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Archives: April 2007

Scene @ LA Times Festival of Books


I was pleasantly surprised to see that Dan Goodsell, the creator of the The World of Mr. Toast webcomic, had a booth at the LA Times Festival of Books. Although I had told myself I wasn’t going to spend any money that weekend, I just couldn’t resist here, picking up a T-shirt and a tiny stuffed Mr. Toast. (And apparently I’m not the only one; even ’90s lesbian folk sensation Phranc came by the booth, according to Goodsell’s blog.)

Look for a few remaining bits of Festival coverage tomorrow, including a recap of my panel on blogging and book reviewing…

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Festival of Books Diary: Sunday AM

10 a.m.: Faced with far too many authors on panels I want to check out this morning, I hit upon a perfect solution: I simply won’t leave the green room, and that way I’ll get to see everyone I want to see before they go to work. Kim Dower introduces me to Steven Sorrentino, the former HarperCollins exec who wrote a memoir (Luncheonette) and is now the VP of author promotions and special events for Barnes & Noble, and he tells us about some of the shows he’s been putting together at the Union Square and Lincoln Triangle venues. I spot John Scalzi heading towards the buffet table and go over to make my hellos. He fails to recognize me at first, probably because I’m wearing a suit. I tell him that I ran into another of our old buddies from mid-’90s Usenet, American Heritage supervising editor Steve Kleinedler, yesterday afternoon after he led a “Define-a-thon” out on the Festival grounds. Scalzi introduces me to fellow science fiction writers Cory Doctorow, Kage Baker, and Harry Turtledove, which leads to another fanboy moment, as Turtledove wrote some of my favorite short stories and novellas when I was reading science fiction magazines cover-to-cover in the 1980s, when he was laying the foundations for his reputation as “The Master of Alternative History.”

11 a.m.: The science fiction writers head out to their panel, and I catch up with Erika Schickel and Brett Paesel, who recognizes me as the guy who nearly got thrown out of SoHo House for taking her picture at a reading last fall. They leave, and I spot Meghan O’Rourke and Dana Goodyear talking to each other, so I get a picture.


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Festival of Books Diary: Late Saturday


4 p.m.: Sat in on the Q&A session for one of the fiction panels, where one of the audience members actually walked up to the microphone and asked the archetypal stupid audience question: whether the authors used a pen or a computer to write their stories. To her credit, Susan Vreeland tells the woman her question is irrelevant. Afterwards, I wander through the exhibitor booths and find James Ellroy at the Mystery Bookstore, signing books with Megan Abbott, Jason Starr, and Theresa Schwegel.

5 p.m.: Drop in on the Hollywood panel, mostly because I want to meet Peter Biskind and see if he has any nice things to say about the copy of The Stewardess Is Flying the Plane I sent him back in 2005. This plan fails miserably, as once the panel is over, about half a dozen other audience members want a piece of Biskind, too, but he does tell me he recognizes the title before some guy starts to tell him about the short film he’s produced and how he’s trying to get it at film festivals. The Q&A session here is notable for replacing all the usual questions about how to get a literary agent with how to get an acting job. Also, an airbrained ultraliberal claims that 300 is pro-Bush propaganda about the Greeks invading Persia to bring democracy to the Middle East (hint: that’s not even close to the actual plot), then asks Biskind and LA Times film critic Kenneth Turan why we don’t have any films challenging America’s politics like we did back in the ’70s. “Syriana?” I call out from the middle of the hall. “Michael Moore?” shouts the woman behind me. Biskind charitably notes that “there’s a real animus against political films,” but also points out that it takes time to create a film in response to current events. Well, the left-wing nut continues, aren’t these movies desensitizing Americans? “Americans are already desensitized,” says Turan. “I wish our only problem was 300.”

World Voices: The Literary Side of Crime

(photo credits: Mary Reagan)

S.J. Rozan
introduced Saturday’s “Literary Thrillers” panel, held at the Bowery Ballroom, by saying the subject was “one close to my heart.” And even though the topic didn’t get addressed directly by panelists Kenji Jasper, Henry Chang and Alicia Giminez-Bartlett until the question period (when I played ringer and asked what, exactly, made thrillers literary) the topic permeated the hour-plus discussion, which quickly established that Chang and Jasper care a great deal about having their characters drive the story and basing said stories on their own respective realities (Jasper grew up in inner-city DC, Chang in New York’s Chinatown, where he still resides.) Bartlett delineated the difference between genre constraints and literary expansiveness and how she felt it was, in some way, easier to write crime fiction as a result.

During the signing portion afterwards I finally had the chance to meet Giminez-Bartlett’s panelmates from the previous night’s “Mediterranean Noir” event, Carlo Lucarelli and Massimo Carlotto. Neither Italian writer is comfortable enough speaking English (something I didn’t figure out until my attempt at conversation with Lucarelli) so translator Michael Reynolds intermediated between me and Carlotto, who was also in town for the Edgar Awards (where he was nominated for Best Paperback Original.) When I asked Carlotto if it was odd to have read from “his newest novel” IL FUGGIASCO – really his first, written twelve years ago – he said no because he’s frequently asked to speak about his voluminous legal woes in and around Italy. He did add that the “Carlotto Case,” as it’s known there, is not exactly fresh material for him anymore.

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Another Day, Another Possible Fake Memoir

Just when we thought the whole “fake memoir” craze from last year had completely abated, along comes the New York Times’ Abby Ellin to upset the apple cart once more. The book up for scrutiny is Deborah Rodriguez‘s KABUL BEAUTY SCHOOL, whose tales of hairdressing in the midst of Islamic restrictions and fundamentalism propelled both book and author to bestsellerdom. Problem is, “Crazy Deb,” as Rodriguez refers to herself in the book, has raised the ire of six women who were involved at the founding of the Kabul Beauty School. The women say the book is filled with inaccuracies and inconsistencies. They argue that events did not unfold the way Rodriguez depicts them, and that she exaggerated her role in the formation of the school.

Though Random House notes on the copyright page that some personal, place and organization names have been changed, and some chronological details adjusted, Ellin explains, the women believe that the discrepancies are too vast to call the book a memoir. They even question whether the stories Rodriguez tells about Afghan women – disturbing, heartbreaking tales of abuse – are real. And they object to Rodriguez’s explanation of how she came to be in charge of the school, as she is today. They say that, instead of being its savior, as she represents, she plotted to move the school from the Women’s Ministry to the house she shares with her Afghan/Uzbek husband, Sher (called Sam in the book). And, they said, she did it for personal gain. “She couldn’t have a for-profit business at the ministry,” said Patricia O’Connor (pictured with Shaima Ali and Terri Graguel, left) one of the school’s founders.

So far, this isn’t quite in James Frey territory and everyone involved admits this isn’t a case of outright lying. But once again, we’re faced with the question of how much truth there must be in a memoir with no easy answers – especially as KABUL BEAUTY SCHOOL follows a pattern set in many true-to-life books and psychological accounts that tell stories with names changed and stories melded. Indeed, Richard Pine, a literary agent and partner at InkWell Management, said Rodriguez wasn’t bound by journalistic standards. “Journalists know about fact-checking,” he said. “Beauticians know about hair dye and shampoo.”

Festival of Books Diary: Saturday PM


12 P.M.: Local authors Liza Palmer (left) and Megan Crane have come to the festival to hang out; we meet for lunch at one of the food courts. Megan notices the galley of her new novel, Frenemies, I’ve been carrying around all morning. “That looks like a cool book,” she jokes. “Yes,” I reply, “Maureen Dowd recommended it to me.” We cackle gleefully. The nice old ladies sharing the table with us get a scared look on their faces. Soon after, Megan enjoys the official Festival of Books snack. (Lucky for me, she’s willing to share!)

1:30 P.M.: The panel on indie publishing turns out to be much more engaging than this morning’s “brass tacks” discussion. LA Times reporter Scott Timberg moderates at a good clip, asking lots of provocative questions, like “So who are the villains? Is it the Germans?” Johnny Temple of Akashic Books says he doesn’t see the situation as one of heroes and villains, but about finding ways to keep books relevant in the current cultural moment. “You have to be driven by something other than the desire to make money,” he says about the industry’s financial doomsaying. “I don’t see this as a threat,” agrees Daniel Halpern of Ecco. “It’s business. And you can’t really argue with big business. The question is what can you do to survive in that world?” Temple stresses the role of the individual working within corporate or indie publishing environments, pushing themselves to make a difference in the way the industry acquires and publishes books, a sentiment with which Robert Weil of Norton fiercely concurs.

When the subject turns to book reviews, Weil decries the cuts that are occurring in papers across the U.S. “There are dire implications if we can’t reach our readers.” Halpern agrees, but adds that consumers need to get seriously engaged with the problem. “If each of the 100,000 people who come to the Festival wrote a letter to the LA Times,” he says, “it would make a difference.” PW West Coast correspondent Bridget Kinsella says the solution newspaper publishers find will have to involve the web; Weil points out that he can already use the web to bypass newspapers entirely.

Festival of Books Diary: Saturday AM

9 A.M.: I arrive at the dining hall of the UCLA faculty center, which serves as the “green room” for Festival of Books authors, and immediately run into Little, Brown editor Reagan Arthur, who has two authors (George Pelecanos and Josh Ferris) with competing panels when the programming kicks off at 10. Laura Lippman comes over to say hello. Lee Goldberg comes by with a copy of my book for me to sign, and an ARC of his latest Monk tie-in novel for me to read. I get all fanboy with Rajiv Chandrasekaran, but manage not to gush too much.

10 A.M.: Sit in on “Publishing: The Brass Tacks” panel, since I know Peter Osnos and Kim from LA fairly well. Kim opens up with some remarks about a published author needs to use his or her networking skills to develop “a community of people joined together to create excitement around your book.” Osnos agrees: “People don’t appreciate the degree to which these are partnerships of shared interest.” He adds that the pessimism so prevalent in discussions of the industry “seriously underestimates people’s need to get certain kinds of information in certain ways,” and touches briefly on how his Caravan Project aims to address that need with an array of technologies. Meanwhile, Sandy Dijkstra acts as if she’s on a “So You Want to Be a Writer?” panel and starts giving out advice about finding an agent by checking the acknowledgments section in books you like, and how you shouldn’t send agents a manuscript wrapped in a doily. I start to think about how I’m here instead of listening to Meghan O’Rourke talk about book reviewing with David Ulin. Then I remind myself I’m missing Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle talk about food, and I get more depressed. I decide to bail and run back to my hotel room to retrieve the moleskine I somehow managed to forget, because otherwise I will worry all day that it’s actually lost. When I get back to the green room, I run into my friend Ruth Andrew Ellenson and catch up with her while Gina Nahai (left) goes deep into conversation wtih Hope Edelman


The Perils of the Misblurb

Though we at GalleyCat have taken issue from time to time – okay, often – with Henry Alford‘s contributions at the New York Times Book Review, I must say up front that I quite enjoyed his recent piece on how publishers take a perfectly neutral or negative review and mine it for any and all positive words in order to fashion a blurb out of it. Take what happened to Time Magazine book critic Lev Grossman, who was “quite taken aback” when he saw a full-page newspaper advertisement for Charles Frazier‘s novel THIRTEEN MOONS that included a one-word quotation – “Genius” – attributed to Time. Grossman was confused, Alford reports, because his review “certainly didn’t have that word.” Eventually, he found it in a preview item he had written a few months earlier, which included the sentence “Frazier works on an epic scale, but his genius is in the details.” As Grossman put it, “They plucked out the G-word.”

Alford continues with many more examples (including one from his own reviewing past, when Little, Brown transformed his “tour-de-farce” about David Sedaris‘s NAKED into “tour-de-force) and explanations from the publishing world. “We get tempted and we get desperate,” Morgan Entrekin, the publisher of Grove/Atlantic, said. “We publish over 100 books a year. I know we make mistakes. But we try to obey the rules.” To him, that means not changing the wording or the meaning of reviews. Paul Slovak, the publisher of Viking, says part of what keeps the house honest is the desire to maintain “good relationships” with book reviewers. “Michiko Kakutani wouldn’t be happy if we pulled two words of praise out of a negative review,” he said, referring to the chief book critic of The New York Times.

And as for what happened to Grossman, I am sooooo not buying Random House associate publisher Tom Perry‘s denial of any misblurbing. “We were being very short and punchy,” he said. “We have limited space.” Sure, see that pig overhead? Its flight patterns don’t like misappropriated blurbs, either…

Scene @ LA Times Book Prizes


Eric R. Kandel (center) had good cause to enjoy himself at the reception following the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes ceremony Friday night, having won the science and technology writing category for In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind. In his acceptance speech, he compared the feeling of coming to the awards ceremony, held at UCLA’s Royce Hall, to that of going to Stockholm to accept the Nobel for his research the role of neurons in memory storage. At least with the Nobel, he joked, you know before you show up that you’re going to get something…

Here are the winners in the other categories:

  • Biography: Neal Gabler, Walt Disney
  • Current Interest: Ian Buruma, Murder in Amsterdam
  • Fiction: A.B. Yehoshua, A Woman in Jerusalem
  • History: Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower
  • Mystery/Thriller: Michael Connelly, Echo Park
  • Poetry: Frederick Seidel, Ooga-Booga
  • YA Fiction: Coe Booth, Tyrell
  • Art Seidenbaum Award (First Fiction): Alice Greenway, White Ghost Girls
  • Robert Kirsch Award: William Kittredge

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Covering the Indian Publishing Scene

The Gulf Times has a standard piece on the importance of cover art, but the added wrinkle is that this talks almost exclusively about Indian publishing houses – and how they are trying to keep pace with the eye-popping covers used around the world. Deepti Talwar, senior editor at Rupa publishing house, said: “That covers are very important is a truism. The main concern is to have it stand out among so many books out there. Indian covers, especially Rupa covers, can compete with the global best as production just got better.”

Paintings, reproductions, advances and author input are all covered here, as is a more frustrating realization that the designers in charge of creating those covers – beautiful or not – don’t get much in the way of recognition. “Designers never get royalty. Print runs for the book go into thousands, but the designer gets a one-time payment. There is no tradition of a work order mentioning conditions. Work order in the west for illustrators is very clear. They are entitled to the copyright of the original cover, royalty, etc,” said Moonis Ijlal, who designs covers for Rupa, HarperCollins and Picador. “Here the designer is not even handed a copy of the book whose cover they have conceived and created. He still has to nick the book.”