Mysterious Orientations

Rittererry Clitic, the Early Years

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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…

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