Tag Archives: Elizabeth Berg

Printers Row Subscription: Yeah, I’m kind of a chump

I was all compliments when I noticed that the Chicago Tribune was beefing up its pages on books and literary happenings.  And then, look!  They’re doing live programs and podcasts.  This is kind of cool.  It’s not as good as the old days, when they had a separate book section, but it’s pretty neat.  Makes me glad I’m a subscriber.  Little did I know that they were just softening me up.

Building on the brand awareness of the Printers Row Lit Fest (which is fun, I admit, a literary extravaganza of authors, publishers, bookstores and readers), the Trib has launched the Printers Row Journal, a “weekly collection of smart and accessible literary reviews, fiction, author interviews and commentary” paired with some live and online events.  The print version comes out weekly and will be delivered with my Sunday Tribune.

Of course I subscribed. I’m a book nut, an early adopter, and have enough income that 99 bucks is no big deal.  (It’s only $99 since we subscribe to the newspaper, it’s $149 for anybody who doesn’t.)

In one way, it’s an awesome opportunity – a weekly print publication all about books, with a bit of a Chicago slant.  The Printers Row brand is a positive connection.  I like the publishing perspective, the columnists and the reviews.  AND it includes original short fiction – so few places to get that these days, and maybe I could even get a story published.  (A gal can dream).  So, good.

But looking at it another way, the publishers have carved out the people who care about books and are socking it to them, big-time.  It’s the splinter-ization of publishing.  Imagine if the Trib covered sports a little bit in the paper, but you had to pay more to get the Sunday sports section!  Movies.  Opinion pages.  The triumvirate of Tribune advice columnists (don’t you take my Dear Amy).  Or heaven forfend, the funnies!   So maybe I, and my ilk, are making it easier to marginalize readers.  We’re a buncha chumps.

Still, I ponied up.  The paper pinky-swears that it is NOT cutting coverage in the regular Tribune.  This is all add-on content.  And since Elizabeth Taylor, Chris Jones, Rick Kogan, and my personal fave, Julia Keller are all contributing, I just hope they are all being given a big salary bump or are being paid by the piece for the new endeavor.

You can learn more about the offer here.  The preview issue is available for your perusal online and it includes an article by my neighbor Elizabeth Berg, a piece featuring Sara Paretsky, an article about Nicole Hollander of Sylvia fame, reviews, and some original fiction.   In trying to get used to the navigation system, I find myself grateful that it’s not online-only.  There’s lots of add-ons to make participation more engaging, and the Tribune seems a little confused about whether this is publishing venture or a membership community – the sizzle is about the community, but when it comes time to sell the steak, it’s all about the publication.

One note of amusement:  the preview edition of the Printers Row Journal includes a link to Olive, the software platform on which the publication is delivered.  Unfortunately, the home page sales pitch for Olive says “turn your old news into new revenue,” which kind of undercuts the Trib‘s preferred brand position. Of course, I immediately began to think of the myriad of ways that my own employer could use Olive to good advantage… which is good for Olive, but I can’t see the benefit for the Tribune.

Berg’s Once Upon a Time

I’m an Elizabeth Berg fan.  I was a fan long before she became my neighbor here in Oak Park, particularly loving her 1997 novel, Joy School.  Oh, Joy School was a joy to read, because of the sweet sadness of her main character, Katie Nash, whose mother is dead and whose father is not very nice and whose stepmother tries but can’t really make it as a mom, and who falls in love at the tender age of 13 with a 23-year-old married gas station attendant.  And her crush, which could have been cruel, is instead a little clueless but ultimately caring.  There are three books in total which feature Katie:  Durable Goods, Joy School, and True to Form.  They are all well worth reading and I recently revisited Durable Goods in audiobook form.

I picked up Once Upon a Time, There was You at the Book Table, my local independent bookstore.  As always with Berg, the book is beautifully written and in many ways, a pleasure to read.  It features interesting characters:  Long-divorced Irene and John, their 18-year-old daughter Sadie, her boyfriend Ron, and several other smaller characters, including a younger man with a thing for older women, especially Irene.

I laughed out loud in the scene where Irene talks her friend Valerie into taking off her clothes in a kind of 50-ish ladies version of “you show me yours, I’ll show you mine.”   That it happened in Irene’s kitchen – and that Sadie, of course, walks in on the duo – made it even funnier.

Other events in the book are not as funny.  The key plot device in the book is that Sadie, waiting for her perennially late boyfriend, gets into a car with a good-looking, friendly stranger, and ends up being menaced with a box cutter and locked in a shed.  The scary guy leaves her there, promising to return with a friend that Sadie is expected to be “very nice” to.

The scene where Sadie gets in the car is well-written, well-paced, and genuinely scary.   But Berg pulls her punches, figuring (I imagine) that her readership wouldn’t put up with rape, violence or murder – kidnapping and threats are scary enough.  The near-tragedy works fine to prod the various characters into action:  Irene and John flirt tentatively with revisiting their long-gone romance before John makes a mental commitment to his new love; Sadie marries her boyfriend Ron, who has his own reasons for making this commitment, and Irene steps up in her work life but keeps mostly intact her push-pull relationship with the opposite sex.

And maybe Berg is right to pull back.  I don’t know how much she thought about where to draw the line.  But I found the crime aspect of the story implausible -violently scary abduction, subsequent imprisonment, vague threats and abandonment, followed by miraculous rescue – and the obsessive focus on Sadie’s subsequent marriage irritating.

I suspect that Berg just couldn’t bring herself to rape Sadie, or beat her, or cut her with that box cutter, even though it would both be more credible and deepen the emotional impact of the story.   But what a story that would be, to have Irene, with her slightly saggy, petechiae-spotted skin, bantering caterer boss, long-time best friend, unresolved distrust of men (even the lovely younger guy!) yanked from her own small world of worries into one where bad stuff really does happen.  Where a daughter’s crisis isn’t a near-miss, but a tragedy, and the ensuing action isn’t fodder for your pre-existing obsessions about marriage but instead a real change in your world – a 180 degree change.

Berg’s strength isn’t plots, it’s people.  Her prose is lyrical and the small moments in the book can be fresh and very lovely.  She could have stayed in her sweet spot by using a different plot device to bring John and Irene together in Once Upon a Time, There Was You, skipping the kidnapping entirely.  Or she could have gone with the darker side and made a different book, that built on her strengths while deepening the psychological insights and emotional impact.  I would have really liked to read that book.

Happiness is a warm puppy

I’ve been keeping up with my Happiness Project follow-up.  You might recall that I wrote a post about Gretchen Rubin’s book, wherein she devoted a year to becoming happy.  Along the way she assembled a series of things she focused on, month by month, to achieve greater happiness.  Any book that can put a spiritual journey, marriage improvement, and decluttering your house together in a coherent whole that actually means something relevant to you, personally, is a pretty big accomplishment.

Of course, it is one of the many books/cultural phenomena which encourage people to believe that if they do something novel for a year, they’ll get rich and famous.  Thus, following Oprah’s advice for a year.  Cooking ala Julia Child for a year.  Doing without buying anything for a year.  I’m wracking my brain for what I can do for a year… so far I’ve come up with:  work at the ADA for a year!  Walk dogs daily for a year!  See a movie every weekend for a year!  And yet, no fortune or fame.

Someone else who was struck by this is Dave Holmes.  He actually has a blog devoted to the topic called My Year of Everything.  He’s reading one of those books a week and blogging about them, plus other life events.  He’s currently reading Sweater Quest: My Year of Knitting Dangerously.  This is a brave man.

Anyway, the point to this blog entry is that I also follow Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project blog and today’s post was about reading books that make you happy.  Starting to think about books that have made me happy reminded me of one of my earliest pleasures, which was reading Peanuts in the newspaper.  It’s not as funny now to me as it was when I was a kid, but my brother and I had tons of Peanuts books.  And I do still agree that a warm puppy greatly increases happiness.

The last book I read that gave me a deep feeling of satisfaction from reading it was the third book in the Stieg Larsson Girl series, Girl who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest.  It was extremely exactly what it should be.  But I’m on the prowl for another one, preferably not a mystery.  Perhaps something heartwarming in the Elizabeth Berg vein.  Suggestions welcome.

Elizabeth Berg, famous author/cooking school student

I got a big thrill yesterday when my husband and I were at Flavour Cooking School for the Intimate Vegetarian Dinner cooking class.  We were perched on our stools at the big table, watching the other students filter in, when an extremely familiar-looking woman sat down across from me.  It was Elizabeth Berg, best-selling author of many books, including one of my very favorites, Joy School.  Her most recent book, Home Safe, is on my “to read soon” list.  And she was actually one of the subjects of my very first blog post, because I saw her be interviewed Mary Schmich at the Printers Row Lit Fest.

So, how did I behave?  I tried to be cool.  I wrote a note to my husband and slipped it over to him.  He scanned the class and then nodded seriously, acknowledging the depth of my experience.  Through the course of the evening, I beamed benevolence her way, and took pains to be particularly witty with my few, but well-placed comments.   I noticed that she took notes and asked good questions.  Also, she ate sparingly of the bread pudding with maple syrup, although it appeared that she enjoyed it.  (I, on the other hand, managed only with great restraint to not actually lick the little ramekin it came in.)   At the end of the class, we were alone together in the coat room.  I thought about saying, “I love your books!”  or “You’re my neighbor, want to be my friend?”  But instead, I just said, “Have a good night,” and left her in peace.   I imagined that sometimes famous people want to do what they are doing in that moment, not deal with fans.

However, empathy did not keep me from telling everybody about it at work today (or from blogging about it, obviously).   It reminds me of being totally bowled over when I first met Barbara D’Amato at an Midwest Mystery Writers of America chapter meeting… I am such a huge fan and here I was meeting her in a social setting where she actually talked to me as a fellow author.  That was a positive experience – not embarrassing at all.

I also remember encountering Huey Lewis (of Huey Lewis and the News) at a hotel in Baltimore.  I was there for a conference; he asked me where the business office was.  I walked him over there, with the nagging feeling I should know him.  I actually thought that he was a dentist that I wasn’t placing.  The end result?   I made the poor man tell me who he was.  (“I’m Huey Lewis.  My band’s playing a concert here tonight.”)  Duh!  Even worse, my response once he introduced himself was to say, “Oh, I loved you in Back to the Future!”  Double duh.  But I do have his greatest hits on my iPod and I did love him in the movie, so perhaps I am forgiven.

It’s funny how everyone has their story about the famous person they’ve met.  My friend Tracy shared french fries with Oprah once.  My husband saw the guy who played Trapper John on M*A*S*H at a bike race in Denver.  My whole family saw John Mahoney (who keeps a condo in Oak Park and hangs out here when in Chicago) having breakfast at a diner here in town.  He smiled and nodded when we grinned at him.  The bar at the Ritz is well-known for athletes, actors, and other celebrities, and some dentists I know rubbed elbows with Michael Jordan there.  My friend Debbie saw Beck at Mity Nice, and I saw Jerry Springer lunching there.  And, of course, at this time of the year, there are numerous Santa Claus sightings.