Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Miriam Goderich wants to be swept away

So, I’ve been trying to come up with blog topics and feeling really uninspired. All I seem able to focus on these days is how far the stock market will tumble before mining equipment needs to be used to bring it back up and how much the media is ruining our political process (along with politicians who don’t seem to think it’s necessary to know anything about, well, anything before they decide they want to lead the free world). Problem for us in the publishing business is that everyone else is obsessing about the same things and as far as I can tell, we don’t have the book equivalent of Dancing with the Stars to take our minds off the harsh realities we’re faced with.

We need a new The Bridges of Madison County (never thought I’d say that!), a new The Thorn Birds or, for those of us who remember the ‘80s, a new Hollywood Wives to provide thoroughly escapist water cooler talk and the impetus to turn off CNN and be transported by great (if cheesy and farfetched) storytelling out of our everyday reality. Edgar Sawtelle just isn’t doing it for me, frankly.

My point is that it’s been a while since the whole country was talking about (and actually enjoying) a book that was not canonized by Oprah, written by James Patterson, or featured a vampire. Good yarns with big romance, big conflicts, and lots of cliffhangers are certainly not unheard of on the bestseller lists, but the kind of superlative trashy fiction that got people talking, created trends, and provided hours of mindless, titillating escapism is in short supply these days. Everything is put into a category – YA, mystery/thriller, paranormal, literary, etc. – and it often seems that readers are increasingly putting themselves into categories as well.

The beauty of those wonderful escapist novels (Gone with the Wind, anyone?) is that everyone read them regardless of whether they were considered “women’s” or “historical” or “commercial” fiction, everyone talked about them, and despite their literary shortcomings, they changed the publishing landscape. A look at the bestseller lists right now features a little of everything but nothing for everyone. Am I crazy or do you all agree? What great trashy fiction do you wish we were all reading again?

Monday, October 06, 2008

Lauren Abramo on books remembered

Not long ago I had a conversation with an author at a writer’s conference about the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, which I mention in my essay on our website were much beloved by me as a child. In spite of her otherwise completely sensible attitude, this woman had the nerve to suggest that Farmer Boy was a valuable part of the series, rather than just a distraction to be skipped over. I was distressed to discover my mother also counted it as a favorite. That I could be related to one so foolish is simply shocking!

A month or so later, I attended a baby shower at which fantastic books—including Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs; Caps for Sale; and The Giving Tree—were put in baskets as centerpieces. The baby-to-be also received two Dr. Seuss collections, featuring some star-bellied Sneetches; poor little Bart Cubbins; and a pair of stubborn Zaks, who I believed as a child had stopped in their tracks near Yankee Stadium, where you can find the sort of circular ramp-like roads that the story’s final illustration shows built above their heads.

These events set me off thinking of remembered treasures from childhood, including Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee which I borrowed from the classroom library of the fifth graders I tutored my freshman year of college, just to see if the magic had held up. It had.

Another book that made a huge impression was Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved, which even as a kid I recognized was heartbreaking, powerful stuff. The title often pops into my mind out of nowhere, but it’s only just now that I realized that it was written by the same author as the phenomenal Bridge to Terabithia. The latter is one of my all-time favorite books, which prompted me and my friend Meredith to create our own secret world.

Then there was Little Women, which took me a long time to come around on. I was so angered when Jo spurned Laurie and ended up with the old German guy, and then to make matters worse, Laurie pretended to love the insufferable Amy. I used to hate the book (and Louisa May Alcott for ruining it), but in retrospect, I’ve decided that I love the book except for the minor issue of the abysmal ending. When I last re-read, I just stopped reading at the point where everything goes downhill. That said, if any of my friends or family members disagree that things went horribly awry, then I don’t want to know about it, because I’d hate to have to cut them out of my life.

I also couldn’t get enough of Lurlene McDaniel’s various tales of terminally ill children coming to grips with life and loss. I finished reading a particularly heartbreaking one at field day in the sixth grade and cried through the end as the friends who’d already read it gathered around to rehash it. A similar book, though even more sad for being a true story, was Robyn’s Book: A True Diary by a young woman named Robyn Miller who died from cystic fibrosis at 21. It saddens me to discover that this appears to now be out of print, but I’m glad to have stumbled across a secondhand copy of it in my early teens.

And just as my mind began to wander from these memories, guess whose name keeps coming up! Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret taught me what a period was before that 5th grade girls-only puberty lecture got around to it. Deenie made me realize that posture was important and helped me remember to sit up straight.

And then there’s Forever. In the sixth grade, a friend sat in the cafeteria reading a book covered in brown paper, so naturally I harassed her till she told me what it was and promised to let me borrow it. (I can’t help wondering if that sort of secrecy about reading risqué books is a relic of the past, now that so many young girls are reading the “aspirational” tales of the Gossip Girl crowd.) I also clearly remember a year later sharing the “dirtiest” parts of the book (did it take me a year to work up the courage?) with a bunch of friends who hadn’t read it. Oh how we laughed! And yet, the book made an impression, and I think secretly everyone read it after I did and didn’t laugh quite so hard on their own. Years later, when I worked at Barnes & Noble, concerned fathers would come into the store looking for copies for their daughters, asking in hushed tones if it was age appropriate.

If it hadn’t been for books like the above, I probably wouldn’t love reading as I do today, so I owe some big thank yous to all of the above. (Even Louisa, but don’t get me started on what she did to poor Beth!)

Which books do you remember from childhood that made a lasting impression? Are there books that you use as a test to see if someone’s really worth knowing? And most important, are any of you among those loathsome folks who actually like the ending of Little Women? On second thought, don’t answer that last one!