Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Jim McCarthy lets you know that agents do read...for fun!

A lot of people ask me how I ended up in publishing. The answer is kind of simple: I tripped into it. I needed an internship during college so I applied to about 40 places. Stacey Glick was the first person to call me back. Voila!

The more important question, of course, is why I stayed. Another relatively simple answer: I love books. How trite is that? But it’s true…

I’ve said before (probably on this blog) that most people end up working in publishing simply because they’re readers, plain and simple. It’s certainly not about fame and fortune, two things that (on an industry level at least) are not in abundant supply.

Agenting is a reading intensive job. We receive over 2,000 queries a month and dozens of manuscripts cross our desks at a regular clip. But there is a difference between work-reading and pleasure-reading. When I read for work, I’m looking for editorial inconsistencies, thinking about marketability, categorizing and re-categorizing in my head, and trying to identify the audience. When I read for pleasure, I can let those issues go and focus on a book as its own entity focusing on my own personal response. They’re different types of reading, but I’ve always felt that they only enhance each other.

Some people seem surprised that I read a book a week (roughly) for myself. But I’ve never been sure how I could do my job if I didn’t. If I was all critical eye, it seems that I would start to objectify books. But if I read only for personal gratification, I’d…well, I’d be really bad at my job.

What do I read for pleasure? Well, let’s take a look at my reading list for 2008 to date (of course I keep a list!). These are the books I read exclusively for pleasure. I haven’t included anything by my own clients or other clients at the agency, anything I read in order to understand a market better, or anything that I disliked enough to stop reading before I was finished. One book only made it on here because I was on a plane and hadn’t packed alternatives…grumble.

LATER, AT THE BAR by Rebecca Barry

This was a charming little novel about the lives of a bunch of regulars at a small town bar. It didn’t blow me away, but it was an auspicious debut.


What DID blow me away was this book. Junot Diaz does so many things in this novel that I find annoying (interspersing another language to give a novel flavor and liberal use of footnotes were the two most obvious), but the thing is—he’s just so damn good. I would have hated this book because of his stylistic choices if it was anything less than brilliant. It wasn’t. Bravo.


What a fun mystery novel this one was. The first few pages felt a little gimmicky, but once she got going, Lutz won me over with some seriously charming characters and an abundance of wit.

REMAINDER by Tom McCarthy

No relation. That said, I’m tempted to call him Uncle Tom just because it’s wrong. The book? It will totally mess with your mind. I mean that as a compliment.

BEASTS OF NO NATION by Uzodinma Iweala

I had originally intended to read this book after I had finished WHAT IS THE WHAT, another novel about the Lost Boys of the Sudan, but I decided to take an emotional break before getting back to the subject. Good thing. This book is devastating.

RUNNING WILD by J.G. Ballard

J.G. Ballard is a super-prolific though perhaps not extremely successful author; I read about one of his books a year because they’re all engaging, even when they’re not all that successful. Like this one.

THE ALIENIST by Caleb Carr

I know, I know. Everyone else read this ten years ago and fell in love with it then. Understandably. It’s a fabulous historical thriller. Though for me (and I know some would have me crucified for saying this), THE INTERPRETATION OF MURDER did the same sort of thing more successfully.

THE SOMNAMBULIST by Jonathan Barnes

Another weirdo little book, this one. It’s a historical thriller by way of urban fantasy with a healthy dose of British comedy and one of the most surprising narrators I’ve ever encountered. I didn’t love the book, but Barnes is certainly one to watch.


I’m still working through 1,001 BOOKS YOU MUST READ BEFORE YOU DIE (and likely will be until, well…y’know). It was such a delight to dive into this novel. And now I really want to go check out the miniseries!


Have you ever read something perfectly pleasant right after you read something brilliant and just felt distressingly underwhelmed? It’s not your fault, Jessica. Sorry.

DISGRACE by J.M. Coetzee

Crikey! No wonder this guy won the Nobel. I started and stopped this novel twice before committing to it. The beginning feels a little familiar (an affair between a professor and his student again? Really?), but he takes it where I least expected and does so brilliantly. You’ll notice Coetzee pop up more below. He got me!


I know I should love this book as many people have raved to me about how extraordinary Hempel’s short stories are. Well, I can’t love everything.


He does it again! Fascinating to go from a relatively recent novel by an author back to something from a long while back. Allegory is possibly the toughest thing to pull off, but he does it!

THE CRYING OF LOT 49 by Thomas Pynchon

No comprende! No comprende! Okay, I actually enjoyed reading this even if it was an incredibly tough little book that kept turning in on itself and revealing new aspects of what it was. Ask me in a year whether I liked it. I’ll still be trying to figure it out.

BEL-AMI by Guy de Maupassant

Here’s one that I never would have picked up minus my “must read” book of books. So glad I did. It felt a bit derivative, certainly, but it was such a charming, entertaining novel if not outstanding.


So much fun! I took this book everywhere and was reading on the subway, in elevators, waiting for lunch dates, and (one clumsy afternoon) walking down the street. Ignorning anything else, Wolfe is a damned fine storyteller and this was super-involving.

THE 39 STEPS by John Buchan

Buchan is long gone, so can I just admit that I hated this book? I finished it because it was short. That is the only reason.

NIGHTS IN ARUBA by Andrew Holleran

Holleran wrote two of my favorite novels, GRIEF and DANCER FROM THE DANCE. The first chapter of this one was brilliant. I hate to admit that after that, he lost me.


Jhumpa Lahiri is just an amazing writer of short stories. I actually didn’t love her novel, but this book and INTERPRETER OF MALADIES are just stunning.


Russians are seriously bleak. This novel depressed the heck out of me, but like all great literature, it ended with a sliver of hope. It was just such a small sliver!

GENERATION LOSS by Elizabeth Hand

This dark novel set in the Maine wilderness made me want to run out and take photographs and talk to strangers. It did not, unfortunately, make me want to read more of the novelist’s work.


Philip Roth makes me stupidly happy. Going back and reading his first book was an enormous treat, not because it’s the greatest thing he has done, but because it allowed a peek at the seeds of a genius that would present itself later.


Marc Acito made me snarfle a Diet Coke on the subway. The bubbles hurt my nose. I have forgiven him for that pain because he was damn funny enough to make me snarfle in the first place.

SLOW MAN by J. M. Coetzee

Ever start reading a book, get halfway through, and then have the rug pulled out from under you? Then get knocked over, rolled up in the rug, and left for trash collectors? Yeah…this book gave me the weirds.


Even the happy Russians are tragic and sad. This reminded me a bit of MADAME BOVARY stylistically. It’s not as good, but hey, what is?


Note to self: don’t read Oprah book club picks any more. Ever.

THE WHITE TIGER by Aravind Adiga

Note to self: DO read Booker Prize winning fiction. Holy moses, this book knocked my socks off. I’m going to put it in a two way tie for my favorite book of the year. Immediately upon finishing it, I handed it off to someone else to read. There have been some negative reviews recent that state that Adiga somehow failed to bring the entirety of India to realistic life. As though that would have been the point. Or possible. I don’t care what anyone says, this book is brilliant. Violent, amoral, hysterical, disturbing, fresh, thrilling. I could go on for far too long.

THE PIANO TEACHER by Elfriede Jelinek

Sigh. It’s so hard to know what I think about this book because I saw the movie first. And it became one of my favorite movies. And while I’m inclined to say that the novel is superb (as it likely is), I feel like I need to re-read it before I really know what I think about it.

LITTLE KINGDOMS by Steven Millhauser

This blog entry seemed like a much better idea when this list was single-spaced. This is a collection of novellas, one of which I loved, one of which I hated, and one of which fell in the middle. It’s worth it for the first of the three.

GILEAD by Marilynne Robinson

My second pick for favorite book of the year. I didn’t expect to relate too much to a seventy-something pastor in Iowa at the turn of the last century. That didn’t even begin to matter. Robinson took my breath away. The depth of her characters humanity, the fullness of her understanding, and the astonishing beauty of her simple, straightforward writing were captivating. I loved this book. I can’t wait to jump into her next, HOME.


What a fun book! It has monsters, murder, adultery, drug addicts, ghosts, and a charmingly screwed up heroine mapping out her very complicated family history. A blast to read even if I have some quibbles about certain choices.

A MERCY by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison is a goddess. That is all.

WORKING STIFF by Grant Stoddard

Some people can make sex boring. Moving right along…


Heh. I still chuckle even thinking about this book, which I read at the beginning of last year. Toby Young is a nutjob, but he’s also hilariously self-aware. I think his memoir is most interesting if you care about NY media. And I do.

INTO THE WILD by Jon Krakauer

Here’s a book that didn’t suffer at all from my having watched the movie first. Jon Krakauer can pretty much do no wrong. This is superbly researched, wonderfully written, thoughtful investigative journalism. But everyone else already read it and knew that, it seems. Sometimes I’m late to the game!


A memoir dictated by the one blinking eyelid the author had that was the only part of him not paralyzed. Reading it felt like having someone pressing weight against my chest. Absolutely devastating but so richly inspiring without being saccharine.

AUDITION by Barbara Walters

I already blogged about this. I love me some Baba Wawa.

BEAUTIFUL BOY by David Sheff

Some memoirs… Well, some authors should… Maybe if David Sheff weren’t… Ummm…a lot of other people liked this. Moving on…

DANDY IN THE UNDERWORLD by Sebastian Horsley

Ugh. Maybe it was memoir fatigue. Moving on again…


Whee! When you’re David Sedaris, your lesser efforts are still a joy and wonder to read. So congrats to him on this fabulous lesser effort.

PSYCHE IN A DRESS by Francesca Lia Block

Okay, so this book was sold as YA, and I spent most of my time reading it cross-referencing Greek gods on Wikipedia. So either teens are way more knowledgeable about this stuff than I realized or this might have been poorly categorized. That said? Breathtaking.

ECSTASIA by Francesca Lia Block

I found this one in a remainder bin at a used bookstore and dove right back into Block’s writing with wonder. She is so. So. Good.

THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins

When I first heard about this novel, which is about a group of teens forced to battle to the death on live television, I thought it sounded horribly derivative of such movies as Series 7 and Battle Royale. I also couldn’t understand how it would work as a young adult novel. Finally, I broke down and bought it. Color me impressed. If aspects of the story are familiar (and they are), it’s entirely besides the point. Collins throws inhibitions to the wayside and tackles a ferocious plot with verve and talent to spare.


The first half of this young adult novel is stellar. It went off the rails for me slightly in the second half, but I didn’t especially mind. I was still tremendously moved and impressed by Green’s work.

LIVING DEAD GIRL by Elizabeth Scott

Ever rush through a book to get past how painful it is? I’m not talking bad painful. I’m talking novel about a teenage sex slave painful. Yeeouch.

THE ALCOHOLIC by Jonathan Ames

I’m determined to learn more about graphic novels, so I’ve picked a few up to find out more about the market. This is the first time I sought one out just out of the desire to read it. I’ve already shared it with friends. A quick read, it’s also amazingly honest and open, deeply tragic, and laugh-out loud funny. If this is what graphic novels have to offer, it’s no wonder they’re doing so well right now.

It has been a really good year! I’ve read some amazing books, worked through some more of my must-read list, and discovered some new authors who I’ll follow in the future. With a few weeks left to go, I’m about halfway through THE BLIND ASSASSIN by Margaret Atwood, am overly excited about Carrie Fisher’s upcoming WISHFUL DRINKING, and (as ever) am prepared to push aside whole piles of to-be-read books if something astonishing catches my eye.

I’m also prepared for my next entry on this blog to be much shorter than this one!

Happy Thanksgiving!


  1. Ooooh! Three JM Coetzee's on your list!!!! As a South African, "Waiting for the Barbarians" is one of those books that had a profound influence on my life!

    Interesting to read that you can switch off your inner critic and read for pleasure. Ever since I started writing and learning the craft I find it difficult to switch off and read for pleasure.

  2. Oh how the career like many paths are chosen for us. Happy Thanksgiving.

    Logan Lamech

  3. Wow. That's a lot of books. I like to think of myself as a big reader, but... well, never mind. I'll drop out of the competition for awhile.

    Say, seventeen and a half years till my youngest is out of the house...

  4. Love alienist and hunter games too. Glad to hear agents have their "fun" books too

  5. It may have seemed like a long entry as you were composing it, but it was a good read. Thanks for sharing. I would also be interested in knowing what influences your choices.

    There are so many titles available and so little time. I rely a lot on personal recommendations. Although I've gleaned some goodies from lists of award-winning books, not all are my 'cup of tea' (nor are many of Oprah's choices). John Green's "Looking for Alaska" is on my TBR list and I am currently reading "Gilead" so I'm glad to hear your opinion of them.

  6. Thanks for giving us this list --- I love seeing what other people are reading. You've got some I've read and some I want to read on your list.

  7. Like Ann Victor, I can't switch off my inner critic anymore either. If I'm not wincing in irritation I'm gnashing my teeth in envy.

    Wish I had the time to read one third of the books you've mentioned here; right now I'm just grateful I got to the end of your list. But what a relief to know that someone else out there doesn't understand Thomas Pynchon.

  8. Thanks for making it a little easier - over at Nathan Bransford's blog, on 11/10/2008, he wrote:

    "Most importantly: BUY NEW BOOKS"

    Also, it's great to see old Russian novels getting deserved attention.

  9. I'm just sayin' that Lutz book was damn cute!

    Jotting down a few for my Christmas list.


  10. Thanks for the quick, but thorough, reviews. I noted a few that sound interesting enough to put on my Christmas list.

  11. The Alienist, IMHO, is one of the greatest commercial novels of our generation. Caleb's father Lucian would've been proud of him. I could never understand why Warner Bros. greenlighted the movie then suddenly passed on it.

    Then Warner's made a film version of The Bone Collector, instead, which, as good as both the book and the movie are, is just a more contemporary version of The Alienist, which is a superior book.

    The sequel, The Angel of Darkness, was just as good.

  12. After I finished, Brideshead Revisted, I threw the damn book against the wall! How DARE he end it that way!

    I was tremendously disappointed in Looking For Alaska, too formulaic and predictable. I just don't see what the fuss is with this writer, he's okay, but I'ver read MUCH better.

    The Alienist, YOU JUST Read it? Geez, this book is about 14 years old! The sequel, not so much as good. Caleb Carr held promise, but totally vanished into obscurity.

    The Hunger Games, AMAZING. I thought Series 7 too! (a fellow author thought is was about anorexia! talk about surprised when she read it!)

  13. Thanks for your list. I'd only read two or three and even though I know I'm supposed to buy books, I have to rely on the library, so I put a few on hold. My "job" is writing, so I actually have a lot of time to read and read about 150 books a year (mostly YA since that's what I write). It was great to get some insight on books I would definitely miss on my own. I tend to listen to audio books on the weekends and so I got a couple of these on audio. What about THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN? Did you read that before it came out or is it in your pile or are you not interested? I loved that one! I blog about the books as I read and then compile a favourites list, but I'm glad you did this in one lump post. Cheers!

  14. GILEAD = One of the best books EVER. Thanks for the list. I loved Looking for Alaska as well.


  15. January8/2009

    Dystel & Gederich Literary Management
    I have a book to deal announce.

    The Son of Christ: The New Millennium project on Offer

    Rights Offering: All up for discussing
    call: (705) 222-3888
    New Year's Coffee Table ensemble

    I am presenting my livre to the Community.
    For a sneak peek of my book check out my blog:
    Interested agents inquiring about this book may contact me.

    Letter of Introduction

    Darryl Goudreau. Is a vibrant member of our Community living in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. I attended York university in my early twenties. This is when I started taking my writing seriously. I am a founder of several Organizations. White Castle in The Sky, is my latest Project. Organizing an Executive team of Business leaders comprised of women in our Community. Creating an opportunity for them to open and successfully run their own business. Our Organization will help facilitate this Agenda. The more productive women, will be asked to join our Organization and given Executive roles. As a result, many Women within our Community will receive high paying work. This is our mandate. The way that our Organizations are operated and how our Businesses are run. This is our Vision.