Showing posts with label Joseph D'Agnese. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Joseph D'Agnese. Show all posts

19 November 2021

From the Christmas Shelf


Every year I flip through the books on our Christmas shelf to see if I want to read or re-read any titles I’ve acquired and tucked there over the year.

But wait—

Yes, I know it’s not even Thanksgiving, and you’re probably appalled at the thought of me raising the specter of Christmas. But due to supply-chain issues, the words I wanted to use to talk about Christmas books are in short supply worldwide, so I’ve been advised to order those words early, get them shipped to the house, and them sprinkle abundantly in my prose throughout November instead.

Word of caution: The words very and just are quite plentiful in the market right now, so when in doubt, just use very. Just use it very very much. In short supply this season: decency, compassion, and common sense. On the other hand, unfortunately the U.S. is overstocked with stupidity, demagoguery, and mendacity, so feel free to use those words until we have eradicated the surplus.

But seriously, I thought it might be fun to share with you some books I have enjoyed in recent holiday seasons.








 















The Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of Our Most Cherished Holiday, by Stephen Nissenbaum (Knopf, 1996, 381 pages).

This is a brilliant nonfiction history of the American Christmas tradition, even if it is woefully mistitled. I like the book because it demonstrates convincingly that Christmas in America in the early 19th century was a distinctly low-key affair. Using the diaries of New England women, Nissenbaum reveals that the most these diarists did to celebrate the holiday was attend church, and lay in unusual pantry ingredients so they could bake a special cake for their families and visitors. Only later, mid-19th century, do we see Christmas celebrations necessitating the purchase of gifts, first for children, and then of course for every freaking person in one’s social circle. The creation and development of the American Santa Claus plays a major role in crassly forcing the holiday to swing toward commercialism. The book also blows your mind with a discussion of the selfish roots of philanthropy. You watch as wealthy New Yorkers donate money to feed the poor, then assemble in coliseum-like settings to watch as starving children stuff their faces. The last chapter, on the African-American Christmas traditions that grew out of slavery, is also fascinating.





















Christmas: A Biography, by Judith Flanders (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s, 2017, 256 pages).

Flanders is best known in the mystery community for her novels and a book she did on how the Victorian obsession with crime arguably engendered mystery and true crime literary traditions. She also did a wonderful book on Dickensian-era London. This book, about the origins of Christmas as an international holiday, is rich and head-spinning, chiefly because, as she says, the way people celebrate Christmas in other nations will always seem alien to outsiders. Americans think they have a cultural lock on Santa Claus, but they have no freaking clue about how the gift-bringer tradition plays out in other cultures. Yule lads in Iceland, la Befana in Italy, to name two easy examples. I like this book quite a bit, but I’ll never understand why her publisher did not include the footnotes so you can easily flip to a historic source in the back if you’re intrigued by something she says. (Full footnotes are available on Flanders’ website.) You will enjoy knowing that as long as Christmas has been around, people have been complaining about it. Whether it was too raucous, too commercial, too gluttonous, too heretical, the poor holiday never seemed to please anyone.

A Christmas Memory, One Christmas, & The Thanksgiving Visitor, by Truman Capote (Modern Library, 1996, 107 pages).

I grew up regarding Capote as a comical fixture on the talk shows my parents watched. In high school an English teacher had us read In Cold Blood (why do we do that to kids?) It was only in college that I came to his other writing, which I always found remarkable for its precision. This little classic of three stories is charming because it reminds you how little you truly need to make a holiday special. The best-known story, "A Christmas Memory," boils down to a loved one, a recipe, and some outdoor activity. Extra points if you can figure out Miss Sook’s fruitcake recipe on the basis of Capote’s prose alone. The actual recipe is never given in the book. The author apparently had no use for that conceit, which is now so common to food memoirs.




















Seth’s Christmas Ghost Stories, illustrated by Seth (Biblioasis, 2016).

By now most of us know that A Christmas Carol by Dickens grew out of a British holiday tradition which dictated that ghost stories be told this time of year. This delightful little series of books, curated and illustrated by the surname-less New Yorker cartoonist Seth, takes that to a logical extreme. Each volume is a single ghost story by name-brand writers—Edith Wharton, Dickens, etc.—that are suitable for gift-giving and reading in front of the fire. The Wharton book, which I received from a friend, is a mere 37 pages. The complete series currently runs to 11 titles, about $7 in paperback or $0.99 each in ebook form. And when I describe the books as little, I mean that literally. They’re about 4-by-6-inches in size. I wonder if some clever editor (or Seth himself) had visions of Christmas stockings in their head when they conceived the series.






























The Snow Queen, illustrated by Vladyslav Yerko
I’m not a fan of this particular tale by Hans Christian Andersen, but the adaptations I’m recommending here are something entirely different. As far as I know, these books were pubbed by two separate houses, one as a 32-page version (top) with prose by an unnamed translator, and another as a more luxurious, slipcased 96-page retelling by Nicky Raven (bottom). Both versions showcase glorious illustrations by the Ukrainian illustrator, Vladyslav Yerko, who in his fanciful bio tells us that as an infant in Kiev he slept in a large suitcase in his grandmother’s home. Yerko’s Snow Queen books were pubbed in multiple languages, but are now out of print. (Still, new and used copies turn up on Biblio and Bookfinder, but always confirm that you are buying an English-language version before checkout.) When I was a lowly intern starting out in publishing, one of my editors at a New York arts magazine subjected me to a lecture in which she insisted that illustrations (which I grew up loving) could never approach the realm of fine art. I flip through the longer of Yerko’s two Snow Queen books every Christmas just to mentally bash that notion to pieces. Behold, folks, I give you Yerko, fine artist and illustrator!




I suppose I could prattle on with other books, but I think that’s quite enough from me. I’ll be back in December with a different sort of holiday selection. If you have any favorite books that you reach for this time of year, please let me know. I never get tired of adding to my shelf.

See you in three weeks.

Joe
josephdagnese.com



29 October 2021

These Stones Shall Weep


Photo by JF Martin on Unsplash

This is the month we’re all supposed to be spooked by headstones. I don’t know about your neck of the woods, but at this very moment the Target, Big Box home stores, and giant orange tent in the parking lot of our local mall are selling countless whimsical plastic and plaster headstones to people determined to transform the Modern American Halloween into as big and as outrageous a production as the Modern American Christmas.

The witches who call my area of Appalachia home say this is the time of year when the fragile veil separating the living and dead grows thin, and souls find it easier to ascend to the realm where the living dwell. (Yes, I follow the blogs of numerous actual witches in Western North Carolina. Among other things, they know a lot about gardening.)

I find most modern cemeteries a little dull. At veterans’ cemeteries, for instance, the graves look like unadorned mail slots in which human remains have been inserted, either into the earth or into the shelves of upright mausoleums.

That’s why obsessive taphophiles gravitate to old boneyards, where, I’d argue, the spookiness can be chalked up to three things—unkempt nature, the antiquated craftsmanship of the stones, and melancholy prose.

The curators of the cemetery in Charleston that I shared with you three weeks ago have chosen to let nature run wild over the handiwork of the stonecarvers. You’ll recall that it was only by a stroke of chance that I managed to snap some photos before a landscaper went to work on the graves with a weed-whacker.

Today’s visit is all about the writing.

Once upon a time, armed only with a paper map and a magazine called Weird New Jersey, my old roommate and I traveled from our apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey, to the Mansfield Woodhouse Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Washington, New Jersey. In the pages of the magazine, we had learned the story of a heinous murder that had taken place in this area in May 1843. The article assured us that the tombstone inscriptions alone were well worth the visit. It always drove me crazy that this fanzine, which was (and still is) devoted to the oddities of my home state, didn’t simply reproduce the inscriptions, thus saving us the trip. But in retrospect I’m glad I went.

I don’t go in for true crime. Life is miserable enough, which is why I traffic in murderous fiction. But in order to appreciate the headstones, you have to know a little of the story.

On that spring night in 1843, a wealthy farmer, his younger sister, his three-year-old niece, and his niece’s husband were all murdered—hacked with an axe or bludgeoned—in and around the farmhouse where they lived in nearby Changewater, New Jersey. Two young boys, sons of the young couple, were sleeping in another room and escaped unharmed. At the time, the US was only on its 10th president, John Tyler. The murders occurred in Warren County, which hugs the Delaware River on the far western part of the state. Nevertheless, the crimes were heinous enough to attract the attention of newspapers in Newark and New York City.

The motive was presumed to be robbery. John B. Parke, the oldest victim, was known to keep cash in the house. I’ve seen figures saying his bankroll as high as $15,000, but the true amount was never nailed down to anyone’s satisfaction. Suspicion naturally fell upon family members or friends who knew of Parke’s stash. The investigation, trials, and appeals dragged on for two years, and strike modern readers as an appalling mess. At least four men were arrested. Some were indicted, tried, acquitted, then inexplicably arrested and tried again. I count at least two instances of double jeopardy, but I could be wrong. Two men, both relations, were eventually hanged for the crime, their bodies deposited in unmarked graves at a county crossroads, which I’m told was the typical treatment for criminals.

The four victims were laid to rest in the local churchyard. On my visit in those pre-smartphone days, I never took photos of the headstones, which were tall, lean, and nicely cut. (See images here and here.) But after 150-plus years, they were painfully hard to read. Some of the text was italicized, which further complicated matters. What follows is a mix of the inscriptions I took by hand the day I visited, amended and corrected with other sources I’ve since found online. What strikes me most are the length of the verses, the heartfelt language, and the obvious passion of the writer(s).

Photo by Mark Timberlake on Unsplash

STONE #1

In Memory of 
Maria the Wife & Mary M[atilda]
the daughter of John Castner
who were murdered on the night
of the 1st of May 1843,
Age of the Mother 42 years
Age of the Child 3 years

O friends and passers by pursue
this tale of woe
and seek the guilty hands which
aim’d the deadly blow
A murdered mother’s prayer
ascends from this sad ground
That ye will never rest till all
of them be found

I turned and saw the murderer’s blow
His wild and fearful eye
And for this sad imploring look
For only one in pity took
A child was doomed to die

I could forgive my murderer
had they not slain my child. Our 
mingled blood cries out to God 
for Vengeance




STONE #2

In Memory of
John Castner
Who with his wife
and Child and John Parke
were murdered in a most
brutal and cold blooded
manner on the night of the
1st of May 1843
in the 37th year of his age

O Friends, look here upon these wounds
on my temples and on my cheeks.
Children, think often on your Sire, his agony and shrieks
And bend around my lowly grave and drop the filial tear
And as ye value life and peace and things that ye hold dear,
O, seek ye out my murderers all for naught but cruel hate
Hath hurried me along to meet so direful a fate.

The Judgement Day is rolling on and should any of
my murderers escape the eye of man the wrath of God will
abide with them forever


STONE #3 

In
Memory of
John B. Parke
who with John Castner, his wife and child
was murdered in a most brutal
and cold blooded manner
on the night of the 1st of May, 1843
in the 61st year of his age

Stop, traveler, pause a moment o’er this silent lowly grave
Here lies the dust of one who found a most untimely end.
When balmy sleep to sweet repose his careworn body gave
The murderer came, and with one blow all earthly ties did rend
And to the Judgement bar his spirit quickly made its way
To meet the Judge and the awards of that tremendous day

But in that awful day how will the murderer quail
when wrath of God Almighty shall with vengeance him assail.

Erected by Sarah Parke

* * *

Resources:

Murder along the Musconetcong: a tale of Jersey justice, by Ruth Trask Farrow (T.F.H. Publications, 1973).

The Changewater murders: a true historical account, by Sharon & Robert Meeker, (Key West, FL: S. & R. Meeker, 1998).

***

On a lighter note, this week writer Scott D. Parker reviewed a wonderful out-of-print Halloween mystery anthology at Do Some Damage that I wish I could get my hands on. Edited by Isaac Asimov, it features 13 tales by writers including Asimov, Ellery Queen, Edith Wharton, Anthony Boucher, Ray Bradbury, Gahan Wilson, Edward D. Hoch, and more. (TOC reproduced below.) It sounds like a winner, but of course locating the book online is tough, not to mention pricey. Luckily most of the stories are collected elsewhere.




See you in three weeks!

Joe



08 October 2021

Annabel Lee Buried Here, and Other Boneyard Myths



I spent two weeks in Charleston, South Carolina, this past summer. That’s not exactly a fun time of year to visit that city. Every morning, we left our hotel needing to walk one measly mile to the library where my wife was doing some research. And every morning, as soon as we left the cool lobby of the hotel behind, I sniffed the outdoor air and thought, “Oh, the humidity isn’t that bad.” Twenty minutes later I was drenched, and desperately needed to wash up and dry off in the library’s air-conditioned bathroom before I could be trusted not to perspire onto the precious documents the archivists were fetching us.

Early in our visit, we noticed the entrance to a cool-looking cemetery just across the street. The Unitarian Church burying ground was accessed through a narrow archway that fronted King Street, Charleston’s high-end shopping drag.


One gray morning, we peeked into the archway. Ahead of us was a long footpath planted with tropical seeming plants. Heavy iron gates on one side hid charming row houses and courtyards. A tall brick wall on the other side.
  

The cemetery was down the lane somewhere, but a torrential storm broke overhead, and we fled the scene, determined to return. We didn’t, because there was always something else to do, because the heat was always miserable, and because the last thing you want to do after a day of research is ruin your eyes reading old gravestones.


The head librarian happened to mention that the cemetery was popular with the city’s haunted walking tour folks. Upon hearing this, my first thought was, “Oh, great.” In my cynical view, when a person with a fondness for history wants to enter a profession where actual facts don’t matter, they become a ghost tour operator.

But curiosity got the better of me. One afternoon near the end of our trip, I couldn’t resist poking around online to see what was special about this particular 244-year-old burying ground. Things I learned at the feet of Professor Google:
  • The woman who inspired Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “Annabel Lee” was buried in this cemetery. Yes! It was the absolute truth! A beautiful and wealthy Southern belle named Anna (see what I did there?) had fallen in love with a soldier early in the 19th century. Her family didn’t approve of the match. The two lovers took to meeting in this very cemetery to smooch and canoodle. And of course she died. Of yellow fever. Or maybe tuberculosis. And her highborn family buried her in this charnel earth. Bereft, the soldier pined away for the rest of his days. Poe heard the tale and turned it into a poem.
  • No! said another website. Anna’s lover was not just any soldier but Edgar Freaking Allan Poe himself! Yes! Eddie had fallen in love with her when he was stationed briefly in nearby Fort Sullivan in 1827. And when his love died, Poe memorialized their love—replete with supulchres and wing├Ęd seraphs of heaven—in the now immortal poem.
  • To mess with Poe’s head, Anna’s father dug six graves but buried her in one of them, so Poe would never know which one enclosed his love.

Pick a grave, Edgar, any grave...

  • Anna’s powerful father had Poe reassigned so he’d leave South Carolina forever.
  • On certain nights, when the light, moon, humidity, and depth of the pockets of visiting tourists are just right, the ghost of Annabel Lee wanders the cemetery dressed in—what else?—a white dress.

Nearly everything I read online was nonsense, and has been carefully debunked by others. Just as an example: the woman everyone claims was Poe’s lover, Anna Ravenel, isn’t buried in this graveyard or anywhere else, because she didn’t exist. Also, would a lovesick Poe have waited 20 years after he doffed his military uniform to write a tribute to a real woman? (“Annabel Lee,” his last poem, was published in 1849, the same year he died.) And though plenty of people like to imagine Poe wandering the streets of Charleston, one wonders if he would have had the time, cash, and ability to travel from Sullivan’s Island to downtown Charleston to canoodle. (It’s an 11-mile trip by car today, 4.5 miles by boat and foot across Charleston Harbor.) But myth is everything when you’re dealing with Poe. His legend exudes ’em the way fresh tombs ooze ichor.


Myth aside, the cemetery warranted a visit, if only to grab some moody photos. The Unitarian congregation was famously known for its program of benign neglect. Whatever sprung from the earth was allowed to flourish—naturally, wildly, gloriously. A plaque at the entrance says that in 1831 the Unitarian Church chose to designate this ground a “garden cemetery” filled with “pass along” plants—that is, plants that aren’t cultivated commercially and thus only available from one’s friends, neighbors, and family.

Late in our Charleston stay, I found myself alone on the humid morning march to the stacks. My wife had given me very precise instructions about which documents I was to consult that morning, while she headed to another facility. I was to check in with her by noon.

That’s the morning I chose to dash down the cemetery lane and grab only a few of the shots you see here. A shin-tall sign warned visitors not to take rubbings. You shalt not rub!

I would have lingered. But my shirt was now pasted to my chest and back. And guilt was rising in my mind. If I didn’t get to the library soon, I’d blow our last day in these archives. But no worries—I’d return at quitting time.

Day’s end, I was striding up the footpath. What did I see? Turns out, it was the precise day that the church ladies’ garden club had arrived to spruce up the cemetery. A half dozen women in floppy straw hats were planting atmospherically appropriate ferns on the walkway. Others were trimming errant vines. When I reached the cemetery proper, I was astonished to see that someone had already blazed through, weed-whacking everything in sight. The air smelled of gasoline and aerosolized vegetation.

I shot more images with the sinking realization that the ones I’d shot that very morning were so much better than what now lay before me. One day I’ll return, and hopefully wild nature will be back, ensnaring and coaxing the dead back into the earth.


Weeds, whacked.

Other resources you might enjoy:

Edgar Allan Poe’s Charleston, by Christopher Byrd Downey.


The Name of Annabel Lee, by Julian Symons. (I read this mystery novel ages ago, and remember enjoying it, but I cannot recall a single bit of the plot.)

See you in three weeks with another boneyard tale...

Joe




16 September 2021

Scott and Zelda in My Own Backyard



The Grove Park Inn is a fancy old mountain resort in my neck of the woods, Asheville, North Carolina. Each year the hotel allows visitors to wander free through adjoining rooms 441 and 443 on a weekend that falls close to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s birthday, September 24th. An English professor from one of the local universities, serving as a docent of sorts, shares with guests the unusual circumstances that brought Fitzgerald to the Inn during the summers of 1935 and 1936.


The inn’s staff always “decorates” the room with period props, conveying the impression that Mr. Fitzgerald has just stepped out. A typewriter is among the artifacts, but that doesn’t mean Fitzgerald ever got any serious writing done while here.

His life and career were tanking fast by the time he occupied these rooms. For years he’d been the darling of the big magazines. Editors paid him thousands—yes, thousands of actual U.S. dollars—for stories that might have been a subscribing family’s only weekly entertainment in the days before radio. But by the 1930s, Fitzgerald’s glittering take on society folks reeked of elitism in the harsh light of the Depression. 

On those summer visits to the Grove Park Inn, Fitzgerald was struggling to keep himself afloat financially, and to pay for his wife Zelda’s stays at a nearby Asheville psychiatric facility, Highland Hospital. While Zelda battled her demons, Scott battled his. Determined to reduce his gin intake, he switched to drinking beer. His beverage of choice were so-called “pony” bottles of beer, which contained 7 U.S. fluid ounces. The bizarre sobriety plan might have worked, if it weren’t for the fact that he consumed 50 of those bottles a day—a total of 2.7 gallons of beer.


The inn's staff always litters the suite with empty beer bottles.
(This is not a pony-sized bottle.)

You would think things could not get much worse. Then Fitzgerald broke his shoulder in a swimming pool dive, passed out in his bathroom, and was discovered by the staff the next morning. In a later incident, he nearly fired a handgun, but was stopped by a bellman. These two incidents fueled rumors that he’d tried to commit suicide. His biographers are not so sure about that. He wrestled with thoughts of suicide for the rest of his life, but especially after a scathing newspaper article about him appeared in The New York Post and ran in syndication around the nation.

The reporter, Michael Mok, had visited Fitzgerald in his Asheville rooms, and could not help notice how far the Jazz Age icon had fallen. While this trembling, 40-year-old wreck of a man tried to present himself as on top of his game, a nurse (presumably hired by the hotel) hovered and surveilled his every move, trying to limit his alcohol intake and ensure a sensible diet. Mok’s article was devastating. It portrayed this voice of the Lost Generation as a washed-up has-been.

Fitzgerald eventually moved on to other (cheaper) hotels in the region. He wrote his famous essay, “The Crack-Up,” at a hotel in nearby Hendersonville, a town about 30 minutes south that I’ve talked about in a previous post. He went to Hollywood in 1937, hoping to turn his fortunes around. The money he made there was lucrative, but he spent most of it on his wife’s medical bills and their daughter’s education. He was dead by 1940, at the age of 44, a victim not of suicide but his own ailing heart.


Brian Railsback, professor and author, shares Fitzgerald's story with visitors.

At death he no doubt considered himself a failure, and never lived to see what we now all take for granted: that at some point in every young American’s life, you’re going to read The Great Gatsby, whether you like it or not. The book Fitzgerald conceived as his sparkling masterpiece sold poorly during his lifetime, but today racks up about a half million sales a year, has been translated into 42 languages, and has sold nearly 30 million copies worldwide. That’s just one book. Perhaps more impressive is his short fiction output: 181 stories, published and unpublished, that we know of.

One of those short pieces was written with Zelda, who, I might add, survived Fitzgerald by nearly eight years. She died in a kitchen fire that swept through one of the buildings in the Highland Hospital complex in 1948. Nine women lost their lives that night.

Bus tours swing through the leafy historic neighborhood here on a daily basis to share her story with tourists. On its own, her tale is painful enough, but the full Fitzgerald Asheville saga approaches an almost crushing poignancy.


A stone marker on Zillicoa Street in Asheville marks the site.


* * *


If you can indulge me the mention of yet another alcoholic writer, Dashiell Hammett, I promise to cloak it in a more cheerful wrapper. These Nomi notebooks are fashioned from recycled paper, and are fountain pen-friendly. I couldn’t resist backing the Kickstarter as soon as I glimpsed the noir-themed endpapers. New Yorker cartoonist Shuchita Mishra created these two images as a salute to the city of San Francisco. The building depicted at the bottom is 891 Post Street, where Dashiell Hammett once lived, wrote most of his famous works, and where he sited Sam Spade’s apartment. Check out the Kickstarter for these notebooks and the hilarious video here.

See you in three weeks!

Joe



Some sources for this article:

Read excerpts from the letters of Fitzgerald’s nurse here and here.

An NPR article on Fitzgerald’s days in Asheville.

The Fitzgerald episode is also recounted in my wife’s book, The Last Castle.








27 August 2021

What Every Author Should Be Carrying in Their Pockets


I read a post once by the author Joe Konrath in which he went off on bookmarks. He started confronting authors at conferences who were pressing bookmarks into his hands. He says he finally asked them, "Have you ever bought a book because someone gave you a bookmark?" Their eyes boggled, the wheels turned, and maybe he changed a few authors’ minds about the wisdom of spending money on a marketing tool that doesn’t perform the way you’d like it to.

I’ve got two drawers in our office filled with bookmarks. The publishers print ’em up for my wife’s books, so I dutifully mail them to people whenever we send out a book or a bookplate. And if I’m anywhere near the table when Denise does signings, I always slip a bookmark into the reader’s book before they leave the table. Why? Because I hate the damn things, and I can’t wait to get rid of them. Thanks to my efforts, I predict we will finally finish them all by 2063.

I don’t like them because I don’t know how to carry them easily. No matter what I do, they end up crinkled, bent, or worse in the backpack I carry to book events. Or, if I do carefully preserve them in a little cardboard box toted for this purpose, that box and backpack are usually not on my person when I need it most.

If I do have them with me, I am treated to the same dispiriting spectacle every time. Immediately upon being handed a bookmark, people hesitate, trying to decide what to do with it. If a purse or backpack is handy, the person will stuff it in there. If not, I watch them fold the bookmark to fit it into their pockets. So much for trying to keep them pristine.

In my non-pandemic life I spent an inordinate amount of time sitting at bars, coffee or otherwise. Which, let’s face it, is where people schmooze. Just as often, we’d get invited to neighborhood potlucks, musical concerts, art showings. Places where people stand around with little plates and guzzle alcohol and talk.

Inevitably, you strike up a conversation with people, they discover you write books, they’re impressed, (yes, I think that’s funny, too), and upon leaving the venue they promise to go right home and immediately order your book.

But before they depart, they say things like:

What’s your name again?

How do you spell that?

What’s the name of the book you mentioned? The one for kids? The mystery one? The one about rutabagas?

Where can I buy that?

Can I get it on Amazon/B&N/the place where I buy batteries?


(Seriously, they really ask where they can buy it. It’s a wonder books are bought at all in this country.)

In those moments, sweet Joe Konrath help me, I wish I did have a damn bookmark with all that information on it. These sort of encounters happen so often that they are beat-by-beat predictable.

Good example: I’m writing this in Charleston, South Carolina, where we are on a research/vacation trip. Before we left home, I reminded Denise to bring along her stash of bookmarks/bookplates/business cards. She balked, but brought them nevertheless. The first afternoon in town, we explored the city and ended up at the bar of a restaurant.

Somewhere between the she-crab soup and the fried fish platter, Denise naturally struck up a conversation with a woman who is fascinated with writing, and has recently begun journaling her heart out. Just before she and her boyfriend settle their tab and go, the woman asks Denise for a card, or something, so she can check out Denise’s books. And Denise laughs. Why? She left all that crap in the hotel because she didn’t think she’d run into someone on the very first night of our trip. But she did. She always does. Like I said, beat-by-beat predictable.

To get around the Dilemma of the Inconvenient Bookmark, here’s what I did pre-Covid, and what I hope to start doing again. You see these here? They’re business cards.



On one side is my name, contact details, website, and social media details. On the other side is the cover of one of my books. I got them printed up by a company called Moo, and no, I don’t get a kickback. I’m just a stationery geek, which in my book is preferable to being a bookmark geek. Moo has a special customized business card option that allows you to print up to 50 different images on the backs of your business cards for one fixed price. (The link in this paragraph will take you right to that page.)


When I ghost-wrote a book for a restaurant guru, 
I had these cards made up for the launch event.

Moo says that they envisioned these cards as portable portfolios for creative types. And while Denise and I were researching in Charleston, I noticed that the librarians and archivists at the place we were working every day also used Moo for their business cards, which showcase the sort of one-of-a-kind artwork and printed ephemera from books the library holds in its collection.


If this sort of card makes sense for librarians, photographers, artists, designers, and maybe engineers or architects, why not writers?

Because they’re business cards, they fit in my wallet or a business card holder. I don’t hand them out promiscuously, so they feel more cost-effective than bookmarks, he said hopefully.

Sure, there’s no guarantee that the person to whom you give these cards will ever buy the book. But who cares? Because they’re business cards, they don’t weigh on my mind like those damn bookmarks. I don’t ever feel compelled to use them up. They don’t feel like a waste of money because in certain professional situations, I actually do still need business cards. At least, I did before the world crashed and burned.

Now: Sometimes you don’t want to give complete strangers your contact details. Fine. That’s why I print up a second, “blind” batch; no address, phone number, or email, just name, website, and social. That’s all the person needs anyway. That, and the title and cover of the book you somehow happened to mention in your chat. My “blind” stash is always readily available in my wallet, the “full” version less so. You can color-code the cards if you want, but why make yourself crazy?

I probably don’t need to say this, but the book cover image you print on the card should absolutely be the version that people will most likely encounter in a store or online. So if your publisher recently issued paperbacks with a new cover, print that cover. Ditto if you, the self-pubbed author, recently changed the cover of the book. (I recently changed the covers of some of my books, so I need to update the cards.)

Lastly, despite my lovely cards, I was sad to hear that in-person Bouchercon was canceled again this year. But please, feel free to mail your bookmarks to the home address not printed on the obverse of my card.

* * *

See you in three weeks!

Joe


06 August 2021

The Birth of a Hard-Boiled Detective


My friend Terry Roberts has a new book out that’s set in 1920, but as I was reading it on the beach a few weeks ago I felt like I was reliving our national drama of the past few years. Toward the end of the novel, his detective delivers a line that has stuck with me since: “There’s something inside all of us that loves to hate.” Terry is the winner of numerous awards for Southern literary fiction, and I’m pleased to share his guest column with you today. Welcome, Terry! —Joseph D’Agnese



Is a true detective born … or made? Some of each, I imagine—both in life and in fiction. For me, one of the most fascinating transformations in all of crime writing is when a character realizes that he or she has a gift. And that the gift has to do with seeing behind the surface of things, reading the depths of people, finding the truth when it’s badly obscured. In other words, when a man or woman discovers they possess a hidden talent for detection.

As a reader, one of the most enjoyable transformations of this kind is the one that takes place in Walter Mosley’s 1990 novel, Devil in a Blue Dress, when Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins realizes that he can make a living—a good living—in the detective business. Which apparently, he can, because Blood Grove, published in 2021, is the 15th Easy Rawlins mystery, each as rich and thought-provoking as the first. I, for one, would follow Easy Rawlins almost anywhere, as long as Mouse is along for the ride. Even so, Easy wasn’t born a detective; Walter Mosley made him one.

On a much smaller scale, something similar happened to me when I began to imagine the book that became My Mistress’ Eyes Are Raven Black, a mystery set on Ellis Island in 1920. I knew that the book was about xenophobia, the disease that haunts our species, causing us to hate and fear the other. I knew that the story was a murder mystery in which the murderers were killing off those whom they would deny entry into the country as a way of protecting the Nordic purity of the American population. In fact, I knew a lot about the setting and plot of the story I wanted to tell, but I needed a detective.

As history and fiction would have it, the narrator of my first novel, A Short Time to Stay Here, was alive and well in 1920, living in Manhattan, where he’d sought out a woman, Anna Ulmann, with whom he was in love. This character’s name is Stephen Robbins, and quite unexpectedly, he stepped forward and offered his services in the detecting line. At least in my imagination, he did.

At first, I didn’t buy it.

Stephen’s origins were about as alien to New York as they could possibly be. He was born in an extremely isolated community in the Southern Appalachians. He ran away from home when he was ten years old and made his way in the world by working at a famous resort hotel in the tiny hamlet of Hot Springs, North Carolina. He was largely self-educated, quiet, watchful, considerate. Full of humorous cynicism and stubbornness. Loyal to a fault. Drank too much. Violent streak. All of this and, as his relationship with Anna showed, capable of real tenderness.

Fair enough, I told Stephen in my mind. Alcohol and gunplay, seeing without being seen. Sounded like the makings of a hard-boiled detective to me. But there was a problem; he had no real experience, no procedural expertise. He was a native of the Southern mountains, and his dialect was so thick that he could barely make himself understood when he first came to New York. As for Ellis Island, he was as much a foreigner as the immigrants themselves.


Terry Roberts

Despite all my initial reservations, the Stephen Robbins of my imagination convinced me that he had the makings of a sleuth. A shamus, a dick, an operative. And not only could he operate at home in the isolated coves of the Southern mountains, but he might be an equally good bad man in that fraught whirlpool of humanity … Ellis Island.

Under the pressure of the moment, Stephen Robbins evolved.

By the time we see him in the opening pages of My Mistress’ Eyes Are Raven Black, he and Anna have grown apart, his job as manager of the fabled Algonquin Hotel has grown stale, and he worries about his “slowly falling-apart life.” When offered an opportunity by the Bureau of Investigation (forerunner of the FBI) to go to Ellis Island to search for a missing Irish immigrant girl, he leaps at the opportunity.

I wrote earlier that Walter Mosley made Easy Rawlins a detective, or at least gave him the realization that he had talent. The same could be said of Stephen Robbins. Out of his personality and life experiences, I created the stubbornness, the toughness, the instincts of a truly gifted hunter. Early in the novel, he sees his beloved Anna in the passionate embrace of another man and the resulting trauma sends him spiraling into a series of self-examinations that parallel his increasing awareness of what is truly going on at Ellis Island. We are, he realizes, each of us mongrels, each of us immigrants.

Along the way, he forms a personal and professional partnership with Nurse Lucy Paul, a tough cookie in her own right, who is equally determined to put an end to the murders and disappearances on the island. Together, they make a pair straight out of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, Dorothy B. Hughes or … Walter Mosley. Their life and love are sometimes harsh, sometimes fearful, sometimes soaked in pre-prohibition Scotch. But while saving each other from despair, they also save the Ellis Island from the monsters who haunt it.

And so it was that out of Stephen Robbins, the hard-headed romantic from A Short Time To Stay Here, was born Stephen Robbins, the federal op who could find any lost thing or missing person. Late in the novel, after a formal inquiry into the deaths of two of the secret “congregation” who have been killing unwanted immigrants, Stephen’s contact in the Bureau of Investigation threatens to pull him out of the dangerous situation on Ellis Island. “You were never trained for this type of work,” he says.

“Maybe I’m just a goddamned natural,” Stephen replies.

In retrospect, maybe he was. Maybe I just needed to realize it.


(From Turner Publishing, $16.99 paperback.)



I hope you enjoyed this visit from a possibly new-to-you author. You can check out the book at Bookshop.org, visit Terry’s website, or read the Publishers Weekly or Washington Independent Review of Books reviews here. Terry recently did a post for Crime Reads on hard-boiled detectives, which you might also enjoy.

Unfortunately I won’t be at Bouchercon, but I will be back here in three weeks. See you then!
— Joe

16 July 2021

A Sherlock Holmes Canon for Kids


In the summer before the pandemic, my wife and I went to a local minor league game with another couple and their three kids. When the youngest daughter, who was barely ten back then, announced she wanted to sit near good ol’ Joe, I thought nothing of it. Like Archie Goodwin, I am convinced that dogs and children find me irresistible. It wasn’t long before she spotted me paging through an ebook on my device.

“What are you reading?

“A book.”

“What kind of book?”

“Uh, it’s a Sherlock Holmes story.”

“Really? Is it a mystery?”

“Well, yeah—they’re all mysteries.”

“What’s the story? Can you tell me? Because, you see…” she said, her voice rising, “I like MURDER!”

One of the guys sitting in front of us—a total bro in sunglasses, Croakies, and a 20-ounce microbrew sloshing away in a flimsy paper cup—whirled around. “I don’t know what’s going on here, but this conversation suddenly got very interesting!”

Which was a hoot.

Except I didn’t quite know how to quickly summarize the plot of the Holmes tale I was reading in language suitable for a child. Especially someone else’s child. If the tale had been the Red-Headed League, for example, I might have focused my description on the strangeness of hiring gingers to copy the encyclopedia. Or, if it was the story of Silver Blaze, I would have treated her to Holmes’s deductions regarding the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.

But this story, the Crooked Man, if I remember correctly, was a little too adult. Sexual jealousy and spousal manipulation is not something you want to delve into with a kid unless you’ve got parental consent forms filled out in triplicate. I was not going there. Instead, my little friend and I talked about about Holmes and Watson and sweet, sweet murder in the abstract.

Many of us grew up reading those stories. I loved them, but I also remember that many of them went over my head because I didn’t have the maturity to understand what these grown-ups were yammering on about. When you couple that with archaic language, mores, customs and behaviors, it’s not hard to see that the best Holmes for kids may well be cherry-picked Holmes.

Since I’m not going to be able to do that for everyone’s kid, I’ve compiled the following list of children’s book series that I think would make good introductions to the Canon. Understand: I don’t propose these as a substitute for Canonical Holmes. Rather, I see them as a bridge to Holmes.

I recently read the first books of all the series I mention here. Incredibly, all of them are/were written by American authors. 

Two caveats: 
* The recommended age ranges are the suggestions of the publishers, not me. The child you have in mind may read at a higher or lower level. 

* If you’re buying for birthday or holidays, keep in mind that many of these books are available in boxed sets. It might be smarter to splurge on the set.


The Great Shelby Holmes by Elizabeth Eulberg (The Great Shelby Holmes Series, Bloomsbury, $7.99).

John Watson is an 11-year-old Black kid who has just moved with his mom to New York City for the first time, after years of growing up on US Army posts. John, a budding writer, is starved for friends in his new city. (John’s parents are divorced, and his dad is bad about calling or visiting.) Their landlady Mrs. Hudson introduces John to the strange 9-year-old girl who lives across the hall of their Harlem apartment building, in apartment 221B. 

Within seconds of meeting the Watsons, this girl deduces that John’s mom is a doctor who sustained a hip injury while serving in Afghanistan. The girl, of course, is the brilliant, titular Shelby Holmes, who has made a name for herself cracking cases in her Harlem neighborhood, befriending the local shopkeepers and bookies, and irritating Detective Lestrade of the NYPD. 

The plots of these charming series, currently in its fourth book, are loosely inspired by the original Holmes stories, and feature kids of all races and economic backgrounds. Illustrations here and there break up the text.

Since the character names are drawn so directly from the Canon, readers have to pretend that the original Sherlock and Dr. Watson never existed, since people would be referencing them any time they met our heroes. 

But I assure you that as soon as I learned that Shelby has a smarter, lazy brother named Michael, that she was studying violin in school, and that she has for a pet an English bulldog named Sir Arthur, I was thinking, “Sherlock who?” Ages 8-12 years.


Basil of Baker Street, by Eve Titus/Cathy Hapka (The Great Mouse Detective series, Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, $5.99).

I adored the first two books of this series when I was a kid. The first one still holds up. 

Basil, a mouse who lives in the basement at 221B Baker Street, learns deductive techniques by eavesdropping on the great sleuth himself. Basil’s adventures are narrated by his mouse companion, Dr. David Q. Dawson. Together, the two battle crime in a Victorian “underworld” teeming with vicious cats, rats, and other threatening creatures. 

The first Basil title was published in 1958, and inspired the 1986 Disney film, The Great Mouse Detective. Eve Titus, who conceived and wrote the first five books, died in 2002. The series—now eight books strong—was continued by Cathy Hapka. It warms my heart to see that the first five titles retain the original art by the late Paul Galdone. Really fun. Ages 6-9.
Basil in a Box!



The 100-Year-Old Secret, by Tracy Barrett (The Sherlock Files series, Macmillan/Square Fish, $6.99).

Growing up in 21st Century Florida, 12-year-old Xena and her 10-year-old brother Xander play an unusual game. They study strangers and deduce their occupations based on clues gleaned from these people’s manner of dress and behavior. They’ve learned how to play the Game from their father, whose family has apparently “played” it for generations. 

But when Dad, whose name just happens to be Mr. Holmes, is transferred to London for a year, the children discover the shocking truth: they are the great-great-great-grandchildren of a certain violin-playing denizen of Baker Street. When Dad’s elderly Aunt Mary Watson presents them with a handwritten notebook of Sherlock’s unsolved cases that the Watson descendants have carefully preserved for a century, the children become embroiled in the mystery of a precious stolen painting. It seems that Sherlock abandoned this case, as he cryptically notes in his casebook, “to pursue intriguing case of lion’s mane.” 

Four books thus far in this series. They are much shorter than the Shelby Holmes books above, but have no illustrations. Ages 8-12.


The Case of the Missing Marquess, by Nancy Springer (Enola Holmes Mystery series, Puffin Books, $7.99).

Springer’s knack for telling detail and research give us a marvelous rendering of Victorian England and the plight of women, young and old, during that period. 

Her heroine, Enola, is Sherlock and Mycroft’s younger sister. In the first book, Enola awakes the morning of her 14th birthday to discover that her mother—the only surviving Holmes parent—has disappeared. Wonderful bits of deduction, code-breaking, and the use of the language of flowers throughout the first book. 

This series is the basis of the hit 2020 Netflix film, which as you might know attracted some bad attention from the Doyle estate for giving Sherlock “too many feelings,” as one journalist cheekily put it. (The parties settled out of court.) 

I’ll talk about the film in a future post. Spoiler alert: I loved it. Solid family entertainment, though its plot departs significantly from the text of the first book. A second film is in the works, but get those kids reading the series now.

Short books, with no illustrations. PRH/Puffin pubs the first six books in the series; Macmillan pubs the seventh next month. Ages 8-12.


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See you in three weeks!

Joe

25 June 2021

Ugolino Revisited


It’s November 2020. The weather’s warm on this, the weekend before Thanksgiving, so we decide to drink a bottle of wine outside on the patio. For eight months we have patronized a wine shop that delivers right to our door. The wine guy knows our tastes so well that he now just picks bottles he thinks we will enjoy. My wife grabs a bottle of white out of the fridge and brings it outside with two glasses. We pop the cork and pour the wine. My eyes flit across the label, and suddenly I’m traveling back in time.

You know this kind of moment, don’t you? Marcel Proust wrote his masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, on the strength of a single, now-legendary memory—experienced by his protagonist. When writers bandy about the adjective Proustian, they are referring to this scene.

Photo by Jonathan Pielmayer via Unsplash

“I carried to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had let soften a bit of madeleine. But at the very instant when the mouthful of tea mixed with cake crumbs touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening inside me. A delicious pleasure had invaded me, isolated me, without my having any notion as to its cause. It had immediately rendered the vicissitudes of life unimportant to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory, acting in the same way that love acts, by filling me with a precious essence: or rather this essence was not merely inside me, it was me.”
In Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh employs not taste but a word and a sight to trigger the reverie of his narrator. In the middle of World War II Charles Ryder awakes one morning in his army tent to find that his unit is encamped on the grounds of an old country estate. He asks someone where they are.
“He told me and, on the instant, it was as though someone had switched off the wireless, and a voice that had been bawling in my ears, incessantly, fatuously, for days beyond number, had been suddenly cut short; an immense silence followed, empty at first, but gradually, as my outraged sense regained authority, full of a multitude of sweet and natural and long forgotten sounds: for he had spoken a name that was so familiar to me, a conjuror’s name of such ancient power, that, at its mere sound, the phantoms of those haunted late years began to take flight.”
They’re at Brideshead, of course. Ryder will now take 14 chapters to tell us why the place evokes such a profound feeling (largely of loss) in him. I suppose 14 chapters isn’t a bad length to milk a memory. Proust needed seven whole volumes to do the same.

Most people would call these moments flashbacks, but Proust called them involuntary memory. In creative works such experiences have three important components: 1) they trigger a memory of one’s youth, 2) accompanied by feelings of melancholy/loss, and 3) that memory has to be so freaking important that your plot lives or dies by it.

In The Sopranos, mob boss Tony Soprano suffers panic attacks whenever he sees, smells, or eats meat. These puzzling attacks trigger medical intervention, and eventually psychotherapy—which becomes the entire conceit of the show. In therapy, Tony realizes that as a kid he first witnessed his father’s violence in the back room of a butcher’s shop, and later watched his parents become amorous after Pop brings home meat from that pork store. Sex, meat, violence—madonna mia!—no wonder the guy’s screwed up.

In my family, we refer to such moments as “The Ratatouille Whoosh Scene.” In the Disney/Pixar film, our tiny protagonist—Remy, a rat who dreams of being a chef—finally gets his big chance to cook a meal for the snootiest (and aptly named) Parisian food critic, Anton Ego. The critic is primed to hate the work of this new, unknown chef. The waiter brings out a plate of the classic peasant dish. A puzzled Ego pops a morsel into his mouth. Whoosh!—he’s transported to his childhood and some memories of his sweet Maman. The entire plot of the film—and the lives of all the characters, including the critic—are transformed by that reverie.


I’m unsure if my whoosh moment last November lives up to the Proustian ideal. It was far from life-changing, but it did remind me that as much we strive to live in the present, the past has a hold on us that we can never shake. And when we write fictional characters, it’s wise to layer in these types of memories.


The wine, you see, was Italian, and bore the name Ugolino.

When I was a kid in high school, learning Italian for the first time, our teacher had us read selections from Dante’s Inferno. And so we learned that in the Ninth Circle of Hell resided the tortured spirit of Ugolino della Gherardesca. In real life he’d been an Italian noble and military commander who was tossed in a dungeon with his sons and grandsons for the crime of treason. In Dante’s scene, Ugolino recounts how his starving kin begged him to ease his own pain (and theirs) by killing and eating them.

Apologies for inserting the grisly specter of cannibalism into a story that up to now has featured subjects as lovely as baked goods, vegetable dishes, country estates, capicola, and wine. Cannibalism appears in true crime, journalism, fiction, fairy tales, and filmed dramas, but this is the only example I can think of where the subject figures in epic poetry. Archeologists say the real Ugolino (and his family) did not resort to cannibalism in their cell. But Dante hints at it in his lines, and depicts Ugolino as chewing on the skull of his enemy, the archbishop who had him imprisoned.

Our teacher asked for volunteers to read these passages aloud. Finding our attempts lackluster, our teacher demonstrated for us what he considered to be a lively, animated declamation. He threw his arms in the air, and cried to the heavens in a high-pitched wail: “Ugolino!!!! Save yourself! Eat us! Eat us, father!” (Paraphrasing the heck out of this passage.)

The whole class burst out laughing. The teacher, you see, was morbidly obese. Probably one of the largest people I have ever known. The sight of his gigantic, quivering, gesturing body at the head of the room moved the entire class of pubescent shits, myself included, to moist-eyed peals of laughter.
And now, forty years later, my eyes were moist again for a different reason. Now, I could only feel how much that teacher cared about us. I recalled his proficiency in four languages. And remembered how he’d died when barely into his forties, a victim of his own overworked heart.

I hadn’t thought of that lesson in years. That the memory should pop into my mind in all its freakish glory—cannibalism and poetry entwined—because of a strangely named bottle of wine drunk eight months into a pandemic is one of those stranger-than-fiction scenes you’d never attempt to stick in a story. Or would you?

Photo by MadMax Chef on Unsplash

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See you in three weeks!

Joe


04 June 2021

Mr. Limpet Reports His Pandemic Reading is WAY Up!


I can’t tell you how many times someone has told me that they are “not a big reader.” Whenever I hear that, my mind conjures images of bigness lifted from children’s literature. I see NC Wyeth’s painting of a fairy-tale giant strolling across a beach while a gaggle of children look on, lost in their own imaginations. Or I start wondering what might happen if Roald Dahl’s BFG decided to break into a library at night.

In fact these people are trying to gently indicate that they don’t read often. And that’s okay. I don’t sky-dive often. I don’t restore cars or motorcycles. I’ve never joined a knitting circle. To each his own.

But what these speakers, if they’re American, probably don’t realize is how close they are to the norm. The typical American reads four books a year. (That average is skewed heavily by the nation’s hard-stop non-readers.)

At a conference of booksellers some years back, I listened as a clever bookseller flashed an image of Amazon’s logo on the screen. “This is what we’re told is ruining our business,” she told her audience. “But what I’d like to suggest is that it’s really this…”

Her finger hit the remote. Up on the screen, Amazon’s logo was suddenly joined by tons of other logos. For Instagram. Facebook. Netflix. Hulu. ESPN Sports. I could go on. But you get the point. Bookstores, booksellers, publishing are all waging an uphill battle for our attention against a bewildering array of seemingly shinier choices. More choices than our book-loving forebears ever had.

Then came 2020. Suddenly, many of us—the most privileged, I’d argue—were spending more time at home. Suddenly, books were cool again. At least, that’s what publishers are telling the world in articles such as this one and this one. I don’t doubt what the publishers’ statistics are showing. In fact, I find these stories fascinating. But I think it’s a mistake to bank on Covid behaviors sticking around for long. We all have a ferocious desire to get back to normal, whatever that means. This other article, discussing how African-American bookstores are faring one year after the protests, is all the evidence I need that 2020 habits are unlikely to be long-lasting.


Safely behind glass—and safe from the prying minds of three-fourths of the reading public...

Earlier this year, on a call with our agent, my wife and I listened as the agent relayed the gist of a post-pandemic Zoom-call debrief she’d attended that was presided over by the CEO of one of the Big 5 publishers. What follows are some of the things the agent heard on that call. I swear I did not make up the publisher statements. They are true to the best of my reporting ability. I cannot vouch for my own off-the-cuff comments.

Publisher: We will no longer spend money advertising our books in print (i.e., newspapers, magazines, etc.) Virtual or digital advertising is more effective. That’s where people are spending their time.
Joe: Or is that where people are more easily tracked, and thus easier to quantify and justify your spending? I don’t buy as many newspapers as I used to. But I still have a lot of magazine subscriptions. And I still read a ton of print books. No one is watching my eyeballs read (or reread) a paperback novel from the eighties. The last time that book was statistically or financially relevant to the industry was when I bought used in 1993. As for self-published books, fuhgeddaboudit. I can’t imagine traditional publishing is seriously interested—or frankly capable—of tracking how many books are read in this growing sector.

Publisher: In 2020, we saw a 33 percent growth in fiction sales. And two times the growth in debut fiction! And a 15 percent growth in nonfiction!
Joe: Homo sapiens has theoretically been roving this planet for 300,000 years. But feel free to base your corporate judgment on a single, highly unusual year that represents 0.000003333333333 of that time.

Publisher: Bestselling authors only got more popular in 2020!
Joe: What the hell did you expect? Their books are the ones we always hear about. Someone who is Not a Big Reader will reach for their books first, natch.

Publisher: We saw a 36 percent growth in children’s books! That’s because parents scrambled to find ways to entertain their kids. Even children’s picture books, considered “dead” in some circles, were hot sellers.
Joe: Slow down, Marshall McLuhan! Let’s hold off on making sweeping generalizations of the behavior of vast swaths of people. Um, did I mention I wrote a picture book? (In fact, as I was writing this piece, a bookseller friend in Florida messaged me to say that an exhausted parent walked into her store and said, “I’m looking for a children’s book called Bonehead, about Fauci.” Turns out, they were looking for my book, Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci. No, I am not kidding. Folks, I’m huge in St. Pete, but I digress.)


Groovy bookstores we did not visit in 2020.

Publisher: The biggest growth was in so-called “canceled” authors. Dr. Seuss was very big in 2020!
Joe: Cool! So are you guys hoping more authors are canceled?

Publisher: We sold the shite out of backlist titles in 2020! The Very Hungry Caterpillar, first pubbed in 1969, had the biggest sales year of its existence!
Joe: Ahem, yes, this too is logical. Ordinarily, the industry focuses its attention almost exclusively on new, freshly published books—and so does the press. But when you erase foot traffic and browsing, people don’t buy the heavily promoted books they just heard about on the radio or TV, but instead choose to finally get the books that have been on their TBR lists for years, which is apparently anything by James Patterson or Nora Roberts. (Please see Publisher Statement No. 3, above.) Also: RIP Eric Carle, a national treasure.

Publisher: Book sales on Amazon were big in 2020! And so were sales on Bookshop.org!
Joe: No! Stop! Now you are blowing my mind! Is there some kind of Sherlock Holmes brain cereal you geniuses have been eating? Because I need to load up my pandemic pantry with truckloads of it!

Publisher: Two places where we saw a drop in sales: brick-and-mortar Barnes & Noble stores and indie bookstores.
Dr. Watson: Hold my beer, Mr d’Agnese. I do believe I might have deduced this one for myself!

Publisher: Social media is more important to book sales than previously noticed or acknowledged! People buy books they see on Instagram! Even if they don’t intend to read the book themselves, they buy it in order to show their support for a particular social media “influencer.” The actresss Amy Schumer shows a book to her 10.5 million Instagram followers, and everyone buys it!
Joe: Anthropologists pinpoint the decline of western civilization as 2021 CE, the date when major American publishers began actively cheerleading the purchasing of books that no one ever intends to read.

Publisher: People’s reading time grew during the pandemic. People bought more books because they finished their Netflix queue and were looking for things to do!
Joe: How can anyone ever finish their Netflix queue?

Publisher: In 2020 light readers grew their newfound interest, and appear to be maintaining that habit as the nation moves toward normalcy.
Joe (shouting): What’s that? I can’t hear you! The music at this Fully-Vaxxed-to-the-Maxx Party on the beach here in Fort Lauderdale is rocking the bejesus out of my eardrums! Talk to me in 2024, Chachi! Whoo-hoo!

Publisher: In the future, in-person author book tours will be reserved for bestselling authors only. All other authors will be doing Zoom tours.
Joe: Nothing to see here, folks. Move along, move along.


Mr. Limpet: currently reading...so America doesn't have to.

Publisher: It was hard to print books in 2020 because printers had to reduce staff due to Covid precautions. Also unreported in the media was the fact that the industry lost many shipping containers of books prior to or during the blocking of the Suez Canal. The containers were literally lost overboard.
Joe: Ah, but scientists did note an uptick in well-read porpoises and well-fed crustaceans, so all good!

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PS: I’ve been experimenting with crazy new fonts. One example below. More to come.

See you in three weeks!