Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Last Book You Steal

There's a funny, sad piece of irony I've been seeing lately, which is college grads complaining about how hard it is to find a job in publishing, and then illegally downloading books.

Hmm... you think the two might be related?

The flippant attitude from book pirates (or those who offer books for illegal downloading) is maddening to me.  I'm talking about people who, when you ask them how they justify stealing from an author they like and admire say, "well, I can't afford to buy it, so if I don't download it illegally I won't read it."  Why, I want to know, is it so critical to indulge in culture you aren't willing to pay for?

Some people honestly don't seem to understand how illegally downloading books is taking money out of an author's pocket.  Some will argue that, if not an illegal download, they would buy a used copy, and the author would also get nothing.  This is true, but at least the author was initially paid for that copy; they were never paid for the copy you downloaded.  There is a finite number of used copies, and they wear out, so for every one that is bought, another reader will be that much closer to purchasing a new copy.  Digital copies are infinite. We will never run out of copies to steal.

I've had people say to me, "not all authors are in it for the money."  Fine.  But most authors would like to continue publishing books, and every copy you steal is one less copy that their publisher counts, and so when it comes time to go back to contract and their publisher shakes their head and says, "I'm sorry, you don't have a big enough readership for us to keep publishing you," and that author decides that self publishing isn't worth it, doesn't give him the money upfront that he needs to take time away form his day job, or justify the hours away from their families and friends, ... well the book culture just lost one voice, and that's on you.

Maybe you think that ripping off a Stephen King or a George R.R. Martin novel is no big deal.  Because hey, those guys are rolling in it, right?  They aren't going to miss a $1.75 royalty.  Fine.  Maybe they won't miss the money.  But what about their publisher?  Do you know what publishers do with the money from their big blockbuster books?  A lot of it goes straight back into the author, to pay for publicity and promotion, subsequent advances.  But with some bestselling authors, there is money left over.  And that surplus is the kind of thing that allows publishers to take risks on a new authors, buy a book that is a bit strange or experimental, out of the box in some way, where there aren't many good comps and no one knows if it will make any money.  So when you steal from Harlan Coben maybe you're not screwing Harlan Coben.  You're screwing the next new author who will never get a chance. You're screwing your cousin, who's been trying to sell a novel for years.  Or you're screwing your neighbor, who's become a professional publishing industry intern because no one has enough expendable cash to hire her and pay her properly for all the work she does.

But hey, that's okay with you, right?  Because the alternative, to simply *not read what you can't afford* or even patronize your local library is just unthinkable.  Somehow, culture has become like food and water and shelter - a necessary part of your life. Yet unlike food and water and shelter, you are unwilling to pay for it.

Maybe you are one of those people who think that authors benefit from having their work pirated, or that authors should give their work away for free.  You are not a thief, you are just trying to *help* these poor misguided authors and their short-sighted publishers, stuck in the stone age of running a business!  Most authors do not benefit from giving their work away for free.  You know who does benefit?  Search engines.  Pirate sites. Locker services. Google, who has paid millions of dollars to promote the idea that giving away your intellectual property is good for you.  This is not a grass roots idea - it didn't just emerge out of the zeitgeist.  This idea has some serious money propping it up.

When you illegally download a book you are taking sides.  You are allowing websites to profit at publishers and authors' expense. You are supporting online aggregators instead of authors and publishers.  It's like elevating the delivery van over the item being delivered.  If you keep valuing the messenger more than the message, the quality of the message is going to go down.

The damage you do to book culture by undervaluing or stealing books will effect the quality of what you read for years to come.  If you are okay with only reading books by authors who are privileged enough to write them as a hobby, then okay, go right ahead.  But if you prefer to see a more diverse group of writers contributing to the culture, you're going to have to start paying for it.


This post was heavily influenced by Robert Levine's Free Ride: How Digital Parasites are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back, which I recommend.  It's a close look at how music, news, television and movies, and of course books have moved online.  Pirate it if you must - if you take it seriously, it may be the last book that you steal.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Little, Big by John Crowley

The universe was telling to me read this book. It's been recommended to me so many times over the last few years by so many people whose opinions I respect that I just couldn't go another day without reading it, so I ran out and bought it.

That was over two months ago and I still haven't finished it. It's a strange book. I've never read John Crowley before and had no idea what to expect. For all the people who raved about the book, no one ever really talked about what it was about, or what happened, or maybe they did and it didn't stick in my mind, and when you read the back cover you're like okay, okay, okay, but then you're still not sure what kind of novel you're standing in line to buy. And that feeling has followed me through my reading experience. I'd be enjoying the book, but when people asked me about it, I found myself oddly tongue tied. It's about this guy, Smokey, who marries this girl Daily Alice who lives in a five-sided house, each side done in a different architectural style, and seemingly more vast on the inside than the outside, and somehow a portal into another world or dimension, for some characters. And the story is so big, like family saga big, because we keep getting stories of Daily Alice's ancestors and their encounters (or lack of encounters) with "them" the people in the other world, (who I thought of as elves), and the history of the house. It was really hard for me to get a hold on this story. I'd feel like I had a pretty strong handle on it, and I'd feel involved, until I stopped to think about it a little harder, and then it all would slip away and get foggy. It's like when you're figuring out a new piece of music and you just have to trust your fingers to know what to do and where to go and if you try too hard you'll lose it altogether.

Because of this quality, I'm reading this book very slowly. So slowly that I've finished eight other books since I've started it (Robert McCammon's Mr. Slaughter, John Hart's The Last Child, Ron Rash's One Foot in Eden, Michael Connolly's The Closers, Kathryn Stockett's The Help, Dan Simmons' Hyperion, A. Lee Martinez's Gil's All Fright Diner, and Steig Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). All of which are fabulous books that were page-turners for me and easy to understand. I was surprised when I was supposed to be surprised. With Little, Big I was more or less in a continual state of surprise or raised eyebrows. The characters never reacted like I expected them to. I couldn't adjust to their world. This led me to a philosophical question: was the author thwarting my expectations on purpose, or was I bringing my commercial expectations to a book where they just didn't apply?

The best way to describe my experience of this book is through movies. So many movies have the same narrative arc. The main character wants something. People tell them it's unattainable. Their family and friends are not supportive, or indifferent. The person does it anyhow, against enormous odds and multiple setbacks. Then you watch a movie like Once, which is about a Scottish musician working as a Hoover repairman. He wants to record an album. He doesn't have any money, but he teams up with a Czech pianist, and gets some guys off the street to play drums and backup and whatever. His dad, instead of being a nay saying asshole, is supportive. The studio guys are skeptical, but quickly won over by his talent. I kept waiting for the scene where they'd steal his album and screw him, but that didn't come. In the end, he made this beautiful album. Nothing really went wrong. I spent the whole movie full of anxiety, waiting for the axe that never fell.

Which is how I feel reading Little, Big. Is it just me, or does the author keep setting me up for something bad to happen when nothing bad does? Smokey has to jump through all these hoops to marry Daily Alice and I'm thinking, this whole book is going to be about him trying to marry her and things are going to keep going wrong and they'll never get to spend their lives together... but they actually get married pretty quickly and have four kids. Then Smokey sleeps with Daily Alice's sister and I'm thinking okay, the shit's gonna really hit the fan now, but Daily Alice is fine with it and the situation is diffused. I guess all these characters just have bigger things to worry about, like those elves that never get explained.

People who have read Little, Big: I need your encouragement. I'm half way through, and while the writing is incredible, I'm losing steam. Should I finish this thing?

Friday, February 12, 2010

How to Break The Rules

This post is on behalf of the San Francisco Writers Conference, where I'm giving a talk about The Rules of Writing, and how to break them. The conference suggested this post as an alternative to showing up with 100 photocopied handouts, which would have meant not having enough space for all those little 3oz bottles and an extra pair of shoes (thank you internet!). If you attend the conference and don't receive a handout, this is for you. And for all you other rebel writers out there.

Before we can break any rules, we must first establish some. I think it's important to be mindful of when you are doing something unconventional, and do it with good reason and style. Let's start with Kurt Vonnegut's 8 Rules of Writing:*

1) Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that they will not feel the time was wasted.
2) Give the reader at least one character they can root for.
3) Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4) Every sentence must do one of two things - reveal character or advance the plot.
5) Start as close to the end as possible.
6) Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them - in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7) Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8) Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

I find most of Kurt Vonnegut's rules hard to argue with. Sure, you can cast an antihero as your main character, like American Psycho's Pat Bateman, or pretty much everyone in a Chuck Palaniuk novel, or even Amir from The Kite Runner, but if the reader doesn't find some reason to root for them they will probably stop turning the pages.

Here are Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing:

1) Never open a book with the weather.
2) Avoid prologs.
3) Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialog.
4) Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said"
5) Keep your exclamation points under control.
6) Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose"
7) Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8) Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9) Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
10) Try to leave out the parts the readers tend to skip.

Elmore Leonard's rules are much more particular. Most of these rules are easy to break and are broken regularly.

And to fill in any that Kurt and Elmore missed, here's my own list which includes rules we've all heard before:

Show, don't tell
You can't have nothing happening / bring characters on with action
Don't lecture
No dreams
Don't describe scenery
Don't bog down your opening with backstory
The protagonists shouldn't keep secrets from the reader
Write what you know

These are all wonderful rules. Writing a book is challenging enough, and most writers will find these rules instructive instead of restrictive. Following them can help you tell your story in the most entertaining and accessible way possible. But some of you people are just ornery, or chafe against any restraints, and believe that rules were made to be broken. Fair enough. You think the best way to start your novel is by describing the weather? Have a hankering for prologs? Want to keep key elements of your story a secret until the very end? Prefer to open your novel with a discourse on morality? You can do it, but you'll want to tread carefully. And you'll want to study the authors who have broken these Rules, and figure out how they got away with it.

Rule #1: Show, Don't Tell
Rule Breaker: Carolyn Parkhurst, Dogs of Babel - first page

The first paragraph of this novel breaks one of the most well-known rules of writing, the ubiquitous Show, Don't Tell. The narrator tells us very plainly that one afternoon his wife climbed an apple tree in their backyard and fell to her death. He states the date and gives his wife's full name, as if issuing a report. This opening is most assuredly Told, Not Shown. Yet somehow it is full of emotion. And I'm guessing that most of you, after reading it, want to read more.

How did she successfully break the most basic rule of writing? First, she chose to flatly narrate, or "tell" a very intriguing bit of information. The wouldn't have worked if she was "telling" about the character brushing his teeth or driving to work. Also, this is a scene that most writers would sensationalize, and her unconventional choice calls attention to itself. If you read carefully I think you can pick up on how the narrator is using this removed style in order to distance himself from the reality of his wife's bizarre death.

Rule #2: No Prologs
Rule Breaker: Donna Tartt, The Secret History - prologue

This rule is broken often and well. I chose this example, but there are hundreds of others that come to mind, particularly in the mystery and thriller genres. Prologs don't tend to work so well when they feature a character who isn't the main character, or a point in time deep in the novel's (or the universe's) past. This particular prolog works beautifully. The opening line is: "The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation." This prolog is narrated from the novel's future, after the story has ended. In a different novel, Bunny's death would be quite the spoiler, since he doesn't die until at least half way through the story. But here, knowing that Bunny will die, and knowing that the narrator will have something to do with it adds a lot of tension and suspense, and allows the author to take a lot of time developing characters and atmosphere and to linger over details that might make the book drag if you didn't know one of the main characters was going to eventually be killed by the other main characters.

Rule #3: Don't Lecture
Rule Breaker: Jed Rubenfeld, The Interpretation of Murder - first page

The opening of this novel suggests that man must chose between happiness and meaning. Live for the present moment and be happy, or live in your past to find meaning. It should be real buzz kill of an opening, but somehow it's not. How does he get away with this, and how can you? First, he keeps it short. Second, he ties it in directly to what's happening to him at that specific moment, instead of tying it to some vague impending life crisis he's been on the verge of having. The key is that he makes the lecture immediately relevant, and travels very quickly from the abstract to the specific, and to the here and now. The narrator has always chose meaning over happiness. Which is how he found himself waiting for the arrival of the "steamship George Washington, bound from Bremen, carrying to our shores the one man in the world I wanted most to meet." The author has tied the hypothetical to something important happening now.

Rule #4: Don't Open with Backstory
Rule Breaker: Dennis Lehane, Mystic River - first three pages

Dennis Lehane opens his breakout book, Mystic River, with what can only be described as backstory. The three main characters are kids, and we hear about what their fathers did for a living, get a description of the neighborhood, where they go to school. It should be boring, but it isn't. Why? He's accomplishing a lot with this backstory. Where another writer might be content to simply set the scene and give us some character background Lehane takes this opportunity to set up a dichotomy that is critical to both his plot and character development. These paragraphs are doing double duty for him. And he does the job quickly, in sweeping strokes: "So while Sean went to Saint Mike's Parochial in black pants, black tie, and blue shirt, Jimmy and Dave went to Lewis M. Dewey School on Blaxston. Kids at the Looey & Dooey got to wear street clothes, which was cool, but they usually wore the same ones three out of five days, which wasn't." In just two sentences you have a clear idea of the differences between these characters, and the shape their conflicts will take.

Rule #5: Don't Describe Scenery / Can't have nothing happening
Rule Breaker: Jim Butcher, Dead Beat - first three pages

I'm pretty sure Jim Butcher breaks a couple of rules with the opening of this 7th book in the Dresden Files. He spends the first two pages pondering the story of Cain and Abel and describing his apartment. It shouldn't be compelling, but it is. His apartment is a complete wreck, and he uses the bible story to talk about his urge to kill his half brother. So there's a conflict sewn into the description, which makes it much more interesting to read. What he's done is made the description immediately relevant, and it's serving two purposes - 1) we getting a visual of where Dresden lives, and 2) with each item he tells is out of place or destroyed, we better understand his murderous frustration with his brother/roommate. Butcher also uses humor to keep us engaged. The lesson here is that description works best when it is not limited to merely describing something physical, like a house or a town or the weather, but when it uses these features to introduce a character conflict or some problem that the character is having. On the surface, nothing much is happening here, but after these three pages of description we know enough about these two characters and their issues to want to read more.

Lets now talk more generally about one of the rules, without any more drawn out examples. Vonnegut's last rule is (to paraphrase): Give your readers as much information as possible upfront so they have a complete understanding of what is going on. This is a rule that most writers of speculative fiction will break. If it's not broken well, the result can be a very frustrating reading experience. But many writers break this rule well, and hold back key elements of their world-building until late in the story. Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union and Richard Morgan's books come to mind. Had these authors explained the ins and outs of their worlds up front it would have created a huge infodump that may have had readers skimming. Instead, they waited to reveal the details of how their worlds work, or are different from ours, until it became absolutely necessary to the story that the reader (or the characters) have this information. It's a fine line between making sure readers don't feel lost and dumping a ton of information on them all at once.

To generalize, all these rule breakers break the rules as a way to springboard readers more effectively into their stories. If it's backstory or description or even a lecture they are giving, they make it necessary information for you to understand or more fully appreciate the conflict facing the main character.

I would love to hear your feedback. Which of your favorite authors are expert rule breakers? Or maybe the question should be, do any authors actually manage to follow all of these rules?

*Kurt Vonnegut's rules were written for short story writers, though I think that they can be easily apllied to novels (with the possible exception of the 8th rule). Vonnegut also qualifies his list of rules by saying that Flannery O'Connor broke all them except the first one.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

About Last Year

2009 was a singular year for me. When I say singular I mean it in the Sherlock Holmes way, not the opposite-of-plural way. I've always had the habit of adopting certain words or speech patterns from the books I read, and I'm currently on a Sherlock Holmes bender. It could be worse. It has been worse. Like the time I tried to read The Canterbury Tales in Middle English.

If you don't count all the baby books and manuscripts I read last year, I didn't read a whole lot. Which partially explains the on-line silence. In truth, I was so busy figuring out how to balance my career and my new son and the death twitches of my social life that I didn't make time for pleasure reading, or blogging. That was 2009. This is 2010. I've recovered from the shock of parenthood, am moderately well-rested, and have resumed my old habits and ticks. I have goals. One of them is to update this blog at least every other week. I know, it's a big jump from twice annually. But here goes.

Another thing that got overlooked in 2009? Queries. Because when agents are crunched for time, that's one of the first things that gets pushed to the side. Queries don't seem as urgent or important as a pending translation deal, or a film contract, or submitting an author's manuscript, and for the most part, they aren't. However, for someone like me, who has found so many clients in the so called slush, I can't afford to let them go unread. I've recommitted myself to my query pile. I've vowed to do what it takes to read them within four weeks (as our website promises). Even if "what it takes" means late nights and overcaffeination and... (I'm loath to admit to this)... interns.

I've come to think of interns as publishing's dirty little secret. Sometimes I wonder if the industry would run without them. I've had interns in the past, but always to assist with the more mechanical and administrative aspects of my job. I've never trusted anyone to read my queries because, well, they're my queries and I feel absurdly protective of them. No one has quite my taste, so how will they be able to weed out what I'll like? What if they miss something? And don't I owe it to every author to personally read their query, since they personally chose to write to me? All valid concerns. But the reality was that I couldn't create enough time to read them. Interns have their drawbacks, but without one there was no way I'd be able to manage my queries efficiently give every author the response they deserve in something resembling a timely fashion.

With the help of two brilliant interns I've now read everything that was sent to me in January, and most of what came in December and November. However, with so much new material coming in daily I've decided to focus my attention on the most recent queries. From here on out, I will not continue to read old e-mail queries: so much of the material is no longer available, or is being revised, and as you can imagine, authors aren't all that pleased to hear from me after such a delay, and are not shy about expressing their displeasure. So, if you sent me a query before November and have not heard back, please feel free to resubmit. I will do my best to respond within four weeks.

On most days there is a lot to do that is more immediately lucrative reading my queries. But something keeps bringing me back to them, day after day. It's that little thing called hope. Hope that the next query you read will transport you and give you that thrill of discovery. It's not dissimilar to the hope I imagine that writers feel when they send their query off into the ether. Most days I won't find anything. But one day I will. And it will make all the other days worth it.

Monday, February 01, 2010


This weekend Amazon removed all of Macmillan's books, both print and electronic editions, from their store. What that means is that only used copies of these books are available on Amazon, so the author has no chance of making any money from any sales off Amazon. Amazon accounts for such a large percentage of overall book sales that removing these books, even just for a weekend, could be crippling.

What happened? Briefly, Macmillan wants electronic versions of hardcover new releases to be priced somewhere between $12 and $15, instead of Amazon's ubiquitous $9.99. When Amazon wouldn't budge on the price, Macmillan said they would delay the release of e-book editions 7 months after hardcover release. Maybe this was the point where Amazon went ape shit and pulled all of Macmillan's books, in a knee jerk show of anger and power.

Macmillan is the parent company to St. Martin's Press, Holt, FSG, Tor, Picador, and others. Our agency has quite a lot of authors with Macmillan, particularly with Tor and St. Martin's Press. Obviously, our authors are deeply impacted. They are puzzled over how quickly their books were taken hostage in this sudden corporate war. And they are pissed.

What really gets me is Amazon's school yard bully response. The debate is over e-book pricing, so if they had to flex their muscles and beat their chests why not just remove the electronic editions? Why extend this to print editions, when there is no issue with that format? It seems petty and mean. What could Amazon possibly gain? Not any sales, and not any good publicity. See John Scalzi's post for a play by play on how they've taken every opportunity to forfeit business and alienate customers.

Sunday afternoon Amazon caved and offered this explanation to its customers (though as of this posting none of the Macmillan titles I've checked are available of purchase). Here's the relevant part of the letter:

We want you to know that ultimately, however, we will have to capitulate and accept Macmillan's terms because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles, and we will want to offer them to you even at prices we believe are needlessly high for e-books.

This made me laugh. I don't have a business degree or anything, but saying that Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles, isn't that like complaining that Crest Toothpaste has a monopoly over Crest Toothpaste? In other words, can you really call having control over your own products a monopoly? It seems like Amazon is really trying to paint a picture where they're just some small honest retailer trying their damnedest to give their customers the best deal they can, but are being undermined by big bad Macmillan and their "monopoly." Give me a break. The relationship between publishers and retailers has been ludicrously lopsided for as long as I've been in the industry, with the lion's share of the power residing with the retailer. More and more books are packaged and repackaged to please Barnes & Noble, and an outdated returns systems protects retailers and guarantees that publishers foot the bill for any unsold stock. In this environment, publishers (even Macmillan), are the little guys. It's refreshing to see one of them stand up to a retailer, and win.

Which isn't to say that I'm happy with Macmillan. They recently rewrote their publishing contracts to stipulate that authors receive 20% of net for all e-books sold. This is significantly below what has been emerging as industry standard, and so far John Sargent has been unapologetic about such low-balling. I find his reasoning infuriating, and it's somewhat gratifying to see Amazon fall victim to his stubbornness. Also, it's possible that despite the price hike, the author's share may end up being less under this new model. No, I'm not normally disposed to take Macmillan's side, but it's an easy call here.

This latest Amazon stunt has pushed me over the edge. I can no longer in good conscious buy any more stuff from them. I've had this thought before, but hesitated to make such a declarative statement, not wanting to take it back later (and I can just spend hours reading Amazon's reader reviews). But this time it's personal. Amazon has just cost me money, and not in the I-can't-believe-I-actually-ordered-these-red-glitter-grips way. Not that they will miss my business. But I'm betting a lot of other authors (particularly Macmillan authors) feel the same way as I do. And the thing about authors? They buy a lot of books.

Monday, April 20, 2009


I must take a moment to talk about Queries.  Because the internet is big and wide and endless and there is conflicting information about whether or not I respond to e-queries that I'm not interested in.  I wish I could blame this inconsistency on someone else, but it's my fault.  In a blog post from a year ago I wrote:

"I don't respond to e-queries that I'm not interested in. This is because at least 1 in every 5 writers e-mails me back to argue with my form letter, or to ask indignantly, "did you actually read my query?" and I have this stupid urge to write back and say something like "Read it? Your query and I have run off and joined the circus together. We are very happy. I hope you find similar fulfillment." Clearly, this is a vicious cycle that must be avoided, and I can't always trust my professionalism to win out over my idiotic creative impulses."

This was true at one time.  But not anymore.  I have been responding to every e-query I receive since last summer or so.  Because it makes me feel better about myself.  Really, I don't want to be that person who doesn't respond; I don't want to leave people hanging.   But there are rules.  You have to address the e-query to me.  And the e-query has to be for a book.  Simple rules, but they disqualify about 10% of the e-queries I receive.

Our agency website is and always has been up-to-date when it comes to what we do with e-queries.  But I want to be consistent, hence this post.

Writers have pointed out that I have exceeded the 4 week response time as stated on our agency website.  Sadly, this is true.  As the astute blog reader will have guessed from my previous post, I have a baby.  For the time being, I am no longer working nights and weekends. This has really cut into my Time for Queries.  My response time is currently closer to 10 weeks, but I am catching up.  There is some really great stuff in my inbox. If you are a writer who has sent me a query letter, or is considering it, I ask for your patience for the next month or two.

If you are a reader and wondering if I'll ever post about a book you want to read again, (i.e., a book that has nothing to do with pregnancy or babies), I will, and in the meantime, I promise not to say a damn word about The Happiest Baby on the Block.  

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Baby Books

I'm not really sure why or how people come to this blog, but I'll bet it has nothing to do with an unplanned pregnancy. That's about to change. Lets say you suddenly find yourself "with child" and know nothing about pregnancy and childbirth except what you've picked up from novels like Chris Bohjalian's Midwives, and movies like Juno and Knocked Up. What do you do? Once you've overcome the fits of nervous/manic laughter you do the only truly comforting thing you can think of, and surround yourself with Baby Books.

The Baby Books section of the book store is really frightening for the first time browser. Which books do you chose? They all seem so bulky, and there are millions - all this at a time when you're not supposed to carry heavy loads. Can someone just give it to you straight? I'm going to try.  Here's a breakdown of my most memorable reads:

What to Expect When You're Expecting, by Heidi Murkoff, Arlene Eisenberg, and Sandee Hathaway.
These ladies have something like seven kids between the three of them, and seem to really know what they are talking about. The book itself is nearly 15 years old (first published in 1984), but it's revised every few years, and the edition I bought is from 2002. This was the first pregnancy book I read, and it was very helpful, since I knew practically nothing about pregnancy or babies.  For example, I learned that a baby's first dump is honored with a special name: meconium. Who says that the Right of Passage is dead in American culture?

So many people have since said to me, "I've heard that What to Expect is the worse book to read, really alarmist and it will make you so scared to be pregnant and give birth." I'm not sure why people say this. It just seems like something that's out there in the zeitgeist that people hear and repeat almost mindlessly (but with total conviction), like, "I heard Dennis Lehane's new book was disappointing," when they haven't even read it, or "Jane Eyre is my favorite book of all time."

True, some parts of What to Expect can be alarming. It's organized by month, and each month has a section called "What You May Be Concerned About." Topics for concern include some fairly hardcore concerns, like Venus Changes, Foot Problems, Skin Discoloration, Dental Problems (Bleeding Gums), Faintness and Dizziness, Pain and Numbness in the Hands, Rectal Bleeding and Hemorrhoids, Clogged Milk Duct, and my personal favorite concern, The Reality of Pregnancy. Sure, there is a lot to be concerned about. But I just skipped all the parts that didn't apply to me, which made this 500+ page book a real breeze. In any event, What to Expect has the same reassuring answer for every concern: every woman is different, and what you are experiencing is normal. These mothers are unflappable. They tell stories of doing belly plants at eight months, getting drunk and taking oral contraceptives during those early weeks before you know you're pregnant, and hey, their babies turned out fine.

Actually, what's alarming to me is how nothing seems to alarm these authors. They talk about truly frightening medical interventions in such a blase I'm Okay You're Okay tone that the reader really starts to wonder, "does anything get to them?" It's like how chronically calm people really start to get on your nerves after a while, and you start looking for ways to provoke them. I hope to someday come up with a Concern that makes Heidi, Arlene, and Sandee gasp in unison.

Mayo Clinic Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy, edited by Roger W. Harms, M.D.
My husband bought this book as a medical companion to What to Expect, but actually, it's not as medical as I had hoped. Really, I was hoping for lots of text book-like illustrations of internal organs, and where they go as the baby bullies them out of the way (I'm still not clear on that). This book is also broken down by month, and within that, by week, but the week-by-week information is really skimpy. The most interesting parts are the baby sketches that open each section and are labeled "thirty percent of actual size" or whatever, so if you wanted to spend way too much time teaching your photocopier percentages you could copy it, cut it out, and tape it to your stomach and feel like you know what's going on in there. But even so, I mean seriously Mayo Clinic, sketches? Disappointingly non-medical. I was hoping for real ultrasound photos, or those hideous 3-D photos.

There are other chapters in the Mayo Clinic book that prepare you for Your Newborn, Taking Your Baby Home, and Postpartum Care. There is also 100 pages devoted to Complications of pregnancy and childbirth. The whole tone of the book is very clinical and detached, which makes you think you're reading a text book, but without any of the illustrations. I would skip this one.

The Thinking Woman's Guide to a Better Birth, by Henci Goer.
Finally, we've got a handle on the basics and are getting to the good stuff. The Thinking Woman - that's me! When I first saw this book I sensed that Henci and I had a lot in common. Take the cover art - I could immediately see how the Thinking Woman would need to cut loose every now and then, get naked, wrap herself in toilet paper, and take some profile shots. I mean, I could write an entire post about this cover art, but I'll control myself and stick to the point.

I read this book on the heels of watching the documentary The Business of Being Born, or, as my husband refers to the experience: Watching Ricki Lake Give Birth in her Bathtub. It was an affecting documentary for me - overwrought and Michael Mooreish in places - but I knew I needed to get educated about all the drugs and procedures used on women in labor. And I sensed that Henci was seriously pissed off about them, which was a welcome change from Heidi, Arlene, and Sandee's complacency.

Henci has a serious axe to grind with the medical establishment, and western medicine in general. She, like Ricki Lake, wants to know why women give birth attended by surgeons, when the vast majority of births require no surgical intervention. The problem, as Henci sees it, is that "the typical obstetrician is trained to view pregnant and laboring women as a series of potential problems.... Obstetric belief tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It has been said that a healthy person is someone who hasn't undergone enough testing by specialists." As someone who avoids doctors and hospitals at all costs, I see her point. Whenever I enter a doctor's office or hospital, I'm driven by one simple goal - to get out as soon as possible, at whatever cost. 

But Henci takes things a bit too far, even for me. The book is organized by issue, with chapter headings like "The Cesarean Epidemic: Obstetrics on the Cutting Edge," "Induction of Labor: Mother Nature Knows Best," and "Episiotomy: The Unkindest Cut." I learned a lot from reading this book, but I could have done without all the mistrust she has for doctors, which sets up a very us-against-them type of dichotomy. At one point, she warns readers to keep a sharp eye on their doctor, who may perform an Amniotomy (breaking the water with this long crochet hook like thing) without even consulting the patient! Lets picture this one - you're in labor, and the doctor's there, you look the other way for a moment (or maybe the doctor distracts you with one of those, "hey, what's that behind you?!") and before you can protest he swoops in with a sneak-Amniotomy!

In Henci's defense, she is very upfront about her prejudices. Also, she's great at citing her sources and backing up her arguments - she makes a very persuasive case for having a low tech birth.

Sippy Cups Are Not for Chardonnay, and Other Things I Had To Learn as a New Mom, by Stefanie Wilder-Taylor.
My friend Maria sent me this book. She's not pregnant or a mom, she's just a voracious reader of chick lit, and when she can't find any she grabs up hen lit, grief lit, and mom lit. I don't know what inspired her to read this, but I'm glad she sent it to me when she did, because it provided an excellent counterbalance to The Thinking Woman's Guide. This book is light and fun and humorous and about half as thick. And Stefanie breaks all The Thinking Woman's rules. She has a C-section. She's a bottle-feeder, and describes some very awkward and funny confrontation with "lactivists," - "if these people could breast-feed other people's babies, believe me, they would," and "stopping breast-feeding is like getting out of your Columbia Record and Tape Club membership; there are sinister forces at work that don't want to let this happen." She makes fun of all the questions you're supposed to ask when interviewing possible pediatricians (and you are supposed to interview dozens). I especially liked what she had to say about postpartum depression:

"Women experience postpartum depression in varying degrees. Mine was a pretty rough experience. A percentage of new moms don't get any depression at all. These are the same women who never suffer cramps with their periods, never experience the blinding pain of a migraine, and never had someone break up with them through e-mail. These are the sort of women who enjoyed junior high school. Feel free to resent them, everyone else does."

Another highlight was when Stefanie classified all the different kinds of moms that you will meet in the park while strollering your baby around: "Gossipy Mom," "Safety Patrol Mom," "Crunchy Mom," and "Burnout Mom" are among the categories. I also enjoyed the chapter on babysitter poaching. I didn't learn much from this book, but it was very entertaining, and just what I needed at the time.

Ina May's Guide to Childbirth, by Ina May Gaskin.
This was my favorite pregnancy read.  It's pretty crunchy (which I'm sort of into), but not as angry or combative as The Thinking Woman's Guide.  Ina May is a midwife who lives on a farm in Tennessee called The Farm, and has been catching babies with her fellow midwives for 20 plus years.  The first half of the book is all birth stories.  I loved reading these, and probably went through this part of the book three or four times.  It's annoying how non-specific everyone seems to be about their labor, like they can't really remember it, or don't want to tell you - and every woman begins or ends their labor stories with the ubiquitous Every Woman is Different mantra, so it's hard to get a handle on what really goes on.  That's probably why I latched onto these stories, especially the really long and detailed ones.  Some are recent, but others are from the 70s and 80s, and it seemed like whenever any of  these women go into labor the first thing they do is go on a hike with their husbands.  Seriously.  They walk through the woods and see trees and hills and animals rutting and their contractions (which are called "rushes") get stronger.  The hiking phase of labor must have really made an impression on me, because at some point during my own labor I made my husband take a walk down 23rd Street with me.  Like the women on The Farm, my "rushes" got so out of control that I started freaking out the homeless people - and I didn't even see a rat or squirrel.

The second half of the book talks about the phases of labor, and how your surroundings and emotional and psychological factors affect your progress.  Ina May also addresses hospital procedure, and all the devices you're likely to encounter; close to 99% of American women deliver their babies in hospitals, and the vast majority of these babies are caught by obstetricians instead of the midwives.  Henci had already done a thorough job of preparing me for all the nefarious hospital devices, so what I got out of this chapter was how to make myself as comfortable as possible in the hospital setting.  She makes an excellent point:  the cervix, like the anus, is a spincter muscle, and you have to be relaxed for it to open.  Case in point - people like their privacy when they take a dump.  So why are pregnant women expected to give birth in such brightly lit public places, surrounded by and hooked up to beeping machines, with nurses and doctors (and in some cases, survey takers) coming in and out?

Ina May is absolutely a proponent of natural birth ("natural" meaning unmedicated), but she's practical enough to know that most women in this country don't have that kind of birth experience, and so tailors her advice to a wider audience.

Natural Childbirth the Bradley Way, by Susan McCutcheon.
This is one of those books that's so bad it's good.  Every time the word "Bradley" appears on the page (approximately 100 times per page), there's a registered trademark after it, like this: Bradley(R), or this:  Bradley Method(R), which I found really amusing, and eventually really annoying.  The author is adamant that childbirth doesn't have to be painful, and that for some women, herself included, it is orgasmic.  (Which makes you wonder what exactly constitutes an orgasm for these women...).  The primary way to have an orgasmic labor is to get your husband to massage your back just so.  This is what I love about this book: it takes all the pressure off you and puts it on your husband.  If he can only master the Bradley(R) massage technique, you'll climax your way through childbirth.  No pressure honey!

Here's some typical advice for husbands which I'm guessing hints at Susan's husband's learning curve, and gives you an idea of the tone of  the book:

"Have your hand in place before the contraction starts.  Don't wait for her to tell you the contraction is under way and then try to put your hand on her back.  That's sloppy.  It is exactly what the untrained husband does when trying to help his wife, and it's exactly why she tells him to leave her alone."

I'm not recommending this book, but if you see it in the bookstore, you should flip through and check out the illustrations, which sketch out the Bradley(R) exercises you should be doing with your husband.  Notice that the pregnant partner always performs these excises naked, while the non-pregnant partner always wears 70s style athletic shorts.

From the Hips: a Comprehensive, Open-minded, Uncensored, Totally Honest Guide to Pregnancy, Birth, and Becoming a Parent, by Rebecca Odes and Ceridwen Morris.
My neighbor lent me this book pretty late in the game, when I was pretty burned out on Baby Books and pretty much thought I knew everything there was to know.  But I had fun skimming through it and reading the belly shaped bubbles that have quotes from "anonymoms".  I'm very glad I read it, because it was the only book of the bunch that talked about postpartum physical stuff.  Like, it's normal for women to lose a lot of hair after they give birth, so much that their hairline might recede.  And you bleed for six weeks and can't take a bath.  And most women still look pregnant for the first couple of weeks, so don't lose your shit when the delivery guy smiles and wants to know when you are due.  

I wish I had read this book earlier.  When it comes to pregnancy, it's almost as comprehensive as What to Expect, and more fun to read.  It feels more current and fresh.  The authors address all the big controversies without pushing any side too hard (which is nice, but at that point I wanted to read someone with an opinion, and I wished the authors would have told their birth stories).  What else can I say?  The subtitle pretty much has it covered.

Be Prepared: A Practical Handbook for New Dads,  by Gary Greenberg and Jeannie Hayden.
I shouldn't admit this, but this is the only book I read during my pregnancy about what to do once the pregnancy is over, i.e., what to do with the resulting baby.  I had been given Dr. Sears' Baby Book, (aka the attachment parenting bible), and the American Academy of Pediatrics' Your Baby's First Year, but for some reason I never made it very far into these books.  I blame this on the one lesson I took away from my birthing class - that early labor would be very long, and I should STAY HOME DURING EARLY LABOR.  I had big plans for Early Labor, which I'd heard could last around 18 hours.  In addition to taking my nature walk down 23rd Street, I was going to pack my bag, make a Labor Mix for my iPod, call my Mom, compose an Out Of the Office Autoreply and set a Maternity Leave message on my work phone, and oh, I don't know, power through some books about what it's like to have a baby around.  I don't know what was wrong with me.  Perhaps, as the ladies from What To Expect might have suggested, I was still coming to grips with The Reality of Pregnancy, or at least the reality of how pregnancy generally leads to an infant.

This book is great.  Since it's written for Dads, it assumes that the reader knows nothing about babies, lacks the elusive maternal instinct, bores easily, and needs accompanying illustrations.  The back of the book promises to help you MacGyver your way through your baby's first year, by teaching you how to turn old socks into a diapers, and "create a decoy drawer full of old wallets, remote controls, and cell phones to throw  baby off the scent of your real gear."  There are some really helpful suggestions and DIY tips, all told succinctly and with humor.  For example:

"If you have an aversion to the breast pump, it's completely understandable.  After all, it's a bit unnerving watching a mechanical device mercilessly slurping at your partner's bare chest.  You can't help but think, "If robots made pornography, this is what it would look like.""


" Never, ever wake your partner for sex.  It's like taking food away from a wild animal."

I've learned why babies are so impressed with Peek-A-Boo (they think your head literally disappears when you hide it), to prolong the life of pajamas that baby's grown out of by cutting off the feet, and the delicate art of transferring a sleeping baby from your arms to a crib (allowing me to finish off this post with two hands).  To celebrate my increased typing speed, let's have another quote, on the necessity of babyproofing:

"As soon as your baby becomes mobile, you come to realization that she doesn't possess the greatest survival instincts.  If anything, it seems like she's bent on self-destruction.  If there is a staircase, she will attempt to fling herself down it; if there is an outlet, she will try to stick something into it; and if there's an inch of water anywhere, she will try to lie in it, facedown.  It's like she's auditioning for some baby version of Jackass."

This is where I'll call it quits.  There are only eight books reviewed here, which isn't anywhere near the number of books I originally wanted to write about, but when you have a baby around, you learn very quickly to set such  grandiose goals aside, and take a damn nap.