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In 2006, I had one of the most fortuitous lunches of my editing career with Faith Hamlin, an agent at Sanford Greenburger. We sat at the now-closed Steak Frites in Union Square and near the end of the lunch, she handed me a project in a manila envelope, telling me I should take a look at it when I was back at my desk.
That project was a one-of-a-kind Moleskine mockup of Keri Smith’s Wreck This Journal, a magnificently and quietly subversive little book that we bought three days later, and that went on to sell several million copies worldwide, leading to eight subsequent books and legions of devoted Keri Smith fans.
In the ten years since, I’ve shared with Keri ideas and prompts for dream projects. However, in true subversive fashion, Keri always politely acknowledges them, then sends back completely different ideas that are more genuine and amazing than anything I could come up with on my own.
So it should have come as no surprise to me that when I asked Keri to consider writing a creativity manifesto—a way to share the integrity that drives her work—she came back to me with a manifesto actually written by someone else: a secret group called The Wander Society.
But it did surprise me, and in the most delightful ways imaginable. Because after signing up the book, I started receiving mysterious letters in the mail—strange musings typed on a real typewriter, an envelope of maple tree seeds, a small, badge with hand-embroidered with a lightning bolt.
The Wander Society was reaching out to me, inviting me to join—the lines between reader and editor and author and member starting to blur.
And so this summer I found myself on the shore of Lake Michigan, tying a small Wander Station filled with the society’s pamphlets around a tree. This fall, on my sabbatical in Paris and London, I left behind stickers of Walt Whitman, the patron saint of the Wander Society. A few weeks ago, I spent the afternoon wandering through the Lower East Side, ambling down streets I’d never explored before.
I don’t know who exactly The Wander Society is, but I know that Keri’s a member now, and I am too. I know that the regular practice of wandering has opened me up to the possibility of surprise, newness, and the joy that come from discovering new places.
Turns out, I really like the freedom of not knowing exactly where we’re going next—whether it’s a literal journey or a publishing one.
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Ashley McClay is marketing director for Putnam. She lives in Jackson Heights with her husband and a tiny, very loud black cat who is constantly trying to gnaw her way-too-large home library to shreds.
Okay, I’m starting off my list with a few geopolitical thrillers. When I was younger, I wanted to be a spy–and while for some reason that never really came to fruition, it totally informs my reading tastes now. (Message to the CIA: if you do happen to be looking for publishing industry professionals with so-so schoolgirl French and the ability to run a mile in ten minutes or sometimes very slightly less, I am available on nights and weekends.)
Todd Moss, formerly the deputy assistant secretary of state, now the COO at the Center for Global Development, has all of the real-life experience needed to make his novels completely gripping, and, at the same time, totally realistic. His latest, Minute Zero, follows Judd Ryker, former professor and now state department advisor, as he tries to take advantage of a brief moment of chaos to change the course of world events. It’s smart, fast-paced, and totally impossible to put down. And the end left me pacing through the office, counting down the moments until the next book to arrives.
Next up: another thriller in a very similar vein. If you’re into shows like Homeland (and if you, like me, are kind of suffering from Homeland-withdrawal at the moment), you will love Matthew Palmer’s books, guaranteed. I’m kind of cheating here, because this one isn’t actually out for a little while. But trust me when I say that you should be lining up at your local bookstore for The Wolf of Sarajevo on May 24th, because this book is that good. Set mainly in the Balkans, Palmer — another author with diplomatic chops (25 year veteran of the foreign service and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations)–takes the reader on a whirlwind tour through the labyrinthine politics of the Balkans. I was half reading, half shielding my eyes through some of the most tense scenes. If you like twists that come out of nowhere (and what suspense reader doesn’t?), get on board.
Now for a totally different kind of mystery – M. J. Carter’s The Strangler Vine. Set in colonial 19th century India, following the sometimes bumbling but always good-hearted Avery, and his very begrudging “partner” (and I use that term quite loosely), master-of-disguise Blake, this is a tour-de-force. The historical Indian setting is captivating by itself; combined with Blake and Avery’s investigation into the elusive Thugee cult, and the profound British corruption sweeping across the continent, it’s completely impossible to put down. And if you start reading now, you won’t have too long to wait for more: Carter’s sequel, The Infidel Stain, is out in March.
Last, but not least, Tana French’s In the Woods. Again, a completely different sort of book from the last three, but one of my all-time favorites. If you wrote in to the Penguin hotline looking for suspense this year and got me, I am sure I recommended this to you. French’s lyrical writing grabbed me from the very first few pages, and the mystery of what happened to three children deep in the woods of Ireland one night in the 1980s kept me riveted all the way through. Rob and Cassie, two detectives working a present-day murder in those same woods, are both wonderfully drawn characters, and the nuanced story of their relationship is every bit as absorbing as the mystery plot.
What kind of work do you do at Penguin? Do you have a crowning achievement, or memorable experience from your time here?
As the account manager at Amazon, I’m responsible for selling all our Penguin Young Readers product to Amazon. I get to spend my time finding creative ways to feature the books on the site, analyzing our sales, and reporting back on the results. I’ve been working in sales with Penguin Young Readers since I moved to New York five years ago, and there have been plenty of memorable experiences. But one of my favorites from this year was working on An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. I remember everyone in the office couldn’t stop talking about this incredible debut novel, and I was lucky enough to share the book with Amazon. Having them select it as the #1 Young Adult Book of 2015 was a big highlight! Seeing others become as passionate as I am about a new book is one of the most satisfying parts of the job.
When you aren’t busy at work with books, do you have a hobby? Do you have any book recommendations related to this hobby?
I have a major sweet tooth and spend time feeding my addiction with baked goods. For everyday baking there is nothing better than the shortbread recipes in Cookie Love by Mindy Segal or the Skillet Brownies from Ina Garten’s Make It Ahead cookbook. I’m also a big fan of Deb Perelman’s Smitten Kitchen cookbook. She manages to cook outrageously impressive recipes from the confines of a tiny NYC kitchen, so it gives me hope. There’s a recipe in Smitten Kitchen for a cake made entirely out of alternating layers of crepes and hazelnut pastry cream that I highly recommend for special occasions.
Which books are you most excited about gifting this year?
I’m gifting a lot of celebrity books this year that I think are surefire crowd-pleasers. Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me?, Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance, and Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl are all on the list.
What is your favorite holiday read of all time?
While totally unoriginal, The Night Before Christmas is my favorite. My family reads the story aloud every Christmas Eve, with each person taking a turn to read a page. Over the years everyone’s recitations have become over-the-top and completely outrageous. It’s a small tradition, but every time I hear it read aloud I immediately think of my family.
What’s your favorite part of working the Penguin Hotline?
I think the books you read as a child can stay with you forever. We all have a book that we read at an early age that just never left us. As a “genre expert” for children’s and young adult books, I always hope one of our recommendations could become that book for someone and it is easily my favorite part of working the Hotline.
A. O. Scott, author of the forthcoming title Better Living Through Criticism (out in February 2016), shares ”The Five Books of Criticism that Changed My Life” with the Penguin Hotline:
1. W. H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand. Many of the virtues of Auden’s poetry—the mix of conversational ease and high philosophical seriousness; the naughty wit and unguarded earnestness; the friendliness and unmatched erudition—are on display in this collection of critical writings. There is ample wisdom and much fun to be found in the chapters on Shakespeare, D.H. Lawrence, Robert Frost and Igor Stravinsky, but it’s the first three chapters, devoted to “Reading,” “Writing” and “Making, Knowing, and Judging” that make this book one I return to again and again. Masquerading as a miscellaneous collection of aphorisms and observations, those pages add up to a theory of human thought and behavior, and therefore a guide to life.
2. James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work. Technically more of a memoir than a work of criticism, Baldwin’s survey of the role movies played in his life—from his childhood trips to the cinema with a sympathetic teacher to his adventures in Hollywood in the 60s—is a characteristically sharp and generous critique of American society and some of its most cherished cultural products. An unsparing indictment of the way the movies have ignored and distorted America’s racial history, the book is a tour de force of corrective interpretation and a tribute to the power of cinema.
3. Pauline Kael, I Lost it at the Movies. Anyone who writes about popular culture has to contend with Kael: her taste, her voice, her seductive arguments and maddening inconsistencies. She’s inescapable, and this collection of her early work—written before she became an institution at The New Yorker—shows her at her vital, bruising best.
4. Susan Sontag, On Photography. Sontag is someone whose writing I never stop rereading, though there is probably no critic I find more reliably wrong. For me, she offers unmatched access to the drama of thinking, and I read her not to be convinced but to observe her mighty mind at work. This book, six essays originally commissioned by The New York Review of Books, considers photography as an art form, a technology and a moral and spiritual challenge. Sontag’s call for “an ecology of images” in a world awash in pictures may seem quaint, but in the age of Instagram and the selfie her jeremiad seems prophetic and painful.
5. Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist. My new book, Better Living Through Criticism, starts with a long quote from this mischievous dialogue, and I would have been happiest if I could have just reprinted the whole thing. It’s as funny as any of Wilde’s plays, effortlessly learned and marvelously perverse. He will convince you that criticism is more important than any of the other arts and that “it is exactly because a man cannot do a thing that he is the proper judge of it.” Those are the words I’ve tried to live by.
Thanks, A. O. Scott! The Penguin Hotline can’t help but recommend a forthcoming favorite of ours: Better Living Through Criticism.
Reza Farazmand, author of Poorly Drawn Lines, shares his list of “Books to Make You Laugh and Think” with the Penguin Hotline:
Killing and Dying by Adrian Tomine
Eeeee Eee Eeee: A Novel by Tao Lin
The Great Outdoor Fight by Chris Onstad
Goliath by Tom Gauld
Thanks, Reza! The Penguin Hotline can’t help but recommend one more book that makes us laugh and think: Poorly Drawn Lines. And for more custom book recommendations, be sure to check out the Penguin Hotline!