Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Semi-escapist notes

While I’ve got a moment between the end of the election season, which monopolized my attention more than I’d care to admit, and next week’s sales conference, which is sure to knock me out of commission for a spell, allow me to offer a roundup of goings on in the Perseus universe. Turns out a lot happened while we were watching the markets and selecting the next leader of the Free World.

I intend this edition to be mostly free of current events, but I do feel duty bound to begin by mentioning John Lanchester’s recent discussion of Charles R. Morris’s The Trillion Dollar Meltdown (PublicAffairs, 9781586485634) in last week’s New Yorker: “A number of new books describe the link between derivatives, subprime mortgages, and the meltdown of ’08, and they all have the claim on our attention of having been written before the full scale of the implosion became clear….Charles Morris’ The Trillion Dollar Meltdown was handed to the publisher last Thanksgiving, a fact that gives Morris, a former banker, rock-solid status as a predictor of the crash. He homes in on the complexity and the paradoxical unpredictability of these financial instruments, which were supposed to manage risk and ended up magnifying it.” Mr. Morris has recently completed the forward to the paperback edition (9781586486914, forthcoming in March); if you have a use for it (say, to post on your websites), we can provide a .PDF for you.

And since so much has been written of late to put us in mind of the (Franklin) Roosevelt era … Publishers Weekly recently rhapsodized over Curtis Roosevelt’s sumptuous memoir Too Close to the Sun: Growing up in the Shadow of My Grandparents, Franklin and Eleanor (PublicAffairs, 9781586485542): “Curtis writes affectionately and beautifully about his grandparents.… Along with relaying a rich and fascinating cornucopia of anecdotes involving family life, Curtis devotes thoughtful discussion to the complex subject of reflected fame and its impact on young people growing up as the scions of celebrity. No one alive today knew Franklin and Eleanor quite as well as Curtis, their eldest grandson, and his sister. Thus this splendid, intimate memoir represents an invaluable addition to the literature of the Roosevelt era.”

Philipp Blom’s magnificent The Vertigo Years: Europe 1900-1914 (Basic, 9780465011162) has made it onto the Indie Next List as a December Notable – those of you who heeded my urgings and read it, I thank you for supporting it. I know it’s shaping up to be a tough season, but I do believe this will be a great gift book (particularly since it’s not just a “gift” book); if you don’t have a shelf-talker of your own, consider making one with one of the outstanding reviews it’s been getting. The Guardian (UK), for example, exclaims: “The Vertigo Years is an ambitious book - a one-volume assessment of the gravity-eroding, giddying sweep of European cultural, social, political and spiritual change that permeated the first 15 years of the 20th century. But Philipp Blom has pulled it off triumphantly. The vertiginous atmosphere of a tumbling prewar society - at the same time exciting and frightening - is described with atmospheric clarity. The combination of easily worn scholarship, fascinating character studies and fluent story-telling that is often very funny makes this a hugely enjoyable and illuminating book…. A work of narrative history at its best.” More recently, the Economist was fulsome in praise: “Masterly and panoramic … Impressive and thought-provoking.... His particular gift is to encapsulate complex historical and biographical events pithily and in an illuminating context…The book brings the fears, enthusiasms and blindspots of the period brilliantly to life. If civilisation lasts another 100 years, perhaps an equally talented historian will one day compare the first decade of this century to its dizzying counterpart before 1914. If so, Mr. Blom’s book is unlikely to be bettered as a source.” And keep your eyes peeled for an upcoming review in The Atlantic.

As I’ve said recently, a close second to The Vertigo Years among my favorites this fall has been Matthew Goodman’s rollicking history The Sun and the Moon (Basic, 9780465002573). The early response has been quite encouraging. “Mr. Goodman has managed not only to give us a ripping good newspaper yarn but also to illuminate life in the nation’s largest city in the early part of the 19th century,” notes the Wall Street Journal’s recent review; “He also provides something of a treatise on the birth of modern mass-market newspapering.” Newsweek’s “Conventional Wisdom” column lists it one of the offbeat books that “should be on your autumn reading list,” and the Los Angeles Times has a review scheduled for this Sunday.

Da Capo’s biggest book of the season will be landing shortly – Big Boy Rules: America’s Mercenaries Fighting in Iraq (9780306817434), by Pulitzer Prize winner Steve Fainaru. The prepub reviews have been strong indeed, if a little frightened by the contents: “Exempt from Iraqi law and oversight by the U.S. government,” goes the PW review, “the mercenaries … play by ‘Big Boy Rules’—which often means no rules at all as they barrel down highways in the wrong direction, firing on any vehicle in their path. (His report on the Blackwater company, infamous for killing Iraqi civilians and getting away with it, is meticulous and chilling.) Fainaru’s depiction of the mercenaries’ crassness and callousness is unsparing, but he sympathizes with these often inexperienced, badly equipped hired guns struggling to cope with a dirty war…Fainaru’s vivid reportage makes the mercenary’s dubious motives and chaotic methods a microcosm of a misbegotten war.” Kirkus reads it similarly: “Fainaru takes to heart the old journalistic adage, ‘show, don’t tell,’ as he portrays men seeking to escape difficult personal circumstances, who crave adventure even if it means losing their lives…An informative, dramatic look at a significant, often unexamined, aspect of contemporary military culture.” Mr. Fainaru is back from assignment long enough to do some strong publicity for the book – he’ll be on Pacifica Radio’s “Democracy Now” on November 19, and the next day he’ll be on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation.”

The San Francisco Chronicle has an unsurprisingly but still gratifyingly glowing review of the Letters of Allen Ginsberg (edited by Bill Morgan; Da Capo, 9780306814631): “This wonderfully rich collection of 165 letters from the 1940s until the poet's death in 1997, put together by his longtime archivist, Bill Morgan, gives us a firsthand view of the man behind the poems, someone of whom it can be truly said that the personal was political…This remarkable collection by someone who perhaps invented the concept of ‘oversharing’ long before it became fashionable, reminds us of why he mattered then, and still does now.”

Last time out I mentioned that Margaret Leslie Davis’s Mona Lisa in Camelot (Da Capo, 9780738211039) was a November pick for the Indie Next List – and again thanks. Since then, it’s gotten some lovely attention. There was the promised serial (with many photos) in Vanity Fair, and More magazine called it an “instant classic,” praising its “lively, behind-the-scenes slice of Kennedy history…. Davis captures the breathless approach that newspapers and magazines of the day brought to the story….but the book is also a potent reminder of how effectively Jackie Kennedy championed the arts, how shrewdly she played her role as first lady, and how far away her cultural Camelot now seems.”

It was expected that Joyce Tyldesley’s Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt (Basic, 9780465009404) would be recognized by high-falutin’ journals like Natural History magazine, which gave her a cover story. But Ms. Tyldesley is one of those rare scholars who still know how to capture a general audience. She certainly grabbed the reviewers at the Tucson Citizen: “This is a multilayered biography of one of the most interesting historical figures ever. Tyldesley presents the great queen in such a way that she almost leaps from the printed page.” If you somehow missed that one, though, perhaps you caught the recent full-page review in Newsweek: “In the year of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, untangling the legend of Cleopatra has special urgency…. To regard Cleopatra as an Egyptian ruler instead of a male myth, and to assess her using scholarly and archeological tools, is a worthy goal. It seems long overdue.” You can read the full article at http://www.newsweek.com/id/165640

And if Cleopatra is not going to exhaust the classicist in you (or among your customers), the new year will bring Justin Marozzi’s delightful combination of history and travel, The Way of Herodotus: Travels with the Man Who Invented History (Da Capo, 9780306816215). We’ve got a very nice blurb from Paul Cartledge, who certainly knows a thing or two about writing classical history for a trade audience: “Herodotus may have lived twenty-four centuries ago but he is our twenty-first century contemporary and companion—the father not just of history but of comparative ethnography too, not only a brilliant storyteller and indefatigable traveler but also a shrewd and tolerant observer of human fads and foibles on the grandest global scale. Justin Marozzi, himself a veteran traveler and journalist and intrepid crosser of cultural frontiers, does his hero full justice in this scintillating, thought-provoking and entertaining homage.”

Ellen Heltzel and Margo Hammond are getting set to burn up every available wavelength to promote their just-landed reading guide, Between the Covers: The Book Babes’ Guide to a Woman’s Reading Pleasures (Da Capo, 9780738212296). Prepare yourself for the onslaught: the current issue of More magazine has a discussion of the book and a specialized reading list from the authors (“5 Most Important Books for Midlife Women”), and the current issue of Pink has a similar feature, with the “3 Best Books for Businesswomen”; Complete Woman also has a similar feature this month. The December issue of Elle will have a review; and Body + Soul magazine will discuss the book alongside a list adapted from it. Plus, Mss. Heltzel and Hammond are touring our Pacific coast – get your book clubs ready.

I’m pleased to report that Da Capo continues its total ownage of the ASCAP Deems Taylor Awards, the most prestigious awards in music publishing. This year, they had two winners for Outstanding Musical Biography: in the Concert Music category, the Nicolas Slonimsky Award went to Kevin Bazzana’s Lost Genius: The Curious and Tragic Story of an Extraordinary Musical Prodigy (9780306817489). And in the Pop Books category (their bread and butter), the winner was John Kruth’s To Live’s to Fly: the Ballad of the Late, Great Townes van Zandt (9780306816048). This, by the way, is the third consecutive year a Da Capo book has won this award: The Mayor of MacDougal Street: A Memoir by Dave Van Ronk and Elijah Wald won in 2006; and Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock 'n' Roll by Rick Coleman in 2007. So consider that track record as you gear up for David Wild’s He Is…I Say: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love Neil Diamond (9780306817847). “Wild takes us on a witty odyssey of obsession,” writes the Palm Beach Post, “and makes a strong case for the man as a true musical iconoclast impervious to hip fashions. Wild's defense of Diamond…is a courageous piece of pop criticism.” Reviews are forthcoming as well in the New York Times Book Review and Magnet magazine. It should also serve as a reminder that they know what they’re doing when they compile the Best Music Writing 2008 (9780306817342) – edited this year by Nelson George. The Nashville City Paper raved “always a treat and a delight…this year’s edition proves no different, and the scope, variety and quality are quite impressive.”

Mac Montandon has timed the zeitgeist awfully well. Late this summer, the New York Times reported that an inventor from New Zealand unveiled what he calls “the world’s first practical jetpack,” which he hopes to sell for $100,000. And this fall, a Swiss inventor with the marvelous sobriquets “FusionMan” and “Jet Man” flew across the English Channel with his version of the personal jet propulsion system. Well, Mr. Montandon has written the singular all-purpose guide to this fantasy of flight and the people who follow it, Jetpack Dreams: One Man’s Up and Down (but Mostly Down) Search for the Greatest Invention that Never Was (Da Capo, 9780306815287). Allow me to quote the PW review at length: “Generations of boys, inspired by characters from Buck Rogers to Boba Fett, have dreamed of flying with jetpacks strapped to their backs. Freelance writer Montandon, editor of Innocent When You Dream: The Tom Waits Reader, documents his search for the ultimate jetpack; along the way he encounters an offbeat bunch of middle-aged men with the same obsession. Montandon explains, for readers who don’t attend the venues where jetpack jockeys rake in thousands of dollars from viewers who want to see a few seconds of flight, that the sticking point with jetpack technology is that you can’t pack enough concentrated hydrogen peroxide on your back to fly for very long. Most jetpacks today are built from the original 1950s plans for the first working model, although many men have spent countless hours in the garage trying to improve on it. Along the way, there has been one unsolved murder and a gruesome torture and extortion case associated with a fabled lost jetpack that has taken on Holy Grail status. This snappily written, often funny book should attract dreamers of both sexes and all ages.”

From something out of a comic book, let me turn to…a comic book: Running Press has followed up last year’s Marvel Vault with The DC Vault (9780762432578), and the December 2008 issue of the Comics Buyer’s Guide absolutely loves it: “Divided into a multitude of chapters, the history and insights alone would be worth more than half the $50 cover price, but it’s the extras tucked into plastic sheets every few pages that really make this book worth the price….Whether you’re a longtime fan or a new reader, this book is indispensable.” It’s true. Please make sure customers can look at a copy, so they’ll appreciate exactly what it has to offer.

I’ve said a couple times that I thought Timothy Snyder’s The Red Prince: the Secret Lives of a Habsburg Archduke (Basic, 9780465002375) would appeal to readers of Alan Furst…but you no longer have to take my word for it. Foreign Affairs recently remarked that “Not often does scholarly history soar and entrap like a fine historical novel, but here it does” And Anne Applebaum’s recent New York Review of Books review agrees: “Unlike novelists, historians are not usually inclined to humor or absurdity. A few jokes are allowed, but most historians of late Austria-Hungary dissect the empire’s various national conflicts, ponder the political machinations of the time, and debate the causes of its dissolution. With a certain amount of bravado, Timothy Snyder…has now bucked that tradition. His new book, The Red Prince, is in a deep sense not humorous at all: it ends in profound tragedy. But it is a book about a fundamentally silly man – though one whose escapades, both humorous and tragic, are emblematic of his era.”

You should have known you wouldn’t make it through one of these without further news of the world conquering Skinny Bitch franchise. VegNews Magazine has picked Skinny Bitch co-author Rory Freedman as their “Person of the Year.” She might have gotten a vote from Eva Longoria Parker – the current issue of People reveals that she’s taken some Skinny Bitch tips to heart. All three Skinny Bitch books, as well as the forthcoming Skinny Bitchin’ (Running Press, 9780762435371) and Spring ’09 highlight Skinny Bastard (April 2009 – it never ends!) were discussed in the October 27 Publishers Weekly article titled “Eat Food…Mostly Plants.” Skinny Bitch (9780762424931) was included in a Chicago Tribune story on the “Best Veggie Burgers.” But it doesn’t stop there: I’ve mentioned before the plans for some Skinny Bitch fitness DVDs. To those you can now add a music deal (a compilation CD is in the works, to be produced by Hollywood music supervisor Randall Poster) and – wait for it – a sitcom! No joke. Greg Behrendt (of He’s Just Not That into You fame) and his wife Amiira Ruotola-Behrendt have signed on to produce a show for NBC. Good times.

More indications of Running Press’s marketing ingenuity (or maybe they just have an in at the network): in a recent episode of NBC’s “My Name is Earl,” Earl’s ex-wife, Joy, pines for the Open Hearts pendent after seeing the Kay Jewelers commercial on TV. In effort to fulfill her dream of owning one, she must win the local science fair. At the end of the show she gets her pendent and wears it proudly, calling it the most beautiful thing ever. You can view the clip here: http://www.nbc.com/My_Name_Is_Earl/video/clips/sold-a-guy-a-lemon-car/817142/ And there you have the first salvo of Kay Jeweler’s multi-million dollar campaign, which also includes two months of television advertising leading up to Christmas, as well as a national media campaign and appearances. All of which will surely benefit the companion book by Jane Seymour, Open Hearts: If Your Heart is Open It Can Never Stay Broken (Running Press, 9780762436620), which will be available to meet the pent-up demand in January. I’m not quite sure how I feel about this….

Let me change gears, then, and move far away from product placement issues. I was pleased to discover that the Santa Cruz Sentinel took notice of The Leftmost City: Power and Progressive Politics in Santa Cruz, by Richard Gendron and G. William Domhoff (Westview, 9780813344386): “Advocates of progressive politics may read The Leftmost City as a guide for taking control of local and even national policymaking through activism, coalition-forming and electoral efforts . . . . However, those from across the political spectrum will gain insight from the reporting of the unusual course of the rise and fall of various political factions in Santa Cruz, and will find the book useful, as Domhoff pointed out, ‘for understanding how cities are really governed.’”

Some great advance word, and high hopes, coming in for The Age of Anxiety, by Andrea Tone, which will be landing at the end of December (Basic, 9780465086580). Jonathan Metzl, author of Prozac on the Couch: “Extensively researched and convincingly argued, The Age of Anxiety sets the gold standard for histories of contemporary pharmacology. It is required reading for anyone interested in the ways in which psychiatric drugs become metabolized into the American popular imagination.” UCSF Professor Dorothy Porter calls it “a captivating story of our times told by a superbly talented scholar who is able to make complex historical analysis a tale for everyone.” And in case you are inclined to doubt, consider this: O, the Oprah Magazine plans to feature The Age of Anxiety in the “Reading Room” section of the January 2009 issue. I’m looking forward to the show when all the guests find a copy underneath their seats.

An item I noted with delight in the New York Times: “An exhibit that opens on Tuesday in New York presents cigarette ads from the 1920s through the early 1950s in an effort to demonstrate what has changed since then — and what may not have. The exhibit, of hundreds of print ads and television commercials, is titled ‘Not a Cough in a Carload: Images Used by Tobacco Companies to Hide the Hazards of Smoking.’ The first part of the title is borrowed from a slogan for Old Gold cigarettes, a brand that subsequently boasted in its ads of being ‘made by tobacco men, not medicine men.’” Awesome. You can access the exhibition online at www.tobacco.stanford.edu. It’s truly astonishing – and in many ways it feels like an illustrative counterpart to a book you’ve heard me rave about before: The Cigarette Century, by Allan M. Brandt (Basic, 9780465070480). (Have I mentioned that it won the Bancroft Prize?)

As the year-end roundups begin, let me say thanks again to Southern California Independent Booksellers, who awarded Jeanne Kelley’s Blue Eggs & Yellow Tomatoes (Running Press, 9780762431830) the nonfiction book of the year at their annual trade show. And while I’m drawing attention to the laurels: VegNews gave props (in the form of a 2008 Veggie Award) to their “Favorite Cookbook Authors” Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero. The award recognized Veganomicon in particular (Da Capo, 9781569242643), but, of course, don’t forget about their previous books Vegan with a Vengeance and Vegan Cupcakes Take over the World. And congratulations to two Basic Books chosen by PW as among the year’s 10 best: Asne Seierstad’s Angel of Grozny: Orphans of a Forgotten War (Basic, 9780465011223), which they praised as a “searing journey through a traumatized Chechnya… Seierstad’s vivid, unsparing reportage makes this distant tragedy very personal;” and Martha C. Nussbaum’s Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality (Basic, 9780465051649), which the New York Times Book Review called a “grand and penetrating discourse on religion and American law.” Congratulations to all.

And that’s a wrap – next week I get the lowdown on everything coming this Spring – looking over the advance materials I already know a few things I’ll be wild about. I can’t wait to discuss them with you. In the meantime, fight the good fight, and let me know if I can help with anything.

And though it’s a bit early, let me wish a happy Thanksgiving and a happy season to all-