Sunday, August 16, 2009

Unconvention

This last week has been the first hot one this summer in the northeast, and the first week JR & I don't feel like we have to pack up and go somewhere to do something. And my garden's pretty much off on its own recognizance. So I got a lot of reading done -- mostly nonfiction, for whatever reason.

One theme that kept coming up: What the hell happened to EDITING? All week I kept a running list of bad sentences, which I read out loud to JR. I had half an idea I'd put them in a blog post, but then I realized I didn't want to be a snoot and anyway, who knows when I'd run into these writers? Instead let me focus on the one book I read this week that knocked me for a loop: The Natural Laws of Good Luck, by Ellen Graf. I'll admit right here I don't think it's the best title; I had to go back and look three times to remember it, and anyway, it sounds Markety. And it doesn't have much to do with the book, which is short on good luck.

It's the memoir of a woman in her forties who goes to China to meet her Chinese girl friend's brother, falls in love, marries him, and brings her new husband back to her ramshackle house in upstate New York. It's an extremely unconventional thing to do (everyone's bringing back little girls from China, not husbands!) and Ellen Graf -- an artist -- proves herself to be a highly unconventional woman, to say the least. Which, for me, is about 1/4th the charm of the book; the other three quarters being her fantastic character study of her new husband and her ideas about romantic love, which, honestly, moved me to tears.

The book is also better written, on a sentence level, than the other books I read this week. Better written, more original and moving... hm, why a small press -- Shambala -- then? Why can't such a smart, skillfully written, intelligent, tender memoir get published by the big guns? Because Ellen Graf is kind of a weirdo, and I say this with the utmost respect. Publishing is going through a nervous period, and an unconventional female narrator like this one -- who seems completely out of touch with popular culture -- isn't obviously "relatable." I hope I'm wrong, but I have trouble seeing this as the next Oprah book.

Anyway, sorry about all the cynicism. It's been a weird summer. But if you, like me, have felt your faith in humanity wavering lately, read The Natural Laws of Good Luck. It's about love: culture-crossing, weird-habit-forgiving, inexplicable love. Oh, yeah, it has a happy ending, too. I didn't think I had it in me to get all sentimental anymore, but there you go.

8 comments:

amy said...

that sounds wonderful! the only nonfiction i read these days is t. berry brazelton and what to expect the first year. i guess t. berry is kind of an unconventional narrator, though, when i think about it.

rmellis said...

T. Berry is great! Yeah, so much happens that first year.... you must be right around the sitting up-to-crawling phase. I'm somewhere after long division, before mustache.

You might really like this memoir. Here is a funny bit:

"Preparing so much food reminded Zhong-hua that he was a bit fat. 'You can cut off some of my fat and cook it while I am sleeping.'
'What?' I thought I had not heard correctly.
'You can cut some of my fat and cook it when I am in sleeping time.'
I had no answer. What was the answer?
'You can make a delicious meal from my side.'
Still I was speechless. Was this supposed to be funny?"

Jennifer--BuddhaPublicist said...

I'm the publicist at Shambhala Publications and I'm happy to hear that you enjoyed The Natural Laws of Good Luck. I know that editorial spent a lot of time working on what to call the book. What would you have called it?

Some background: the idea for the book came from an essay Ellen published in the Modern Love column in the New York Times. Since writing this book, Ellen has had some nice surprises: she was chosen to be a 2009 New York Foundation of the Arts artist fellow for nonfiction writing, and Natural Laws was chosen as both a B&N Discover and a Borders Original Voices selection.

I know I'm an employee, so possibly biased, but I can't help but defend Shambhala Publications. We may be a small publisher, but we are one of the few independent publishers still out there. We're distributed by Random House so we have their sales force working for us. We're known as a company that publishes good, high-quality books. And yes, it's true that as a smaller publisher we could take a chance on a first-time author like Ellen. But I've worked for a large publishing house, and their first-time authors often don't get much promotion at all. So I think for a first-time author, Ellen made a good choice publishing with us.

jrlennon said...

I don't think Rhian was dissing you, Jennifer--I'm at Graywolf myself, and we both think small presses are where it's at right now. It was more a condemnation of larger presses that won't do unusual books.

I'm reading the book now, and it's terrific. I agree with Rhian, though, the title is awfully vague...I can't remember what it is right now, in fact.

rmellis said...

Yeah -- There's no need to defend small presses; we're huge advocates! It's more that I'm annoyed large presses don't do excellent but quirky books like Ellen's. The quality of the recent house-and-husband memoirs published by the big houses is so low!! You'd think they'd jump all over this one.

I don't have any great titles at hand, for sure, but even something cheesy like "Love and Dumplings" would be at least easier to remember, and would also draw in the foodies (lots of food in the book, not all of it strictly edible). I work at a book store, and let me tell you, if a title is easy to remember it gets asked for.

Ugh, though, "Love and Dumplings" is pretty awful!

rmellis said...

BTW, I hope no one took offense at my "weirdo" comment! I meant it as a term of high honor -- conventional writers make for really dull reading, in my opinion.

amy said...

"But I've worked for a large publishing house, and their first-time authors often don't get much promotion at all." Ahem. I hear that.

That DOES sound funny, Rhian. And oddly appetizing? Wait, no.

W

Anonymous said...

I actually quite like the title. But then, I like long (ish) book titles generally.