Wednesday, November 11, 2009

reviewing a review

The Wet Nurse's Tale has had mainly good reviews, I'm glad to report. In part, I think this is because people want to be nice and, like Grace Paley, don't feel like wasting their time on reading a book if it doesn't grab them from the beginning. Every once in a while you'll read a major pan of a major book, but generally, reviewers who are reviewing the lesser known books like Wet Nurse look for something positive to say.

Now, of course, anyone and their Auntie Sue can be a book reviewer. Amazon and Goodreads abound with those of us who wish to opine about what we're reading. And blogs, of course.

I really loved Wolf Hall and I'm really loving The Children's Book. There. Like that, except mostly more so.

Now: I have had some lovely reviews by some larger venues: The Washington Post, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly and even New York Magazine which put The Wet Nurse's Tale in their Matrix in the brilliant/lowbrow quadrant alongside Bob Dylan who didn't get all pissed off at a lady cop when she thought he was an escaped mental patient. Now, what writer wouldn't want to be reviewed by major entities such as those? No writer. And grateful as all get out am I that Wet Nurse found its way into those pages. (I lived in fear, I must say, that Wet Nurse would fall into the murky bucket of genre and I'm thrilled that in the eyes of many, it did not.)
Yes, the major review spots are a nice place to see your title appear.

But it takes the smaller reviews by those formerly silent readers who've been given a voice by the internet to make you laugh.

I should say that I understand that it's totally outre to review one's review. But I just couldn't help it in this case. I think I sorta wanted to share the love I feel for this lady due her inquiring mind, her ethics, her ingenuous nature, and her enthusiasm. So below, please read one review of The Wet Nurse's Tale which gave me a great deal of pleasure. It appeared recently on a reader's social networking site. I've redacted her name to protect her innocence although, between you and me, it doesn't need all that much protection.

"This is the story of a professional wet nurse around the turn of the century, and it was REALLY interesting. Some of the women she nursed for didn't nurse their babies because they didn't want to lose their figure or have to be tied down to a baby. Others couldn't because they were too sick or physically unable.Some babies lost their mothers in childbirth. And some rich women would actually send their babies away to a nurse for the first year of their life and then get them back when they were weaned!

I kind of went back and forth about whether or not I thought that wet nurses were better than formula. But I decided that since the water back then was filthy that it was probably a good thing that there wasn't formula or else infant mortality would have been even higher than it was.

All in all, I thought this book was interesting but I can't recommend it because the language was rough, there was a lot of tumbling around in the bushes and other "earthy" parts (as my dear friend Julene's mother would say)."

Bless her heart. I thank her for reading it and for liking what she liked. And for taking the time to write about it too.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Bookseller's book signings

I've been a bookseller for many a long year. So for me, a bookstore signing is like a busman's holiday. Here are my remarks on my signings thus far.

a. The Regulator Bookshop in Durham, NC, my hometown. The Regulator is, with Duke's Gothic Bookshop and Chapel Hill's long gone Intimate, one of the first bookshops in which I felt that sort of personal investment you make when you fall in love with a bookstore. There were a whole lot of people at the reading and it's possible that I knew them all. There were faces I didn't recognize, to be sure, but maybe it was just because I hadn't seen them in so long. ( A note: this is the good side of having a debut of something when you're old, that is: you know a whole lot of people because you've lived so long and so probably a good percentage of them will come to see you dance, recite, sing, or, as in my case, read from your little novel.) Tom Campbell, one of the owners of the Regulator, welcomed me very charmingly and toasted me with a glass of milk, which was clever and sassy and which I appreciated. I liked hanging out in their stock room before the signing, I enjoyed reading from the little landing up four or five stairs, I liked the layout of the big room downstairs, I liked signing the big poster afterwards, I liked how Tom and I looked at each other and sighed when the "Amazon" name came up as it would do. It's a great store.

b. Powell's in Oregon. Every writer wants to read at Powell's. It's like Carnegie Hall or La Scala. When I realized that I would already be in Portland on the day after the book's pub date, I begged my publicist to set something up and she did. I praised her highly, she accepted my praise and then she left for another job somewhere. What she didn't tell me before she left was the I was going to the Beaverton Powell's--still a Powell's to be sure, but without the cachet of the real one, the City of Books Powell's, in Portland. It got to me for a couple of days, I have to say. But the store was nice enough, there were 40 people at the reading, the store sold some books and the bookseller--and this is like a big deal--HAD TO PUT OUT MORE CHAIRS. I tried to help him but he wouldn't let me. I could see exactly the same anxiety I always feel: you put out too many chairs and it looks pathetic when there aren't enough people to fill them; you put out too few and you have to scramble at the last minute. Bless his heart. I signed stock afterwards and he did that sweet bookstore thing of opening the book to the correct page for me. I've done that for others oh, a zillion times. Having it done for me was heartwarming.

c. The Country Bookshop in Southern Pines. Southern Pines is a lovely little town and I'd never been there though I'd heard enough good things about the bookstore to be thrilled at the invitation. The audience while small, was select and they asked wonderful questions. I enjoyed meeting the manager, Kay, and was humbled by the massively researched article on The Wet Nurse's Tale that she'd written for the local paper. This store served cookies. Rather than standing at a podium, I sat at a table, which I rather enjoyed. They have a nice space in the back of the store for readings which I envied because, just the day before, I had been forced to get rid of the lovely space the Bull's Head had used for readings--this was a commandment from on high and I was powerless to disobey since my choice was to get rid of the space or get rid of a bunch of books. You never ever ever want to get rid of books if you have any sort of choice.

d. Malaprop's in Asheville. Perhaps the best thing about this reading was getting to meet Emoke B'Razc, the owner of the place. Emoke is a name I've heard for years and years and I felt a little like I was in the presence of some bookselling deity to shake her hand. I've been in the biz for 30 years; she has too, but she made her shop exactly the way she wanted, uncompromising, feminist, political, while I, who do not my store, endeavor to make it all things to all people which, of course, makes it less, rather than more. Malaprop's inspires. I stood at my podium and afterwards, was asked to sign the Malaprop's autograph book which I thought was very classy plus in it was David Sedaris's autograph and my husband had just been telling me about a New Yorker story by David S. in which he remembers how, when he was nine, he'd sing Kukkaburra in a torch-singer's style so loud that his dad would come and smack him. Which struck me as hilarious. I loved Malaprop's.

Next comes Quail Ridge and then McIntyre's and then a store I've never been in: Page AFter Page in Elizabeth City. I'll write about them later.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Paper or Plastic: a novella

I"m thinking about bags.

I work in a store. (I sell books.) When you work in a store, bags are part of your daily life. In order to "brand" your store (wait just a moment while I finish throwing up due to having used business jargon), you want to have an attractive bag with your logo on it. The colors of the bag ought to contrast wittily or prettily; the logo ought to be large enough so that the bag serves as a baby billboard; the bag ought to serve as, in other words, a lagniappe for the customer, a little extra that goes along with the purchase.

I have seen people carrying our large shopping bags as good-looking if impermanent totes--around campus, around town--and felt proud. They're yellow with our logo in a handsome navy.


First of all, I sell books. I sell books to people who mostly have backpacks. Or who are going back to their offices, a few steps away. Or who have the currently chic, large-capacity purses. It's not like if they put the book in their purse it's going to leak anything. It's not as if it'll break in there.

Second. There are enough bags in the world already. More and more, we carry our reusable bags to the grocery store. Yes, a trend like this starts with the liberal-educated-intentional-talky types, but it'll spread. Australia, after all, outlawed plastic bags. The Bull's Head (my store) sells dozens of permanent totes including the ever popular "Read or Die" tote and the "I Usually Leave This Bag in the Car" bag. We all know why we ought not to use bags and more and more, we make it a part of our lives to do without them and even if we're totally disorganized like I am and almost ALWAYS leave them in the car, we can learn, right? We can change.

Some years ago, I decided that I would do everything I could to not give my customers bags. To hell with the advertising. I don't care if the store police-types can't figure out whether a customer bought a book or not as they watch them through the security cameras. (The point being, that if the customer's book was in a bag, it would be obvious that yes, they'd paid for it.) (I work at a college bookstore. Often, kids take the "Steal this book" message literally.) But I don't care. I know it saves the store money when I help people decide not to take bags. I don't really care about that either. All I know is this; I'm doing my small part to save the world. This is what I'm doing. I have to use the air-conditioning to make palmetto bugs stay away; I ride my bike to work a lot but I fly in airplanes a bunch; I take long showers--in other words, I overuse the environment just as much as any other American but at least I, in my long years as merchant, have kept a bunch of bags (that would otherwise be there) out of the landfill.

Now: (Isn't this unbelievable? Can you believe how much I've thought about this? ) Now: here's where it gets delicate. How do you advise a customer (who are you to be advising, after all) that they don't want a bag?

If you say, "do you want a bag," they automatically say, "yes." Almost all the time. That's because they're thinking about what to have for dinner and they hear the question and know it's not really important so they just answer yes because yes is easier than no.

If you say, "do you need a bag," then they maaaybe will hear the "need" in there but the whole thing sounds a lot like "do you want a bag" so you get the same reaction. Plus there's the same "no" problem; "yes" is more polite, more socially acceptable, especially if you're not really thinking about the question and it doesn't seem important.

If you say, "do you require a bag," you get funny looks. I don't mind this because I'm older than many of my clientele and when they look at me in alarm, they realized that I've said it sharply but with love. People my own age seem to react similarly. The problem is this: some people can take it the wrong way and also, there's the having-to-say-no problem.

Here's the perfect way to do it:

Are you good without a bag?

It's perfect and here's why.

a. They get to say "yes" which makes them (unconsciously) happy because it's nice to be agreeable.
b. I sound cool even though I'm old because of the slight grammatical foible, that being, "are you good." This reminds me to write about the time that Elizabeth Edwards corrected my grammar. I'll write about that later.
c. It requires attention because it's without the "have a nice day" roteness of "do you want a bag."

I could go on. Seriously, I could truly go on. Like, at length. It's not really an obsession, I don't think; it's more of an expertise. It's pretty much my only one, though, so you'll forgive me.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

You Are What You Read

An epiphany, sorta! Okay: bear with the (partially) linked ideas of a messy mind, to wit--you know how there are some of us who take on the accent of whomever we're around? Like Madonna got that British accent? And the adorable owner of the Swiss B&B I stayed in with my family last week who, by the way, had no subcutaneous flesh in his face because he's an extreme sports guy and he's burned it all off by doing insanely dangerous physical things--anyhow, he has this beautiful "European" accent, we were all in love with him, and he turned out to be from Roanoke, Va. But we didn't care. It wasn't fake. It was real. He's a sponge, is all, which is why he can fit into the Swiss culture so easily, I'm guessing, or really any culture.

Okay, so I'm a sponge too. My kids accuse me: suddenly, I'll be saying "y'all" on the phone to the Terminix guy. (You live in a ranch house in NC, you either have Terminix or palmetto bugs. I cannot stand palmetto bugs.) So maybe this explains WHY I CAN'T READ WHILE I'M WRITING. It's not my fault. I'm a natural copycat. One night at a dinner party, I got a little drunk and started speaking with the cadence and manner of a favorite guest. "How kind of you to ask," I said, just as he had not five minutes earlier.

For those of you who have written a large document--a novel, say--you know that this means that I lose custody of my most beloved for a year, two years at a pop. It's not a conscious thing. It's more like a ripping asunder. It's visceral. I've tried everything--reading a genre different from my own, reading Chekhov or Proust because there's no danger of imitation--but it's no use. I can't do it. I can't get beyond a first page. This last time I became deeply depressed. I had to go into therapy, seriously. I didn't know why I was so depressed. But this is it, I'm sure of it. It's as if you'd spent 50 years singing around the house: as you washed the dishes, as you washed your kids, as you washed the dog and then suddenly your mouth was sewn shut. For me, reading was like singing. It's how I defined myself. I'm a reader. Walk into our house: you'll be able to tell.

So, here I am between drafts. The first draft took 1.5 years; I was depressed the whole time. I can't not write the dang thing--I just feel like crap the whole time. Except when I feel wonderful about the whole act of creation thing. You know. That. I wrote a book or two (not including the ones under the bed) but I don't think of myself as a "writer." I just don't. Me? I'm a reader.

An epiphany-let.

Next blog: what I read over my summer vacation. (It's gonna be awesome.)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


This isn't original but I'm pretty sure there's more blog-writers than blog-readers. So does this mean that for most of us, the act of blogging is simply self-absorption, writ large? Probably. On the other hand, the best way to learn to write is to write. . So, if you think of the writing of your blog as the practicing of your craft, you're good to go.

I went to my first writer's residency earlier this summer. A residency, or this one at any rater, is not like a workshop. In a workshop, you take classes and commune with others of your ilk. In a residency, you're all alone doing you work. I'd always wanted to go to a residency. I had a big book to "finish." I needed some time away from the housedogkidskitchenjobgardendusttelevisionNPRhusbanderrands. I needed to concentrate. I applied, was accepted, packed up my rental car (we've only got one car in our attempts to be green and cheap) and headed up to the top of a mountain.

I wrote and wrote and wrote. For dinner, I hiked for twenty minutes up to the tippy-top of the mountain where there sits a beautiful retreat--a lovely place where groups of people: State Park people from South Carolina! African drummers from Georgia! go and have meetings and take classes and hang out. I ate at the staff table. I am very friendly but also pretty shy. The small talk was difficult for me. After dinner, I packed up some of the leftovers--biscuits, salmon--and headed back down the mountain pretty fast. I was apparently more afraid of making small talk than I was of hiking down a deeply forested mountain holding a plate of salmon. (Here, Bears. Come on and get it.)

As I say, I wrote and wrote and wrote. It was exactly like you'd think it would be. What I liked the best was what I discovered about myself. Apparently, I'm a pragmatist. I didn't spend a lot of time thinking about me me me. I didn't philosophize much. I thought neither about art nor about life. What I did was work. I wrote in the big bed, which I didn't bother to make during the day, because mostly I was sitting in it and writing. I ate when it was necessary and I walked around a little because it was, after all, in the gorgeous mountains. I read minimally, except what I needed to read for my work which turned out to be a book about eclipses and another book about Jewish mothers. Like many of the others who'd used that cabin--you could read all about it in the journals in the cabin; entries by each of the cabin dwellers--I haven't yet quit my day job. So for us hobbyists, this residency was like a cross between a big fat birthday present with a bow, on one hand, and on the other, rescue, pure and simple.

Anyhow, up there I put the last period on the first draft. It was an excellent experience, despite the quantity of cave crickets in the bathroom.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

author readings plus a plea for assistance

I have attended literally hundreds of author readings. "Attended" is the wrong word. Hosted, is more like it. As manager of the Bull's Head Bookshop, I've hosted readings for authors who are real authors and authors who know that they are not real authors and authors who are not real authors but think that they are. (This last sentence was after Getrude Stein from her "Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas," an amusing book.)

Some readings are memorable because of author quirkiness. Dave Eggers, for example, asked our store to provide him with a cot (he claimed exhaustion) and then read from said cot. Chuck Palahniuk's ardent wish that his selection would gross someone out to the point that s/he fainted came true. Ethan Hawke autographed a young woman's stomach, at her request.

Some readings are memorable because of the charm of the author and selection as well as the way s/he reads it. Mark Salzman read from his beautiful "Lying Awake" and then told a wittily self-deprecating story about his cat and some aluminum foil. Abraham Verghese read from his inestimable "My Own Country" and then
listened carefully to the AIDS stories of every tearful person in the long line. Zadie Smith read beautifully from her beautiful book "On Beauty" in her beautiful accent looking totally beautiful. Kaye Gibbons did her first reading ever from her first novel, "Ellen Foster," at the Bull's Head.

I've attended enough readings to want to make mine the charming, not-too-long,
not-too-serious sorts of them. I'm all about trying for amusing. I'm not afraid of a
little well-placed coarseness. (My novel is about a wet nurse. A little coarseness is going to be hard to avoid. I may as well embrace it.)

In light of all this, I'm hoping for some help. I need every synonym I can get my hands on (if you will) for the word, "breast." Every one. All of them. I hope I can depend upon you all for your support in what is sure to be an titillating endeavor. I thank you.

Friday, March 27, 2009


Galleys arrived today prompting a big dinner out at the Acme Restaurant in Carrboro. Some years ago I attended an author dinner at the Acme. We local booksellers had been invited, by the author's publisher, to dinner in order to meet said author and get to know him and get to like him. I'm usually very prompt, like I have to wait outside in my car til it's time to go into a place so I don't look to dweeby for being so early, but in this case I was way late. I was at home. It was midsummer. 
When I saw the time and realized my mistake, I ran into the garden and cut down all the sunflowers--gorgeous tall ones--to take to the author in a gigantic bouquet as an apology. He loved them. He said they reminded him of the sunflowers that grew alongside the reservation in Oklahoma, which was the subject of a lot of his work. 
Some months later I read in PW that he'd been found to be a fraud, that his whole memoir was one of those made-up kind of memoirs. I didn't care. I loved the fact that even if it wasn't true that he'd spent a bunch of time on a reservation, that he'd had the presence of mind to envision those sunflowers growing alongside the imaginary road. 
My galleys look pretty good.