Monthly Archives: March 2009

“Ms. Cahill for Congress”

A LESSON THAT NEVER ENDS

Well, this is the most upbeat and inspiring story I’ve heard in a long time.

It came out in joyous original trade paperback last fall but somehow fell through the increasingly narrow slats of our distracted media (see *personal note below). Now there’s a chance of resurrecting it, but more about that later, too.

The book is “Ms. Cahill for Congress” (written with Linden Gross; Ballantine; 246 pages; $14), and here’s  how it starts:

In 1999, a  gifted teacher named Tierney Cahill was introducing the concept of democracy to her sixth-grade class in Reno, Nevada, when she pointed out that in America, anybody can run for office.

Nobody believed her.  “You can’t run for office in this country unless you’re a millionaire or you know a lot of millionaires,” one girl said.

Cahill tried again. “All citizens in our country have the right to run for office,” she said. “Would having a million dollars make things easier? I’m sure it would. But not having the money isn’t going to prevent someone from being able to run.”

And the class shot back. “Well, then, why don’t you prove it?” they asked. “Why don’t you run for office?”

*A Personal Note

It just kills me that during the presidential election,  Barack Obama stood for exactly what Cahill was telling her students – that anybody (even “a mutt like me,” as Obama half-jokingly to himself) can run for office and be taken seriously. Obama’s belief that the biggest lessons come to us from the ground up, not the top down, couldn’t find a better example than “Cahill for Congress.”

What stopped the media from seeing this book as a great story during and for the presidential campaign? Well, here is one idea: traditional media are failing because they’re  addicted to reporting ONE STORY ONLY – Olympics, Election, Super Bowl, 9/11, Oscars, Bank Disasters, War Hot Spots, or Environment [if fun, like electric cars for everyone]).

And newspapers have dropped to the lowest of the low, following rather than leading TV/radio  news. No wonder three more just failed. What newspapers have forgotten they do best is to give readers a feeling of community through stories all around us that we don’t know exist.  IF editors would get off their own addiction to the ONE LOCAL STORY (mayor, murders, teams, colleges, events, scandals) and assign some real reporting on long-unseen districts and neighborhoods, neglected arts and offbeat human interest features [plus wouldn't advertisers love to appear in a center spread with a hundred fascinating websites per day called NEWS FROM THE INTERNET], the print version no matter how brief might find a grateful audience returning.  It would be great to see newspapers launch a simple  campaign that shows people enjoying the morning paper with their coffee under a headline like AH, THE LUXURY OF DOTS ALREADY CONNECTED or some fun thing. Of course they have to connect those dots first.

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Review of ‘Tinkers’

SHORT NOVEL, HUGE DESIGN

Somewhere in the midst of discovering tiny Bellevue Literary Press and its incredible launch of an original trade paperback called “Tinkers” (191 pages; $14.95),  I decided to take a look at the book to make sure it was worthy of a whole column (or, as it turns out, two). 

Paul Harding

Paul Harding

Wouldn’t you know, this first novel by Paul Harding has so much originality and fresh writing that I could not believe — well, first, that the author is still in his 40s (see left; surely his mind’s age is about 142); and second, that the intricate and animated construction of the novel becomes a character in its own right.

My only regret is that as much as I admire Bellevue Press for its literary standards, I wish the cover copy for “Tinkers” weren’t so dreary. 

“An old man lies dying,” it begins. “As time collapses into memory, he travels deep into his past where he is united with his father and relives the wonder and pain ….” Sounds like a dozen other books to me, and misses a certain playfulness on Harding’s part. In most deathbed scenes, the soul rises gracefully to heaven, but here the house (which the dying man once built himself)  — in fact everything in his universe — comes crashing down on him.

As walls crack and foundation gives way, George Crosby, a former teacher lying in his rented hospital bed, remembers teaching his grandkids how to staple insulation in place. “Now two or three lengths of it had come loose and lolled down like pink woolly tongues,” along with shattered windows, caved-in ceiling, and “electrical wires that looked like severed veins” to George.   

There is no respite. “The second floor fell on him, with its unfinished pine framing and dead-end plumbing and racks of old coats and boxes.” Now he sees right through a crippled roof as “the clouds halted, paused for an instant, and plummeted onto his head. The very blue of the sky followed…Next fell the stars, tinkling about him like the ornaments of heaven shaken loose. Finally, the black vastation itself came untacked and draped over the entire heap, covering George’s confused obliteration.” Continue reading

Yes, They Can

WHEN TRADE PAPERBACKS WORK

Gee, I am still not hearing much enthusiasm from mainstream houses in New York about my idea that book publishers should stop putting out expensive and wasteful hardcover editions at the start of a book’s life and begin with original trade paperbacks instead.

(Here’s how most of the response went: You idiot. Original trade paperbacks are an old and outdated idea. Everybody’s tried it and everybody fails because trade paperbacks don’t get reviewed, don’t make enough profit for booksellers, aren’t taken seriously by TV/radio shows, and are too easily damaged in shipment. Even when they get to bookstores and even when they’re displayed face-up [too rarely!], the covers curl up on the table, so you lose about one out of ten.)

Remember, I’m not talking about established best-sellers that have found an audience willing to pay $30 per copy. I’m talking about books by new authors of midrange or serious literary books who don’t have a marketing budget behind them and can no longer depend on affluent readers who’ll take a chance on unknowns.

A Sales Rep Speaks

So: Do original trade paperbacks ever succeed? Thanks to Lise Solomon, a sales representative for the book distributor Consortium, here is a case in point:

“Last season I sold a first novel (‘Tinkers’  by Paul Harding), which I loved and wanted to make happen in my territory of Northern California. ” ‘Tinkers’  had the help of a Marilynne Robinson blurb on the cover and a great package from the relatively unknown independent publisher, Bellevue Literary Press, which announced the book as a trade paperback original. I had ARCs for key buyers and sold it passionately everywhere I could. Continue reading