Tag Archives: memoir

“You Should Write a Book!” Uh-huh

Neal Genzlinger, writing in the New York Times on Friday, lamented the explosion of memoirs. Perhaps its purely a professional lament, but what he has to say is worth considering.

Looks Easy Enough

Yeah. Maybe that's the problem?

In the process of reviewing 4 new memoirs (3 of which he says should never have been written), Genzlinger complains that the plethora of new memoirs tends to crowd out those with a truly compelling story, not to mention those exemplary writers who can take the mundane and turn it into a singular snapshot of a historical moment.

Here’s a passage from his piece:

“Sure, the resulting list has authors who would be memoir-eligible under the old rules. But they are lost in a sea of people you’ve never heard of, writing uninterestingly about the unexceptional, apparently not realizing how commonplace their little wrinkle is or how many other people have already written about it. Memoirs have been disgorged by virtually every­one who has ever had cancer, been anorexic, battled depression, lost weight. By anyone who has ever taught an underprivileged child, adopted an under­privileged child or been an under­privileged child. By anyone who was raised in the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s, not to mention the ’50s, ’40s or ’30s. Owned a dog. Run a marathon. Found religion. Held a job.”

Now, you might think that Genzlinger is being an elitist … that a literary world where “Every Man a King” becomes “Every Breathing Soul an Author” is a good thing.

But I tend to side with him (and yes, that may also be a professional lament).

It is possible today for almost anyone (anyone with the financial means, anyway) to “write” a book. There is no end to the number of “publishers” willing to take your money and promise you the moon.

And likewise, there’s no doubt that most of us have told a story and had a listener say “You should write a book!”

Countless bloggers have seen their work, if sufficiently unified, be turned into a book, a play, a movie, or a television series.

But for a reviewer (or a bookseller or a reader), wading through the output (sorry to say it that way) becomes a grinding game of blind man’s buff.

I offer no solutions. Perhaps the uber-democracy of self-publishing and the willingness of publishers to gamble on true tales in the hopes of landing their book author on Oprah is a sign of progress.

What do you think?


So here’s a bonus … a memoir that I loved, that Genzlinger probably wouldn’t have, that I always keep in stock, and about which someone surely must have said “You should write a book!”

Phoebe Damrosch

Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter
HarperCollins (2008) $13.99 PB

Phoebe Damrosch’s very personal account of moving up in the restaurant world by taking a job at Thomas Keller’s Per Se in Manhattan. It is delightful, and inspired my dream of taking a dozen of my patrons on a New York trip for dinner there and a Broadway play. Anyone interested?

Read about Damrosch in this 2007 New York magazine feature story (photo credit to same), or you can visit her Website here.


* Sincere apologies to the author of the book whose cover we used to illustrate Genzlinger’s point. Neither he nor I intend to cast aspersions on the value or quality of that work. It does, however, scream out the reviewer’s main thesis. Hey, at least I included a sales link. Anybody else do that for you today?

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This Just In: Agathe von Trapp’s Memoir

I want to let you know about the recent death of Agathe von Trapp, the oldest daughter in the von Trapp family made famous by the movie The Sound of Music. After the break, some advice to a major newspaper has compelling relevance to the book biz.

These are a few of my favorite things: Books, movies, and sports. And while it’s not my favorite movie, I do thoroughly enjoy re-watching “The Sound of Music” whenever it’s on. I even sing along, and my first “professional” singing gig had me singing “These are a Few of My Favorite Things.” You know … when the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad. I simply remember my favorite things, and then I don’t feel sooooo baad.

Oldest of the Trapp Family children

Died Dec. 2010.

Just before the end of 2010 we learned of the passing of Agathe von Trapp at the age of 97. Fortunately, Agathe completed a memoir that was released by HarperOne in September, 2010. just months before her death on Dec. 30.

The Trapp Family Singers, out of necessity, had a great if peripatetic career after they escaped from Austria and Agathe, blessed with a keen memory, tells the family’s story openly and honestly. Right now, the book is very hard to get, but I’ve brought in about a half-dozen copies, knowing that many of you have a deep affection for the movie, at least.

Speaking of the movie, it was based on the Rodgers & Hammerstein Broadway play starring Mary Martin as Maria. Of course, in the movie, the part of Maria, governess and then stepmother to the von Trapp children, was played by the lovely Julie Andrews.

Memoir of Agathe von TrappAgathe addresses the movie and reveals that neither she nor her siblings were very pleased with the liberties taken by the play’s book and the screenplay. Over the years, though, as Agathe met thousands of people who had come to know and love her family, primarily through the film.

Maria Trapp actually sold rights to the family’s story for $9,000, to a German film producer, and the family earned nothing from the subsequent hugely successful play and film. There’s even a children’s book (we have it, too) from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things,” and of course, the family does not benefit from that.

That last part’s not strictly true. Mary Martin arranged for the Trapp family to get a small royalty from the profits of the stage play. Agathe said it was greatly appreciated.

If you’ve seen the movie, you know the von Trapp family escaped from Salzburg via a pass in the Alps to neutral Switzerland. You would know wrong!

In fact, the family, perhaps under some pressure, but not with Nazis in hot pursuit, simply boarded a train to Italy.


Memories Before and After the Sound of Music
HarperCollins (2010)
PB Original $13.99


Lessons from a pro: Among the things I follow on Twitter are a few journalism sites. Many of you know I have a past in newspapers and I like to keep up with that industry, too.

Charles Madigan, formerly a journalist with the Chicago Tribune, penned a letter in the Columbia Journalism Review to the new CEO of The Tribune Co. Many of his points were well taken by me, a practicioner and owner/manager in another industry beset with challenges.

Using his thoughts and phrases, let me apply some of them to our industry – bookselling.

A significant anniversary that nearly coincides with your arrival should not be allowed to pass without notice. Robert R. McCormick took control of the Chicago Tribune in 1911 after its owners had decided to shut it down as a lost cause. He would not allow that and spent much of his troubling, controversial life building a strong Chicago institution.

Yes, many booksellers are shutting down, deciding it’s a lost cause. I’m similar. I won’t allow New Albany to do without Destinations Booksellers and am committed to spending the rest of my “troubling, controversial life” building a strong New Albany institution.

Start with that simple question, “What is Tribune about?”

The answer should be, “Tribune is about news.” Every one of your thoughts should flow from that conviction.

With proper substitutions, Destinations Booksellers is about books. But why? I believe a locally owned and operated bookstore is an essential element in building a sustainable community. Every one of my managerial thoughts flows from that conviction.

You must develop a much deeper awareness of customers … It was a huge mistake to think of print as a near-dead medium (embracing the rhetoric of people whose own fortunes were connected to its failure) just as it was a huge mistake to think of the Internet and technology as enemies. The “either/or” model was just flat wrong. It’s time to transform thought about this.

I’ve never bought into the idea that the printed book and the physical bookstore are “near-dead,” and while I believe our role is unique, I embrace technology. I just want to make sure I know what business I’m in, and all too many of the businesses with “book” somewhere in their titles, online and otherwise, see books as a commodity. If “1 unit of book” can produce $1, they’ll sell it. Nevermind that we don’t sell “units.” We sell ideas preserved, and maintaining viable channels where ideas can percolate is the business we’re in. If creators can’t be nurtured, given exposure, and enriched because the sales channel is dominated by “unit sellers,” then we all lose.

There is no plausible reason anymore for Tribune to be running publications in Los Angeles, Baltimore, Florida, Pennsylvania, or anywhere but Chicago. The arguments about synergies and efficiency and gigantic advertising footprints have all collapsed. They were strategies that made sense in an era that ended a decade ago.

People in those places despise you. They cannot wait for you to fail. They wish you only ill. No one can be a worker focused on customers in that atmosphere. Their days will be consumed by rumors of cuts to come and resentments of cuts already accomplished.

Maybe it’s a stretch, but it could be said that “there is no plausible reason anymore for “B” to be running bookstores in Los Angeles, Baltimore, Florida, Pennsylvania, or anywhere but where they live … and breathe.

Recall that when Tribune owned the New York Daily News (and there were historic reasons for that relationship that transcended shareholder value) the buzz in New York was that all of the Daily News profits were shipped to Chicago and dumped into Lake Michigan.

The buzz here is that dollars vital to this community are regularly shipped to Ann Arbor, New York, and Seattle and dumped into the Hudson River and Puget Sound, and sinkholes in Cincinnati, Bentonville, and Beijing.

The atmosphere has changed so radically that an argument can be made that only local markets in advertising and news can help news companies return to stability for the long term.

What is certain is that Chicago can never care as much about Los Angeles, Baltimore, or anywhere else as it cares about itself. And caring about one’s self is a crucial component of success. All great news companies deserve local ownership.

What is certain is that Seattle can never care as much about New Albany, Floyds Knobs, Sellersburg, or anywhere else as it cares about itself. And caring about one’s self is a crucial component of success. All great booksellers deserve local ownership.

In this era in which we all anticipate living to, say, ninety-five years of age, an institution that has a readership that averages someplace in the forties or fifties could well have thirty to forty more years of loyalty to tap. A desperate rush to get teen and young readers now is unlikely to change anything. In my lifetime, I have not found more than a handful of people who read the newspaper regularly as teenagers. Not in any generation.

Of course, the younger generation will age. (OMG! No!) It may well mature into newspaper readership, or at least a part of it. This doesn’t warm the hearts of investment counselors, but then it doesn’t have to if you are no longer publicly held.

Meanwhile, you must demand that all of your customers be treated with respect, including people over fifty. People should not be viewed as declining assets. They are living customers, voting every day with their purchase of the paper. It is an important demographic. This number is easier to understand once you realize that the biggest magazine in America is the one produced by the AARP, the advocacy group for people over fifty, which has a circulation of 24.4 million.

Granted, newspaper circulation numbers have been falling for years, but there are decades left of potential business for print products. Writing print readers off now would be foolish. They are also your most solid revenue producers.

Newspaper readers tend to be traditional. They expect a complete package. Opening an array of foreign bureaus would be prohibitively expensive. Presenting creatively collected foreign news, from carefully selected stringers, wire services, and other publications would be efficient. The important part of the formula would involve thought, which gets back to the people who will report to you. No one should present an argument that readers who want something more complete should turn elsewhere. Don’t give people reasons to leave!

Just substitute “books” where appropriate. Lesson = learned.

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Just In: Growing A Farmer: How I Learned to Live Off the Land

Tuesdays are major release days, so we’ll be posting about significant releases we’re putting out on the shelves those days.

Growing a Farmer

How I Learned to Live Off the Land

With the new year just starting, shipments are delayed, so we’re rather pleased to be able to present Growing a Farmer: How I Learned to Live Off the Land, a memoir by Kurt Timmermeister. None other than locavore champion Alice Waters blurbs the book, calling it “honest” and “eloquent.”

Now, it may seem strange to bring out a book on sustainable farming in January, but then our many patrons who aspire to even an urban garden will be using these frosty months to seek inspiration from those who have gone before.  I brought it in not because I had read it, but because among the books of its type  it is drawing unmitigated praise. I’ll share a bit of that with you and then and excerpt, if you don’t mind.

“Anyone interested in where real food comes from will love this book. I was charmed by Kurt Timmermeister’s story of becoming a farmer and found myself fascinated as he describes how he learned to install bees in a hive, establish an orchard, milk cows, and make cheese, and that slaughtering chickens is no party.” – Jerry Traunfeld, chef/owner of Poppy and author of The Herbfarm Cookbook.

“All farmers will nod knowingly at Timmermeister’s exploits, and soon-to-be farmers should take notes as they read this satisfying memoir.” – Novella Carpenter, author of Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer.

“Kurt Timmermeister created his life as a farmer from scratch – a grand improvisation. Growing a Farmer journals his struggles with the uncertain forces of nature, his happy discoveries in food production, and his quest to improve the land to which he has committed himself.” – Paul Bertolli, founder of Fra’ Mani Handcrafted Salumi.

If you’ve sampled our books on craft cheeses, urban farming, American craft beer, or even memoirs like Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I think you’re going to like this one. Here’s a random excerpt:

“Growing vegetables has taught me a lot about farming. And a lot about myself. When I brought Matt on, the farm was a simple hobby farm, though I was loath to admit it. I grew some tasty food, but it wasn’t a business. With Matt’s help I pushed this farm from a hobby to a business. A failing business, but a business nonetheless. That first season quickly turned me against growing vegetables under plastic. I didn’t want to join the race to grow the earliest tomato for the farmers’ market. In my view, rushing to market came at a great expense, both financially and also to my sense of what was right. I just didn’t like all the plastic.

“I enjoyed the simple act of putting a seed in the ground and watching it germinate and grow until it could be harvested. It was pure and good, and the end result was an exceptional vegetable. I couldn’t give that up.

” As I had boxes of seeds left over from the vegetable enterprise, and had gained a decent amount of knowledge, plus the fields were set up – tilled, amended and fenced – I continued to grow vegetables, but on a smaller scale. I wish that I could say that this was a sudden epiphany, that one day I woke up and reduced the scale of this vegetable farm. Rather, I slowly came to my senses. The year after Matt left, I still grew vegetables for the farmers’ market, but stopped running a CSA. I still grew tomato starts, more than I needed for my farm, but…”

All I can say is if you want to read Growing a Farmer this weekend, you may have to fight with me and my wife over it.

Growing a Farmer
Kurt Timmermeister
W.W. Norton & Company
9780393070859 (Hardcover)

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