I just read Tony O’Neill’s Sick City. Check out the tagline for this book: “One legendary sex tape. Two desperate dope fiends. Three million dollars. Welcome to…Sick City.” First of all, I hope whoever wrote that copy got a raise. But also, I’m just a sucker for gritty urban realism combined with a unique thriller-ish hook. I like my crime fiction pitch black with a light undertone of humor: Chelsea Cain, Charlie Huston, early Dennis Lehane (his late stuff is also brilliant, just different), Gillian Flynn. There’s a lot to be said for someone who can be legitimately unsettling who also keeps you reading, who can write overpowering scenes but knows just when to pull you back in with a touch of comfort.

I blogged before about reading more graphic novels. Since then, I finished the Scott Pilgrim series and read Allison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Jhonen Vasquez’s Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, and Craig Thompson’s Blankets. I haven’t worked on anything in this category before, but it’s something I’d love to try if I can find the right first project. For me, that would need to be something that wasn’t serialized first and was intended either specifically for a young adult audience or was something that, like the Bechdel, was targeted at a decidedly adult readership. Which is not to say that all of the in-between isn’t fantastic. Things particularly pitched at 20-somethings probably sell best in this arena, but I just don’t know that would be a good starting place for me.

Right now, I’m about two-thirds of the way through The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon. Can I just say…this man crafts sentences with a precision and beauty that so few can rival. Check out this description: “He took Rora home in his Bentley, large as a house, the seats made of leather so fine that you could hear the spirits of the slaughtered calves sigh.” I’m digging this novel, but I’m not in love with it. There are moments where I feel a real disconnect between the storytelling and the action. But I’m so obsessed with parts of it that I’ve actually busted out the pen to underline sections to read to people later. So if you can make that happen, GAME ON!

And blah, blah, blah, like always I want brilliant commercial fiction across categories. I want to find anything that can provoke a physiological response—novels that make me laugh, cry, shiver, flinch. I want books that are escapes from the world and books that make you understand it better. I work with a lot of great authors who write great books. And I want more. I’m selfish that way.

7 comments:

  1. I'm with you on that, Jim. I am incredibly greedy and selfish when it comes to books. I want more, constantly. More great fiction, more great stories, more books that make me feel a million different emotions with just a few hundred pages! As I writer, I want to keep writing, but I also want other writers to keep writing so that I can get those books I crave. May this greed live on!

    PS. Not sure what quibbles you had with MOCKINGJAY, but I had my own and I agree with you that, ultimately, I looked past them because it was such a great book anyway!

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  2. I'm on page 75 of Mockingjay. I loved the first two so much and am having serious quibbles right now, so I'm hoping I'm about to get to the part where I get past it. :)

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  3. I have about hundred pages left of Mockingjay, as my pre-ordered Borders copy just arrived (grr...). One of the things Collins does so well, that I think is often overlooked, is comedic relief. The Hunger Games is so heavy in action and grit that I think this quality is often overlooked, and it's probably written that way on purpose. Often there's one line that will make me chuckle in the mist of shooting down helicopters. The tension has lifted some and I can continue. Without this little quality I often wonder if we'd be able to finish the intense series.

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  4. I'm still working on Mockingjay myself. After devouring the first two books in a day each, I'm astonished that I'm on day four of reading Mockingjay and STILL NOT DONE. I'm just finding it really difficult. Not that it's bad--not at all. But somehow at times it feels like a slog. AND I keep having to take breaks. I keep having to put the book down and burst into tears and wail "Peetaaaaaa!" Is that a good thing? Yes. No. Augh, I don' know. At some point does something being so viscerally hellish become less enjoyable? All I know is that I can't NOT read it. Suzanne, what are you doing to me?!

    Anyway--I love your posts about graphic novels. It seems like more agents are interested in them these days, which is just awesome. I think it'd be completely amazing to work on a graphic novel project, and it's definitely one of my career goals down the road.

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  5. I must be the only person not reading Mockingjay. Perhaps I should pick them up. Like you, I always want mooooore books...even though I had to pick up another bookcase when I moved recently because mine were getting full, and my to-be-read shelves are full, and my to-be-read list is monstrous....

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  6. I think it's okay to be selfish in that sense. We all want to read great books and we want more great books to be published for us to read them all the time--which is why you're fabulous. I wouldn't want your job just for those jewels! I think that makes me a bit more selfish.

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  7. I like your thoughts on Sick City--that juxtaposition of oppressive darkness with the tenderness of certain points in the narrative made for a memorable read. I wouldn't say the book was one of my favorites, but while I was reading it I couldn't stop. I was reminded at times of Will Christopher Baer's first novel, although O'Neill's characters are a little more endearingly flawed/recognizable.

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