Rittererry Clitic, The Middle Years, Batting Cleanup (Otherwise Known as “Read the Blog Entries in Reverse Order if You Want it to Make Sense”)

November 8, 2009

After getting my tenderfoot badge as a fledgling reviewer, the powers that be (or in this case, the powers that were) decided to take a chance on me with some one-off weird stuff, in addition to the one-book-per-month regular assignment. One time I remember well, my editor approached me and asked if I did any cooking. Not much, I allowed. “Good,” she said. “That’s just what we’re looking for. We have some cookbooks here and we want fifteen hundred words on how easy they are for a novice to understand and to use.” Well, I certainly qualified as a novice. BookPage ponied up some money to buy supplies, and we made the arrangements for me to stop by to pick up the books. It turned out that there were rather more than the five or six books I was expecting, something on the order of sixty more, as it turned out—two large post office bulk mail boxes full. Cookbooks for delectable cuisines from the four corners of the earth: Brazil, Burma, Portugal, Sweden, Mexico, Morocco, to name but a few. I settled on a Malaysian dish for my first outing, a pork tenderloin in a coconut milk, lime, chilli and cilantro sauce, served over jasmine rice (I could have done a taco salad, but I thought I might as well go for the brass ring). It would have been a smashing success but for one unanticipated consequence: after arriving home on the evening of my culinary debut and smelling the pungent aroma of the roasting pork, Cyndi said, “Okay, from now on, you’re the cook; I am officially retired!” Even now, that batch of cookbooks makes up the core of my cookbook collection, and I use them almost daily (check the pages for remnants of tomato sauce, vanilla extract, olive oil and other more arcane foodstuff remnants).

Three or four times a year, I would get one of these “extra” assignments. Another time it was a home improvement column, where I got to play Bruce “The Tool Man” Tierney, a pale imitation of humorist Tim Allen, although equally inept regarding all things tool. I perused and reviewed a large group of do-it-yourself books on subjects ranging from plumbing to deck construction. Fortunately, there was no budget allotted for my attempts to assemble, disassemble or repair anything around the house, which was just as well. Best to leave these things to the professionals.

Now firmly ensconced as clean-up batter, the one who could be relied upon to take on the oddball projects (to the best of my recollection, I never turned one down), I somehow became the go-to guy for reviewing travel guides and travel literature as well. For a journey junkie it is the best and the worst assignment ever: you get to read about exotic destinations the world over, but you are stuck in your office chair in Nashville. As you might imagine, this was another situation where no budget was allotted for research. I thought it would be kind of cool if BookPage had said, “Bruce, here’s a round trip ticket to (say) Denpasar. Would you take the Rough Guide to Bali with you, and see if it proves useful, and let your readers know how it compares to Lonely Planet and Frommer’s?” Didn’t happen. On the up side, when I was headed off to Bermuda, Turkey, Guatemala or wherever, I always put in an early request for books on those destinations, and then used them as the basis for reviews when the next travel “roundup” came due.

Stay tuned for part three:  the Dawn of Whodunit

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Rittererry Clitic, the Early Years

November 8, 2009

Over the years, a number of people have asked how I came to write book reviews for BookPage, some of them just out of passing curiosity, others no doubt entertaining the secret notion of embarking down a parallel path, and hoping for sage advice (or a road map). I have always told the 45-second condensed version of the story, but recently a couple of folks have asked me for greater depth of detail, so here goes (give or take a lie or two): 

One of my good friends is author Michael Sims (Darwin’s Orchestra, Adam’s Navel, Apollo’s Fire). I knew him before he was “author” Michael Sims, or at least before the rest of the literary world knew him by that appellation. We first met when my ex-wife Cyndi, who managed the temporary employment agency at Vanderbilt University, hired him on as a temp. This would have been perhaps 1990 or thereabouts. Cyndi thought Michael and I might enjoy one another’s company, and indeed it turned out that we amused one another immensely. We were both a bit on the uppity side for Nashville (truth be told, we probably still are…), and we took unnatural delight in being the high-minded outcasts, especially now that we each had an appreciative audience for our dubious cleverness. One afternoon, and I am a little hazy on this part, either Michael phoned me to ask for a ride, or we were going somewhere else and he asked me to take a detour, so he could go to BookPage and pick up some books. “What’s BookPage?” I asked. He replied that it was a magazine for which he did some book reviewing, mostly weighty tomes on science or natural history (yawn…). Anyway, I agreed to serve as chauffeur, so the two of us headed over to the BookPage home offices adjacent to the Vanderbilt campus. 

Unsurprisingly, the place was overrun with books. Fiction, nonfiction, review copies, hard cover books, cookbooks, personal fitness books, Lonely Planet guidebooks, reference books of every stripe, religious texts, you name it, it was there. In the entry hall stood a pair of floor-to-ceiling bookcases crammed to overflowing with the newest releases. “Oh, those,” Michael said offhandedly as he made his way upstairs to meet with his editor. “Those are just for the taking, the stuff that nobody else wanted.” A quick perusal of the shelves turned up gems by John McPhee, Amy Tan, John Updike and the like. “Nobody wants these?” I thought. “I want them…” Michael interrupted my reverie by coming back downstairs with a double armload of books and his editor in tow. Her name was Ann Shayne (I didn’t just intuit this; Michael introduced us). He went on to mention that I did some writing as well (thankfully, he didn’t mention that the writing I usually did was in the nature of instructing physician office staff members how to get paid for insurance claims). Ann jumped at the bait. “Really? Because we have a book we are dying to have reviewed, and nobody to do it. Do you want to give it a try?” I believe the book was by Mary Morris, although I can’t seem to find it in the BookPage archives (that should give you some idea how long I have been doing this!), so don’t quote me on that. I took on the assignment, agonizing over every tiny detail, finally turning in something that undoubtedly looked like a tenth-grade book report, earnest and eager, likely to a fault. I still cringe at the thought. Apparently it was okay, though. A) It got published, and B) I got paid for it; and the following month, Ann phoned me to ask if I would like to do another one. Why not, I thought. It didn’t pay a lot, to be sure, but it did gain me unlimited access to those wonderful entry hall bookcases! 

Stay tuned for part two, the middle years, coming soon to a blog near you…