Friday, December 26, 2008

Remembering Eartha Kitt

I saw Eartha Kitt perform only once, at the Cafe Carlyle in the early 1990's. My publishing friend David Bennett was in town from London, and he had always wanted to go the Carlyle. Neither one of us had seen Ms. Kitt sing live before.

She was fabulous, of course. I don't remember what she sang, although I can recall the timbre of her voice, the sophistication of the Carlyle, the energy of her performance. But what I remember best was her dress and how she wore it. It was a blue sparkly affair, with a deep, revealing back covered with a sheer netting. And underneath the netting was not the expanse of Eartha's back you might expect, but a straight-up black bra, the strap of which you could plainly see.

I date the emergence of the bra strap as a part of everyday clothing not to Madonna but to Andie McDowell in Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989). Hers was the first bra strap I remember seeing frankly emerging from the shoulder of her sundress: the birth of post-modern lingerie. And before it was truly a trend, or an accepted part of any woman's clothing -- the way sneakers frankly have laces -- there was Eartha, proving to the world that a 72-ish-year-old lady would be damned before she'd wear a long line strapless brassiere, if it was easier to wear a regular one. Which made it sexier, too.

So, since it's not only poetry Friday but the day after Christmas, here are the lyrics to a song that nobody could put over like Eartha. We believe in you, Eartha. Thanks for the memory.

Santa Baby

written by J. Javits and P. Springer

Santa baby, slip a sable under the tree, for me
I've been an awful good girl
Santa baby, and hurry down the chimney tonight

Santa baby, an out-of-space convertible too, light blue
I'll wait up for you dear
Santa baby, and hurry down the chimney tonight

Think of all the fun I've missed
Think of all the fellas that I haven't kissed
Next year I could be oh so good
If you'd check off my Christmas list
Boo doo bee doo

Santa honey, I wanna yacht and really that's
Not a lot
I've been an angel all year
Santa baby, and hurry down the chimney tonight

Santa cutie, there's one thing I really do need, the deed
To a platinum mine
Santa cutie, and hurry down the chimney tonight

Santa baby, I'm filling my stocking with a duplex, and checks
Sign your 'X' on the line
Santa baby, and hurry down the chimney tonight

Come and trim my Christmas tree
With some decorations bought at Tiffany's
I really do believe in you
Let's see if you believe in me
Boo doo bee doo

Santa baby, forgot to mention one little thing, a ring
I don't mean a phone
Santa baby, and hurry down the chimney tonight

Hurry down the chimney tonight
Hurry down the chimney tonight

Friday, December 19, 2008

Poetry Friday: Christmas carol edition--"Night of Silence"

The Bowen Press went on a holiday adventure recently, to see the fabulous
Babar exhibit at the Morgan Library. We ooh-ed and ah-ed over the elephants, and the editorial corners of our brains were all delighted by how amazingly similar--and yet totally different!--the bookmaking process of Jean de Brunhoff's era was to the one we know today.

Our evening was capped off perfectly by a quartet of holiday singers serenading us in the Morgan Café, which couldn't have been more welcome--after what has been a long few weeks in the world of publishing, suddenly, it really felt like the magic of the holiday season was finally upon us. Our conversation turned, then, to favorite Christmas carols, and I realized that hearing people tell of their favorite carols is just as much a treat as learning about people's favorite books. My favorite carol is one that isn't terribly well-known, and since songs and poetry are close cousins, I thought I'd share it here today. These lyrics give me a chill that I wait for with quiet anticipation every Christmas season. To me, they are breathtaking lovely--evocative, haunting, and lonely but full of quiet promise, all at the same time--and they fill up my soul in the way beautiful words always do.

"Night of Silence"
by Daniel Kantor

Cold are the people, Winter of life,
We tremble in shadows this cold endless night.
Frozen in the snow lie roses sleeping,
Flowers that will echo the sunrise
Fire of hope is our only warmth--
Weary, its flame will be dying soon.

Voice in the distance, call in the night,
On wind you enfold us, you speak of the light.
Gentle on the ear you whisper softly,
Rumors of a dawn so embracing
Breathless love awaits darkened souls--
Soon, will we know of the morning.

Spirit among us, shine like the star,
Your light that guides shepherds and kings from afar.
Shimmer in the sky so empty, lonely,
Rising in the warmth of the Son's love
Star unknowing of night and day--
Spirit we wait for your loving Son.

**For anyone curious about the song itself, it's a companion to the far better known "Silent Night." Often, it's sung in rounds with "Silent Night", then layered/harmonized against (sorry, I don't know the technical musical term for that!) "Silent Night." You can give it a listen
here, where a lovely Irish choir sings "Silent Night" first, then "Night of Silence," and then blends the two in wonderful harmony.

Edited to add: What's *your* favorite carol? And is there a story to the "why" of it being your favorite?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A New Hope

From the earliest moment I can remember, I have always been a huge Star Wars geek. I'm a white guy with glasses who was born in 1981, so this isn't exactly a revelation, especially at this point in our cultural history. Still, I feel I should preface this post with that statement, because it's going to be important later.

It's also no revelation that our business is in dire straits right now. Sales are down, layoffs are up, and I can't tell what's more disconcerting: the panic that set in when the first rounds of serious layoffs occurred about a month ago, or the relative complacency with which similar news is received today. What's our problem? Can we blame the economy, or the fact that people don't read as much anymore? The former shouldn't affect books as much as it might other businesses, and the latter was a problem before the recession. Are we instead, then, running out of good ideas? Responding to these questions (or ignoring them, depending on your point of view (and, as Obi-Wan tells us, "most of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view")), the book business has been pushing a "Give the Gift of Reading" campaign for a little while, arguing that books make the best holiday gifts. They're right, of course. Books are relatively inexpensive, appropriate for nearly anyone, and, most of all, they're thoughtful. Giving someone a book that you love is more than just giving them an object of a certain monetary value. At its heart, it's giving someone a piece of who we are. And it doesn't matter how old the book is - if the givee hasn't read it, it's going to be new to them. I'm sure there are people out there giving Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone to someone this Christmas, as funny as that might sound to most of us who are reading this blog.

In this vein, my uncle and I decided to give a wonderful gift, a piece of who we are, to my little cousins, Ian and Mary, when I was visiting them last weekend. Ian is five and Mary is four, and we decided it was time that they saw A New Hope (the first film, Episode IV of Star Wars, for the uninitiated). We concluded they were both at a fine age for it, since I have distinct memories of being four years old and watching a videotape of the movie every day until it broke. Needless to say, they loved it. Ian was mesmerized by the Stormtroopers, and Mary tied a black towel around her neck for a cape and walked around the rest of the day making Darth Vader's breathing noises. But the most amazing moment, and one we didn't expect, happened right when the movie ended. Mary turned to us and said, with complete interest, and in complete earnest, "how did Luke's dad die?"

The fact that these are the most beautiful words a woman could ever utter to me aside, it came as a complete shock to us. It still feels amazing to write it: there is someone who doesn't know who Luke Skywalker's father is. As much as I knew all that stuff I wrote above, it had been a long time since the truth of it had been thrown into such sharp relief. We reminded Mary that Obi-Wan tells us Darth Vader killed him, which pacified her for the time being. But she knew something was up, and didn't know what it was. Regardless of the fact that it was revealed to the world a scant ten months and five days before I was born, I can't remember a time when I didn't know that (SPOILER ALERT) Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father. It just is. And yet: there must have been a time when I didn't know. When that story, so well known to the world, was completely new to me. I know this because I saw it in Mary's eyes. And it wasn't just that bit of plot of which she was unaware, but also of the fact that Harrison Ford would be the only actor that would really have a career after these movies, or of the latter-day sins committed by George Lucas in the prequel trilogy, or of the fact that in the real version of these movies, Greedo actually doesn't shoot first. All of that stuff, inextricably linked to those movies for me and for most of the world, just fell away, and the movie was just a great bit of story all over again. Can you think of anything more beautiful than that? It almost makes me feel selfish - who was this gift really for?

So the questions remain: What's our problem? Are we running out of good ideas? As important as that question is, it might assuage our fears a bit to ignore it. We are still going to be mesmerized by a great story, and will look to share our favorites with the people we love, because the great ones will always be new to someone. From the business side, we'll certainly need to come up with some new ideas to deal with the realities of the present and the ones on the horizon. But we have a solid foundation, I think, and that's something we shouldn't forget. If my little cousins are any indication, there is an especially huge amount of potential energy out there to drive the business of children's books. I can only conclude that the force is with us.

Star Wars is not the kind of gift that you can give to too many people, and virtually no one over the age of ten. But there are a lot of great stories with moments like that which will be new to people for whom we're buying this year. And I'm going to keep an eye open for Mary's look in the eyes of the friends to whom I'm giving Jeff Smith's Bone and Graham Greene's The End Of the Affair this Christmas. It'll be my gift to myself. And it's one that I think we'll all be able to afford.

Monday, December 15, 2008


Is this the solution to the industry's present editorial retrenching? Innodate Isogen believes so:

Outsourcing Content Origination and Authoring:
How to Create New Content and Stay Ahead

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Vincent Henderson, vice president and director of consulting for Innodata Isogen's Publishing Practice, will offer real-world examples of how publishers are generating high-quality content for demanding audiences, growing market share and improved profitability by outsourcing content origination and authoring to a leading offshore provider of editorial services.

Refer a Colleague >>

-- Quoted verbatim from an email that arrived in my in-box just minutes after the announcement that more publishing layoffs happened today. Who's interested in attending this webinar?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Peek Inside My "Sent Mail" Folder

Or, Reason Number One Million and Three Why I Love This Job! (Other possible but eventually discarded titles for this post included: "Emails That Make You Laugh Out Loud As You Write Them" or "Emails That Make Me Sound Crazy But Are Actually Totally Professional.")

Amidst a busy few days of paperwork, reading, meetings, and more paperwork, I had an utterly delightful moment that amused me so much that I thought I'd share it. From my Sent Mail folder, then--the following note to one of our author/illustrators:

"Dear XXX, I'm just sending you a quick note to let you know that the hippos arrived via Fedex today, just as expected."

There is something sublime--and wildly, fantastically delightful--about the fact that a statement like that (and the wonderful visual image it evokes) is all in a day's work for a children's book editor. Truly, there's never a dull moment at the Bowen Press!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Poetry Friday: "Character and Life "

Every writer has probably heard, one time, if not many times, the sage advice, "Kill your darlings." It's a quote that's usually attributed to Faulkner, though I've also seen it convincingly attributed to Hemingway, Samuel Johnson, or Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, among others. Regardless of whoever uttered a variation of the idea first, I suppose it's unsurprising that so many writers would arrive at the same conclusion about a necessary, but tragic, part of the writing process. But despite the number of times I'd heard--and repeated!--the advice myself, I've never seen it so vividly, poignantly, painfully portrayed as I do in this poem from Jane Hirshfield's lovely collection, After.

"Character and Life"
by Jane Hirshfield

The young novelist held underwater
the head of the character in his
book he loved best.
In the book, and as he wrote,
he counted until he
was sure it was finished.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Black Wednesday

It was a dark day for publishing yesterday. Layoffs, squeeze-outs, consolidations, cancellations. It was such a hard day that I for one didn't sleep last night. Couldn't get the whole morass of change out of my mind.

But I'll tell you, there was a small but very bright spot at Bowen Press, yesterday afternoon. And that was the moment that we opened two FedEx boxes from Peter Reynolds, in which we found his watercolors for a book we're publishing next fall, called Tess's Tree.

The text is by Jess Brallier, and it's the story of a girl who loves a tree -- a tree that is so old that it needs to be cut down. Tess sees it fall, and only lets go of her anger and sorrow when she has a funeral for her tree, celebrating its life, and learning about its small but important role in the fabric of her neighborhood in the process.

Of course there's a parallel in Tess's story to the events of yesterday, but that's not what I want to say here. What I want to say here is that we all stopped what we were doing when the shipment arrived. We gathered around a table and carefully opened the boxes. (Truth be told, Jordan manfully ripped off the flap of one box because there are NO EXACTO KNIVES around original art.) Peter had packed a lovely simple black box within the FedEx box, and when we opened it, truly, it was like opening a treasure chest.

I'll post the images as soon as I get to the office, but let me tell you, there is no thrill like seeing pictures you've only seen as jpegs or scans or sketches in their original state. The texture of the watercolor paper is toothy, the white is rich. The tissues over the art crinkle and you have to lift them like a bride's veil to see what's underneath. And then the art itself -- sweet, delicate, powerful, with impeccable line and (to our surprise) really drenched in color.

We'll publish Tess's Tree next fall. There will still be books, and there will still be children who turn to books to learn about themselves and the world. So black as Black Wednesday was, for me it will always be linked to that moment of ripping and opening and crinkling and wonder at the sight of something new, something unique in all the world.

Monday, December 1, 2008

On the tenacity of independent booksellers

Tonight I went to a party at Books of Wonder, an independent children's bookstore in New York City. Peter Glassman, the owner, gave a toast to the assembled crowd (mostly artists) and reminded us of the little "hole in the wall" his store was when it opened. A lot of things collided in my mind as he spoke: images of his former stores (there have been, I think, four locations); Peter taking me out to lunch and telling me what's wrong with publishers (a lot); Peter and his late partner, James the Silent and Steady and Buff; Peter pushing, always pushing, to get the books and authors and artists he needed to keep the doors open and the people coming in.

And I thought about New York and all its iterations: how it was emerging from the gritty 1970's when Peter first opened his doors in 1980; how it weathered the AIDS holocaust (much on my mind since seeing Milk this weekend); how it boomed during the careless '90's; how it's trying to figure itself out now.

Peter has had to be and stay larger than life just to keep the place going these 28 years. "Sorry the invitations were so late this year," he told me (mine had arrived that afternoon), "but you can always count on our party being the first Monday of December." And we all did count on that, because we all showed up.

Peter and I share a history, as his store opened just a few months before I started in publishing. So before I wax too nostalgic, here's to all those tenacious booksellers. You keep your doors open, and we'll keep showing up. And vice versa.