Friday, July 31, 2009

My First Book from an Extraordinary Publisher

Those of us who write about books on our blogs know that, sooner or later, publishers will come knocking at our doors. No, they are not standing there, as we'd hoped when we created our blogs, with book contracts in their hands. Rather, they are standing there with Advanced Reader Copies, hoping we will read and review their books.

This doesn't happen to me too often, and when it does, the books are typically those that have me yawning before I can even finish reading the promotional copy. Or they're by authors I've never had any desire to read. I'm someone who doesn't have time to read all the books and authors I want to read. I'm certainly not going to spend my precious time reading crap just so Big Name Publisher Who Could Certainly Afford To Pay Me For My Time can get some free publicity. Thus, I usually ignore such queries.

However, recently, I got very, very lucky. Somehow, Clemence, from this wonderful little independent publisher Oneworld Classics, found out about me and emailed me. I'm all about independent publishers. And, now that I've discovered it, I am especially all about this one. They're reprinting classics from around the world, breathing new life into them, and creating new audiences by doing things like hiring new translators. They have a wonderful blog of their own. They accept suggestions for books to publish from peons like me.

I admire cleverness, and this publisher has it in spades. They are expertly using the blogosphere, doing what appeals to readers and writers. For instance, what did that first email from Clemence say to me? Was I told Oneworld Classics had an ARC for me to review? No. I was introduced to the publisher and asked if I would like to choose any book from their catalog. I was not asked to review it on my blog. It was to be an "examination copy." Well, of course I'd like an "examination copy" when I get to choose from an entire catalog of books. And chances are, I will also review it on my blog.

What Clemence didn't know when this query arrived in my email inbox is that I am also on, a social network for book lovers. Every book I read gets a brief "review" there. Nor did anyone at Oneworld Classics know that I am on Facebook and that I link all my goodreads reviews to my Facebook wall. That means my first Oneworld Classics review is showing up through three different electronic venues -- free publicity for the publisher that I'm all-too-happy to give them.

All right, so only about 15 people read my blog. My reviews are not going to make Clemence rich, but still, it's a very, very smart use of electronic resources, and my guess is that between FB and the blog, a few sales will be made that otherwise might not have been made. That's important in the world of independent publishing, a world that I want to keep alive. And then, there's just good old-fashioned word of mouth. I know I made one sale by telling a friend who does not read my blog and who is not on FB about the book I just read.

So, check out Oneworld Classics. Buy directly from them. Spread the word. I wish all publishing could be like this. And now, onto my review:

Gotthelf, Jeremias. The Black Spider. London: Oneworld Classics, 2009. (The book was originally published in 1842.)

If you happen to be arachnophobic, this is not the book for you. All other fans of 19th-century supernatural literature, however, need to secure a copy of this creepy little gem post-haste. 21st-century readers might be a little bit bothered by the typical Christian sexism (women who behave like men can cause the entire downfall of a village. Madonnas, on the other hand, can save it). Enter this book aware that it's there, and you'll find it to be more quaint (and antiquated) and amusing than anything else.

Jeremias Gotthelf was the pseudonym for Albert Bitzius. I'd never heard of him until I read this book, but he was a Swiss minister, which is certainly evident when reading the book. Although, as the Introduction tells us, he has used the spider theme common in ancient myths (such things as cheating the Devil, human sacrifice, and imprisoning a demon within a beam of wood), the Christian allegory bat with which he hits you over the head is almost as big and thick as John Bunyan's. Don't worry: it doesn't hurt. In fact, you may find yourself asking for more.

When I first read the description of this book, I thought, "Ahhh, a nineteenth-century version of Stephen King's Needful Things." Ostensibly, it is. A stranger comes to a rural Medieval village that plays wild and loose with its morality, and the peasants learn of a force, power, and plague that is far worse than the demon with whom they had been dealing. This "devil they knew" was the other "stranger" in town, a Knight by the name of Hans von Stoffeln (don't you just love that name? Apparently, he really existed) from Swabia who had recently come to build a huge castle on a hill above the village. (Knights and a castle and demons. Could Emily ask for more? Oh, perhaps a witch, and some spiders...) However, this work -- far shorter than King's -- is far richer.

I loved so many things about this book, not the least of which were some of Gotthelf's wry observations. A perfect example of it can be found in this quote, provided by the 19th-century narrator who is reciting the story of the black spider, which began with his ancestors some 600 years before:

'Usually the knights built their castles near the roads, just as today inns are built by the roadside; in both cases it is a question of being able to plunder the people better, though in different ways.' (p. 26)

Judging from this one book, Gotthelf had a real talent for descriptive writing. For such a short work, he certainly leaves the reader with clearly focused images. I found myself marveling at the many passages describing the horror of the village's plague. Here's one of my favorites:

'...after being touched by the holy water Christine shrivels up with a frightful hissing, like wool in fire or quicklime in water, shrivels up, hissing and flame-spraying [kind of brings to mind the Wicked Witch of the West, doesn't it?] until nothing remains but the black, swollen, ghastly spider in her own face, shrivels into it, hisses into it, and now this spider sits distended, with poison and defiant, right on the child, and shoots angry flashes of lightning from her eyes at the priest.' (p. 71)

That's the sort of brilliantly creepy stuff of which nightmares are made. Other more benign descriptions, such as this one:
'One young woman alone wept so bitterly that you could have washed your hands under her eyes...' (p. 45)
also tickled my imagination.

And Gotthelf certainly knew human nature. He knew that when evil comes to town, everyone quickly begins to seek out those to blame. He also knew that when a threat arises, people become awfully pious. Once the threat has been conquered, they will hang onto these pious ways for a period. However, they are soon likely to return to their former ways, not to learn from their mistakes.

Not only was this a wonderful, old-fashioned story in the best sense, gripping and full of hidden meaning for those willing to listen, but when you read it, you will also discover that your reading experience is much like what readers of the 19th-century would have had. You will be hard-pressed to find more than a couple of typos in this appealingly-designed new edition, a book put together the way a book should be (I know. I know. 19th-century readers would not have been reading a paperback. You should know, by now, not to take me so literally), so rare to find these days. And with that, I will leave you with a quote that proves that not only was Gotthelf a great conjurer of images with a very keen sense of human nature, but that he was also quite prophetic:

'Nowadays everything soon gets forgotten again and nobody keeps things long in their memory, as they used to.' (p. 85)

(I'm pretty sure those exact words have come out of my mouth on many a 21st-century occasion.)


Courtney said...

Oh, recently I have received SO many requests from big publishers, all of which I've ignored, feeling sort of badly - as though I'm stiffing an author - while at the same time not wanting to use my blog for said purposes. But I would totally do this - what a charming company!

Stefanie said...

Isn't OneWorld great? The Marguerite Duras book I read a month or so ago was from them. And recently I just got The Prince and a Victor Hugo novella. I can't wait to dig in! Nice review too. The book sounds marvelous. I will have to be sure and keep it on my radar for future reading.

Emily Barton said...

Court, "Charming" is exactly the right word.

Stef, the Victor Hugo is on its way to me. Clemence is downright spoiling me. Definitely keep this one on your radar for future reading.