Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Story of Buying a Book: Laura Lippman, I'd Know You Anywhere

Last week on Monday, I read this Washington Post review by Patrick Anderson who reviewed Laura Lippman’s new book, I’d Know You Anywhere:

“We meet Eliza Benedict when she is 38 and living with her family a few blocks off Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda. It's a good life. Her husband is smart, loving and successful. Eliza likes being a stay-at-home mom for Isobel (called Iso), who's 13, precocious and difficult, and Albie, who's 8 and a sweetheart. But Eliza has a terrible secret in her past, and one day, when she and the kids return home after soccer practice, she finds an unexpected, unwelcome letter awaiting her.

“The letter is from Walter Bowman, who kidnapped Eliza (Elizabeth, she was then) when she was 15, kept her prisoner for nearly six weeks and raped her. He had killed other girls but spared Eliza. After two decades of appeals and retrials, Walter is on death row in Virginia and within weeks of execution. He wants to see Eliza. To apologize, he says.

“I've read hundreds of thrillers in the past 10 years, and some have been excellent, but only a handful -- thanks to their insights, their characterizations and the quality of their writing -- could equal the best of today's literary fiction. Those few certainly include "What the Dead Know" [Lippman’s previous book] and "I'd Know You Anywhere." In both cases, Lippman began with a real crime and then used the magic of her imagination to produce novels that are not only hypnotic reading but serious meditations on the sorrows and dangers of this world. Some people would segregate Lippman as a crime or thriller writer. That's a shame. She's one of the best novelists around, period.”

That was Monday. On Thursday, I bought the book at independent bookstore Politics & Prose, and last night I stayed up late to finish reading it. It was excellent, a compelling read, beautifully written, and it subtly wormed its way into my head such that I didn’t sleep well (that’s actually a good thing!).

Consequently, I would like to make a few points:

1. Book reviews still work. I had heard of Laura Lippman, mostly as the Baltimore mystery writer married to one of my creative idols, David Simon, who was responsible for one of my favorite TV shows, “The Wire.” But this review—and only this review—got me into the bookstore.

2. Regular book reviewers are still effective. Patrick Anderson used to write a weekly review of thrillers/suspense books for the Washington Post, and because he was a good, honest critic, I generally read his reviews, even though I don’t typically buy in this genre. I don’t think he writes regularly now for the Post, but in this occasion I noticed his name and read the review because I knew he was a good reviewer. As a reader, I had a relationship with him: as I do with the Post’s other regular book critics, Ron Charles, Carolyn See, Michael Dirda, and Jonathan Yardley. I may prefer some of those critics to others, but they are all a trusted, familiar voice coming from a point of view that I understand. Yes, blogs can achieve this aura of a trusted voice…but bloggers may also be simply trying to push books written by their friends, or—the horror!—written by themselves

3. Blurbs can work (alas). How it pains me to mention this. But in the review, this writer was compared in quality and career path to Dennis Lehane who wrote Mystic River, another suspense book that I thought was fantastic. Of course, this was an honest comparison by a neutral observer, not praise in the “she’s the greatest writer of her generation” from the “former writing teacher/famous classmate/writer owing agent a favor” Blurb-O-Matic machinery.

4. I know one can easily do this online, but at the bookstore, finally, it was holding the book and getting to skim around the pages to get a sense of the writing that was the final step. I like the book design, I liked the print size, I liked the length of the book (370 pages). So, you can get me into the store and get the book into my hands (or cyber-hands), but it will always be the writing that will be the final step.

So, in conclusion:

Laura Lippman, if you happen to read this, I’m sorry to say so, but I think this book cover is extremely unattractive (here it is, though it’s worse in the flesh because it’s garishly shiny). I never, NEVER would have picked up this book, though I think the title is nice and the title font seems vaguely “literary” to me. Plus, it’s a hardcover…that’s real money.

But I bought this book specifically and solely as a result of reading that review.

I hope someone in New York who can send some ad dollars to the old school media that cover books is paying attention. I hope that someone in New York knows that yes, people do still read reviews and are interested in what an “expert” might say—and that there are readers left in the world who can still feel such a rush of excitement that they have to go to a bookstore and plunk down cash simply so they can find out what happens next.

Buy the book at your favorite bookstore or here.

You can read more about Laura Lippman here, including her very cool contest to get her to read/speak at your library, at her expense.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.