Ask a Book Question #78 (Resources to Get Started in Publishing)

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Brian writes in with this question: What I'd like to ask you is if you have any reading suggestions for finding out about the ins and outs of book and magazine publishing. It's one of those topics that is absolutely flooded up to the nose with books claiming to answer all your questions. I would love some help from a trusted name. I'm trying to get a foot in the door in NYC but it is, as I'm sure you know, quite the challenge. For this question we got responses from a pair of The Millions' published writers, Emily St. John Mandel and Sonya Chung. Emily: The most practical guide in my possession is probably Publicize Your Book! by Jacqueline Deval. At first glance this might not seem like the most intuitive fit for this topic, but the book provides a great deal of information about how publishing houses actually work from a marketing perspective, from the faintly chilling opening line (“The reality of book publishing is that there are too few resources to support every book”) onward. I happen to be published by a press that provides excellent marketing support to its authors, but this is by no means a given; I have friends, published by other presses, whose books have languished and died in the absence of a publicity budget. In the best-case scenario, authors need to play a substantial role in marketing their work, and in the worst-case scenario, they need to do absolutely everything themselves. Either way, Deval’s book is invaluable. There was a brief period last year when it seemed like half the people I follow on Twitter were reading Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything. I follow a lot of booksellers on Twitter, which is deadly, because I end up spending a small fortune on books; someone will recommend a book, then someone else will read it and recommend it too, and then all of a sudden everyone’s talking about it and I have to go buy it to see what all the fuss is about. Usually this happens with new releases, but The Best of Everything was published in 1958. This is a portrait of a lost world—the book follows five young employees of a Manhattan publishing house in an era of typing pools and three-martini lunches. It’s a novel, but one rooted in fact: the author spent four years rising through the ranks of a New York publishing house herself, and before writing the book she interviewed fifty young women to see if their experiences matched her own. The book’s account of what it took for a young woman to go from the typing pool to an editorial position in that era is not for the faint of heart. A friend who read this book told me that working in publishing hasn’t changed very much; I hope very fervently that she’s wrong. Sonya: In the olden days, we’d all go out and buy the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) Literary Press and Magazine Directory.   Organized by state, with each entry detailing submissions policies and a sampling of the authors featured, it was considered the “Bible” of literary submission; we’d all pore over it and make our lists, noting deadlines in our daily planners, imagining that if we just did our due diligence we’d be published writers for sure.  (In fact, I did publish my first stories and essays via lists I made from the LPMD.)  CLMP still publishes the Directory annually, and it boasts new features such as tips from editors, profiles of publishers, and inclusion of “leading webzines.”   I don’t hear young writers talking about this Directory as much as they used to – a print directory?  how quaint! – but if you’re looking for a print resource, this might be The One. Poets & Writers is an indispensable clearinghouse for all things writerly, publishing and otherwise.  Their website features user-friendly, searchable literary-magazine and small-press databases, grants/awards deadlines, and contests.  I’ve found their Agents & Editors series – where a roundtable of agents and/or editors talk book biz “unplugged,” or an individual agent or editor is interviewed – especially illuminating. When I had a book length manuscript and was ready to start the agent search, I found agentquery.com and publishersmarketplace.com both very helpful.  I knew nothing about finding an agent; agentquery walks you through the basics of seeking an agent and FAQs of what to expect.  Both sites have searchable databases with profiles on many agents (a quick look reveals that publishersmarketplace.com has more up-to-date profiles).  The best strategy for agent-seeking is to make a list of your favorite writers, then go to a library or big-box bookstore, pull those writers’ books off the shelves and flip to the acknowledgments page; usually the writer will thank/name her agent there.  Take your list of agents to one of these online databases, find their submissions guidelines, and follow them to a tee. Finally, invest some time online.  Literary blogs lead you to other literary blogs, which also inevitably lead you to online lit mags that will interest you and be good potential publishers of your work (many of the major lit bloggers list extensive links which include their favorite lit mags).  It is a truism, for good reason, that the best places to submit your work are sites/publications that you read regularly and admire.  Editors can sense, I think, that intangible quality of “good fit” when you’ve actually been reading their publication over time. With so many online venues these days, the possibilities for publication have increased exponentially.  Writing students sometimes ask me if I think online pubs are “less prestigious” than print pubs, to which I say, hogwash: The Millions, Narrative Magazine, Five Chapters, on and on.  But, as Stephen Elliott puts it: “It’s easy to get published; it’s just hard to get paid.” Good luck! Thans for the question Brian! Millions readers, feel free to chime in with your advice in the comments! [Image credit: Jim Kuhn]

Ask a Book Question #77 (The Red and the Black in Translation)

Ralph wrote in with this question: I am a frequent The Millions reader and have a question. Can you suggest the best translation of Stendhal's The Red and The Black or, perhaps, which translation or edition is considered "definitive"? I believe Scott-Moncrieff’s translation was long considered definitive, but there is a more recent translation by Burton Raffel. I'm interested in a recommendation from a trusted source. Choosing a literary translation tends to be a matter of taste, but according to our researches Burton Raffel's translation of Stendhal's under-appreciated novel The Red and the Black seems the most promising. By some accounts, Raffel's our greatest living translator. He has made a business of bringing overlooked "great books" (Don Quixote, The Canterbury Tales, Pere Goriot, Gargantua and Pantagruel, most of Chretien de Troyes' writings) back to life by recasting them in a contemporary American idiom.  Modern Library's rather sexy cover of Raffel's The Red and the Black testifies to his approach.  A lot of readers like Raffel's style—Michael Wood quite liked his Don Quixote when he reviewed it at the LRB, and Elif Batuman, our occasional contributor and consulting scholar on the European novel, also recommends it.  Raffel's translations are funnier than his rivals' and they read more easily—but this comes at the expense of precise literal accuracy.  If you're a stickler for literal translations, Raffel might not be for you. For a more detailed take on Raffel's The Red and the Black and rival translations, we present this excerpt from Allen Barra's Salon review, featured on Powell's Review-A-Day, which offers, among other things, a comparison of Raffel's translation with C.K. Scott Moncrieff's noted 1926 version of Stendhal's classic: Yet if some modern readers have been slow to come to Stendhal, a possible reason is that his best novels don't read as modern as they feel. The famous C.K. Scott Moncrieff translation for Modern Library was first published in 1926. Margaret R.B. Shaw's 1953 translation for Penguin reads like a translation of an 18th century novel. The new translation by Burton Raffel rocks. Or, more precisely, it's a blast, which is exactly how Raffel (a distinguished professor of humanities at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette who has also dragged Balzac's old warhorse, Pere Goriot, kicking and screaming into the 21st century) has Julien describe his own life: "'If you give me twenty francs,' he says to a visitor while awaiting his trip to the guillotine, 'I'll tell you, in detail, the story of my life. It's a blast.'" Raffel restores to Stendhal the quality that, in the words of V.S. Pritchett, makes "each sentence of his plain prose" read like "a separate shock. Let's compare two different versions of the oft-quoted passage on Julien's narcissism, translated first by Moncrieff then by Raffel: -- "Julien's life was thus composed of a series of petty negotiations; and their success was of far more importance to him than the evidence of a marked preference for himself which was only waiting for him to read it in the heart of Madame de Renal." -- "Julien's life was thus composed of a series of petty negotiations, and their success concerned him far more than the signs of special affection he could have read in Madame de Renal's heart, if only he had bothered." Thanks to outdated translations, Stendhal has spent the last few decades languishing in the twilight realm of the praised but unread. Now, thanks to Raffel's translation, Julien Sorel can begin haunting the 21st century.

Ask a Book Question #76 (Good Readers, Good Readings)

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Traci writes in with this question: I'm working to establish a really great reading series in Indianapolis, and I'm wondering whether you have suggestions for readers who really own a stage. I'm looking for someone lively and personable (and, of course, someone who writes great prose). Have you seen anyone who really knocked your socks off? Emily St. John Mandel: Reading one's work aloud is a difficult art. Doing it well requires a certain stage presence, and a small degree of talent as a live entertainer: in other words, more or less the exact opposite of the skills you needed to actually sit down and write your book in the first place. Given that the skillsets involved in writing and reading aloud are so different, I’ve found that it’s a rare writer who can give a memorable reading. (By “memorable,” I mean “memorable in a good way.” I’ve been to some memorably bad ones.) More often than not we speak too quickly, or in a monotone, or way too dramatically when the material doesn’t call for it (“and then… she poured the coffee… into a cup.”) I go to a lot of readings. The ones I like best are assured, understated affairs, where the reading style doesn’t get in the way of the prose, and I think the best reader I’ve come across in this vein so far is John Wray. I went to a reading of Lowboy in a bookstore in Brooklyn a few months back; Wray’s full-back Sharpie tattoo of Michiko Kakutani (“MICHIKO 4-EVAH”) was certainly striking, but I was more taken by his reading style. He reads very calmly and quietly, fairly slowly, with a pause after every sentence. The effect is mesmerizing; the audience in the bookstore was perfectly still. Andrew Saikali: A great writer, a podium, bookmarked text on the stand, glass of water on the side. Microphone, lights, hushed audience. You'd think this would be the perfect recipe for a literary evening. Far too often it isn't. The best readings I've been to have all deviated, in some way, from this formula. Many authors are captivating on the page, but lack a magnetic personality. Without it, without that way to connect with the audience, the reading is doomed. That's not a slight on their work. But let's face it - a reading is performance. And some do it better than others. I saw Irvine Welsh a couple of years ago at the Harbourfront reading series here in Toronto. It was a packed house. Welsh has a big, loyal fan base and they all seemed to be there. It fueled him, and he gave back in kind. He read from his novel Crime and also did a Q&A. That's always a nice touch. An author's personality comes out when he goes off-script. Add a Scottish burr and a known and fascinating personal history - this was, after all, the man who wrote Trainspotting. His background chronicling young Scottish lives on the margin comes through his wit and his attitude, and that attitude seeps into a novel like Crime set in the United States, a world away from Scottish junkies. The legendary Ralph Steadman, illustrator and partner in crime with the late Hunter S. Thompson, was in town a few years ago with his book The Joke's Over, chronicling, in words and drawings, his friendship with the gonzo journalist. His presentation wasn't even a reading - it was a slideshow of his illustrations, with off-the cuff commentary and anecdotes. It was fascinating and hilarious - a slice of cultural history and outlaw tales. Top prize though, for me, goes to novelist, artist and designer Douglas Coupland. Having only read his novel Miss Wyoming, I saw him read back in 2005. jPod was the novel he read from, but I don't actually remember that part. I remember him talking to the audience, doing a Q&A like I'd never heard before, dripping with dry wit (yes, dry wit actually drips. I've seen it). Admittedly, Coupland was high on codeine at the time, but I've heard him interviewed since, and he's always extremely articulate and with just the right amount of sarcasm. Edan Lepucki: I'll admit, I prefer to read an author's book on my own than have it performed to me--that way, I can follow the story at my own pace, pick it up or put it down at my leisure, and let the prose suggest a voice to me, rather than have the author's own monotone, or murmur, or over-enunciation, flung at me. And yet, I attend readings all the time, as if I actually like them. The most memorable one I've attended, by Deborah Eisenberg in the spring of 2006 in Iowa City, had nothing to do with her. It wasn't that she wasn't a strong reader, she was, but that hail so raucous and terrifying stopped her a few minutes in. The more adventurous among us (not me) ran outside to witness an ominous and greenish cloud coming for our heretofore sturdy university town. A tornado! Before she'd begun reading, Eisenberg had announced that her story would take approximately 40 minutes to read aloud, start to finish. That struck me as too long, and so, when we were interrupted, I felt as if I'd willed the tornado into existence, to rescue me from all that sitting-still. However, after we waited in an interior hallway for over an hour, we were herded into a smaller lecture hall to finish the performance. Eisenberg chose a different story this time, and only read the opening pages. I am sure it was marvelous, but with the winds still howling outside, I was distracted. The only reading I've attended where I was truly riveted from start to finish was also in Iowa City when I was a graduate student. D.A. Powell read from his collection of poems Chronic with such a feisty and comic theatricality that for weeks afterward I found myself reenacting the event, as if I'd seen a dance performance and wanted to try out the steps for myself in my living room. I loved how playful Powell's poems were, and how this playfulness left you unprepared for their beauty, which made them all the more delicious. D.A. Powell's reading was followed, and matched in greatness, by Edward Carey's. Carey is a small English fellow with a flop of boyish blond hair, and his novel Observatory Mansions, is delightfully off-the-wall. He was a masterful reader--it felt like we were gathered around the campfire, or listening to a ye olden radio play, with Britain's preeminent actor flexing his talent just for the fun of it. That night felt like real theatre. Garth Risk Hallberg: As an undergraduate in Missouri, I learned as much from the surfeit of on-campus readings as I did from any class. One of the most memorable featured Ben Marcus performing parts of his novel-in-progress Notable American Women. I use the term "performing" advisedly; Marcus had concocted an elaborate conceptual framework in which he was not himself but (I think) a secret agent shadowing "the author Ben Marcus." Equally performative, in his own canny way, was David Foster Wallace, who delivered an hour-long reading from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men still talked about by those who attended. Wallace's prefatory remarks played up his ineptitutude at public speaking - "I seem to have misplaced my saliva," he said at one point - but what followed (B.I. #20; the one about the rape) was beyond ept. Indeed, in a twangy shambolic way I'm finding impossible to describe, it was riveting. Later, I got to hear the late Kenneth Koch - a hero of my semi-rural adolescence - read from New Addresses. Usually, I get impatient with explanations about a poem's composition, strategies, place in the author's oeuvre, etc., but Koch was a wonderful storyteller, and as the reading went on, poems and exposition began to bleed into each other: witty, philosophical, and humane. And in 1999, I saw William H. Gass, whose International Writers Center (IWC) had sponsored the above events, read a scarifying section of The Tunnel. (Readers can now hear the entire novel as an audiobook.) In larger cities where authors appear like summer fireflies - nightly, and en masse - it's easy to come to see readings as transactions: obligations (from one side of the ledger), or as promotional stunts (from the other). But those irruptions of literature into the flat gray Midwestern winters remind me - as Deborah Eisenberg and Péter Esterházy would later, in New York - that a great reading is a singular communal experience. Indeed, as a way into the minds of other human beings, declamation predates literature. Maybe this is why I get misty-eyed every time I hear that old wire recording of Walt Whitman reading "Pioneers! O Pioneers!" - even if the occasion is just a Levi's commercial. Sonya Chung: The other night, poet/performance artist/novelist Sapphire – author of the novel Push, on which the feature film Precious is based – did a public reading at the National Arts Club in New York to kick off the Poetry Society of America’s Centennial. The event was also the opening reception for an impressive and seemingly exhaustive exhibit of drawings, photographs, and oil portraits of distinguished poets (living and dead), and was preceded by a benefit reading featuring Galway Kinnell, Marie Ponsot, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Richard Howard. Sapphire opened with a poem by Etheridge Knight and went on to read her own work. Remind me to wear tight jeans and spike heels and to use my whole body and every register of voice I can muster the next time I do a reading. She sang, she incanted, she channeled and grooved. She read a poem about Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, another featuring Raskolnikov and Katerina, and the penultimate of the evening – a poem called “Survivor,” named for the reality show – that you’ll really just have to see/hear her read in person sometime. She stood in that venerable Gramercy parlor with 100 years of poetry creation and community welling up behind her, those venerable poets of yore looking on from their immortalized frames on all four walls; and one couldn’t help but be reminded of another kick-off event: January 20, 2009. Sapphire’s performance – both elegant and no-nonsense – and its spark of contextual incongruousness, made the reading utterly memorable. Anne Yoder: The bookish should take a cue from our more extroverted playwriting brethren and remember that an audience needs to be entertained. Literary readings are performances, people. This fact is too often forgotten, and readings frequently resemble reversions to grade school story time, or are reminiscent of lay readings at church services, where the nervous race to finish and the serious, often zealous, overdose on sincerity and didacticism. In terms of material, light, funny, and sexy generally goes further than complicated, sentimental, or sorrowful. But what stands out more are the readers themselves. Readers with oversized egos, with larger-than-life personas, or even a dollop of theatricality, know that impudence, playfulness, and ego make for a good show, and often, a memorable reading. The most remarkable readers I’ve seen have hewed to this rule. At a New Yorker Festival reading, Martin Amis made heads spin when he claimed that when he was younger his idea of a good time was lighting a joint, swigging a bottle of wine, and spending an evening reading his own writing. T.C. Boyle was endearingly cocky and wore suitably matched hot-pink Converse high-tops when he read at the 92nd Street Y last fall. Memory recalls hot pink, though my mind may be playing up his already eccentric appearance (loud shirt, gaunt face, and thin though voluminous hair). When artist Tracey Emin read from her memoir during Performa 09, her racy tale of an oversexed drug-addled visit to New York became so debauched she refused to read the passage to its end. She stopped short and exclaimed, “Schoolchildren in England read this?!” Emin’s infamous shamelessness made her obvious discomfort and subsequent omission all the more enticing. Playwright Edward Albee takes the prize, though, for his dramatic command in an impromptu performance. Albee read at a PEN reading to protest silenced Chinese writers on the eve of the Beijing Olympics, and began by remarking that many countries continue to violate their citizens' rights and imprison them unlawfully, most notably the United States and the People’s Republic of China. At which point, a man wearing a red T-shirt and bandana started shouting, “Long live the People’s Republic of China,” and, “PEN is the CIA.” At first Albee tried to engage the man's remarks and said that China should be allowed to continue on with nothing but severe criticism, and then lost patience and ordered him to be quiet. The protester was swiftly escorted outside where he continued his protest. In an apt denouement, Albee remarked that he was happy he lived in a country where people are free to say such things and continued reading. Millions readers, let us know about your best experiences at a reading - who are the best you've seen?

Ask a Book Question: #75 (Murakami and Books to Read in Japan)

Former Millions contributor Emre writes in with this question: I'm flying to Japan on Saturday and, shamefully, have never read Haruki Murakami. I'll be visiting Tokyo and other destinations for two weeks, what do you recommend I read that'll be both a good intro to Murakami and teach me something about japan, too? If you have your heart set on Murakami, I recommend you start with Norwegian Wood, the bittersweet love story that propelled him to superstardom. It lacks the fantastic elements of much of Murakami’s more popular work, but it contains perhaps the best depiction of modern Japanese life that Murakami has ever written. To be honest, though, Murakami isn’t a great place to learn about Japan. As much as I like him, he doesn’t have much of interest to say about Japan as a country. His obsession with the West, rather than honing his eye for dissecting his own culture, has led him to cut it out of his stories almost entirely. As a result, Japan never plays a major role in his books. His characters tend to be culturally ambiguous and many of his novels could have just as easily taken place in, I don’t know, Sweden. If you really want to learn more about what it means to be Japanese, you might consider picking up a copy of Kokoro, by Natsume Soseki. Kokoro is a, perhaps the, great modern Japanese novel (at least most Japanese would tell you that) in much the same way that The Great Gatsby Is a great American novel. Kokoro trades Gatsby’s wit and panache for a solemn melancholy that I, frankly, find off-putting, but it’s unquestionably one of the most “important” Japanese novels, and a great introduction to the soul of modern Japan. On the non-fiction front, I highly recommend Ian Buruma’s Inventing Japan, which provides an excellent, entertaining encapsulation of Japan’s modern history. At a mere 174 pages, you can read it on the plane ride over, and still have time for two terrible movies. For a bleaker take on modern history, you might consider Alex Kerr’s Dogs and Demons, a dystopic look at Japanese bureaucracy and the country’s appalling environmental legacy. It can be a bit of a downer, but it provides an insightful behind-the-scenes look at what makes the country run. Have a safe trip!

Ask a Book Question: #74 (Just One Book)

Elizabeth wrote in with this question: This upcoming semester I will be teaching a literature class at an East Coast college.  The reading list includes several poems, stories, and essays as well as two plays, and just one novel. The English chair explained that because the school is heavy on business majors, for many students the novel they read in this course may the only novel they read for the rest of their college experience, and in some cases, for the rest of their lives.  To be charged with selecting the "one novel of a person's life" seems like both an impossible burden and a precious gift.  I don't know if I should choose something relatively accessible that might induce a love of reading (Lolita, The Remains of the Day, White Teeth) or a classic that might give them a greater perspective on the history and traditions of storytelling (Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, To the Lighthouse.)  My question, then, is really this: if you could read just one novel, what would it be? Several of us pitched in on this one.  Some of us took Elizabeth's question literally, wondering what "one novel" we would choose in the (terrifying) event that we would be allowed just one for the rest of our lives.  While others put themselves in Elizabeth's shoes, trying to figure out how to wield the awesome responsibility of determining the entirety of another person's reading experience.  Here are our answers: Garth: The hypothetical here - if you could read just one novel - strikes fear into my heart. Certainly, the book should be long, if there's only going to be one. I'm tempted to say A Remembrance of Things Past on those grounds alone. On the other hand, the Marcel-Albertine romance never stoked my fires as much as the other relationships in the book, and I've got the feeling that this one, singular book should be a love story. In the same way that, if you only had one great narrative of your own life, you'd want it to be a love story. So: how about Anna Karenina? Writing about happiness is the hardest thing to do, and, in a book which most people remember for the sad parts, Tolstoy does it better than anyone. Edan: My suggestion - Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut -  may be an obvious one, but it makes sense as a syllabus pick for a number of reasons.  Firstly, it's highly readable.  It's important that the assigned book be entertaining, since someone who doesn't read much won't tolerate a slow or dense novel (just as someone who isn't a movie buff (read: me) won't sit through a John Cassavetes film).  Secondly, there's a lot in the book to discuss as a class. I read it two years ago, and found it to be structurally fascinating, as well as funny, playful, and damn moving. For instance, I was interested in how the phrase "So it goes" repeated throughout the novel, changing with each use: first the casualness jarred me, and then I was surprised to see it, and then I expected to see it, and then I was exhausted by it, and the cycle went round and round again, a little different each time.  I'd love to talk about this process as a group, and I think others - book worms or not - would, too.  And, lastly, Kurt Vonnegut is a great writer to like, as he has so many other books, and his influence in American literature is just enormous.  If you love his books, there are others to discover.  Get someone hooked on Vonnegut, and he or she will be a reader for life. Andrew: If I could only pick one novel, I'd pick one that will magically smash through curriculum limits and lead the reader head-first to others - a gateway novel, if you will. I have a hierarchy of favorites - modern and classic - but strategically I'll pick the one that, looking back, opened up the world to me.  I first read Slaughterhouse-Five when I was about nineteen years old. I was discovering Kurt Vonnegut and was drawn to his darkly comic way of writing - playful, with big chunks of sci-fi thrown in to satisfy the geek in me. Slaughterhouse-Five has all of the Vonnegut tropes, but digs deep. Billy Pilgrim, our mid-century, middle-aged, middle-class hero, has become "unstuck in time" and we follow him forward to the planet Tralfamadore, and backwards to 1945 where Billy and his fellow soldiers - kids, really -  are POWs in Dresden. Though Vonnegut's playful, ironic fatalism gives the story its rhythm, and the time-shifting gives it its structure, the horrific firebombing of Dresden gives the novel its depth. This is a war story like no other. Emily: In the words of Gabriel Betteredge, taken from Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone: "You are not to take it, if you please, as the saying of an ignorant man, when I express my opinion that such a book as Robinson Crusoe never was written, and never will be written again.  I have tried that book for years--generally in combination with a pipe of tobacco--and I have found it my friend in need on all the necessities of this mortal life. When my spirits are bad--Robinson Crusoe.  When I want advice--Robinson Crusoe.  In times past when my wife plagued me; in present times when I have had a drop too many--Robinson Crusoe.  I have worn out six stout Robinson Crusoes with hard work in my service.  On my lady's last birthday she gave me a seventh.  I took a drop too much on the strength of it; and Robinson Crusoe put me right again.  Price four shillings and sixpence, bound in blue, with a picture into the bargain." And if you object to Crusoe, then The Moonstone, the finest (and first, some would say) detective novel ever written. Noah: Are we in a primordial state, untouched by letters save for one sacred tome (The Complete Works of Shakespeare, perhaps)? Or simply naming our favorite book (A Fan’s Notes). This exercise is like picking a "desert island book," the book you’d want to have to read by the yellow flickering of a driftwood fire while the palm fronds sway in the moonlight and the ocean crashes below. In this situation I might opt for something long and beloved, an Infinite Jest or Underworld, say. Maybe a classic that I haven’t read would be better (even on a deserted island it’s important to be well-read). The Count of Monte Cristo could work well. I’ve heard good things. But no, we are talking about choosing a book to teach. A book to teach to business majors who may not read another word the rest of their lives. I think The Great Gatsby fits the bill. Lydia: This question has made my week a little less enjoyable, because every time I sat down to lounge, I remembered that I had to pick the only book that a group of people will read, maybe ever.  Their lives were in my hands.  I thought about it a lot, and I have decided that I would assign David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas.  It is intensely readable, so they will actually read it.  Some things I had to read in college English classes, like the wretched Pamela, were so unfun to read that I did not, in fact, read them.  Never underestimate a college student's unwillingness to do his or her homework, especially if it is boring.  Also, Cloud Atlas centers around a neat narrative trick, so you can talk about novels and the different ways people make them.  Since it adopts a series of voices, you can tell the students that if they liked the Frobisher part, they can try Isherwood, and Martin Amis if they liked the Cavendish part, and so on.  Ideally this will trick them into reading more novels.  Finally, Cloud Atlas even has A Message, slightly simplistic though it may be, and will provide gentle moral instruction to your flock (I think it's "Make love not war, save the planet"). Max: It was fascinating to me that both Edan and Andrew picked Slaughterhouse-Five (and for the same reasons!)   It's true that this novel (or, in a somewhat similar vein Catch-22) will serve to entertainingly blow up any preconceived notion that an intelligent non-reader may have had about the boring old novel.  I also found interesting Noah's and Garth's idea (reading the question as looking for a "desert island book") that length is critical.  With that as my consideration, I would choose Alvaro Mutis' The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, an adventure novel that could be plumbed again and again, or East of Eden, the best of the multi-generational epics of the last 100 years.  Or better yet, if you read just one novel, why not read the "first" and, in the sense that all novels since are just repeating its tricks again and again, the only novel, Don Quixote.  But thinking again about this as a novel to be read in this unique and specific circumstance, and thinking again that something contemporary might best fit the bill, why not - bear with me here - The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen?  Even though the characters might seem like typical boring novel characters, Franzen does things with them that you wouldn't expect, the book is incredibly readable, and you can get into the whole meta-argument surrounding the book and Oprah and whether good literature must be in opposition to popular culture or should be a part of it. Thanks for your great question, Elizabeth.  Millions readers, help us inaugurate the first Book Question on the new site by sharing your answers to Elizabeth's question on your own site or in the comments below.

Ask a Book Question: #73 (Tuesday New Releases)

Poornima writes in with this question:Why is it that new hardcovers seem to always release on a Tuesday? I have noticed this pattern a lot and I wonder if there is a reason.The Tuesday release date is an industry standard, and not just for books; new CDs and DVDs are almost invariably released on Tuesdays. Before we get to why this might be, though, a quick note about book releases: 99% of books don't have a hard release date at all. Generally, books are set to arrive during a particular month, and bookstores just put the books on the shelves when they arrive at the store. Only the most popular books merit a street date that is actually enforced. These books arrive ahead of the date in boxes marked "Do not open before..." and they sit there until that date arrives. For Oprah picks (and other big TV book club picks) these boxes don't even have a book title listed on them. The box might just be marked "Oprah book club selection." I suspect that not many books have specific street dates because, for many stores, it wouldn't be feasible to store all the books that have been shipped but can't yet be offered for sale.In the book world, street dates exist for books that will have a large, unified publicity push behind them. They include the "book club" books noted above and generally any other book by a recognizable name. In the fiction world, for example, Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice and Richard Russo's That Old Cape Magic are set to hit shelves on the first Tuesday in August. But why Tuesday?An Ask Metafilter thread and a Google Answers item offer some clues, though both focus on music and movies. Among the theories thrown around on those pages, a few would seem to make the most sense for the publishing world: "If a Tuesday release is selling well, there still is time to order more before the weekend." This makes sense, as it can often be difficult to gauge just how popular a release will be."Consumers know when to look for new releases." This explains why new releases continue to be on Tuesdays but not why it was decided they should be on Tuesday in the first place.Consolidating the releases to one day greatly reduces the costs to the distributor. (This doesn't explain why it has to be a Tuesday, nor does it account for the fact that new releases often arrive at stores prior to Tuesdays.)Tuesday is traditionally the lowest sales day of the week, so popular new releases boost otherwise weak sales.My theory, somewhat inspired by what I read in the above links and somewhat drawn from experience is that releasing a new book on Tuesday allows for several full days of book-related hype in the media to get people interested leading into the weekend when most of the shopping happens. Allowing a weekend to break up the media hype cycle too soon might let the new book fall from people's consciousness before they got a chance to buy.Anyone in publishing got the real story on Tuesday releases? Let us know.

Ask a Book Question: #72 (Books on the Silver Screen)

Kathy wrote in with this question:Our book club is focusing on books made into movies. We read fiction, no murder mysteries. I would like to keep either the book or the movie fairly current. Beloved is as far back as I would like to go. I thought about Wonder Boys and then heard The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is now a movie. We read Homecoming so we will probably do The Reader. My idea about books to movies is to compare the two mediums so I suppose the movie adaptation would not have to be topnotch.Three of our contributors had some recommendations for Cathy. We'll start with Emily, who covers both fiction and memoir:The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: This beautiful, lyrical movie, directed by American painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, was based on a 1995 memoir written by the French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby. Bauby was 43 and the editor-in-chief of Elle magazine when he suffered a massive stroke and fell into a coma. When Bauby awoke from the coma, he could only move was his left eyelid. His memoir, from which Schnabel's movie takes its name, was written using the French language frequency-ordered alphabet. An assistant slowly recited the special alphabet (the letters ordered by frequency of use in French) over and over again, and Bauby blinked when the assistant reached the correct letter. He wrote his book letter by letter, blink by blink, composing the whole in his head. The memoir recounts both the anguish of being locked inside a corpse (the diving bell of the title), and the liberating pleasures of the imagination (the butterfly) that allowed Bauby to escape the confines of his prison-like body. Schnabel's movie is breathtaking - one of the most visually lush, visceral film experiences I've had in a long time. It is also a testament to the power of the imagination.Oscar and Lucinda (1988 novel by the Australian novelist Peter Carey, also the winner of the Booker Prize for that year; 1997 film adaptation by Gillian Armstrong with Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchette): This is another beautiful movie, and though I haven't read this novel of Carey's, I loved Jack Maggs and The True History of the Kelly Gang. Oscar and Lucinda is the story of Oscar Hopkins (Fiennes), a young Anglican priest, and Lucinda Leplastrier (Blanchette), a young Australian heiress who buys a glass factory. These two lonely eccentrics meet sailing to Australia and discover that they are both obsessive and gifted gamblers. The crux of the story concerns the transportation of a glass church made in Lucinda's factory in Sydney to a remote settlement in New South Wales. Carey's novel was influenced by the 1907 memoir Father and Son by the literary critic and poet Edmund Gosse. Gosse's book recounts his painful relationship with his father, the self-taught naturalist and fundamentalist minister, Philip Henry Gosse. Gosse Sr. is the model for Oscar's father.This Boy's Life (1989 novel/autobiography by Tobias Wolff; 1993 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Barkin, and Robert De Niro). Wolff's memoir of his growing up is by turns funny and horrifying and very much in the tradition of Gatsby-esque self-reinvention. The book follows the wanderings of adolescent narrator and main character, Toby Wolff (who, inspired by Jack London, changes his name to Jack) and his hapless mother (who has a thing for abusive, damaged men). After an itinerant existence driving around the country (usually fleeing or in search of one of his mother's bad-news boyfriends), Jack and his mother settle in Chinook, Washington where Jack's mother marries Dwight. Dwight (De Niro in the film) turns out to be a vicious, tyrannical bastard once Jack and his mother are settled into his household. Wolff's prose is strong, lean, and unsparing and De Niro, Barkin, and DiCaprio all give impressive performances in the adaptation.For another excellent film/novel pair also in the dysfunctional family vein (and also starring Leonardo DiCaprio), check out Peter Hedges' 1991 novel What's Eating Gilbert Grape? Hedges wrote a screenplay version of the novel for Lasse Hallstrom's 1993 adaptation, starring Johnny Depp and Juliette Lewis. The cinematography by the legendary Sven Nykvist is spectacular, as is Leonardo DiCaprio's performance as the mentally challenged Arnie (he earned an Oscar nod for it). For a third paring in this vein, consider Augusten Burroughs' memoir Running With Scissors, and the excellent film version of the same name (with Brian Cox, Annette Bening, Alec Baldwin, Gwenyth Paltrow, and Evan Rachel Wood). Finally, for an English book/movie take on the eccentric/dysfunctional family, there's Dodie Smith's novel I Capture the Castle and the film version of the same name (with Bill Nighy and the lovely Romola Garai, who is also in the film version of Atonement).If you're in the mood for American Beauty-esque lambasting of the American dream, consider Revolutionary Road (movie) or Little Children (movie). Both film versions star the gifted Kate Winslet, and both tell the tales of the sadness and frustration hidden away in grand colonial homes surrounded by green lawns and picket fences. Little Children also features a smashing book group discussion scene. The book under discussion is Madame Bovary and if one wanted a primary and a secondary text to read alongside the movie, Flaubert's novel might make a nice complement. For a third slightly different take on the deceptions of American family life, consider David Cronenberg's deeply disturbing and violent (but masterful) A History of Violence (2005), based on the 1997 graphic novel of the same name by John Wagner and Vince Locke. The movie stars Maria Bello, Viggo Mortensen, and Ed Harris.Possibly my favorite adaptation of a novel is the late Anthony Mingella's 1999 The Talented Mr. Ripley, based on Patricia Highsmith's 1955 novel. Its ensemble cast - Cate Blanchette, Jude Law, Gwenyth Paltrow, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Matt Damon - is one of the finest ever assembled, and the tale is a darker version of Gatsby myth: Tom Ripley, played by Matt Damon in the movie, decides that he wants the leisured life of his rich friend Dickie Greenleaf, no matter what the cost. Tom's worshipful longing for well-made clothes and objects, travel, culture - a charmed, leisured life - is a kind of strange love story, and one of the most affecting and infectious depictions of desire I know. You want Tom to win even as he reveals himself to be utterly amoral and self-interested. Mingella's reading of his source text gives Highsmith's book a more tragic cast than I found the novel to have, and it also draws out homosexual undercurrents that I think Highsmith was more subtle about, but his version is just as captivating as the original. The movie is also a gorgeous period piece - necessary for a story about the irresistible power of material beauty and comfort.Don't be put off by the title of this last one: Wristcutters: A Love Story. This 2007 movie directed by Goran Dukic is based on a short story called "Kneller's Happy Campers" by the Israeli writer Etgar Keret (available in translation in the collection The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God and Other Stories). Basically, it's about where you go after you commit suicide. But it's not gothic or heavy-handed or overdone. The place that you go is pretty much like our world, only slightly cruddier and more run down - kinda how I imagine things were in Soviet states (scarcity, disrepair). After committing suicide, Zia (Patrick Fugit) finds himself in this world and befriends fellow suicide and former Russian punk band member Eugene (played by Shea Whigham), whose character is modeled on Gogol Bordello front man Eugene Hutz. Zia hears a rumor that his former girlfriend has also committed suicide and so is now in their alternate world, and Zia sets out to find her, accompanied by Eugene. Their adventures include an encounter with a self-proclaimed messiah (played by Will Arnett, GOB from "Arrested Development") and another with a quasi-magical camp leader (played by Tom Waits). There's a touch of Beckett about this movie, but there's also something quietly humane and understated about it. It's refreshing to see the afterlife imagined in such mundane terms.Lydia offers three movies she prefers over the books they were based on and two books she believes were done disservice by the movies made about them: The English Patient - It is not Michael Ondaatje's fault that Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas are basically the dreamiest couple possible. Maybe it's because I saw the movie first, but I wasn't as thrilled about the book. I know a number of people who completely freak out over Michael Ondaatje, but I completely freak out over tans and taciturnity.I have read that people take issue with the movie version of Schindler's List because it, in its Spielberg way, glamorizes The Holocaust. I get this, because I think he made, in a weird way, such an intensely watchable film; it does follow a traditional Hollywood arc, and sometimes I find myself thinking, "Oh hey, I'd like to watch Schindler's List," just as I might think, "It's been a while since I watched High Fidelity." That's kind of weird. But it is an incredible story, and I think that the performances of Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, and Ben Kingsley (if you want to see range, by the way, watch this, then Gandhi, then Sexy Beast), are absolutely magnificent. The book is not particularly well-written, but it got the job done.Speaking of poorly written books that make great films, did you read The Godfather? Remember the tasteful subplot wherein the lady is always on the hunt for well-endowed gentleman because of a rather startling aspect of her physiology? How surprising that Francis Ford Coppola chose not to include that pivotal plot point. Jesus.Possession - This movie is a joke, which was disappointing because the novel is so wonderful. Whatever it is that is between Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart is the opposite of chemistry. It's like giblets removed from a chicken, sitting coldly in their bag.Brideshead Revisited - Why someone would think it necessary to improve upon Waugh, and then Jeremy Irons, is beyond me. Everyone is very pretty in this movie. That is all that can be said on the matter.And Edan rounds things out with a pair of picks:Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson - I love this collection of loosely-linked short stories because it manages to be simultaneously masterful and raw, and because the drug use in the book doesn't feel cliched, but instead weird and terrible and sometimes wonderful. The narrator of these stories is known as Fuckhead (played in the film by Billy Crudup), and all of these stories pay witness to moments of lucidity and beauty in a world that is otherwise incoherent and uncaring. The movie, I think, does the same. It also highlights the humor of the book: for instance, Jack Black takes Georgie, the pill-popping hospital orderly from "Emergency," to a whole other level. Other cast members include Samantha Morton, Helen Hunt, Dennis Hopper, and even a cameo by Miranda July! It would be fun to discuss how the film takes on the adaptation of an entire collection, rather than a single story, which is a more common practice.Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller - This novel is darkly funny and disturbing, and the story is told in a series of diary entries by dowdy high school teacher Barbara Covett (played in the film by Dame Judi Dench), who befriends colleague Sheba Hart (played by Cate Blanchett), and becomes privy to Sheba's extramarital affair with one of her students. I absolutely loved this novel, but felt ambivalent about the movie, which has a much more serious tone - probably because it loses Barbara's wicked commentary on the world around her. It also focuses heavily on Barbara's lesbian obsession with Sheba - in a way that screams obvious, even campy. Still, the film has been lauded by many, and the upsetting aspects of the book are even more so when watched on screen rather than imagined. (And, plus, Cate Blanchett's cheekbones alone are worth watching for 2 hours.)If you have any suggestions, let us know in the comments. Thanks for the question Kathy!

Ask a Book Question: #71 (Non-Fiction for Kids)

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Betsy recently wrote in with this question:I'm looking for some good non-fiction titles about "People and Places That Interest Us" for a 7th grade reading unit at my school. I plan to introduce Three Cups of Tea and Chasing Lincoln's Killer. Do you have any other recommendations for page turners that 13 year olds would enjoy? My students are, by and large, strong readers. I usually book talk about 6 or 7 titles each month.Garth writes: Most of us at The Millions are passionate amateurs, rather than experts. However, we boast an asset many experts don't: the collective wisdom of you, our audience. We weren't sure we were qualified to answer this Book Question on our own, so we turned to Cynthia Oakes, a middle school librarian at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, a Millions reader, and (not incidentally) my mother-in-law. You may remember her from our 2007 Harry Potter interview. Here are the titles she suggested, "off the top of her head":Rocket Boys: A Memoir by Homer HickamBorn on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant by Daniel TammetEleanor Roosevelt: A Life of Discovery by Russell Freedman (and really, anything by him...)Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution by Ji Li JiangThe Diary of a Young Girl by Anne FrankHole in My Life by Jack GantosInto Thin Air by Jon KrakauerBand of Brothers by Stephen E. AmbroseDear Miss Breed: True Stories of the Japanese American Incarceration during World War II and a Librarian Who Made a Difference by Joanne Oppenhein (Well, of course I'd include this!)The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition by Caroline AlexanderCounting Coup: A True Story of Basketball and Honor on the Little Big Horn by Larry ColtonMen of Salt: Crossing the Sahara on the Caravan of White Gold by Michael BenavevIf you have any suggestions, let us know in the comments. Thanks for the question Betsy and thanks for the help Cynthia!

Ask a Book Question: #70 (A Florida Mystery)

Daryll writes in with this question:I was recently browsing Amazon and happened upon a book that I would really like to read but I forgot to bookmark it or place it in my cart. I do not know the book's title or author, but I have some of the plot. Can you help me find the book again? Here's what I remember:The story is set in Florida, possibly in the Everglades, in the first half of the twentieth century. It is based on a man with a criminal past whose neighbors hate him. He eventually dies and later on his son comes to visit and uncovers some dark secret(s).I believe the book is a condensed version of three, four, or five original novels and the author boiled it all down into one.I know that's not much to go on, but it's all I have.The book you are looking for just got quite a bit of attention as the winner of the National Book Award. 81-year-old Peter Matthiessen, Shadow Country (excerpt), as Bloomberg notes, came about after he "rewrote and compressed portions of his novels about the murderous Florida sugar-cane farmer Edgar J. Watson -- Killing Mister Watson, Lost Man's River and Bone by Bone -- into a single 892-page volume published by the Modern Library."A bit more from Publishers Weekly: "Matthiessen's Watson trilogy is a touchstone of modern American literature, and yet, as the author writes in a foreword of this reworking, with the publication of Killing Mister Watson, Lost Man's River and Bone by Bone, he felt, after twenty years of toil... frustrated and dissatisfied. So after six or seven years of re-creation - rewriting many passages, compressing the timeline, shortening the work by some 400 pages and fleshing out supporting cast members (notably black farmhand Henry Short) - the three books are in one volume for the first time, and the result is remarkable."

Ask a Book Question: #69 (A New ‘The Group’)

Renee writes in with this question:There is a relatively new book (fiction) that has been compared with The Group by Mary McCarthy. What is it? I have done an exhaustive search and cannot find it.The Group, published in 1962, is described by some as McCarthy's biggest success. "The group" is eight graduates of Vassar, then an all-women college. McCarthy explores the different paths their lives take and offers a satire of stuffy east coast, Ivy League society. Though the book's characters are graduates of the class of 1933, the book is more a relic of 1962, as McCarthy was not shy about the sex lives of her characters, presaging the loosening of social mores that was to come later that decade. Though not all that well-known now, the book is still highly regarded, which is no doubt part of the reason why it inspired A Fortunate Age, a forthcoming debut by Joanna Smith Rakoff. From Booklist:Like the classic novel it so obviously pays homage to, Mary McCarthy's The Group, Rakoff's mesmerizing debut opens with a wedding and closes with a funeral. In between, the novel provides a pitch-perfect portrait of the generation that came of age in the 1990s as four ambitious Oberlin graduates arrive in New York City full of hopes and dreams.A Fortunate Age will be published in April 2009.