Friday, July 30, 2010

Crossing genre lines!

If you ask me to suggest a good nonfiction book to you, something very odd will happen. My eyes will glaze over and I'll stare at you, my mouth agape. A brief awkward silence may ensue, followed by a drawn-out and monotone "uhhhhhh..." And just when you think you may have to grab the largest book nearby and aim for the head (The Passage if we're up front, New Literary History of America if we're near the back) , I will break my zombie fugue and suggest you speak to one of my more nonfiction-adept coworkers. Don't get me wrong, I can suggest what's been popular, and I can tell you in general what the titles are about, but I haven't read them.

To me, books should tell stories. Fantastic, unbelievable stories. Things that wouldn't happen in real life, because real life is boring and predictable. To me, reading about things that have actually happened or are actually happening ruins the magic of the story. There is, however, one exception - true crime. For some reason, true crime has the opposite effect on me. Reading a thriller is one thing. Knowing that the events actually happened makes the story that much more potent.

Enter Priceless. A book about art theft. Something I didn't know much about, but always had a vague interest in. Not the actual thieving part, mind you. The author, Robert Wittman, was the head of the art crime division of the FBI for many years. The dust jacket reveals that he went undercover to recover priceless (well, not really priceless, but really honking expensive) artwork that had been stolen.

The book itself is an interesting blend of memoir, true crime, and art history. Right off the bat, Wittman begins setting the record straight on art theft and recovery. Not every thief is Thomas Crown, apparently. Wittman goes on undercover excursions around the globe, recovering pilfered American Civil War artifacts, stolen Picassos, and even retrieving a legitimate copy of the Bill of Rights. Wittman becomes more renowned and respected as his career progresses, leading up to his involvement in the grand-daddy of all art thefts: the Gardner heist. I'm not sure if it's considered a spoiler if I tell what happened in real life, but to be safe, I won't go into details. The Wikipedia page gives a brief overview, although the book has much more information.

Will this book change my mind on the whole about nonfiction? Probably not. But it has convinced me that I am capable of reading nonfiction. What's next? The Monster of Florence is looking mighty interesting...

Monday, July 26, 2010

Is your book suffering from PPB (Post-Publication Blues)?

Book publishing is a many-layered business. A book begins with the author, passes to an agent (or several), then advances to an editor, who in turn hands it off to a host of other folks to get it ready for printing: copy editors, assistants, fact checkers, graphic designers, copywriters, marketing folks, etc. And that’s before the book even hits the shelves!

So it’s no surprise that mistakes get made occasionally. Last month, we sent back several copies of Justin Cronin’s fabulous new novel, The Passage, due to a misprinting – four lines on page 276 were missing. How many people would notice or care? Probably not that many. But Ballantine didn’t want to take that chance, so back the copies went.

Not all those little mistakes get caught by the publisher, though. I was paging through a recent arrival, The Bumper Book of Nature. This tome is a treehugger’s dream: a plethora of seasonally-based activities for kids and adults to do outdoors no matter the weather. But it’s a good thing the author didn’t call it the Bumper Book of Geography. When advising readers to go on a city safari, Moss notes:

“Chicago, Illinois: Its location on the southern shore of Lake Erie makes Chicago...”

Hold up! Lake Erie? It’s typos like this that get us Midwesterners all salty about Coasties’ grip on basic geography. I’m happy to report, however, that the book is lovely otherwise, and well worth a look for those outdoorwardly-inclined.

Sometimes, bad grammar just happens. I got no further than the inside flap of newly-minted Daily Show correspondent Olivia Munn’s Suck It, Wonder Woman! before I found my most hated typo, the errant apostrophe (Thought’s on my First Agent’s Girlfriend’s….”) Oh, Olivia.* Actually, it was probably not Munn who wrote it, but a hapless marketing department copywriter, whose has since been sacked and is now begging for scraps outside a Le Pain Quotidien on the mean streets of Manhattan. But it just goes to show how complicated the publishing process is.

When you think about it, it’s amazing that we don’t see more little mistakes in the books we read and love. Publishing is such a big, sprawling business that frequently seems like a juggernaut about to come off at the wheels, especially if we listen too closely to the critics pronouncing the imminent death of the book. Publishing is alive and well, as the steady output of new titles demonstrates. The many, many good people behind the scenes deserve a shout-out for the work they do getting these books to print and then into the hands of readers. Typo-catching is an activity I’m happy to do – it means there are more books to read!

*Yeah, I know. I’m not really taking issue with Olivia Munn for a typo on the inside cover of her book. I will, however, take issue with her answer to question 14 on page 256. The correct answer is Firefly, dear. That’s just science.

Friday, July 16, 2010

What's scarier than a zombie or a vampire? A ZOMBIE VAMPIRE.

Before I begin, a quick update about how my life in receiving has been since you last heard from me.

My friends from around the country often ask me how cold it is in Wisconsin. In particular when there is a heat wave wherever they live. It's as if they are trying to cool off vicariously through me. I have to try and patiently explain that Wisconsin does not snow throughout the year, and we are, in fact, rather hot here too. And then we inevitably get into an argument about how our 86 degrees with 70% humidity isn't as bad as their 90 degrees and 0% humidity. Sheesh.
Long story short, it's really flipping hot in receiving, and it's only amplified when I have to keep moving boxes of The Passage around.

Flash back a few months. Jason, as usual, hands me a pile of advance reader copies, tells me that I will love all of them, and sends me on my merry way, trying my hardest not to drop them all over the floor. Amongst these was a copy of The Passage by Justin Cronin. Apparently the buzz was off the chart for a horror-esque novel. Stephen King wrote very positively about it, and a massive movie deal was signed before publication (with Ridley Scott likely directing!) to the tune of $1.75 million. It certainly seemed to be in my vein for genre. There was just one problem. It was really long.

I know, I know. That really shouldn't be the deciding factor for whether or not you're going to read something. But nearly 800 pages is a serious time commitment, and even looking at the advance reader copy made me wonder how many trees died so that it might live. It's a daunting prospect, starting a book of that size. So I didn't.

Fast forward back to about a week ago. Our event at Sugar Maple with Justin Cronin and Dan Chaon is over and done with, and all that remains are copies of The Passage. And I mean boxes. There was a slight misprint in the book (it cut out about four not-very-important-to-the-story lines), which led to Random House sending us five new boxes. Under the pressure of the glowing reviews, the forthcoming film, Jason pestering me, and about sixty copies of this massive book taunting me to read it, I finally caved.
I sat down after dinner one night and opened the book for the first time. I closed it again much later, wondering why it was so dark. I had blown through 300 pages without a second thought.

The story begins with death row convicts being rounded up and taken to a military installation. Brad Wolgast, the FBI agent in charge of contacting these convicts, doesn't give too much thought to it. Then orders come down from the top to bring in a civilian... a young girl named Amy. He decides to try and help her escape, but both end up prisoners in the military installation. Things go wrong, of course. Lots of people die, and the truth about what was happening comes out when twelve crazy zombie vampire military experiments escape. And we're talking 28 Days Later and Nosferatu zombie vampires, not Dawn of the Dead and Twilight zombie vampires.


No. >

The world (or at least the United States, the fate of other countries is unknown) falls apart. Some 80 years after the disaster, the last known remnants of humanity reside in a colony bathed in artificial light and defended by the Watch, essentially the town guards. They are self-sufficient, and can hold out as long as the engineers can keep the lights on. However, everything changes the day a young girl who seems to be uninfected appears at the gates...

I'm sort of glad I wasn't at the Sugar Maple for this event after I read the book, because I probably would have ended up trying to hug Justin Cronin and that may have been awkward. I have never read a book like this. The characters are charismatic, flawed, and believable. The descriptions of the colony and the world beyond her walls, 80 years after the world as we know it died, give us a glimpse of Cronin's genius.

You might think it difficult to take the concept of zombie vampires seriously, but let me assure you - Cronin pulls it off. I have not been this scared of a fictional creature since I read Salem's Lot in sixth grade. Truly terrifying stuff. My favorite book of 2010? With still about half a year remaining, signs point to yes.