We occasionally commemorate author birthdays on this blog (none more popular than Jane Austen's), but today I want to give a shout out to some book birthdays—Where's Spot? and Shrek!.
Spot turns 30 this year, and there will be many festivities to celebrate his big day—he'll make an appearance at the White House Easter Egg Roll and even at Dollywood here in Tennessee. An interesting fact that's arisen in the media coverage is that Eric Hill's first Spot book was the first-ever "lift-the-flap" book. Apparently the author was working on an advertising flyer that involved a flap covering a picture. His young son was responsive to the idea, and that enthusiasm led him to create Spot, and his books have now sold 50 million copies. In honor of the 30th anniversary, Putnam is issuing a new edition of Where's Spot? that comes with a special seal. Isn't it amazing that Eric Hill created lift-the-flap books (a favorite among my old babysitting charges—that and scratch-and-sniff)?
Shrek!—William Steig's picture book that inspired the movies—turns 20 this year. For this anniversary, FSG is releasing a special edition, as well.
Do you have any fond memories of reading Where's Spot? or Shrek! to your children (or yourself)?
Related in BookPage: Read a review of Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
Random House, June 29, 2010
Count me among the obsessed. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is an amazing historical novel that has it all—mystery, romance, adventure, betrayal and scenes with so much intensity, complexity and historical detail that you'll wonder if Mitchell was reincarnated from an earlier life.
The novel opens in 1799 in Japan, where the Dutch East Indies Company has a trading post at Nagasaki. The young Dutch clerk de Zoet arrives at the post with high hopes of making his fortune and impressing the family of his beloved fiancee, Anna. But soon after his arrival he is drawn to Aibagawa, a Japanese woman whose beauty shines through the disfiguring burns on her face. As he settles down to sleep one hot summer night with his servant Hanzaburo nearby, Jacob can't keep his mind off the alluring and mysterious Aibagawa:
Night insects trill, tick, bore, ring; drill, prick, saw, sting.
Hanzaburo snores in the cubby-hole outside Jacob's door.
Jacob lies awake clad in a sheet, under a tent of netting.
Ai, mouth opens; ba, lips meet; ga, tongue's root; wa, lips.
Involuntarily he re-enacts today's scene over and over.
He cringes at the boorish figure he cut, and vainly edits the script.
He opens the fan she left in Warehouse Doorn. He fans himself.
The paper is white. The handle and struts are made of paulownia wood.
A watchman smacks his wooden clappers to mark the Japanese hour.
The yeasty moon is caged in his half-Japanese half-Dutch window . . . Glass panes melt the moonlight; paper panes filter it, to chalk dust.
Day break must be near. 1796's ledgers are waiting in Warehouse Doorn.
It is dear Anna whom I love, Jacob recites, and I whom Anna loves.
Beneath his glaze of swat he sweats. His bed linen is sodden.
Miss Aibagawa is untouchable, he thinks, as a woman in a picture . . .
All you Mitchell fans: we know you can't wait for this one. But how about the rest of our readers? Does anyone plan to join me as a first-time Mitchell reader and dive into The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet?
There sure are a lot of book jackets in the news this week (see an earlier post on the jacket for Jonathan Franzen's Freedom).
In July, Bloomsbury UK will release seven new covers for the Harry Potter books in an effort to draw new readers; profits are down 35% at the company, in part because it's been a year without a Potter release. Chief executive Nigel Newton envisions this project as "a new look for a new generation of readers who did not grow up with the Harry Potter series coming out book by book." (As a side note, do you have a favorite Potter cover? This isn't a very creative answer, but I will always love the Mary GrandPré editions.)
And yesterday, there was an interesting story in the New York Times about a problem with e-books: people can't see the book jacket when you're reading in a public place, which in the past has been free advertising for publishers (not to mention a means for self-expression). Here's an excerpt:
“There’s something about having a beautiful book that looks intellectually weighty and yummy,” said Ms. Wiles [a reader interviewed for the story], who recalled that when she was rereading “Anna Karenina” recently, she liked that people could see the cover on the subway. “You feel kind of proud to be reading it.” With a Kindle or Nook, she said, “people would never know.”
When was the last time you read a book based on a cover you saw in a public place? The NYT article mentions Chris Cleave's Little Bee as book with an appealing jacket—which is funny, since last week I picked it up in a bookstore because the cover is so striking.
Today brings news of two novellas from two of fiction's biggest names: Stephenie Meyer and Stephen King. First up is King's baseball-themed story, Blockade Billy. The book is being released by Cemetery Dance, a small publisher, and is currently only available through their website as an e-book—though you can also pre-order the hardcover for a mid-April delivery. They describe the book as "an original, never-before-published novella that only the King of Horror could have dreamed up! Even diehard baseball fans don't know the true story of William Blakely, but in just a few weeks you'll be holding this dark tale in your own two hands so you can read it for yourself."
Stephenie Meyer fans will have to wait for June 5 to read her novella, a tale told from the perspective of Bree Tanner, a member of Victoria's vampire army in Eclipse. The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner will have a 1.5 million copy first printing, which pretty much answers my question from the previous post about whether anything a Twilight connection overshadows Meyer's other projects! One dollar from every sale of the $13.99 hardcover will be donated to the American Red Cross. USA Today has more.
Will you be seeking out either book?
A historical murder mystery. . . a widow (framed?) put under house arrest. . . political scandal. . . a looming Civil War. . . sexual intrigue. . .
Does that sound like your cup of tea? If so, 31 Bond Street may be just what you're looking for (and it's on sale today!). Based on a real-life murder—and the frenzied media coverage that followed—Ellen Horan's debut novel seeks to answer the question: Who killed Dr. Harvey Burdell?
The trailer features foreboding music and details of the case:
Also don't miss this behind-the-book essay for BookPage, in which Horan describes her chance encounter with the case—and how the "process of writing unraveled slowly, much like an archeological dig."
Will you read 31 Bond Street? Seen any good book trailers today?
A couple weeks ago Trisha posted details of Jonathan Franzen's highly-anticipated follow-up to The Corrections. Freedom will hit stores on August 31 and clocks in at 576 pages. And yesterday, book blogs were abuzz with talk of the newly-released cover:
Is this seemingly peaceful scene mocking a family rocked with discord? We'll have to wait until August to find out. (But, hey, if you're interested, The Millions reports that that's a Cerulean Warbler to the right.)
Like Trisha, I was surprised that commenters didn't like The Corrections—I thought it was hilarious; that the dialogue (especially where Enid Lambert was concerned) was almost painfully true to life. You can bet I'll be fighting to get my hands on our review copy when it arrives at BookPage.
Do you like the cover of Freedom?
On April 13, Stephenie Meyer's first adult novel, The Host, will be released in paperback. Little, Brown has big plans for the new edition, which includes a bonus chapter and a telling "author of the Twilight saga" stamp on the cover. (Check out the handwritten Q&A Meyer did with BookPage when The Host was published in 2008.)
But are Meyer's future projects doomed to be overshadowed by the sparkly vampire juggernaut? Sure, The Host sold more than 2 million copies in hardcover, but the fourth Twilight novel, Breaking Dawn, sold 1.3 million copies in its first day of release.
All that may change when the film version of The Host is released. According to a Little, Brown press release, the movie rights have been "optioned by Nick Wechsler and Steve and Paula Mae Schwartz, the team that produced the film of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Andrew Niccol of Gattaca and The Truman Show will write the script and direct." Meyer has said though she preferred relative unknowns for the film version of Twilight, she'd enjoy seeing actors like Matt Damon, Casey Affleck and Ben Affleck starring in The Host.
Confession: I've read the Twilight saga AND most of The Host, which features body-snatching aliens and, yes, another love triangle. Meyer told Vogue that she sees The Host as a story about body image. "I'm not critical of others, but I am very critical of myself. . . . When I was working on this, I had to imagine what a gift it is to just have a body, and really love it, and that was good for me, I think." She has two sequels mapped out, but no pub date has yet been announced.
Other readers who found the male-female dynamic in Twilight slightly troubling will have even more to chew on with The Host, whose heroine endures actual physical abuse in order to prove her love/loyalty. (You can download a PDF excerpt from The Host by clicking here.) Anyone else read both books? How do you think they compare?
Author (and double Gemini!) Bonnie Hearn Hill launches a new young adult series, Star Crossed, this month. In a guest post, she explains how astrology can help a writer get to know her characters. Share your thoughts on her post in the comments by Friday, April 2, and you'll be entered to win a copy of the first book in the series, Aries Rising.
When I first started trying to write fiction many years ago, I was told by a well meaning teacher that I needed to decide if I was writing action-driven fiction (thrillers), voice-driven fiction (literary) or character-driven fiction. That didn't make sense to me even then. Isn't all memorable fiction character-driven? An intriguing character can save a mediocre plot, but the best plot in the world can't rescue a mediocre character.
Can using astrology help you create memorable characters? I think so. It's helped me, but then I haven't relied on it alone. So you need a proactive protagonist, and you say, "Okay, Aries is the Ram, a Fire sign. That's proactive enough." True, but Aries is not always a finisher. Or you say, "I want an emotional sign, so I'll choose a Water sign like Scorpio." But many Scorpios are too secretive to be proactive. You need to know more about your character than her Sun sign. Much more. That information should come from her.
Some of my writer friends believe in the character charts that ask everything from hair color to family history. Those lists make me feel as if I am taking a multiple-choice test. "Eyes? Blue! Hair? Black!" Although they request all of the pertinent information, the quizzes seem too left-brain to let me create organic characters.
When I began my Star Crossed young adult series, I had to hear the voice of Logan, my protagonist. I asked her to write me a letter. I've done this before when characters elude me. I ask them to write something like: "Dear Bonnie, My name is Logan McRae, and I was born . . . I live in . . . I have no siblings, and my mom spends most of her time on a golf tour. I miss her, but I'm happy she's living her dream. At least that's what my dad and I tell each other. My problem now is . . ."
These letters from my characters are usually five or more pages. Of course, I resist this exercise because I want to do the "real writing," but I know the writing won't be real until I truly know my character. Once I do it, and once I hear my character telling me about her life, I can say, "She's not an Aries. This character is an Earth sign who is willing to work hard for what she wants. She sounds like a Capricorn."
Use all of the tools you have. Start with the character's voice, and then you'll be ready to shade in the rest with astrology. Here's the down and dirty on the different signs. Don't let it limit you, though. As Logan learns in the Star Crossed series, the Sun sign is not the sum of a person's personality.
Fire signs: Aries, Leo, Sagittarius
They get things done. Aries rams. Leo likes attention. Sadge travels and talks.
Earth signs: Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn
They keep things stable. Taurus is stubborn but loyal. Virgo is detail-oriented and sometimes critical. Capricorn works really hard and may worry about money when young.
Air signs: Gemini, Libra, Aquarius
They are the communicators. Gemini spreads the news, often without filtering it. Libra speaks frequently of self as if trying to understand what to do. Aquarius speaks from an intellectual plane and with a desire to do well for all.
Water signs: Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces
These are the emotional signs. Frequently they have difficulty breaking from the past. They can also be supportive friends. Cancer is loyal to family and will destroy anyone who challenges or threatens family members. Scorpio is secretive with unfinished business, and loyal to the end. Pisces is a dreamer who has earned the doormat reputation. He's also one of the most spiritual and creative signs.
A prolific, ambitious and talented writer, Louisa May Alcott was a public figure who nevertheless kept much to herself—so much, in fact, that a large portion of her creative output was not credited to her until decades after her death. In recent years, biographies like Eden's Outcasts and Louisa May Alcott have shed light on Alcott's private life, mining diaries and letters to create a portrait of a passionate, conflicted woman who understood the tradeoffs necessary to pursue a creative life.
In a buzzed-about debut, former English teacher Kelly O'Connor McNees uses the author's life as the foundation for a novel. On sale tomorrow, The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott (Amy Einhorn Books) is set during the summer of 1855, when the 22-year-old Louisa meets a young man who causes her to rethink her future aspirations. (Read our review of the book here.)
McNees took the time to answer a few questions about The Lost Summer from her home in Chicago.
Why Louisa May Alcott? What about her inspired you to tell this story?
While I had always loved Little Women, I never really knew much about Louisa May Alcott herself. A couple years ago I picked up the celebrated and controversial biography written by Martha Saxton, and from the first page I was completely engrossed. Louisa was complex, passionate and very surprising. So many assumptions I had made about her, based on the tone and story of Little Women, turned out to be incorrect. I had always imagined a prim and docile spinster, but Louisa was an activist, loved the theater, worked as a nurse in the Civil War. And she wrote countless stories that were nothing at all like Little Women, under pen names. There was so much more to her than I’d ever imagined, and I began to think about the question of how we should separate Louisa the woman from Louisa the historical icon. Who was she, really? That was where the story began.
As an English teacher, did you ever have the opportunity to teach Alcott?
These days, Little Women isn’t part of a typical middle-school curriculum. So no, I never taught the book. Though I often recommended it for independent reading projects!
In The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, Louisa's (fictional) romance with Joseph Singer ended up inspiring the Jo and Laurie romance in Little Women. Do you see other common themes between Little Women and your novel?
Little Women was intensely autobiographical and Louisa encouraged the comparisons readers made between the novel and her life. She modeled Jo on herself as a young woman and Meg, Beth and Amy on her sisters Anna, Lizzie and May. I tried to make these connections part of my story, but I also tried to examine the many aspects of Louisa’s real life that differed from the idealized world of Little Women. For example, Mr. March is virtually absent from Little Women; in the story he is an army chaplain away at war. This plot point does not parallel an experience in Louisa’s own life. Bronson Alcott was a teacher and philosopher and was very much present in the Alcott girls’ lives.
Biographers have made much of what they cast as Louisa’s choice to exclude her father from the story of her childhood. Saxton argued that Louisa felt so conflicted about her difficult relationship with him that she couldn’t grapple with it on the page. Geraldine Brooks’ magnificent novel March uses the details of Bronson’s life to imagine the missing story of Mr. March. Brooks disagreed with the view that Louisa’s authorial choice stemmed from psychological unrest; for Brooks, this decision was merely a fictional construct that forced the characters of Little Women to grow and change in ways that serviced the story.
I have no real opinion on who is right about this question, only an intense interest in the question itself. It is fascinating and problematic to try to discern 150 years later what Louisa’s intentions may have been. Little Women is a moral tale written for young women; it’s not a surprise that the story is a kinder, gentler version of the complexities of real relationships.
Can you tell us about your first encounter with Louisa May Alcott's work?
I’m not sure how old I was when I first read Little Women. Maybe 12. I think I was especially intrigued by the relationships between the sisters because I don’t have a sister and always wondered what that would have been like. The story always stayed in my mind and I reread the novel every couple of years. The most cynical person in the world can’t help but be charmed by the March family.
But I have to say that Louisa as a writer really came alive for me just a couple years ago when I first read A Long Fatal Love Chase. This is a novel that was not published in her lifetime, not even under a pseudonym, because it was deemed too sensational. (It was finally published in 1995.) It’s about a woman named Rosamond who is seduced by a man who looks and acts very much like the Devil. Soon she uncovers a lie about his past and tries to escape from him, hiding in Italy, France and Germany. He stalks her across Europe—it’s a truly captivating thriller. You can imagine Louisa writing it in one furious and exhausting session, ratcheting up the tension chapter by chapter.
Louisa loved stories of fantasy and danger. You might remember the plays Jo writes and performs with her sisters in Little Women; Jo grows out of her interest in these tales, but I think in her heart, Louisa herself never grew out of them. And something about that fact was very moving to me as I tried to understand her.
You did a lot of research for a work of fiction. What was it like reading Louisa May Alcott's letters and diaries? How did they compare to her fiction?
It was wonderful! After reading several biographies of Louisa, turning to her own words felt like the closest I was ever going to come to having dinner with her (if only!). Her voice in the letters and journals is different from her fictional voice. She is wry and friendly and casual, though still aware that a reader is listening. These documents are fascinating.
Your novel is a work of fiction, but it's based on a real person, who had her own life and her own history. Do you feel that there are certain lines one should not cross when writing this type of fiction, or a certain "code of ethics" that should be observed?
This is an important question, and I’m not sure I have the answer to it, though I’ve thought about it an awful lot. This may seem like an evasion, but it’s important to me for readers to understand that the Louisa in my novel is not the Louisa. She is the Louisa of my imagination. Another writer might have imagined her some other way. With that in mind, I think all a writer can do is try to be true to the spirit of the person who inspired this character and to write with integrity.
What do you hope readers take away from your novel?
As I worked on this novel (which, incidentally, I was sure would never see the light of day), I always told my husband that my greatest hope was just to write a good story. I had no illusion that it was going to be the kind of novel that changes a reader’s life, and I certainly had no intention of trying to compete with other novels written about the Alcotts and their contemporaries, such as March and John Pipkin’s riveting story about Thoreau, The Woodsburner.
My hope is that readers who loved Little Women will take pleasure in this story, will think about that novel in a new way, and will consider, maybe for the first time, the real woman who wrote it.
Find out more about Kelly O'Connor McNees and her debut novel by visiting her website.
But I have to say that I took a little more notice than usual when I read about another awards announcement over the weekend—for the Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title of the Year, sponsored by The Bookseller, a British book industry magazine.
Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes by Daina Taimina is apparently the oddest book title of the year, followed by What Kind of Bean is this Chihuahua? by Tara Jansen-Meyer; Collectible Spoons of the Third Reich by James A. Yannes; and other decidedly odd titles. Read the press release here and tell us—what's your favorite odd book title? (There are some gems out there; how about The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification?)