BookExpo America’s Reading Mexico Events

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo
This week, we are attending BookExpo America for the first time, and after a full first day of thought-provoking panels, we’re excited (and preemptively exhausted) about heading back for Round 2 today.

Penguin's Book Truck.
Penguin’s Book Truck.

BEA is one of many important international book trade fairs (among those, I’d place London, Guadalajara, and Frankfurt as “most” important), and is considered the most important book trade fair in the US. As with most trade fairs, there’s a professional track (publishers and buyers talk shop and make deals) and an “open-to-the-public” track (readers meet favorite authors and attend talks and book signings).

Each year, BEA hosts a series of events called the Global Marketing Forum, a somewhat misleading name, for it disguises what the series really is: a program of events– panels, lectures, exhibits, and presentations– that focus on the literature and the business of writing and publishing of a certain country. This year, that country is Mexico.

Panelists from the Reading Mexico "Alternative and Independent Presses" panel.
Panelists from the Reading Mexico “Alternative and Independent Presses” panel.
Some of the Global Marketing Forum events are designated for BEA ticket-holders (or those of us lucky enough to hold press or exhibitor credentials); yesterday’s presentations included a series of panels bringing together US and Mexican publishers to talk about a range of issues, from the state of the publishing industry in Mexico to the similarities and differences of the book production chain in our two countries. These panels were fascinating and we learned a lot; I’ll be writing about some of the take-aways on my writing/editing blog, CuadernoInedito.

Many of the Global Marketing Forum events, though, are free and open to the general public, co-hosted by BEA and other cultural and academic venues throughout the city. Some spectacular talks are coming up (starting today, so ojo), including a conversation between Mexican historian Enrique Krauze and US journalist Pete Hamill, who will talk about the relationships between Mexico City and New York City, and several presentations by journalist Alma Guillermoprieto.

A full schedule of the events, which also includes art exhibits and fiction readings, can be found on the website of the Mexican Cultural Institute of New York.

If you’re on twitter and want to follow along with the chatter about BEA and/or the “Reading Mexico” events, the relevant hash tags are #BEA13 and #ReadingMexico.

Giveaway: Pope Francis in His Own Words

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
For those of you who have a (free) Goodreads account, you’re welcome to participate in the giveaway I’m hosting on the site. And while you’re clearly under no obligation to do so, a review on Goodreads and Amazon would be much appreciated!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Pope Francis in His Own Words by Julie Schwietert Collazo

Pope Francis in His Own Words

by Julie Schwietert Collazo

Giveaway ends May 06, 2013.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

My First Published Book is about… the Pope

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photo via Flickr Creative Commons
I can finally share some news I’ve been sitting on for a few weeks: I’m having a book published!

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis.

If I ever indulged any fantasies about the subject of my first book,* I can absolutely guarantee you that I never ever imagined I’d be writing about… the Pope.

Not for my first book.

Not ever.

But life is funny that way. Opportunities arise, curiosity is sparked, and off you go on an adventure you never imagined you’d have.

That adventure’s even better when you have a partner, and in this project, mine has been my friend, writer Lisa Rogak, who invited me to work on this book with her. It’s been a wild few weeks, during which I have read nearly every homily, speech, letter, and book Jorge Mario Bergoglio–now, Pope Francis– has written in Spanish since 1999. Lisa has done the same for English-language interviews and post-conclave homilies.

The result of this immersion in the Pope’s body of writing is our book, Pope Francis in His Own Words, being published by HarperCollins in the UK and by New World Library in the US. You can pre-order the US edition here and the UK edition here. If you’re in another part of the world, don’t worry! A number of countries have signed on to publish their own editions; these currently include Brazil, Croatia, Germany, Italy, Portugal, and Spain, with more to come.

I suppose I'm forever linked to Pope Francis now....
I suppose I’m forever linked to Pope Francis now….

I’m also thrilled that this book project involved Francisco in much more than his behind-the-scenes role of keeping me sane during (and, especially, after) bleary-eyed all-nighters. He was instrumental in translating from Spanish to English with me (and in translating from English to Spanish, as we’ve delivered a Spanish-language manuscript to our publisher in Spain). For his hard work, he’ll be receiving a publication credit as translator.

I’ll be writing more about the who, what, when, where, why, and how of this book’s incredibly quick evolution on my writing and editing blog, Cuaderno Inedito, so if you’re interested in the back story (including why I was asked to work on this project and why I enjoyed it so much), then check that out in the next few days.

*Honestly, I’m not sure I ever have; I’ve long been told by many folks, “You should write a book!”, but for just as long, I’ve held the conviction that being able to tell some good stories doesn’t necessarily mean you should write a book.

New on the Bookshelf: Chico Buarque’s Spilt Milk

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photo: Courtesy of Grove Press

Spilt Milk by Chico Buarque.
Spilt Milk by Chico Buarque.
On the one hand, it seems ridiculous to say I’m surprised an American publisher would take a chance on translating and marketing Chico Buarque’s novel, Spilt Milk, originally written in Brazilian Portuguese and published in Brazil in 2009.

After all, US publishing houses have a long tradition of introducing English-language readers to some of the most skilled, creative writers from around the world. Just taking a quick look at my own bookshelf, I see a sample, among them Chileans Pablo Neruda and Roberto Bolaño, Portuguese novelist and essayist Jose Saramago, and the Polish poet and essayist Wislawa Szymborska, all skillfully translated.

On the other hand, it is surprising to me that certain books from other countries and other languages find fans in the publishing world who love them so much that they champion the text into English. The plots and modes of storytelling of these books are so deeply rooted in a particular place and time, a certain set of historical and social circumstances, that it would be easy to not only lose the context, but to simply never grasp it in the first place.

Such is the case with Chico Buarque’s most recent novel, Spilt Milk, which US publisher Grove Press describes as “an arresting story of love lost, fortunes squandered, and a family in decline, seamlessly interwoven with several generations of Brazilian history.”

I’m not so sure about the “seamlessly” part, for it is seamless (and, yet, at the same time, very much seamed), only if the reader is aware of at least some of the broad strokes of Brazilian history over the past century. Otherwise, the novel functions, yes, as that “arresting story of love lost, fortunes squandered, and a family in decline….”, but one where the reader will lose out on certain nuances, especially with regard to race, class, and sexuality. Buarque’s novel is a scathing commentary, but in translation, on the bookshelf outside its home country, is it simply literary diversion for the majority of readers? And does it matter either way?

Chico Buarque has spent his career as an award-winning songwriter, singer, and novelist, narrating, re-narrating, and contesting the ills of 19th and 20th century Brazil. He continues the tradition in Spilt Milk, where his centenarian narrator, Eulálio D’Assumpção, holds court in a 177-page monologue. The fact that no one is really listening to Eulálio–he is talking, as it were, to an empty room; caretakers move around his hospital bed, but they are mechanical and vacant– seems to suggest that the old order Eulálio represents is, well, about to become history. His country and his family, his own life and the appropriate way of interacting with others, have become unfamiliar and confusing to him; on the most literal level, of course, this is the function of age and the passing of generations that eventually affects us all. His only option is to let go and leave things to the next generation, as banal, gauche, and misguided as he believes it to be.

Considering that the book is an unrelenting monologue, I was surprised by its quick pace and the fact that it held my interest. It did because Eulálio, for all his prejudices and character flaws, is a complex man. His death marks the end of one era, certainly, but it doesn’t suggest, really, what might lie ahead.

I’d be interested to see Buarque’s literary take on that subject in a future novel.

New on Bookshelves: Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo unless otherwise noted

Matthew Goodman's "Eighty Days" was released by Random House on February 26, 2013.
Matthew Goodman’s “Eighty Days” was released by Random House on February 26, 2013.
Matthew Goodman is a lucky writer.

While looking for an idea for his next book, Goodman came across an interesting anecdote about Nellie Bly.

“Most people know Bly’s name,” Goodman said when I interviewed him by phone last weekend, “but they’re not sure why they know it.” Bly was a 19th-century journalist, Goodman knew that much. What he didn’t know–and what it seemed almost no one else knew, either– was that Bly had also taken a round-the-world trip in 1889. “I found a one-sentence mention of her trip,” Goodman said, “and I wanted to know more.”

Bly’s round-the-world trip would have been enough for an interesting story (Bly herself wrote an account of the journey); solo female travel may be totally normal and socially acceptable now, but it certainly wasn’t in Bly’s day. Plus, she had dreamed up the idea for the journey herself and presented it to her employer, The World, a New York City newspaper. Then, there were a couple extra elements of interest: Bly wasn’t taking a leisure tour around the world; she was taking a whirlwind trip to prove that a real traveler could beat the round-the-world time of a fictional traveler: Jules Vernes’ Phileas Fogg. And–also completely unheard of in 1889–she was doing so with a single bag, a gripsack, which was only slightly larger than a doctor’s bag.

All of this would have made for a compelling book, but Goodman found one more bit of information that sold him on his next project: Bly wasn’t the only female reporter setting off on a high-speed round-the-world journey on November 14, 1889. Another young reporter, Elizabeth Bisland, who has been all but lost to history and our collective memory, said Goodman, set off just hours after Bly in a competing publication’s attempt to capitalize on the publicity stunt. Bisland was reluctant to take the trip and didn’t travel as light as Bly, but interestingly, she ended up enjoying the trip much more and, ultimately, she became a repeat world traveler and expat.

The central characters of Goodman’s new book were established and in a way, the trajectory of his narrative was already set, with dramatic tension built in. Goodman’s task, for the next 18 months, was to immerse himself in research. Goodman, who calls himself a narrative historian, says that historians are really travelers, but rather than traveling from one place to another, they’re traveling from one era to another. As he reconstructed Bly’s and Bisland’s stories and tied them into a single narrative that would visit Hong Kong, Yokohama, Ceylon, and numerous ports of call in between, Goodman consulted everything Bly and Bisland had ever written about their trips; every article about the trips that he found in their own publications, as well as other newspapers around the US; the memoirs of contemporaneous travelers; 19th-century guidebooks; and even newspaper advertisements. “Advertisements are extremely helpful,” he said. “They help you know what the hats looked like and what they cost, what people were reading, what kind of medicine they were taking. Those kinds of details make your narrative richer.”

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World is the best book I’ve read in a long time, and one of the reasons is because Goodman was so attentive and so thorough in his research. He demonstrates a remarkable deftness in establishing a sense of place in so many geographically and culturally disparate locations, not simply sharing evocative details and helping readers understand what the trip meant to the women who were taking it and to the public generally, but also helping the reader understand the dominant social issues of the time. What is particularly impressive is that he does so in a way that never feels overly didactic or dry; the narrative never loses the cantering pace that the Bly and Bisland race help Goodman establish. And he manages to avoid a pitfall that often characterizes historical non-fiction, that of inhabiting the subjects’ voices in ways that feel appropriated and inauthentic.

Bly’s and Bisland’s round-the-world trips would have been remarkable today, but they absolutely riveted the country as they were occurring. Bly’s newspaper, The World, held a contest inviting readers to guess Bly’s final trip time for a chance to win their own round the world trip, and the paper received nearly one million entries. The paper’s management had to hire 19 clerks from the post office to count and sort the entries on round-the-clock shifts. When the winner returned to the US, she was greeted by the kind of fanfare that’s hardly seen today; the crowd was estimated to be 10-15,000 strong, giving off “a hum that rose and fell like the swell of cicadas, but deeper-voiced….” The women’s trips inspired people to name their children after the journalists, gave a whole generation of women the impetus and courage to pursue careers as journalists, and certainly encouraged many more to take their own journeys, albeit slower ones.

All of which begged the question, I thought: How could we have possibly forgotten about a chapter of history that was so important and compelling, not only in the history of travel, women, and journalism, but one that was clearly so significant for the entire nation, which was following news of the journeys anxiously (circulation and newsstand sales of The World increased dramatically during Bly’s trip)? That’s what I asked Goodman, who agreed that our collective forgetting of these trips was pretty remarkable. In fact, he was initially anxious about the prospects of his Bly/Bisland book project because he couldn’t believe he’d found such an incredible tale that no one else had written about. He admitted he was fortunate to have discovered an episode from the past that offered a strong narrative, sufficient primary and secondary source material to research, a story that hadn’t been told (at least not completely or sufficiently), and that had some larger social significance.

Goodman answered my question by pointing out that Bly and Bisland were traveling just at the turn of the century, when so many technological and social changes were taking place. The speed of life was quickening, he explained, and novel gimmicks intended to gain attention for a product, business, or cause were being introduced all the time. The round the world trips captured the public’s attention for their duration and for a brief while after, but then they moved on to the next big thing. How Bly and Bisland moved on–and how the trips impacted their careers and their lives–are the subjects of the closing chapters of Eighty Days.

Nellie Bly's tombstone in Woodlawn Cemetery.

Goodman, for his part, is looking for his next book project, but will also continue to live with Bly and Bisland as he promotes Eighty Days, which went on sale yesterday. He is glad that he has a chance to reintroduce Bly to the public and to restore Bisland to her rightful place in women’s, journalism’s, and America’s history. His North American book tour starts tonight with a reading at the Barnes and Noble on 86th and Lexington; over the next few months he’ll also make stops in Washington, D.C., Toronto, Boston, Philadelphia, and Rhinebeck. A complete list of readings and events can be found on his website. If you’re in New York, you can also join him at Woodlawn Cemetery, where both Bly and Bisland are buried, for a discussion of the book on March 24.