Sunday, March 25, 2007

Dum-da-da-dum: The Latta-Liss Top 100 books

After much fanfare, hoo-hah-ing, and throat clearing on the previous incarnations of my blog, I am now posting the list of our family's (Tony, Alison, Caitlin, Eli and I) top 100 books. Caitlin, Eli and I came up with the idea one time last fall when we were talking about top this-or-that book lists. Why not come up with a list of our own, we reasoned--a list of favorite books in the Latta-Liss household. After much discussion we came up with this complex criteria: anything goes.

In other words, nonfiction, fiction, childrens' books, plays, poetry, graphic novels. Desert island books? No, because who wants to list "How to survive on a desert island." Most important books? Books we'd want to re-read? No, and no. Just this: our favorite books. Books that changed our lives, maybe? Books that stick with us like popcorn hulls between teeth? Something like that. Details on the algorithm for ranking the books comes after the list. Keep in mind that the books at the top of the list are likely to be books that were read aloud to the kids, or that all of us read. It's interesting to read the list as a gauge of how the reading habits of individual family members influence others, as well as how they diverge.

1. The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman (101 pts.)
2. 100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (98 pts.)
3. Everything is Illuminated, Jonathon Safran Foer (68 pts.)
4. Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card (65 pts.)
5. Moby Dick, Herman Melville (50)
6. Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain (42)
7. Beloved, Toni Morrison (41)
8. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (41)
9. As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner (38)
10. The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro (33)
11. A Storm of Swords, George R.R. Martin (33)
12. The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffeneger (31)
13. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer (29)
14. Midnight's Children, Salmon Rushdie (26)
15. Watchman, Alan Moore (25)
16. The Crucible, Arthur Miller (25)
17. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov (25)
18. Life, the Universe, and Everything, Douglas Adams (25)
19. Library of Babel, Jorge Luis Borges (25)
20. Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman, (25)
21. Goedel, Escher, Bach, Douglas Hofstader (25)
22. Farewell to the Sea: A Novel of Cuba, Reinaldo Arenas (25)
23. Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon (25)
24. Ulysses, James Joyce, (24)
25. A Clash of Kings, George R.R. Martin (24)
26. The Once and Future King, T.H. White (23)
27. The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley (23)
28. The Call of the Wild, Jack London (23)
29. Playboy of the Western World, J.M. Synge (23)
30. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury (23)
31. Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez (23)
32. The Sot Weed Factor, John Barth (22)
33. Sailing Alone Around the Room, Billy Collins, (22)
34. My Side of the Mountain, Jean Craighead George (22)
35. Ender's Shadow, Orson Scott Card (22)
36. Charlotte's Web, E.B. White, (22)
37. Canterbury Tales, Chaucer (22)
38. The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin (21)
39. So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish, Douglas Adams (21)
40. Shadow of the Giant, Orson Scott Card (20)
41. PrairyErth, William Least Heat Moon (20)
42. Evidence of Things Unseen, Marianne Wiggens (20)
43. Collected Poems, William Butler Yeats (19)
44. Alexandria Quartet, Laurence Durrell, (19)
45. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard (18)
46. A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin (18)
47. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams (17)
48. The Giver, Lois Lowry (17)
49. The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger (16)
50. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling (16)
51. Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophesies of Anges Nutter, Witch, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett (15)
52. Bread and Wine, Ignazio Silone (15)
53. Sonny Elephant, Madge A. Bigham (14)
54. On the Road, Jack Keroac (14)
55. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee Williams (14)
56. You Shall Know Our Velocity, Dave Eggars (13)
57. Xenocide, Orson Scott Card (13)
58. Winnie the Pooh, A.A. Milne (13)
59. Call It Sleep, Henry Roth (13)
60. A Home at the End of the World, Michael Cunningham (13)
61. Walk Two Moons, Sharon Creech (12)
62. The Amber Spyglass, Philip Pullman (12)
63. Lord of the Flies, William Golding (12)
64. The Story of Ferdinand (the Bull), Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson (12)
65. East of Eden, John Steinbeck (12)
66. The Shipping News, Annie Proulx (11)
67. Outcast of Redwall, Brian Jacques (11)
68. The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne (10)
69. Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris (10)
70. A Feast for Crows, George R.R. Martin (10)
71. Tacky the Penguin, Helen Lester and Lynn Munsinger (9)
72. Long After Midnight, Ray Bradbury (9)
73. Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller (9)
74. Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (9)
75. In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson, Bette Bao Lord and Marc Simont (8)
76. Dune, Frank Herbert (7)
77. Neverwhere: A Novel, Neil Gaiman (7)
78. Lives of a Cell, Lewis Thomas (7)
79. In the Night Kitchen, Maurice Sendak (7)
80. And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, Randy Shilts (7)
81. A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley (7)
82. The Last Defender of Camelot, Roger Zelazny (6)
83. Catch-22, Joseph Heller (6)
84. A Short History of a Small Place, T. R. Pearson (6)
85. Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak (5)
86. The French Lieutenant's Woman, John Fowles (5)
87. On Beauty, Zadie Smith (5)
88. Middlemarch, George Elliot (5)
89. The Polar Express, Chris Van Allsburg (4)
90. The Magus, John Fowles (3)
91. Make Way for Ducklings, Robert McClosky (3)
92. Life of Pi, Yann Martel (1)

We left it up to math-whiz Tony to come up with a scoring system. Here's what he devised: knowing that there would be a fair amount of overlap, each of us submitted a list of 25 books. (Even so, the five of us ended up with only 92 books for our top 100.) Each person ranked their books, giving our #1 book 25 points, #2 24, etc., with our #25 book receiving 1 point. Then we were each allotted 50 points to distribute among our 25 books as we saw fit. This is where individual strategies came into play. Some of us loaded the decks at the tops of our lists to show our devotion to our favorites. Others selected books that they knew only they had read, but thought so highly of them that they gave them extra points to put them higher on the list. Others played fair, spreading the 50 points evenly throughout the list.

Alison spent a lot of time over Christmas break compiling the results. Thanks, Alison and Tony!

Friday, March 23, 2007

Good rejection

Bad rejection: I'll always think of you as a friend, but I think it's time to move on.

We've all heard that one.

Good rejection: "...she's a terrific writer, and this is a powerful story but so painful to read....So why is it that I can't take this? Do I not have the courage? I can't answer this."

That's a direct quote from one of the rejection letters my agent forwarded to me regarding Into the Fire. The manuscript has been turned down by four houses now, and while I know that's nothing, nothing, a common theme runs through many of the comments. Everyone seems to appreciate my writing, which is is awfully gratifying. The comments from one first reader favorably compares the manuscript's language style and subject matter to Huckleberry Finn, which of course tickles me pink because I love Twain.

But then there's the prickly subject matter: racism, attempted rape, a lynching. If it's half as painful to read as it was to write, perhaps the editors are justified in shying away from the story. But I didn't want a "happily-ever-after" story, one in which one brave boy managed to overturn the racism of his family and an entire town to see justice done. It's not a fairy tale.

So I'm going to do a major re-write. I won't tone down the racism, or the description of the lynching. But I'm going to try to give the good guys a larger voice. I think that some of the more sympathetic characters could definitely be given a larger voice.

But my point: good rejections can encourage you to bring out the best in a manuscript. Let's hope.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Let's give it another go

Having learned that I'm a D-list blog-ebrity, I figured that I have nothing to lose by switching to yet another blogsite. I wasn't all that happy with my previous blog venues, for different reasons. I guess I'm really an experimentalist at heart.

In a post or two, I'll write about the Latta-Liss family's Top 100 books, something that kind of slipped to the back burner of my mind after the move to Geneva. Fortunately, it doesn't seem to have suffered too much, apparently as succulent as it was when we compiled it in January.

I've been thinking about how fiction writers, especially genre fiction writers, often feel compelled to slip justifications, defenses, or sly asides into their books, often in not-very-subtle ways. Two cases in point. I'm currently listening to Voyager, the third book in Diana Gabaldon's gargantuan time-travel Outlander series, on my iPod. I have to admit that part of my original motivation for downloading the first book, Outlander, was that I have an subscription, which allows you to download two books a month for a set fee. Well, given the choice, would you download Outlander, with a listening time of 32 hours and 42 minutes and a purchase price of $34.99, or Stendhal's Scarlet and Black, coming in at just 3 hours and retailing for $13.99 (recommended to me by Audible, by the way). Keep in mind that I listen to books while I'm otherwise occupied running, or doing laundry, or washing dishes...I don't want anything too deep while I'm listening.

So I was amused by a passage in Voyager in which the near-freakishly literate 18th century Scottish Highlander Jamie Frazier explains to his British captor/friend that some books are long because that's simply what it takes to tell the story. In another passage, the contemporary Claire and her friend discuss the pleasures of escapist reading, in this case trashy romance novels.

The previous book I listened to was Stephen King's Lisey's Story. (At 18 hours and 59 minutes, not quite the bargain that Outlanders was, but worth it.) With Misery, King had already established his frustration with the literary establishment's scorn of "genre" literature, but it's back in full force in Lisey's Story, which describes the author's scorn for literary snobs.

Many children's book writers--myself included--also have a certain level of defensiveness. We write for children because we can't hack it in the adult lit world, etc. Does it show in our books? I can't think of an example offhand.