Judging a Book by Its Cover

Whoever first coined that phrase was not in the business of selling books. Authors and editors pay for and applaud effective book design. Readers expect to know at a glance who wrote the book and which genre it fits. The all important title may do the job, but often a sub-title helps to categorize the book. And given that we have probably hundreds of Book Industry Subject and Category (BISAC) codes that help sellers, librarians, and publishers sort books, genre is a very big deal.

I don’t often read noir or romance, and the typical dark or décolletage covers usually tip me off, so I don’t need to see the BISAC. The author’s name, if he/she is someone whose work I know, will tell me if I’m likely to read the book, but I am suspicious if the author’s name glares at me in gold 100-pt font and the title is squeezed in at the bottom of the cover. Says something about marketing and ego.

Some books lie. They pretend to be what they are not. Recently I saw one that had no identification on the cover, front or back. Not even the author’s name. Quite a ruse, as I then had to pick it up and open it to find its DNA. Not one I could relate to.

Of course, the physical properties of the book matter. I don’t expect Stephen King’s latest novel to be printed on heavy stock like a baby’s first book. For one thing, King’s book would then require a fork lift to get it to the register.

I’m about to design books I’ll publish this year and I won’t allow the fiction to look like poetry. Nor will I shout out my name and override the title, thus robbing the work of its own appreciation.

Climate Facts & Fiction

How can I convince you to read Climate of Hope by Michael Bloomberg and Carl Pope? Maybe the credentials of the authors will tempt you. Bloomberg is a famously successful business man and philanthropist and a former mayor of New York City (2002-2013). Pope, a former head of Sierra Club, led a successful Beyond Coal campaign to shut down a number of dirty coal-burning energy producers. Fortunately for readers, both are talented writers who offer a promising approach to surviving ominous changes in Earth’s climate. And a way to thrive in the decades to come if we are smart, aware, and ambitious.

According to Pope and Bloomberg, as their subtitle declares, “cities, businesses and citizens can save the planet.” Given the revitalization of New York City under Bloomberg’s leadership, I  believe this claim. And in our divisive and paralyzing political situation in the U.S, that’s a gift.

Before you start to sweat about reading science, let me tell you that this book is full of well-documented data, but not intimidating. Plain language and engaging style make it a good read. I couldn’t put it down and my notebook is full of info which I will use to challenge my local government to develop a more robust sustainability plan. I believe we need to act locally, despite the overwhelming attention the press gives to Congress.

Why would a novelist/poet read such a book? I refuse to be defined by a narrow concept of writing. I am not an ivory-tower, head-in-the-clouds romantic. I write climate fiction and poetry, and I want to know what’s real. I’m tired of empty-headed pessimism that allows us to throw up our hands, swear and wail, and do nothing to clean up our mess.  What these two authors have done is art in the guise of good advice. Or it’s good advice masked as good writing. Either way, it’s a good, good book.

Sins of Social Media

Of course, I use Facebook, Twitter, this WordPress website. I have accounts on Pinterest and LinkedIn. You are using one of these sites to read this blog entry. Thank you. Now allow me to rant. It will soothe my soul and clear my sinuses.

I oppose the hard sell that I see all too often on these sites. Posting a book cover and telling me that I must read this book does not work. It’s too easy and unimaginative. The mindless repetition bores me, especially if the book in question is one of a tiresome plethora of commercial/formula fiction.

I don’t want an ad-addicted social media. I want social media that connects me to thinkers, readers, and writers with curious and generous minds. A blog post, comment, or tweet is an opportunity to connect one life to another. It’s a place to show your talent, your beliefs, your humanity.

A major book in my life has been Lewis Hydes’ The Gift, “a brilliantly orchestrated defense of the value of creativity and of its importance in a culture increasingly governed by money ….” I appreciate gifts of news, wit, experience and ideas about things I care about: writing, climate, families, science, music and a long list of other topics. These postings are gifts to me and to others if I pass them along. Thank you if you are one of the generous people who share their lives and talents online. If you are one of the greedy who want only to sell me something I don’t need or want, goodbye.

PLEASE, READ FOR EQUALITY

Thirteen Brand New African Poetry Titles, posted by PRAIRIE SCHOONER, APRIL 14, 2017

AALBC.com, the largest, most frequently visited website dedicated to books and film by or about people of African descent.

Earth Day & Trees

It’s Earth Day and I am thinking about trees. One of my first childhood friends was a giant sugar maple from which hung my rope swing with its blue wooden seat. I did not name the tree–it needed no name. It was always there. It did not scold when I nicked the bark with the swing seat. It seemed not to mind the bare spot in the grass over its roots where I pumped my feet to fly up toward its branches. I saw that tree a few years ago—it was a tall broken stump full of ticks, and I felt that I had lost a family member. In truth, I had. In the largest sense, we are family, humans and trees. Then there was the wind-fallen oak behind the house where we lived when I was in high school. That long, horizontal trunk was what in a more adventuresome girl would have been a balance beam, but the idea of gymnastics was unknown to me. I knew how to walk that tree.

Having grown up mostly in Maine, “The Pine Tree State,” trees still feel like a necessity and I welcome the thick greenery of the place on my annual visits back. I go in high summer when the foliage is almost ominous in its thickness. Let the “leaf peeping” tourists admire the flaming fall colors. I’m content to bask in the deep shade of hardwoods and mixed evergreens.

As I write I’m wearing my tree of life earrings, Yggdrasil, a mythic green ash done in silver. The branches and the roots, both visible in the jewelry, remind me that trees feed the imagination. Words are the fruit of the forest, which is our library. On my current reading list are The Tree by John Fowles and three others recommended by a favorite librarian: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, and The Song of Trees by David George Haskell.

Here then is my modest Earth Day celebration of the tree:

WHERE AM I GOING?

     I’m going off to find

            a tree I can lean on,

                        watch the grass grow.

In another life

             I might be a tree

                                   oak or maple, pine or ash.

           Ah, sapling, I will be

                           your shade and your soil

                   until you are tall

                    and well rooted.

 

Play Nice with Reviews?

We now know more than we ever wanted to know about speaking truth to power. But what about speaking truth to other writers?

Part of my work is to critique manuscripts, and assessing those darlings can give me hives, gastric reflux and headache. What if I tell the truth?: “This story lacks conflict. What I see here is not a poem, but a confession and I am not a priest to grant absolution, these characters are cardboard, the theme of the essay is unidentifiable.” Fortunately, that rarely happens. But the child in me says, “Please, don’t hate me. Like me, like me, like me.”

Do critics such as Harold Bloom, Dana Gioia, and Helen Vendler care if other people like them? I suppose they feel secure in their judgment and know that I’m out here–anonymous, but engaged–relying on them to tell me the truth about a book, a poem, another writer! Even when the truth makes me squirm. What if they were to say bad things about my work? (Would that they know my work.)

Ah, there’s the knot in my shoelace. Every negative review or critique scrapes skin off the writer. The idea that any publicity is good: I question this idea. I don’t much care for Billy Collins’ latest book, The Rain in Portugal, and I doubt he would see any criticism I set loose in the world. But you never know. Recently I tweeted a compliment about W.S. Merwin’s Migration. And, whoa! The next day there was a “like” from The Merwin Conservancy. Liking what I like and saying so publicly is, I’ve decided, more helpful than whining and snarling about what I don’t care for. Or maybe I’m a thin-skinned coward operating on the theory that if I don’t say anything negative about you, you won’t send me to my room for a decade.

Only Myself to Blame

It’s been a good week: five poems accepted for publication and acknowledged, a time-consuming project cancelled and a new poem written. Of course, I did my daily morning pages and insisted on a focus. I updated my submissions list and noted the next round of subs. But I did not tackle the long projects on my to-do list. It’s not that I don’t want to write the family history that’s outlined and started. And I would happily write a long essay about the need for writers to be vigilant in following the news, no matter how unsavory it is. I should sort and revise the short-fiction manuscript lurking in a fat notebook. But big projects don’t reach the finish line quickly. And that’s where I give up, curl up with the cat and a jigsaw puzzle, defeated by my own expectations: that I need to finish everything efficiently, right now.

Writing doesn’t work that way. It needs to incubate, grow in the dark, gestate. Pick a metaphor. I forget this regularly because our consumerist society demands efficiency and products with a price tag. What I need is to turn off all the media, stack up a dozen good books and withdraw from society for a while. And I don’t mean one afternoon. I mean a deep retreat from the angst and pace of public life. An article in the new Poets & Writers advocates a writing retreat.

Ah, yes, a writing retreat shimmers on the calendar, so bright that I squint at May 23rd, when I will fly back east for three weeks. I’ll house/dog/cat sit and stuff the TV remote under a couch cushion, post my absence from social media, and stop the clocks. I’ll write whatever comes, play with the dogs, and sit by the ocean. From here that feels right and easy. The catch, of course, is I’ll still have my own attitudes to deal with, my need to reassure myself that I am, in fact, a writer, no matter what shows up on the page.

 READ FOR EQUALITY

FOR A LIST OF NEW BOOKS BY PEOPLE OF COLOR: https://plus.google.com/u/0/+TroyJohnson

Esoteric Joy

Full disclosure: I am a detail junky, a fact addict. I keep a fat black notebook full of potentially useless information. Like if you plant an orange seed you may grow a lemon tree. That the okapi–a mammal that looks like a cross between a giraffe and a horse–is a six million year old species. That the last passenger pigeon died in 1914. That the USS Maine sank in Havana Harbor, Cuba, on February 15, 1898. I graze like a goat in the flower beds and pick up all sorts of weird information, some of which I cannot possibly digest. Like knowing that a thing called CRISPR-Cas 9 is a sort of “molecular scissors” that can help modify genes.

Of what use can I make of these facts? Writers need a diet that includes tiny bits of information, like the body needs to ingest minute amounts of some minerals. You never can tell when a datum will go from frivolous to rich fodder. When I was writing Providence, I read a lot about water, tides, surge lines and such. I learned more than I needed to build a plausible story, but I learned what I needed. Marge Piercy, in writing her bestselling novel Gone to Soldiers, had her local library borrow on interlibrary loan “well over a thousand books.” She had to rely on technology to keep track of all that data. Now, while technology annoys and distracts me (Yeah, I look at cute cats on FB.) it also serves up a vast menu of data and prevents my local library staff from dying from exhaustion.

What we know and what we need to know is not always obvious. Far better, in my view, to store up extra knowledge. And then engage in what might be called “alien phenomenology.” This is an “[attempt] to understand the experience and interiority of objects, no matter how incomprehensible or speculative an act this may be” (M. R. O’Connor, Resurrection Science, 225). Hmm, and all along I thought that was called creative writing. See, you never know what’s out there to nibble on.