Monday, March 29, 2004

Before leaving for New York, I searched and searched for the locations of independent bookstores. The majority of the most intriguing bookshops appeared to be in Greenwich Village, a neighborhood we didn't visit on this trip. I was stunned to discover that outside of GV, there are so few independent stores. How I wish we'd been able to get our hotel room's internet connection to work because when I arrived home, Carolyn, a former New Yorker now living in Chicago, had emailed me saying that Coliseum Books on 42nd St. near the New York Public Library was not to be missed. Do you know I walked past it three times last week? I didn't go in, partly because each time I was in a dreadful hurry and partly because from the outside it looked like a Walden Books or a Buck-a-Book store. Damn! Its website makes me long for it--it'll definitely be my first destination on my next trip to New York.

We did visit a fascinating bookstore, Westsider Rare and Used Books, just around the corner from our hotel on Broadway between 81st and 82nd Streets. It's the quintessential used bookstore, jammed full of books from floor to ceiling, housed in a narrow little shop on two levels, complete with a rickety staircase. A vast variety of new and old titles, some obscure, some bestsellers--all very quaint. I highly recommend it. I found a paperback edition of Paul Auster's New York Trilogy (City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room) and Ken bought Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country. (Ken is a huge Bill Bryson fan.)

I delved into City of Glass on our way home on the 3:03pm Amtrak Acela Express on Friday afternoon. It was lucky I had some Paul Auster along because I was one of three passengers who did not get a seat. I had to sit in the club car on a tiny bar stool until we reached Providence. I was incredibly annoyed that they overbooked the train, but City of Glass came through for me, making me forget my discomfort. Sensational story!! But never again will I return from New York on a Friday afternoon.

Saturday, March 27, 2004

The sojourn in New York was out of this world! I relished every minute and felt every bit the impressionable kid (boundless energy included) during the entire trip. I don't know when I've had more fun. During the course of the weekend, I'm going to be posting details of the highlights. Please note: I'm going to keep adding to this entry, so when you drop by later for a visit, scroll down to get the latest additions.

We managed to get tickets to the Broadway opening of "Twentieth Century," starring Alec Baldwin and Ann Heche, a fun and glitzy 1930s screwball comedy. The presentation was flawless, but I wondered why anyone bothered to resurrect this particular play. It was entertaining and funny, but was not great theater, not by any means. Its redeeming feature was its "cuteness." Ann Heche's performance was inspired, Baldwin's was adequate, but the rest of the performers were just barely passable.

The other play we saw was an Off Broadway production, "The Journals of Mihail Sebastian," a one-man play based on Journal 1935-1944: The Fascist Years, the World War II journals of Romanian Jewish writer Sebastian, first published in an English translation in 1996. Stephen Kunken was first-rate in the role of Sebastian, but I felt he tried too hard to bring the diary to life, leaving the performance seeming a bit forced and unnatural at times. But I must confess I'm being terribly picky here because it did not diminish the delivery of the play's message. The Theater at 45th Street is tiny and run down, but dignified despite its worn elbows. The house was nearly full, creating a warm, intimate encounter between audience and performer.

I ended up spending two mornings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I had intended to visit the Guggenheim on Wednesday morning, but since almost the entire museum's regular collection was not on view due to a special exhibition on Minimalism, I opted for more time browsing through the Met. One of the mornings Ken accompanied me, and although he is not always an art enthusiast, he had a good time, I think, especially because he loves the Impressionists and the Met has a large collection of their work. The highlight of my visits were the early-twentieth-century American paintings housed on the first floor.

Monday, March 22, 2004

Taking Amtrak to New York tomorrow for some fun--yippee! Preparing for the jaunt has been so time-consuming, especially arranging all of Sophie's care. I'm exhausted from the planning and preparing (I'm the tour guide of our duo) and will heave a sigh of relief when we're chugging south tomorrow morning.

I do hope I'll be able to post a blog entry or two while I'm down there, if I can grab the time. I've been searching for interesting bookstores. If you know of one I should check out, please email me.

Now for a stunner of a book--I'm so glad I checked out Mrs. Sartoris by Elke Schmitter. This brief novel, almost a novella, was published by Knopf last year after having been published in Germany in 2000. What I love most--if I pick just one element--is the flawless structure of the story. Having made numerous stabs at fiction writing in my life, none of them notable, I am in awe at the tight construction of this plot. And the characterization of Margarethe is so well done, especially the way that Schmitter engages sympathy for a psychologically wounded, amoral woman who commits a heinous act. My knuckles were white turning the pages! I'll definitely be reading this one again and again.

Friday, March 19, 2004

Buried under a mound of receipts, bills, and forms--that's been my week as I struggled to prepare myself to meet with our tax accountant. All this, and work, too. Blogging has had to take the back seat. Again.

I am so sad to learn that Avenue Victor Hugo on Newbury Street is closing in May. And to top it off, the Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Harvard Square is also going out of business. As far as AVH is concerned, what is this world coming to when a major urban center can't support a quality used book store? (By quality, perhaps I really mean literary, as opposed to the used booksellers who primarily sell romance and mysteries). I last visited AVH last summer--and bought a slew of books. But see? Maybe that's part of the whole problem. I was there eight months ago. Not recently. Part of the reason for this is that Ken does not enjoy book browsing as much as I do, so although I might enjoy used bookstore hopping of a weekend, we do it rarely.

Both AVH and the Grolier attribute their closings to the chains and to the internet. Certainly the used book sites on the web have been the death knell for used book stores.
The Grolier has literally tried everything to stay afloat; I find this loss especially hard to take, perhaps because it emphasizes how much literary culture is changing. Is there a place anywhere in the world for bookshops in the future? (By bookshop, I don't mean the chains, of course).

Finding Dancing with Einstein by Kate Wenner at my local library has been consoling. I've been reading it at the gym. After seven years of wandering the world, Marea is trying to become connected to something permanent, so with high hopes she landed in Manhattan, settled in a beat-up studio in Greenwich Village, found a night job baking bread, and by day starts seeing four different therapists: a Jungian, a feminist activist, an existentialist, and a training psychoanalyst. Whoa! It's great fun, but it's far from a light read. An excellent work-out for the brain! The childhood relationship with Einstein is a bit of a stretch, but the story is so good, that is easily forgiven.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Library Journal has posted an intriguing list of "not to be missed" fiction debuts from the Fall 2003 season. How many have you read? I was interested to find there were a few I hadn't even heard of. Anthropology of an American Girl by H.T. Hamann (published by Vernacular, a small press) and The Rope Eater by Ben Jones both look like they're worth a library browse.

Vernacular Press is quite mysterious; a Google search yields only a website for Anthropology of an American Girl. Check out the excerpts from the glowing reviews on Amazon.

Speaking of fiction by first-time novelists, I finished reading Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z by Debra Weinstein (see my post from March 10). Although the ending had been heavily foreshadowed, that was beside the point because Weinstein's rendition of how the Flower Poet carried off the theft of Annabelle's work was so well done.

Weinstein writes a newsletter for NYU--that's her day job. She's also a poet, as is evidenced by the beautiful pieces sprinkled through the novel. In any case, it's clear she knows the cut-throat academic literary world very well, and that's what makes the novel so satisfying, so true.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

Talking about small presses, I've been browsing through the list of The New Press, which was established in the early 1990s as an alternative to mainstream publishing. Making Love: A Novel by Jean-Phillipe Toussaint, a bestseller in France, is now available in an English translation. This is Toussaint's fifth novel and is a chronicle of the messy end of a seven-year affair, transpiring during the couple's trip to Tokyo. It's so hard to find reviews of small press fiction, but the Review of Contemporary Fiction at the Center for Book Culture has one. I'm excited to discover this journal because I'm always looking for new fiction in translation and it's reviewed here. Sometimes the titles are out there, sitting in the library or the bookstore, but considering small-press titles' lack of media reviews, they're so hard to locate.

Saturday, March 13, 2004

Small presses are the wave of the future and collectively will supplant the big publishers in sales before many years have gone by. Too many writers overlook the opportunities these little guys offer. With some solid internet marketing, a book published by a small press can garner a lot of attention, and pave the way to a top agent and a contract with one of the biggies. But writing issues aside, the small presses are attracting some extraordinary talent. Next time you're looking for a great read, seek out the small presses for titles.

In the coming months, I will be featuring small press books and links to increase awareness of this rich sector of the publishing universe.

Fred First, the blogger at the wonderful "Fragments from Floyd" dropped me a line in response to my "Calling all Writers" feature (see entry for February 28). He's toying with the idea of publishing his novel with a small press. He writes, "Actually, unofficially, I have had an offer from another blogger-poet who has a small press and has offered to help edit, compile, print and market my someday book, tentatively called "Here's Home: Belonging in the Blue Ridge". We'll see what happens. Way too early to call it a success story."

Terrific news, Fred! If that doesn't pan out, though, I'm certain that with a little searching you can find another small press eager to publish your book. (I speak with such confidence because Fred is an incredible writer. I envy his blog so!)

While you're in "Fragments from Floyd" territory, check out the photos of Tsuga, his adorable yellow Lab puppy. Yeah, you guessed it, I'm a goner for Lab pups.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

I am having a marvelous time reading Debra Weinstein's debut novel Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z. Annabelle is a young student apprentice, a poet herself, who can't believe her good fortune when she lands the job of assistant to a renowned Manhattan poet. Z is outrageous in her demands as an employer and is a thorough scamp in all her literary endeavors--gaining prestige, good reviews, and influence by a variety of underhanded methods. She latches onto Annabelle, and when Z discovers that her protege is a brilliant writer and poet, she becomes a leech, snatching Annabelle's ideas. If you like a purely literate romp, this is it.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

Ruminating about Paul Auster this afternoon because I'm at the tale end of The Book of Illusions. His ideas shake my consciousness--how does he do it? Might there be something going on with his brain chemistry that's outside the norm? With that thought, I'm reminded of his near-death experience at age fourteen. He was away at summer camp when lightning struck and killed a companion standing right next to him. Being in the presence of such an enormous discharge of electricity impacts the body and must, of course, affect the brain. I can't help but wonder if the event caused changes in the way his neural impulses travel across the synapses. Alas, I know little about the brain, but if electroshock treatments can eliminate severe depression, then it stands to reason that his brain chemistry was altered on that summer day.

Friday, March 05, 2004

It's been an impossible week workwise. I've worked like a dog but feel I don't have much to show for it. And since I'm behind, I have to put in some hours this weekend. That means very little time for reading. Oh, help me. This tale of woe is only mentioned so as to explain my blogging absence.

In book news: I have come across the title of a scrumptious-sounding novel so new that it's not listed on Amazon yet. Kate Wenner has just published her novel Dancing with Einstein and will be appearing at the Harvard Book Store on Tuesday evening, March 9th. For reviews, go to the novel's webpage at Barnes and Noble's website. (Sorry, folks. I would provide a link, but the URL is three city blocks long.) It seems to be available in Canada now and is to be published here in "March." Not too specific, but I'm so lured by the description and the reviews that I'm tempted to go out and buy it this weekend. I could use an escape!

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Calling All Writers! Send in those inspirational stories to brighten the March drearies. Scroll down to my post of February 28 for more details.

And a Few Words about the Harriet Tubman Biographies

A real change of pace today. I abandoned my office to spend the morning at the Boston Public Library and the Boston Athenaeum, and then to a long, leisurely lunch with historian Kate Clifford Larson, author of the eye-opening Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero, published in late December by Ballantine Books. I was so impressed by this biography, I knew I just had to meet her if I could. And, since I spent considerable time researching Tubman's Civil War activities for my book Women During the Civil War: An Encyclopedia, I thought we'd enjoy exchanging ideas. And so we did indeed.

Bound for the Promised Land is so beautifully written that it's hard to believe that it's Larson's first book. If I had to encapsulate in a few words what I liked best about the book, it has to be Larson's success in conveying the passion of this nineteenth-century woman who defied the limitations of a severe disability (probably temporal lobe epilepsy) to work tirelessly for freedom and justice.

There is another new, more highly publicized biography of Tubman out there--Catherine Clinton's Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom (Little Brown, 2004). I'm sorry to have to say this because I have admired Clinton's work in the past, but her book lacks distinction. It is, in a word, wishy-washy. Clinton is a highly acclaimed historian and certainly has the ability to pull off a sterling piece of research, but this book does not bear evidence of it. The corners she cut in presenting her portrayal of Tubman leaves the reader with a picture of a hollow shadow of a woman. It's a short book (220 pages or so), and has only 21 pages of footnotes--compared to Larson's nearly 100 pages of notes! I have to shake my head. I am truly so puzzled. Why would a historian of her reputation publish a book that's so incomplete?

The ham and the potatoes are in the oven and Ken just called to say he'd be a little late. Terrific! That gives me the time to add the links to today's post.

Monday, March 01, 2004

This afternoon author Jan Brogan responded to my call to writers to share a recent success story. She writes,

"Last year about this time, I was pretty gloomy. Although my first murder mystery, Final Copy had been positively received and named by The Drood Review, as one of the eight best murder mysteries published in 2001, it was a long way from being a commercial success. My publisher, Larcom Press, was a small regional publisher with limited distribution, and although several of the large New York publishers had inquired about obtaining paperback rights, none made an offer. Then it got worse. Just as I finished the sequel to Final Copy, Larcom announced it was going out of business.

I had a nearly complete manuscript and no publisher. Since all the big New York publishers had passed on Final Copy, what were the chances they'd be interested in its sequel, A Confidential Source?

My agent had an idea. The new book already had a different setting and a different time period. He wanted to know if I'd be willing to change the main character's name so
he could sell it as the first in a new series. It seemed a reasonable request.

Final Copy had been rejected by all the New York publishers, not once, but
twice. So I'd learned not to have high hopes. Amazingly, not one but three of the six top publishers were interested in A Confidential Source, and two made offers. I accepted an offer by Mysterious Press (Time Warner's mystery imprint), and my book will be released in April '05.

Needless to say, the gloom has lifted.

Jan Brogan
Visit my website at

Do you have a recent success (in the past six months) to share? A success does not have to be as earthshaking as Jan's sale to one of the biggies. Anything inspiring in the writing dept. definitely qualifies! Email me. Scroll down to my entry of February 28 for more details.
Andrea Barrett

Fabulous article about Andrea Barrett, the author of The Voyage of the Narwahl and the 1996 National Book Award winner Ship Fever, in Sunday's The Boston Globe Magazine (Note: the link to the article may only work through midnight today). What's unique about Barrett's writing is her skilled melange of science, history, and fiction. Barrett's degree is in science, though she's been writing fiction for decades. She won a Guggenheim fellowship in 1997 and used the money to finance a summer trip to the northern shores of Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic, where she prepared to write The Voyage of the Narwahl.

A pivotal point in Barrett's career occurred in 1994 when her long-time editor left for another publishing house and did not take Barrett with her. As Barrett points out, none of her four novels had been big sellers. Her fourth novel, Forms of Water, sold only 2,000 copies. Her response to this setback? "I said, well, fine, if nobody wants to read my novels I might as well write that which I am most interested in, even if it seems bizarre or unappealing to other people." And so her fifth novel was the award-winning Ship Fever.

Later this afternoon I will be adding more information about Barrett and her most recent setback with the novel she's currently writing.