Weekend Reads- In the Dream House

Here is my book: In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

Here is my breakfast: Eric Kayser baguette and coffee

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I’ve been following Carmen Maria Machado’s career for a few years, ever since the submission for Her Body and Other Parties came around. The book went on to receive much deserved attention and awards. I’m drawn to fiction with an element of fabulism and folklore, which comes from a personal desire, I think, to understand how and why we tell stories as well as why certain stories transcend time. I believe, too, that sometimes an unreality–metaphors turned literal–can better illustrate a moment or emotion.

Parul Sehgal wrote a stunning review of this book in the New York Times, explaining the magic of this book in ways much more articulate than I can.

But this isn’t entirely fiction. This memoir, for lack of a better term for this genre-bending work, was one of the most hotly anticipated books of the year for me. Machado employs a number of different narrative forms, genres, and tropes as she unfurls the story of her abusive relationship. It is smart and witty; shocking and sad. A bundle of contradictions, just the way I love my books. I admiredthe way she integrates the archival silence of domestic abuse in queer relationship into the larger narrative, using her personal story as a way to explore how and why certain stories are told (a topic of great discussion in the literary world this week) and endure.

I’m a form nut, so seeing her manipulate her personal story into various literary genres, fascinated me. Form provides the lens through which we view the story, setting up our expectations, which Machado then subverts. It’s amazing to see this done so skillfully–because it takes incredible skill to pull off this stitching of forms.

But I also enjoy reading Carmen Maria Machado’s work for her language–the pure joy of reading. I’ll leave with the last paragraph of “Dream House as Folktale Taxonomy.”

“There is a Quichua riddle: El que me nombra, me rompe. Whatever names me, breaks me. The solution, of course, is ‘silence.’ But the truth it, anyone who knows your name can break you in two.”

Highly recommending this one for fans of literary fiction, fabulism, and anyone interested in narrative form.

Quick Fix: An Editor’s Tips

After a long hiatus, I’m back to updating my blog and starting a new series: Quick Fix (thank you to The Huntswoman for the name).

In reviewing submissions and editing novels, I see the same small issues pop up again and again. We all have what I refer to as “writing tics.” In fact, I often end editorial letters to my authors with a summary of their most used. These range from overuse of “just” to POV issues signaled by italics to too many em-dashes. I myself am prone to too many parentheses; overladen, overwritten sentences; and repetition.

A large part of my job involves making good writing better. So how do you do that? Establish a voice, consistently apply POV, and eliminate redundancies, among other things.

Above all, good writing requires clarity.

The good news is, there are lots of quick and easy tricks to improve your writing. This series will provide a summary of what I look for as I read, along with issues that pop up consistently over the course of longer edits.

So let’s dive right in. 

Yes, No, Fix It So

“He nods his head ‘yes.'”

“She shakes her head ‘no.'”

Can you guess why I would flag these sentences?

The “yes” and “no” in these examples can and often should be eliminated. These are redundant. The “yes” and “no” are implicit in the action. You don’t nod your head “no” or shake your head “yes” in most cultures (I use “most” only because I don’t know what I don’t know; if this is a common practice in other cultures, please tell me!).

Peak/Peek/Pique 

An agent I work with posted something about this on Twitter the other day. Misuse of peak/peek/pique comes up all the time. I’m often guilty of it. I second-guess peak/peek all the time. But I’m most concerned when I come across a peak/peek used instead of pique. I don’t mind a letter mistake, but I do become concerned at usage that requires a different root and spelling.

All definitions (the most applicable ones) c/o Merriam-Webster:

Peak (noun)- 1. Promontory; 2. A sharp of pointed end.

(adjective) Being at or reaching maximum.

Peek (verb)- 1. To look furtively; 2. To take a brief look; glance

Pique (verb)- 1. to excite or arouse especially by a provocation, challenge, or rebuff; 2. to arouse anger or resentment in; irritate.

(noun) A transient feeling of wounded vanity; resentment

You see the difference? You reach the peak of a mountain or peak productivity. You peek around a corner. His comment piques your interest, which leaves your friend in a fit of pique.

In other words, you peek at the peak of a mountain, the height of which piques your curiosity.

We all make mistakes! I’m sure I’ve made a number here. We all could use an edit. Good writing contains mistakes; the best we can do is be smart about them. I hope Quick Fix will help you do just that.

Join me on Twitter, where I share more writing advice and publishing industry news.

Introducing FILL ME IN!

It’s been a while since I’ve written here—partly because of fall submissions season, partly because of work changes, and partly because my reading has felt a little uninspired lately.

But today I get to write about something I love, FILL ME IN, a journal I created with the rest of the Touchstone team. Today is its publication day!

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This book started with the germ of an idea a year and a half ago. It was May 2017, and I’d gone to a friend’s apartment with a group of people I thought I knew well. We opened one of those question chat packs and went around answering increasingly personal questions for hours. We had the best time, and I learned a lot about everyone else in the process.

May also means graduation season, and as I saw photos of newly minted graduates in their robes, I remembered my own graduation festivities. The night before we graduated college, my friends and I sat down and wrote out predictions for the rest of our lives—where we’d live, in what order we’d marry, whether we’d have children. As the unofficial group secretary, I took the notes and became the keeper of the document (and bets).

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I wondered why there were no friendship journals for adults, the kind I wanted with my friends. So, after thinking it over for a week, I walked into a coworker’s office and asked if this idea for an adult friendship journal-—part memories, part predictions—was crazy. She didn’t think so, and I brought it up at a meeting our editor-in-chief held for young editors. No one there thought it was crazy either.

So I went ahead and made the friendship journal I wanted myself. The content was written and workshopped with much of the Touchstone team (and at dinner with friends). We hired the fabulous Jo Harrison to create illustrations to accompany several of the questions. Our production and design teams outdid themselves to make our vision a reality. I am so, so grateful.

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Getting a book from idea to finished product is hard; I’ve shepherded enough of them to know. Creating the content, trusting my instincts in package and design was hard, but this book was also a lot of fun—pure joy when so much of the rest of the world has felt dark.

There’s a short introduction at the beginning of the book that I’ll quote in part here: “I’m sure all your friends are great, but mine are the best.”

I hope you’ll share it with yours.

x Kait

P.S. You can purchase a copy here on Amazon. If you love it, find us on Instagram @fillmeinjournal. All photos here by our fabulous marketer and Instagram queen Isabel DaSilva.

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Kait’s Vacation Reads

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I’m going on vacation soon, which pretty much everyone I’ve spoken to in the past month knows. I’m that excited. I’ve taken one day off work in all of 2018–and it was a “use it or lose it” carryover vacation day from last year. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to some quality time away from New York and my work email.

That has me thinking about what I’m going to read. I’m headed to Hawaii, which screams “BEACH” even if I’m not exactly a beach gal. I like the water, but I hate sand on wet feet. I have never tanned in my life, but I burn exceptionally well.

Vacation, for me, means time to get swept up in a good story: sometimes it’s the real one right in front of me, and sometimes it’s many miles or centuries away.

And that makes me think about “beach reads.” I’m not a fan of the moniker, which is a demeaning term meant to belittle women’s stories and their reading habits simultaneous. It conjures froth and frivolity–a breezy read with little substance. But who cares? Sometimes I like a light read, something to lift my mood. I believe that reading–no matter what the genre–should be fun. I read for entertainment and edification. Every book I’ve read has taught me something. Books without substance rarely get published.

But I also rail against the concept of a “beach read.” I don’t always love a fast, quick read on vacation. I want something immersive. Men read at the beach, too, and no one has ever referred to my dad’s military history books as “beach reads.” And this year, the books I plan to bring on vacation don’t strike most people as “beach reads.”

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles- I’ve written (and spoken) extensively about how much I loved Rules of Civility, and I’ve been saving his sophomore bestseller for the right time. Days (in a hotel) overlooking the ocean feels like the right time.

Perfume by Patrick Suskind- Obsession? Murder? Historical setting? Sign me up!

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami- I am deeply embarrassed to have never read any Murakami, so I’m looking to fix that.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer- The most recent Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner! And the rare comic novel to win. Plus, travel is essential to the plot and structure of the book, so it seems like a perfect travel read.

The Three-Year Swim Club by Julie Checkoway- My mom and I will be taking part in a book club in Maui, and this is our read. It’s fascinating and engrossing so far.

The last time I visited Maui, I brought only four books with me, and I finished them all before the long plane ride home. I won’t be making the same mistake this time! My iPad with Alexander Chee’s Queen of the Night, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, and Dana Schwartz’s Choose Your Own Disaster will be coming with me. (I’ve always said I had eclectic taste.)

Weekend Reads- Lolita

Good morning!

Here is my book: The Real Lolita by Sarah Weinman

Here is my breakfast: Balthazar croissant

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My Book Expo loot

Getting back into the groove of reading and writing here! After a frenetic few weeks, it feels like summer is finally upon us here in New York City.

Two weeks ago was Book Expo, publishing’s big trade show, where publishers promote their late summer and fall titles–fall being the biggest season in publishing. For people like me, it’s a chance to pick up galleys of buzzed about upcoming titles. One of those is The Real Lolita by Sarah Weinman, out in September, which I’ve been enjoying. A work of true crime, it toggles between the real-life kidnapping of Sally Horner in in 1948 and Nabokov’s writing of Lolita, a novel arguably influenced by Sally’s much publicized story and rescue. It has me reaching for the copy of Lolita on my shelf. Lolita has always been a book whose language is so masterful, so captivating, that it shrouds and distorts the subject matter. The Real Lolita has me thinking about Lolita in a way that I haven’t for years.

Yesterday, I headed to Central Park, crowded with tourists and residents strolling on the paths. I took some of the little known walkways down by the lake and into the Rambles, where everything was much calmer–although in the process I managed to crash two weddings and an engagement.

Last night, I headed to the opera house to see ABT’s Romeo and Juliet starring Isabella Boylston and David Hallberg, which was stunning. I had never seen Isabella perform in person, and was surprised by the joy that emanated her dancing (and those perfect bourées!). David and Isabella made a lovely pairing. I now can’t seem to stop listening to the Prokofiev score.

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Happy reading!

Weekend Reads- Less

Good morning!

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Here is my book: Less by Andrew Sean Greer (the winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction)

Here is my breakfast: coffee and a baguette from Eric Kayser

I’ve been on a great book binge recently, and Less is no exception. I’m embarrassed to say I’d hardly registered the novel before its surprise Pulitzer win last month. It had great quotes, great reviews, but it hadn’t appeared on a lot of awards lists (probably in part because of an annoying bias against comic novels). In any case, it has been an absolute delight so far. I’ve already noted several lines for my quote book, including two below:

“There were the politicians sizing him up as for a suit fitting. There were the actors trying him on the red carpet. There were the photographers getting him in the right lighting. They might have done, many of them. So many will do. But once you’ve actually been in love, you can’t live with “will do”; it’s worse than living with yourself.”

and

“New York is a city of eight million people, approximately seven million of whom will be furious when they hear you were in town and didn’t meet them for an expensive dinner, five million furious you didn’t visit their new baby, three million furious you didn’t see their new show, one million furious you didn’t call for sex, but only five actually available to meet you.”

I’ve had a pretty stellar month in reading. Among the highlights: Rules of Civility (the book I’ve been joking I was born to read), The Rules Do Not Apply (a pattern emerges!), I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, and now Less. I was disappointed by Behind Her Eyes, mostly because I found it such a slog to get to the twist ending, a twist that made me want to hurl the book across the room.

Most of my weeknights and weekend have been taken up with editing and submissions, which I need to get back to, no matter how much I’d like to continue with my recreational book today.

Happy Reading!

Books for a Long Plane Ride

An old friend texted me out of the blue a few weeks ago. We live in different cities, so we don’t see each other often, but last summer we were both in New York for several months, and I lent her some of my favorite recent reads. A month ago, she was traveling and had several long plane rides. She liked my recommendations last summer, did I have any more for her?

I tried to keep my reads within the last year (with an exception for a series). And two books that I recently read and wanted to recommend aren’t yet out, but are listed below.

EDUCATED by Tara Westover- This memoir had been on my radar for a while before it was released in February, and I’d heard from a number of readers I trust that it was a gripping read. The general premise is almost hard to believe–a young woman from a survivalist family in Idaho, whose homeschooled education has been largely ignored, teaches herself enough math, science, and English to take the SAT and get into BYU. From there, she goes on to get graduate degrees from Harvard and Cambridge while struggling to reconcile her new intellectual life with her upbringing. I found the latter half–her (fraught) assimilation into higher education–most interesting, but Westover’s writing about the rural landscape around her and the complicated dynamics of her family is worth the read alone.

THE IMMORTALISTS by Chloe Benjamin- I read this over my holiday break–another book that had been on my radar for a long time. Another startling premise (this one fictional): four siblings visit a fortune teller on the Lower East Side and learn the dates they will die, with huge implications for how they live their lives. I fell hard for the Golds. Simon and Klara, the youngest siblings, move to San Francisco in the ’80s and find work as a dancer and magician, respectively. The elder two siblings, Daniel and Varya, finds respectable jobs in science. I was most drawn to Simon and Klara, younger and more vivid in the novel itself, but I wonder if that’s more a symptom of my age and experience than anything else. This is a spellbinding novel about fate, purpose, and how to live a meaningful, engaged life, whether or not you know exactly how much time you have.

ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE by Gail Honeyman- The joy in this novel is in how it all unfolds for the reader. I have to confess to have mixed feelings about this one; I loved it all the way until the end, when one twist made me throw the book across the room. But the read was good enough to make it on here. It’s hard to talk about this book without giving much away; Eleanor Oliphant lives a very ordinary, solitary life (with the exception of phone calls from her “mummy”), that is never better than “fine,” until she falls in love with a musician who doesn’t know she exists and meets a new friend from IT. The plot doesn’t sound like a page-turner until you realize that the real story is Eleanor’s mysterious past. I had some doubts until I got about 40 pages in, and it slowly dawned on me–oh, this is going to be messed* up.

*Fine, I used a different term, but my parents read this blog

CRAZY RICH ASIANS Series by Kevin Kwan- My CRAZY RICH ASIANS (and CHINA RICH GIRLFRIEND and RICH PEOPLE PROBLEMS) obsession has been well documented on this blog. These books are perfect plane fare: funny, smart, jet-setting. They’re not slim tomes, so one volume might last you one cross-country flight, but if you’re headed to Asia, I’d go ahead and bring the whole set.

BONUS: The two books I wanted to recommend but are not yet out:

THE LOST QUEEN by Signe Pike (pub date: Sept. 4, 2018): Full disclosure, I work on this one, and when I describe it to people I always start out the same way: Did you know that Merlin of Arthurian legend had a twin sister? This is historical fiction set in sixth century Scotland–I time I’ll admit I’m not particularly passionate about, except here–about Languoreth, the twin sister of the man who served as the historical inspiration for Merlin. The children of a powerful chieftain, Languoreth went on to become a powerful queen in her own life, but has gone mostly unnoticed in history.

SOCIAL CREATURE by Tara Isabella Burton (pub date: June 5, 2018): I’ve been recommending this book to almost everyone in New York. Pitched as a Mr. Ripley for the digital age, it delivers exactly that. It’s effervescent, beguiling, almost aspirational until it isn’t. The New York references (some lightly disguised) make you feel like you’re in on some inside joke. It’s unlike anything else I’ve read recently.

Weekend Reads- Rules of Civility

Good morning!

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Here is my book: Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

Here is my breakfast: croissant and coffee

In our last installment, I was reading Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, which I highly recommend. I don’t want to spoil the novel, but as the end neared, I realized just how much I had become invested not only in these characters lives, but in their happiness, which hasn’t happened to me in some time.

Recently, in my submissions pile, I’ve been finishing full manuscripts to realize I don’t have “that feeling.” I don’t want to talk to someone immediately about it, I don’t feel my heart race, I don’t think “I need this book now.” It’s the reading equivalent of a shrug–and a shrug isn’t enough to acquire a book. It’s disappointing, but I’m optimistic something that makes me feel bright and shiny and awed and jumpy will come around soon.

You know those books that are just pure magic? The ones where you read one sentence and know that you’re in. The ones that make your heart flutter and your eyes linger over a single page. The book you’re convinced was written just for you?

Well, that’s how I feel about Rules of Civility. Except I’ve taken it a step further: this book wasn’t just written for me; I was born to read this book. After many years staring at and referencing this cover, I finally bought myself a copy. (Whoever recommended this to me about two weeks ago, please make yourself known! It gave me the push I needed.) This does have an exemplary cover. It tells you everything you need to know: sophisticated, aspirational, slyly sexy historical fiction. And the inside delivers.

I will probably have much more to say about it soon, but for now I’m savoring each word.

Weekend Reads- The Miniaturist

Good morning! It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these.

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Here is my book: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

And here is my breakfast: Coffee (and baguette, not pictured, from Eric Kayser)

I’ve had this ARC of The Miniaturist since 2014 or 2015, swiped from the free take shelf at work. I remember thinking it was such a prize. I don’t often keep books from the take shelf around for long; if I haven’t read them or added them to my home collection within a couple months, I usually put them back. I have enough unread material at home and a pipeline of submissions on my iPad to keep me reading until the world ends.

But I love this cover so much, I couldn’t bear to get rid of it. I was going to read it someday, I promised myself. Because who wouldn’t love a novel about a dollhouse during the Dutch Golden Age? I’ve never been to The Netherlands, but I’ve armchair traveled there plenty (The Girl with the Pearl Earring, The Goldfinch–just putting those in the same sentence makes me laugh!).

I’ve been reading a lot of great historical fiction on submission recently, which makes me wonder if a renaissance is on its way (pun intended). Much of it has been set in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, all with a mystery or thriller component. World War II fiction has dominated for the past several years, and the rest of the historical fiction market has stagnated. I think fondly of the authors I read as a teenager–Sarah Dunant, Tracy Chevalier–and the historical thriller period I went through– The Rule of Four, The Shadow of the Wind–and wonder if those books would have found their audience today. I hope that the great rash of submissions in the category means that great writers and readers have renewed their appetites for these kinds of books. I’m certainly ready.

In the meantime, I’ll be savoring The Miniaturst.

Happy Reading!

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

I’ve been in something of a reading slump this fall, and I was counting on my winter vacation to pull me out of it. The last novel I read I had loved–until I got to the last five pages, when a late (unnecessary) plot twist had me ranting for days. But that’s a different book.

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The Immortalists at The Magic Castle

The Immortalists had been sitting on my shelf since BEA way back in June, and by the time I reached the end, I wondered why I waited so long. (But a note of warning: reading on an airplane while trying not to cry is perhaps not the best place.)

The setup requires you to suspend disbelief for a while, but it’s simple enough. Four siblings, ranging from ages 7 to 13, visit a fortune teller and learn the day that each will die. From there the story spins off into four parts, following each of the Gold siblings as their lives diverge and intersect in places you might not have expected. The narrative runs chronologically from 1978 to the present day, but so much of it feels timeless. But the big questions always have a way of feeling present, don’t they? This is a novel about how we live our lives in the face of inevitable loss; about how we tether ourselves to our families; and how we grapple with knowledge we’d rather just forget.

I was most drawn in by Simon and Klara, the two youngest siblings, who narrate the first half of the novel. Creative, unconventional free spirits, I thought they made for the most intriguing characters. Once I finished, though, I wondered if I might identify more with Daniel or Varya if I read this at a different point in my life. That’s some of the magic of this novel.

And speaking of magic–as a longtime lover of magic, having spent many evenings at The Magic Castle–I’m a sucker for a novel about magicians. Klara begins as a close up and parlor magician, but makes her name as a mentalist, specializing in a trick called Second Sight (which I’ve seen done at The Magic Castle), which she and her partner perform by using synchronized counting. Her narrative offers some of my favorite passages in the book, including this one:

“Most adults claim not to believe in magic, but Klara knows better. Why else would anyone play at permanence–fall in love, have children, buy a house–the the face of all evidence there’s no such thing? The trick is not to convert them. The trick is to get them to admit it.”

But the magic in this book, like so many books I love, is in the telling. It’s perfect for those who love a family saga, nuanced characters, and an elegant structure. It’s the “what if” that matters here–what if the psychic was right?