Tuesday, March 21, 2006

In Which She Attends Her First Non-Work-Related Book Signing In Years

Tonight I did something I would never have done in my previous life: I attended a book signing on an entirely voluntary basis. I had no connection to the author whatsoever, besides having read the book. (And having previously worked at the company that published it, but so long ago that it doesn't really count.) I attended only because I thought it would be fun, and because the Boulder Book Store is only 4 blocks from my house.

The book was Marley & Me, by Philadelphia Inquirer columnist John Grogan. After watching it start to work on the NYT Bestseller list, I had requested a copy of the book from a mole at Morrow, and was reading it as a distraction the week I left NYC. I finished it on the plane ride from New York to Denver, and then handed off my copy to J.Go for her take.

The book's presence on the New York Times list--currently in its 7th straight week at #1--seems to be the market's way of saying it's fantastic. But neither J.Go nor I felt the book was fantastic. We both thought it was fine. It was readable, relatively entertaining, and the bearer of a dang cute cover image. But the writing and story are both unremarkable. Marley was not, for example, the "world's worst dog." A royal pain in the rear, yes. Perhaps he would not have lasted an entire dog-life in my own home. But he never bit anyone, and he was friendly toward children. I think those two traits alone put a dog out of the category of "world's worst." The rest of the book follows suit--it's halfway to being great, but it doesn't quite get there.

I don't say this to be mean. Sometimes an okay book catapults to the top of the bestseller list, and that's, well, perfectly okay. I think most breathing humans would give their first born kids for the kind of fame and success that this book has garnered for its author, whether it's great literature or not.

Given the impression of mediocrity the book had left with me, I was not at all surprised to find that the reading was . . . fine. Mr. Grogan is an adequate speaker. After weeks on the road, he has developed a book signing stand-up routine that's scripted right down to the hand gestures. In some instances he seemed to take his patter word-for-word from the book. But I don't begrudge him this either. He's not a performer, after all. He's a writer--a real, honest-to-goodness working writer, an every-single-day writer, a journalist who pens three columns a week.

Still, I couldn't help but chafe a bit at how obviously impressed he his with the success of his book. I'm not saying he shouldn't be; most of us would be more than a bit self-congratulatory if we found ourselves on a 10-week book tour to promote our massive bestseller of a memoir. But I could have done without the litany of bestseller stats that was his opener; the faux-modest story about being approached by an "fan" who turns out to think he works at the hotel; and the mentions of all the Marley franchise projects he has waiting in the wings. As someone who has watched success turn previously lovely authors into living nightmares, this kind of talk sent the red flags a-flyin'.

A hint of redemption came, however, when he noted with confidence that he had successfully negotiated for contractual input on the screenplay of his book. Marley & Me is an intensely personal account of his family's life, the producers had told him, and so of course he would have consultation on how the book gets translated to film. The fact that he believes anything the producers of his movie have to say belies a vulnerability that gave me hope. Perhaps he has not yet turned into a monster. Perhaps he will keep a good head on his shoulders, make hay while the sun shines, and stay off the ego rollercoaster. If this is the case, I hope for his sake that the movie--and his input therein--will benefit from the same good fortune that turned what could have been a quiet memoir into no less than this year's sleeper hit.


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