October 13, 2009

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SO MANY BOOKS Posted by Sarah Atwell (that's who NEIBA thinks I am) I spent a chunk of a recent weekend at NEIBA (the annual trade show for the New England Independent Booksellers Association). It’s a fascinating glimpse into a side of the book business that writers don’t usually see. As you might guess, I’ve loved books since I first met one. Many of the schools I attended had book sales, and I made sure my mother came home with plenty. She hoarded the copy of Little Women that came from one of those sales, and gave it to me when I was home sick with the measles in fourth grade. Does reading something while feverish make a difference? I know I inhaled that book, and read it many times later. I still have that original copy, and in more recent years I’ve paid homage at Louisa May Alcott’s grave in Concord (and thanked her for her inspiration—she was one hard-working writer!). My middle school brought in a bookseller on Fridays at lunch (Scholastic, I think, although I could be wrong). Paperbacks were really cheap in those days, which fit within my three-dollar-a-week budget, and I indulged happily. From that era I still have Our Hearts Were Young and Gay (couldn’t get away with that title these days, could we?), by Cornelius Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough, which probably helped to inspire my desire to go to Europe. Did I mention I can’t ever get rid of books? Anyway, NEIBA provides an interface between publishers--large and small, national and local--and regional booksellers. The bookstore people get to browse among the new books and check out advance copies of those that are coming. Much more satisfying that reading a catalog, isn’t it? There has to be a difference between seeing a listing on paper and holding the book in your hands, and I hope that the real thing is more convincing. I was there representing Sisters in Crime/Mystery Writers of America: we have a booth where we provide information about both organizations, as well as promotional materials from our New England writers--a great group! But in between introducing myself and us to booksellers, I had the privilege of strolling and sampling. And drooling. For example, there’s the author signing/cocktail party. There were several authors there I’ve looked forward to meeting, and the fact that they’re happy to actually give you books is icing on the cake. But the real action takes place in the big room. To understand why this matters, you have to know that publishers tell their writers as little as possible. They seem to think that details like the size of a print run or the number of books sold don’t matter to us, and that we’re happy sitting at our keyboard tapping out thousand of words and sending them off with no thought of their future. Don’t ask me why this is the industry model, but it is. (From what I can tell, sometimes Marketing doesn’t even tell our editors how our books are doing.) Another aspect about which we’re kept in the dark is how our books actually get to the people who sell them. And that’s why NEIBA and shows like it are important: they provide that moment when a bookseller looks at a book and says, I want to sell that. Or, I can’t sell that--not in my shop, not to my customers. The majority of people involved with books are really great. They’re in business because they care about reading and writing, not because they’re going to become rich or famous. Okay, there are a few exceptions, but most of them simply like books. And that’s what keeps us writers in business. This is not an easy time to be a bookseller. When times are tough, non-essentials get cut from the budget (I would argue that books are essential, but others may disagree). Too many good small bookstores have closed in the last year or two, because love alone is not enough to pay the bills. We in the writers community grieve for each one we lose. Buy books! Buy lots of books! And read--for yourself, for your children. Your life will be richer for it.
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What Color is Your Autumn? Posted by Kate Flora I'm a compulsive lover of words. I probably have more books about words, rhyme, language, word origins, the derivation of peculiar expressions, etc., than most people have cookbooks. It's not my fault. It's hereditary. Puns and word games and discussions of interesting words were common dinner table conversation growing up. One of my most cherished books is my Rodale's Synonym Finder, a gift from my mother. And I still have tucked away in my files a list that lived on our refrigerator when the boys were young, with the heading: "Don't Call Your Brother Stupid, try...." followed by a list of dozens of words that might more accurately describe the irritating behaviors of a younger brother. Another list that lived on the refrigerator was a list of words for winter. I was thinking of that list this morning when I looked out into my yard at the lovely array of fall colors, softer or more faded than the hot colors of summer, but so eye-catching and soul stirring. I wanted a list of words for autumn, and, more particularly, for the colors of autumn, for all those siennas, rusts, ochres and Bordeauxs that catch my eye and warm my landscape. Look up yellow, and the range of options runs from rich words like golden, aureate, honey, saffron, tawny, topaz, or flaxen, to the far less appealing jaundiced or sallow. For russet, there are delicious, evocative words: chestnut, coppery, foxy, auburn, fawn, cinnamon, maroon, while rust elicits tarnish, corrosion, erosion and wear. Brown, interestingly enough, while a word that suggests dull or dirty, or plain and earthy, spawns a lovely list of synonyms, including brick, sorrel, terra-cotta, ginger, hazel, chocolate, mahogany, walnut, henna, auburn, musteline, dusky, fuscous, bronze, and copper, as well as the unlovely beige, dun, ecru, tan, dark, and drab. What about red, that rather plain little word? Given a choice, who would not prefer crimson, cardinal, rubescent, rufous, amaranthine, vinaceous, claret, scarlet, vermillion or titian? Even the more negative--ruddy, florid, flushed, blowsy, carroty, febrile, or sandy--are still vibrant. And perhaps even more fun is to look up purple. After a few insipid choices--mauve, orchid, lavender and violet, the words start leaping off the page. Imperial, regal, noble, majesty, brilliant, radiant, splendiferous, ornate, seguing, at last, into the overblown. Grandiose. Pretentious. Stilted. Lofty, fulsome. Hyperbolic. The book, alas, does not give us words for plum or burgundy. There are often two different takes on autumn. On fall. There is the sad view that it is the season which marks the end of warmth and vibrant life, a melancholy which leads us forward into the cold landscape of winter. This sense of ending is captured in Carl Sandburg's poem: I cried over beautiful things knowing no beautiful thing lasts. The field of cornflower yellow is a scarf at the neck of the copper sunburned woman, the mother of the year, the taker of seeds. The northwest wind comes and the yellow is torn full of holes, new beautiful things come in the first spit of snow on the northwest wind, and the old things go, not one lasts. The other view is that it is a crescendo, a culmination, the harvest season and a time of bounty and richness and fecundity. That sense of things is captured in a poem like Keat's Ode to Autumn, which goes: Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; Conspiring with him how to load and bless With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run; To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees, And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;' There is a writing exercise I give my students sometimes, taken from John Gardner, which asks them to describe a building seen, first, through the eyes of a man who has lost his son in the war, without mentioning the war, or the son, or death. Then to describe the same building, at the same time of day and time of year, through the eyes of someone newly in love. It might be fun to translate that exercise into fall. Describe a fall landscape through the eyes of someone for whom the season does represent death and despair, endings and decay, and the too swift passage of the years. Then describe the same landscape through the eyes of someone who sees life as abundant and full, and fall a passionate crescendo.

Lorraine Bartlett

Five women, five weekdays, many surprises.

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