Review: Truth & Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett

imageDB-2.cgiTruth & Beauty by Ann Patchett is the story of the author’s friendship with troubled fellow author and poet, the late Lucy Grealy.  

I read Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face last year and developed very strong, protective feelings for this brilliant girl/woman who was permanently disfigured by Ewing Sarcoma and the resultant treatment and surgeries.  When I heard that Bel Canto author Patchett had written about their friendship, I couldn’t wait to read more about Lucy, but then I quickly changed my mind when I discovered Lucy’s family’s reaction to the book.

The idea of the book lingered in the back of my mind, however, but because I didn’t want to betray Lucy, I refused to buy it.  Then it seemed like I was just being stubborn about it. Finally, on a trip to the bookstore, I happened to see it on a table and, wanting to be close to Lucy again, I took it home.  Part of me is glad I read it but another part wishes I’d left it alone.  The book made me appreciate Ann Patchett’s writing more (I wasn’t a fan) but it made me think less of Lucy.

Ann and Lucy attended Sarah Lawrence college at the same time but were not friends.  Ann knew who Lucy was (everyone did) but Lucy was only vaguely aware of Ann.  Then they were both accepted to the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop, where they were roommates and where their love for each other emerged and grew.

patchettgrealey‘Do you love me?  Do you love me best?  Am I your favorite?  Do you think I’m pretty?  Do you think I’m talented?  Will I ever have sex again?’  Lucy plagues Ann with these questions on a continuous basis over two decades.  Who would want to be friends with this clingy, needy, self absorbed woman?  I couldn’t find the Lucy I knew anywhere, the strong, brave, dazzling presence of Autobiography of a Face.  

Lucy had a brutal battle with the aftereffects of cancer.   Her disfigured jaw made speech difficult and swallowing nearly impossible.  She had 6 teeth in her mouth because she didn’t have a stable jaw to hold dental implants.  Her diet consisted of very soft foods and alcohol.  She loved to drink and party and socialize, but basic things like eating and talking were a constant struggle.  Her love life was complicated by her lack of self esteem and her distorted self image.  Her ever-increasing pile of medical bills seemed insurmountable, so she just didn’t open them.  Disorganized and irresponsible, she missed deadlines and frittered away writing workshops.  Chaos ruled.

Ann, the long suffering friend, the ant to Lucy’s grasshopper in that old fable, went to great financial, physical, and emotional lengths for Lucy, but it was hard to understand why.  The relationship seemed extremely one-sided, almost a parent/child dynamic, but with a peer.  What was Ann getting out of it?  Lucy would sit in Ann’s lap, demand her attention when Ann was speaking to others, whisper to her during dinners out, pout if Ann got too successful or earned a writing fellowship or received an award.  Then later there were lies and drug abuse to contend with, and while Ann occasionally lost patience with Lucy, she stuck by her to the end.  Why would anyone put up with Lucy’s crap, unless they had some kind of savior complex? 

But this book.  What does it say about Ann?  About Lucy?  I can’t shake the feeling that in writing this book, Ann wanted to get back at Lucy for the shabby way she treated her by baring her secrets to the world.  Is this admirable? Is this the way a true friend would behave?

And Lucy.  Can anyone be this one dimensional, this needy and self involved, and still have so many friends?  She was an absolute magnet for others and had dozens and dozens of friends, yet in this book I can’t see any redeeming qualities in her at all.

There is no doubt in my mind that Ann Patchett loved Lucy Grealy but I question her motivation for writing this book.  It feels like a payback of sorts.  It is not really a biography, an autobiography, or a memoir, because it doesn’t tell the story of either of their lives, only the shared bits, and only from one vantage point, so I’m not sure what to call it.  

If you’re going to read this book, read Autobiography of a Face as well.  At least you get a more fully realized image of Lucy Grealy that way.  If I had read Truth & Beauty first, I wouldn’t have wanted to read any more about Lucy, ever.  I’d recommend the two books together but I wouldn’t recommend reading this one on it’s own. Somehow it doesn’t seem fair or accurate by itself.  If you’re interested in either writer, I’d recommend it, although I’m not sure it has much worthwhile to say about friendship in general.  It is well written and I can appreciate Ann Patchett’s talent, but it’s hard to know what is true, and there’s not a lot here I’d call beautiful.

Teaser Tuesdays – May 12, 2009

tuesday-t11Miz B and Teaser Tuesdays asks you to: Grab your current read. Let the book fall open to a random page. Share with us two (2) sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12. You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!

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imageDB-2.cgiMy teaser comes from a book I swore I would never read from an author I don’t really like.  Or didn’t like, before this book.  Anyway!   Kids- you should never swear not to do something.  You might change your mind.

The book is Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett, about the author’s friendship with Lucy Grealy, the late author of a book I loved, Autobiography of a Face.  I’m reading this book because I want to feel close to Lucy again, not because I like Ann Patchett.  Because I don’t.  Or didn’t.  (Actually, the jury is still out.  I’ve only read 65 pages.)  But already I’m starting to feel like she’s writing about someone else, not Lucy.  Not the Lucy in my mind, the one I fell in love with in Autobiography of a Face, but someone much more one dimensional and juvenile.  It’s such a different view.  

This teaser is from page 85 of Truth & Beauty: A Friendship:

“Having Lucy in my apartment those weeks was not unlike having a couple of those revved-up cats from the Scottish Cat Protection League.  She ran all over the place, left my clothes tossed over lampshades, wet towels heaped under pillows, bowls of Cream of Wheat minus three bites in whatever spot I was most likely to step in them.”

What are you reading this week?

Oh- please check out our Summer Reading Series!  I have 3 books left to give away to anyone who’d like to participate in the discussion of Beach Trip in June!

Suellen Grealy, sister of author Lucy Grealy, is Hijacked by Grief

A friend sent me this article after reading my review of Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy. I had learned through an internet search that Lucy’s family was unhappy about the publication of Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett, but didn’t realize to what extent until reading this. I have Truth & Beauty on hold at my local library, but after reading this I’m not sure I want to read it. I’m one of the 3 people on the planet who intensely disliked her book, Bel Canto, so reading Truth and Beauty was something I wanted to do only as an attempt to know more about Lucy. Thanks, Valerie, for sending this article from the guardian.co.uk to me.

Hijacked by grief

Ann Patchett and Lucy Grealy were close friends, both writers. Lucy died suddenly 18 months ago and Ann has since written an article and a book about her friend. What does such an intimate display of a loved one do to her family? Suellen Grealy, Lucy’s sister, describes her sorrow and anger.

* Suellen Grealy

* The Guardian,

* Saturday August 7 2004

* Article history

There was an enormously distasteful story in the press some time ago. A devout elderly Muslim woman had died, and her body, when removed from the morgue for burial, was found covered with slabs of bacon. I was shocked on two levels: that there are people living among us who would do such a thing; and that such people have access to places even those of us who are not religious invest with sacredness. What saddened me most was that her family would never be able to divorce their memories of her from that awful, indescribably insulting image. In trying to make a point, someone had entirely altered the course of their grief.

“Grief” is a powerful little word. Like “love”, it accepts everything. Like “Europe” or “America”, it describes a place where anything might happen. In the land of “grief” people tear out their hair, stay in their beds, starve themselves, put their faith in saints and psychics, give up on love. All is forgiven, on the understanding that eventually they will return.

That Muslim family were hijacked on their journey. Nothing so malicious has touched me, but I think of them often, for my own grief has been forced down an unexpected path.

My little sister Lucy Grealy died in New York on December 18 2002, at the age of 39. She had accidentally taken an overdose of heroin. Her life had been hard, but she had also experienced more joy than many. As a child, she was diagnosed with a cancer in the bone of her jaw. Treating it was physically agonising and hugely disfiguring. As an adult, she wrote about her life, to enormous literary acclaim, in a book called Autobiography Of A Face. Even when she was alive, I found it difficult to read. Her descriptions of my father, who died in 1979, were unbearably true. Finding him on those pages, singing or talking to our dogs, was like dreaming. A phrase about looking out the window above the kitchen sink of our childhood home in Spring Valley, New York, was like chancing upon a yellowing photograph of a place I had once loved. When she wrote about my mother, I felt I was standing outside the door, listening to conversations I had already heard.

There was also irritation, for much of the book was careless. It was the first time I had experienced reading about my family and parts of my own life, and I realised how easy it was for Lucy simply to select her vantage point. I learned, too, how easily readers would accept it as the only true vantage point. But I was happy for Lucy. The book’s success was a first-class ticket to a world she loved, in which doing what she thought she wanted – writing – earned money.

Well before the publication of Autobiography Of A Face, Lucy had become friends with another writer, Ann Patchett. Ann was hugely patient with Lucy, who could be infuriatingly disorganised and irresponsible. She was able, it seemed, to accept Lucy’s constant need of approbation and affection, even when Lucy herself ignored, and even scorned, those needs in others. Ann was a good friend. Lucy’s life became harder, with endless reconstructive surgeries, frustration at her inability to recreate the crystalline beauty of Autobiography, and a loneliness she attributed to being “ugly”. Ann supported her throughout, with company, money, food and love.

Ann was a far better “sister” to Lucy than I could ever have been, but we never met while Lucy was alive. I had moved to London while they were still at college together. There had always been thousands of miles between us, and she was simply one of the many friends Lucy made so easily. When a review copy of Ann’s book, Taft, arrived by courier at my house in London, Lucy, staying with me, didn’t bother to open it. I wasn’t surprised by the way she tossed it dismissively on to a chair, for she rarely showed interest, at least to me, in other people’s achievements. I felt sorry for Ann then, because I knew how much she had done for my sister.

As Lucy’s life became more and more confused, I called Ann in exasperation. I had no idea that heroin had become so huge in my sister’s life. I knew she was unreachably sad. Oddly, while Lucy and I had spent hundreds of hours discussing the failings of our confused childhood, we skated quickly over the thin ice that might expose us to a truth – that Lucy’s illness had affected us all. She often had great – and comforting – insight into my mother’s lifelong depression, but the understanding between us was that my mother brought the worst of it upon herself. We made such a harsh judgment of our mother’s desperation that Lucy might have felt – in front of me, at least – that she had forfeited the right to her own. Ann, unwittingly, colluded. “Lucy’s so much like her mother,” I said over the phone. “Don’t tell her that,” Ann replied.

At the funeral in New York, Ann read a beautiful piece she had written. Afterwards, I was consoled by my new, transatlantic email friendship with Ann. Six weeks later, she wanted an article about Lucy to appear in the New Yorker but in the end settled on New York magazine instead. Ann emailed a document for my signature, a family permission to use Lucy’s letters. I was surprised that it did not mention the New York magazine article, but referred to HarperCollins, her publisher. I wish now that I had sent it to Lucy’s agent in New York. But I was grieving, and innocent of the implications.

That was my mistake.

At about the same time, my sister Sarah – Lucy’s nonidentical twin – and I were trying to sort through Lucy’s papers in Connecticut, where she had stayed towards the end of her life. A family painting had disappeared from her room, along with many other belongings, and Sarah and I were sad about this. Friends of hers, not including Ann, had already been there. Sarah and I sorted through our own feelings at the time, confused as they were, and tried to convince ourselves that friends Lucy had loved were just as “entitled” to have her things as we were. I still believe that, even now. Lucy had loved that painting, however, and I was disturbed that someone would feel more entitled to such a connection with her past. I believed my nephews should have had it.

While I was staying with Sarah, HarperCollins wanted to reissue Autobiography Of A Face with an afterword by Ann. We had read the afterword, and it was beautiful, but Sarah had asked, “Where are we in this story?” We are everywhere, I told her, like the paper it is printed on, though no one knows this but us. HarperCollins seemed very keen to issue it quickly, and we agreed. We thought, how could we not? We were in no state of mind to imagine the implications.

I noticed that the reading Ann gave at Lucy’s funeral and the piece in New York magazine shared similar phrases. The magazine had used a photograph of Lucy on the cover, and for a week Sarah, working in Manhattan, had to walk past a huge wall of these covers by the newsagent in the lobby of her building. She rushed past each day not looking, forcing herself to believe that having her dead twin’s face staring out at her was a good thing, because people had loved her. I felt so sorry for Sarah then.

Then Ann began to write what was to become Truth & Beauty, about her friendship with my sister. At first I believed that this was as it should be. Ann is an artist, how else could she express her grief? This was the defence I used to friends in New York. They had been surprised by some of the personal detail in the New York magazine article; they asked, “But why is she doing this?”

Later, Ann was in England for the Oxford Literary Festival. I heard a Woman’s Hour interview that she did – as winner of the Orange Prize for Bel Canto – with Martha Kearney. They discussed Truth & Beauty, then in progress. Ann appeared to believe that after the success of Bel Canto, critics would judge her less harshly for a work of nonfiction.

Around that time, Publishers Weekly in the US noted Ann’s forthcoming work of nonfiction about Lucy, referring to her as the “heavily disfigured writer who killed herself”. I was alarmed. Had HarperCollins released such a coarse and incorrect press release? But my concerns were brushed aside. Apparently it was a misunderstanding. Then I was alerted to reading guides published for the posthumous reissue of Autobiography Of A Face, with Ann’s afterword. One of the questions for discussion concerned my mother’s parenting skills. I cried almost incessantly with frustration. It was put down to the work of an inexperienced intern.

Three months before Lucy died, my mother’s depression took on the symptoms of dementia. I felt I had lost her. She had not been well for years – a huge source of sadness to me. Despite the efforts of my sister Sarah and I to help her, she was becoming more frail, more sad, more alone. Our conversations became surreal. Each one sent me deeper into despair. I was grieving for her. I tried to come to terms with the fact that she would never, after all, have the capacity for happiness. When Lucy died, I was already suffocating with loss.

On the morning of the funeral, my mother sat in her wheelchair crying, as she often did, terrified by her own constant fears. Sarah and I hugged her, trying, as we have both done all our lives, to protect her from her overwhelming despair. We have never told her that Lucy is dead.

In the spring of 2003, Ann was working, writing and living in what she described to me as “the Lucy factory”. I thought this was offensive, but didn’t say. She mentioned film rights. I was living in frightening and unfamiliar territory. For whom was this suffocating grief I felt? For my mother? For Lucy? The sadness that Lucy’s many other friends wrote about addressed only a tiny fraction of the tragedy my family had experienced. I envied the precision of their grief. How easy to focus on just one chapter of the intertwined lives of my father, dead at 57 from pancreatitis; my eldest brother, a schizophrenic, dead following a car accident in Nevada; my little sister, dead; my mother, subject to the idle scrutiny of book clubs across America, invited by those reading guides to judge her worth as a parent.

I’d had a framed photograph of Lucy for many years, which I loved. The only word I can think of to describe it is honest. I had loved it while she was alive, for the texture of her skin, for the closeness of her teeth, for a quality of nearness that made me feel if I looked at it long enough, she would blink. Now I looked at it and thought, who is this person? A public person, with a “legacy”, with “work”, by which we felt obliged to do the right thing. But what was the right thing? My husband said he could gauge my mood by whether he found the photograph hanging on the wall or hidden behind the chest of drawers in the spare room.

I was incapacitated with confusion. I felt, without being able to express it, that it was somehow indecent to risk laying my family bare for the sake of Ann’s personal expression of grief. I was afraid that with the publication of her book, there might be more inexperienced interns, another set of unsavoury reading guides, another reason for people to ask, “But where was Lucy’s mother?”

I wished that Ann would not publish the book. I admired and had defended her need to write as an artist, but I hoped she would finish it off, for herself, and put it under the bed. I’d have preferred her to work with a smaller publisher, one with less of a publicity machine than HarperCollins. That she’d ask for no publicity. I wanted her to wait until my mother was dead.

She felt it was her right, even her obligation, to write the book, and that it had to be HarperCollins because that was her publisher.

One evening before that conversation, when Ann was in London, we had walked arm in arm after dinner towards Notting Hill Gate. I told her I believed that Lucy, dead and thus completely free of the worldly obstacles of vanity and rivalry, would want us to console each other. I knew that Lucy, stripped down to the essence of sister and daughter, would want us to be happy together. Ann disagreed – she felt that Lucy would still be jealous of our developing friendship. It was almost as if she was excited by the idea.

Ann and I have not been in touch for some time. She offered a sum in exchange for permission to use Lucy’s letters to her in Truth & Beauty. Sarah and my brother Nicholas felt it was fair, a contribution towards the burden of my mother’s care – she was living in sheltered accommodation paid for by Sarah and me. I told them to do what they felt was right.

My sister Lucy was a uniquely gifted writer. Ann, not so gifted, is lucky to be able to hitch her wagon to my sister’s star. I wish Lucy’s work had been left to stand on its own.

There is a memory, one of thousands, that I would like to keep of Lucy. She is walking with my mother and me in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, near where my mother lived for many years. It is a warm and humid early evening, and I am taking photographs of them in a graveyard, trying to be arty. Lucy is wearing shorts, my mother a white linen shirt. One picture is of Lucy’s back and my mother’s face. Another is of my mother’s back and Lucy’s face. The one picture that I can’t focus on quickly enough is when they both turn to look at me, laughing, their foreheads nearly touching.

Why is that memory so elusive? Because it is so precious? Because it is mine alone, one that I don’t have to share with the hundreds of thousands of total strangers who think they understand Lucy through Ann Patchett’s personal vantage point?

Truth & Beauty has enhanced Ann’s reputation as a writer, though many have questioned the speed with which she published it, and the validity of exposing Lucy’s frailties, not apparent in Autobiography Of A Face. I’m sorry I stood by as this happened.

My sister Sarah and I have been travelling too long in the land of grief, and we would like to come home, to prop our pictures on the mantelpiece and to get on with our lives. But there is the book: what can we do with a grief thief?

UPDATE: I did go on to read Truth & Beauty. My review is HERE.

Review: Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy

Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy is an extraordinary memoir, at once innocent and wise. At age 9, Lucy was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare and usually fatal form of cancer that attacked her face. Her illness required surgery to remove a third of her jaw, followed by more than two and a half years of radiation, horrific chemotherapy treatments, and 15 years of reconstructive surgery.

When Lucy tells about her time in the hospital, she does so simply and without pity. Other sick children were her friends and she never felt like an outsider there. The special attention she received at the hospital became very important to her, because it was sorely lacking at home, and like most kids, she was happy about missing school. Fridays, though, were chemo days and were full of pain and nausea and suffering, but then by mid-week she’d be feeling relatively normal and could enjoy a day or two before the next round of chemo.

She never thought of herself as sick and was mostly unaware of the drastic change in her appearance until she went back to school in the sixth grade. The cancer didn’t set her apart from the other kids so much as the disfigurement of her face. Her peers judged her by her appearance, and the teasing got worse in junior high. Boys were especially vicious, calling her ugly and daring each other to kiss her or ask her out, and this taunting started eating away at her self -esteem. Suffering from social isolation, she began to think that no one would ever love her “in that way”. She found happiness and acceptance through her love of horses, working at a stable and spending time with the animals and the people there, who treated her like anybody else. But throughout adolescence and into young adulthood Lucy pinned her hopes on each new surgery as the one that would fix her face and make her beautiful and thus worthy of love.

Anyone who ever felt different or had any kind of physical characteristic or flaw that they were self conscious about while growing up will relate to Lucy and what she went through. If you were too tall or too small, had a facial birthmark or a big nose, crooked teeth or frizzy hair or acne, if you were not beautiful in the traditional sense or were different in any way- you will understand Lucy. Her profound insight into beauty, and what is beautiful, will hit home with you. It did with me.

Lucy went on to Sarah Lawrence College and the University of Iowa’s MFA program. She became a published poet and author. Autobiography of a Face shows her excellence as a writer, and I only wish there was more of her work to read. Lucy died tragically in 2002 at the age of 39. With her death, the world lost a beautiful literary voice.

The following youtube video includes an interview with Lucy on the Charlie Rose show. Her segment is at the 38 minute, 20 second mark (scroll over). I watched this the day after finishing the book, and seeing her reduced me to tears. She endured so much and seems so sad and small. You can see how pretty she is and imagine what she would have looked like had cancer not ravaged her face. By the way, the sound is a little off, but it’s worth watching just to see Lucy. The same broadcast can be seen here (again, scroll over to 38 min. 20 sec.) and the sound is better, but I couldn’t embed it in my post.

This incredibly moving memoir was first published in 1994 and was reprinted in 2003 with an afterword from Lucy’s friend, author Ann Patchett, who wrote about their friendship in her book, Truth and Beauty. Would anyone like to guess what I’m reading next?

UPDATE: I’ve since decided not to read Truth and Beauty, based in part on Lucy’s family’s reaction to the book.  You can read an article about it by Suellen Grealy, Lucy’s sister, HERE.

Sunday Salon

It’s finally SUNDAY!  I think a lot of us bloggers have a BBAW hangover this weekend.  So many posts to read, so many giveaways, so many awards and so much excitement!  It was a great week, put on by the tireless My Friend Amy, who did a phenomenal job putting it all together and keeping track of everything.  A round of applause for AMY!  (clap, clap, clap)

My BBAW giveaways will be ending this week too;  this one on Monday, and this one on Tuesday.  Hurry and enter if you haven’t already!

Fall has arrived here in Southern California. I used to love this time of year growing up in Michigan- back to school, sweater weather, fall colors, apple picking.  The change of seasons is more subtle in So. Cal. but when you’ve lived her awhile you start to notice small things.  We go from hot to warm, green to brown, and dry to not quite as dry, over the course of several months.  It’s still blazing hot right now, but it cools off in the evenings, and it’s chilly in the early morning.  The kids are back in school (and already have tons of homework), and by next weekend we’ll start to see pumpkins and scarecrows on porches to remind us that it’s fall, since the weather doesn’t offer much of a clue.

I’ve got so much reading lined up but it’s a challenge to find time.  My husband is in China on business, so I’ve been a “single mom” for the past week.  Things I’ve had to do without him include:

* going to Back to School night alone

* taking the girls on an overnight campout at their school (I  made the kids put the tent up, so it wasn’t that bad- it was just the carting things back and forth and the sleeping on the ground that sucked!)

* dealing with the emotions (“I miss daddy” sniff sniff)

* hauling the garbage cans to the curb and back (his job)

* feeding the dog and picking up poop (also his job)

* taking my youngest to her golf lesson (always a daddy/daughter thing)  

On the plus side, I’ve only cooked dinner once all week.  A couple nights we had leftovers, a couple nights we went out, and one night we had “breakfast for dinner”.  Oh, and I haven’t shaved my legs.  Ha!

Right now I’m reading Peony in Love by Lisa See.  I’ve wanted to read this since it came out, but was waiting for my book club to vote it in.  So far I LOVE it.  I was already a big fan after reading Snow Flower, now I’m a bigger fan.  Her writing is so lush and evocative- you get such a sense of the surroundings, you can almost smell the jasmine on the breeze.  Lisa is going to join our book club meeting in October by speaker phone and we could not be more excited!  

Next on the TBR pile is Immortal by Traci Slatton for Jennifer’s online book club at Literate Housewives (not to be confused with her regular blog, Literate Housewife). This one is somehow a cross between historical fiction and time travel.  It’s set in Florence in the 14th century, and the back cover says something about a golden boy having to make a choice between immortality and his only chance to find his true love (I’m paraphrasing wildly).  

After that, it’s on to The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff for a TLC Book Tour stop here on October 30th.  It’s about Ann Eliza Young, 19th wife of Brigham Young, prophet and leader of the Mormon church.  There’s also a parallel story about a present day murder in a polygamist family.  I can’t wait to start it.  

And last, but hopefully not least, I’ll be reading Run by Ann Patchett.  The only Patchett I’ve read is Bel Canto, which I intensely disliked, but because my friend Jill at Fizzy Thoughts liked Run so much, and then offered to send me her copy, I’m going to give it a try.  I’m also interested in Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, about her friendship with Lucy Grealy (Autobiography of a Face), so I’m going to give her a second chance, and then possibly a third.  

I’m curious- If you’ve read a book that you didn’t like at all, do you give an author another chance and read more of their work?  Or do you “fire them” forever?  

Happy Sunday!

Guest Post: Judging a Book by its…. Trailer?

It was nice to learn that I was not the last human on the planet to discover book trailers! Yesterday’s Janeology post and trailer sparked a lot of discussion in the comments, so Karen Harrington, author of Janeology, offered to share a piece she wrote for her blog a while back about book trailers.  Thanks, Karen!

Judging a book by its…trailer?                       by Karen Harrington

Do you recall that great line from Sunset Boulevard where fading silent movie actress Norma Desmond defends her role in the movies? She cites her looks, her expressions and says, “You can’t write that down.”

It’s true. There are feelings one can convey through a look that the best writers would find hard to describe. So it’s only natural that the trend towards using cinematic features is now in vogue for bookselling. Book trailers arguably have the ability to convey dramatic elements of a story in ways a book jacket cannot.

Author Brenda Coulter disagrees that this is a good method for books however saying that most trailers are simple slideshows with a soundtrack. She also dislikes that so many of the trailers cannot be viewed by a huge percentage of Americans due to dial-up connection. Now, to be fair, Ms. Coulter wrote her opinion two years ago. The method has come a long way, baby!

The trailer for Ann Patchett’s latest novel Run shows an aqueous blue background with bubbles continuously floating over images of people, houses on the rich/poor ends of the spectrum and selected descriptive passages from the novel. The singular piano accompaniment to this trailer creates an inviting, if not subtle, undercurrent of mystery and secrets. You could probably view this trailer in a library.

By contrast author Caro Ramsey’s novel trailer for Absolution comes at the viewer full stop, with ominous images of knives and crosses bouncing across the screen in a shaky hand-held camera style, all set to an eerie single violin Silence of the Lambs-esque piece that would likely get you summarily shushed by a librarian.

I am intrigued by the very way images, music and ideas come together in less than five minutes to give a potential reader a sense of the book. And this new view into book trailers made me wonder: would we choose books the same way we choose movies – from a two-minute glimpse? Would you rather go into Barnes & Noble and scan several short videos to make your selection? Or do you prefer to scan the New Release table and thumb through the pages in hand?

Much like the current political environment where the key slogan of the day is “You Decide,” you can decide for yourself by viewing the trailers above, or even the one created for Janeology which is filled with haunting scenes of water imagery and dark family secrets, scored with music that will make your neck hairs stand at attention. (Fortunate author that I am, this trailer was created by one of THE inventors of the novel trailer art form, Kam Wai Yu, who has been developing this art since the 1980s.) 

Karen Harrington is the author of JANEOLOGY, the story of one man’s attempt to understand his wife’s sudden descent into madness and murder.